I read and heard about the small town of Salento, Colombia before I left the states for this journey. Coffee capital of Colombia, beautiful, mind-bending landscapes of the Cocora Valley, tallest palm trees in the world 7,000 ft up in the Andes mountains. How excited we must have been looking back on those webpages, on those photos. Seeing the town and surrounding landscape of Salento in person however, made that awe sitting at a computer look dismal. Salento may be heaven on Earth. The people may be angels or bodhisattvas. The population of the United States could learn alot from the people of Colombia.
We arrived in Salento at night after a two hour bus from Guatape to Medellin, a six hour ride from Medellin to Armenia, and an hour more or less from Armenia to Salento. Dumping rain cornered us into a internet cafe where Kara called the hostel we had found from a hand-made canvas poster in Guatape. Yambolombia! An eco-hostel a few kilometers from the main town owned by a local Colombian family. Gabriel and Carol, and their 14 year old daughter Daniella. Organic farmers, painters, jewelry makers, pure blooded creative artists. The hostel, painted a variety of colors and made from Guadua, a variety of bamboo (thicker than we know it in the states) the place was fantastic. The hostel has a small art studio in the backyard for traveling artists and the owners. On the side of the house, Gabriel has slowly begun terracing the sloping hill to create level organic vegetable gardens. A hike up the hill behind leads to a campfire ring, a flat plateau to camp with tents and a breathtaking view of the Cocora valley. The front porch overlooks a sweeping valley of coffee plantations, rivers, and beyond the lights of Armenia. The eco-hostel offers free coffee, free natural juices (lemonade, orange juice, mora, and more) and free agua-panella, a delicious hot drink with natural panella sugar famous in Colombia. Gabriel, his companion, Carol, and their daughter Daniella sharing their house with wanderers, nomads, like-minded souls.
We spent our first couple of days trying to find the breaks in the rain to hike the 3 or so kilometers into town to wander the streets, check out the artesanal shacks and shops, have a few beers and practice our ever-so-slowly-growing Spanish skills (I speak for myself...dondin dondin). The town center square is surrounded by either bars, restaurants, or trinket shops. We found a great AND cheap place to eat called Lucy´s serving large typical Colombian plates of soup, rice, salad, beans, some mixed vegetables or potatoes, and either a slice-slab of meat or trout. Delicious enough we would come back a few more times throughout our 10 day stint in Salento. At the end of the artesanal street, painted steps led skyward towards another mind-bending vista of the Cocora valley. We were lucky enough to reach the top to discover a beautiful full rainbow spaning the valley. Paradise.
The trip you want to do if you visit Salento is check out the Cocora valley. We caught a Jeep early one morning, standing on the back bumber holding on the the roof rack as we weaved our way down from the relative plateau of Salento into the valley. Gabriel had told us about the hike we needed to check out if we only spent one day in the valley. We made out down a deteriorating dirt (actually at this time of the year it´s knee deep mud from all the horse traffic) path skirting alongside barbed wire and cow pastures. Every so often we wound need to duck under the barbed wire and hike inside the pastures to avoid the pools of two foot deep mud. At one point my finger (thank God not my whole hand) grazed a line of electrified fence while switching between the trail and the pasture giving me a nice shot of adrenaline inducing shock. The pasture slowly turned to forest with the trail leading to a beautiful waterfall (one of hundreds we´ll experience throughout this journey). We followed the trail passing back and forth over the river on rickety bridges made from wood planks and guadua trunks following signs towards the hummingbird reserve. Each sign deceivingly made it seem like the reserve was only a kilometer or less ahead yet after each kilometer we found just another sign. Finally climbing about 3,000 ft in elevation from 6,500 to 8,500 ft, we reached a family run finca and reserve tucked up high in the cloud forests of the Andes mountains. For 3,000 Colombian pesos, the equivalent of roughly $1.50 (which goes towards the keep up of the trails and bridges) you get a nice refreshing cup of agua-panella and a nice slab of queso-campesino, a locally made cheese. The finca is surrounded by sugar-water bird feeders with hummingbirds zipping by back and forth like jet fighters in a dog fight. It was quite difficult to try and capture a focused picture of some of the brighter hummingbirds as the fly in to inhale some sugar water and zip away again.
On the way back down the mountain, we took another steep uphill detour to the "Finca de la Montana" (I haven´t figured out how to make the "n" with the squiggly line above it on these keyboards yet). From the finca, we took the rocky road winding its way back down to the main road in Cocora, conversing with a nice Colombian couple from Cali. Once back in Salento, we finished off a wonderful beautiful day with a cold beer and a nice meal at Lucy´s.
On our last day, we walked down our road from the hostel to a organic coffee plantation to get a tour of the fields and the process from plant to beverage. Our guide, Juan, walked us through the coffee fields, with two varieties of coffee plants interspersed with banana trees to give shade to the coffee. Juan showed us the difference between the ripe and unripe fruits, how you pick the bright yellow and red fruits making your way from plant to plant. Once back at the finca, the fruits are put through a mechanical peeler removing their first skin so that a moist off-white skin remains. The coffee fruits are then washed in water and put out in the sun or inside a greenhouse made from plastic and guadua so the seeds can dry (drying can take anywhere from a couple days in the sun to a couple weeks in the rainy season. Once dry the seeds are put into another peeler to remove their off-white second skin. Once the second skin is removed, you have what we know of as your coffee bean. They are put inside a pot over a hot fire and roasted until their aroma is permeating the whole finca. Once the beans are cooled, they are packaged and sold to town or to travelers and tourists visiting the finca for tours. Each of the three of us bought a bag, the freshest coffee we´ve ever tasted and quite possibly ever will. Throughout the morning, Juan had showed us the plantation of coffee plants, let us pick some ripe fruit from the limbs, peeled them, set them to dry, taken some dried seeds from prior harvest a week ago, peeled them again, roasted them over an open fire, ground them by hand, and made three delicious, fresh, organic cups of black, rich, aromatic coffee. Yum.
Our amazing ten days came to an end and we said our goodbyes to Gabriel, Carol, and Daniella, three people who invited us into their home as stranger, became friends, and felt like family leaving. We took a hand made poster for their hostel to put up in a low key chill hostel later on our journey (Maya Hostel in San Augustin). Gabriel gave us and our luggage a ride on his motocycle and trailer cart pulled behind it to town to catch a bus to Armenia and onward to Cali for some Salsa lessons and dancing. As happy as we were to be continuing our adventure, our journey, a part of us felt the pangs of leaving good friends, not knowing when we´d see them again.