Paradise is a worn-out word in the backpacker’s sphere of many trodden paths, often superfluous in tourist-saturated hovels, but not in this hideaway. In Salento, the Valley of the Palms, Colombia bares preciously this sanctuary of vivid Andean vistas, enchanting village alleys, and a measure of timeless peace unique even to colorful Colombia. But the risk of traveling here is well whispered amongst backpackers, trapping the footloose and seducing the restless – You’ll never want to leave.
The village of Salento greets its arrivals with the intoxicating scent of fresh, fried trout and bursts of gunpowder among the echoes of cheers ringing from Tejo-game bars in rainbow-striped streets. Whatever rumor it is that drew you here… it promises even more. The tiny town itself feels like a hidden Atlantis far from busy Bogotá or Medellin. And on a clear day, the snowy Andean summits of Los Nevados shine beyond valleys so green the rest of the world seems to pale like a ghostly, old noir in comparison.
The Quindío region of Colombia holds some of the richest, unspoiled coffee plantations in the world. Hence the palatable lime–khaki–avocado green alternating in great swaths across the frame of any photograph. As one can smell, clinging to the back of a vagabond jeep-taxi hurtling along winding roads, coffee bean aroma is a part of this realm’s atmosphere. It fills the air surrounding town, into Valle de Cocora, dotted with the Earth’s tallest wax palms, and upriver to the plantations and meditative retreats. Of course, there is also the gunpowder –
Tejo is a matter of tavern pride not unlike bagtoss, cornhole, or beans… except this regional game is broadcasted by brassy explosions of gunpowder and contended with hefty handheld rocks – as opposed to the traditional bean bag. When a stone is thrown just right and imperfectly next to the target… bang goes the prearranged explosive and onto another round! Next to the late night pool halls and the delectable row of evening food trucks, Tejo draws together a fun community of townsfolk and travelers alike. And many a backpacker tends to enjoy the gentle, social respite after a long day’s hike, the true attraction for newcomers. But really, you’ll have to see it to believe it –
Hiking into Cocora Valley is an indispensable measure of Salento’s magic. From bird watching for the red and blue Masked Trogon or the Yellow-Eared Parrot, to horseback riding by the riverbed trails and at last ascending to witness the grandeur of Colombia’s national tree, the 60m wax palms speckled across the foggy blue like breezy, jade stars in the daylight. Towering above hikers in all their luminous beauty, the palm trees are sanctioned as a sacred symbol of the country and proudly protected by law. The valley is home also to a wide range of curiously diverse fauna – the toucans, the condors and the guans – the tapirs, the sloths, the pumas, and the spectacled bears. Cocora is truly the jungle in the Andes. A temperate, safe haven, paradise.
Some backpackers seek bustling foreign cultures to shock the senses and expand the consciousness, others pursue rugged, rural majesty to escape into the Earth’s rare, natural wonders. These are just two hands on Salento’s seemingly countless arms of allure. This paradise may not be the first priority destination scribbled into every wanderer’s route in South America… but it ought to be. A short skip–hop from Bogotá or Medellin, Salento is a safe and welcoming journey into the heart of Colombia. One Hundred Years of Solitude is palpable, (a national, literary achievement), as is the magical realism Márquez bleeds through the pages of his magnum opus and into the timeless fictional town of Macondo – or is it Salento? Unmistakably, it is here, in the heart of Colombia you will find all that you seek of a rewarding expedition from reality to paradise.
© The Montgomery picture