Although we had never heard of Salento prior to arriving in Colombia, many people we met along ‘The Gringo Trail’ highly recommended it as a beautiful place to visit and completely diverse to the Caribbean coastline or the cosmopolitan city of Medellin.We again opted for bus travel, which involved a 5 – 6 hour journey to Armenia, and from there another hour or so to Salento. This cost us 49 000 COP (43000 + 6000) in total and was comfortable enough and fairly straightforward. Due to the increasing popularity of Salento, we were pretty much pointed to the local buses heading there when arriving at Armenia bus station, as there would otherwise be little reason for backpackers to alight at Armenia.
The recommendations appeared to be justified almost instantly, the rolling green hills reminiscent of Northern Europe but on a much grander scale. The men donning massive cowboy hats were a little further removed from home. We booked into La Serrana hostel, the remote and aesthetic setting of which was indicative of the peaceful and scenic vibe of our stay. It also seemed to be a popular spot for seasoned backpackers with many a male ponytail present, and an array of motorbikes outside for those who like to ‘get off the beaten track’.
After spending our first morning there attempting to complete the time consuming TEFL course we had enrolled on what seemed like 6 months ago, we decided to wait until the next day to attempt the Valle de Cocora hike. Admittedly our mundane task for the day was completed outdoor with the backdrop of the surreal mountain-scape overriding any feelings of self pity. In the afternoon we set off on the 25 minute walk into the town to take in the local sites and culture, all of it a relatively comfortable stroll, or so I thought as I headed out in my oversized Primark flip flops oblivious to what lay ahead….
As we reached the peak of the viewpoint overlooking Salento having climbed enough stairs to make me give my inhaler a passionate kiss, a local looking bloke quizzed Aisling on her nationality. On receiving her response of ‘Irlande’ he still proceeded to explain in rapid Spanish the sites in view from our location. Our improving but still limited Spanish picked up a few things, including something about a river where we could swim. We didn’t have any swimming gear on but headed off in the direction offered, primarily to avoid having to financially reward the information we had been provided. About 4 minutes later as we were deliberating over whether to walk to the river which looked significantly further than the advised ‘quince minuto’ away, the same guy then appeared miraculously from behind a tree, almost perfectly re-enacting the unforgettable scene in Jurassic Park where that small dinosaur screams and flaps its neck at the fat guy. Me being the fat guy. Anyway, it became evident that we had unknowingly agreed to hike to the river with him as our guide.
An almost vertical descent later, myself and Aisling began to exchange knowing glances in between our new mates frequent Spanish utterances. Glances that said – ‘this is a potentially dodgy/robby/murdery situation that we read about in newspapers/see in horror movies, let’s run away and scream for our mammies’.
Anyway it turns out our reluctance to create any awkwardness far outweighed our desire not to be robbed or murdered so we plugged on. Our guide continued to converse in Spanish, although he did add a few international phrases to his vocabulary, such as pointing like a child and saying ‘eurggghhh’ when passing a tampax on the floor. He was also fond of talking about the women he had ‘taken’ in the river and managed to use actions to describe his frivolous experiences with numerous Argentinean women whom he was keen on, and also with French women of which he wasn’t a fan of their hairy armpits. He also seemed dumbfounded that myself and Aisling didn’t want to swim in said river despite us offering the excuse that we didn’t have swimming gear, even suggesting we go in minus our clothes with the assurance that he would leave. Unsurprisingly we relented on this tempting offer.
As our involuntary free walking tour of Salento continued it seemed less likely that our guide was a murderer, but at the very least a little strange. The whole episode was quite a surreal journey with not a word of English spoken, and we were only certain of non-death when safely around other people, 2 hours after we set off on the 15 minute walk.
In all sincerity, when we realised it was a safe situation we were glad to have participated and the guy seemed nice, guilty of massively exaggerating romantic escapades – yes, but a murderer thankfully not. He even offered to give me a piggyback on the way back up due to my aforementioned Primark flip flops disintegrating rapidly as the hike progressed…. Again, I relented the appealing offer. We arrived alive and well back in the town area, and after providing Solento’s own Lothario with a tip for his services, sat and discussed the strange afternoon we had experienced. Our afternoon had been the prolonged equivalent of when someone weird talks to you at a bus stop, but we survived fully intact (with a boring blog story to boot) consolidating our previously established position as ‘proper backpackers’.
The following day we headed off early to complete the Valle De Cocora hike. Being the main draw-point for backpackers to Salento, the Jeeps departing the main square were all packed out, requiring some of the macho males to ride standing on the ledge at the back. Me being one of the macho men. The 20 minute journey was fairly interesting as a result of the obscure travelling mode, and was temporarily challenging when the driver took some sharp turns at a reasonably high speed.
The valley is the principal location of the national tree of Colombia, a tall wax palm tree. The views on offer throughout are impressive, although the majority of the hike takes place within the dense woodland so a higher ascent doesn’t result in a panoramic viewpoint. At the approximate height of 6 puffs of my inhaler is a rest point where you can have a protein and sugar intake of a bowl of hot chocolate with a block of cheese – which isn’t as weird tasting as it sounds but isn’t massively nice either.
We then took a wrong turn and ended up walking the more difficult and less interesting path which the pack we had left at the hostel had advised us against. This was our first real tussle with high altitude and the steep incline meant we had to stop every 15 seconds or so until the black spots subsided. About 2 hours after taking the wrong turn we passed our first soul, a fellow English lad who advised that the route we were on was actually a dead end and we would end up going back on ourselves. Content with our mountaineering performance of having reached 100m shy of the maximum height, we headed back the way we had came. As we descended with comparative ease we passed a Colombian bloke leading a Donkey which was carrying two gas canisters, and slightly further on a German backpacker who was carrying her full rucksack, tent, supplies et al for three days of camping at the top. This made us feel slightly less proud of our heroic achievements.
Salento accommodation: La Sarrena Hostel, 25000 COP per night per person for an 8 bed dorm room, including breakfast. Although a little further out from the main square, around 15 minutes to walk, the scenery from the hostel grounds is phenomenal. The set meals provided on the night time for 14000 COP were of a very high standard and enabled some degree of socialising. For the most part there are a lot of fully fledged travellers there so we found it difficult to mix too much unless we could story-top other travellers’ tales. This was more likely owing to the crowd present at that time rather than any hostel vibe overall – the same applies to the lights going out in our 8 bed dorm at 9pm each night we were there.
Salento Verdict: In terms of Colombia, the sheer magnitude of diversity between Salento and other places we had visited made it a worthwhile place to visit. It is very much a place to take a break from drinking and engage in activities such as hiking and coffee farm tours. The scenery and the uniqueness of the small cowboy-style town, and the fact it suited our southward journey from Medellin to Ecuador, left us feeling positive about the place and we would certainly recommend it.