When thinking of Colombia, it’s likely that small colonial countryside towns like Salento don’t come to most people’s minds. Salento sits in the northeastern part of the department of Quindío (departments are kind of like Colombian states), and it it’s about a 45-minute bus ride from the department’s capital of Armenia which is where we flew into from Cartagena.
A torrential downpour greets us as we step off our bus upon arriving in the town center, and we begin the short trek to our hotel as we try to protect our heads from the heavy shower. I immediately regret wearing my fashionable flats instead of my sturdy sneakers as my feet are quickly drenched.
As we walk, the town seems desolate and quiet as locals duck into cafes and restaurants to avoid getting soaked like us. Needless to say, we’re relieved when we finally make it to our hotel and are greeted with hot Colombian coffee and cake on offer in the lobby.
After getting settled, and once the rain dies down, we decide to venture out for dinner and head back uphill from our hotel to find a restaurant where we can sample the local specialty, trucha. Trucha is freshwater trout, and around these parts, they serve it with large, crispy patacones (fried green plantain). While our fish is good, the patacones leave a lot to be desired. Many restaurants in town offer trucha which is farmed in the Cocora Valley nearby.
The valley itself is the reason we’ve made the journey to Salento, and after dinner, we decide to call it an early night so we can rest up for our early morning, 4-hour hike through the valley where we’ll get an up close look at Colombia’s national tree – the wax palm.
But before heading back to our hotel, we leisurely poke around Calle Real, the town’s main street that’s full of cafes, restaurants, markets, and cute shops selling locally-made crafts. It’s much easier to admire the colonial architecture and to take in the colors of the town now that the rain has stopped. We all agree that in terms of color, Salento looks like a tamer version of Guatapé.
At the end of Calle Real are 250 steps leading to Alto de la Cruz, a lookout point where you can enjoy views of the Cocora Valley in all its misty, green glory. We pass on the idea of climbing to the top, knowing that we’ll be doing our fair share of hiking and climbing the next day.
Salento is much more laid back than Cartagena, Medellín and even Santa Marta, so it’s funny to think that this town was first settled by Panamanian and Colombian war prisoners who were given plots of land to settle in the area following their sentences which entailed upgrading the main road from Popayán to Bogotá which passed through modern-day Salento.
The next afternoon, we return from our tedious hike through the Cocora Valley completely worn out, but before heading to our hotel for showers and a long nap, we stop at Café Jesus Martin for some cake and strong Colombian coffee. After all, Salento makes up part of what’s known as Eje Cafetero, also known as the Coffee Triangle, a rural area of the country that’s renowned for its coffee production.
Considering that the rain has returned (thank God it didn’t rain during our actual hike which I’ll write about soon), the timing of our coffee break is perfect. As we sip and chat, I feel a tinge of regret about the fact that we’ll be leaving Salento tomorrow without getting the chance to visit a local coffee finca.
Soon enough, it’s time to indulge in some well-deserved R&R, so once the rain lets up, we head back to our hotel.
Once again, our rumbling bellies lure us from our beds several hours later, and we venture out in the darkness back uphill to Calle Real. As we walk, I can’t help but think that this place definitely doesn’t feel like the Colombia I’ve been warned to fear. Unlike shady characters and sketchy areas we encountered in cities like Medellín and Bogotá, Salento feels safe, like a sleepy village where the most action that’s taking place is at nearby bars where locals play tejo while chugging cold, Colombian beers.
We find ourselves at El Rincon de Lucy, a corner restaurant packed with locals who’ve come for a filling dinner that costs no more than $3 USD per person. We’re seated near an open window and are quickly befriended by a neighborhood dog who works his charm while sitting outside looking at us with his saddest puppy dog eyes. Jave gives in and tosses him a piece of his trucha, and of course our new buddy returns for more scraps.
The next morning we rise bright and early to get ready to catch our taxi to the airport where we’ll catch our flight to Bogotá. I feel sluggish and weak as my stomach gurgles and bubbles; something has me running to the restroom, and it’s either the sack lunch I ate during yesterday’s hike or last night’s dinner. Whatever the case, the last thing I want to do right now is get on a plane. I’d much rather spend a day laying in bed, listening to the rain pitter patter outside on the still streets of Salento.