El Eje Cafetero: Salento (part 1)
At the time of writing this post, I have just returned from El Eje Cafetero which is also called the Zona Cafetera or the coffee region in Colombia. This trip has been my favorite by far. It has been full of good company, beautiful countrysides and interesting adventures. I’m going to split this 7-day trip into a series of posts, because there is too much to tell in one sitting. We (I traveled with three other Fulbright ETAs) started in Salento, then went to Manizales and ended in Pereira which was where our flight was. We stayed in three different hostels and hiked, relaxed in hot springs and crammed into a Jeep, but more on that later.
As I mentioned above, we started our trip in Salento. We took a bus there directly after our early (and cheap) flight into Pereira. Salento had been recommended to me by almost everyone I talked to about the Eje Cafetero, and I am glad I listened to these recommendations. Salento is a little town that is famous for its artisan goods and its quaint feel. It’s a quiet place that is covered in hostels and hotels, because it thrives on tourism. We ended up staying three nights in La Floresta Hostel, which I would highly recommend. The hostel was on the edge of town which wasn’t an issue because the town is small and everything was still within a walking distance of 5-10 minutes. All of the staff were friendly and helpful and the rooms were clean and comfortable.
Because of the bus schedule or lack thereof, it took us a while to actually get in to Salento. We dropped off our backpacks at the hostel and headed out for lunch. Our room wasn’t ready at the time that we arrived so we decided to carry our few valuables with us. After a lunch of trout and potatoes, we decided to walk up to the outlook which was on the edge of town. After we reached the top (it was about 50 stairs so it wasn’t very high), we decided to explore a couple of the trails behind it. We had no plans of going far, seeing as we were wearing sandals and were simply exploring town.
A man approached us and introduced himself as a park ranger for the area. He offered to show us a nearby spot where we could enjoy the river. We hesitantly looked at each other and decided to follow him. He begins leading us down a path that was well kept and obviously went down the mountain. At this point, I was wondering about the wisdom of our choice to follow a random man down the mountain, but my friends were continuing so I decided to not say anything. (I later learned that my friends were thinking the same thing.)
Then things took a turn for the worse. The trail became narrower and muddier. I have a fear of descending while hiking and this was extremely steep and the mud was really deep making it very slippery. I was wearing a pair of cheap flip flops with no tread. Eventually, my shoes were submerged in mud and every step I took my shoe or my foot slid. I was shaking from the mental strain and I was trying to not get dizzy or black out. Our guide did not help matters by complaining that we didn’t talk or smile and commenting that most people come better prepared with boots. I responded that we hadn’t planned on hiking and he hadn’t told us it was going to be this difficult. He repeatedly insisted that we were almost there, that he was just helping us out and that we were going to love this special spot at the river. He kept offering me his hand or a ride on his back and I kept refusing…until my shoe broke. Then I grabbed his hand in a death grip down the rest of the mountain as I climbed and slid barefoot.
Finally, 45 minutes after we started out, we arrived at the highway. All of us breathed a sigh of relief that we were down the mountain and he hadn’t been lying to us. He then led us down a side road along the river until we reached a spot where one could theoretically climb down. The “steps” were covered in broken bricks which I didn’t think I could go down barefoot without ending up with bloody feet. At this point, I accepted his offer of a piggy back ride and he carried me to the river. He had been continually telling us that we could swim in the river and he repeated this statement as he threw a log into the rushing rapids. It rushed away with the current, smashing against rocks as it went by.
He cheerfully informed us that the tip was voluntary. We reluctantly tipped him and briefly acknowledged his reassurance that it wouldn’t rain that afternoon. We all breathed a sigh of relief and began to relax as he left. We had made it to the river safely and nobody had robbed us. We agreed that next time we would huddle and discuss before agreeing to follow a strange man down a mountain.
The current was too fast for swimming, but the shallow parts of the river were lovely to splash in. After hanging out for a while, we decided to head back – by the road, not the mountain. We were fairly content at this point although I was walking carefully due to the fact that I could not wear my broken shoes. Then, it began to rain. It started as a drizzle but within a few minutes it was coming down fast. We walked the twenty minutes back to town in the pouring rain with all of our valuables clutched to our chests. Once we arrived to town, we sought shelter under an overhang.
Shivering and hungry, we noticed a guy across the street with coffee so we decided to duck into the cafe that he had visited. As we entered the building, we realized it was not a cafe. It was somebody’s house. We ran right back out of there. We then found a real restaurant to sit in and drink tea. We waited for the rain to stop, but it didn’t stop. Finally, we decided to just run for our hostel which was on the other side of town, about 10 blocks away, seeing as we were already soaked. We arrived at the hostel, dripping wet and laughing about the absurdity of the entire situation. The woman who was working at the hostel offered us hot coffee upon our arrival and reassured us that they had laundry service. We gratefully took hot showers and ordered food to be delivered to the hostel.
For the rest of our stay, we didn’t follow random guides, we wore boots for hiking and we made sure to be back at the hostel before the regular afternoon rain.