“Really tall palm trees. Like the tallest in the world.”
That’s the first thing I heard about Salento.
Although having the world’s tallest wax palms is pretty impressive, I wasn’t sure it’d be worth the six-hour journey if they’d only hold my attention for five minutes. As it happens, they kept me interested much longer than that.
Salento’s one of my favourite places in Colombia. It’s a tiny little place in the Andes Mountains. As small towns go it’s compact and charming but the views and access to the Valle del Cocora Nature Reserve are what make it incredible.
Colonial buildings centre on the plaza, which like most Colombian squares has a statue of Simón Bolívar in the middle and a church as its focal point. A shopping street of tourist favourites leads to a steep staircase scaling the highest hill at the edge of town. Conquering the steps provides perfect views of the vast landscape and the colourful streets below.
The square is lined with a selection of bars and restaurants. At busy times of year they’re joined by food stalls, filling the roads with tables and their customers’ stomachs with local specialities.
It was Semana Santa, the national holiday of saints, when I first visited. Salento’s popular with both foreign tourists and Colombians. When we arrived it became apparent that many people shared our idea of how to spend the holy week but it was by no means bustling.
Although the town is scenic, it’s the trees of the Cocora Valley that appeal to many people. A short jeep ride from the centre takes you from the square to the valley. This may or may not be specifically memorable depending on whether you have friends with dreams of action movie convoys, but the views are striking. The road snakes to the valley, across rivers and between rock-scattered fields, watched over by towering palm trees that rise from the hilltops.
Hiking the nature reserve is a popular activity and whether it’s between the palms, up the mountain or through the forest, it’s beautiful. There’s a house deep in the woods where the owners hang containers of sugar water between the trees. The air there is busy with the sound of rapidly beating wings. A full spectrum of colourful hummingbirds mesmerise visitors as they flit between their sugary snacks. So much so, that on my first visit to the valley, we didn’t realise it had begun to get dark. Night moves quickly in Colombia so we ran through the forest in what we hoped was the right direction. Heavy rain pelted down between branches as we crossed footbridges and traced dirt paths. There’s nothing like the fear of being trapped in a dark Colombian forest to test the loyalties of a friendship.
The second thing I heard about Salento involved brownies. There’s a local café that makes them fresh from homemade peanut butter and serves them with ice cream. They’re pretty incredible and in certain circles, are almost as revered as the trees.
As popular as bowling might be around the world, Colombia has seriously trumped it. The national sport here is Tejo. It’s traditionally played by men in rugged shed spaces reminiscent of bowling alleys and requires an abundance of gunpowder and alcohol. Metal weights are thrown at triangular explosive packets perched on a metal ring in clay. If the weight hits them correctly, they explode.
Cowshed style Tejo venues are scattered around the country and Salento is no exception. As a group playing it for the first time, we ran up a pretty huge bar bill and a pretty pitiful amount of explosions.
One evening, on my second visit to Salento, we were relaxing in the square when the melody of Ave Maria echoed from the church. The haunting voice drifted on the air and a car adorned with flowers and a figure of Mary and Jesus rolled slowly towards it. Children dressed as angels stepped out of the church. Parents rubbed dirt from small faces and straightened loose wings and disobedient halos. Then the procession began. The saint-laden car crawled through the streets of the town with tiny angels following behind in school shoes and tennis pumps.
It was interesting to have unintentionally witnessed a special occasion for the town. But the next night, it happened again. It was then that I realised the singing voice I’d admired was actually a famous recording. One that played every single night we were there. The parade continuously wove through the streets, plastic saints and tiny angels in tow: a daily replay of confusing but impressive dedication.
Oddly, when I was there during Semana Santa, the week of saints, I saw no sign of parading deities. Maybe it’s the only break these saints and angels get per year.