Salento and Cocora, coffee plantations and wax palms

Valle de Cocora, Salento
Valle de Cocora, Salento

Salento, a coffee paradise in the Colombian highlands 

Colombia is an amazing country I’ve been there twice and for sure come back again soon, there are so many things to discover. What is Colombia famous for? Let’s leave its drug fame in the past! Of course coffee! I’m not a big expert in coffee but I do like the Colombian one. Colombia occupies fourth place in the world in coffee export, after Brazil, Vietnam and Indonesia. But Colombian coffee (sort Arabica) is considered the best coffee in the world (if we speak about beans quality). You ask why?

Peaceful scenery around Salento
Peaceful scenery around Salento

What makes good coffee?

First of all climate; climatic zone, altitude (1500-2000 m above the sea level), humidity, average temperature, soil etc. Many natural factors as you can see. Second, coffee beans in Colombia are picked up manually, only ripe red beans go into basket. Ripe berries are red color and taste sweet.  Third, the control of origin (like wine in some countries), in Colombia they control the purity of their coffee, 100% Arabica no mixes.

The most famous international coffee brand from Colombia is Juan Valdes. You can buy this brand in many places outside the country. The main coffee region in Colombia – Paisa, so called ‘coffee triangle’ with three main coffee cities: Armenia, Manisales and Pereira. Salento is located right in the middle of the area.

Valle de Cocora, Salento
Valle de Cocora, Salento

Salento, a coffee paradise

Salento is a small colonial town in the heart of coffee region. Charming place with its cobble stone streets and colorful houses, surrounded by green hills and coffee plantations. The town is quite touristy, one of the must-visit places when in Colombia, with many guest houses, hostels, restaurants and souvenir shops around. Nevertheless its small size you won’t be bored visiting Salento, visit coffee plantation, go for a hike in Valle de Cocora, try traditional Paisa (farmer) food and have a cup of great coffee in one of the cafe while enjoying the view.

Picturesque scenery around Salento
Picturesque scenery around Salento

Must try food in Salento

Salento is very famous for its trout that you can find in abundance in surrounding rivers. Traditional dish fried trout (comes with rice, salad and soup) you can find in any restaurant of the town. Prices in local places are from 15 000/4$ including drink.

Bandeja Paisa (farmer tray), traditional not only for Salento but for all Paisa region. Bandeja means tray, yes, a trey full of stuff, mostly fried. On you bandeja you can find; red beans cooked with pork, blood sausages, minced beef, chorizo, rice, avocado, fried egg more or less that’s it. Delicious and unhealthy!

Fried trout at one of the local restaurants in Salento
Fried trout at one of the local restaurants in Salento

Things to do in Salento

Visit one of the coffee plantations

There are several in close proximity. To get to one of them you can walking, by taxi or with a tour.  Walking takes about 1 hour; the way is beautiful with some stunning views over the mountain slopes covered with coffee and banana plantations.

Me enjoying the view while Campbell working hard on coffee plantation
Me enjoying the view while Campbell working hard on coffee plantation

For me it was the second time in Salento and we decided to visit the same finca (plantation) I’d visited before,  El Ocaso. In three years from my first visit a lot has changed. It became more commercialized you do a tour in a group with a guide (English speaking) who shows around and explains the process ending with a coffee tasting. Luckily the price is just 10 000/3$. During my first visit there was no guide on the farm, one of a family members took you for a walk around, showed the process (everything in Spanish) and as a payment you were supposed to buy a bag of coffee from the finca.

Coffee making process from a bush to a cup
Coffee making process from a bush to a cup

Visit Valle de Cocora

The only place in the world where you can see the wax palms, that grow at about 1500 m above the sea level. These palms are like super models in the palm world, very tall and thin, average height 45 m, sometimes they can reach unbelievable 60 m! Wax palms look really impressive! Their trunks are very flexible every time the wind blows it looks like it’s going to break. Why wax palms? The trunk is covered with thin layer of wax, years ago it was used for candles and its wood for pipes and houses. Nowadays the wax palm is a national tree of Colombia and is under protection.

Wax palms, Valle de Cocora, Salento
Wax palms, Valle de Cocora, Salento

You can get to Valle de Cocora by Jeep-bus from Plaze de Armas (central square) in Salento, price 3400/1$ one way. They leave as soon as full, sometimes very full prepare yourself to be squeezed in. Jeeps stop right at the entrance to the valley, no entrance fee. From there you can either walk on your own or do a tour riding a horse. The first I was in Cocora I did a tour the trail was very muddy due to heavy rains. The second time we walked, there are some nice hikes in there, it took us 3 hours to do the whole loop.

Wax palms, Valle de Cocora
Wax palms, Valle de Cocora

Take a walk around the town

Salento is small, it won’t take you more than an hour to walk around it. The main square Plaza de Armas and nearby streets are the main tourist attraction. You can go upstairs to the view point from there you can observe all the town and its surroundings.

Charming streets of Salento
Charming streets of Salento

How to get to Salento?

You can get from anywhere to anywhere in Colombia by bus. There are direct buses to all more or less big cities, to get to smaller town you can with one bus switch. We got to Salento from Medellin South bus terminal. First bus Medellin – Armenia (35 000/$11), tell the driver you going to Salento, he’ll stop 10 km before Armenia, at the turn to Salento. From there you get a public bus to Salento (there is a bus stop), 2000/$0,6, takes about 30 min. to get to the main square. There is a direct bus from Medellin to Salento, leaves once a day, in the morning, from South bus terminal, we missed it.  Probably there are direct buses to Salento from Bogota as well.

Buses to Salento leave from Armenia, Manisales and Pereira regularly, price from 4000/$1,2.

Valle de Cocora, very tall palm trees
Valle de Cocora, very tall palm trees

Where to stay in Salento?

Nevertheless its small size, there are plenty of places to stay, from cheap hostels to fancy hotels for any budget. We stayed at La Casona hostel (found in booking.com), bed in dorm for 6$. The place is ok, a bit dilapidated, our dorm was clean and spacious, shared shower and toilet. Good central location, wi-fi, kitchen with not much to use. Our friends stayed at Hostal La Floresta, 7$ per bed, new cosy place, with garden, hammocks, good kitchen etc. The only one minus is its location, outside the town, bus stop, shops etc. about 15 min. walk.

Panoramic view of Salento
Panoramic view of Salento

Budget for 2 days per person

  • Transport: buses Medellin – Salento, 37 000/$11, jeep to Valle de Cocora and back, 6800/$2
  • Accommodation: 40 000/$13 (bed in dormitory)
  • Food (restaurant + shopping): 45 000/$14
  • Other: 14 000/$4,5

Total 142 800/$46, $23 per day.

PS. Some book recommendations if you want to know more about Colombia before you go there.

  • Of course Gabriel Garcia Marques and his numerous works e.g. “Hundred years of Solitude”, “Love in the Times of Cholera”, “The Funerals of big mama”, “News of a kidnapping” and many more.
  • German Castro Caycedo “Perdido en el Amazonas”, “Mi alma se la dejo al Diablo”.
  • And famous TV series “Narcos”.
Hiking in Valle de Cocora, Salento
Hiking in Valle de Cocora, Salento

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16 Comments

  • Regarding currency conversion to COPs, what do you advise. Am landing in Bogota. ATMs at airport or should I convert some currency in USA? Rates in USA banks is not good. what are your suggestions please.

    • You will be able to draw COPs and exchange USD at Bogota airport the rate will be better than in US banks.

  • Hi, thanks again for very valuable advice which is not available easily. Guide me please about drinking water in Colombia and if we should rely on it or only bottled water. Any tips of what to do and what to avoid will be helpful in me staying safe and healthy. thanks

    • We always ask in hostels we stay if tap water is ok for drinking or not. We did drink tap water in Bogota and Medellin. In most cities it’s ok to drink it but you may not like the taste, sometimes there is too much chlorin in.
      Cheers!

    • If you carry it walking around Salento and Cocora Valley it will be ok just don’t walk with it at night time and be more careful in Bogota and Cartagena.

  • Oh thank you for your advice. Very helpful. So I won’t take any vaccines for visiting Colombia. I go to Bogota cartegena and salento and San Andres. Any further tips? I have regular sneakers for the hike. Will that be good.
    Also any good eateries you recommend in salento for Colombian food
    Many thanks

  • How do I go from Pereira airport to hotel in SAlento? book with a tour company or take a taxi from airport to my hotel in Salento? Is it cold in Cocora valley? should I carry a lot of provisions for the hike or just water and a few snacks? Do I need mosquito repellant? Please guide. I am really nervous. Do I need vaccinations?

  • Can I get guided tours of coffee plantations organized by the hotels you are staying in or do you have to book with a travel agency ahead of time? please advise.

    • Hello, Renu! Thank you for your question! You don’t have to book anything in advance, to do a coffee tour is very easy, you can walk on your own to a coffee farm and join their tour, they do tours all day long, ask in your hotel/hostel to arrange it or take a tour in one of the agencies on the main square.
      Good luck and enjoy Colombia!

      • do I book a cocora vallley tour from USA or do it in Salento? can I get an English speaking guide? please reply as I leave early next week. many thanks

        • Hello, Renu! Relax, Colombia is not that wild and dangerous anymore!
          You don’t need to book a tour to Cocora you just take a jeep to the valley from the main square in Salento it’ll drive you all the way to the entrance from there you can walk on your own you don’t really need a guide (unless you want to do a horse riding there), there will be many tourists going that way you won’t get lost. It can be chilly in Cocora if it rains but not cold. The hike is 2 hours (return) take water and maybe some snacks. It’s quite up in the mountains there are some mosquitos but not many. You don’t need any vaccinations to visit Cocora. In fact you’ll be surprised how touristy Salento is and how easy it is to move around Colombia, don’t worry, there will be hundreds of backpackers around!
          A taxi from Pereira airport to Salento will be very expensive, you just need to get to the bus terminal in Pereira (can take a taxi) and from there take a normal bus to Salento. The town is really small from where buses stop you can easy walk to your hostel.
          If you have more questions we’ll be happy to help you!
          Good luck!

          • Oh thank you for your advice. Very helpful. So I won’t take any vaccines for visiting Colombia. I go to Bogota cartegena and salento and San Andres. Any further tips? I have regular sneakers for the hike. Will that be good.
            Also any good eateries you recommend in salento for Colombian food
            Many thanks

            • You’re welcome! You don’t need any vaccines for your trip. Normal sneakers will be ok. Some areas can be muddy if it rains a lot but the main valley with wax palms is easy to reach. There are many local restaurants in Salento which one to choose depends on your budget, we ate in two local places it was good. Traditional for Salento is fried/grilled trout all restaurants serve it. One more typical dish (for Paisa region) is Bandeja Paisa; meat, grilled vegetables, potatoes, beans etc. but usually it’s quite big to share. And don’t worry all place you’re going are quite touristy and easy to travel. Just watch your belongings and you’ll be ok!
              Cheers!

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