While we were in Argentina this past December, Cody and I chatted with travelers and found that Colombia didn’t seem to be on most people’s must-see list. Of course, this provided an opportunity for us to bombard them with all the things they must do, but our conversations uncovered the one big reason I think people should visit Colombia ASAP: it’s a place still relatively untouched by the touristic hoards.
If you do a little research, you’ll see that the common fears and misconceptions about Colombia are no longer founded. Because of that, they are experiencing record increases in tourism each year. This is great for the economy, but it’s inevitable that the move toward accommodating tourism will change the feel of a place. For example, our hike in the páramo would have been completely different if 1,000 people were visiting each day.
If you’ve traveled much in South America you have probably noticed how touristy and ‘Americanized’ many places are—you see the popular U.S. brands, there are aggressive vendors and skewed pricing for visitors. Besides Cartagena, I haven’t seen much of this in Colombia. But, the first Starbucks stores are opening in Bogotá and the fast food chains are creeping in. Still, the feel is noticeably different from that of other South American countries. I encourage you to put Colombia on your destination list before the booming tourism industry has an impact.
Our recent weekend in Salento totally embodied this feeling. It’s one of those places so perfect that you want to shout from the rooftops and at the same time keep a secret so it doesn’t change. This is the favorite place we’ve been, so keep reading for a recap of our trip and photos of the amazing landscape.
Any trip to Colombia wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the coffee region, and in my opinion, Salento is the crown jewel.
We stayed at La Serrana, a hostel about a ten-minute walk outside the center of Salento. Now before you pooh-pooh the idea of hostels, understand that many aren’t just dorms but also have private rooms. The three private rooms at La Serrana are in a house separate from the main building and kind of huddle around a bright living room with beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. Before breakfast each morning, we went to the main house to have a cup of coffee and read while looking over the valleys.
The weather was amazing our first morning in Salento, so we decided to hike through the Valle de Cocora. The Valle is a natural cloud forest as well as being one of the only places in the world you can see Colombia’s national tree, the wax palm. Wax palms are the tallest palm in the world, growing as high as 200 feet while maintaining a trunk the same size as a normal palm. Due to their slow growth rate they were on the verge of extinction before they became a protected species in 1985 (thanks for the info, Wikipedia).
These super cool jeeps take you to the park entrance. There is no fee or permit needed, you just walk through the wooden gate and start the hike (tourism will change this, folks!).
We took the popular loop which leads you through rolling farmland and about two hours continuously uphill to Acaime (a hummingbird sanctuary). From there it’s another hour or so uphill to the Finca la Montaña, the highest point of the loop.
The reason you put yourself through this brutal (but beautiful!) hike is to descend the valley and see the amazing landscape dotted with wax palms.
We met some nice folks on our way back to the hostel and made plans to have a drink later that night and play tejo.
Tejo is a variation on an indigenous game where you throw a metal puck at paper triangles filled with gun powder. The paper triangles rest on a metal ring so that when hit, they explode. Interestingly, the game is free to play as long as you buy beer.
After hobbling out of bed the next day, we decided to visit a coffee plantation and set out for Don Elías organic coffee farm. It was a beautiful walk with more amazing views.
The last climb of our trip was up to the view point in Salento.
This slideshow is a pretty good snapshot of some of the other things that make Colombia unique. Just a note: I think it’s title, “21 Reasons Colombians Are Happy,” is kind of ridiculous. I don’t see how the fact that 60% of the world’s emeralds come from Colombia impacts the average person, but hey, what do I know?
One last thing, if you’re in Bogotá and can’t swing a visit to the coffee region, this coffee tour is a lovely alternative.