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Salento: The Moab of Colombia

Haunted by a past filled with violence, Colombia is a bit of a hidden gem when it comes to exploring in the outdoors. Just 10 years ago, Colombians didn’t feel safe in their own homes so you can’t blame them for not heading out into the isolation of the mountains for the sake of exploration. This has left the beautiful land rather undiscovered. Mix in the lack of information on the World Wide Web and that’s what you call an adventure, right?

To be honest, Colombia wasn’t a thought-out trip planned and dreamt about for years. It was actually rather impulsive. A friend mentioned she saw roundtrip tickets to Colombia for less than $400 and, well, when I see an opportunity like that I jump on it. After convincing friend and fellow ultrarunner Josh Arthur to head south, we set out researching the biggest, baddest trails we could find. That’s when we stumbled on the ‘the Lorax trees.’ Salento, Colombia is home to the Wax Palm, or what the Internet touts ‘the world’s tallest palm trees.’ If you’ve ever read Dr. Seuss’ ‘The Lorax,’ you have a pretty good idea of what these trees look like. After finding out Salento was also a possible, albeit difficult, access point to some fierce 17,000+ ft volcanoes, we knew where this eagle had to land.

The famous ‘Wax Palms’ of Valle de Cocora.

Sitting at 6,500ft, this quaint little town is the perfect fit for the explorer looking to escape the busy city and yearning for charming mountain-town vibe. A few days in this small adventure town and you’ll be reminded of days spent back in the desert of Moab in the US. Much like the US version, Salento has all the ingredients for the ultimate tourist destination: Jeeps filling the square to taxi you around, restaurants for refueling and properly ‘rehydrating,’ and countless views and activities. Yet it leaves you with a feeling of escape into a relaxed mindset and connected to the simple beauty that lies around. It’s difficult for most towns blessed with the fortune of tourism opportunities to keep such a laid-back atmosphere, but Salento’s remoteness protects its uncanny charm.

At first, we hadn’t planned on spending too much time in Salento. We figured we’d do this little 12K loop through Valle de Cocora and then head for the volcanoes in Parque Los Nevados. Then we met Felipe. Hiring a guide to tour us around was never a thought that crossed our mind. As ultrarunners, we’re both comfortable and capable in the mountains and, didn’t think we’d be able to find anyone who could keep up with our pace, or even grasp what we were trying to do. We figured finding anyone that believed it was possible for tourists to run thirty miles or find their way through Parque Los Nevados was pretty much impossible.

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Jeeping to a secret spot to see Wax Palm forests.

As Felipe would explain, it was destiny that he met Josh and me. The morning we were heading to Valle de Cocora for our warm-up run he hopped on the back of our Jeep taxi. ‘Corres?’ he asked seeing our bright running clothes in the sea of muted backpacker clothes. The guys established, with broken English/Spanish and a whole lot of sharing phone photography back and forth, that Josh was a professional ultrarunner in the US and Felipe was a champion runner in the Colombia. The gushing ended as we arrived at Valle de Cocora for our run. Felipe was working and parted ways. Not ten minutes later, he had full running garb on and was chasing us down the trail to join us. Not wanting to play catch-up with the two, I let them go on their way and settled in at my own pace.

Freeing the rabbits allowed me the time to leisurely run the 12K loop through the valley and take in the views. Most people come for the trees, but I’d definitely recommend staying for the trail. The trail is by no means a walk in the park; it’s a challenging journey through cow farms, up through deep jungles, over rivers and rickety bridges and, of course, through valleys of cartoonish trees. Most locals (and guidebooks) will tell you this is a 5-6 hour trek, but that definitely seems a little excessive since the two running fiends did it in 50 minutes and I arriving a short period after that. (Pro tip: when you get dropped off from the Jeep taxi head right―it’s free. Straight is the more direct route to the Wax Palm valley, but you also have to pay.)

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Riding on the back of our Jeep taxi to our first volcano. GoPro for the win!

Felipe ended up becoming a dear friend and guiding us around for the next couple of days. We’re not ones to use guides, but after he proved both his dedication to running and passion for the mountains, we knew he could show us Salento in a unique way. It turns out there was more to Salento than some ‘Lorax trees.’ We awoke early next morning for a Jeep ride that would take us trail running through a different volcano’s crater. We had imagined a volcano in the traditional sense (smoke billowing from hot lava inside), but we actually ran through a farm with cows, barking dogs and all―in the middle of the crater. It’s quite shocking to think, one day this volcano could actually blow. In fact, at the fincas (farms) there are large emergency evacuation maps in case volcanic activity. Talk about living on the edge.

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Just add Club Colombia cerveza.

Our run was followed by a relaxing soak in natural termales (hot springs). There’s a more touristy version of this day at Termales de Santa Rosa, but we opted for a local vibe complemented by lunch and dinner in small fincas along the way. We’re talking fresh ingredients from the farm cooked atop a cement stove heated by burning wood that took up half the kitchen. Not only did we get a physical adventure, but quite a cultural adventure as well.

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Cooking breakfast at the finca. Hello, fried plantains, I think I’m in love.

Not into two-feet powered adventures? Apparently there’s some serious mountain biking in the vicinity and road cycling with views that will make you wet your pants. Basically, there is an adventure for everyone if you just ask the right people. Sure, you could take a leisurely ride through some coffee plantations—it is in Colombia’s “Coffee triangle,” after all—but you could also bomb down some beefy single track through lush forest.

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Valle De Cocora, you never get old.

Colombia is a special place and, perhaps because of the past, exploration and traveling here isn’t tainted with the feeling you’re just another dollar to the locals. The people are genuine and the land is filled with possibilities of adventure―undiscovered or not. My recommendation: find yourself a cheap flight down there and get there before the curse of tourism latches on.

How to get there

It’s easy to get to Salento via the two major cities – Medellin and Bogota.

From Bogota: it’s about an 8-9 hour bus ride. You’ll get the first bus to Armenia and then a second bus from there to Salento. You can also fly to Armenia and then take the bus.

From Medellin: you can also fly from Medellin to Armenia and then take the bus. If bus is more your style, you can either take the bus to Pereiria and then a second bus to Salento, or you can take the bus to Armenia and then backtrack to Salento. There’s a little trick here. If you take the bus to Armenia, which has more frequent routes, you can ask to be dropped off on the side of the highway and then cross it to wait at another bus stop to get to Salento. This takes a little guts, as you are literally being dropped off in the middle of a sometimes very dark highway and not at a stop.

Where to stay

Hands down La Serrana is the place to stay in Salento. AirBNB is definitely my preference when traveling, but Salento doesn’t have too much action on the site. There are a plethora of hostels to choose from in the Salento area, but nothing tops the views and property of this small farm a few minutes’ walk outside of the center of town. We opted for a canvas ‘glamping’ tent. They were similar in cost to the dormitories and significantly cheaper than a private room. Seriously, don’t even think about staying anywhere else in Salento.

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Glamping at La Serrana.

What to bring

Our essentials for Salento included: some Zeal Optics shades, an Ultimate Direction hydration pack and rain jacket (which we were gear testing,) and two pairs of Altra running shoes. What you definitely need to pack: active clothes, two pairs of sneakers, a lightweight rain jacket—and a sense of adventure. It’s rains in Salento and the trails, which also carry a lot of horses, get very muddy. If it’s not raining, you are very high up and the sun will burn you—bring sunscreen. You must, unfortunately, trust me on this one. At night it does get chilly and being a proper Boulderite, I never am without a lightweight puffy. You should definitely considering bringing one or another lightweight jacket.

If you do want more information or need a guide, Felipe is the best you can get and you can connect with him via Facebook.

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