Free Willy: Riding the Back Roads Around Salento

The Willy in question is neither a killer whale nor the future King of England. Willys Jeeps are the workhorse vehicles synonymous with Colombia’s mountainous coffee region. Their use dates back to 1946 when they were acquired post-WWII for coffee farmers.

Thanks to their indestructible chassis, four-wheel drive, ability to tackle any terrain and carry heavy loads, they are both the logical choice for locals and a thrill ride for tourists.

Of course, they are not actually free, but at 4,500 pesos or roughly CA$1.50, this is a bargain ride. Don’t expect comfort or seatbelts or even a working dashboard (speedometer and gas gauge weren’t working) but with eight healthy adults crammed in the back, two sitting shotgun with the driver and three more hanging on the back, this was, as they say down east, some fun.

Willys Jeeps line up in the central square and although there is a departure schedule, as soon as there are enough passengers to fill a jeep, they take off. The main destination is the glorious Corcora Valley, about a half-hour out of town.

The Corcora Valley is part of Los Nevados National Park and was established as a protected site in 1985, in order to prevent further loss of the Quindio Wax Palm. The National Tree of Colombia was under threat due to the harvesting of its palms, particularly for Palm Sunday. The National Park serves to protect these magnificent trees, as well as other flora and fauna that are endemic to the area.

There are two ways to hike the Valley – the long route (15 km. and described as challenging) or the short route (under 5 km. and leading right to the wax palms and a couple of lookouts). We chose the latter.

Naturally, where there are more than three tourists at any attraction, there will be food stalls, souvenir stands and photo-op sites. What I love about Latin Americans is how unabashed they are about enjoying themselves. If they are going out, they give it all they’ve got. It was fun to watch Colombians line up for their chance to be photographed in this “wax palm.”

Once we were on the path leading to the valley, the crowds cleared out and we were able to savour the beauty in solitude. The shorter hike takes about one and a half hours, but there so much to see and every corner brings another spectacular view. We took this route in part because of the length, and in part because it was described as being ” difficult to get lost.”

We have yet to become tragically, dangerously lost, but we do have a talent for falling off the path from time to time. We added another two or three kilometres to this hike by going down one road when everyone else was following another.

We ran into these folks on the trail; we had previously seen them in Salento. They are a French family, currently living in Australia and travelling through South America for eight months. Their baby was just four months old and their little girl appeared to be about three or four. They were having the best time (right away I thought of changing diapers, GI issues, long bus rides), and they reminded me of why I love travel so much. You meet people who see opportunities before they see obstacles and it makes you realize that “comfort zone” is a relative term.

It’s hard not to be knocked out by the sight of these breathtaking wax palms. They are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before and they simply command your attention. They thrive in higher altitudes, which is unusual for palm trees. Their stem is covered in wax, which is used to make candles; they live up to 200 years and can grow to 70 meters in height. All of this is just details -it is enough just to stare at them and of course, take many, many photos.

We were exceptionally lucky with the weather, which is extremely changeable in this area and is frequently shrouded in view-obscuring clouds. We read of travellers trudging in pouring rain and losing their shoes in inches-thick mud. Our day was warm but not hot, with just enough cloud to add atmosphere.

If you choose to explore the valley on horseback, there are dozens of sturdy little packhorses ready to do the heavy lifting.

Although it would appear if you are a glossy Paso Fino horse, you never have to break a sweat or have your ribs kicked by nervous gringos. Your job is to photogenically roam the green pastures.

We reached the summit and sat for about half an hour enjoying the view before making our way back down.

Which brings us back to Salento, a hilly and colourful small town right in coffee country. There are several working coffee fincas (farms) around Salento and a number that offer tours. (More on that later).

If Jardin is quiet and tranquil, Salento is most definitely on the tourist map. It is not particularly easy to get here. From Jardin, we had two four-hour bus rides on bumpy mountain roads, but it was well worth the effort.

We had a 10-minute walk from the bus station uphill to our cute little hotel ( just four cabins). Ours is the one on the right – wide plank floors, rough white plaster walls, and a lovely balcony overlooking town.

The staff at our hotel were so welcoming and lovely. We ran into one of our hosts in town, walking his dog Milo. As you can imagine a Newfoundland dog in Colombia attracts a lot of attention.

Salento’s streets are filled with beautifully painted houses and shops. It’s not a big town, but with very few flat areas other than the main square, you get a good workout just wandering around.

We stopped here for coffee and a croissant. The art and design was at least as good as the food.

Good design is prominent in Salento, both in the shops and in the crafts displayed within. There are a number of same-same tourist shops, but there are at least as many with finer quality goods.

Even the doorways and flower baskets beckon.

Not everything in Salento is soft and shiny. If you have a hankering for target practice on the main street, within feet of unsuspecting passersby, this is your guy. I love that he is considering safety first by wearing his mask.

Then there is the El Danubio, an old-school bar that is 90% populated by pool-playing men and committed daytime drinkers. Someone selling watches takes up a side table, and while women are allowed, they are fewer in number. The bartender, with walrus mustache and unsmiling demeanor, adds to the vibe.

So does this fellow. Not the guy you’d necessarily want to have your back in a bar fight, but definitely part of the landscape.

It was in Salento that Stephen realized he was getting a bit scruffy and it was time to hit one of the so-cool barbershops for a beard trim and hair cut. Colombian men take their haircuts very seriously. Facial hair is not common, unless it is a barely-there chin strap, but hair is the thing. Precision shaving up the back and sides, with a thick thatch of hair on top and down the back.

Trying to create the same effect on an older, greying Canadian man did not for one moment daunt Stephen’s barber. He ignored Stephen’s request to not shave too close, and he was right. Beard trimmed, hair styled and even a bit of product was added before Stephen could protest. The final result.

And, finally, off to a coffee farm for a tour and tasting. We settled on El Ocaso, a coffee finca about five kilometres out of town. We decided to walk there and take a Willys jeep back, which was perhaps not the best idea, as somehow we entirely missed the access to the back road and found ourselves trudging along the main highway.

This twisty, much-travelled highway, filled with blind corners and no shoulders was probably one of the least-safe things we’ve done recently, but once on, we kept walking as we had no idea what else to do. We took a little comfort in the fact that the many cyclists passing us by were also in a precarious situation.

They didn’t seem to think so – they all called out, “Buenos Dias” to us as they climbed up the same hills we were thankfully walking down.

Once off the main highway, we finally found ourselves on a back road, but our AllTrails map disappeared and we relied on locals, including a couple who, worryingly, had never heard of the finca.

Our map kicked in again, to reassure us we were just 1.2 km. away. With confirmation from some dog walkers, we crossed a bridge and climbed up a slippery, narrow path with mud cut-outs to emerge, sweating and a bit frantic, at the top. People were strolling down the path that had somehow eluded us but we made it in time for the 11:00 English tour.

Our charming guide Antonio began with an overview of the different types of coffee beans and why this part of the country has ideal growing conditions (altitude, rain, cool nights, warm days, etc.). He also told us, with a hint of resentment, that Colombians usually only get second-grade beans; the top quality beans are exported, as obviously they bring in more money for the growers.

We then tied baskets around our waists and were given 15 minutes to pick coffee cherries that were either red or yellow. He warned us it would be slim pickings, as the main harvest times are April-May and October-November.

Indeed, most of us only picked a dozen or so, and in the case of my dear husband, he found nothing (I shared my beans), but he does look a bit lost in the jungle in this photo.

I realized too late that I neglected to take a closeup shot of a coffee plant. They are unremarkable this time of year – green beans against green leaves, but in the photo below, the coffee plants are the ones at the bottom, under the palms. It will give you an idea of size and shape of plant.

We examined out pitiful little offerings, and cracked open the “cherry” to reveal two beans within. They have a sweet “musilage” covering them, so we were led to the drying greenhouses to see the drying process in action. Beans are laid out and turned several times a day, until they are dry and then ready for roasting.

This sign helped to explain the entire process, from picking to roasting.

We ended our tour with a tasting, which Antonio led by explaining, much like wine, how to “taste” coffee and what notes to look for. I love coffee, but I have to say, I find Colombian coffee a bit bitter, and lacking in nuanced full-body flavour. Nonetheless, the tour was extremely interesting and informative.

We rode back home hanging on the back of a Willys jeep, which was exciting until our arms began to ache. First chance we had, we jumped inside and had fun trying to speak with our fellow passengers.

We leave tomorrow for Bogota for a day and a half before we fly to Quito, Ecuador. We will miss Colombia and the warmth and friendliness of Colombians. Hopefully we will be back again one day.

20 thoughts on “Free Willy: Riding the Back Roads Around Salento

  1. How interesting ! You brave people but how fantastic you both look. Steven sure cleans up well !!!! Ginny, you look 20 years younger so keep doing what you are doing. We found the best way to see a country was to get lost and it looks like you’re doing plenty of that. Don & I spent about 4 nights in Quito when we went tot he Galapagos Islands. I think you are doing that too. I really look forward to seeing pictures and how you like it. Lonesome Charlie was still alive when we were there in 2010, We, & another couple, hired a cab to drive us to Ota Valo (2 hr N.E. of Quito) and well worth it. Lots of poverty on the outskirts of Quito. We stayed in the Marriott. Know you will enjoy the rest of your trip. Loved the blog today. Thanks. Lyn Morris


    1. Glad to hear we appear younger – we are almost always the oldest folks in the room, it seems! We’re booked for 8 nights in Quito, since there are a couple of day trips we want to do – including Otavalo, and there is so much in the city to see. Also, we’re anticipating we will need a day or two to adjust to altitude. We’ve got 10 days in Galapagos – 5 in Santa Cruz and 5 in San Cristobal and we’ll do boat tours form both islands. Can’t wait – getting to Galapagos really feels like a priviledge.


      1. I’m so glad you have lots of time on the islands and doing tours. Hope you see the tiny penguins which are only there. I loved the land iguanas & the Marine Iguanas are everywhere. I believe you are in the rainy season (Jan, – April) so we were told. there were no leaves on the trees when we were there (June) Hope you see the giant land tortoise. They seemed the size of a mini Volkswagon beetle. Enjoy !!!.


        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Ginny, you are both looking great. Have shared your posts with Beth, as these are the places they were in with Oscar. Love your posts. We leave for home tomorrow, it’s been great visiting with Simon. 😍


  3. Oh Ginny. I must be losing it. Just realized I said the tortoise was Lonesome Charlie when I meant Lonesome George. He was quite famous as he was the last of the tortoise from one of the Galapagos (Punta I think) and they tried to mate him but guess poor old guy was too old and wasn’t interested anymore !. I read my diary today and it brought all the memories back. We had such a good time there. I think Lonesome George was 108 years old when we were there.

    Lyn Morris


    1. Thanks Kris, but if I wasn’t writing a blog, I probably wouldn’t be doing the extra research. This blog is really good for me – it forces me to write a journal and it also forces me to check things I was curious about and would otherwise “look up later” ( read: never)


  4. We enjoyed Salento and have been waiting to see if you visited. The palms are amazing. We find that barbers never seem to understand “just a little “.


    1. We’re a little sad to leave – we catch our bus to Pereira in an hour and then on to the airport to fly to Bogota. Colombia has been so much more than we anticipated and as is always the case – you miss as much as you see. Next time.


    1. Thanks Danielle – we are now in our hotel in Bogota, and just got back from supper, after stern warnings from our hotel manager to be careful, as Bogota is “peligroso”. So naturally we became paranoid and scurried back before 9:00. We’re not in mellow coffee country anymore!


  5. Love your blogs Ginny! Fabulous travelling. Columbia, ha, a land of colour and warmth. It is nice to see the hills and villages. Kudos to getting lost at least a little bit. Love your cabin.


    1. It is colour and warmth here, and that description includes the people. We’ve been chatting with a lot of other tourists (some Canadians, but mainly Europeans), and they all love Colombia, and they all mention how great the people are here.


  6. As a coffee lover, I found your trip to a coffee plantation very interesting – something to think about the next time I sip on a cup of Columbian coffee!


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