We decide to head west from Bogota to the Zona Cafetera (Coffee Zone) also known as the eje cafetero (coffee axis) which is a 283km drive away. Although it is a relatively short distance, it takes 7 and a half hours!
From the high elevation in Bogota, we rapidly descend down to sea level at the Magdalena river valley with spectacular views all the way down, driving a long section through the humid lowlands. From here, the winding road steeply climbs up through the Andes over a mountain pass at 3200metres stuck behind slow moving trucks.
Although the road is in good condition, it also quite narrow and there are also a lot of trucks on this route. This always equates to overtaking and therefore quite stressful driving! Add in sharp corners where you can’t see oncoming traffic and overtaking becomes virtually impossible.
The terrain ensures we are constantly changing elevation as we weave through the mountains before reaching the town of Armenia situated at 1640metres.
Driving in Colombia is definitely not for the faint of heart, I certainly had a fair few moments when I could not catch a breath! But it doesn’t come close to driving in India! I still don’t know how Martin does it!!
Anyway, we arrive in the bustling city of Armenia. Locals fill the small cafes for a cup in this traditional coffee growing region. The city is often referred to as ‘Miracle City’ due to its fast urban growth and recovery after the devastating 1999 earthquake which destroyed many of the city’s historical sites. Its local economy is based on coffee and banana production although tourism also plays its part.
We decide to carry on 24kms to the town of Salento as it is closer to the Cocora valley which we want to visit tomorrow. Driving down the main street, we now have the job of finding somewhere to stay for the night. Stopping at a guesthouse, the friendly girl who couldn’t have been more than 12 shows me the room and we take it for the night. It’s nice, well located and reasonably priced plus neither of us have the will or inclination to look for anything else at this point!
After a quick rest, we head out for dinner hoping to go to a place recommended by the guidebook but when we get there, it looks cramped and not very appealing. We somehow end up in a chain crepe restaurant getting the local speciality of river trout accompanied with rice and veg.
Waking up to sunshine, fresh mountain air and a typical breakfast of scrambled eggs with onion, tomato and hot chocolate/coffee we take a drive out to the striking Valle de Cocora.
Arriving in the small rural hamlet of Cocora, vistas span out across an idyllic emerald green valley which is part of a natural cloud forest covered in towering, swaying wax palm trees. They also happen to be the country’s national tree and the tallest palm in the world.
In 1985, the park was made a protected area due to an imminent extinction threat, mainly because the trees were traditionally cut down annually and the leaves used on Palm Sunday. It remains the only place to see these immense trees.
A few backpacker tourists trickle out from Jeep tours from the nearby city of Salento but otherwise the place is very peaceful.
The main attraction here is the beauty of the landscape so we drive to the end of the valley for more stunning views via a bumpy track ending in a small waterfall.
We soon change into our hiking boots to do the popular walking trail with offers from the locals to go via horseback. We politely decline, and opt to walk it instead occasionally having to stop at the side of the narrow path for the horse riders.
The walk starts off fairly tamely but it is hot, I mean 30 degrees plus and very humid. The muddy, rocky track starts going uphill, past a trout farm at a small creek until we get to grasslands. We continue to walk through a bridal path, where the mud has been churned up the horses. When we see horses coming towards us, we have to move up to the side of the ditch which is just wide enough for us to walk on, with fencing on one side and a drop into the ditch on the other!
One girl seems to be having a hard time controlling the horse as it gets spooked by something and runs off galloping down the path with her guide following suit. No-one seems to be wearing helmets either, apparently there are a lot of accidents here involving tourists and horses.
The path carries on up steps and then into a clearing where we rest and take in the beautiful valley views, the impossibly tall, skinny trees at the foothills of the Andes reach out to touch the sun, before retracing our steps.
Set in the heart of coffee country, the pueblo of Salento has a relaxed and friendly feel to it, life here seems to go on at a snail’s pace. One of the coffee regions earliest settlements founded in 1850, it is set on a plateau above the Quindio river valley. At 1895 metres in altitude amidst a landscape of green rolling hills and coffe farms, the panoramic views are endless.
There seem to be quite a few accommodation options in town so have a look at a few, ranging from rooms in large colonial houses to casual stone inspired guest rooms with large airy sitting areas. We decide to pay a little more (although it is still relatively cheap) for a new little hotel built on a steep hill with a great shower!
We ask if it is ok to leave the car on the street and he assures us it is very safe in town and get to chatting about how much we are enjoying being in Colombia after being in Central America for so long! He says that the situation was very bad, security a big problem just a few years ago and that guerilla groups were taking over much of the country, but today feels glad that his country is much safer and that tourist numbers are gradually increasing.
We walk around the charming square which has retained many of the grand white colonial buildings whilst an army of surplus old US WWII jeeps wait to take tourists down to the valley and stop in at a open aired restaurant for a regional speciality lunch of freshwater trucha (trout) and nasi goreng (Martin was curious to find it out of it tasted like the Indonesian version…)
Exploring the town takes us down Calle Real (Royal Road) with its colourful balconies, filled with lovely shops selling locally made handicrafts, including jewellery, houseware items like lampshades and throws (not really applicable to us but all the same, very pretty to look at) and traditional ponchos, sweaters etc. I could have spent hours down there but Martin has other ideas, mainly involving going for a drink as soon as possible!!
Although there are a few other tourists around, the town has managed to retain its laid back air, the remoteness of its location high in the Andes protecting its charm and serenity.
We decide on visiting a coffee farm on our way out of town tomorrow, spending the rest of the day relaxing and planning our route ever south to the city of salsa, Cali!