ROAD TO: SALENTO
Salento: a «must go» destination for every motorcycle tourer in Colombia. From the «carretera del cafe» that connects Pereira and Armenia, until the tight curves that guide you to the Cocora valley; the motorcycle experience will always amuse in the «eje cafetero«, the coffee axis. We took advantage of being in the south of Colombia wrapping up the whole Tatacoa desert trip, and instead of just heading back to Medellin we crossed the «Alto de la Línea», one of Colombia’s highest mountain crossing, to spend a couple days in the Quindio department and enjoy Salento. This was our experience.
So we benefitted from the fact we had our full camping gear and opted to camp in Camping Monteroca, a couple kilometers away from Salento. This place is commonly known for it’s exotic rooms like «the polar refuge», «the hippie Hilton» or «The Safari campsite» which are basically themed hotel rooms. They also have a camping zone. We were very grateful to realize how good it’s set up. The camping zones are so well organized, for starters by the feeling of privacy granted by high bushes that separate each different zone. The common areas include clean bathrooms, hot water showers and a lunch room and a kitchen. You can also rent lockers so you can safely store your belongings. This is all for about $7.0 dollars per person. There are additional services so you food and drinks, as well as a bonfire kit so you can start your own fire, very helpful in the cold Quindian nights. Our only complain is that they do not reserve spots on the camping site. It’s a first come first serve kinda situation. We’re not sure if this was because of Easter week or if it’s a hotel policy, but either way, we didn’t like that.
You should stop at the «Vaquita» or little cow, and taste some of the most delicious milk based desserts.
Once we arrived in Salento it was time to explore the towns hidden spots. A quick walk by the town square revealed some street food stands, local craft shops and ton of old 1970’s willys jeeps, most in very good condition, used mainly for it’s visual appeal. All of them work as they’re used to carry tourists or coffee sacks in them. From there we made our way to the «Mirador», a balcony on top of the mountain pass Salento’s main street. To get there we went through a nice horde of tourist from everywhere in the world, amazed by the local artists, more craft shops, an old man playing cello music for a couple coins or the old box photographer who takes vintage black and white pictures. 200 steps await before you reach the balcony where you can see most of the Cocora Valley. It’s pretty nice up there however it’s main protagonist is missing as from this spot you cannot see the Cocora Valley Palm Tree. It is however a good place to stop, eat a «Solterita» or «Oblea» and take a couple pictures.
The streets of Salento are always full of life thanks to the commerce as well as the constant presence of local and international tourists.
This part of the experience feels a little phony, the old colombian colonial town full of stores where you can pay with Visa, MasterCard and American Express and have a RedBull, however this does not take away from the experience. It’s the inevitable destiny of this high profile tourist destinations, but it does bring some advantages like added security, the chance of meeting people from all over the world, and always having something to do.
The view from the balcony in the Cocora Valley. In a while I’ll take the bike down there and explore some more.
As we were in Colombia’s coffee region I thought that any coffee shop must be good, right?. Wrong. If they spell «Expreso» it’s wrong. It’s not a local translation, it’s just spelled wrong, so avoid this places if you’re looking for premium coffee. We fire up TripAdvisor, look for «Coffee in Salento» and follow the reviews.
Buen servicio, excelente ambiente, magnífico café.
The Café Jesús Martín is located one block down from Salento’s main square. Opposite from the steps. A statue of an old woman carrying some keys comming out of a window indicates you got there. At first it looks like a regular coffee place, nice music and comfy chairs. Very tourist friendly. This perceptions however will be relegated by the intense and delicious coffee smell. Take that Starbucks. We look at the menu, order an Espresso, a Latte, a Cappuccino and some carrot cake. Instant fans. What a coffee. The Café Jesús Martín immediately becomes our «go to» spot when jonesying for coffee. I may not be able to properly describe the coffees taste, but I can recommend it. So, GO!
The valley offers great corners, amazing landscapes and a lot of photo perfect spots, if you can muster the self control necessary to stop the fun you’ll have riding here.
We continue our tour down the Cocora Valley’s road, which takes us to a couple of restaurants and eco hotels. The landscape slowly opens up and the Cocora Valley Palm Tree start to show up, and the temperature to go down. It’s beautiful. It’s also the country’s national tree, the Ceroxylon Quindiuense, and only grows here. There’s also a great deal of fauna and flora specific to the region, which is protected as part of the «Parque Nacional los Nevados». The paved road will take you to the last big restaurants and hotels in the area, however you can continue off road, walking or on a horse, as the road conditions worsen a lot.
In «Las Palmas del Cocora» you can have the best trouts in the area, as well as «patacon» – fried plantain.
Down in the valley we grabbed lunch in La Palma del Cocora, a popular eco hotel and restaurant I usually visit when in town. This particularly fresh day allowed us to eat outdoors and enjoy the view. For lunch we had «trucha a las finas hierbas«, a trout with fine herbs and fried plantain. An amazing «panela» lemonade finishes the course. In any case if you don’t want to have the fish, meat is also available.
The Trout with fine herbs is my favorite dish, but there are however variations for everyone.
Our trip finishes with a short walk through the valley, getting an up close look at the palm trees and basically enjoying mother earth. A great way to end the day and relax before heading back to camp.
The bonfire back at camp, a cup of hot chocolate and a cold Quindio night is the last part of the trip before heading back to Medellin. A good way to contrast the heat we experienced at the desert, just 2 days ago.
The trip through Colombia’s coffee axis has as many shades as the towns that are a part of it. Montenegro, Quimbaya and Salento are connected through a series of back roads that reward exploration. «El Parque del Café», «Panaca», «Balsaje en el Río la Vieja«, a local way of rafting, the «Mariposario de Quindío» and the horseback riding tours available are just some of the things you can do here, besides riding, so there’s a plan for everyone. Our trip had ended an it’s time to go back home, however we had learned something. Salento never disappoints.