Manizales, Valle de Cocora, and Salento

Normally I like to draft these posts while hanging out at a café on a Saturday or Sunday morning. This routine fell to shambles due to COVID-19, and I kinda forgot I had a blog because…pandemic. It feels weird to write a travel post when everyone’s grounded for the foreseeable future, but I need something to distract myself from wringing my hands about COVID all day. Plus, it’s been two years (to the day!) since I returned from my trip, and it’s about time I finally wrap up my travel posts.

This post will focus on my visit to Manizales and Salento, Colombia in April 2018. After this post, I only have one more location to write about from my yearlong trip from 2017 to 2018. Still, I want to keep writing posts every once in a while because it’s a fun outlet for me. (How else am I going to be able to gush about the road trip I took in Colorado last summer?) And tapping into my travel memory bank might be a good coping mechanism for cabin fever…or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.


MANIZALES

Aight, so I totally forgot I visited Manizales until I looked back at my travel diary. Since my visit was more than two years ago, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that my memories aren’t completely intact. (I have a bad memory, anyway, which is why I forced myself to keep a trip diary in the first place.) Me forgetting about Manizales shouldn’t be read as a judgment on the city itself, as I had a perfectly fine stay there. Rather, I think my memory lapse was a symptom of travel fatigue.

My main reason for stopping in Manizales was to visit Parque Nacional Natural de los Nevados. I booked a tour (160,000 or about $56) through my hostel, and a taxi picked me up at 6:40 AM. The taxi took me to a gas station, where I met our guide, jeep driver, and three German guys who were also going to be on the tour.

After breakfast, our first stop was Laguna Negra.

parque nacional natural de los nevados

Our guide showed the flora typical of the area. One was frailejón, which had a feltlike texture that allowed it to retain moisture. The high altitude was noticeable as I walked around; even the smallest incline caused me to run short of breath.

parque nacional natural de los nevados

We stopped at the park’s information office, where we encountered buses full of indigenous teens. The teens immediately swarmed around the Germans—forget the scenery, the Germans were the main attraction!

After we parted ways with the Germans’ new BFFs, we drove to a couple of points in the park, including the fog-shrouded Valle de las Tumbas. The park lived up to its name: it was freezing, and my feet became numb.

parque nacional natural de los nevados

parque nacional natural de los nevados

parque nacional natural de los nevados

The best photo I could get of the volcanic ash in the park.

After a lunch stop, we took a winding drive to some hot springs. I dozed off during the drive, and my head kept banging against the side of the jeep. One of the Germans reported that his stomach was churning during the drive. (Having lunch right before probably didn’t help.) When we arrived at the hot springs, one of the Germans expressed surprise: he was expecting a more “natural” setting, but the setup consisted of a couple of pools. I was OK with this since I just wanted to warm up from the cold.

The Germans were disappointed with the tour, and one of them thought more hiking would be involved. Expectations were key: I was fine with the tour since I had read that most of the park had been closed since 2010 due to volcanic activity, and I knew the tour wouldn’t involve much hiking. That said, the tour didn’t blow me away—hence me forgetting that I even visited Manizales


VALLE DE COCORA AND SALENTO

In contrast, I did not forget that I visited Valle de Cocora, which has towering wax palms. Once I saw photos of the palms online, I immediately put Valle de Cocora on my travel list.

Salento is a charming town that’s just a stone’s throw from Valle de Cocora. When I arrived in Salento, I walked to a viewpoint of the valley.

salento

The advice I got was to head to Valle de Cocora as early as possible since rain is common in the afternoons. The first Jeep Willys (4,000 COP or about $1.40 one way) are supposed to leave Salento at 7:30 AM, but when I arrived at the town plaza at 7:10, there were enough people to fill a jeep within just a couple of minutes. We were the first jeep to leave at 7:15.

Our jeep arrived in Valle de Cocora at around 7:40, and I followed Maps.Me (backpacker bible) to the trail to the wax palms. The trail is a circuit, so you can either start or end at the palms, depending on the direction you walk. I wanted to end on a high note, so I did the circuit in a counterclockwise direction so that the palms would be my last stop. Some visitors ride horses, but I wanted to get some exercise, so I hoofed it myself. I had to be careful where I stepped, not just because of the horses, but also due to muddiness. I was fine in just sneakers and was able to avoid most of the mud and water, but if there were even a few drops of rain, waterproof boots would have been a necessity.

After walking for about 10 minutes, I passed a tent that matched a marker on Maps.Me. The map indicated that I would have to pay a 3,000 COP (~$1) entrance fee at this point, but no one was at the tent, and there was no gate to bar entry.

valle de cocora

Near the start of the trail

As karma for not paying an entrance fee, I became confused by the directions on Maps.Me and ended up on a private farm. A helpful local told me to turn around, and after a few minutes of backtracking, I was able to find the correct trail. The hike started with a gradual uphill that later became more pronounced, but it wasn’t too challenging. I was also rewarded with my first views of wax palms in the distance.

valle de cocora

valle de cocora

After about an hour, I reached a split in the trail; the righthand fork led to Acaime hummingbird house, and the lefthand fork led to Finca La Montaña. I skipped Acaime since I didn’t need a break and wasn’t too hyped about the hummingbirds. (Humble apologies, birds, but I’m sure you didn’t notice my absence.) After another 30 minutes of uphill walking, I reached Finca La Montaña. The staff at my guesthouse in Salento said I would have to pay 3,000 COP at Finca La Montaña, but no one was around. I’m not sure if I missed something, but I promise I wasn’t trying to dodge fees.

Finca La Montaña was a welcome sight because it marked the point where the walk became all downhill. During this easy part of the trail, my excitement grew as I approached the wax palms.

valle de cocora

The best way I can describe the palms is that they look like giant, alien dandelions. They just don’t look real.

I reached Bosque de las Palmas and finally got to see the palms up close.

valle de cocora

valle de cocora

It was awesome just to stand next to a palm and look up.

valle de cocora

Precisely four hours after arriving in Valle de Cocora, I returned to where the jeeps were stationed and was able to board one at around noon. This jeep didn’t have an overhead top, and the views on the 25-minute drive back to Salento were stunning. (No photos since the jeep was going too fast, but trust me on this.)


I also have to mention a couple of eateries in Salento. Arepas were my favorite food in Colombia, and I loved the ones from La Guaira, which was in a cute area with a bunch of food trucks. I went there twice during my two-night stay in Salento.

la guaira salento

Like all my food photos, this doesn’t do justice to how good the arepa was.

My eyes were bigger than my stomach during my first visit, and I got two arepas. As good as they were, finishing the second one was a struggle. (I frequently over order arepas and never learn my lesson—a delicious mistake.) I wised up and got just one arepa with beef and chicharrón during my second visit. I mean, come on; can you ever go wrong with fried pork bits? Vegans and vegetarians, please don’t @ me.

I also stopped by a place called Brunch twice—apparently I was all about doing things twice in Salento—to pick up a peanut butter brownie. OK, I know a peanut butter brownie isn’t authentic Colombian fare, and Brunch was definitely a touristy place, but this brownie was ambrosia. It literally gave me life. The second time I got a brownie was right before catching an early morning bus out of Salento. Breakfast of champions.

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