A horse begins to neigh. Its thick brown mane blew madly in the wind. Its hind legs tapped anxiously along the muddy road. A man in a simple plaid shirt and some rubber rainboots gently pats it on the forehead before leading it towards a small wooden stable that sat quietly at the foothill, before a greying sky.
Just on the other side of the hill awaits fields of lush, narrow wax palm trees that reach 60 meters; high grounds made of steep, rocky paths that lead to changing landscapes; a collection of endless turning paths, each more beautiful than the last.
This, is Cocora Valley.
It is a week before September, and I have decided to spend another day in Salento, Colombia on a last minute’s notice. I grabbed a piece of stale bread and headed out of the refurbished wooden lodge. Followed by a troop of five handsome puppies, I greeted the Austrian couple before we climbed up the grassy grounds that overlooked vast farmlands, through a field of ripe coffee beans leading towards a little rocky road that awaits public jeeps in the direction of Salento’s town plaza.
In the maps of the mind, pull away from this collection of greenery and take in the horizon where the sky meets land, a few clouds look over beautiful fincas, dirt roads and lush meadows, livestock and poultry, a world of seeming simplicity that differs significantly from Bogota or Medellin, the two large cities just hours away.
A country of contrasts and variations, Colombia is both the geographic connection between South and Central America and home to a range of landscapes. Marked by ocean views and mountain stays, rainforests and deserts, it was the picturesque landscape Salento offered that truly captivated me.
As a part of Colombia’s premier coffee region, Salento is located in the department of Quindío, one of the six departments that make up Eje Cafetero, or the coffee growing axis. The “Coffee Cultural Landscape” of Colombia was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2011. Its importance is reflected in the FNC, the largest international rural non-profit in favor of coffee growers’ interests.
Similar to the sociopolitical influence of tea in China, the presence of coffee impacted Colombia’s trade policies, economics, and of course, became a forming aspect of its history. From its first commercial production in the 19th century to it eventually becoming a part of Colombia’s national identity, coffee harvesting has come a long way. The emergence of Starbucks and other international chains changed the dynamics of grocery-bought stock, meaning rebranding Colombian coffee to suit the changing scopes of the coffee market.
Surrounded by a wealth of coffee knowledge in an abundance of coffee-producing land, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that in addition to the right temperature and climate, beans are also hugely influenced by their neighboring plants. Say, the influence of apple trees to the taste of a dark roast is different from that of oranges. Like wine, a slight change will result in a different batch of coffee beans.
There are no two batches alike.
Despite the international competition, these hand-harvested beans remain some of the best in the world. These farmers’ passion for their livelihood can be felt in the air.
Salento, Colombia Town Center
I arrived at Salento in the morning. The hour-long minibus ride from Armenia dropped us off at the plaza, a journey that cost COP 4500 (US 1.5).
When we stepped onto Salento, Colombia’s main square, the town was just coming out of a deep slumber. The morning sky was still, collected, and a tad cool. The plaza was surrounded by rows of colorful houses. In the background, a range of mountains stood amid some disappearing fog. To the east, the sun rose steadily upward. Rays of sunshine began reflecting off the multi-colored structures, showering the peaceful neighborhood with beams of golden rays.
Everyone left for their respective hostels or hotels. So I stood in the streets, with a couple of sweepers afar, watching the sun dance.
In Salento, Colombia, I stayed on a beautiful Eco-tourism farm some 20 minutes outside of the town center. The farm is operated by Freddy, a former WWF researcher who decided to engage in local work after staying with a native population in the Amazon jungle for two years.
The story is as fascinating as it is bizarre. Freddy’s recollection of lost nails and raw meat, cultural confusion and eventual enlightenment all contributed to his mission in preserving Colombia’s alluring nature.Freddy picked me up on his motorbike from the plaza. After riding through a narrow, rocky path between lush green farmlands, we arrived on top of a verdant hill. Looking down, a carpet of grassy field stretched into the cloudless sky. In the middle of the field sat a simple wooden lodge. To the right, another small structure was being built. To the left, a slight downhill patch led to jade-green forestry. The stillness of this landscape was interrupted by a mild breeze that seemed to awaken all sorts of living beings. Suddenly, a big white creature began barking its way up the hill. As Freddy bent down to greet it, another few followed suit.
On the farm lived 5 dogs, 3 goats, 2 cats, 2 pigs, a sheep, and some horses. It was literally zooderland.
For years now, Omoki has been operating with the philosophy of conservationism. Its commitment to the Colombian Salento community is realized through local coffee tours, meals, a protected forest, and an ongoing mission to better the livelihood of local farmers and protect the growth of surrounding plantation. The sister foundation engages with government organizations to implement initiatives that reflect its motto of nature preservation. It is a truly communal experience.
A jeep towards the town center would come by every hour or so to pick up passengers. These rides cost COP 3000 (US 1) one way and act as a great way to see Salento, Colombia and its surroundings. During my time at the hostel, I met an Austrian couple that was backpacking across Colombia. We decided to tackle the Cocora Valley trail together.
From the central plaza, jeeps to the Cocora Valley are easily accessible. These 20-minute rides are COP 4000 one way and generally purchased as round-trip tickets from the booth by the park. The lines are easily identifiable, as tens of tourists lounge around waiting for their turn towards the valley.
Knowing how unpredictable rain season can be and how cloudy these geographical regions tend to get, I was wary of being stuck in the middle of the mountains on a gloomy day.
But that’s what we got.
When we arrived at the valley grounds, the morning sun already dipped behind a sky of grey. The few spots of blue in the background was quickly clouded over by the mass above. After getting our belongings, the three of us began to hike a four-hour trail that ended up taking seven hours.
The Cocora Valley has numerous hiking trails. One wrong turn and visitors are easily get lost within the mountain ranges. The area known for wild pumas, bears, and other intriguing creatures. After discussing with our host the night before, we were recommended to take La Cascada, a seldom hiked trail crossing bridges, into forests, over the top of a mountain, and bypassing the many ticketing stations.
Once we arrived at the valley grounds, we headed leftward towards La Cascada.
Having spent his life in Slaneto, my host knew the valley inside out. When we asked for his opinion, Freddy grabbed a pencil and a piece of paper and drew out the trails from the back of his mind. I mean, when we took the path, we verified that he even pinpointed the exact amount of bridge & lake crossings.
What Freddy didn’t warn us of though, is that La Cascada was gated by a wooden barrier.
Now, we should have known that something was off when an hour or so back, a couple of locals who saw us walking this route advised us to turn around. But at that point, we’ve already bravely tackled a few broken wooden bridges, valiantly climbed several boulder hills, and cautiously crossed rock linings & mud puddles. It was 3 hours into the hike.
We were pretty determined to finish the trail.
So when we saw the wooden gate, few looks and words were exchanged before we decided to hop that fence and see what mother nature has in store.
Mind you; I never thought I’d be hopping fences in a jungle in Colombia, especially a jungle that is known for its animal presence. In fact, we weren’t even sure whether this was the right trail. But it was too late now. And sometimes, the mystery is what makes a trip.
The meter-wide trail led upward into the mountain. With dense, spectacular bushes and trees lining the road, it was only possible to see clearly, the space ahead. It was calm, too calm. Rid the chirping of crickets and the occasional rustle of leaves; the forest seemed peaceful, relaxed, asleep. Yet, this stillness came with it a range of imperceptible motion; you can sense it in the air, smell it in the breeze, feel it in the winds- the liveliness that sat just behind the external quietude.
We’d stop every once in a while to examine the forest, to listen to the silence, to make sure that nothing was coming our way. Nothing did-but I had a stick in hand, just in case.
Once we emerged from the trees, droplets began spontaneously washing the valley from above. By then, I was physically spent. I started dragging myself up and down with a third leg-a fallen branch-turned walking stick that I depended heavily upon.
It was well worth it.
The rest of the walk was simple. Following a group downhill, we came across a ticketing station that charged COP 3000 to continue onwards towards one of the most sight-worthy destinations in Cocora.
Photos of Cocora Valley, especially those of incredibly tall, thin palm trees, are everywhere. Against the backdrop of vast greenery, and sometimes, heavy mist, the wax palm trees in Colombia stand proudly. These beautiful species dot the valley, towering above fields of grassland and mountain roads. They are recognized as the national tree of Colombia and can grow up to 60 meters (200ft).
Just when we crossed the ticketing fence, rays of sunshine began to emerge from the clouds. The valley was immediately transformed from a mysterious beast into a summer wonderland. Our clothes quickly dried up, and we happily wandered along the main road, over downed fences, relishing in this tropical radiance.
An hour later, we finally made it back to the gate that housed all the inbound/outbound jeeps and made our way back to Salento, Colombia. In the city, I broke my budgeting ways and had a delicious meal at a fancy restaurant near the plaza. Since we missed the last jeep towards Freddy’s finca, the three of us engaged in another hour-long walk that was accompanied by a descending sun.
The next morning, I bid farewell to Freddy and his adorable army of pets, and boarded a bus towards Medellin and continued with my Colombian venture.
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