Our trip to Salento took four different buses, a total of 20 hours from start to finish. We left lovely Villa de Leyva around noon and headed out on a collectivo to Tunja. Right when we arrived at the bus station in Tunja we were directed towards a bus to Bogota, and that was just the beginning. Once we got to Bogota we navigated through the bus station, which felt more like an airport, with four terminals and walk ways that were lined with restaurants and shops – the most tempting of which was Dunkin Donuts. Once we finally figured out which terminal to buy our tickets from, we ended up having about a 5 hour stay in Bogota. Since we knew that we would be staying in Bogota for a few days later in the trip, we decided that it would just be easier to spend the time at the terminal. Thankfully, the bus company that we had bought our tickets from had an air-conditioned lounge with computers, comfy chairs, and areas to plug in our phones and tablets. We had to get ready for another over night bus ride that would take us to Armenia and then to Salento.
The Jelly Donut Incident
This left us with time to grab some of those tempting donuts, two jelly-filled, powdered sugar-covered treats. After Paul took a bite of one, he happily handed it to me to share in the tasty donut. Somehow, there was a slip in my grab, and next thing I know, not only my face but my black shirt is covered in white powdered sugar. Even Paul had gotten it all over his tablet and pants. As we looked at each other all we could do was laugh, because it occurred to us that being covered with a fine white powder in a busy bus station in the middle of Colombia might look – ahem – a little suspicious. Especially having just watched the show Narcos on Netflix. Luckily we were able to get cleaned up without attracting the attention of any local law enforcement.
A Long Overnight Bus Ride
At about 11:30, we started to board our bus to Armania. One thing that makes these long bus rides pretty nice is that there is WiFi – not fast WiFi, but good enough to send a quick email, or view some ‘Friends’ on Netflix while leaving the city. And on this bus, there wasn’t anyone sitting directly behind us, since the bus was less than half full, so we were able to fully recline our seats to a comfortable position and relax. But once we were out in the curvy mountain roads, not only did the WiFi become useless, but our bus took an abrupt stop. Next thing you know, there is a load of people from another bus that had broken down, boarding our bus and filling up all the empty seats. So our ride that had started out so promising didn’t quite pan out as we had hoped.
When we arrived in Armania it was just about 7am. We quickly navigated through the small bus station and found ourselves at a sign that read ‘Salento’. Within minutes a collectivo pulled up and we got on for a 30-minute ride to the small town nestled amongst the lush green hills and mountains of the Colombian Coffee Region.
An Unexpected Adventure Starts at Brunch
Since we arrived in town nearly right at 8am and couldn’t check into our hostel room until 2pm, we had some time to kill. We dropped off our bags at the hostel and set out to find a restaurant called Brunch, which was recommended by some travelers we met in Villa de Leyva. We had been told that the food was great – home-cooked, large veggie burritos, great coffee – but most of all we had to try the peanut butter brownie. As we walked into the building, we right away felt at home in the cozy space. The walls were painted white, but covered in every inch by messages from travelers all over the world written in Sharpie. We sat down by the window with a view of the street outside and ordered breakfast. Paul had a tasty freshly made juice and I enjoyed the best cup of coffee I think I have ever had. Our food arrived and as we started to eat we both professed it was one of the best meals we had had since arriving in Colombia. As we were finishing up with our meal, the owner, Jeff came up to us to ask how everything was.
We chatted with Jeff for nearly an hour and knowing that we had much time to kill he gave us a proposition. He gave us a route to follow – a street up a steep hill to the end of town, then a small stone trail – that would eventually lead us to an overlook of the mountains and the Cocora valley. He told us that once we were at the lookout, he had a little something hidden, and if we found it and brought it back to Brunch, we would be given two brownies and would be able to keep the small find. Challenge accepted. We were off for our first little adventure in Salento.
After following the route Jeff described, we finally reached the lookout, a small wooden covered structure. In the rafters, we found a little clay jeep with the Brunch logo on the hood. Jackpot. We made our way back up the hill to another overlook that provided a beautiful view of the small town, then headed back to Brunch to pick up our prize. The peanut butter brownies were even more delicious than either of us could have imagined. Jeff makes and sells homemade peanut butter since it isn’t something produced in Colombia. If you can find it in a store, it’s only imported Jiff brand and very expensive.
We were finally able to check into our room and settled into our hostel for a three night stay in Salento. That night, we went out on the town and had some tasty wine at a cool spot where we nibbled on some chorizo and arepas and a small salad. We then made our way to the main square, the center of all the fun, and sat outside the busiest bar on their makeshift deck, had a couple more glasses of wine, and watched all of the Colombians hanging out and enjoying their evening. On our way back to our room, we stopped by a small cart where a woman was whipping up the best street food we have had on our trip: chicken sandwiches with every sauce under the sun, grilled onion and tomato. We nearly went back to get a second, they were so great!
Our second day ended up being a restful one. I had been fighting off a small cold and needed a day to just relax, so we spent the day reading, napping, and watching some Netflix. Paul did make it out for a hike into the mountains to the Coffee region and captured some great pictures of the surrounding area.
The Valle de Cocora
The next day was the main event for our time in Salento, Valle de Cocora. The valley is the home of the tallest palm tree in the world, and the national tree of Colombia, the Wax Palm. In order to get out to the valley, we caught a ride in a Jeep from the town square. Paul road standing on a small platform on the back on our way out there, while I opted for the seat inside, and after about 30 minutes we were dropped off near the trailhead.
From there, we hiked through the valley full of rolling hills covered in farmland, amongst these oddly tall palm trees. Never had I imagined to be in a place where I would see a cow grazing beautiful green fields next to towering palm trees. The trail lead us through the valley and along a river up into the mountains, where the terrain changed to dense cloud forests. At times, the trail felt as though we were walking through a land where Indiana Jones would be treasure hunting. We crossed a river multiple times on rope bridges with wooden planks, which were a bit scary and made for a slow walk over the bridge. We followed steep switchbacks all the way up the side of the mountain to end with a view of an even taller mountain (which I must admit was a rough go for me – there may have been a few tears shed). Sadly it was too foggy to see the valley below, but as we made our way back down the mountain via a winding dirt road, we had a few spots to get beautiful views of where we had started, and were able to stand right inside groves of the towering palm trees. As we neared the end of the loop trail, we were walking through the portion of Valle de Cocora that we had only seen in pictures. In some ways, it looked as though the area was straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. A very magical looking place, to say the least. Paul got some great pictures from this part of the hike, but even those don’t do the place the justice it deserves. We caught a Jeep ride back and this time I rode standing on the back with Paul, which I am very happy to have experienced!
Our time in Salento ended like it had begun. We had our last meal at Brunch, a yummy dinner with another enjoyable chat with Jeff. And we bought a jar of his homemade peanut butter to take with us. We got up early the next morning, and caught a collectivo from the main square to Armenia and made our way to the ‘city of white’, Popayan.
Videos coming soon! Check back…