Having gone to bed at 4am after a night out in Medellin and waking up at 8:30am to catch the bus to Salento, I spent the entire bus journey feeling hungover, blasting the air con, staring out the window at the stunningly green mountainous landscape and listening to music in an attempt to zen myself. That might be why I barely batted an eyelid when one of the tyres on our bus stopped and we had to wait half an hour for it to be fixed, or why I didn’t get my usual knot of rage in my stomach each time the driver stopped the bus to get out and not return for 10-20 minutes at a time. A journey that was said to take 6 hours ended up taking 8, with our bus finally arriving in Salento at 7pm.
Trudging 10 minutes through the mud and rain – the rain seems to be following me – to my accommodation for the next couple of nights, The Plantation House, I checked into this coffee-farm-meets-hostel and dumped my bags in my 3 bed dorm where I was paying $25,000 pesos a night (£7.50) without breakfast. Being one whom likes to explore the area when I first arrive, I made my way back out again to wander the streets and head to the Plaza, getting my bearings as well as a feel for the place. There isn’t actually much to see at night – the colours and the quaint town feel lost in the darkness – but there was an energy from the bars and restaurants around the Plaza and a warm, local feel.
The following morning, after a really good sleep, I joined the 9am Coffee Tour at The Plantation House – The Don Eduardo Coffee Tour – that would usually cost $30,000 pesos but due to me staying there for 2 nights it only cost me $15,000 pesos, or £4.50 (and it costs $5,000 if you stay for 3 nights and free thereafter). The tour is run by Tim, the co-owner of the hostel and coffee farm with his Colombian wife, who is warm and friendly, and knowledgeable about coffee, but becomes easily distracted by his dogs that joined us on the tour and by whimsical stories about things that have little relevance, if any, to coffee. This is partly why the tour lasts a minimum of 3 hours.
That an the fact that to get to the coffee farm we had to trudge downhill, through thick, slippery mud, wearing Wellington boots and using a bamboo stick as an aid. It was sweaty work – despite the rain – but we all made it down without falling over. We were then gifted with views across the mountains and valley of Salento before taking a pew inside the coffee farm to eat a banana, taste some coffee and listen to Tim explain the process of making coffee and the history behind Colombian coffee.
Interestingly you get much better cups of Colombian coffee in Europe than in Colombia itself, which explains my disappointing coffee experiences. At the end of the tour, Hoolio (a Colombian whom works there) took us through a demonstration of making coffee, from removing the skin of the beans to roasting the beans and finally to grinding the beans and then drinking the freshly-made coffee.
At the end of the tour I went for a walk through the farm, navigating the narrow walkways and weaving through the palm trees, before climbing back up to the bamboo hut to find Hoolio sitting down for lunch with 3 other male Colombian employees. They invited me to sit down on the bench next to them, offered me some of their soup (which I politely declined) and their home-made raspberry juice (which I gladly accepted) and from there a conversation began between the 5 of us, them attempting small pieces of English where they could and me doing my best attempts at Spanish, learning new words from them as I went. I ended up spending an hour with them, laughing round the table about our misunderstandings and their jokes about me and potential chicos, learning each others’ names, ages and family dynamics. It was one of my favourite moments, both in Colombia and in my travelling as a whole, being a spontaneous and natural encounter with the locals, and it was definitely my highlight of the coffee tour.
Still in my wellies, I walked into town and caught the bus that goes to Armenia, asking the driver to let me out just after the bridge over the river into Boquia, paying only $1,000 pesos (30p). From there I turned right down a pathway (after picking up a slice of carrot cake for $2,000 pesos, or 80p) and walked through the muddy, rocky forest with some uphill climb for about 20 minutes before reaching a long, one storey colourful building. A house with a small shop section, here you have to pay $3,000 pesos (£1) to cross their grounds of Santa Rita in order to make it to the Cascadas (waterfall).
You start by crossing their muddy field – with me almost losing my Wellington boot numerous times – and going through a few wooden gates, before making it onto a “path” and crossing under a rocky bridge. Navigating the muddy hills and crossing the river itself a few times, you finally make it to the Cascadas after 30/40 minutes. I’ll be honest, the Cascada itself isn’t a thing spectacular – albeit peaceful and cool – but I really enjoyed the walk through the hills and the forests, seeing more of beautiful Salento and its surrounding mountains. I would recommend it for that alone.
After making the return walk and catching a bus back to Salento, I wandered through the narrow, colourful streets searching for my Colombia magnet within the cute, little, artisanal shops before eventually finding one I liked and asking the woman to inscribe “Colombia” on it for me. I then continued up the steps to the Mirador – the viewpoint – of Salento below, which was nice but nowhere near as impressive of other viewpoints I have seen and nothing compared to the views of the mountains in Salento.
On the way back to my hostel I made a stop at a hole-in-the-wall eatery to pick up an Arepa burger; for $3,500 pesos (£1.10) an open-burger where the base was grilled arepa, topped with a burger, cheese, a salad of carrots, lettuce and mustard, plus crunchy fried potato shreds and my choice of sauce (LOTS of sauce – c’mon, it’s me). The arepa was crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, the cheese soft and the salad crunchy, and the combination on the whole pretty damn decent.
Back at the hostel I showered and changed, fretted about which hostel to book in Cali before deciding to not waste anymore time and just book one, for Camillo to then knock on my dorm room door. Camillo was one of the workers on the coffee farm and amongst our chat they asked me about Salsa, which lead to plans to go out in Salento for salsa that evening. Whilst in my Cali fret I had began chatting to Laura, the girl in my dorm, and she had casually mentioned wanting to do Tejo; a Colombian “sport” similar in set-up to that of bowling, where guests throw stones at mini gunpowder triangles in the sand for various points per explosion whilst drinking beer. Deciding to combine the evening, me Laura and Camillo headed out to Cancha de Tejo Los Amigos for Tejo and Beer, where the Tejo is included if you are purchasing alcohol and they also provide a mini BBQ during the evening – pieces of chicken, pork and beef grilled on the BBQ and then cut into bite size pieces.
It is absolutely excellent value – the three of us did rounds, totalling at $11,000 (£3.20) each round for beers – and really fun, although I was pretty poor at it myself. Still it was a way to vent frustration and get ridiculously over-excited when anyone did set off an explosive. Laura and I also had a lot of fun chatting to the staff over the BBQ, over the bar and with the owner, Roberto, as he took us through our demonstration.
The music being played felt like Spanish power ballads, a strange but hilarious choice to go with lobbing stones at gunpowder, but when we mentioned leaving to go to a salsa bar the staff switched the music to salsa and we somehow ended up dancing salsa, first with two local guests and then with the male members of staff. It was probably one of my more random and spontaneous evenings but, immersing myself in the life of a local, it was so much fun and kind of perfect.
We made it back to our hostel after midnight and headed straight for bed before I woke up early to shower, pack and check out. Walking to the town I caught a bus to Armenia at 8:40am, paying $4,000 pesos (£1.20), arriving an hour later at Armenia bus terminal to then pay $20,000 pesos (£6) for a bus to Cali. Told it would take 3 hours but knowing what Colombian time can be like, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was feeling peaceful and happy after my short but lovely time in Salento where I really engaged with the locals and the local culture.