In another life I think I’d like to live in Salento, a hill town in the coffee region which runs like a spine down the west of the country. It’s a small town circled by mountains where horses run wild in the streets and there is a warm breeze when we arrive.
Our hostel is on the edge of town and has amazing views from the balconies which run all the way around the building. It was a long journey from Medellin on winding roads, listening back-to-back to podcasts, but when we arrive we instantly feel relaxed and at ease. You can hear church bells from the balcony and the sound of hooves on tarmac, watch the gathering dusk and the lights coming on across in the small valley.
On our first day we head off on foot out of the town along a rough track which winds down into the valley towards the coffee farms. The tour takes us around the plantation to see the plants where we pick the ripe red coffee berries and drop them into wicker baskets tied around our waists. Two dogs follows us around the farm as we learn about the peeling, drying and grinding processes then (the best bit) get to taste the strong black coffee in little china cups.
Afterwards we walk along the river through landscape that almost feels like the Lake District: trodden paths and fields and running water. We reach Boquia, a small village where we stop for grilled maize, an arepa and an onion bhaji-type thing from a friendly lady on the street. It’s one of the best things I’ve eaten in Colombia, salty and covered in melting ghee. We carry on towards a waterfall, alone on the path until we meet the water which is busy with Colombian families enjoying the Sunday sunshine.
That night, we’ve met a lovely couple in our hotel: Solène and Youri who we go out with to eat tasty local trout and then go to play the national game, a mad activity called “tejo”. I’d read about it in the guidebook and we’d been recommended to go to this bar where you could play. When we walked into what was essentially a big shed with sand on the floor and painted in Colombian colours I raised my eyebrows in apology to the others for dragging them there. Tejo is a game like bowls except with less grannies and more gunpowder: the aim is to throw metal pucks at a metal ring buried in some clay on which are paper packets of gunpowder which explode and earn you 3 points if you hit them. 50p for a game and a couple of beers later, we were all hooked and laughing at how bad we were compared to the regional champions (literally) alongside us. After Youri and Solène have left I find a sweet little note from them folded into the pages of my book.
The next day we head off on the back of a 4×4 jeep towards the Valle de Cócora, clinging onto the metal grill so we don’t fall off on the sharp bends. The valley is beautiful: as we drive up it the air is filled with the scent of wild rosemary and the sides of the valley are filled with cloudforest, the beautiful word they use to describe the evergreen jungley woods. We hike up alongside the valley and then into jungle, crisscrossing the river on Indiana Jones-style wooden bridges and surrounded by lush plants and flowers.
Back down we take a wrong turn on the path and find ourselves climbing sleepily upwards; I’m struggling for breath and finding it tough going at an altitude of 3000 metres. We meet some other travellers and we all carry on uphill until we meet another guy coming down who tells us we’ve all gone the wrong way. Apparently this is a very common mistake but the park doesn’t seem to think signs or arrows are needed! We retrace our footsteps and find the right path, head back up a hill to a viewpoint where we stop for our packed lunch. My feet are hurting but we know that the highlight of the trek – a forest of giant palm trees – is just around the corner. Sure enough, we are rewarded with amazing views of thousands of huge skyscraper wax palms which reach 60 metres into the sky. They cover the valleys and are an odd but totally beautiful sight and it’s amazing to walk through and beneath these huge trees.
That night we go out for a cheap dinner and BYOB beers with Cleo and Robin who we’ve met at the hostel and get ready to leave the following morning our next stop on our travels: Popayán and San Augustin.