If you’re visiting Colombia’s ‘Zona Cafetera’, you’re already bound to have the gorgeous town of Salento on your radar. This popular mountain centre is probably best to visit during the week, as come the weekend, it swells with the tourist load and can feel a wee bit Disneyfied.
Aside from the beautifully green hills and coffee plantations that surround Salento, the other major draw is none other than Valle de Cocora – but let’s get to that at the end of this post.
Salento has preserved its its original colourful charms. Once you get past the feeling that it all seems a little contrived and too perfect – with its multi-coloured houses, hanging baskets of flowers and street musicians – it’s a charming spot to easily spend a couple of days.
There are plenty of cookie cutter souvenir, local craft and poncho stores, so you could easily fill your bags with just about anything you really don’t need.
Aside from that, lets take a look at what you can do in Salento.
Mirador Salento – located at the top of town
So you’ve done all your shopping in Salento and you’re in need of a little grown-up drink. Especially after you’ve schlepped it up and down that enormous stairway to the mirador, in the steamy heat, to take in the spectacular view of the surrounding valleys.
Almost as soon as you lift your foot from the final step, look to your right and you’ll see a restaurant decked in wood with an inviting balcony that’s beckoning for you to sit.
Order yourself a granizado de cerveza (see above pic) from the guy at the front, grab a seat on the balcony and take a good old sip.
What is it?
Well, it’s a beer frappé, my friends, and it’s actually really good. Possibly even good for you. Apparently they do food or burgers or something, but let’s just focus on that plastic cup of goodness.
Sheriff Hamburguesas, Carrera 6
Once you’ve emptied your cup of granizado and delt with the thumping brain-freeze, take a few more steps down Carrera 6 and order yourself a red wine or mojito from Cafe Del Alma.
Have a seat inside the cabaña-like cafe, or outside on one of the tiny wooden stools, sip on your beverage and watch the town go by.
Cafe Del Alma, Carrera 6
After a round or two at the cafe, pay up and walk across the road to the sprawling Camino Real Parrilla Bar.
Some choose to sit in the main restaurant building, but forget that and make your way into the garden and find your preferred seat on one of the many secluded terraces. Some have their own firepits, other afford spectacular views over the valley.
The best time to enjoy the view, I think, is late in the afternoon as the mist develops in the valleys, the sun sets and you’re enjoying your drink choice as it all happens in front of you. Stay for dinner, if you like.
Camino Real Parrilla Bar, Carrera 6, 1-35
Head down to the main square and you have a few options for drinking. Temporary marquees are set up on Friday nights for the weekend; somewhere to sit, eat and drink in front of your desired restaurant.
Alternatively, grab a seat at La Fonda de los Arrieros and cool down with a local beer or vino, take in the farm-style oddments that decorate the place, and maybe even order the house specialty – bandeja paisa – a hearty stew served in a black clay dish (bandeja), with all of the trimmings.
La Fonda de los Arrieros, Carrera 6, 62
Get to Donde Mi Apá at peak times and you’re rubbing shoulders with local mountain men after their hard day’s work on the fincas.
Here you can sit on cowhide chairs, take in the vintage bric-a-brac and knock back shots of coma-inducing aguardiente – an anise-flavoured liqueur made from sugarcane.
Gents can easily stagger through door beads and urinate in a very un-private recess in the same room; with their backs facing the other drinkers, of course. Not sure where the ladies to their biz, though.
Donde Mi Apá, Carrera 6, 5-24
If food trucks are more your scene, head on over to the other side of the village and pull up a stool at La Combi. It may be a bit of a gringo set-up, but if you’re up for smallish cocktails and inflated prices, settle in all night.
Alternatively, spend your pesos at one of seven food trucks that cover the likes of pinchos, wings, roast veal, ribs, burgers and arepas. This is not a place for the budget conscious.
Food Trucks, Carrera 2 & Calle 6
Ok, so you’re in Zone Cafeteria – also known as the Coffee Triangle – so you simply have to partake in the caffeine fun. The region consists of three departments; Caldas, Quindio and Risaralda, of which Manizales, Pereira and Armenia are the most important towns. Not that we made it to any of those.
It’s this beautiful region of steep sloped valleys and warm, rainy climate that makes for ideal coffee cultivation – a region that makes Colombia the world’s third largest exporter of this magical bean.
Here in Colombia they call a simple black coffee – tinto. Ask for a tinto in other Spanish speaking countries, and you’ll probably get a red wine. Personally I find Colombia’s tinto too long and way too weak, hence me always ordering espresso; providing there was a machine on hand, of course.
Here’s my pick of the best espresso I could find in Salento.
Take a few steps down from Salento’s main square and you find yourself in the shabby chic Cafe Jesús Martín. The espresso is top notch and is a product of the cafes own estate. The baristas are well trained and really know their stuff.
There are light meals available, including a limited breakfast, plus some tempting homemade cakes and pastries.
Jesús Martín Cafe, Carrera 6, 6-14
Tucked down a side street off the main drag is Bernabé, where you can partake in espresso and other filtration methods – v60, clever, aeropress and siphon.
If coffee doesn’t cut it, sip on cocktails or craft beer, beer or vino and chow on tapas, seafood and pasta.
Bernabé Cafe, Calle 3, 6-03
Anyone that’s been to Salento, or other towns in the region, would already be aware of the Willys. These off road vehicles, brought in from the US after WWII, were the perfect thing for farmers to use in this region of steep terrain.
They’re still used today, especially as a means of transport to get tourists from A to B. They may not be comfortable, but they are a novelty.
You’ll also notice that Salento, as well as places like Bogota, have modified these Willys into mobile coffee cars. So keep your eyes peeled for a Willy that doesn’t just haul farming supplies or gringos, but makes coffee!
The best coffee in Salento, according to this pair, can be found at a tiny hole-in-the-wall establishment called Cafe Matto, on the main street.
The espresso is excellent, they do breakfast, a few baked bits and pieces, cakes and frappés. This isn’t a place to linger, unfortunately, as there are only a few stools and no tables.
Cafe Matto, Carrera 6, 3-10
Drinking coffee in the Zona Cafetera is one thing, but visiting one of the fincas, or estates, is a whole different experience. Salento is surrounded by coffee estates, and many of them have opened their doors to visitors, so if you’re up for a bit of education on how they operate, you simply need to take your pick.
It’s a fascinating tour, even if you don’t drink coffee.
Finca El Ocaso is an estate located outside of Salento, and can be reached by either a Willy or by walking for about an hour southwest of the town.
The tour offers down to earth insight into every stage of coffee production, beginning with a group tour into the plantation to pick coffee cherries, to the drying process, quality selection, roasting and finally – tasting.
The tours at Ocaso last 1½ hours and are offered in both Spanish and English. Cost is 15,000 pesos per person. Check the website for more info.
There may not be much of it around, but food on the streets of Salento is there to be sampled. You can grab yourself a piping hot arepa fresh off the grill; either plain or with melting cheese.
If you like it fried, there’s always an empanada or two, or maybe some golden fried chicken. Or bag up some shaved coconut that’s toasted with sugar.
There’s a guy that wanders the streets of Saltento with a small cart that’s filled with two treats – ice cream or solteritas. The latter is a small fried, and very delicate ‘waffle’ that’s used to sandwich a sugary cream made of cornflour, sugar and vanilla.
On the main square is a drinks and fruit stand that has cups of cut fresh fruits ready to purchase. Here you can sample the chontaduro, also known as peach palm fruit, something that’s easily considered a Colombian ‘fast food’.
This high protein, cholesterol lowering palm fruit is very dry and starchy, so it’s best eaten as the locals do – sprinkled with salt and drizzled with honey.
I have to be honest, though, I wasn’t a fan.
Ok, if you solely relied on street food in Salento, you’d get bored in no time, so it’s a good thing that the town has plenty of dining options.
Here’s what we sunk our teeth into.
If there’s one place in town that virtually every gringo gravitates to, it has to be Brunch. It’s owned and operated by an American expat that knows exactly what we gringos crave when we’re travelling – big portions of non-local food, home-smoked bacon and peanut butter.
The menu is a little on the huge side, so it pays for multiple visits, providing you’re in town long enough. That way you can enjoy things like the waffles, corned beef hash with eggs, buckwheat pancakes, biscuits & gravy, burgers, sandwiches, even berry cobbler.
Coffee-wise, it didn’t rock our world, but food-wise, it’s somewhere I’d keep returning. They even make up packed lunches if you’re about to hit the trail and do Valle de Cocora.
Brunch, Calle 6 3-25
Something you cannot avoid in this town is trout. It is the regions favourite fish, after all, so it pays to try it at least once; plus you’ll be seeing it on almost every menu.
The first one I tried was at one of the kiosks set up on the square on Friday, for the weekend. It was cheap and kind of excellent.
The second was at Restaurants Andrea, a popular eatery on the main drag that’s very affordable and even throws in a pitcher of juice for no extra charge. One thing you notice in Salento is the patacones, or fried plantain. The difference with them here is that they’re on the enormous side. Nothing like we’ve ever seen perviously, or since. It’s like a huge plantain chip!
Trucha a la plancha (12,000) is the basic option, pictured above, but be sure to try one that’s baked (drowned) in a creamy, cheesy sauce that’s rich in garlic. You may reek of garlic for half a week afterwards, but it could be worth it.
Restaurant Andrea, Calle 6, 3-18
A tout for this restaurant got our attention on the main drag, namely for the almuerzo, or set lunch menu. It’s a friendly little place with local food offerings, but the only thing I can suggest is to not order the crumbed fish. Unless, of course, you’re happy with something highly processed and straight from a freezer packet.
The cazuela de frijoles (bean soup) was to die for, I must say, and dessert was some sliced local cheese drizzled with honey; also very nice. That fish, however …
Restaurante La Gata Carola, Calle 4, 5-25
Basil, lemongrass chicken curry (20,000)
If you’re craving a little Indian food, then you’d want to head past the food trucks and into Casa La Eliana, a small hostel on the other side of town.
The restaurant is located at the back of the house overlooking a lovely garden, and the menu features curries of meat or vegetables, plus some pizza and pasta. It isn’t terribly authentic, but there’s good use of spice and the flavours are well balanced.
They even roast their own coffee in a nifty little portable machine.
Casa La Eliana, Carrera 2, 6-45
This eatery got my attention when we were walking around town, a microscopic place with a handful of seats and just the owner/operator doing the cooking from a domestic-style kitchen.
There are fried rice dishes, burgers, fajitas, quesadillas, burritos and sandwiches. Nothing amazing, but for a home-cooked meal, it hits the spot for sure.
If you want a beer, simply cross the road and buy one from the small grocer, or if the cook’s wife is there with their child, she’ll even get it for you. Sweet.
Yerbabuena – Coffee & Food, Carrera 5, 5-58
This is on everyone’s to-do list – walking through that verdant valley of rolling hills and thousands of towering wax palms. You see it on postcards all through Colombia and it simply must be done, despite what the weather gods throw at you.
Getting to Valle de Cocora from Salento is simple, and if you want to avoid the crowds, get to the main square as early as you can and get the first Willy out of there. Around 8.30? Cost is 3,900 pesos per person.
Many people opt for the easy in-and-out visit, which involves simply walking along the dirt road for 1 km after getting off the Willy or truck. To return, simply head back to where you were dropped off and wait for the next ride back into town.
If you’re up for half a day’s hiking, what we did, take the blue gate on the right on the dirt road and just follow the trail. Once you descend into the valley and cross a small creek, you need to pay 2000 pesos to enter.
Simply follow the trail, which is often very muddy, through the valley and into the stunning forest and jungle. You’ll cross suspension bridges, fallen trees, see small waterfalls, wild orchids and plenty of flora.
At the east end of the valley is Casa de los Colibris, a hummingbird sanctuary that requires 6000 pesos entry, but gives you a cup of watery hot chocolate and cheese.
After returning back to the main trail there’s a steep ascent to Finca La Montaña, where you can take a load off, eat your packed lunch and buy a drink from the small store. After that it’s an easy traverse down to Valle de Cocora.
Expect to take dozens of photos!
If you don’t already have it, download maps.me onto your phone as you can use it offline. I find the app covers walking trails better that Google and it’s very accurate. I use it all the time.
Head upstairs in Terminal de Transportes in Cali and purchase your ticket from Transportes Armenia. Cost is 21,900 pesos per person, the colectivo leaves at 10.30 am and takes 3½ hours.
When you arrive at Armenia at Terminal de Transportes, go up one level inside the main terminal, walk past all the ticket booths and then exit to where all the colectivos are parked. Just look for the colectivo that displays a ‘Salento’ sign in its window.
Ours was the ‘Alcala’, but there may be other companies that do the run. Cost is 4,200 pesos per person and it takes 45 minutes to 1 hour to get to Salento from Armenia.