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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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Road to Colombia – The Tulcan border crossing, turning 30 in Popayán and the ancient statues of San Agustín

One last stop in Ecuador before we decided to move onto country number nine, and that stop was the much hyped market town of Otavalo. It is situated 2 hours north of Quito and is a major tourist draw, known for its colourful Saturday market. Mooching round toot markets is not really our cup o’ tea but Ollie had become obsessed with the idea of rubbing her face on Alpaca blankets since Insinliví. The offering at Saquisilí market near Latacunga (every Thursday) was poor so we had no choice; off we went…to the mother-load. A bus from Latacunga to Otavalo direct took 3.5 hours (direct buses avoiding Quito do not go from the main terminal, but from the Cita Express offices, $3.50 each) and dropped us on the outskirts of town on the Pan American highway. After a 15 minute walk into town we found our hostel (Rincón del Viajero, $25 for private room) then nipped out to grab some last minute bargains on blankets and hammocks at ‘Plaza de Ponchos’. Bargaining was easy as it wasn’t a Saturday and we were pretty much the only browsers there.

Alpaca blankets - The colours of Otavalo

Alpaca blankets – The colours of Otavalo

Saturday however, was completely different. This town erupts into a sea of colour and faces. Every street was covered in stalls selling any kind of South American treasure you could ever want, and to accompany it, hundreds of gringos willing to buy all of it. We have no photos since we heard that pickpockets operate heavily and sure enough, after being in the market for less than a minute we saw an Aussie girl who realised she had had her purse stolen. This town is all we expected it to be, so we decided to leave the next day. Not before meeting Paul and Catrin, and after some rum and cards we decided to travel into Colombia together the next day.

The Ecuador/Colombian border to Ipales

The Ecuador/Colombian border to Ipales

A bus from Otavalo to Tulcan took 4 bumpy hours (ask a taxi to drop you off to where they stop) after which we piled into a taxi to the border at Rumichaca who drops us at Ecuadorean immigration. A quick stamp, some dollars changed for pesos, a quick walk across a bridge and a slightly longer wait for a stamp into Colombia took 30 minutes in total. Next, we jumped into another taxi to take us to Ipiales bus terminal where we would find a bus to Popayán.

A big regret we have is not making it to see Santuario de las Lajas, just outside of Ipiales. It’s a huge gothic church on a stone bridge across a gorge in the Colombian Andes. We didn’t have the time, but if I redid it, I would have left two hours early to see it. I will just have to suffice with a picture…as will you, for now.

Santuario de las Lajas

Santuario de las Lajas

A bus from Ipiales to to Popayán is not a short affair, in fact it took 10 hours. The price of transport increased as soon as we stepped over the border. No longer a dollar an hour, this ride cost $15 each with Expreso Bolivariano, going via Pasto. On our first stop some shiny looking army men asked for my papers, and further into our ride, we were stopped for another hour by army, who again wanted papers and to poke noses in bags. Security when travelling at night on this route was a mild concern but there seems to be a big police and army presence along the way. Arriving in Popayán at around midnight we found our way to Parklife hostel where we toasted with a beer and quickly found our way to bed.

Popayán is a white washed colonial city with not much to do. Merely a stop off along the way for us, but we ended up spending four whole days. Being my 30th birthday, we tried to make the most of it, but there really wasn’t much going on. After a meal at Rapi Arepas (Arepas can be compared to El Salvadoran pupusas, but are fatter and chunkier, sometimes cut in half and stuffed with meat or cheese) where I lost a tooth, we celebrated this special occasion with some rum and drinking games in the hostel. Almost enough rum was consumed to forget about my missing tooth. Not many lucky boys get spend their 30th birthday having emergency dental work, but I just happen to be one of those lucky boys. Saying that, 45 minutes and $30 afforded me a brand new tooth. There is a lot to be said for Colombian dentistry! The next day, we tried to go for a hike to a view point, but on the way, some locals stopped their car and advised us about going in that direction as it was dangerous. That combined with the rain, we retreated to the hostel and wasted another day.

Birthday celebrations

Birthday celebrations

 

Taken by Ollie - Translating Spanish and 'mouth full of drill language' at the same time!

Taken by Ollie – Translating Spanish and ‘mouth full of drill language’ at the same time!

The next day, we moved on with a bus from the main terminal in Popayán to San Agustín. A 4 hour bumpy and windy dirt road journey with ‘Cootranslaboyana‘ cost $12.50 each and dropped us on the outskirts of town, where a jeep transport arrived to take us the rest of the way. They put the hard sell on you from the get-go in this town, so have a plan of where to stay and an idea of what tour you want to do. As always in Colombia, bargaining will get you far. It’s a pleasant, but busy little colonial town with a huge selection of hostels to stay at, and nearly everyone on the street wants to sell you either a jeep or horse tour to see the ancient 3500 year old statues.

The road to San Agustín

The road to San Agustín

We decided on two nights at El Jardin Casa Colonial for $15 for a room, and we decided to book a tour with Humberto and Carlos who operate tours out of Hostal Diosa Lunar. Since our journey up a volcano in Uruapan on horse-back was one of the most physically traumatizing experiences of my life I was adamant that I wasn’t getting back on one of those unpredictable bastards. Combined with Paul and Catrin’s burning enthusiasm, my reluctance turned into a good bargaining technique for everyone else and as there was a good deal to be had with the promise of a comfortable saddle, I opted in.

Streets of San Agustín

Streets of San Agustín

The next day at 9am, we saddled up and trotted off into the hills to see some of the mystical carvings that are scattered around the area. The horse tour takes you to four random spots in the hills where carvings have been found and left in situ. Carlos was a great guide, showing enthusiasm for the history of the area along with offering many random tit-bits of info on the local ways of life. The place is covered in coffee plants along with a fair few marijuana and the infamous coca plants. It is legal (according to Carlos) for people to own their own marijuana and coca plants, within moderation of course, but the production of cocaine is illegal. Making tea and chewing it are fine by the army. Anyway, back to the statues…

The infamous Coca plant

The infamous Coca plant

Not much is known about them, the people who put them there or why, but as you can imagine, there are many theories about the various meanings. The statues pre-date Incas and the culture is believed to have died out before their arrival on the scene. I could go on and speak about each site individually, but if you are going, you will get a guide and if you’re not, a picture will do more justice than my words. The area is stunning though, trotting and galloping through the dirt tracks around these hills is something I’m glad I signed up for. Genuine natural beauty combined with these mystical little carvings made for a pretty special day out. Feeling rather saddle sore after 5 hours, we had a quick lunch then joined the guides again for a special tour about local crop production. The day was topped off with an attempted night out in the town (not much was going on apart from some live music in the square and an empty bar) where we sampled more of Colombia’s finest Ron Viejo de Caldas.

Feeling the need to escape the streets we headed to Finca El Maco on the outskirts of town for some green scenery and hammock time. From here, we walked to the actual Archeological Park of San Agustín where we spent a day looking at some more of the mystical carvings that are dotted around a fantastic lush green park.

 


What surprised me most about San Agustín was the fact that only the Archeological Park seems to be run by some kind of official national body, charging entrance and maintaining. The other sites are just left on peoples land under tin roofs. There is no entrance fee and no obvious government involvement. Our guide on the first day said that these belonged to the people of San Agustín and as such, they are left to look after them. What our guide also told us that he along with other locals has excavated (and raided) 1000’s of tombs in the local area, detecting them solely by poking a metal stick into the ground until he hears a ‘clink’. No one else is interested apparently, so after they find (and raid) the tombs, they simply cover them back up. The hills are full of them waiting to be found.