Salento:  Wax Palms and Coffee

  
Peaceful green Salento — what a respite after the busy streets of Medellin. Our plane landed in Armenia about an hour’s drive by taxi from Salento, all up hill and progressively cooler as we went. Salento is all green — many shades of green, with coffee plantations, cattle grazing lands, and lush jungle side by side. The traditional houses of the town itself are brightly painted and it is one of those hillside places where everywhere you want to go seems to be up a steep hill — of course you never notice the downhill sections.

   

 The main street, or Camino Real, is lined with tourist shops and small cafes intended for Colombians who flock here on weekends and holidays for fresh air and shopping. Foreign tourists come to hike the Valle de Cocoro where the wax palm, Colombia’s impossibly high national “tree” abounds, to tour coffee fincas, and to make other forays into the impossibly lush jungle abounding in birds and unique plant life. Your intrepid correspondents managed all three, plus a good amount of dining.

  Don Eduardo’s (aka Tim’s) Coffee Finca was fun and entertaining even though we have visited more professional coffee plantations in the past. Tim is an eccentric transplanted Englishman with 5 dogs and an impossibly hare brained scheme to make himself into the owner of a “boutique” coffee farm. So far he makes his income from the daily tours he gives, and providing the tour groups with cups of the coffee he produces takes all his product. But he has a vision… 

  Our group comprised 4 young Europeans and us and entailed donning ill-fitting rubber boots (mine immediately gave me several dog flea bites) for the muddy trek to the Finca itself. Along the way Tim berated the dogs for rough housing and entertained us with information about various kinds of coffee, what various terms mean, and the various factors that impact taste and value of the final product. Coffee is a huge export for Colombia, when the coffee prices tanked 15 years ago the farmers’ protest shut down the whole country for 3 days and the government had to start subsidizing production. The tour finished after 3 hours with a young man roasting their best beans and all of us having another cup of coffee.

  The next day we set off early with a guide we had arranged, to do the Valle of Cocoro loop trail. The guide was worried about our foot gear, we were worried about his pace as the trail is very steep in places and usually takes 5 hours. In the end neither of us needed to worry, the Tevas performed as usual, we didn’t even get that muddy though he stepped into a mud patch half way up his boots, and he was so concerned not to hurry us that we ended up having to urge him on so as not to miss the last jeep back to town. There are no taxis in Salento, the mode of transport is a fleet of well maintained Willys Jeeps from WW2. They don’t go fast but they manage to convey 10 or 12 people up the steep road to the trail head, about 15 kilometres from the town. Pedro insisted that we sit in front with the driver in honour of our advanced age. No one complained though 4 of 5 were standing on the back hanging on to the roof bar.

  Pedro was a sweet and naive young man, somehow we always find them and they always gravitate to me to tell me about their sad and lonely love life. To give him credit, he was a fount of information about medicinal and other plants (his grandmother is a herbalist), birds (and he was great at spotting them) the life cycle of the wax Palm (palms are of course not actually trees which makes it ironic that they are Colombia’s national trees) and the history of the region. However when he began reading me his love poems off his phone, written in Spanish of course but he translated as he went, we began to roll our eyes at each other.  

As we walked the rocky trail at the beginning we were passed by trains of mules taking supplies in to isolated farms, and met similar trains loaded with milk containers headed for market. We crossed 7 Indiana Jones style suspension bridges, very wobbly but not scary as there were cables either side to steady on, and one place where we crossed on a large log, usually I hate those but this one had a cable suspended alongside for a handhold.

  Soon the trail got steep and we eventually emerged at a little farm where the people collect a small fee with which they maintain the trail and bridges, and in exchange we got a hunk of fresh cheese and a hot sugar cane and pineapple drink. They had suspended hummingbird feeders all around their porch and the birds were flocking to them. Europeans are mad for hummingbirds since they are a phenomenon of the Americas so cameras were snapping wildly. We like them too but saw so many species in Ecuador, there were only 3 at these feeders but apparently 7 in the park.

On to the really steep bit, which the guide had called “the wall of pain” really exaggerating things, with a number of stops to gather breath we made it up easily and on to another farm with a viewpoint of the largest peak in the area. Of course at that point fog blew in and all was obscured but we didn’t care, it was awfully pretty light with the mists wrapping the tops of the 60 meter wax palms and drifting along the green slopes below the peak. On the way up we saw a quetzal which we had struggled to see in Guatemala where it is the national bird, and a beautiful bird with a long barbed tail called a Barranquillo. The Colombian national bird is the Andean Condor and though they are often spotted on this trail we were not so lucky.

  The way back to the jeeps was an hour through fields of grazing dairy cattle and their calves. The main agricultural activity of the area is dairy production and it is lucrative, the farmhouses are gorgeous with idyllic views. As we hustled Pedro along on this bit, he kept trying to pause (really the man couldn’t walk and talk at the same time) to tell us traditional jokes of the area, most of which required a lengthy preamble to assure me that they were a bit rude but Senor would appreciate them (they weren’t and he didn’t.)

Not to rest on our accomplishments, or to give our aching quads a chance to recuperate, off we went next day to a private nature reserve run by another eccentric but younger Englishman and his Colombian buddy. They somehow came up with the idea of doing an eco project together when they met travelling in Africa, Nick came to Colombia to visit his friend and they decided to do it here. Neither had a biology background but this project was much more organized and impressive in terms of its viability than the coffee Finca. They were 7 years in to transforming a piece of untamed jungle into a sustainable reserve with trails so they can show people around but a strong ethos of non interference with the natural order. They are building a little village of huts so that people can come to stay and study, very well done and professional, again all accomplished with their own study and learning, neither of them was an engineer either. Not sure how viable the thing would be as a hostel, it is 5 or 6 kilometers from town and another hour into the jungle on a very narrow slippery mud trail to the “village” (just think of rolling suitcases…) but I could see study groups getting involved. They have received endorsement from the Colombian Parks Department which is highly organized, so biologists visit them every 6 months and stay for weeks collecting data and making suggestions. A lonely life for them but they were brimming with enthusiasm.

  Four days went by quickly for us, it would be a lovely place to stay longer. As we were leaving on a Saturday the plaza was being transformed into a fair ground with food trucks, beer tents, and dance floors, and every available open space had sprouted “Parquadero” signs for the influx of Colombians expected for the Semana Santa or Easter week holidays. Non planners that we are, we did not realize Easter was part of our trip, and we did not know that everything shuts down for a week in honour of this most important of holidays in a strongly Catholic country.  

Next stop Popayan, site of the second most elaborate Semana Santa celebration in the world (number one is Seville, Spain) where we would have needed to book up to a year in advance for a hotel room over the Thursday to Sunday weekend. So we will look in on this reputedly stunning white colonial city and then leave before the real fun begins. Some day we will do some research ahead…maybe.

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