This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Coffee, Wax Palms and Gunpowder in Salento

Salento is a small colonial town north of Cali and in the heart of the coffee growing region of Colombia. It is quite a small town, but it is a weekend destination for locals. We also start to hear more and more from foreign travelers about the town. It sounds like Salento is well-established on the Gringo Trail. But everyone says it is a lovely, quiet place surrounded by nature. Perfect after our week of Rumba in Cali. From Cali it takes a few hours to Armenia and then a short 40 min. bus ride to Salento.

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Like other older, traditional towns that we have been to, Salento's streets are lined with bleached white buildings. However, unlike other places, Salento's buildings have very colorfully painted doors, windows, balconies and trim. It gives a happy feeling. Older woman also seem to have their heads out the windows checking out what is happening on the streets, which is probably usually not too much.

Overall, Salento is a great place to visit for people looking for a tranquil place to hang their hat for a couple days, or even a week. I have the feeling that for better or worse it will become a major foreigner destination. New hostels geared towards gringos are already sprouting up. If you are into nightlife there is not much here, but with so many Colombian visitors fun can always be found. Buying and drinking beer outside of a mini-market can make a small party in Colombia.

Street Performers
Unknowingly, we arrive a couple days before Salento's own feria is starting. A stage and food tents are already set up in the town's main plaza. One night we go out to see what is happening since it is only one block from our hostel and we hear the music anyway. There is live music by a pretty lively military band. A few steps away there is a disco tent with around twenty large speakers and next to that is a bar tent. They are all cranking their own tunes competing for our eardrums' attention. The mix of loud sounds with no clear winner is discomforting and takes away from the small town charm of Salento. 

Coffee bushes and banana trees

Because Salento sits squarely in the Zona Cafeteria there are several coffee plantations to visit and accessible with a short hike past rolling green hills and vistas of the Andes mountains. Somehow our hike we miss the nearest plantation and end up walking farther to Finca El Ocaso, an organic coffee grower. There are over 3,000 coffee plantations in the area and about 10% are organic. El Ocaso's coffee gets sent to Armenia (nearest large city) and mixed with other beans from other organic plantations. For COP 5,000 pp we get a quick tour of the plantation with an explanation of the entire coffee production process plus two cups of coffee.

Drying the beans

Wax palm
Cocora Valley
Maybe the highlight of Salento is visiting the Valle de Cocora. From Salento it is about a half hour ride (COP 3000 one way) in a jeep taxi to the entrance. This area is famous for the wax palms, Colombia's national tree. They grow in the high altitudes of the Andean mountains and only in Colombia and parts of Ecuador. Seeing an indigenous palm tree so far from the ocean is beautiful and strange.

Immediately getting out of the taxis we are greeted by guides trying to rent us horses. Because of all the rain recently the trails are quite muddy. We decide to take horses more for the novelty of riding horses than for avoiding the mud. We pay COP 20,000 (US $10) each for 90 minutes on horseback with a guide who walks along with us.* I have not ridden a horse in over twenty years, while this will be Mika's first time ever. Though it is not actually riding, just sort of sitting. The horses and guide do all of the work.

It has been raining constantly in Salento, but luckily we have a beautiful day with blue sky. The horses slog through the muddy trail as we enjoy the endless green mountains sprouting the wax palms. Our destination is a small waterfall that sits just inside the entrance of a cloud forest. With all of the commotion of people and horses it would be impossible to see any wildlife here. The trail continues further ahead about another two hours on foot to a place where twenty-five different species of hummingbirds reside.  It would be great to see, but we already paid for the return horse trip. Half way back I am already very tired of being on a horse, my butt hurts and am about ready to dismount my steed and walk the rest of the way. A true city slicker I am. We do get to trot a very short bit, but we feel kind of guilty doing it because the guide has to run alongside the horses.

* The International Rambler Travel Tip:
Be leery of anyone selling a horse tour who says that the road is too difficult, too far, or too muddy to walk. Make sure to ask if the guide is riding or walking. One time in China I was sold on a horse ride to a campground that was so difficult to reach walking. After mounting my horse I discovered that actually my horse would be led by a thirteen year old girl on foot! I would just sit on the saddle like a bourgeoise prat. Needless to say, I got off the horse, got my money back and had a fantastic hike to the location.


Just trout served here

It is nearly impossible to leave Salento without having trout (trucha). I would say that about 90% of restaurants serve trout and some serve only trout. There are several fish farms in the area to supply all the restaurants. A trout meal costs between COP 10,000 and 22,000 (US $5 - $11)depending on which restaurant and the type of fixin's. The price will include rice, patacon (a flattened and fried plantain) and juice. We go all in and get trucha al ajillo - cooked in garlic sauce - with mushrooms, cheese and shrimp. It arrives to our table still boiling. It is maybe our best meal in Colombia thus far.

Trout. It's what's for lunch

Tejo is an official national sport of Colombia that dates back to pre-Hispanic days. I am not totally sure but it might only be played in this country. The game is sort of like horseshoes or lawn darts. The idea is to throw a metal disc at a ring imbedded in mud. The one that is closest to the ring gets the points. It can be played as individuals or in teams. But there is a kicker... four little packets of gunpowder are placed on the target and with a good throw there will be an explosion.

The tejo target
Tejo is all over Colombia, but Salento is the first place that we try it. It is free to play. The only requirement is to buy a drink. Beer is the tejo player's preferred beverage. In an actual tejo match the losers buy the brew. The tejo targets are 18 meters (59 feet) apart. They put foreigners, like us, at a kiddie court about half the official distance so that we do not kill any locals. Tejo is good fun and a real must-do in Colombia. Nobody forgets their first tejo explosion.
Playing tejo

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