We'd read up on a couple of other blogs about how best to do the journey from Medellin to Salento - as there's no direct bus, the smart move is a bus to Armenia (named after the former soviet state, I'm sure it's a lovely place) and then another smaller bus back up the road to Salento. The really smart play is to get dropped off at a road junction about half an hour before Armenia and pick up the Salento bus as it comes through, otherwise you just waste time travelling all the way in and back out again. The key thing we picked up from the blogs was to make sure you were doing this before it got dark...
This made it quite key for us to make it on to the bus that was due to leave soon after we arrived at the terminus in Medellin, otherwise the next one in an hours time meant that we'd have to abandon our grand plan and waste a night in Armenia.
Unfortunately the bus terminus in Medellin is a giant food court first, bus station second (or maybe third), set out over three apparently random levels. If you follow the helpful signage to the ticket offices you end up in a disused area of the terminus that looks like it might become a crack-den after dark.
This isn't conducive to an all round feeling of happiness when you're running through the terminus with backpacks on trying to establish where to buy a ticket after a taxi journey that took far too long - but we track them down. We'd heard that a particular bus company was the best to use for this journey so I launch myself at the desk, blurting out "dos (that's 2) tickets to Armenia!!" while also indicating 2 with an appropriate finger gesture. The guy on the desk clearly recognises my urgency so responds with stupidity - "you want 12 tickets, yes?" - who the fk would want to buy 12 tickets on a bus?! TWO!!
At this point we should make it clear that the ticket buying process is made harder as there is a solid piece of glass between us and the people on the other side. It's like they've seen this set up in western countries but haven't figured out that you need someway for the sound to travel through the glass otherwise there's a lot of shouting, finger pointing, and lip reading to be done.
By now another official has joined the fun, and is trying to rush me as the bus is about to leave - I know, that's why I'm here! Meanwhile the guy on the other side of the glass is just looking at me as if he's spent some time in the crack den the night before... come on man, "cuanto es?!" (how much?) - more blank staring...
I slide a wedge of cash under the glass barrier and we eventually receive our tickets, and the ticket guy gets to learn some choice English words. The other official is still trying to hurry us to the bus but... wait, he's trying to hurry me to the bus as Carly has disappeared... WHERE THE F... oh she's buying me an ice cream for the journey, that's ok!
All this mad rush is for nothing as we get out to the bus and see a queue of people waiting to put luggage under the bus. We join the queue, locals seem to think it doesn't apply to them so get a backpack in the face and look surprised as I shove my kit straight past them when they are at the "front". Finally, we're onboard, I have my ice cream, and we can relax!
About 2 minutes in to the journey a guy is running back to the toilet to throw up loudly, and he's back in there half an hour later - this doesn't bode well for him! or anyone else that might want to use the toilet over the next few hours. Then there's complaints from one row which has water pouring on to them - apparently the air con is leaking, and when a towel fails to stop the flow the only fix is to turn off the air con and hot box the entire bus... selfish.
Added to that, my seat reclines a little more over every bump, and the bus stalls whenever it changes gear - after lauding the cross country buses last time out, it feels like we're the unwitting stars of a new show, when bus trips go bad. [CP here, and I have to say that the above is one of Rich's biggest and probably best rants, although the Israelis are a close second. I wonder what will form the next topic to fuel his ranting fire?]
When we make it to the scheduled food stop, I have to sit outside next to a rival bus to use their wifi (of course ours doesn't work, first world problems tbf) to check availability at our preferred hostel in Salento - if we make it we'll be getting in late, so plodding around the streets isn't appealing.
Darkness falls as we motor towards this non-descript turn off where we could / should get off our bus try to get into Salento, but it's dark and we both resign ourselves to a night in a dingy room in Armenia. Out of the gloom I see a turn off and half a sign, and wonder, is this... YES! Our bus pulls an emergency stop and the driver wags a finger at the other side of the road where we should stand and wait, we're going to make it!
Ok, so all the advice says not to try this after dark, and there's old reports of robberies on the late buses from Armenia to Salento, but there's another gringo couple with us so safety in numbers, right? We bag up and begin to dodge our way across 4 lanes of traffic, when the guy from the other couple topples over under the weight of his bag and faceplants into the middle of the road. Cancel the safety in numbers talk...
There is at least a little bus shelter on the other side of the road, but except for me waving a torch at any oncoming large vehicles that could be buses, we're stood in total darkness, as CP points out that "no one would know where we were" if things go bad, and various tales of travellers being robbed at the side if the road, "that's what I've read...". Thanks for that CP, no ghost stories to share while we wait?!
With CP passing the time with tales of sicarios (gun-toting hitmen riding passenger on motorbikes) and other fun stuff, it's not too long before a bus comes hooning round the corner and with a flick of my light I've signalled him to pull over and we're onboard, presumably leaving a trail of disappointed hitmen, kidnappers and robbers in our wake.
After a few stumbles along the way, we've made it to Salento exactly as planned, check in at Plantation House, and head back out in search of this awesome mojito bar (right town this time!) and some food.
We track down the address of the mojito bar easily enough, it's just not a mojito bar anymore - a bit gutting as after the mission to get here we both were feeling that it would be well deserved. It's getting late, we're hungry and tired, so decide to find a place to eat. Salento is a small town, but somehow this takes about 30 minutes, and in the end we settle on a restaurant about 50 metres from our hostel. This is the first curry we have had on the trip and we're pleasantly surprised by its quality, La Elaina was as good as Lonely Planet recommend...although we did have to move tables because of a proximity of a table of loud (can they speak in any other way?!) Americans doing the usual travellers talk of where everyone is from and what they have done. Seriously, tone it down and find a more interesting topic for dinner conversation so we don't all have to listen to it! [that rant is all CP!]
The next day I'm awake early (!) so get up to see what's around our hostel, CP is happily sleeping in our double bed which we somehow acquired in a 4 bed dorm (oh yeah!) - the views are quite special, and it's easy to see why Lonely Planets description of Salento is:
"Draped across a broad green ridge above the entrance to the Cocora Valley (home to the world tallest palm tree, the endemic wax palm, growing to 50 metres in height), Salento is today a major tourist stop for those who venture west from Bogota."
I'm not sure about a "major tourist stop" (no direct buses - yet - other than from the 2 neighbouring towns, one small street of shops selling the usual tourist artwork) but there's no doubt that if you're wanting to make a visit to Colombia's coffee zone, this is where you come.
The main reason for staying at Plantation House, is that it's a real life working coffee farm, and they do coffee tours every morning (in English!) so that we can learn lots and drink even more! The tour begins at 9am, and I've already been up for hours so I'm raring to go - although we're slightly delayed by the discovery of 2 tiny kittens in the kitchen.
We skull down a cup of the free coffee from the hostels kitchen and get ready for our tour...
The owner of the hostel and farm, Tim, "Don Eduardo" (so named because his middle name is Edward, and "Don Tim" doesn't sound very authentic) meets 10 of us at reception and speaks Spanish with a broad Lancashire accent to the guy on reception to establish that everyone is here, and then we set off for the farm, a 10 minute walk which takes us over an hour because of various stops, explanations, questions, etc. CP doesn't help that process with her incessant questioning, but it does elicit some good detail (and maybe a few rolling eyes from others on the group).
We found this blog during our "how to get to Salento" searching, and it explains the coffee making process better than we can, so hopefully copyright does not apply, as here it is: http://girlgonegallivanting.com/from-bean-to-cup-in-the-coffee-fields-of-colombia/
The farm itself is a relatively small scale operation, but the owner knows his stuff and handles the groups many questions with ease. He has been in the coffee business for 7 years, making his sea change to the rolling hills of Colombia and has some grand plans for the farm, including allowing customers to lease a row of coffee plants and receive the beans that are grown just for them.
The tour goes for a little over 2 hours and ends with a demonstration of the full coffee making process, including the skinning of the dried beans, roasting, grinding, brewing, and finally the drinking.
There's no skinny caramel lattes here, this stuff is strong, and after a misunderstanding of whether I wanted an extra cup or a cup of the alternative method coffee, we're both bouncing off the walls...
Three cups of the strongest coffee we have ever had and we decide that it is probably time for lunch then - the first of many trips to a place called Brunch, run by an extremely friendly and helpful guy from California. We usually try and stay away from foreign owned businesses if we can and support the local businesses, but we had heard that the owner may be able to help us out and discussions are had about the possibility of getting involved in an Ayahuasca experience...
Moving on, there's football to watch this afternoon, but first the small matter of 240 steps up to the cross and lookout point above Salento...
Colombia's final group game is on this afternoon, and we've spotted a bar that is offering beers for less than $1 during the game. Not only that but they have a Tejo court. Tejo is a crazy local game where you throw big metal discs at a pre-marked field which is laced with explosives... it's a step up on beer pong crossed with battleships, and when you hit, your opponent is obliged to drink.
However... apparently there's been widespread trouble around the country during and after the previous Colombian games, so the mayor of almost every city and town has declared a ban on the sale of alcohol from 6am on game days until 6am the following day. This doesn't stop our bar luring people in with their big promo posters, and then informing disappointed customers that they cannot buy a beer, but fruit juices are available for double the price? The result is that CP is quickly despatched to the local supermercado to buy a small carton of rum to spike our juice.
Watching the game with a bunch of tourists wasn't really the plan, and as there's no beer there's also no Tejo afterwards, so at halftime we take our carton of rum and head of in search of a "locals place".
Once again we are forced to spike our own drinks, but the locals don't seem fazed, vuvuzelas being trumpeted to celebrate everything - thrown-in? Goal kick? Go nuts!! Columbia convincingly hump japan 4-1, and top the group. This sparks mass celebrations in little Salento, and we follow the crowd to the main square where an impromptu parade has taken over.
When it finally calms down, it's time to trek from our lovely hostel on the coffee farm, to the highly recommended La Serrana - a place that is raved about by everyone so much that we had been compelled to make reservations. Personally I'd have happily stayed on the Plantation House coffee farm forever!
La Serrana is 1.5km out of Salento, but we've heard they do really good "family dinners" so the lack of nearby alternatives shouldn't be an issue. We've been burnt by this family dinner thing before (Earth Lodge Guatemala, I'm looking at you...), where they charge a lot for an average meal because you have no choice, but as this has been recommended we decide to give it a go. Except that when we arrive, we discover that tonight there will be no dinner. "Por que?" we ask, "because of the football!" - does that make any sense?
Torrential rain has started outside and we're stranded with not a lot of supplies. Nevertheless, CP sets about creating a masterpiece involving pasta, two minute noodles, a tin of tuna, chilli, garlic, onion and some Nicaraguan salsa which has somehow managed not to explode in my bag... yet.
Our tranquility at dinner is spoiled somewhat by a pretentious condescending English toss who proceeds (uninvited - I've no idea how this one-way conversation started) to tell us about the political situation in South Africa, and the horrors of rape. I've seen the Mandela film too, but I don't profess to know anything about the country, the people, the... anything really. This was not the scintillating dinner conversation I had envisaged, and I bury myself in my phone, leaving CP to deal with this mess.
That will be my last interaction with this guy, other than overhearing him tell someone else later on "they're from jersey, it's a tax haven". We're not, and it's not. Travellers 101 should start with "if you're going to ask someone a question, have the decency to listen to the response". Everyone gets tired of repeating their story, "my name's x, I'm travelling for x months, I've been to... I'm going to...", but it's 100x worse when you know the questioner isn't gong to bother listening to anything you say. The rudest possible way of being "polite".
Just when I'm thinking that the evening will be a complete waste, talking about things I don't want to talk about with people I don't want to talk to, it's saved as a new crew sits down for drinks and chats. Enter Ben (Kiwi), James (Irish), and Maria (somewhere in England... maybe I didn't listen when we asked? Ha!). It's a breath of fresh air, trading stories about all of our travels, listening when someone else speaks, generally behaving like normal people, and occasionally abusing the receptionist / beer fridge key holder until he calls time on our antics at a heady 10:30pm.
The next day, CP indulges in a yoga class before breakfast (which is awesome), and I am trusted to book us in for a 4-hour horse riding trek. Why am I doing this?
We're introduced to our respective rides and yes, we're here for a great time... it destroys my arse (and other areas) and generally is not a good experience for me. There's a waterfall and it's very nice to look at and blah blah blah, but seriously... why am I doing this??
By the time we are trotting our way back to town, I'm torn between whether I want to go faster, increasing the pain but reducing the time I'll have to endure it for, or slowing the horse down to take the edge off, but prolonging the woe.
As a "reward" for having survived, we return to Brunch for a pretty average coffee, a sensational peanut butter brownie, and a game of jenga.
CP has spotted a little beauty salon across the road from Brunch, so books in for a £5 manicure and pedicure. I'm obviously tempted, but instead opt to grab some pastries and hot foot it back to La Serrana to book us in for the communal dinner. CP has been told to be home by 6pm (before it gets too dark) or I'll send out the search party. Naturally she strolls through the door at 5:58pm shortly after the rain started to sprinkle, wearing rubber flip flops she "bought/borrowed" from the lady who owns the beauty salon because she only had her trekking shoes (which I am told are simply not an option when one has just had a pedicure), to find me lounging around on an armchair ready to start a search party. She comes bearing gifts though, in the shape of a bottle of wine, so all is forgiven and once I've figured out the Spanish for "corkscrew" (sacacorchos), we can get started.
The communal dinner is incredible. The only info we have before hand is that it's chicken curry, and when this mammoth plate is deposited in the middle of the table, I assume it's to be shared between about 4 people. Instead, more plates keep coming until we have one each and it will be a struggle to finish... which of course we did.
Tomorrow we will check out of La Serrana and back into Plantation House, but first we make plans to visit Cocora Valley in the morning, with Ben and James. That's the plan, but the boys are struggling massively in the morning as it seems they continued the party long after we had gone to bed.
They still make it to the meeting point, and we bundle into a selection of "Willys Jeeps", the closest thing there is to taxis in Salento. These are little 4x4s, with as many people as possible packed into them, but it's a system that works.
We arrive at the valley and decide to have a go at the full loop - described as 5 hours, which is conveniently just a little longer than we have until the final run of jeeps returns to Salento. We've heard there will always be private vehicles going back after this so the chances of being stranded are low, though you will have to negotiate a fair price...
The first hour of the trek is grim - after the rain on the previous couple of days, some areas are a mud bath, and we're clambering over rocks and barbed wire fences in search of a dry path. I hate this kind of stuff, as your view is basically your feet and a metre in front of you, instead of looking round at what is supposed to be amazing scenery.
Cp, of course, is loving it. This continues for an hour until we break through into dryer terrain and can start to appreciate why this place is so raved about. A big draw here is the hummingbird sanctuary - this sounds a bit lame, but it's the only part that has an entrance fee (a hefty COP 5,000 or £1.66) which includes a big chunk of cheese and a cup of fairly bad hot chocolate. We haven't figured out if you're supposed to dip the cheese in the drink, but the combo works, and serves as a nice refresher as we marvel at the hummingbirds right in front of us.
Next stop is La Montane, a peak that sits higher than Bogota at 2,860m, and offers some amazing views of the area.
Finally it's the downhill stretch, passing through the wax palm forest, and since we've decided that we'll be back in plenty of time for the last jeep run, there's time to sit down, marvel at the views, and mess around setting up a group photo.
The jeeps are ready and waiting when we get back, all feeling quite proud of ourselves for completing the full loop, and we reward ourselves with some amazing double scoop ice creams which cost something stupid like $1.
As we bag what appears to be prime position in the first jeep, we're surprised when more and more people are ushered on board. The jeeps charge a flat fee per person, so it's in the drivers best interests to shove as many people as possible in there - even so, I think that 14 people in (and hanging out the back of) a pokey Suzuki Jimny is taking this a step too far.
We collect our bags from La Serrana, and bid farewell to Ben, James, and Maria, who are some of the special people we've met that make it past the "single serving friend" status (more on that later!), and head back to check in at Plantation House for our final night.
After a trout dinner in the square, followed by a film in the cinema room at Brunch, there's no time for a shower before bed, that will have to wait until morning. Personal hygiene has taken a backseat, but as a general rule of thumb, if you can't remember when you last changed your underwear it's already been too long.
The main reason for going back to Plantation House (other than it being awesome) is the "coffee experience" that they offer - working on the coffee farm for a morning. During our coffee tour, we'd seen some people coming back from picking the beans, and RD is particularly excited about this, although less so when our first task is pruning the pineapple plants... for almost 2 hours, during which time I spot CP having a little snooze between the pineapples, wtf?!
When this gets too much for us to bear, We ask "Soooo when do we pick the beans?" Response, "that finished yesterday, no beans to be picked until next week". Fs!! We do at least get upgraded to sorting out the bad beans, then weeding the fledgling trees. Both our mothers would wonder what gardening prowess were picked up on this trip, but they can be safely assured that it will not continue when we get home.
When we're finished our "work", there's time for a relax in the hammock with the four plantation dogs (including iPod, who is this awesomely large white fluff ball who belongs to Tim), a bit of lunch with the real workers, and of course some more coffee, which CP managed to spill over over me while trying to take a photo of the relax in the hammocks.
Then we head back into town to sample the coffee at Jesus Martin cafe where they serve allegedly the best coffee in Salento - which may or may not be because they roast the beans picked at Plantation House. CP had an iced coffee (as usual, with her dislike of lattes unless they are laced in caramel being perpetuated by having a steady supply of strong black coffees laced with sugar) and I had a cappuccino (as usual)... Both were rather excellent, although CP claims "a bit overpriced for Colombia, but it was the decor and service that really made the visit". No, it was definitely the coffee!
And that's the end of our time in Salento - a bus back to Armenia, followed by an overnight bus to Bogota awaits...