Relaxing in Salento: my highlights from Colombia’s coffee region

After 9 days livin’ la vida loca in Medellín (sorry) and 4 days dancing my socks off in Cali, I was ready for some peace and quiet. “I am excited to go to Salento,” I told everyone “for a big long nap!”

Lmao did you get there alive what with your track record of travel 😌

YES, I actually did. The bus journey was comfortable, I navigated the entire thing in Spanish and I had enough snacks thank you very much. Always assuming I’m incompetent, so rude.

BTW – I’ve gone from turning my nose up to Colombian crisps, to becoming obsessed with lemon flavoured Lays! I’m currently in Peru where lemon crisps aren’t a thing and I totally miss them. I actually dreamt about them. 🤔

Enough about crisps, Amber. What is Salento like?

Salento is like a relief to the senses, especially as you pass through the absolute horror that is Manizales or Armenia – both concrete jungles that make London Southbank look green. All of a sudden you turn a corner and BAM you’re confronted with beautiful scenery, fresh air and a sense of calmness and serenity. 

Salento is the destination of choice in Colombia’s famous coffee triangle, popular with backpackers and Colombians alike.

If you visit Salento on the weekend, it can be a little overwhelming – I could barely move for tourists as I arrived on a bank holiday Monday. Salento is hardly a raving night out (bar playing Tejo and visiting an old western pool hall) so I suggest visiting midweek to recharge your batteries, ready for the next destination at the weekend.

Ok, got it – go midweek. What is there to do in Salento?

#1 Explore the artisan crafts of the old town and hike up the mirador

The walk up to Salento’s mirador

Salento is a shoppers dream – well it is my shopping dream, filled with artisanal craft markets, hippie shops (selling beaded and tie dye fare) and lots of silver jewellery.

The view from the mirador

Ensure you walk to the mirador for sunset and enjoy the spectacular views across Salento. Better yet, go with a beer or two! And some crisps. And some tear and share bread. 🐷

Posing at the mirador pre-beer

#2 Take a hike: visit the Valle de Cocora 🌴

I’m gonna level with you here – I hated the first half of this hike. The night before I prepared an abundance of snacks… which the Aussies and I ate the lot of. Because of this I arrived to Valle de Cocora snackless and waterless. Don’t do a me – ensure you bring a packed lunch of sandwiches, plenty of water and some nuts. 

There are two ways to hike Valle de Cocora – clockwise and anticlockwise. You can also go a ‘short’ way and a ‘long’ way.

I’m lazy – I want to go the short way 😴

The red truck you’ll pass if you choose to go the short way and head straight to the palms

Cool. No judgement here, some people hate hiking. I’d have given my front teeth to go the short way, panting in the jungle with no water to drink. Simply head straight for the palms!

When you get off of the Willy (lol) walk straight along the dirt path. You’ll come across a white colonial house and a red truck. Follow the clearly marked path for about 1km and you’ll come to a clearing dotted with the palms. You can then leisurely meander among the trees for about an hour before heading back to Salento.

Meh, I have a day to fill and I spent $200 on these Merrell hiking boots. Lets go the long way! 👊🏻

The long way comprises of a 5-6 hour loop that takes you through the forest, over wooden suspension bridges and out to the valley of palm trees. You can hike Valle de Cocora clockwise or anticlockwise. Clockwise is the ‘easy’ way and will take you up the palm trees – this is a gradual descent up to the vantage point, and finishes down through the jungle. The ‘harder’ anticlockwise way takes you up the steep jungle but then you come out at the amazing view up top and can slowly float down via the palm trees.

pocket atlas salento relaxing
The first part of the ‘hard’ way round – so far, not so bad
Sweating profusely in the jungle. The smile is a lie, I was hungry with no food.

We opted to do the ‘harder’ route. I found myself hungry, tired (and a bit hung-over) effing and blinding through the steep jungle until we reached the top. “F*ck off George, leave me alone.” “I’m so hungry arghhhh I hate hinking!” “That is it, I am cancelling the Inca Trail…” are among the many things I said.

However the view is 100% worth the schlep! And it meant the downward hike felt like a breeze. I’d have probably struggled less with snacks and enough water (not that I’ve learned my lesson – I had the same problem in Ecuador). That being said, would I have appreciated the palm trees just as much the easy way? So long as I got decent photos, quite possibly. Who knows.

😍 😍 😍
My pictures do not do Valle de Cocora justice!

A couple of kilometres into the jungle is a Hummingbird sanctuary – it is 6,000 Pesos entry and will add at least an hour to your hike (it is a 25 minute detour walk). We skipped it as we overslept and arrived at Valle de Cocora late, but I’ve heard it is pleasant and they feed you tea and cake. You do see hummingbirds throughout Salento so don’t worry if you are desperate to see a hummingbird but don’t have time to do the sanctuary.

Note: there are unavoidable entry fees along the path of the Valle de Cocora. Bring some Pesos with you, or be prepared to beg in Spanish!

pocket atlas salento relaxing
Meeting horses and on the way down was the best part of the walk. Yes I’m being serious… I can see some of you laughing at me 😂 I actually annoy people by insisting on talking to every horse and dog I see. I’m like Dr Dolittle.

Another note: the last Willy’s back into Salento are at 5pm so don’t arrive too late! We just made it back to the final Willy. 

#3 Flick some beans at Finca del Osaco Coffee Farm ☕️

I’ve never been a fan of coffee. Or should I say, I’ve never BEAN a fan of coffee.  😎

The different coffee beans produced at Finca del Osaco

😯 omg Amber you weirdo

I know, I know. I’m much more of a tea person (Yorkshire Gold, milk and no sugar ✌🏼). Although thanks to Colombia I am slowly enjoying coffee more and now I can successfully enjoy a latte or mocha.

That being said, even I accept it is rude to visit Colombia’s coffee region and NOT tour a coffee farm.

Traditional coffee been peeler – invented by zee Germans (they all buzzed upon learning this)

Most Colombian coffee houses serve shoddy coffee (not that I’d know 🤔) as all the good stuff is exported. Colombians are aghast, as apparently coffee abroad is ruined. It isn’t meant to be dark roasted and bitter like we get in Starbucks! Coffee should be lightly roasted so the flavours come out – many of the coffee samples I tasted were almost akin to tea in terms of texture.

Finca el Ocaso looks exactly like what you’d expect a picturesque Colombian coffee plantation to look like: a red and white colonial building surrounded by acres of beautiful countryside.

The grounds behind Finca del Ocaso were absolutely 🤩

Our guide took us through the farm and explained the whole process of growing coffee (from berry to mug). When I visited in August it was low season for farming (peak is March-June or October-December) but nonetheless, when the group were given baskets and told to compete to pick the most (and best) coffee berries the Aussies and I absolutely RAVAGED the coffee trees to ensure we came out top. I didn’t do a bad job! I’d make a good wee coffee picker.

I was rather distracted by a very attractive German; naturally I kept making jokes about German efficiency 🤦🏻‍♀️ rather than actually listening to the tour guide speak. I also kept throwing coffee berries at him (what am I, 7-years-old?) but then it turned out he had a girlfriend. Dammit.

We sampled coffee at the end of the tour – it was actually quite nice (would have been better with milk and sugar maybe… oops).

Tours are at 9am-4pm on the hour, cost 15,000 Pesos (at time of writing) and last approximately 1.5 hours. From La Serrana, Finca de Ocaso is a picturesque 45-minute walk. From the central plaza take a Willy (I know, I know – read more about these later).

pocket atlas salento relaxing
On the back of our Willy

#4 Play Tejo in Salento at Los Amigos

As mentioned previously, Salento is not the place if you want to rave until the wee hours. Instead head to Los Amigos and try your hand at Tejo.

If you haven’t heard of Tejo (which I am guessing you haven’t) it’s a simple concept – you throw a 1KG metal object towards these white triangular wicks that are filled with gunpowder. The aim of the game is to cause an explosion. Tejo cost 1,000 Pesos per person per go and it is customary to drink a beer whilst playing. I hate beer, so I had a glass of wine instead. This hindered as opposed to helped my performance.

Alternatively, if you’re sh*t at Tejo (which I was, I didn’t create even one explosion) head down to Billar Danubio Hall and play some pool. I came here with the Aussies one evening. I am as appalling at pool as I am at Tejo, luckily the Aussie on my team was too so we bailed halfway through the game.

Look – logic pool and Tejo aren’t for me. But I gave ’em a go. I have other talents. Like writing amazing blogs… 😇

Vegetarian/Vegan food in Salento 🌱

#1 Bar Restaurante Corazon Venezolano

These two Aussie 19-year-olds took me here and I loved it so much, I demanded we go back the next day. The owner is an absolute babe and will create a vegetarian or vegan empanada at your request, even though they aren’t on the menu. This is rare in Colombia; usually I’ve been met by an incredulous look when requesting a change to the menu. A woman in Cartagena actually tried “No puedo cambiar las salschichas por mas papas, porque cuesta más…” – give over mate, like I’m gonna believe potatoes cost more than sausages. I’ve been to Exito. I’ve seen the prices.

The empanadas are only 3,500 or 4,000 Pesos depending on the filling, and you get unlimited garlic mayonnaise. They’re so big 1 will definitely fill you!

Funny story actually, a girl I was travelling with from Cali arranged a Tinder date before going to the empanada place. I don’t think her Tinder date expected her to show up with two 19-year-old Aussie boys, a married Venezuelan couple and me. They gazed lovingly into each other’s eyes whilst the rest of us stuffed empanadas into our faces, garlic sauce dribbling down our chins. They ended up having a proper date to Valle de Cocora and travelled onward to Medellín together.

My wingwoman services are available to those who need it. Applications via the comment box below. 😉

#2 Brunch de Salento

I felt so lame about how buzzing I was to eat at this place; like I don’t get enough gringo food at home. But sometimes I just crave a dirty burger – don’t we all?

I ate mine with salad, which was my only saving grace, instead of getting chips. The burgers are HUGE, a heart attack on a plate! They also do cheddar cheese however when Colombians say ‘cheddar’ they just mean American cheese. I’m warning you now Brits to avoid bitter disappointment.

Almost every burger on the menu can be veganised or made vegetarian by removing the cheese and swapping the burger pattie for a bean burger.

Also ensure you get the peanut butter brownie. They are SO worth the calories.

Brunch also has an array of games – we killed a few hours’ playing Cards Against Humanity.

#3 Café Jesús Martín

A pretty groovy place to grab a coffee or a hot chocolate: I came here bored whilst waiting for my pals to finish at the coffee farm. The cakes were moist (ugh I hate that word) and are baked daily. When I ordered a hot chocolate the waiter asked me “Cual es to animal favorito?” and not questioning it I of course answered ‘dog’. They then decorated my hot chocolate with a dog face!! How cute. 🐶

#4 Veggie Salento 🥑

Veggie Salento was the perfect place to refuel after hiking Valle de Cocora. Usually I’d feel guilty about ordering and eating 10 balls of falafel and an entire pitta (plus salad – a couple of lettuce leaves always make me feel better when I’m eating). They also do a menu del dia, which comprises of soup and a main dish, but I totally didn’t feel envious looking at my falafel platter. The falafel platter doesn’t come with hummus (which is something I believe should be automatic – falafel and hummus are the perfect marriage) so ensure you order it as extra.

Hostel Spotlight: La Serrana Eco Farm 🌾 🚜

Someday (when I have more time, I am so behind on this blogging business I need to stop socialising and nerd a bit more) I will write a more extensive blog on La Serrana.

Camping is available too! Not that I’d ever choose camping over a bed 😆

La Serrana is an eco-farm and hostel about a 20 minute walk to Salento’s central plaza. It has that warm and cozy ‘middle of nowhere’ kinda vibe; I could have spent all day (I did one day actually) curled up into their big leather couches whilst reading a book. It was also surprisingly cheap – and included breakfast! A welcome relief from the likes of San Antonio in Cali and El Poblado in Medellín.

pocket atlas salento relaxing
Every night the hostel light a bonfire here

I do have three complaints though.

  1. The kitchen is terrible. It is so ill equipped. Why is there only 1 mug? In the whole kitchen? And no cups? C’mon just go to Exito and stock up.
  2. A basic breakfast of eggs, a banana and some bread is included. Everything else is an extra. This in itself is fine, but milk was extra – despite them offering tea and coffee for free. You couldn’t even ask for a splash of milk. And when you ordered milk (for an extra 3,000 Pesos mind) it came in an awkwardly sized mug that spilled everywhere when pouring it into your tea/coffee. 90% of the milk was wasted. La Serana – please, most people just want milk for their hot drink. Either offer it for free, or at least put it in a receptacle that’s easy to pour.
  3. The showers are absolutely freezing.

Other popular hostels included Coffee Tree Boutique hostel and El Viajero Salento.

Getting around Salento 🚖

Taxis aren’t really a thing in Salento: instead the main form of transportation are these jeeps known locally as Willy’s. I know, I know. You get over the name eventually, and the locals still understand ‘jeep’.

Prices of jeeps aren’t overly negotiable and if you catch them from the main square there is a price list. To La Serrana it is 6,000 Pesos per willy and to Valle de Cocora it is 2,000 Pesos per person.

Getting to Salento (from Cali, Medellín and Bogotá) ✈️ 🚌

Either way for each you need to change at Armenia and switch to a local bus. The bus from Cali was comfortable but I’ve heard the bus from Medellín is HELL (windy and the buses are poor) so take 2 anti sickness pills and knock yourself out. The bus from Cali to Armenia costs between 17,000 – 25,000 Pesos (🤷🏻‍♀️ dunno why the pricing is inconsistent) and the bus from Armenia to Salento costs just shy of 4,000 Pesos.

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