The road to Salento

It was finally time to say goodbye to Ecuador and make our way into Colombia. We went a bit overtime in Ecuador leaving us only 8 nights to make our way through Colombia and to Bogota to depart on the 14th of December. In our original plans we wanted to get up to the Caribbean Coast of Colombia – Cartagena, Tayrona National Park, etc. however time and budget restraints meant that we weren’t able to fit this in. We have heard rave reviews about the area and vow to return to explore the Caribbean at a later date.

So onwards and upwards we went by bus through the Colombian border. Our first stop of interest was in Ipiales where we visited the famous El Santuario de las Lajas, a Neo-Gothic church which spans a gorge and is built into the cliffside. It was quite impressive and it was particularly busy as we were visiting on a Sunday. It was nice to break up our bus travel before our next stop, Pasto. We had read the warnings about overnight travel by bus in Colombia and decided to travel mainly by day. I’m glad we did, though tiring as it was, the South of Colombia is outrageously beautiful. We winded our way up and down the lush landscapes of the Andean mountains. It was so refreshing to see so much green. In many of the steepest mountainsides we saw numerous crops, unbelievable to think how they farm in such conditions.

We spent a night in Pasto – a nothing kind of place, then a night in Popayan. Popayan is a quaint white-washed city, similar to Sucre. We walked around the small central area to see the main plaza and churches, then got some snacks and beers to watch the sunset on top of El Morro which had a nice view of the city. Most people bypass Popayan on their way North – but it was a nice stop and less hectic than what we heard about Cali.

From Popayan we travelled further north to Salento – about 7 hours by bus (2 buses). We booked 3 nights at a hostel called Yambolombia about 2km from Salento town centre – it has quite a hippy, laidback feel. We felt a bit out of place as we didn’t speak Spanish or have dreadlocks, but was still a nice, peaceful place to come back to each day.

On our first night in Salento the normally quiet town was alive with people, music, dancing – we didn’t realise until a barman explained that the celebrations were for Dia de las Velitas (Day of the Candles) in honour of the Virgin Mary and her immaculate conception. People line the streets with candles and paper lanterns – it was a really cool sight to see.

The main drawcards of Salento, apart from its laidback, small-town vibe, are the coffee plantations and the Valle de Cocora. On our second day we went to hike in the Valle de Cocora, here you see wax palms set in the misty green hills, it really was breathtaking. About a 4-hour loop track took us through grasslands, then into dense forest with several swing bridge crossings over waterfalls, up a gruelling steep path to get to a restaurant that has awesome views of the valley then down into the valley itself where we had our picnic lunch among the palms. They are quite spectacular, towering overhead 60-odd metres – they are the largest palms in the world and Colombia’s national tree.  

The following day we hit up two coffee plantations, first up was ‘Ocaso’. Our guide Alex, who loved terrible jokes, took us through the growth phases of the plants and then the picking. We got to rumage through the plants looking for the ripe “cherries”. Then he showed us the milling, cleaning and drying stages before making a fresh brew (which Andrew didn’t really like). Onto the next one then! The smaller ‘Don Elias’ down the road grow, roast and sell all their coffee onsite (don’t export any). We preferred this tour, mainly because it’s good to support the little guys! Their coffee which much nicer too so we picked up a couple of bags.

On our last morning we had amazing pancakes and blueberry granola waffles at ‘The Brunch Cafe’ – recommend it to anyone who is in Salento! Then it was onto yet another bus…next stop Medellin!

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