Salento – fresh coffee, magnificent palm trees and hummingbirds galore

The next stop on my adventure is Salento, in the heart of Colombia’s coffee region.

After my final salsa lesson with Alex I caught the bus from Cali to Armenia (3hours, $22.000COP) and arrived at a very futuristic looking bus terminal where I found it easier than expected to locate the bus to Salento (1hour20, $4.500COP). I genuinely expected the last bus to have left at 7pm like I was warned but it was fine!!! The bus left at around 7:30pm and I reached El Viajero Hostel in Salento at around 9pm, the driver even dropped me off right outside the door.

On my first day the weather wasn’t particularly great so I enjoyed relaxing at the hostel and exploring the town. I met a couple of English girls, Sophie and Ellie, and we cooked dinner in the hostel and then went out to find a place to play Tejo, the national game of Colombia. I’m going to create a separate post to explain this amazing game!

One of the main attractions of this beautiful region is the Cocora Valley.
I loved it so much I visited it twice.

Jeeps leave from the main square fairly frequently, and the departures at 07:30 and 08:30 are popular so arrive about 10 minutes early. The 20 minute journey through the beautiful valley costs $4.000COP and if you fancy it you can stand on the back bumper and hold on for the ride.

When I arrived it became obvious that you can do a horse tour, which I hadn’t realised before. The two girls I was with, Sophie and Ellie, hopped on horses but I was travelling light and fancied the exercise.

The best way to complete the 5 hour circuit is to take the blue gate on your right hand side as you go up the hill. This means that all the attractions are approached from a good orientation and it means you walk up the steep river valley rather than down it – I’m certain it’s more treacherous coming down.

The first half an hour on the trail is fairly flat and even, making it easy going. Early on you reach a checkpoint and have to pay $2.000COP to proceed. I overtook quite a few people on the train including a surprising cat-on-shoulder situation.

Then you reach the cloud forest and wind your way uphill through the valley, crossing the river on 7 interesting rickety bridges. I had the company of two cute little beagles for part of the journey and they enjoyed pushing past as I got towards the end of the bridges.

After the seventh bridge there is the option to walk another 1km and visit Casa de los Colibris, House of the Hummingbirds. Do not miss this, whatever you do!!! Cross the bridge made out of whole logs tied together and head uphill.

You pay $5.000COP to enter and this admission price includes a hot or cold drink.

The hummingbirds were spectacular. I could have stayed there forever. I spotted four species on the first day and enjoyed watching them flit around the feeders for over an hour.

Sophie and Ellie arrived and we chilled for a while before heading on our way.

To carry on around the circuit you walk down the hill and cross back over the tree-trunk bridge. A little further along you see a path going uphill to the right, take this path. It’s an uphill slog but the is plenty of plant life to see. You’re still in the cloud forest so it’s pretty damp. It rained when we were walking up here and the trail became pretty slippery, but it was still easier than most of the trails I walked in Ecuador!

Towards the top of the hill you emerge from the forest and zig-zag up a field to a house called La Montaña. Sometimes the sell food and drinks but it was shut when we arrived (Friday lunchtime).

There are lots of pretty flowers with hummingbirds buzzing around and benches to sit on. Lots of people bring a packed lunch and stop here for lunch.

From here it’s all downhill on a wide track and you get some amazing views of the super-tall palm trees for which the area is famous. It took us about an hour to get back to the start of the circuit, stopping at a few viewpoints and walking through an area of gigantic palm trees.

We hopped onto the back of a Jeep and held on for dear life at times on the twisty journey through the valley. The shape of the hillside is really wierd, with bumps and contours everywhere.

We arrived back into Salento and walked to La Parrilla restaurant for menú del dia ($10.000COP) and the food was fine, but nothing special.

I relaxed back at the hostel and then went out for dinner to a place called BetaTown. There was absolutely nobody there and I considered leaving but I decided to give it a go as the food sounded good. I had wok fried rice with veg and chicken breast served with green beans sautéed with sesame seeds and garlic – it was lovely! This dish cost $18.000COP which I suppose wasn’t bad value, but most things on the menu are unreasonably expensive though.

When I woke up the next morning the weather was a little clearer so I decided to go back to the Cocora Valley with my Nikon camera that I had decided not to carry the day before.

I decided to take a horse part way and ended up in the most ridiculous discussion with the people selling riding tours. I wanted to do exactly what Sophie and Ellie had done the day before; ride along the first flat bit and then up into the cloud forest until the trail splits to go up to see the hummingbirds. They paid $40.000 each and managed this. I paid $40.000 and the guide only took me along the flat section and about 5 minutes up into the cloud forest. So I had to do the steep section on foot which is what I hoped to avoid. Also my horse was desperate not to go anywhere and kept turning back or walking along slowly that walkers were easily overtaking! Lucky the horse was so pretty. So my experience of the horse riding was a fairly rubbish one and I wouldn’t recommend it except that I know it was better for the other girls the day before. Hit and miss perhaps is the way to describe it.

Once I was on foot I headed along the familiar path and overtook almost a dozen groups on my way up to see the hummingbirds. The weather was much nicer and there were so many gorgeous little birds. I saw an extra species today, he was really dark green but with a really bright iridescent pink chest, so unassuming until he lifted his head and the pink flashed brightly.

I stayed for well over an hour, captivated by the birds and trying to catch photos of their funny behaviour. They are extremely territorial and so huge fights break out with the little critters jousting with their beaks in mid air, making a huge racket before shooting off in a blur into the trees. I was starting to notice different behaviour from each species too which was interesting.

After this it was onwards and upwards as I had to climb back up the hill to La Montaña, and this time I had brought snacks with me. The cafe was open too, so maybe it’s just closed on Mondays.

I continued down the other side and through the palm forest again with stunning views over the valley.

I caught a Jeep back to Salento and had lunch at one of the food stalls that pop up on the main square at the weekend. The speciality is trout and there are at least ten serving options at each restaurant. I enjoyed trout with a sauce of tomatoes and onions and a soft drink for less than £4.

Then I wandered down the beautiful Calle Real with its colourful buildings and bustling shops. At the end of the street I walked up a steep staircase to a viewpoint over the city and then on a bit further to another viewpoint over the Cocora Valley.

I stopped at a cafe at the Mirador and then headed back down to the hostel for some yoga and then I met some girls in the bar and we went out for dinner.

El Patio Restaurant is exceptional, the menu is extensive and the food delicious. You can taste the freshness of the ingredients. I ordered a vegetarian burrito and was extremely impressed. The food wasn’t cheap but it was great value, the burrito was $18.000COP and my coconut-guava juice was $7.000 for a jar.

Afterwards we headed to Los Amigos Tejo for a game. I managed to score two 9-pointers (see my upcoming post about the game of Tejo for more) and won the game.

The next morning the four of us went on a tour of a local coffee farm and learned about the whole process. The tour cost $10.000COP and we each got two coffees so it seemed like excellent value.

The coffee farm (finca) we chose was Las Acacias and it was quite a walk from town (not the 20 minutes the hostel told us at all), and it would have been fairly pleasant if it weren’t raining!

As we arrived, the heavens opened and we were given a fresh espresso while we waited for the worst to pass.

The tour was really enjoyable, first we went to see some baby plants and I was stunned to hear how slowly they grow. It takes a month for the germination and then another couple of months to get a decent-sized seedling for transplantation. The plants don’t produce beans for two whole years and they can produce beans for twenty years with lots of care and attention after each growing season.

The bean pods are bright red when they are ripe! I never thought about it before but they were very pretty, and the farmers call them Cerezas (cherries). I picked a couple and then took the beans out. Each pod contains two beans covered in a slimy liquid which is quite sweet to the taste, though it tastes absolutely nothing like coffee.

We went to see the machine that shells the pods and separates the shell from the beans, which are collected in a huge tank then washed with water.

The beans are dried in a big airer for 5 days and then bagged and sent to an industrial plant for roasting.

They return to the farm to be sold, as this farm does not export. Colombian coffee tends to be medium-high roast and each farm and region produces a coffee with different flavours, affected by altitude, soil, rainfall, hours of sunshine etc.

Colombian coffee is exported through one of two cooperatives and the beans from different farms are mixed before being bagged for export, so it’s rare to actually experience the taste of a single farm – it’s worth doing the tour just for that I suppose!

After the tour we had another coffee and then the four of us walked back to the town. We arrived in the main square and maiden a beeline round the corner back to El Patio.

It was so tough to choose what to have because there was so much good food to choose from. I even changed my order. I went for the mixed burrito and it was a FANTASTIC choice. The beef was cooked perfectly and was so succulent and the salad and vegetables were fresh and delicious.

We returned to the hostel, relaxed for a while and then got a taxi to the bus station on the edge of town where we caught a bus to Armenia. The bus arrived just before 7 and I barely had 2 minutes to buy snacks before we had managed to get seats on the 7pm bus to Bogotá where my journey continues…

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