The bus from Medellín to Armenia made me the most miserably car sick I have ever been. The road was a never-ending series of turns that made me regret my lunch. The only thing that made up for it was absolutely gorgeous scenery.
When I described the place to my dad on the phone I told him it was like Vermont, rolling green hills and fresh air, only with an added scattering of the world’s tallest palm trees. People have been telling me I need to visit the coffee region, and now I finally understand what they were talking about.
The rolling green hills of Colombia’s coffee region.
My hostel, the beautiful and brand-new Luciernaga, gave me instructions for how to get to one of the area’s many coffee plantation tours. I walked up past a small cemetery and down a long gravel road, past grazing cows and valley vistas. All along the way I saw signs telling me I was “1.5 km away from the secrets of Colombian coffee” and other alluring messages like that. Luckily I didn’t have to walk the full 4km, a friendly jeep driver picked me up about a km away from a plantation called Finca el Ocaso. I paid the 10,000 peso fee ($3.30 USD) and waited for my English-speaking tour to begin in half an hour. While I waited I chatted with some fellow travelers and ate lunch at the finca’s restaurant.
My tour buddies turned out to be a lovely couple of English pensioners and a very stoic Chinese man. Our tour guide Alexander had us tie on a woven basket to collect some coffee beans and led us over to an pavillion to learn about the coffee growing process from seed to plant to harvest. He gave us the history of Colombian coffee varieties and the pests that they deal with, plus some statistics. Colombia is the fourth largest exporter of coffee in the world, but its products are considered the smoothest and sweetest on the international market.
Alexander shows us the life cycle of the coffee plants.
Next we were put to work picking the berries that contain the coffee beans. They grow green and turn red or yellow when ripe depending on the variety. As a little competition, we were given 8 minutes to collect as many as we could. Turned out to be hard work just finding ripe ones since it was the off-season, but I had a good time hunting for them, it reminded me a little of blueberry picking as a kid. Unfortunately, I came in 3rd of 5 in our group, but I was given a prize orange anyway by Alexander. Part of what protects the coffee plants from disease and provides nutrients to the soil is crop diversity. The coffee plants are protected by other crops like plantains, oranges, and mangos and by large shade trees.
The tightly packed coffee plants and me with my basket to collect the little buggers.
Nearly-ripe coffee berries. The red ones are almost ready to be picked.
When we had collected our berries, we took them to be processed. First separating the beans from the berry’s skins with a special machine, then to be dried in the sun. The roaster wasn’t on so I didn’t get to experience that delicious coffee roasting smell, but we did get to see how it works and see the difference between the grades of coffee on the market. Top quality perfect beans end up in specialty (usually exported) coffees and the low quality broken or off-color beans end up as instant coffees or locally-made tinto.
Finally we get to taste the coffee! Alexander brewed the hot water and showed us some different brewing methods. We ended up drinking coffee using a cloth filter and a metal pot. The English couple and I agreed that it wasn’t the best coffee we’d ever had, but maybe that’s because I’m so used to drinking sweetened cafe con leche in Cartagena! And anyway, it was an amazing experience to sip coffee while looking out over the amazing view. I bought a small bag to bring home with me, so my friends and family can be the judge when I get back.
Waiting for our coffee to brew. The little glass bowls show the stages of the coffee from berry to roasted beans to ground coffee, as well as the varieties of roasts and qualities.
Another must-do when in Salento: visit the Valle de Cocora (Cocora Valley) and see the tallest palm trees in the world. I took a map from my hostel, some pb&j sandwiches, an orange, lots of water, a rain jacket, and my iphone to take photos. I took a $3,600 jeep ride from the center of town to the entrance of the national park. Man do they pack those jeeps full! We were 12 people in a space that comfortably fit 5 or 6, with some backpacker girls hanging off the back.
The route I had been suggested was to walk up following a stream past some waterfalls until I reached the humming bird sanctuary. The path involved dusty dirt trails made by the thousands who have walked before me, rocky slopes, and a few rickity wooden bridge crossings. I loved the trail, but was frustrated that I had to share it with so many horseback riders. Every few 10 minutes or so I’d have to squeeze to the edge of the narrow trail to make room for the horses and their riders to pass the other way.
I took a zillion pictures, but here are just a few:
The humming bird sanctuary cost 5,000 pesos to enter, but included a drink of my choice. I relaxed and ate my sandwiches and orange and sipped a hot cup of agua panela while I watched the hummingbirds and all the tourists busily taking their photos.
I got a little lost finding the path that would take me up the mountain and eventually down into the famous green valley with all the palm trees. But I found it, and it nearly killed me. For about half a mile, I hiked up a steep incline, pausing every 100 paces or so to catch my breath. I got to the top and saw a huge mountain peak surrounded by clouds. I didn’t stay long to enjoy it, though, it was cold up there and I was anxious to see the palm trees down the hill.
A night in Salento
Another crowded jeep back to town, and a nice hot shower to wash all the mud and dust off. I was lucky to be visiting Salento just before Easter during Holy Week, so I got to see the town in full swing. Packed with tourists, vendors, pop-up restaurants, and special events. I joined a few guys from my hostel for a fish dinner and a beer. Afterwards we played a game of Tejo, the famous game from the interior of Colombia. It’s basically like cornhole, except with a twist. You toss heavy metal disks at a square of mud and try to hit the center ring. You get 1 point for being closest, 6 points for landing in the center, and 9 points for making the little white triangles explode. Yes, it’s basically exploding cornhole. I was pretty awful at the game at first, but then I ended up being the first one to get an explosion. It was so much fun!
Until next time, Salento! I know I’ll be back.