Total distance travelled: 41,834 kilometres (25,983.85 miles)
When we first pencilled Colombia into our itinerary, admittedly there were many places we’d not yet heard of, and this was another of those.
Back during our time in El Salvador’s Juayua, we became friends with an English couple, Shaun & Charlotte, and it was whilst looking through some of their travel pics on Facebook when I spotted one, queried where it was and was told the Colombian town of Salento.
Since that moment, it had been in my mind and a certainty as far as I was concerned for our Colombian travel itinerary.
That is when we tucked it in as a waypoint on our journey from Medellin to Bogota, and as such is also why we found ourselves deposited in the bus terminal of Armenia (the nearest major town to Salento) at around 5am!
A rough overnight bus journey had preceded this, but we decided that although microbus services to Salento were scheduled to commence from around 5:30am, we figured we may as well loiter (by loiter I mean attempt to sleep) in the bus terminal, as who knows whether there would be one in our final destination, or anything else open at this early hour.
That’s also why, even with the journey between the two towns only around 45 minutes long, we didn’t find ourselves in Salento’s main plaza until the hour was nudging 8am.
First business was find a hostel, which proved fairly simple (our first selection had a vacancy, gave us a warming coffee and offered to keep our bags until check-in time), and as we were in town so early, we figured we may as well head directly to the Valle de Cocora, the place that attracted us to Salento.
Although this place sits a few kilometres out of town, there are jeep services that run from the main plaza at set hours of the day. Our hostel had confirmed what time the next jeep run would be, so we grabbed a breakfast of yoghurt and cakes from a nearby supermarket and sat down to wait.
Eventually it was time to saddle up, although the system here is rather random.
Rather than grab tickets in advance, people just begin to pile in and you pay for the ride at the other end.
In this case, the other end was the Valle de Cocora after a bumpy, but scenic ride through some mountainous countryside.
On arrival, we began to wander in the general direction we thought the valley lay, shortly coming to a juncture where it branched to the right into some hiking trails.
We left this alone, instead focused on our goal, the valley that lay ahead.
So what had me so excited?
Well this place is a protected sanctuary for Colombia’s national tree, the Wax Palm, in fact the tallest growing palm in the world.
A little further along the trail, although trail is a bit of a misnomer at this point, as in reality it was still a dirt road, we came to a small tent where a gentleman stood collecting entrance fees, which we duly paid, then began our walk through what felt like some grazing land.
We’d sighted the odd palm up until this point, but before long it felt like we’d arrived and this place made a first impression that didn’t disappoint!
Palms are something that normally evokes desert or tropical setting, but to put them in an Alpine environment, or better yet a somewhat clouded, misty valley and the image was something special.
There was a gradual incline to the path we were taking, although it wasn’t long that I lead Sarah off the road and onto the slightly damp grass, all in an effort to get closer to these stunning trees.
As we continued to climb, we eventually left the valley behind, and although there was the addition of other vegetation as we entered the cloud forest, for the majority of the climb, the palms remained ever present.
Eventually even these gave out to conifers, and finally after about a 5 kilometre uphill walk we found the end of the trail and the highest point we could reach on La Montana at 2,860 metres.
There were also several groups of hikers here (as well as a shop selling food and refreshments), whom we soon learned had arrived from another direction.
Directly below this point (around 800 metres below) sat a river in a valley, and it was along this they had hiked, before a steep ascent to this point. It turns out that this was where we too would have arrived from had we taken that early fork in the road.
It also turns out that if you travel in from this direction there is also nobody collecting the entrance fee, but for the measly sum we paid, that was of little concern to us.
Still, we decided we may as well return the way these people had come, and so began our scramble down to the vale with river, and its muddy paths below.
We met many making the ascent as we made our descent, most of whom were sucking air into their lungs as heartily as they could.
Thankfully for us, given we were descending it was, but for the danger of slipping, a much easier experience.
Once below, for the most part, when we weren’t doing our best to avoid the mud, it was a rather scenic walk beside the river, although at times the trail often traversed it, either by means of bridge (often rickety looking and missing planks) or on occasion by means of large rocks.
Eventually this forest made way for grazing land as we entered a 2nd valley which would ultimately links with the first, whilst the terrain began to almost look as though we’d suddenly emerged somewhere in Europe!
By this time we were starting to feel fatigued, both from our walk, but also from the fact that we’d each had only a few hours’ sleep on our rather uncomfortable bus journey the previous night.
Not wishing to miss the next jeep connection back to town, we soldiered on, eventually making it back to our initial drop off point, which also doubled as a marshalling area of sorts for the jeeps, well content with our 12 kilometre journey!
Needless to say, we didn’t plan do all that much with our evening.
How quickly plans can change!
Whilst lunching on some well-earned hamburgers, we got chatting with a travelling American and German who said we needed to check out this local bar come evening.
Not for the raucous party scene, but rather to have a peek at an indigenous Colombian game known as Tejo (or Cancha de Tejo, its full name).
A local on hand helped give us directions, where apparently participation is free, as long as you grab a beer or two.
So around 6ish we wandered around trying to find it (ultimately we were on the wrong street), before eventually finding the place courtesy of its dimly lit doorway.
Within sat a few weathered locals sipping a brew or 2, and but for a couple of unused pool tables in a back room, we couldn’t see anything of this local game.
Still, we ordered a couple of beers, at which point the young man behind the bar asked if we’d like to see Tejo.
Given that it was the sole reason we were here and not resting, we jumped at the offer, at which point he lead us back into the room with the pool tables, and through a large steel door into what resembled a dark warehouse.
He flicked a switch which immediately illuminated the place, then proceeded to explain to use Tejo.
So what is it?
Apparently devised long ago by 2 men quarreling over the heart of a young girl, it goes something like this.
A metal ring is placed on an angled bed of clay, on which are evenly placed 4 triangular paper parcels filled with gunpowder.
Two players go head to head tossing a large lead or iron object (I keep going to call it a puck, but have no idea of the correct name), and the highest score wins.
Points are awarded thus:
- Toss and with the impact ignite a gunpowder parcel = 3 points
- Toss and land it in the centre of the ring = 6 points
- Toss, ignite the gunpowder and land in the ring = 9 points
- Should none of the above be scored, it’s simply closest to the ring = 1 point
First player to 20 points is deemed the winner, also if a toss hits the backboard behind the clay bed, it is deemed ineligible.
As this was being explained and demonstrated, a couple of other gringos arrived, so we decided to play against them in teams of 2.
To our un-practiced arms, this was a challenge, and needless to say, no 9 pointers were scored across 2 games, only one 6 pointer (by yours truly) and at least 1 instance across the games where we each set fire to some gunpowder with an ear splitting bang!
It was good fun, and ultimately finished with the scores tied at one game apiece, before we retired, very ready for bed.
We lingered in Salento for all of the following day as well, our plan being to grab a night bus that evening to take us on to Bogota.
This gave us the time to have a sleep in, catch up on emails, and the like, as well as have a little further explore.
Close to our hostel sat a mirador, about 230 steps high according to Sarah’s counting efforts, which gave us a great view over the town.
Probably the highlight of this day however, predominantly a day of leisure, was the discovery of a great coffee dispensing delicious coffee (surprisingly, despite its export status, most coffee served to us in Colombia has been rubbish) and just as scrumptious cakes.
As such, we thoroughly enjoyed our beverages, accompanied with coffee brownie and lemon tart which we shared between us.
* We made the journey to Salento in two parts. An overnight bus journey from Medellin to Armenia for $40,000.00 COP per person (was supposed to take 7 hours, but took 5 and a half), followed by a colectivo from Armenia to Salento for $4,000.00 COP per person.
* A jeep from Salento’s main plaza to the entrance of Valle de Cocora will cost you $3,400.00 COP per person (and the same for the return journey).
* Entrance into the valley is a ridiculously cheap $3,000.00 COP per person.
* Participation in Cancha de Tejo at Los Amigos (Carrera 4a No. 3-32) is free, just so long as you make sure you buy at least one drink!