Have you ever wondered what a place is really like, beyond what the travel guides tell you? Our Boots on the Ground reports give you real stories from travelers around the world. Below Katie, co-author of the travel blog Two Wandering Soles, shares some of her adventures in Salento, Colombia:
The sleepy little town of Salento, Colombia is nestled in the lush mountains of the country’s coffee region. With colorful doorways, mustached men wearing traditional ponchos and low-hanging clouds, this paisa village is something out of a storybook.
Most people who journey to the heart of Colombia don’t leave without exploring the famed coffee farms and hiking in the famed Valle de Cocora. And for good reason. It is like something out of National Geographic mixed with a scene from a Dr. Seuss book.
Intrigued yet? You should be.
I’m not a morning person, but there was no way I was going to let sleep get in the way of the epic hike I had planned in Salento. Thankfully, I had some strong Colombian coffee to perk me up and get me to the town square just after 7 in the morning.
A local man escorted my husband and me to a Willy (the regional name for a Jeep used as public transportation). The back of the Jeep… err, Willy… was packed. Someone was even sitting on the floor. I turned around to ask the man where we were supposed to sit, but he had already walked away. Someone inside smiled and pointed to a small platform that hung out over the back tires.
I wasn’t exactly thrilled about hanging on to the back of this vehicle at that time in the morning, but I had no choice. And you know what? It turned out to be the best seat in the Willy! Wind rushed through my hair, waking me up more than even coffee, and the views as we plunged down into the valley were jaw dropping. Literally. I swallowed a bug because my mouth was gaping open.
I actually felt bad for the people sitting inside the Willy because I was a big human shield, obstructing their views. But hey, if I moved even an inch I would have fallen onto the winding road we were barreling along.
Though the ride was beautiful, it in no way prepared us for the hike itself.
We spent the day walking past tranquil meadows, through tropical cloud forests and alongside babbling rivers. We took a break in a hummingbird sanctuary where we sipped on local coffee and nibbled homemade cheese. We trekked up a mountain and through a forest of towering pines. The hike brought us past a farm, perched above the clouds and it was at that point I remember thinking I couldn’t imagine any view more stunning.
But yet again, I was about to be surprised by the beauty I was about to encounter.
The path led back down again into a valley I can only describe as heavenly.
Wax palm trees grace this valley with their regal presence and tower high above everything else. Some of them were so tall that the trunk disappeared into the clouds above. Fog shrouded the surrounding hills in a mysterious veil, and white horses appeared out of the mist as we walked closer. I couldn’t put down my camera. Every time I thought I had a perfect picture, I would come around a corner and see a sight even more picturesque than what I’d seen before.
My growling stomach was the only thing persuasive enough to pry me out of that valley, and the meal was no disappointment.
The region in the Andes Mountains of Colombia is known for its river trout, and so without question, I ordered the famed fish. It was served grilled with a creamy garlic sauce, and oh man was it tasty!
When I hopped into a Willy headed back to town (inside this time!), I had a full stomach, tired feet and a memory card full of pictures. All the things that make up a perfect day for me.
Although Salento is a small town, it is not lacking in things to do. In addition to hiking in the Valle de Cocora, visiting a local coffee farm is a pretty incredible experience. Many of the best coffee plantations in Colombia are nearby, and some welcome visitors to see how the coffee is grown, harvested and processed to make that caffeinated beverage lots of us love so much.
Wandering around the main square in Salento is another way to spend an afternoon. The colorful doorways and the passing men wearing traditional garb (a wool poncho and cowboy hat) will bring a smile to your face.
But as much fun as I had hiking, picking coffee beans and exploring the town, perhaps my fondest memory in Salento was something completely unexpected…
I had heard of a popular Colombian game called Tejo, played by throwing a metal disk into a pit of clay with packets of gunpowder. Along with my husband and a friend we’d met at our hostel, we set off in search of a place to play during our last night in town.
We passed by a bar popular with foreigners and instead headed to dive teeming with locals.
Being the only gringos in the bar, we drew lots of attention. The owner explained the game to us in Spanish, and added that it was free to play as long as you were drinking. Explosives and alcohol, it turns out, is a great combination!
There are some moments on your travels where it seems like everything and everyone is working secretly together to make your time there special. This night was one of them.
After seeing our failed attempts at achieving the coveted “pop”, a local man started giving us pointers from the sideline.
I usually find my Spanish is better after a few beers, and this night was no different.
“Jugar con nosotros,” I invited him to join in our game, and he promptly introduced himself as Carlos.
When Carlos realized that his coaching wasn’t improving our laughable skills as quickly as he’d hoped, he added a heaping handful of explosive packets to our pit. You’d have to try pretty hard not to cause it to explode.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Playing tejo with Carlos and friends
Carlos brought us to his favorite bar, where he ordered up shots of the local liquor for the four of us. Behind the bar were shelves containing hundreds of manila folders. Each held a single record, the titles of which were written in a tattered binder, comprising an archaic jukebox system.
We played Michael Jackson and Bob Marley and danced in the street, until Carlos decided on the next venture.
We followed him to a set of stairs at the edge of town that led up into the hillside. We climbed to the top where we caught our breath and were rewarded with a view of the twinkling city lights sprawled out below. We shared stories and laughed until the sun began to peek over the mountains in the distance.
I never saw Carlos after that night, but the few hours we spent together reminded me why I travel. Sure the landscape may be the initial draw, but it’s the people you meet along the way who really make your journey something special.
That’s great to hear! With friendly locals, stunning mountain landscapes and some of the tastiest coffee you’ll ever try, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed! Whether you’re traveling with a partner or solo, have a tight budget or lots of money to spend, Salento is a perfect stop on your trip to Colombia!
Katie and her husband Ben are not your usual twenty-somethings. Shortly after getting married they quit their comfortable jobs to work and travel their way around the world. Follow their journey on their blog TwoWanderingSoles.com. They’re also on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @twowanderingsoles.