For most of my adult life, when I thought about Colombia at all, it was in the context of drugs, kidnapping, murder and endless civil war. When our son announced he was going to join the Peace Corps and commit to 27 months in that country, I was motivated to attempt to revise my opinion.
Almost exactly a year after his departure, my wife and I boarded a Delta jet in Atlanta for a surprisingly brief (three hours, 20 minutes) flight to the Caribbean coast of South America. By then, I had reassured myself that the worst of the drug violence had ended with the 1993 death of kingpin Pablo Escobar, and a peace deal had just been reached between the Colombian government and FARC, the country’s main rebel group.
By the time we boarded an Avianca flight in Cartagena for the hour-and-20-minute trip to the Colombian interior, we were fully committed, but not without a small slice of trepidation. I can’t say what we expected, but it sure wasn’t a brand new jet with individual video screens on each seat, or the tidy little hotel whose balcony I found myself standing on a couple hours later.
A van and driver we had prearranged picked us up at Matecana International Airport in Pereira and drove us out of the not-especially-attractive, medium-sized city. But as soon as we began to climb out of the crowded chaos, we found ourselves lifted into a pristine landscape of relentlessly green mountains. The hammering tropical heat of the Colombian coast had been replaced by a cool breeze infused with the irresistible perfume of spring growth, as if everything in the world were brand new.
We soon learned the climate was like this year round; a delicious little chill in the early morning and late evening, and mid-to-upper 70s while you’re up and about. In just more than an hour, we crossed a rushing mountain stream and entered an early 19th-century Spanish colonial town. One- and two-story stucco buildings were arranged in neat rows, their barrel tile roofs and rainbow-colored balconies lining up into fairy-tale streetscapes radiating from a central plaza dominated by a wedding-cake of a church tower.
This was Salento, a town of about 7,500 permanent residents living along a steeply canted grid of paved streets more than a mile above sea level and ringed by mountains ranging in elevation from 7,000 to 10,000 feet. The Terrazas de Salento hotel, which we found online, featured two floors wrapped around an open courtyard filled with flowers, banana trees, palms, rubber trees, ferns and plush moss.
We ate the ample included breakfast in the first-floor lobby looking out the open front door at the mountains and the town below us. The afternoon was a good time to stretch out in a hammock strung in a rooftop gazebo and watch the hummingbirds flit among the flowering trees to all sides.
Salento is in the middle of Colombia’s coffee-growing region, where the temperature, soil conditions and altitude all conspire to produce some of the finest beans in the world. Until 10 or 15 years ago, it was an out-of-the-way place, more or less frozen in time ever since the main road from Colonial days was rerouted elsewhere. But more recently, the charm of the well-preserved architecture, the spectacular surroundings and the improving political situation have made it one of the hottest tourist destinations in the country. The town is now filled with hostels, cute bars, good restaurants and backpackers from all over.
It hasn’t tipped entirely into the ersatz territory of hypertourism. In among the shops and restaurants, Colombian families still live — hanging out their laundry and gathering for card games visible through open windows. A pool hall on the main street looked pretty much how it must have looked half a century ago. But the amenities that come from touristic development were welcome — restaurants serving a gratifying range of good food, from vegetarian Indian dishes to jumbo American-style burgers to the excellent, fresh and locally farmed trout with fried mashed plantain cakes; bars with live music and fabulous views; a network of jeeps waiting in the town square to take hikers to trailheads in any direction. And all of it — the meals, the transport, the lodging — costs a fraction of what it would in a similarly desirable location in Europe or the United States. (Four trout dinners with drinks cost about 70,000 pesos, or under $25.)
As for entertainment, all you need to do is walk. A downhill hike of 45 minutes or so brings you through breathtaking hills to a coffee plantation offering inexpensive tours where the sustainable, organic growing methods are lovingly explained — right up to the point of brewing and drinking a cup of grade-A Colombian. When we went, one of the fat, healthy and happy looking Labrador retrievers who seem to wander everywhere adopted us about 15 minutes outside the finca and led/followed us waggingly all the way through the tour.
The next day, we piled into one of the jeeps (less than $2 each) for the exhilarating 30-minute drive into the Cocora valley for a longish hike into the Los Nevados National Park. A variety of trails, from very challenging to less so, would take weeks to explore fully on rented horses, much more on foot. The trail we took required concentration on every step — to avoid mud and pick over the logs and rocks on the sometimes steep ascent. But the effort was more than rewarded. The majesty of the green valley unfolding between steep-sided mountains compares to the awe-inducing vistas of an American National Park such as Yosemite. On a clear day, in the far distance, the permanently snow-covered peak of the 15,617-foot Nevado del Quindio is visible. On slopes near and far, the wax palms — which exist almost nowhere else — soar over to nearly 200 feet on their straight, smooth trunks until the fronds are often kissed by passing clouds.
A hike in the opposite direction on another day led us along the banks of a river, through a rough-hewed tunnel and across a swaying cable bridge to a hole in the jungle carved by a gushing 50-foot waterfall.
With Colombia beginning to emerge from its troubled past, it’s hard to imagine any future in which this jewel-like paradise in the Andes isn’t increasingly overrun with enthusiastic tourists. My advice: Go soon.