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How Green Was My Valley

Stop what you’re doing! Seriously, stop right now and get on your computer – oh, I guess you’re already on it. Ok then, leave this page and immediately book a trip to Salento, Colombia. You can fly into Periera or Armenia (yes, Armenia, Colombia) or, if you want, you can fly to Medellin or Bogota or Cali and take a long, curvy bus ride.
Still unsure? Here’s a taste of why you should do it:
Following the long and winding road I took from Medellin to Salento, and after finally arriving at the Eco Hotel La Cabaña, I enjoy a brie, apple and prosciutto sandwich while sharing a bottle of wine with the French family staying in the room next to me. They’ve also arrived today but, as they came earlier, they’ve taken a dip in the river behind our house. We’re all hungry and the owner’s daughter, Maria Camila, has brought us dinner to enjoy on the porch in front of our rooms where we chat about our Colombian adventures thus far and our plans for the next couple of days.
The Eco Hotel La Cabaña consists of two houses across the street from each other with a combined total of nine rooms accommodating 26 people. As I settle into my room, a few flying creatures welcome me. This is a leche finca or dairy farm, and, though only a five-minute drive from the town, it’s still in the countryside and, though there don’t seem to be mosquitos, there are moths and other random bugs. This is no reflection on the cleanliness of the place, it’s just my room has lights and these types of insects are attracted to them. After unpacking and catching up on the news (yup, it has cable TV), I settle under my down quilt for a good night’s sleep.HotelWhen I  awake in the morning I don’t want to get out of bed. It’s a bit cool, not cold, but after the heat of Cartagena, the change in temperature (low-60’s Fahrenheit in the morning) is a shock. Climbing out of bed, I open the curtains and consider the possibility that my bus through the Andes might not have made it to its destination safely and I may have died and gone to heaven. The daylight allows me to see what I couldn’t last night; large black and white cows roam the pasture just outside my window chomping on perfectly green grass looking as content as I feel.
PuppyI dress and walk outside, immediately hearing the splash of the gently rolling river behind the house. I now get my first real look at the two houses of the finca. The white buildings with red trim are built in the local style with railed porches surrounding the entire structure and Dogwhich remind me of the Antebellum homes found in the southeastern United States. Walking over to the main house I say hello to the very friendly and very-well taken care of dogs who belong to the ranch owners and some staff before settling in a seat in the small dining room where I meet some more fellow travelers and staff.
Breakfast is fresh fruit, tamales, eggs, toast, homemade cheese from the cows on the farm (well, the cows didn’t make the cheese, but they did supply the milk and the farm staff made the cheese), juice, yogurt (the yogurt in Colombia is in the form of a drink), and, being in the coffee region, coffee is available 24-hours a day.
During breakfast, I speak with Maria Camila about the options of activities here and, as the weather is nice today, both Maria and I decide it’s a good day to hike the Corcora Valley.
The Corocora Valley is part of the Los Nevados National Natural Park and is known for its Quindío wax palm trees which, growing as high as 150-200 feet (45-60 meters), are the tallest palm trees in the world. It’s also filled with other incredible flora and fauna, as well as lots of mud.
JeepThere are a few ways to see the Corcora Valley. 1) You can drive there and enjoy lunch, coffee, or a beer while contemplating the incredible scenery. Oh, and by drive I mean you catch a ride on one of the many Willys. These Jeeps, which were left over after World War II when the U.S. government no longer had a need for so many, found homes in the coffee region of Colombia. These workhorses are normally outfitted with some bench seats lining the sides of the back and can carry up to 10-or-more people using the front and back seats, as well accommodating four people standing on the back bumper while holding onto Jeep Insidebars on the roof. 2) Grab a Willy to the entrance and take a 2-hour hike into the Valley. 3) Grab that Willy (wow, this is beginning to sound dirty and perhaps you should do that in private) to the entrance and take the 4-6-hour hike through the jungle, up the mountain (up even further if you want to go see the hummingbirds and parrots), and then down into the Corcora Valley. Choosing option number 3, I grab my Willy (wait, do I even have one of those?) and head off.
The first step is to find a Willy. I’m staying just out of town between Salento and the Corcora Valley and most people find their Willy in the town square. (Please excuse me as I need to take a moment to bang on my ear to force the Willy jokes out of my head.)
Okay, I’m better now. On a normal day, I could wave down a Willy with an empty seat, or back bumper to climb on and bring me to the hike. Unfortunately, today is a holiday and many Colombians have come to the area for the long weekend. (I’ve been here for three weeks and this is the second holiday, though I don’t really understand what either holiday has been about.) Maria Camila calls a Willy for me which, as it’s now private, costs me 10-times as much as a shared one would (COP31,000 versus COP3,100 or about US$10.00 versus US$1.00).
I arrive at the park about fifteen-minutes later and find my way through the blue gate to begin my hike. I’m told the hike is well-marked and I shouldn’t have a problem with getting lost. I later find this to be true as I get lost without any problem. Before long, I arrive at a small wooden structure next to which stands a man pointing to a map painted on a wooden sign. He’s giving instructions in Spanish and eight or ten people from various countries who don’t speak Spanish are nodding their heads pretending to understand. The man collects our COP2,000 entrance fee and we move on.

General trail conditions

I slide along the muddy trail thankful for my waterproof hiking boots yet, as good as the traction may be, I still manage to accomplish pratfalls which leave my pants, shirt, and hands a healthy shade of brown. (It’s my own personal mud bath.) The trail winds through the jungle, up hills, and across a multitude of footbridges made from wood planks and wire which bounce and sway as I walk across. Being sure to wait for the person in front of me to exit before taking careful steps to balance on the wood while touching the thin wire along the side, I quickly learn not to grab the wire as some connecting areas on the bridges and many areas along the trail are linked with barbed Nun Crossing Bridgewire. At the first bridge, I wait for the habit-covered nun in front of me to cross. She stops for a moment before stepping on the bridge. Touching her head and chest, she first crosses, and then she crosses.
I continue on, meeting travelers from all over the world – lots of French and Israelis – slogging through mud, up and down hills (though mainly up), and crossing questionable bridges. I’d already decided not hike up to the birds as I had my fill of Hummingbirds in Minka and, as they surrounded my hotel verandah, I didn’t have to hike uphill for an extra half-hour to see them.
Top of hikeThough I was told the trail is clearly marked, there aren’t really any signs and, at the few intersections I come to, it’s a choice of one muddy trail versus another. Still, hikers help each other along the way to find the correct path. The last forty-or-so minutes are strictly uphill. Eventually, I come to a clearing which allows me to see a series of switchbacks climbing the side of a beautiful green hill. Taking a Flowers Mountain Corcora Valleybreak every twenty steps, I finally crest the hill where I find grateful people happy to have reached the top and enjoying just breathing while sitting on benches or lying in the grass. The sunshine and incredible views give us renewed energy while everyone refuels with snacks they’ve brought. Joining in, I take a half hour to simply breathe.
The rest of the hike is downhill. Along the way, I meet two Italian women who are hiking with a guide they’ve hired. We enjoy nice conversation before coming to the Corcora Valley. Around every bend Corcora Valleywe find unbelievable scenes straight out of a painting. The grass coating the rolling hills is perfectly trimmed and dotted with wax palm trees reaching high into the sky. The guide has us scraping our fingernails on the tree in order to feel the wax coating which indigenous tribes melt and use as a waterproof coating for their legs while crossing the river. She also tells us of the tradition to hug a wax palm and points us to one twenty-feet away on the side of the hill. I and one of the other women go in for the hug while the other lady introduces me to an Italian phrase, “I have arrived,” meaning “I’m done.”
Wax Palm TreesEventually, I do arrive and have a coffee at the small indoor/outdoor restaurant while sitting on a bale of hay and chatting with some locals and travelers. I walk over to the parking area and grab a Willy with one extra spot for me on the back bumper. I stand with three other women and, buzzed on adrenaline, we’re all feeling powerful after our hike and enjoying the wind combing our hair while traveling through the picturesque countryside. Fifteen-minutes later, I jump off the bumper, pay the driver (only 3,100 this time) and head straight to the shower.
Riding on the back of WIllyNow, what the hell are you still doing here? Book a trip to visit this paradise of Salento and the surrounding region right now!

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

UniversityIt’s my final day in Medellin and I don’t want to leave. Then again, I didn’t want to leave Cartagena, or Minca so I guess you could say I love Colombia. I spend the day exploring some different areas with my new friend Marcela. We begin by visiting the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana where Marcela went to school. The campus is lovely and, as we walk through a central area lined with dozens of different types of snack bars, Marcela explains, it’s here that students gather, sometimes with each other and sometimes with their professors. There seems to be a great exchange of knowledge and ideas, as well as food.
Continuing on to a different area, we sit down for coffee with one of Marcela’s old professors (well, not old, but previous) and now friend. We have a nice conversation about this crazy world we live in and are soon joined by another professor, Jean Paul. After a nice talk, Jean Paul mentions he’s headed to Val Paraiso the following day and invites me to come. It would mean leaving Medellin a day early which wouldn’t be a huge problem as I’ve already stayed longer than I planned. I decided I wanted to spend more time in this fascinating city and, though staying meant giving up on visiting the Amazon, I also realized that I have fallen in love with this wonderful country and will soon return and can make that trip to the Amazon as well as to other South American countries then.
Salon MalagaMarcela and I leave the University and, taking the Metro to the San Antonio area (not the Texas one), stop by the historic Salón Málaga restaurant. This place opened in 1957 and keeps the feel of old Colombia alive Black and white photos of customers from days long past and signed photos of musicians cover the walls. Tango performances and classes are offered weekly. This is a place one might expect Ricky Ricardo to walk in at any minute carrying his tall bongo drum (yes, I realize he was Cuban but you get the idea).
TramAfter a drink, we head outside to the tram station. This is my first tram in Medellin and, unlike the Metro trains, the tram is thinner and travels at a slower pace on surface streets. We’re traveling a short distance to Marcela’s apartment which she shares with her sister and mother. While mom isn’t home, we sit and talk with her sister for a while. These are two beautiful, educated, and feisty women and I take pleasure in meeting them and joy in knowing that strong, smart women decorate this world. In these troubled times, they’re the ones who give me hope.
Marcela and I step outside and head back to the Poblado Metro Station, as she has an English class to teach to a 10-year old and I have some writing to do. I spend the evening checking for some sort of transportation to Val Paraiso or surrounding areas to Salento in the coffee region with no luck. There are no airports in that area and none of the buses to the coffee region seem to stop near, so I must decline. (So sad as the scenery, both Val Paraiso and Jean Paul, was sure to be beautiful.)
Another new day and it’s time to leave Medellin for greener pastures (literally) in Salento, Colombia. The area is part of the coffee triangle which, to this coffee lover, sounds like heaven. And though I’ve been looking forward to visiting this region, I’m not looking forward to the six-hour-ish bus ride to get there. I’ve booked a ticket directly through Flota Occidental Bus Company at a cost of COP40,000 ($13.49). I was able to reserve my seat on the website and, as the bus travels through the winding roads of the Andes Mountain Range, I choose seat number 1; up front where I stand half a chance of not losing my lunch.
I catch a cab to the city’s South Bus Terminal and wander through the mall it’s connected to (yup, another mall). Checking in is a complete 180 from my troubles at the Cartagena bus station as all goes smoothly and I’m handed my ticket and pointed to the door from which I will board.
Buying some goodies for the bus (always a good idea to have to calm your hunger pains or to share with others and make friends) and taking one last bathroom stop (also a good idea because, well, because), I walk over to door number seven and, after a few minutes, we’re called to board.
Our driver loads backpack after backpack in the rear as I walk up with a smile, introduce myself (winning some friendliness points), and say, “lo siento” as I present my one large bag (actually smaller than some of these huge backpacks) and one roll-aboard carry on. He smiles and replies, “no problemo” as he finds just enough space in the storage area. I climb aboard and find my empty seat at the front on the left as I enter. I’m happy I took the time to reserve it. I’m also happy I remembered to wear my Sea-Bands (wristbands which use pressure point technology to help prevent motion sickness) and to buy a green apple in the bus station (this can also help prevent motion sickness. My cruise ship employment history sometimes comes in handy).
Before long, we’re off. I play with the TV screen in front of me, happy to see both the individual screens and the listings of some movies in English. Also, there’s Wifi on this bus! No, it isn’t British Airways, as almost all of the English language movies are some sort of action or science fiction films (not at all my favorite types). Finding Dori is also on, but I’ve seen it (don’t worry, Dori gets found, though I’m not sure she even remembers getting lost). The only other option is The Shack. I read the book and enjoyed it but not enough that I think they should have made a movie about it.
As we exit the city and enter the curvy roads, I quickly realize that I can neither type or read if I have any hope of keeping my breakfast down. Suddenly The Shack seems like an excellent choice. I don my earbuds and spend the next two hours with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Oh, and aStreet sign guy named Emil. Following the movie, I fall asleep for about ten minutes before the bus begins to slow and the driver announces, “Quince minutes por comer y baño.” (Fifteen minutes for food and bathroom).
I happily exit the bus and head to the bathroom. Unlike the bus station in Medellin which charged COP600 entrance fee (there’s even a turnstile) plus another COP200 if you want toilet paper, this one is all-inclusive for COP1,000. I then head over to the lunch counter where a guy named Dave mans one section and seems very proud of the food he’s cooked. I can’t resist his hot, mini-casseroles which seem like some good comfort food in the middle of this long drive.
Before long, my fellow-travelers and I gather outside the bus waiting for the driver. Thirty-minutes into our fifteen-minute stop, the driver appears and opens the door.
As we head out for the second-half of our journey, it’s clear that the worst is over and, though we still travel on two-lane roads, these are not nearly as windy as the please-don’t-let-me-vomit road which brought us here.
Finally, just after dark, at about 7:00 pm we arrive in Salento. I had doubts about staying in Salento as I was just coming from a big city and was looking for the peaceful beauty I had heard the coffee region offered. Three-days-ago, when I began looking for a place to stay, it seemed like Salento might have some hustle and bustle. I considered the town of Filandia (supposedly beautiful and smaller than Salento) but was convinced by Marcela’s friends to go to Salento and maybe stay at a place just out of town. I found a finca (farm) to stay at called Eco Hotel La Cabaña – this is quite popular outside of the big cities in Colombia – and booked it, all the while wondering if I was making the right decision.
The bus driver unceremoniously stops the bus in the middle of a busy intersection in the small town saying simply, “Aqui!” I have no idea where to go. I know my place is at least a few kilometers outside of town and Google Maps tells me it’s a thirty-one-minute walk or a five-minute drive. Walking there while dragging my bags behind is not an option so I ask the driver, “Taxi?”
“No taxi.” He curtly replies.
I ask the lady who seems to be directing traffic at the intersection who repeats the driver’s words. I ask the driver if he can drop me and he laughs while shaking his head from side to side. Standing there, unsure of what to do, the crossing guard indicates for me to get the hell out of the street. This is upsetting, as the people of Colombia have been so ridiculously nice so far and I’m unprepared feeling shunned. Stepping into a delicatessen, I ask about a taxi and, though much nicer in their response, it’s still negative. I call the hotel (I’d put the name, address, and phone number in the notes in my phone) and begin jabbering about how I E-mailed the previous night providing my approximate arrival time and letting them know I would catch a taxi. As I received no response, I assumed all was well. Seriously, I probably should handle it better and I’m sure the man on the other end thinks I’m nuts as he instructs me to call another number, which turns out to me his daughter, Maria Camila, who calms me and tells me she’ll be here in five minutes to pick me up. (Not my proudest moment.)
True to her word, Maria Camila arrives and we drive along a very dark, very curvy and hilly tree-lined road (no way could I have walked) before pulling up to a red and white building. It’s difficult to see much in the dark but, as she shows me to my two queen-sized bedded and very spacious room, I’m relieved.
Tomorrow, the big hike.