Salento: My Happy Place in Colombia

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Anyone that has had the misfortune to interact with me since October 2012 has probably heard about Salento — if I haven’t just come back from there, I’m planning my next journey or trying to convince someone to come with me. Including the trip I took two weeks ago, when my college roommate came to visit, I’ve been there a grand total of four times. I have a photo of the nearby valley as my phone background. You could say I’m a little crazy about the place — or at least you might say that if you’ve never been there. Because once you have visited, it’s hard to resist the urge to go back immediately. From the beautiful traditional painted houses to the perfect cups of coffee, Salento is a Colombian slice of heaven. I realize I’m a few decades away, but I’ve never found a place that whispers “retire here!” as much as Salento. I’m a city girl at heart, and I love Bogotá intensely, but something about those rolling green coffee hills almost convinces me to leave bricks and buses behind and trade in my smartphone for some vegetable seeds.

i want to go to there

The view from the lookout at one end of town, looking toward Los Nevados National Park.

Now, I’m certainly not the first person to feel the magical pull of Salento. In the last few years, the tiny town has become a popular spot for backpackers, providing a relaxing layover between Popayán, San Agustín and Cali to the south and Medellín to the north. Still, the place isn’t overrun in the way some other spots are (looking at you, Santa Marta) — despite the strong emphasis on tourism, it’s easy enough to walk out of town and find a quiet place to sit, without encountering a single person trying to sell you feather earrings or a bunch of bros discussing where they partied last night. Yes, there are definitely enough visitors to keep the hostels busy, but it seems to draw less of the party-and-drugs crowd and more of the hikers and introspective types.

salento tiene talento

Ha! Rhymes are the best! [In case you can’t see it, this sign, outside an artisans’ collective, says “Salento Talento.” heehee]

In addition to the quiet, Salento’s main appeal is sensory, mostly for the eyes and the taste buds. The town has historically subsisted on coffee production and trout farming, and those are still the primary economic activities for the rural families living nearby (though running a restaurant or a hostel appears to be an increasingly lucrative option as well). Especially on weekends, when the main plaza fills up with food stands and visitors from the nearby cities of Armenia and Pereira, you can find great local trout slathered in sauce and served with a ton of sides, or massive patacones (plantains) the size of a serving platter. I also bought one of the top five most delicious arepas I’ve ever eaten in Colombia — yes, I obviously keep track of this — in Salento, from a women selling homemade arepas the size of my head off a grill along the road on the way back to my hostel.

paisas love porches

The colorful porch of a traditional paisa house.

Though the comida típica (typical food) is great, there are also a number of non-traditional restaurants in town, including a pizza-and-curry spot run by a wonderful couple and the backpacker favorite Brunch, an American-owned place featuring (you guessed it) brunch food and homemade peanut butter! My personal favorite spot in town offers 5,000 peso breakfast and 6,000 lunch every day — there are only 2-3 options, but they’re all delicious and the people there couldn’t be nicer. Plus the walls of the six-table restaurant are plastered with posters for  events and businesses, everything from horse markets to hostels on the Pacific Coast, which provide a great conversation piece when you haven’t had coffee yet and can barely string two words together.

GIVE ME ALL THE CAFFEINE

This is what coffee looks like when it grows. Not half bad!

And speaking of coffee, did I mention this place grows a lot of coffee? Salento is in the heart of the eje cafetero (coffee region), and it’s one of the best places in the country to get a quality cup of joe. There are a number of fincas (coffee farms) within walking distance, and many offer tours that explain the entire coffee production process, from planting to exporting, and everything in between. Even better, for the other purists out there, is the fact that many of these family-owned farms are all-organic — some even maintain the practice of doing everything by hand! As far as I’m concerned, it’s hard to beat buying a bag of fresh-ground organic coffee straight from the family that grows, harvests and sells it — we’re taking farm-to-table to a whole new level here.

pretty colors!

Outside a gallery in Salento

In addition to its tasty products, Salento is also a haven for artisans. The main street leading out of the plaza is lined with all kinds of shops selling everything from hand-knitted sweaters to chocolate-covered coffee beans. The leather, wool and wood here are especially good quality, and you’ll see many people walking around in ruanas (Colombian wool ponchos). One of the most iconic local products is the sombrero aguadeño (or sombrero antioqueño), a slightly larger version of a fedora favored by most of the local farmers. The hat has grown from its humble beginnings as a rancher’s traditional sun protection and can now be spotted as a fashion statement on the heads of Colombians across the country. If you’re on the hunt, though, this is the place to get it — there are a few stores on the first block close to the plaza that sell a staggering quantity of hats in all sizes. Every time I visit, I debate buying one, but the truth is I’d be afraid to wear it much in Bogotá because of the inevitability of it getting soaked. Still, I’m tempted whenever I’m there — I have visions of wearing it as I gaze out over the small coffee and lulo plants sprouting in the yard behind my finca. Maybe once I finally do buy that finca (is it time to retire yet?), I’ll have a reason to get a hat.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep going back.

trees for days

Can you blame me? LOOK at this place!

Villa de Leyva: Maybe My Favorite Place in Colombia

Earlier this week, I realized that in all the excitement about zipping around Boyacá and waxing eloquent (and photographic) about all the delicious pastries I consumed in Villa de Leyva, I never actually spent any time talking about the place itself. My bad.

So! Let’s talk a bit about Villa de Leyva, because it may very well be my favorite place so far in Colombia — at the least, it’s a hell of a strong front-runner. Villa is a small-ish town in Boyacá, which those of you paying attention will recall is the department just to the northeast of Cundinamarca, the department in which one can find Bogotá (and me!). As I’ve mentioned before, Boyacá is generally known as one of the more traditional departments, filled with lots of small towns that specialize in something like ceramics or bricks or cheese, and people in hats and ruanas (wool ponchos) to keep off the mountain chill. Boyacá is what comes to mind when people say the word tranquilo — it’s all small plazas and colonial churches and women selling obleas from a small wooden table by the side of the road.

Well, the whole place sure looks small from up here.

As the best-known (at least to non-religious tourists) village of Boyacá, Villa de Leyva is a little bit of a special case. Nestled up against a range of green mountains and straddling the edge of the mountain-desert divide in a valley that once was a vast prehistoric lake, Villa de Leyva couldn’t be more photogenic if it tried. Everywhere you look are pine trees or cacti or beautiful flowering plants, often all within about 100 yards of each other. It’s impossible to cross two streets without someone approaching to offer horseback rides or a hike. The place is filled with opportunities for other low-key outdoorsy activities like hiking, biking or swimming in the occasional waterfall. The desert sky is clearer and bluer than it is in Bogotá, which makes the town the ideal setting for their annual Festival de las Cometas (Kite Festival), a hugely and internationally popular event taking place this weekend. The only way to improve upon the scenery in Villa de Leyva would be to fill it with hundreds of intricate, beautiful kites.

But it’s not just about the natural beauty of the place, although that’s pretty overwhelming. The town itself, as with most Colombian towns, is fairly small: a central plaza, a few calles going this way, a few carreras going that way. But that plaza, Plaza Mayor, is something to write home about — a sprawling cobblestone expanse lined with hotels, restaurants and one 300-year-old church, it’s the biggest central plaza in Colombia and one of the largest in all of Latin America. Needless to say, most of the activity of the town centers around this plaza, from the excellent restaurants on various corners to the radiating streets where wandering tourists can buy everything from alpaca scarves to candy to leather bags that look like they just came off the cow. There’s often a stage set up for events in the center of the plaza, and there’s almost always something going on: when we were there, we witnessed a visiting Venezuelan symphonic orchestra, a poncho fashion show featuring elementary-school girls, a performance of Pacific Coast dance and a concert. As befits its position as the heart and soul of the town, the plaza fills up at night with a combination of locals and tourists, who sprawl across the steps of the church to eat ice cream, share a few beers or just watch their children race around throwing glowsticks at each other. People-watching doesn’t get any better.

The biggest one in Colombia, and it’s such a nice-looking one, too!

I’m no architect, but even I could appreciate the loveliness of the buildings. Everything in the town looks like it was frozen 200 years ago — all white walls and green trim, with porches filled with hammocks and clustered flowers. Plus, all of the streets are cobblestone, which those of us from Boston know is hell on walking if you’re not careful (or stupid enough to wear heels. Remember, we are in Colombia), but also means that cars traveling through town have to crawl at about 10 mph to avoid causing any serious damage. This might be the Colombian town where you’re least likely to be killed by a car.

Fresh mora juice with an $8 mil set meal at a vegetarian restaurant? Yes please!

And don’t even get me started on the food. My friends and I usually subscribe to the “as many things from a cart as possible” school of dining, but we spoiled ourselves a bit in Villa de Leyva, and I couldn’t be happier that we did. Along our gastronomic path, we discovered (not one, but) two vegetarian restaurants, actual salads (few and far between here in Colombia), a place that served both pizza and sangria, the best almond croissants in South America, a bakery specifically for cookies, and some pretty good eggs. We barely made a dent in all of the town’s tasty offerings, though, so obviously a return trip is in order.

But wait, there’s more! Remember how I mentioned the former prehistoric-ness of the whole space? Well, we all know what prehistoric implies, don’t we? That’s right: Villa de Leyva was once home to my second-graders’ favorite animal: DINOSAURS. Sadly, there are not currently any more of the beasts ranging around (as far as we know….), but there is a pretty excellent tribute to their presence, in the form of the small, bright yellow Museo El Fosil, a short drive out of down. For the low, low price of about $4 mil, one can enter and gawk at the complete (or at least it looks that way) remains of a Kronosaurus — a large, toothed aquatic creature (yes, that’s our very own local Kronosaurus smiling at you from the Wikipedia entry). Obviously I could happily have stayed in the museum for a long time, attempting to commune with the beasts, but how could I stay away from all of the other gorgeous sights in Villa de Leyva?

Clearly, Wikipedia stole this photo from me.

Our three days there weren’t nearly enough time to enjoy everything the place has to offer — so it’s a good thing we’re already planning a return trip in November! In the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with ogling these photographs until I’m back in the reality.