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Salento – Welcome to the land of coffee, giant palm trees and Tejo

Coffee cherries in Salento

Coffee cherries in Salento

If you don’t know already, Colombia has two main exports. Two plants. One has a notorious history, resulting in incredible wealth, murders, combat, foreign intervention, worldwide drug dependency of epic proportions and general cartel activities famous the world over. The other is just famous for giving everyone that much needed kick start in the morning. I’m gonna talk about the latter one as of course Salento is in Colombia’s Zona Cafetera. I would like to start by saying that this is not the first blog to be written about Salento and certainly will not be the last. In fact, I have seen more blog posts about this area than any other on our travels, so it will be a brief one, mainly with some picture galleries.

Colombia is currently (at the time of writing) the world’s fourth largest coffee producer and exporter. Salento is in the heart of this area and has become popular with foreign and Colombian tourists alike. Before arriving in Salento, I was worried about two things. Firstly that it wouldn’t be as beautiful as everyone says, and secondly that it would be packed full of tourists and ‘gap year students’. Turns out I was right to worry about one and not the other.

Still travelling with Paul and Catrin we arrived in Salento in the evening and wandered up to the doors of Plantation House, where we found lodgings for $25 a night for private room. A really nice little spot, recommended.  We then went out for a bite to eat and discovered just how touristy this town is. Put it this way, I had a chicken madras curry, which I haven’t seen anywhere since leaving the UK. It was good as well, even had naan bread. They were not the only restaurant serving it either. This may help me explain just how touristy this town is.

So it turns out my second worry was founded, but my first was not. It really is as beautiful as people say, but you just have to put up with young Jemima and Tarquin banging on about Machu Picchu whilst listening to Manu Chao or Bob Marley on repeat. (Breathe Rich, breathe!) The town itself is a pretty little brightly-coloured drop in the sea of green that surrounds it. Each house and shop is painted a different colour to its neighbor, sprawling out from a main square and church in the centre of town. There are three main things we enjoyed whilst there (four if you count drinking rum) which were: hiking around the giant wax palms of the Valle de Cocora, touring a local coffee finca and throwing metal at gunpowder whilst drinking beer in the name of entertainment – the Colombian game of tejo.

Firstly, the Valle de Cocora, was one of those things that I really wanted to do when planning this trip. On bad days at work saving for this trip I used to send Ollie pictures of sights we would be hoping to see and when I stumbled upon the Valle de Cocora, I knew we had to get there at some point. So, I was pretty excited when we hopped on board the back of one of the brightly painted 1950’s USA Willys jeeps that drove us the 14km to the entrance to the park.

Valle de Cocora - On a cloudy day,,,

Valle de Cocora – On a cloudy day,,,

The hike takes you through the bottom of the valley where you see the tops of the hills dotted with the giant Quindio wax palms (Colombia’s national tree and one of the tallest trees in the world), then the track leads through a lush sub-tropical forest with a selection of fun and rickety bridges before entering the upper part of the trail, through a clouded pine forest to a small farm at about 2800m. The route then leads downhill, back towards the valley where you climb down through the thick clouds (very thick, far too thick for my liking on that particular day) and to the valley floor, where we marveled at these amazing trees. I could use some kind of tortured metaphor to describe them, but I will just hope you can be happy with my description of ‘really really really tall palm trees that look like they shouldn’t be there in a hauntingly beautiful way.’ I found it a wonderful place to sit and let my mind wander.

Then there is the coffee. We stayed at Plantation House as previously mentioned and they have their very own coffee farm next door, with a free tour offered to guests who stay for four nights like we did. I have previously written about coffee in great detail when we visited Juayua in El Salvador, but this was a great opportunity to find out about production on a smaller and more rustic scale. Don Eduardo (AKA Tim) took us on a guided tour of his finca, from its acquisition, composition of different types of coffee plant on the site, history of Colombian coffee in general , his ongoing dispute with the neighbor and his plans for future domination of the Colombian coffee market.

Very interesting facts learned. Did you know that only 14kg of sellable coffee comes out of 100kg of freshly picked beans after washing and drying? Think about the fact that each bean is handpicked and about the size of a garden pea, that is how hard these guys work. This man is a wealth of knowledge and passionate about his coffee. He’s also got a pretty nice slice of land there with a small bamboo forest you can walk through in amongst the coffee plants.  The tour also includes the chance to watch some coffee being roasted and then drink as much as you can.

Then there is ‘tejo’ (pronounced teh-ho), which is the second most popular game in the country (I was surprised to find out). Explained in a nutshell, you throw a metal disk onto a packet of gunpower that rests on a ring of metal, in a bed of clay in the hope of a direct hit and explosion. You get more points for accuracy and explosions. The first team to 27 wins. It is traditionally drunk with copious amounts of beer and there are a couple of places in Salento that cater for the Gringos to have a punt. Not wanting to break from tradition we managed to see of a fair few cervezas and managed a few explosions to boot. When you’re not playing tejo in Salento, the sounds of exploding gunpowder and drunken cheering can be heard across the evening sky. Los Amigos bar gives you the opportunity to play in real rustic surroundings, and well as the opportunity to play another local game called ‘sapo’, which is similar, except you throw small metal disks into holes and aim to hit small packets of gunpowder on the mouths of metal frogs. I’m not making this up. It’s true. I wasn’t that drunk.

So Salento is indeed a wonderful place and as such is a big stop on the gringo trail of Colombia. It will only grow in popularity over the coming years and become less special. Also, apparently, the current way the giant wax palms grow is unsustainable as the cattle that graze there eat all of the saplings, so you had better get there quick if you want see those really really really tall trees! You won’t regret it.


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Ruta de las Flores – Waterfalls, coffee and a beast of a food festival in Juayúa

Juayua chicken bus

Juayua chicken bus

It could have been the fried chicken dinner from Pollo Campero.  It could have been the over-consumption of Pilsner.  It may even have been the $1.30 pupusa breakfast on that street corner.  Whatever it was, I was suffering horrendously in the gastric region.  I will leave it at that.  However, we hopped on a bus #210 from Santa Ana bound for Ahuachapán with the intention of changing to bus #264 to take us to Tacuba, where we could explore the El Bosque Imposible national park.  As we left Santa Ana we slowly crawled out of the market, while through the aisle came an endless stream of vendors for 10 minutes straight, selling everything you could ever need from parasite medication, avocadoes, rat poison, gaffa tape, ice cream, socks and not surprisingly, pupusas.  You wouldn’t need to get off the bus to do your weekly shop here!

For the full picture gallery, click here.

We got to Tacuba, a tiny town cobbled street town, sitting 1300m above sea level and found our way to Hostal Mama y Papa, where that have a great mirador looking over the town and the national park, relatively cheap rooms and some aggressive attack ducks.  Unfortunately, I was unwell for two more days, so we decided to move on without doing a hike, but it was a nice place to recuperate in peace.  There really is nothing to do in Tacuba, unless you want to go to the Bosque.

Random Tacuba wall art

Random Tacuba wall art

Streets of Tacuba

Streets of Tacuba

Reflection of the view from the mirador at Mumas and Papas

Reflection of the view from the mirador at Mumas and Papas

Attack duck!

Attack duck!

Packed into a mini chicken bus made for 35 people with approximately 80 other souls we were back to Ahuachapán, where we were soon an a #249 headed down the Ruta de las Flores, which is another of the areas that the country is marketing to tourists.  It’s about a 30km stretch of road lined by wild flowers and framed by some 16 long since extinct volcanoes that now serve as coffee plantations.  The driver ‘tazzed’ past the towns of Ataco and Apaneca bound for our next destination Juayúa, at such a speed I couldn’t tell you if there actually were any wildflowers.  Some locals took pleasure in laughing at Ollie’s facial expressions during the ride, as did I.

One of the extinct volcanoes along the Ruta de las Flores

One of the extinct volcanoes along the Ruta de las Flores

Juayúa is yet another attractive cobbled street town with a handsome white-washed church, peaceful centre square and colourfully painted buildings.  What sets it apart from the rest is the weekly food festival held on Saturdays and Sundays 11am-5pm.  We wandered around until we came to the little haven of Hotel Anahuac where we checked in for 3 nights and booked a waterfall hike for the next day.

The busy streets of Juayua around the white washed church

The busy streets of Juayua around the white washed church

Up at 8am, we follow our local guide called Douglas into the hills with a Canadian couple, and a pack of dogs headed by the guide’s own pooch.  We signed up to hike through the fields and see seven waterfalls along the way.  It was so much more than that.  We approached the edge of what we soon discovered to be a dried up waterfall we could see the first cascade of the day which was streaming out of the rock face in front of us halfway down from underground rivers.  We then walked to another waterfall popular with local tourists where the Canadians took a dip.  I could go on and describe each waterfall in detail.  Let’s just say they were all beautiful and different from each other in remarkable ways.  Douglas disappeared for some time, when he returned we discovered he had tied some ropes so we could rappel down the face of a waterfall into the valley below.  This was unexpected and very challenging in flip-flops, but we all made it down without falling to a watery death.  Here are some pretty pictures of waterfalls now….

Waterfall from underground river appears mid cliff

Waterfall from underground river appears mid cliff

Local lads have a dip in one of the  waterfalls

Local lads have a dip in one of the waterfalls

Hike selfie

Waterfall rainbow

Waterfall rainbow

Waterfall drench

Rappel number one for Ollie

Rappel nummber 2 - My go!

Lunch break

As I have said, the area is a huge producer of coffee.  The conditions of high altitude and volcanic soil are perfect for the industry.  The area is green with coffee trees and an unusual line formation is seen in the lush hills, which are trees planted by the coffee farmers to serve as wind breakers to protect the precious crop.  Hiking through these plantations gave some incredible views of the surrounding country, which seemed to be endlessly green and unspoiled as far as the eye can see.  It was a remarkable hike.

El Salvador...wow

The food festival.  Wow.  We got to the centre square for some serious lunch at 2pm on a Sunday and the place was packed.  Locals and tourists (mainly El Salvadoran) shuffle excitedly past the two streets of food vendors that set up side by side, sniffing the meaty air, tasting tit-bits from touts and looking at what everyone else is eating around them.  Rabbit, Iguana, Frog and even snake are all on offer, but for us hungry traditionalist backpackers we settled on a plate of ribs and a huge chorizo, served with heaps of sides and  a couple of beers for the attractive price of $10 all in.  We then treated ourselves to a couple of crispy fried prawns for dessert.  It was a fine festival, and it happens every week.  Amazing stuff.

Food festival stall - Juayua

Food festival stall – Juayua

Our humble meals!

Our humble meals!

Watching people people watch

Watching people people watch

More food stalls

The center square packs with people who scramble for a place to eat their plates of meat

The center square packs with people who scramble for a place to eat their plates of meat

We decided we liked Juayúa so spent another day, where the owner of Hotel Anahuac, Cesar, took us and another guy on a tour of the local coffee factory where he seemed to have free rein of the place, showing us each stage of the production of my favourite drink and explained the processes in detail. The coffee industry here is huge, as the conditions are perfect for growth.  The higher the better for coffee growth.  The flavour improves the higher you go, and it is grown up to 1800m here.  The highest in the world is in Africa at around some 2300m I am told.  It is not a native crop and was introduced many years ago with the foresight of demand from the US.  It is now shipped worldwide as the photo below will show you.

The lines of the wind breakers to protect the coffee cover most of the scenery around Ruta de las Flores

The lines of the wind breakers to protect the coffee cover most of the scenery around Ruta de las Flores

This ones going to Japan

This ones going to Japan

Good quality coffee is dried by machine and by the sun like this

Good quality coffee is dried by machine and by the sun like this

Truck load of coffee ready for the roast

Truck load of coffee ready for the roast

I’m gonna talk about coffee for a while now so skip ahead a couple of paragraphs if it doesn’t interest you.  Cesar then took us to his own ‘coffee compound’ in town where he hand-dries his beans in the Juayúan sun, then roasts on a small scale for local sale whilst preparing some of his most prized breeds of  coffee plants before they are ready go on the hills.  Cesar roasted some beans in front of us, while explaining the process for the 17 minute duration using a graph to help.  He instructed us on the importance of the timing, as seconds longer could change the acidity, sweetness or the body of the drink that the beans will produce.  There is basically a hell of a lot that can go wrong before the beans of your morning cup of Joe are even ground.  There is also a lot that can go wrong at the next stage…

The roast is a delicate process

The roast is a delicate process

Coffee by Chemix

Coffee by Chemix

I’m a coffee fiend.  Addict is probably more accurate.  I gave up grinding my own beans long ago for lack of success in my technique.  Cesar gave us some excellent tips on how to grind the perfect consistency for the style of coffee you are making.  Of course, he is an excellent Barista as well, and after introducing us to a re-emerging brewing method from 1940’s America called Chemex, he set to work on the machine.  The difference between good espresso and bad espresso is unreal.  I believe I have only been drinking the ‘bad espresso’ by my own untrained hand.  Ollie was treated to the best cappuccino of her life and instructed on how one should sip it in order to get the most out it.  After too many cups of coffee Cesar gave us a pound of coffee, that had been ground to the perfect consistency for use with our trusty coffee sock whilst on the road.  What a dude he is.

Cesars baby coffee trees

Cesars baby coffee trees

We also visited the towns of Ataco and Apaneca that we had passed on the way to Juayúa.  They were pleasant enough in a similar way, both following the trend of cobbled streets, pretty painted houses, white-washed churches near a central square and surrounded by stunning scenery.  Both very pretty, but very quiet towns.

Old fashioned lamposts of Ataco

Old fashioned lamposts of Ataco

Ataco church

Inside the Ataco church

Inside the Ataco church

The distinctive wind breakers and crosses of Apaneca

The distinctive wind breakers and crosses of Apaneca

El Salvador…wow.  That should be the advertising poster for this country.  What have you got in store for us next?

Thanks for reading!

For the full photo gallery, click here!