A country with cowboys, colourful villages, coffee, hummingbirds, 70m high palm trees and tejo. And that’s just the beginning.
How much further?
The journey to the Colombian border had been a tiring and cumbersome one and the last thing we needed was long queues and tons of paperwork. No problem, two minutes to get stamped out of Ecuador, two minutes to walk over the bridge to Colombia and another two minutes to get stamped in. Not bad.
Is that all officer?? – we asked the guy behind the window, who was looking at us with the biggest smile we had seen in a while.
That’s all, bienvenidos a Colombia!
From the border, a car took us to La Señora de Las Lajas, an impressive sanctuary just a few minutes away from the border. Another nice surprise.
Apart from the bridge-cathedral, there was not much else to keep us busy and we got on yet another bus to Popayan. This time, only eight hours. By the time we arrived to our bed in Popayan, it felt as though we had left the Cuyabeno Reserve two or twenty days ago, or something like that.
Popayan is one of those lovely towns where you feel at ease almost immediately. Music, fresh fruit, banana frites – by now, Paula’s favourite snack, something remarkable, considering she did not eat bananas before this trip – and lemonade are all available on nearly every corner.
And then we found it, the pool hall, the heart of Popayan. At least for the male population for there are no women there. Inside the hall, a small coffee shop, slot machines, a few tables with classic board games and about ten pool and snooker tables. Two gentlemen were kind enough to explain the games, the bets and the protocol that rule these places. And since they had our ear, they went on talking about Colombia, women, politics, coffee and a million other things.
The town market was not the cleanest or most inviting we had seen in our travels, but the food court looked good enough and their zancocho – chicken soup with corn, yuca, plantain and a few other bits and bobs – did the job quite nicely. Next please.
Let’s just not talk about the bus ride for once. Let’s talk about colours, for when one arrives in Salento, the dreadful journey through the hills of Quindio is quickly forgotten at the sight of its main street Calle Real.
Despite all these colours, we were a bit wary of Salento. In the heart of the coffee triangle, high on everyone’s Colombian route plan, it had everything to be another Pingyao: a pretty town ruined by souvenir shops and a soulless atmosphere. Luckily it wasn’t.
Sure there were a few shops selling this and that, but they blended in fine. Salento is real, it feels real. Another small town where you can walk anywhere, a lively square, old cars and cowboys.
We visited an organic coffee plantation. Banana trees to provide shade for the coffee plant, pineapples to attract bugs, different harvest times to control production and more than twenty years of wisdom. The only electrical machine is the one to pack the coffee. Inspiring.
Just four days in Colombia, but it feels like it has been four weeks.
Football and Tejo
Like in Popayan, there was a large pool hall here where we watched Spain trash Turkey at the European Championship. Hopefully they’ll continue on to win it (update: they did not).
But Salento is also home to another popular sport – not sure if it can be called sport though – in Colombia: el tejo. A weird mix between petanque and fireworks. I can see it becoming quite popular in the UK, especially the fireworks part.
Like with petanque, each participant throws a heavy iron object – called the tejo – with the idea of hitting the centre of a target board made of fresh clay. The twist is that in such centre, there are two to four sachets of gun powder. And when the tejo hits the powder… bang! (There is some scoring system behind the game as well, but I very much doubt anyone cares about it).
Yes, Paula won. And she was happy.
After another stroll through town we came back to the same place to watch Colombia take on Peru, in the Copa America. Colombia won on penalties, with the inevitable party on the streets of Salento. Hopefully they will go all the way to the final and win it whilst we are on the country. That would be cool. (update: they did not)
A date with giants
At 07.30h we jumped on the first jeep heading to the Cocora Valley. Like in the Philippines, they have recycled these former World War II vehicles and turn them into a reliable public transport system. Ours was from 1954, and still rocking. They don’t make cars like this one anymore.
Another day hike ahead of us, most likely the last one of our trip. The weather looks good, the path is well marked and the setting is unbeatable. Let’s go.
Passing through dense forest and listening to tropical birds, we were hoping, naively, to spot a bear or a jaguar. Our thirst for something exciting had to make do with crossing a few bridges that had seen better days. Nothing to complain about really.
We knew that, hidden away at the end of a short path, there was a hummingbird sanctuary. With nothing to lose and very low expectations, we headed that way only to be, almost literally, blown away by the twenty or so little fellows who fearlessly and constantly flew around us.
After a wrong turn and the subsequent detour, we got back on track and came across the perfect mushroom – sorry, I had to sneak in this picture somehow.
And from something rather short, to something rather high. Enter the reason why this valley has become so popular, the national tree and symbol of Colombia, the Quindio wax palm.
Each palm tree takes one year to germinate and 20 years to reach a height of 3 metres. Some of these fellows can reach 70 metres high, and are about 150 or 200 years old. Following a long struggle, they are now protected and it is a joy to admire them in the valley.
What a day. As if we had been travelling for eleven months just to be there, at that precise moment.
Back in Salento, our hostel’s owner came over to say hi. He, too, was from Spain and, just like us, had spent almost ten years in London. One day, he sold everything, took his savings and came to Salento to start a new life. He said life here is easy, business is good and the time is now. From what I have seen so far, I have to agree.
(Note to our mothers: don’t worry please, we are still coming back to Europe, for now)
A touch of history, the best frijoles on earth and more colours, loads more.