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Right in the heart of Colombia’s Eje Cafetero (Coffee Axel) there is a highway, which runs between the cities of Pereira and Armenia. Each lovely in their own right, the real gem of this region comes when you deviate from this road and dip down into the pleasant mountain town of Salento.
As your bus turns off the main road the fresh smells of the forest air and the beauty of the green rolling hillsides that characterize this part of Colombia so well will surround your senses. Your bus will speed around the ins and outs of the road while you try to take it all in as the cows lazily graze in the passing landscapes. About 20 minutes from the main road later and your bus will arrive in the picturesque main plaza of Salento.
While the secret is certainly out about the beauty of this small town, you will not feel the immediate presence of tourism like you do in Colombia’s major cities, but instead you will have time to take in the local scene of a marketplace which has stood the test of time and influence to remain quaint and cheerful.
Stroll down the Calle Real in the morning and stop in any number of cafes for some of the very best the Quindio region has to offer. The coffee was almost certainly produced locally, and if you ask about it, you are probably in for a lovely tale. Along the way stop to take notice of all the colorful painted doorways and windows for which Salento is famous.
Caffeinated and ready to take on the world (you will need it) head down Calle Real in search of the perfect souvenir, gift, or just special something to take home with you. With everything from hats to clothing to jewelry to artwork to tasteful souvenirs, a trip down Calle Real will leave you wanting to come back for a second vuelta every time. Pro tip: Only walk into shops on one side of the street, then save the other side for the way back. See more (buy more?) without getting caught up on the middle of the street wondering which shops you already stopped in!
When you get to the end of the street and your wallet can bear no more, climb the towering green and yellow steps for a lovely view over the town. The climb is well worth your effort as the top lends itself to wonderful photographs and relaxing moments on the hillside swing set.
For dinner don’t miss out on the patacones that made Salento famous! Everywhere from the corner restaurant to the plaza-side tables will serve you up a bite of that day’s fresh trout catch with a patacon (smashed plantain) as large as your plate on top. Enjoy an after dinner drink on the main square as you enjoy the scene that is a small town gathering spot after working hours.
The next day give your wallet a break and head for the tiny hamlet town of Cocora. Jeeps leave the main plaza hourly on weekend mornings, and often during weekdays too, for the 45-minute ride to this nearby town. Upon arrival you can decide whether to hike the medium-difficult circuit trail (about 5 hours) or rent a horse (with guide) to make the trek for you. Don’t forget lots of water, snacks and your camera – this is a sight you will want to document. No less that 5 minutes into your hike (ride) and you will be stunned by the gorgeous views throughout the valley, known as the Valle de Cocora, and covered in wax palm trees. The palma de cera is Colombia’s national tree for a reason! These trees stand tall and majestic, towering over the trail and spread out in every direction.
Take a break midway through your hike at the Acaime Lodge where you can get a snack, drink, and use the bathroom for small fees and then press onward to the end of the trail. Careful though! Speaking from experience, this part of the country is known for their rainstorms, so starting the hike early and keeping good time can make the difference between finishing in dry clothes or splashing through puddles for the last kilometer in your long-past dry sneakers.
When your hike is over grab some more of the yummy trout and patacones at the restaurant right at the trail head, or just catch a jeep right back to Salento. Spend the night relaxing and looking back at the amazing pictures you took throughout the day.
If you can muster the strength to get out of bed with your quite possibly sore muscles the next day (just me?), make your way to one of the many coffee fincas throughout this area. Some are within walking distances, others require you to take a jeep, and still others can be reached via rented bicycle. Whatever your mode of transportation, this is not to be missed! Coffee is the heart and soul of this region and to truly understand it, you must witness the way in which the people talk about their coffee.
Finish your weekend with one last cup of Quindio coffee on the square as you wait to board your bus. As you wind out of Salento and back to the main roads of life, you may just find yourself daydreaming about the next time you can visit this magical place. So, get out there and make it happen! Don’t blame me if you weekend turns into a week (or month!).