Salento, Colombia and the Valle de Cocora: Slow Food, Tall Trees, and Crisp Colombian Coffee
Writing about the Zona Cafetera will always fall short capturing of the experience having your feet on the lush, terraced slopes that have the amazing capability to transcend adjectives. We can try to conjure up the quintessential elements of an experience using reflective descriptions of our sensory observations, but just like the old cliche goes, it’s easier said then done. That is what separates great writers from the rest; the ability to hone in on those details that tap into the soul of the subject they are immortalizing in written word. Writing gives us all the chance to relive something again, which is why the practice gives us something that maybe only photographs can really touch upon. Writing gives me the chance to share, but also has some roots of selfishness at the same time. With writing about these experiences I get to skip the line, grab the ticket, and take the ride once again, free of charge. And I hope that you believe me when I write about this part of Colombia, because it was is something worth revisiting again.
Our frantic experience in Medellin had us frazzled to find a more peaceful experience. Our bus dropped us off on the side of a 2 lane highway with the instructions from the driver to wait under a makeshift bus stop facing the other direction across 4 lanes of highway. Since this was Latin America, and we had been immersed in her loving but raw arms for about 7 months at this point, we didn’t even think twice about the fact that this was the way. It revealed itself time and time again that there should be no reservations about the process or the way; no matter what obstacles come up you always seem to make it there in the end. We waited under the bus stop for a good 20 or so minutes before a big blue box with a “Salento” sign pulled up. A beautiful, 1 hour bus ride through the sloping roads of the Zona Cafetera treated us to perfectly planted coffee fields, mysterious hilly slopes beyond the horizon lines, a fresh palate of earth and trees covered by endless cloudy skies. Salento appeared and instantly had mountain vibes leeching out of the cobblestone streets and red tiled roofs. Cozy calles were kept warm with houses and little tiendas offering baked goods and all the essentials. Old cars way past their normal life expectancy sat idly outside their owners homes and not many people were in sight. We were dropped off in the central plaza, which was also strangely deserted during that late afternoon. Our first hostel inquiry shed light on how the town was experiencing a severe drought, as we were offered beds but no running water. A local elderly man heard us talking and led us to his humble abode with the promise of a shower. He was super friendly, but our room wound up being literally in the middle of his house. At night he would watch TV, which was stationed right outside of our bedroom door a mere 3 feet from the edge of our 20 year old mattress. Having met others who traveled through here and with prior knowledge that there was a more scenic option just outside of town, we made plans to vacate the following morning. Our host was very vocal over the phone just outside of our door about how we were going to be putting our money in a bad place by switching accommodations, which made everything a little more awkward. I understood where he was coming from, but ultimately you are paying for an experience, and we were not enjoying the experience there, so on we went.
We hitched a ride to La Serrana in the morning by grabbing a jeep from the plaza in the morning. A few hundred yards outside of the town showcased the purely unspoiled and meticulously scenic lay of the land. Fertile, green mountains stood tall under a long, billowy blanket of clouds. Cows grazed in the foggy fields beyond the barbed wide fences on either side of the gravel road our 4×4 was humming down. Stoic 90 foot tall pine trees stood like soldiers on the ridge, peacefully cowering over us as we kept getting further from town. La Serrana sat planted on the top of a hill overlooking pastures flowing down into the valley below. It was truly a perfect place to build a farmhouse, surrounded with almost 360 degrees of wanderlust as far as our eyes would allow. It attracted a certain breed of people; explorers, adventure enthusiasts, those searching their souls for answers, and travelers who got a lucky tip from a friend along the road. We happened to hear from 3 different backpackers in Colombia all about the hostel’s serene setting, community atmosphere, and comfortable vibes. If you are ever in the area, La Serrana is worth a visit.
We came to hike up into the hills of the Cocora Valley, as most Colombians and travelers do. After getting our gear into our bunks we set back off for Salento, walking back to the central plaza. Once enough travelers were rounded up to fill our 4×4 we set off. Our group consisted of a German girl traveling by herself and 6 Americans. We rode up into the hilly terrain for about 30 minutes or so until we came to the end of the road. The trail head was a footpath that lead into a field a few hundred yards from where we were dropped off. The flat path then turned into a miniature canyon of mud, cut through layers and layers of the lumpy lush terrain, and fenced off to keep the cows in their surreal pastures. Hills rose behind the flat pastures and stretched up to the sky, dotted with noticeably tall palm trees in the far distance with the soundtrack of a brook swishing over smooth cobbles churning by our side. Handmade bridges appeared over areas where the stream was too deep to cross safely on foot. We entered into a jungle-like forest and came across swing bridges, like the kind you might find in an Indiana Jones flick. Huge, leafy plants, moss covered trees, and crystal clear waters set the pace for the scene. We crossed each bridge 1 x 1, with each step giving a gentle swing to the entire structure. As we hiked further into the forest it became very apparent that it was going to rain really, really hard. Drops started falling out of the sky one by one until I damned my existence without my trusty poncho. For some reason beyond my wildest imagination I came unprepared for rain, which is a consideration that is usually at the forefront of my planning. Shortly after the rain started we came to the fork in the path that would lead us to shelter and the rumors of Colombian mountain snacks. A family lived way up in those hills, so far away from anyone else, and the only forms transportation to and from town was foot or horseback. As promised, they took us in from the rain and fed us hot chocolate with cheese while the rain mockingly applauded all our efforts to spend the day outdoors. We passed the time watching the broad assortment of wild hummingbirds that lived within the forest surrounding the house. They ranged from tiny to sparrow sized statures and some had tails almost a foot long. Domesticated by human presence, they allowed us to get in really close and snap a few portraits before we eventually left. A group vote decided that the rain wasn’t letting up, and we had to press on.
We hiked up and up on a path through the woods. Dense fog crept in while the rain progressively thinned out to fat drops every second or two. The tall, solid pines stretched into the hazy abyss just below their tallest branches. The forest stopped at the foot of a terraced hill with a small house on top. It turned out to be the highest elevation point of our hike, and was prepared for weary hikers by providing long benches to rest on and take in the view. The clouds were chasing each other vertically up from the valley and began to dissolve in front of our eyes. Tree tops started appearing as the filtered light began to grow in it’s intensity. Everyone took of their rain coats and relished in the warm air. We were walking downhill now, and the fenced off field to our left started clearing up to show us the magical views below. A stunning valley cut through the land, with us standing near the top of it looking down and around at nothing but pure forests and farmland. Ominous dark clouds at the bottom of the valley added even more character to the hillsides plastered with gigantic, 150 foot tall wax palm trees. They stuck out of the landscape like magnified toothpicks topped with umbrellas, grouped in clusters along ridges, hanging over the tree tops of the forests, and also alone in the lower hills. It felt like we had the world to ourselves, enjoying the nurturing air and fresh foreign views without a soul in sight. There was no promise that we would even see a car coming up this road, which is a beautiful thought to let linger in your mind. Cows and horses seemed to be on their own out here, grazing alongside the palms, with foggy mountains rising behind them. We couldn’t wait to get up close and personal with the trees, and put ourselves into the lucid scene that seemed to be just out of reach. As we walked further down into the valley we eventually found a place where we could get right underneath them to size them up from a personal perspective. It was one of the most vivid moments of my life, walking around the valley that day. Every step in this weird world was rewarding and every breath of air felt clean and pure. We snapped quite a few images of this unique setting before making our way back to hire a jeep to town.
The farm at La Serrana offered gorgeous mountain views that were best enjoyed sipping freshly brewed Colombian coffee and munching on delicious local fruits the land gives it’s lucky visitors. We heard from other travelers who visited the area that a visit to an organic coffee farm named Sachamama was an absolute must . To get to Sachamama we had to memorize vague instructions involving holes in fences, landmarks, paths, bridges, and horse roads. We left with a small group of some other tourists that wanted to check out the farm and began walking down the gravel road away from town. We cut through terraced farm lands, down steep hills, past the occasional house, and into a pristine, almost silent valley with green forests on either side of the blue stream cutting through the middle. Fresh fruit fell from trees along the way, which I never pass up, and sweetened the path to the farm.
Buried deep off the beaten path (literally off beaten paths), Sachamama is a family run eco-farm that is nurtured by a biologist turned conservationist named Pedro. He, along with his wife Maryori and their two children, planted themselves here within the jungle like terrain of natural hills, rivers, and forests with the idea that coffee and other plants grow in harmony with each other instead of the commercial crop farming method. Pedro welcomed us with a hearty smile and immediately brought us upstairs to enjoy the view from his family’s den overlooking the land while the daily morning rainfall diminished. He was expecting a few more travelers who showed up shortly thereafter. He explained his idea and the purpose of the farm, along with the importance of coffee and how it’s grown. Fresh cups of the freshest form were given to every soul that wanted one. It was hard to pay attention to his story with each sip of the most delicious coffee I’ve ever had. The deliciously soothing cup of Joe needed absolutely nothing to enhance the flavor and felt completely natural at it’s core. After the intro and story, Pedro took us outside for a walk through his creation. Instead of sectioning off areas for specific plants, Pedro advocates letting the forest live in harmony with itself. He pointed out the benefits each plant has with each other, which is the basic idea behind permaculture. Each plant adds their own nutrients to the soil while they feed on other nutrients present from the plant and animal live that interacts with it. Pedro’s coffee plants were nearly 30 years in age, which is part of the secret of his flavorful roast. He claimed that coffee plants that are allowed to mature to an age like this will produce a better quality fruit. He explained that the average lifespan of commercially farmed coffee plants hover around the 5 year mark until their yield doesn’t match the farm’s needs and the fields need to be replanted. He let us hand harvest the coffee fruit, as he and his family does daily, and demonstrated how they extract the bean using a hand cranked press. Beans are then set out to dry in a large box for a few weeks prior to roasting. Pedro’s roasting production shack was a 10 minute walk up the road on the top of a hill overlooking more pristine farmland. He brought some beans that were ready to be roasted and let us into his little factory for a finished product demonstration. We fired up two little roasters fed by a small camping propane tank and coals. After coals were hot enough we measured out beans and put them in the oven, hand cranking the tumbler to get an even roast. The aroma coming from these little ovens was unreal. After the beans were roasted to perfection we bagged them up and sealed them in his own branded bags. We were educated from start to finish on the coffee roasting process in the most natural setting, which is a perfect memory to keep.
Salento offers a great community of activities on the weekend for locals and travelers alike. The town comes to life on Fridays and Saturdays, with live music, tons of restaurants offering local treats like fresh ice cream, trout on top of a huge pancake shaped deep fried plantain, and of course Aguila cervezas within spitting distance anywhere you looked. A peek through the swinging doors of one of the many saloons would grace your curiosity with Colombian cowboys shooting pool or playing cards. We also played Tejo for the first time in Salento, which is Colombians’ treasured game of throwing weighted disks at packages of gunpowder (think horse shoes with explosions). It was a shockingly natural game for me because my first time playing I made 4 hits, each of which scared the hell out of me. The explosions, which resembled the sound of the starting pistol at a race, would thrust small pieces of non-threatening shrapnel that could hit both your opponents and yourself in the face. Good times, good times.
Traveling thrives on moments like these, feeding that inner soul of ours with the positive reinforcement that you are doing exactly what you should be doing in life at that moment. That feeling only comes around when you discover something for the very first time, and is impossible to recreate on your own devices. These experiences are those that we get to hang onto forever, which is something worth more than it’s weight in gold but can not actually be purchased with it.