Colombian Coffee Country – Salento and Popayan

Salento & Popayan

From Medellin to Salento required another early morning bus journey which entailed six hours along the narrow flank of the Western Andes topped by small towns. With some good tunes in my headset the hours flew by. It helped that the bus was super comfy with built-in entertainment and movies (albeit bad and in Spanish).

After the conductor pointed out a seemingly ominous Salento on a distant hill across the valley sheathed in storm clouds, we were deposited at the side of the road, told to cross and wait for a bus to Salento. One game of frogger later, with no lives lost, we stood at the stop. Guided by an old man relentlessly kneading his rosary we caught the second bus, as the first drove straight past.

The hostel La Serrana was a bit out of town in another idyllic setting. Each night a group would gather to play guitar and sing after dinner, sometimes around a fire. Man I need a guitar!

So a few days ahead of scenery, catching up with friends (Daphne and Steven) and relaxing …for a change. This life can grow on you if you let it.

Camino Real Salento

Valle de La Cocora

Cocora is the gemstone of Salento, a must-see. A luscious green mountain valley where the ridges are flanked with iconic 60m wax palms, towering like a procession of skinny giants. The night before our expedition we overheard a stoned, laughter-filled conversation in the hostel about the lonely planet’s melodramatic description of the valley: “the stunning Valle de Cocora is like a lush version of Switzerland, with a broad, green valley floor framed by rugged peaks. However, you’ll remember you’re a few degrees from the equator when, a short walk past Cocora, you suddenly encounter hills covered with the palma de cera, or wax palm.” Not totally sure we get the hilarity, but the protagonists had apparently found some magic mushrooms that morning and incorporated them into their omelette.

We set off early into town, a pleasant walk as the sun burnt off the slight mist and turned things from chilly through perfect to slightly uncomfortable. To get to the valley you need to take a ride on a what could be called a lonely hearts club Willy (more below). Excuse me…are you sure it wasn’t us on mushrooms? We set off early to secure an 8:30am Willy. Turns out they only run at 7:30am and 9:30am. Doh. Nothing to do but scour the town for Brunch and their legendary peanut butter brownies. We found both and the brownies are amazing and addictive. On a return visit next day the owner joked that the reason for the addictive quality is that he adds cocaine!

A Willy is an ex-army jeep used as a taxi in the area. Ancient but clearly loved and well maintained they come in bright, decorative colours and regularly carry more people than they should…16 school kids hanging off the sides for example. A twenty-minute ride (3000Cop or $1.50) with a conservative eight passengers found us at the trailhead, equipped with a squiggle on a piece of paper purporting to be a map.

Willies lined up in the main square

The walk itself is a taxing-in-parts 10km. Starting off along a fork to the right you follow a valley through fields that slowly turn into cloud forest. To left and right the mountains rise, ridges fringed by the palms. To the right a mighty buttress towers over all, so large and inaccessible it probably has a lost world on the top. Small, wobbly, planked bridges cross the stream at intervals as the trail rises inexorably up.

At around the mid point the trail forks, with La Montana to the right and Colibris and Estrella to the left. Estrella and the waterfall are another 5km away, so we opted for Colibris, which is a hummingbird sanctuary a little way up the hill and deep in the forest. We were greeted by a friendly old man and, having paid our entrance (4000Col each or $2.00), we were offered a free drink: Agua de Panella con Queso (i.e., warm sugar water and a chunk of cheese). You break the cheese up into the sugar water and eat it like a soup. Sweet, savoury and surprisingly good! Duly energised, the camera came out and we attempted to capture the birds: iridescent green, violet, pink, blue, black and white, long tailed, short tailed, fleeting, beautiful and everywhere. What a thoroughly cool way to while away half an hour.

View from Finca La Montana

Back to the fork and up towards Finca La Montana, a steep 800m climb and eventually we came out onto the ridge at the Finca (small farm/inn). The walk down gives you the clearest vistas over the palms and the remaining few km were punctuated by frequent photo opportunities and possibly the most scenic picnic stop ever. Blue skies, amazing clouds, verdant mountains and those crazy-ass trees. Just a shame our sandwiches were dry and unimaginative. Laying beneath a wax palm under a clear blue sky, it’s hard to remember what exactly it was we used to do.

We arrived back at the trail-head just in time for a three o’clock Willy to town. As we re-entered our room the heavens opened…we were lucky. As near a perfect day out as I can remember.

Valle de La Cocora

Hummingbird

Valle de La Cocora

Don Elias Coffee Tour

Colombia, coffee producer extraordinaire. Salento, coffee country. You can see where I’m going with this. I don’t even like coffee, and Alison prefers hers with a heavy dose of cocoa and/or soymilk. Still when in Rome and all that. Our hostel advised us to head 4km down the hill and go see Don Elias.

As we hit a small village the signs pointed us down a track where a small boy confirmed our planned trajectory and we arrived in a small, somewhat muddy courtyard. We were then planted on an old couch and asked to wait. After 15 minutes, Carlos a well-pierced teenager introduced himself we paid our 5,000Cop ($2.50) and the tour commenced.

A quick tour around the plantation, explanation of the difference between Arabica and Colombiana (red and yellow), details of organic coffee growth, natural insecticides, plants that help – bananas and yucca for shade and holding soil together – all in Spanish perfectly tailored to beginners.

Coffee Beans

The farm is a family-run, small, organic outfit and after seeing the 4 hectares and 8000 plants, it was on to the production floor. The beans are de-skinned in something like a meat-grinder, fermented for a day and then dried for around 5 days. Then they are de-skinned again to remove the white husk and roasted over a wood fire. Finally they are ground. All this takes place in a room the size of a medium-sized kitchen…and they produce 8 tonnes a year!

Then the taste test. No idea if it was any good or not as we are not connoisseurs; others claimed yes, but it was coffee and Carlos is a star. We never did get to see the elusive Don, master of this small and basic outfit with a reputation of quality much grander than its humble appearance.

Colombian Coffee

We finished off with a walk down to the valley floor, along the river and into Boquia for an Arepa lunch and a bus back to base. We were still buzzing after all that…must have been the coffee?

El Mirador

Invariably the word Mirador means it is a hot day, there is a long sweaty climb and for some reason you feel obliged to do it.

120 steps later and we emerged onto the hill overlooking Salento. It had a playground so we contemplated the sleepy town below from the swings covered by shade… Salento is a good looking place.

Round a corner and 50 yards down is the Mirador proper: a balcony hanging over the valley and looking away from town. It’s populated by a few vendors selling juice, snacks and the ubiquitous friendship bracelets. Another great vista but I’ve covered too many of those already so not much else to report beside the loss of a few more calories. Instead, here’s a gallery of Salento.

Popayan

Alison just made a really bad joke, trying to help me write this bit: “sounds like Popeye but we didn’t see any spinach”. I know.

Lots of people told us we’d love Popayan but there was no evidence of what there was to do there. It’s renowned worldwide for its Easter parades but Easter is a few weeks away. In any case, it breaks the journey to other places so we jumped on the bus via Armenia and arrived mid afternoon.

Parque Caldas

It turns out that Popayan is cute, a whitewashed old town with old-fashioned hanging street lamps. Our hostel room was on the corner of an old building next to the Cathedral, directly overlooking the main plaza Parque Caldas. Within minutes I decided I needed a guitar on this adventure and, with advice, duly found one. Oops!

Something about the atmosphere of this place made me want to stay. Bustling yet laid back, great shops and restaurants, friendly people and wrapped in an aesthetically pleasing package. The whole town was painting, cleaning and preparing for the legendary Semana Santa celebrations.

We had the best vegetarian lunch in El Mana: seven items off a whiteboard, all super tasty and for only 4000Cop ($2.00) a person all in. They say the south is cheaper and Popayan was where we first noticed that for sure.

We watched the debut of a local band in a Colombian art gallery/pub run by a Scot from Greenock called Colin, resplendent in his navy blue fleece. The band were accomplished musicians but once the singer mentioned romance and sentiment as part of their ethos, it all went a bit out of my sphere.

We walked up a hill, tried strange smoothies, tried to book an extra night and had a great time in a great hostel.

We didn’t try the aphrodisiac smoothie made with a pureed crab (apparently they chuck it in the blender alive, at least we heard that in Bogota).

As we’re getting further south in Colombia, we’re loving it more and more: cheaper, beautiful, friendly and so relaxing. Part of me needs to speed up and get motoring, as we still have so much of the world to see; the other half could stay here indefinitely.

Traveller’s Advice

Medellin to Salento (approx 6 hours)

  • Head to Terminal del Sur, closest Metro station is El-Poblado but it’s still a walk. A taxi might be best option if you have bags.
  • There are two lines that run to Armenia: Flota Occidental seems to be the best and runs more frequently. Buy a ticket for Armenia. Cost should be 41,000Cop ($20.50)
  • Ask the conductor to drop you off near the road to Salento, this is a stop 40 minutes before Armenia. Once there cross the road and take a local bus to Salento for 2,000Cop ($1.00). This route saves you maybe an hour and a half.

Salento to Popayan (approx 6-7 hours)

  • Head to the terminal/office in Salento, close to the fire station
  • Purchase a ticket to Armenia (8,375Cop or $4.15). The buses run every twenty mins and take about 40mins to get there.
  • In Armenia bus terminal find a line that heads to Popayan, there are a few with varying frequency. Tickets should cost in region of 33,000Cop ($16.50) and the journey is a very bumpy 6 hours or so.

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