Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Salento - Zona Cafetera

As we are quickly learning, the places on our itinerary with which we expect the least always seem to surprise us and remind us not to judge a book by its cover. An example of this is Salento, a small town nestled in the corazón, or heart, of the country. Renowned for its location within Zona Cafetera, the area famous for producing most of Colombia's coffee, we expected an education on coffee production and a few days of relaxation. El Ocaso was the self-sustained eco-coffee farm chosen and we weren't disappointed; we picked coffee beans by hand, used aged machines to split the beans apart, learnt about the unexpectedly long farming process (eight years from seed to cup) and tasted traditionally made local blends. 

Salento town itself was centred around a large square with cobbled uneven streets running off it at all angles. We sampled a taste of local street food; delicious toasted maize flatbreads with ricotta cheese called arepas and charcoaled herby sausages on sticks whilst meandering in and out of the bohemian artesian boutique shops. 

Later that evening, accompanied by our new friends from the hostel, we accidentally stumbled across a private birthday party. Invited in by the host and offered the aniseed-flavoured spirit of aguadiente, we donned our paper sombreros and eye masks and joined the huge congo trail snaking round the pub. Later on, drenched in silly string and clutching our piñata winnings we took part in a saucy Colombian version of 'pin the tail on the donkey' - besides the posters of naked men and women were small children dancing their best salsa steps, a very bizarre combination. After copious amounts of cerveja and aguadiente we bode our new friends buenos noches and walked the 1km back in the pouring rain. Try as it might, the weather couldn't dampen our spirits after a fantastic evening immersed in the local culture. 

Day two and following a half hour ride in the back on a battered old Jeep, we arrived at Valle de Cocora, a beauty spot known for its towering palm trees and vibrant landscapes. Convinced by my companions (most of whom were suffering from the night before) I climbed on a horse that was to take us to a waterfall further in to the valley (I should take a moment to explain that I hate horses and am quite frightened of them). Turns out the Spanish word for horse is very similar to the word for onion - and I wondered why I got a strange look from our guide!
After a unsteady start, we were on our way to the cascade which can be seen miles out. En route were the famous palm trees everywhere. Whether they sprang up naturally or were planted by man, they loom eerily over the landscape creating a jagged skyline broken up by vivid purple flowering trees and coffee plantations which created a beautiful scenic view. The waterfall was a crashing torrent of water thanks to the downpour the previous evening and was a pleasant reward after the muddy horse ride. 
Back into town for the evening and we dined on local dishes of bandeja paisa, a mix of rice, beans, salad, meat and fried banana and trucha, a trout delicacy served simply with garlic and plantain. We had been told of a bar where it's possible to play tejo, a game which consists of throwing rocks at firecrackers on a metal ring sat on a clay board in the hope that they explode. Sounds easy right? Wrong! Without sounding like a tradesman blaming their tools, we looked like complete amateurs amongst the other gringos playing as all evening, we only managed two explosions (which obviously we blamed on faulty equipment). After a few drinks in the square with some locals we headed back to our eco-farm hostel for the last time before making tracks for Cali the next day. What we had pinned as a sleepy town with only one coffee shaped bow to its string turned out to be an exciting hidden gem which provided us with a couple of the best days we've had in a while.