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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

Getting a Caffeine Kick in Colombia's Coffee Country

COLOMBIA | Thursday, 8 November 2012 | Views [526]

Guess what?  The skies were the clearest they’d been since we set foot in Colombia.  Oh well, that should make for a pleasant day’s travel to Salento; a place we’d only heard good things about.  From what we could gather it was a pretty, quiet little town tucked away amongst hills and surrounded by coffee plantations.  We caught the 8am mini bus to Armenia (P33 000) and were soon back on the good old Panamericana – I wonder how many kilometres of it we’ve covered.  First we encountered coffee plantations but once we dropped down to a huge flat valley floor the predominant crop was sugarcane.  In Armenia we changed onto a Salento bound bus and within the hour were at our destination.

As we entered the main square we got a bit of a shock; the place was heaving with Colombian tourists.  Apparently it was a bank holiday Monday so people had flocked there from the nearby towns and cities.  Once they’d all gone and we could see the place properly we understood why it was so popular.  It really is a lovely little place, very relaxed, plenty of shops, cafes and restaurants to choose from without it being overdeveloped.  Plus we’d booked ourselves into a family owned guesthouse that is run more like a homestay where we’ve been made to feel very welcome.  So welcome in fact that we’ve stayed in the same place for 4 nights – that hasn’t happened since Buenos Aires.  Hostal La Floresta has clean, comfortable rooms (we bagged the only en suite option), garden, sitting area, kitchen, wi-fi and a free internet service.  The piez-de-résistance for me was the place had a very friendly cat who very quickly learned he would be able to sit on my lap and be tickled for as long as he wanted. http://www.laflorestahostal.com/eng-index.html

Upon arrival we were given ample information about things to do in the area so we’re not rueing the fact that we didn’t have a travel guide.  We’d heard we were in a coffee growing area so it made sense to visit a finca and learn more.  It’s only a 45min very easy and enjoyable walk to Don Elias’ Finca but we were a tad concerned that we couldn’t actually see any coffee plants.  Rest assured this small family run place has them along with a smattering of others in the area but there are no huge plantations around.  You can turn up at the finca at any time and someone from the family will spare you about half an hour to show you around.  The explanation was all in Spanish but we’d explained that we only had a limited command of the language so he very kindly spoke slowly and clearly.  Luckily many of the words that deal with planting, looking after the plants, harvesting the fruits and the final production process are very similar to English.  Obviously we got to taste the final product and a grand cuppa it was too.  In fact we enjoyed it so much that we allowed ourselves to be coerced into buying a packet of coffee beans.  The tour had only cost us P5000 each and we thought that 4 quid for a packet of hand-picked, family produced, organic coffee was probably a good price.

The countryside is so lovely that we took our leaflet’s advice and extended the walk thus turning it into a circular route.  There’s a path that takes you to the hamlet of Boquia and from there we walked back up the main but quiet road to Salento.  Just before crossing the bridge we spotted a sign pointing to a forest reserve 10km down the track so we decided to return the following morning and investigate.  We left Salento at about 9am and wandered back down the road to the bridge where it looked like the jeep track would meander its way along the river.  Not quite; in fact it rose steadily for the next 10km and it transpired that we were basically following a logging track.  Since we were on our way to a forest reserve it seemed ironic that we passed several kilometres of logging activity.

After what seemed like a very long 10km we found a sign that informed us that Reserva Naturales La Potesola was a further 3kms away.  On we plodded and eventually found a sign indicating we were within the park.  Other than the trees changing from uniformly planted eucalypts to natural dense vegetation there was no further indication we were in the correct place.  We walked a while longer but never did find any facilities, park HQ or tracks to wander down; mind you we did have the entire place to ourselves. 

Well, that’s not strictly true – we had a dog with us who had joined us when we turned off the road after crossing the bridge over Rio Quindio.  In other words she’d remained with us for the entire 13kms not to mention all the way back again too!  When we passed areas where the men were felling the trees their dogs came at a run and a bark but for once I wasn’t worried since we had a German shepherd with us.  Luna, as we later discovered was her name, turned out to be the calmest, least aggressive dog you could ever wish to meet.  Now as a person who is wary of dogs at best and utterly scared of them at worst I kind of hoped she might protect us.  Most of the time she did in her totally calm manner; she simply looked at them calmly, wagged her tail and it instantly deflated their aggressive attitude.  However, when one big, black dog came bounding and barking towards us I ended up giving Luna a reassuring pat as she cowered by my legs – what an oxymoron!

Our stroll to a forested area to see if we could spot any birds ended up being a 30km hike; we even wore the dog out.  On setting off we’d spied a lovely looking little café on the banks of the river near the bridge and for the last couple of kilometres the thought of a refreshing fruit juice kept us going.  The place certainly didn’t disappoint; the juice was excellent, Luna got to sit down and the chap running the place was very friendly.  We patted Luna farewell and went to catch the bus; amazingly she hauled herself up and joined us at the bus stop.  I reckon she’d have boarded the bus with us if she’d been given the chance!  We’d had a cracking day out and spent virtually nothing – we love places where you can be independent and not get lost.

The leaflet the hostel gave us also outlined a walk described as one where; you don’t need to pay an entrance fee, you don’t need a guide and you won’t get lost.  Perfect.  To get to the start of the walk in the Valley of Cocora we caught the 7.30am jeep that for some reason are called ‘willys’ round here.  It only took about 30mins to reach the start of the walk and the jeep only costs P3000 a head.  For the first hour the path basically follows the river which you have to cross several times using bouncy wooden bridges.  The path then splits; one path meanders its way up to Acaime (a little farm small-holding in the forest), another is the continuation of the Cocora loop walk and a third was signposted Estrella del Agua.  We didn’t have any information about this third option so didn’t know if it would loop round so stuck with the most popular walk.

We took the 1km detour to Acaime where you pay P3000 to enter and they use the funds to maintain the paths and bridges but the lady of the house will give you a drink too.  I forgot to tell you that we had another canine friend with us but when we took this side path he sat down.  I then noticed a sign indicating dogs were not to go any further – clever thing.  The main reason for going was we’d read there were up to 10 species of hummingbird to be viewed in their gardens where they put out sugar feeders.  I’m never totally comfortable with wild animals being fed artificially but being able to observe these beautiful birds in numbers and at close quarters was wonderful.  I spent an hour watching these iridescent, seemingly bejewelled birds before Steve dragged me away to continue with the walk.  On returning to the junction the path climbs up a couple of hundred meters to a ranger’s station at close to 3000m altitude.  The station is surrounded by a bright, flower filled garden that in turn attracts yet more hummingbirds.  By-the-way the dog turned out to be a fickle friend and tagged along with some other tourists who set off before us.

We spent a while basking in the sun before moving on again along the track where we got great views of the wax palms in the valley.  These incredibly tall, straight palms with proportionally small leaves atop stick out like sore thumbs.  They were best viewed from a grassy knoll where we realised that today’s walk had involved more sitting and gawping than walking.  As we continued back to the starting point I almost trod on a snake’s tail as it slithered across the track.  For once it didn’t dash off so we got to watch, and of course photograph it for some time. 

With feeling like we’d not done a great deal of walking (only about 10kms) we decided to walk back to Salento along a road that was even quieter than yesterday’s.  It was a most pleasant way to double the length of the walk and feel like we’d actually done a decent day’s exercise.  About 4kms from town we were astounded to find that we’d picked up another friendly dog that stayed with us all the way back to Salento.  We’d heard that the Colombians were friendly (and they are) but up to now we’re finding the canines much more amiable.

So, in the last 3 days we’ve walked a total of 60kms without the need for guides or maps; we haven’t got lost and we’ve spent next to nothing.  It’s certainly gone a long way to off-set the high expense of travel and quite costly accommodation.  Even though this is a prosperous country (or at least that’s our impressions so far) people seem to like to stick to many of their traditional ways of life.  None more so than using their beloved horses for travel and the movement of goods.  The uniform of choice that matches this cowboy look-out on life will sound like a cliché but we kid you not; they really do wear cowboy hats and ponchos with the preferred boot being the good old welly.


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