Salento, Colombia. Coffee, cowboys, home of the explosive drinking game of Tejo, towering palms, and a cool mountainous climate.
This was my favorite city in all of Colombia. The colorful town and lush green landscapes completely captured my heart. It’s a place where nature lover’s looking to kick back and enjoy a slower pace can do just that.
And yet Salento is missed by most travelers. Luckily this means it has fewer tourists. It has very few hostels. Even fewer hotels. And it is definitely the most underrated town in all of Colombia.
This is most likely the result of the great measures that must be taken to get there.
On Colombian Time
Rural towns are difficult to get to due to mountainous terrain and winding often crumbling roadways. Unfortunately, buses are pretty much your only option.
The good news is that Colombian buses are top notch. I’m talking padded reclining seats, A/C, and personal TV’s.
The bad news is buses run on Colombian time. For whatever reason, the travel time of any route varies drastically. A 6-hour bus stint can quickly turn to 12-hours with a single accident or landslide blocking the road. Or for seemingly no reason at all.
Basically, just don’t trust the arrival time. You never know what’s going to happen.
Salento is nestled between Bogota, Medellin, and Cali and buses run routes from all of them. We were coming from Medellin and we signed up for a 7-hour scenic journey across the mountains. It ended up being closer to 11.
Another possible route: There is an airport nearish Salento in a town- Armenia. If time is a concern you can fly in & hire a taxi or take a much shorter bus from there.
A Scenic Journey
The bus ride shouldn’t be missed. Careening around blind corners the bus took us through some of the most rural parts of Colombia. Beautiful farmland, stunning rivers, and breathtaking green mountains the entire journey.
Hugging the cliffside, just feet away from a surely deadly drop you get an up-close view of the deep valleys and high peaks of the Nevado mountains.
It was truly beautiful and honestly the only reason I could tolerate an 11-hour bus day.
An Untimely Arrival
With the bus delayed 5-hours we arrived well after dark.
Unceremoniously dropped on an empty cobblestone street surrounded by dark and closed restaurants and shops. The town was silent. It felt as though we were deep in the forest instead of civilization. The stillness in the air was eerie.
We also had no where to stay.
I had heard of an eco-hostel from a traveler in Medellin and looked up the location. MapsMe informed me that it was a 30-minute walk directly out of town into the wilderness. It appeared to be unmarked dirt pathways more than a road.
I take a lot of daring risks while traveling. But that wasn’t going to happen. I had no plans to wander around in the Colombian countryside at midnight and inevitably get lost in the wilderness.
So we picked a direction that looked the most civilized and started walking. Luckily, we found an open door. And for $15 he showed us to an available room.
Coffee Needs Rain
Salento is a rainy town. Every morning the fog rolls across the hills and covers the colorful town in a cozy haze. The heavy damp atmosphere is what makes the coffee thrive.
Colombian coffee is amazing. But Salento coffee is phenomenal. The town is filled with little cafes all serving the good stuff from the local farms.
Exploring the town doesn’t take long. Colorful shops with more than it’s fair share of street dogs. The specialty cuisine here is marinated grilled river trout served with a flattened patacone, fresh mango from the street cart, and the gut-busting Bandeja Paisa. Chicharrones, chorizo, beans, rice, fried plantain, avocado, fried egg, ground beef, and an arepa all piled onto a plate.
The best part about Salento is being so close to nature. Horseback riding, hiking, simply waking up surrounded by rolling green hills listening to the chirping birds. Exploring the Cocora Valley. That’s why most travelers come here.
To spot the tallest palms in the world. The wax palm is the national tree of Colombia and it can only grow at high altitudes. The Cocora Valley sits at 5,300 ft at it’s lowest point. making it the perfect environment for the towering palms.
The Cocora Valley
Just a short jeep ride or “willy” as the locals call it. A queue will form in the town square starting at daybreak near a line of locals and their jeeps. Once they have a full car load- and by full I mean 10 inside and 3 standing on the back.
But for less than a dollar, I’m not going to be picky.
Arriving at the national park you can choose to walk the trails (like we did) or hire a horse. And it is quite a sight. One of those landscapes that no photos can do justice and no words can convey the magnitude of the moment.
The rolling hills of the Cocora valley spattered with the 200-foot tall towering wax palms. Dr. Suess like trees that seem to defy the laws of physics to stand so straight and thin.
The hike is short and steep. Somehow we managed to get off the main trail and took an even steeper route to the mirador. But the thick layer of fog enveloping the palms and even more beautiful views around every corner we turned, kept us hiking.
Overlooking the valley simply takes your breath away. One of those moments that makes you remember just how small you are.
Laying on the wet green grass as it began to sprinkle, I regretted my decision to wear a tank top and shorts on this venture. The valley is about 10 degrees colder than the town so bring a jacket.
Pro-Tip: The best river trout we ate was at the restaurant just outside the park. It’s also a great place to warm up.
An Explosive Drinking game
Salento is a sleepy town. Spending all day horseback-riding, hiking, biking, and searching for waterfalls really wipes you out. By 9 pm the streets are much quieter again.
The only storefront packed with people seemed to be the local pool hall. Billiards & pool are huge all over Colombia. And until Colombia, I thought those two were the same thing.
The real party was UNDERNEATH the pool hall however.
Free to play as long as you are drinking. A favorite pass time for the local men. I would equivocate it to bowling here in the United States. But way cooler.
It is set up basically like a cornhole court. You face a red clay pit that it standing upright about 10 yards away and toss a heavy metal hockey puck at a ring of gun powder grenades inside the clay. The goal is to and the puck inside the ring. But hit one of the land mines and a cloud of fire, smoke, and dust will erupt from the board. This gets you quite a few points also.
The cowboys next to us put us to shame. With every single throw, they exploded land mines with ease. We played for a few hours taking shots of aguardiente and drinking pilsners in the underground.
This game explains Salento. Locals played for hours. No hurry to get anywhere. Just relaxing, drinking, and having a good time. The rural towns always leave a lot of room for reflection and relaxation. My own kind of R&R.
La Serrana Eco Farm and Hostel
We did eventually make it to our eco-friendly “glamping” experience. Across a thin walking bridge and a mile down a twisting dirt road, you’ll find the La Serrana main house.
“Glamping” consisted of white canvas tents furnished with the basics. A queen size bed, a wooden rocking chair, and a tall dresser. The tent doors didn’t close which was highly concerning at first. The mosquitos in this area of Colombia are ruthless. But we slept so soundly.
Waking up on the farm you’re surrounded by rolling green hills straight out of a movie. Hammocks line the fences. It’s a perfect set up for watching the fog roll over the hills in the morning. A dreamy eerie atmosphere that’s unlike anywhere else in Colombia.
Planning Your Trip
Visit a Finca. Coffee Farms here are the best and it’s the freshest cup of coffee you’ll ever have.
Hike the Cocora Valley. The palms are surreal, growing nearly 200ft high. This is one of the only places in the world to see them.
Stay at La Serrana. I rarely recommend accommodation because I generally stay at the cheapest of the budget options. But this place was beautiful.
Play Tejo under one of the busiest billiards bars in Townsquare. Drink some of the local Aguardiente too while you’re at it.
Slow down and explore the cobblestone streets and colorful facades.