4° 38′ 0″ N, 75° 34′ 0″ W
HIDDEN IN THE MOUNTAINS OF COLOMBIA, THIS ADORABLE MOUNTAIN OASIS IS POPULAR FOR TRAVELERS AND ADVENTUROUS TRAVELERS IN PARTICULAR. AND AFTER SPENDING SOME TIME THERE, WE TOTALLY GET WHY. LEARN MORE ABOUT THE TOWN SALENTO BELOW.
Tucked away into the verdant green hills of the coffee region, Salento is a positively magical place to spend some time. While many people pass through its colorful streets for the famous Cocora Valley - home to the largest palm trees in the world - we instead believe that the true magic of Salento is found within its lively streets, its surrounding coffee farms and its cool, crisp mountain air. Below is an in-depth guide to everything travelers, and adventure travelers in particular, need to know about exploring beautiful Salento, Quindio, Colombia.
THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO SALENTO, COLOMBIA
\\ A Quick History of Salento
While it might seem surprising, Salento is actually the oldest town in the Quindio department. The town was first established in the colonial era thanks to the creation of a transit route from the city of Popayán (in southern Colombia) to the capital of Bogotá over the Quindío Pass (located nearby). This route would become known as La Línea. The transit line became even more important in 1830 when Simón Bolívar traveled the route and ordered that it be upgraded due to its poor condition and strategic importance. However, these improvements would not really begin for another12 years.
Eventually, political prisoners from the War of the Supremes (Guerra de los Supremos) were sent to the Salento area to work on upgrading and maintaining the Quindio Pass line. After completing their sentences, the political prisoners would then be given a plot of land in the area. This penal colony/town would eventually become known as Barcinales.
Soon families of the political prisoners arrived and built their own houses in the nearby town of Boquía, which became the main settlement in the area. But sometime in 1854, the Quindío River flooded and destroyed the settlement of Boquía and the survivors then decided to rebuild their houses in Barcinales - but the citizens decided to keep the name Boquía for the new settlement (instead of Barcinales) and changed the name of the original settlement to Pueblo Viejo.
In 1865 Boquía was officially declared a municipality (town) and its name was changed once again - this time to Villa de Nueva Salento. And the name Boquía actually reverted back to the original settlement in the valley (we know, kind of confusing). Today, Boquia still stands and is another neat area to explore near Salento.
For a while, the main route between Popayan and Bogota still passed through Salento. But when the route was eventually diverted, the town became quite isolated and did not develop as rapidly as the rest of the region. For this reason, Salento was able to retain more of its traditional, colonial architecture than almost any other town in the Coffee Region/Triangle (eje cafetero). Today, the historic center of town is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Listed "Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia” which includes much of the Coffee Triangle region.
How Did Salento Get Its Name?
In its early history, Salento was actually named Boquía due to its proximity to a stream called Boquia (as well as the surrounding valley). But in 1865, the name was changed to Villa de Nueva Salento in honor of Salento, a region in the south of Italy. Soon it was just shortened to Salento. Today, there is still a town of Boquia, but it is down the valley from Salento (you will drive through it on the way up to town).
UNESCO Coffee Cultural Landscape
The Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia (CCLC) was created in 2011 to help protect and preserve the historic coffee growing landscape located in central Colombia; including, the various growing and cultivation processes put in place by the early Antioquian settlers who arrived in the 19th century, the overall culture found in the various small pueblos in the region and the different adaptations historic and present day farmers have had to make to grow so much coffee in the high mountain environment.
This UNESCO World Heritage site consists of six regions and eighteen urban settlements - including the colorful towns of Salento, Filandia, Buenavista and Pijao.
SALENTO'S NICKNAME: El Padre del Quindío or The Father of Quindío
\\ Where is Salento, Colombia?
This small mountain town is located in the northeastern part of the department of Quindío, Colombia (one of the three departments that make up the Colombian Coffee Region). Salento is located around 40 minutes from the capital of Quindio, Armenia, and roughly 50 minutes from the large city of Pereira (which is the capital of the neighboring department, Risaralda).
Salento, Quindio sits on a relatively flat plateau on the western slope of the Central Cordillera mountains (one of the three mountain ranges that cross Colombia) and above the mighty Quindio River, which is fed by the high tropical glaciers and snowcapped peaks of Nevado del Tolima (which can sometimes be seen from town on a clear morning).
The town, while located in the mountains, is relatively easy to reach from other Colombian cities; including, Medellin (about 6.5 hours away), Bogota (7.5 hours away) and Cali (3 hours and 45 minutes away). And, because of how popular Salento is for travelers, you can easily catch a bus up to town from the above major cities, including taking a direct bus straight from Medellin.
ELEVATION: 1895 meters // 6,217 feet
POPULATION: 7,247 people, of which around 3,600 live in the town itself
Weather in Salento
Due to its altitude and proximity to the high mountains of the Central Cordillera - the highest of the three branches of the Colombian Andes - the climate in Salento is quite temperate. In fact, the average temperature of the town is 15° C or 59° F. The rainy season lasts 8.5 months from March to December, with April usually being the wettest month. The dry season lasts from early December to the end of February (though even in the dry season you can still expect some heavy rain storms).
The Best Time to Visit Salento
Even though the weather doesn't tend to change too much during the year (thanks to its location close to the equator) you can still expect a bit of a difference depending on whether you are visiting during the dry season or the rainy season.
We have visited during both season and found that the major difference between the two was the higher likelihood of storms in the afternoon and a bit more fog and clouds during the day during the rainy season.
If you are looking to explore the natural areas around Salento during your trip (most notably Cocora Valley and Los Nevados National Natural Park) then we do suggest trying to visit during the dry season (just for a higher likelihood of sunshine). But if you just want to walk around town, then the rainy season should work just fine (bring an umbrella just in case).
The only time we don't recommend visiting Salento? During the Christmas and New Year's holidays. Not only is the town packed with people (so packed the road up to town backs all the way up with traffic and Calle Real is impassable), but the prices of lodging also go way up. Plus, unless you want to party every night, you will likely get quite annoyed with the blaring reggaetón music until 3 AM at night for the entire holiday season.
In our opinion, the best time to visit Salento is during early February (good weather, not too busy) or late August (also nice weather and very few people).
EXPLORE MORE | WHY WE CHOSE TO SLOW TRAVEL IN COLOMBIA
The Top 9 Things to Do in Salento, Colombia
Below are the top 9 adventures in and around the town of Salento. This list includes some quite popular things to do (Cocora Valley for one) as well as a few things that are a bit more off the beaten path. We have been lucky enough to live in Salento for over three months and have truly explored all that it has to offer - which is actually quite a lot. Keep reading to learn more about the top things to do in Salento, Colombia.
1. Hike Around the Famous Cocora Valley (Valle de Cocora)
Many people choose to visit Salento for one specific reason: to head up to the Cocora Valley (Valle de Cocora) in order to see the famous Quindío wax palm, the tallest palm tree (and monocot) in the world, as well as the national tree of Colombia.
If planning to explore the Cocora Valley yourself, we recommend spending almost a full day adventuring around the palms as well as the surrounding rainforest. Our favorite hike in the valley was the full loop, which took us a total of 8 hours to complete (though we definitely didn’t rush it).
The loop takes you through the actual Valle de Cocora (where all the super tall trees are), up a mountain, down a mountain, through the rainforest, next to a rushing river and across some rather sketchy wooden bridges. The natural scenery is incredibly beautiful, and along the way you will have the opportunity to see Andean Condors (the largest flying bird in the world), hummingbirds (colibri) at the Acaime Natural Reserve (a short detour from the trail), as well as other colorful birds and bugs, and lots and lots of plants. And because the valley is part of the larger Los Nevados National Natural Park, most of the scenery is relatively undisturbed.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT COCORA VALLEY
| Go early. It is not only less busy, but you are more likely to beat the fog/storms that often come in during the afternoon.
| Wear good shoes. No honestly, the trail is very muddy, especially during the rainy season. Be prepared to slip and slide up and down the mountain, especially during the section before and after Finca La Montana.
| Bring plenty of food and water. We naively thought there would be options to purchase snacks and drinks (especially coffee) along the route. And while you can supposedly at the hummingbird sanctuary, when we went it was closed. The only real option for food is at the restaurants along the main road at the entrance and exit of the hike. We also definitely recommend plenty of water (or better yet, a water filter).
| Prepare for some sketchy wooden bridges. When you get to the jungle section, you will get your first taste of the power of the Quindio River, which snakes its way through the forest before heading out towards Salento itself. There are 5-6 bridges that cross the river, many of which are made up of large wooden planks, metal cables, and concrete blocks. The bridges can be a bit nerve-wracking - but they are also pretty exciting (all very Indiana Jones-y).
| Getting back to Salento. While the ride up to Cocora Valley is pretty straightforward, the ride back can be way more hectic - at least it was when we went. Now to be fair, we might have been dealt some tougher cards: we went on a holiday weekend... but we also kind of expect it is always a bit chaotic trying to get a ride back to town on one of the Willy jeeps. Just expect to wait in line for a while, and be okay with riding in the back of the jeeps (holding on to the top) if you want to get back quicker (plus it is more fun!).
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the last Willy leaves Cocora Valley between 6 PM and 6:30 PM.
| COST: here is a quick breakdown of what it will cost to do the whole Cocora Valley Loop Trail, plus extra costs you can expect if planning to spend the whole day in Cocora Valley.
- 5000 COP per person to enter the valley, and then another 6000 COP per person to enter the private land boundary. So, 11000 COP per person ($2.75 USD/€2.50 Euros) for the whole loop.
- 8000 COP ($2 USD/€1.77 Euros) per person for the round-trip ride to Cocora Valley in one of the local Willy’s (you will pay the total amount when buying your ticket in Salento).
- 16000 - 20000 COP ($4.50 USD/€3.95 Euros) for a basic (but filling) meal in one of the numerous restaurants along the main road in Cocora Valley.
| GETTING THERE: it is really easy to reach Cocora Valley from Salento. All you have to do is catch one of the Willys (the big colorful, WWII-era jeeps) in the main square in Salento. There is a small white ticket booth next to the jeeps where you will pay for the tickets. The jeeps can hold up to 10 people, but if it looks full when you arrive, you can always ask about riding on the back.
| TIME: the first Willy leaves the square in Salento around 7 AM and then again around every hour until roughly 5 PM. But if you are heading out on a weekend (or during the busy season) you can also usually grab a Willy anytime during the day as long as there are enough people looking for a ride.
| WHAT TO BRING: like we said, definitely bring good sturdy shoes that can handle a lot of slippery mud and some small puddles/streams. Similarly, make sure the carry some snacks, plenty of water, a rain jacket or poncho, a hat and some sun screen and bug spray.
Cocora Valley is an absolutely beautiful place to explore. There is something just so special about the towering palm trees against the foggy mountain backdrop. The only drawback? All of the other people also checking it out. While you can definitely get away from the biggest crowds by doing the full Cocora Valley Loop Trail, if you are like us and are really looking to get off the beaten path, then consider instead hiking Cerro Morrogacho - the tall, hump-like peak that stands proudly behind the palms.
The hike up Cerro Morrogacho is only 8 miles long - but it is quite an uphill push, especially in the beginning. But the views from the top, plus the ability to see many different biomes, plants and wildlife makes it all totally worth it. If you are curious to learn more about this off the beaten path Colombian hike, then check out our full Cerro Morrogacho Adventure Guide.
2. Head Out on a Coffee Tour and Walk the Coffee Route
Salento sits in the heart of the Colombian coffee region, so there is no better place to explore all things coffee than to head out on a coffee tour. Luckily, there are many locally-owned fincas (farms) that offer tours.
And a great way to get to these coffee fincas is to explore along the Coffee Route (Rute Cafecito), an easy to follow route through many coffee fields and fincas in a fertile valley next to Salento.
The Coffee Route starts in Salento before heading out on Carrera 5 towards the southern side of town. Soon you will cross a large yellow bridge, go past the town cemetery and then past a large wooden arch. It is here that the road turns to dirt. Keep heading down this road for another 3 kilometers (# miles). Soon you will se your first coffee finca on the right: Finca Acacia.
After the first finca, you will see 4 more - though the whole route is through either forest or open coffee fields. Besides Café Acacia (which serves up delicious tinto coffee for free!), there is Finca El Ocaso, Café Luger (which is where we did our tour and absolutely loved it!), Finca de Don Elias (the most popular finca and tour) and Finca La Azarcia.
Once you pass the last finca (Azarcia) you will reach a bridge over the Quindio River (rio). From there, go up a small hill and then turn right (there will be a sign) and head back uphill. Follow the road until you reach the small town of Boquia. Once in Boquia, you can keep hiking up to the Santa Rita Waterfall - which is another .5 kilometers away or take a bus back up to Salento. The bus will cost 1500 COP per person to ride back up to town.
EXPLORE MORE | EXPLORING THE COFFEE ROUTE IN SALENTO
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: if you are short on time or you just don't feel like doing the whole loop, you can also take a shortcut at Finca El Ocaso. To do this, first head down a narrow singletrack trail right in front of the main house until you reach a river and a red metal bridge. Cross the bridge and then turn right and head back up the dirt road to Boquia. If you are still a bit confused on the route, consider downloading maps.me - which will show you the right way to go and really help you orient yourself in the valley.
3. Explore Los Nevados National Natural Park
As mentioned previously, the Cocora Valley is actually part of the much larger Los Nevados National Natural Park, one of the premier national parks in Colombia.
Home to giant condors, mountain tapirs, spectacled bears, colorful wild parrots and funky little mountain plants - not to mention massive impulsive volcanoes and some of the last glaciers in Colombia - altogether make Los Nevados National Natural Park a haven for adventure and exploration.
And we are guessing that if you are anything like us, knowing there is a massive, wild, stunningly beautiful national park right on your doorstep makes you very, very excited. Luckily, there are numerous tour companies that will happily guide you through the park on single-day or multi-day treks.
Or if you are feeling really adventurous, consider instead doing a single-day or multi-day trek all on your own (no guide) in the park. Luckily, while the park is huge and full of many places to explore, many of the top spots do have "clearly" marked trails leading to them. This includes, Laguna del Otun, Paramillo del Quindio and Termales de Canon (natural hot springs). Similarly, all across the park are various fincas - many of which do offer lodging and food (you do have to pay).
➳ Learn about our own personal experience trekking in Los Nevados National Natural Park for 4 days without a guide. And, if you want to get an even better idea of the stunning beauty of the national park, consider checking out this video.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: you can start your trek into the national park straight from Cocora Valley. To do this, just keep walking up the dirt road that the Willy drops you off on until you get to a river. From there head to the right and cross the river on a small wooden bridge. Yay, you made it to the national park!
4. Go Chase Waterfalls
If you are looking for an outdoor adventure that is a little more low key, then instead consider seeking out one of the numerous waterfalls that can be found around Salento. While the Santa Rita Waterfall (Cascada Santa Rita) is the most popular, there are actually a couple of other cascadas in the area.
One of our favorites is found 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) up the La Carbonera Road (aka Camino Nacional) which you can reach by simply heading towards the steps for the Salento Mirador and then taking the road that splits off towards the right. This road will quickly turn to dirt and start to twist and turn up the mountain, past a couple of hostels and hotels.