02 May 2013

Visiting Quindio: venturing deep into the Colombian coffee country

Posted in Blog

I have visited many parts, regions, cities, and pueblos in Colombia, and I have been blown away on more than one occasion by the beauty of the places I have visited and come to love. 

However, there is one place in particular that left a mark on me: the small pueblo of Salento in the Colombian department of QuindíoBefore visiting Salento, I had bussed from Bogotá to Cali and from Cali to Armenia, where I caught a bus to Salento. When I arrived to Salento I was bit weathered and ready for a bit of rest away from the big cities. Little did I know,Salento would provide much more than rest. Salento became a small haven in the middle of an exhausting, but amazing trip across Colombia.

The first image I remember of Salento is the brightly coloured and inviting central plaza—one of the most marked reminders Colombia was a Spanish colony. The plaza is surrounded on all sides by buildings with the architecture typical of the Efe Cafetero (Coffee Zone) of Colombia. As it was the weekend, there were food stands set up all around the plaza offering traditional foods like freshly caught and fried trucha (trout), bandeja paisa, and enormous patacones (flattened and fried green plantains) with several options for toppings.



Colorful buildings in the main plaza of Salento

Before exploring the town, though, it was imperative to find a place to stay for the night I had planned to stay in Salento. After asking a few people, I was led to small hostel that seemed more like a B&B (bed and breakfast) than hostel. The owner was so shocked I would only be staying one day that she insisted on me staying another day and offered me a hefty discount to further tempt me. She was successful in tempting me, as I ended up staying 3 days and 2 nights in Salento—it turned out to be a temptation I was glad I gave in to.

After leaving my bags behind, I went to the plaza to fill my hungry tummy with some delicious food. Having tried bandeja paisas in various parts of Colombia, hands down, the bandeja paisa in Salento is the best I’ve had. The beans are the heart of the dish, and the beans in Salento were beyond incredible. With a full and satisfied stomach, I began to explore the buildings around the plaza, including the town church and several artisan shops. The streets in Salento are very colonial, and are wonderful for getting lost in and for admiring the charming and inviting aire of this Colombian gem.



Incredibly delicious bandeja paisa in Salento

After walking around the town, I realized I did not really know a lot about what there was to do in the area. I had been told to visit el Valle de Cocora by a friend in Bogotá, but I began inquiring with the townspeople to see what they recommended, too. I was told it would be a sin to not go to the nearby Valle de Cocora, so I decided that was a must for the next day.

Thus, the next morning, after having an incredible arepa with hot chocolate in agua de panela (something extremely typical in and hard to found outside this region of Colombia), and as instructed, I crammed into an old jeep in the main plaza at 5am to head to el Valle de Cocora. After about 30 minutes on a not so smooth back road, the driver told us we were there. There was a valley full of natural beauty. As soon as you arrive to el Valle de Cocora, you can’t help but stand in awe of the gorgeous scenery and landscape that lays before you. It is an image, a mental snapshot that will stay with you forever.



View from el Valle de Cocora

In el Valle de Cocora there are several things you can choose to do to take advantage of this beautiful landscape. One option is to hike up the mountains before you with a guide—this is no easy task, especially if it has been raining; come prepared with waterproof clothes and a good pair of boots. Another option is to ascend the mountains horseback. I chose the second option. The ride up was a bit scary, as the mountains are very steep at certain points, but the view from up top was worth it. At the top, there is small area where you can rest and have a hot drink before heading down. You can also admire the amazing flora and fauna of the area—several types of hummingbirds, stunning flowers, and an unbelievable view of the valley below.

By the time I arrived back to Salento from el Valle de Cocora, it was late afternoon, I was covered in mud from my horseback excursion and my tummy was grumbling. Before heading back to hand wash my clothes—keep in mind it might be hard to find washers or dry cleaner’s in small towns—I had a giant, but delicious patacón in the plaza. You MUST take advantage of the variety and quality of regional foods offered in Salento. If you go on a weekend, you are sure to encounter the best selection of regional dishes freshly made and prepared in front of you while you wait.



Valle de Cocora

Although I was told there were some great coffee farms to tour in Salento and surrounding areas, I was short on time and unable to take a coffee farm excursion. However, if you do have the time, I’d highly recommend you take this excursion.Salento is in the heart of the Coffee Zone, named so because it’s where the majority of Colombian coffee is grown and cultivated. Not only can you see how coffee is grown and roasted, but I’ve heard you can also pick and roast your own coffee as part of some of the tours—what better souvenir could you ask for?

The morning after my visit to el Valle de Cocora, I parted ways with the beautiful, captivating, and charming pueblo of Salento to spend the day at el Parque Nacional del Café (National Coffee Park) in Armenia. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in el Parque Nacional del Café, but it was surprisingly interesting and educational. As you might have guessed, el Parque Nacional del Café is a sort of amusement park centred around the culture and cultivation of coffee in the region. In addition to various exhibits centred on coffee, the park also has shows about orchids, the national flower of Colombia, areas with typical farm animals, and a food court with typical food of the region, although not as good as that of Salento and a bit more expensive. One of my favourite parts of the park is the ski lift ride from the entrance down to the main attractions of the park. From the lift, you can see not only the entirety of the park itself, but also the surrounding areas of Armenia. It’s a stunning view.



View from the lift in el Parque Nacional del Café

After an afternoon in el Parque Nacional del Café, it was time to say goodbye to the incredible, beautiful, and overwhelmingly inviting department of Quindío. Even though I physically parted ways with Quindío, it will always be one of the places I most cherish from my travels in Colombia. And, hopefully, one day you’ll be able to say the same!



Traditional architecture in el Parque Nacional del Café


Paige M. Poole

About the author:

“Paige M. Poole is an Alabamian and traveler at heart who has settled, for now, in Barranquilla, Colombia, and earns her living as an English professor at the Instituto de Idiomas (Language Institute) at la Universidad del Norte (University of the North). When not teaching English, she enjoys blogging, traveling, relaxing on the beach, and spending time with her partner and two cats, Milo and Sophie.  You can see more of Paige’s traveling experiences in her personal blogwww.trotamunda.wordpress.com