Salento is a picturesque village in the heart of the Zona de Cafeteria (Coffee Zone) of southern Colombia. We arrived into town late on Sunday afternoon after our bus adventure on the Road to Riosucio to find the village in full swing, complete with market stalls, brass bands and people spilling out of the pretty painted shops lining the main street. Unlike home, where most of us concede the end of the weekend with a quiet night in front of the TV, the Colombians celebrate with family & friends right up until bedtime (& then some).
Besides coffee, the area is also famous for native Cocora wax palms, one of the national symbols of Colombia. The statuesque palms grow up to a staggering 60m in height & look elegant en mass with their slender trunks swaying in the breeze. There is no better way to appreciate their beauty than by hiking the popular Valle de Cocora (Cocora Valley), a walk of around 10km to 2860m in altitude through a variety of terrain.
To access the walk you need to take one of the Jeep Willy's (ex US military jeeps) from the main plaza to the nearby village of Cocora. The jeeps leave at regular intervals throughout the morning, although I would recommend taking an early jeep before the masses & weather descend. We set off in a 7.30am jeep and despite having a seating capacity for 7 we managed to squeeze in 12 people and a dog ... there is no such thing as a full load in Colombia!
The hike begins on a path winding through verdant pastures dotted with cows & horses, against a backdrop of mountains fringed with palms off in the distance.
After a couple of kilometres the path enters the shade of the forest and follows a crystal clear river, interspersed with small waterfalls and idyllic swimming pools, crisscrossed by 8 Indiana Jones style swinging suspension bridges.
With such stunning scenery you barely notice the gentle incline, but as the mountains loom larger, it soon becomes apparent that the only way is up!
It was a steep climb of 210m over an 800m distance, through ancient creaking pines up the side of the mountain. The air was becoming thinner with every step and soon we were stopping at every switchback to catch our breath.
Eventually we reached the summit where we were treated to spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.
The descent back down the mountain afforded panoramic views of the valley below until we reached a plantation of Cocora wax palms, where we stopped for a picnic lunch. It was a simple lunch of crackers con jamon, queso y tomate (ham, cheese & tomato) made memorable by million dollar views.
As we were packing up from lunch, clouds drifted into the valley making us appreciate how lucky we were to have had such great weather for the majority of the hike.
The remainder of the walk wound down through the majestic palms and into the lush valley below. There was something quite magical and humbling being dwarfed by such beauty - something no photo can ever do justice to.
We arrived back into the village 6 hours after we left, exhausted but satisfied after spending the day surrounded by such stunning scenery of the Valle de Cocora.
Where we stayed
While there is no shortage of accommodation in the heart of Salento, we chose to stay at Hostal El Zorzal, a 2 minute walk outside of the village, so we could better enjoy the mountain scenery and tranquility. We weren't disappointed!
The owners were kind and friendly, welcoming us with a delicious drink of Copa (a variety of juices with sweet spices) and took the time to explain the various attractions in the area. Our room was basic but had both the most comfortable bed as well as the BEST hot high pressure shower we had in Colombia - exactly what you need after a long days hike!
Breakfast was served on an outdoor patio overlooking the gorgeous gardens, frequented by a variety of birds and strung with colourful hammocks. We would highly recommend Hostal El Zorzal for those looking for a quiet comfortable room with an awesome shower and helpful hosts.
In hindsight we really would have liked more in time in Salento, as we didn't count on the long journey to get there from Jardin or the wealth of nearby attractions. We could have easily used another day or two and paid a visit to a coffee farm, the hot springs and to soak up more of Salento's charms.