Known for its coffee, proximity to the Valle de Cocora (Cocora Valley) and Los Nevados National natural park, and the giant wax palm trees, Salento, Colombia is a popular tourist destination. It’s filled with excursions that will please any traveler, from more laid back activities like playing tejo (a game where you throw metal pucks filled with gunpowder that explode on impact while you drink beer), to treks and thrilling adventures.
The town square and Calle Real are buzzing with the mix of local residents and travelers, yet not overwhelmingly so. Let’s not forget that this is one of the best coffee regions of Colombia.
Located in the northeast corner of the Quindio department, Salento was the first settlement in the region. Once the main route from Popayán and Cali to Bogotá, the route eventually diverted, slowing the growth of the town. Because of this, Salento has managed to retain more traditional colonial architecture more than other town in the department.
We tend to avoid the major attractions when we arrive in a tourist city. There is always more to do than what the fliers in your hostal say, you just have to do a little sleuthing, especially if you travel with your dog, like we do. So the first thing we did when we arrived in Salento, Colombia, was talk to the locals.
We did not see many listings for any of these tours listed below in town. For such a small town, we found plenty to do during our two week long visit without feeling trapped or bored. Fortunately for us, most of the activities listed below were dog-friendly, so Sora got to tag along.
What to Do in Salento
Don Eduardo Coffee Tour
As you can imagine, being in Colombia’s coffee triangle, you’ll see advertisements for loads of coffee tours in the region, so picking one can be overwhelming. Because we happened to stay at The Plantation House, we discovered Finca Don Eduardo, a local coffee farm.
Tim led us and his two rambunctious (but well-behaved) puppies down the muddy trail to the finca (mud boots are available at Plantation House). Along the walk, Tim explained the various types of coffee grown around the world, the reasons for growing said various types of coffee, and provided an overview of coffee growing culture in Colombia.
Eventually, we arrived at the unofficially organic 7-hectare coffee plantation and took a seat while Tim described the steps to go from bean to cup, while we sipped on freshly hand-roasted “Colombian standard” coffee. (The Colombians export their best coffee and drink the next grade down.)
Once we learned all about coffee production, Tim handed the reigns over to Julio, his finca administrator. We watched the process from start to finish, ending of course, with as much “Export grade” coffee as we wanted to drink. I couldn’t taste too much of a difference between the two, both were fantastic.
Tours run each morning and afternoon (in English and Spanish, respectively) and guests from Plantation House may join and pay anywhere from $20,000 COP (just under $7 USD) to free, depending on the number of nights they stay at the hostal (the fourth night grants a free tour). Depending on the time of the year, you may be able to directly purchase coffee beans from Don Eduardo.
Drink Coffee at Jesus Martin
While Don Eduardo doesn’t sell his coffee by the pound or by the cup at the moment as he exports it all, head to café Jesus Martin for what Tim deems has one of the best Colombian coffees in town.
The cafe is located just off the main square on a quiet side street. Though the cafe maintains its Colombian roots, we felt like we were back home in a hipster coffee shop in Portland, thanks to the vibe and the quality of the coffee.
Trek the Santa Rita Waterfall
Colombia travel is synonymous for off the beaten path, especially for water falls. I asked around about waterfall hikes, and the locals sent us to Santa Rita. Aside from one small horseback ride tour and a couple of locals, we were the only ones on the trail.
A bit tricky to find, we used Maps.Me to navigate our route. The hike basically takes you across private land and along a river before reaching the waterfalls. The path can be muddy, thanks to all the rain and cows grazing, so bring good shoes.
To see our favorite offline apps for cycling and other outdoor adventures, read: The Best Offline Mapping Tools for Cycle Touring
How to Get to the Santa Rita Waterfall
There are a few ways to reach this waterfall. If you want to trek the whole way, walk down the Camino Inca at the end of the road from Plantation House and continue all the way down until you reach a yellow bridge crossing the main road via Trail Once. Cross the yellow bridge, then make a right on a dirt road just past the river from the Finca Hotel Rancho San Antonio. You’ll see camping and picnic tables on the right side. Walk down that path and follow the signs to Cascada Santa Rita.
The other options are to walk down the main road (which is curvy and not really safe, as we learned) and hitch a ride when you’ve decided your nerves have been sufficiently rattled, or hire a jeep from the main plaza to take you to the campground.
Eventually, you’ll arrive to a Y in the road where there is a large gate. Head left beyond the gate and when you arrive at Finca Santa Rita, the owners will charge you 2.000 COP for entry. The path to the waterfall is quite obvious. Continue for about two kilometers until you reach the sketchy bridge crossing over to the waterfall just beyond. Brave the cold if you like and take a dip.
If your feet have a nice crust on them from all the mud, ask the gentleman at the finca if you can rinse off with the hose. Walk back the same way and you can either wait for the bus to take you back (our driver allowed Sora to board), walk, or hitch a ride.
Guided Tour at Kasa Guadua
For a mind-blowing lesson in forest biology and a history of the region, do not miss the Kasa Guadua tour. Owners Nicholas (a Brit) and Carlos (a Colombian) have dedicated the past ten years of their lives to creating this true ecological sanctuary. You’ll see the word “eco” just about everywhere in Salento, but it really means very little in the way of sustainable practices.
Salento, like much of South America, was destroyed by the Spanish when they landed in the 1500s. Upon arrival, Salento was a lush land, covered in thick cloud forest, which the Spanish cut down, as the trees impeded on their goals of conquering the land for their own purposes: Farming and development.
So they cleared the forests and brought their livestock, which sprinkled grass seed and stamped the native seeds into the earth, sending the forest into a deep hibernation.
Kasa Guadua has taken their 12 hectares and welcomed the return of the cloud forest thanks to the awakening of the seed bank. In the 2.5-hour walk, we saw dozens of varied eco-climates that work in harmony because the forest provides exactly what it needs for that particular section of land.
For more eco tourism destinations, read about our outdoor-filled visit to Pachijal Ecolodge in Mindo at Why Dog-Friendly Pachijal Ecolodge is Worth a Visit.
We took a rest at the lodge, where we met Nicholas who served us aguapanela, a local drink made with panela, the local sugar. The entire lodge is made from sustainably-harvested guadua, the bamboo that originates from the region (and to harvest sustainably, it means living in a tent for two years so that you can wake up between the hours of 2-5 in the morning when the water has left the stalk of the plant), uses their own water filtration system, creates their own methane gas used for cooking, and still comes complete with WiFi. Be sure to check out the guest pods made from guadua and a material made from recycled water bottles and plastic bags.
The tour ends with a warm hug from Carlos and a donation of your choosing for the tour.
Local River Trek
This is not an official name by any means, it’s just what I call it, because that’s exactly what it is. After our tour with Kasa Guadua, I asked Carlos for some local hike recommendations we can do with Sora and this is what he suggested.
You’ll take the same Camino Inca route through Plantation House as though you were headed to Santa Rita Waterfall, but continue past the campground for about half a kilometer. When you arrive at the set of shops, ask a local where the trail is located. They’ll point you in the right direction. If you’re there with your dog, then beware the pack of small ones chasing after you. They’re harmless and were mostly puppies when we went.
The path continues along the river and offers some beautiful views of the valley and the mountains above. You’ll walk past fincas and colorful homes. There are several access points to the river where you can wash off your muddy feet from the hike down.
When you come to the red bridge, cross and turn left onto the dirt road. Continue walking along here until you reach the suspension bridge (puente colgante in Spanish) in between some industrial fenced yards. You’ll see a sign for Delifruits, with photos of tons of fruit and juices. Cross the bridge and begin the trek up past Finca El Ocaso.
Continue along the road for four kilometers and you’ll eventually arrive back into town. Stop at the juice stand on the right-hand-side, about halfway up the hill to rest for a moment and suck down some delicious mango juice. Follow the road to head back into town.
Corcora Valley Trail
Everyone comes to Salento to see the giant wax palm trees of the Corcora Valley. The wax palm is the tallest palm tree in the world and is the official tree of Colombia. This is main tourist attraction that everyone visits, however, it is a story of environmental destruction.
Remember, the Spanish came and wiped out the land to create arable land for their livestock. Well, they left the wax palms because they really had no use for their fibrous insides and so today, they are what remain of the forest.
Now, since cows still graze this land, and need grasslands to survive, the unintended consequence of livestock is that the grass blocks out the seed bank, so there is very little to no growth of vegetation that supports the wax palms in a symbiotic relationship. The wax palms attempt to reproduce, but new growth is eaten by the cows, and once they die, all those trees that you look to, high above in the sky, likely won’t be there for long.
The locals joke about the use of the word “forest” in this context, for there are other nearby areas with proper wax palm forests. To give you an idea, the famous Corcora Valley boasts 10,000 wax palms. Visit the Carbonera Valley where over one million wax palms thrive. As we learned at Kasa Guadua, the local ecosystems thrive in a crowded environment where various pests and species coexist in a harmonic state, thus, the wax palms flourish as well.
All right, enough about the loss of the land, let’s talk about the beautiful hike that leads to the wax palm forest. When you hop out of your Jeep, don’t follow the gringos. Head up the road a short distance and enter on the right across from the Cabañas Truchas Cocora and in front of the Nacional Parque Nevado brown sign.
Shortly after entering, a fellow will ask you for 2.000 COP apiece and instruct you to follow the footpath that runs next to the horse path. The trail meanders along a river, through fields, and finally, into a forest sprouting ferns from all angles and the river racing to my right with water spilling over rocks, the dirt transported me back to Oregon.
After about three kilometers, you’ll arrive at a signed intersection that will give you a few options. Either head up and left for the longer route, or directly left where 800m of steep climbing will lead you to a mirador that overlooks the entire valley. Continuing down the nice wide path will lead you to the famous wax palms.
While we encountered many hikers along the trail, we still felt like it was off the tourist path for much of the path (until we headed to the mirador, which is a popular trek).
If you’re traveling with your dog, you’ll need to overcome two obstacles: 1) your driver may give you a hard time about bringing a dog and tell you they’re not allowed anywhere. Either find another driver or convince him to take your dog along; 2) there is a sign that says no dogs allowed at the entrance, but given that street dogs can’t read, and enter freely, we went ahead and continued on in with Sora. Not one person (guide, ticket taker, no one) said a word about Sora, other than that she is pretty, because she is.
We highly recommend taking the short 900m detour from the Corcora Valley Trail to Acaime, a hummingbird sanctuary. The 5.000 COP entry fee includes a warm drink at the cafe, where you can sit and watch dozens of hummingbirds suckle nectar.
Where to Stay and Eat in Salento
Salento, Colombia Hotels
We spent two weeks at Plantation House and highly recommend the tranquil grounds for travelers. The shared kitchen is clean and the rooms cozy with hot showers. The Internet doesn’t reach the rooms, which was a bit of an annoyance, but it is fast, even with all the users. And, if you don’t travel with your own pet like we do, there are four dogs and several cats around to get your animal love on.
Our Favorite Salento Restaurants
Even with just a few roads making up this small town, Salento offered plenty of vegan options.
For the biggest veggie burrito you’ll see in all of South America, spilling over with veggies, beans, sauces, and rice head to Brunch. Another great lunch spot (and the one we frequented most often) was Punto Veggie. The service can be agonizingly slow, but the food is worth the wait. If you don’t opt for the fixed lunch of the day, we recommend the falafel.
For dinner, head to Casa La Eliana (which is also a hotel). Go for the vegan basil and lemongrass curry overflowing with green vegetables, Indian flavors, and all the spice you can handle, if you ask for it. The homemade garlic pita bread is a fabulous change from the drab white tasteless bread available in South America. Oh, and while you’re at it, order a plate of hummus if you’re extra hungry from the hike.
For a nice meal out, try Luciernaga. Slightly pricier than most of the joints in town, the menu offers something for everyone, including a vegan plate that comes with a pile of dreamy garlicky kale, a veggie patty, and grilled vegetables. Sip on a regional craft beer while warming yourself by the fire and listening to the evening live music.