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The Quindio is Colombia's smallest “departamento” or province, but it is without a doubt one which is packed with many attractions. Every village in Quindio is worthy of a day trip. Recently I visited Salento, with side trips to nearby Cocora valley and finishing up in Filandia.
Salento appears like a mirage from the main highway (the “autopista del Cafe”), beckoning you with its brilliant white buildings floating on a ridge surrounded by high mountains. Driving down the small winding road though thick rain forests clinging to steep cliffs reenforces the idea that you are going to some lost world...and suddenly, you are there!
Salento's main attraction being the central square and the calle Real (Royal street) that borders it. The gaily painted buildings are vintage colonial, and many of those living here wear the traditional clothing of the “arrieros”, the hardy men whose mules and donkeys brought in all the goods villagers depended on before any roads existed (some still do). Every so often, an old Willys (a Jeep) whisks through town, merchandise piled high on its top and often overflowing with passengers, many of which are perched precariously on the back bumper. This is public transportation, Quindio style!
The calle Real is chock full of manicured shops obviously targeting tourists, but before you scream “tourist trap”, check the prices! There is no gouging here despite there being no shortage of customers! A hand made hat will only set you back 15 or 20 thousand pesos ( 8 to 11 dollars ), for example. Irresistible purchases are anything made from the locally grown coffee, arguably the best in the world, ranging from sweets to wine or liqueur. For those who like vistas, you can scale several hundred steps at the end of the calle Real for a panoramic view of the village and the neighboring mountains.
My companions for the day, my father in law and my wife's uncle, both born in the Eje Cafetero (which includes Caldas and Risaralda), had a hankering for a game of billiards, so we tucked into one of the old pool halls on the calle Real. Like other buildings in town, this one has a strangely sagging ceiling, which the owner assured me has been like this for longer than hean remember and is not about to cave in. On the counter was a big ornate silver 112 year old Italian coffee machine, similar to those I had already seen in several cafes in the region. The Quindio coffee tastes great from any machine, but is even better from one of these babies! Note that Colombians usually play a strange form of billiard, with only three balls and no pockets in the table, though there is almost always a few of the more familiar tables as well. We played three games and that cost us, with a beer and a soda pop thrown in, a grand total of 8,000 pesos (less than 4.50 USD).
We capped our visit to Salento with a late lunch in a nice restaurant serving the town specialties: fresh trout and giant patacones (pat-a-cone-ess). Patacones are fried plantains flattened thin, which you typically smear with jogao (ho-gow), a tasty tomato and herb sauce. Each plate with drink was only 12,000 pesos, or less than seven US dollars – Money goes far in the Quindio!
Via a mostly unpaved road on the edge of Salento we headed in the general direction of the Tolima province, looking for the famous Cocora valley. This national park has the lone remaining natural stands of the wax palm. Before you yawn, let me point out that this a rather unique tree, very tall but with an extremely thin trunk, reminiscent of something you would find in a Doctor Seuss story book! Seeing them poking out in the spectacular mountain range is sure to take your breath away, and not surprisingly there are scores of tourists here either hiking or exploring on horse back, soaking in the beauty of their surroundings.
On the way out of Quindio, near the border with Risaralda province, we headed down another winding road to Filandia, another picturesque village. An observation tower on the edge of town offers sweeping views of the Nevado del Ruiz mountain range as well as Pereira, the capital of Risaralda to the north, although we did not go there because at this point it was raining and fog blanketed the horizon. I am not a cheapskate, but again I have to rave about the prices of things in the region: I bought a dozen fresh pandebono breads from a bakery in the town square for a mere 4,000 pesos (just over two USD), while I have paid as much as 2,000 pesos for just one in Medellin and it was not nearly as tasty as these were!
I should mention in closing the friendliness and good manners of the people of the Quindio and the rest of the coffee growing region. Once you see where and how they live, you will understand why they are so happy!