I was drawn to the coffee zone in Colombia originally because I wanted to taste real Colombian coffee and see where it was grown. As it is with most places, once I was there, other characteristics of the place are what impacted me most. In Eje Cafetero, it is the land that comes to mind immediately when I think of my time there, as well as the people who live in this region.
It was easy to fall in love with Salento, even before I arrived; the view from the bus window as we approached the village was enchanting. This small town near Armenia is a bustling place, night and day. The central plaza is lined with numerous cafes serving patacones, trucha, and a wide variety of delicious fruit. It’s a popular tourist area, and while I was there, most of these tourists were Colombian. Colorful refurbished World War II Willys Jeeps take tourists and workers to the parks and reserves outside of town. Each morning they line the plaza, ready to go at sunrise. Every square inch is used in these vehicles; during one early morning outing, there were 15 of us sharing the ride. Later in the day smaller versions of these jeeps are pushed around and around the plaza by men and with kids at the wheel. Every evening at sunset, people climb the multicolored stairs that lead up to the mirador. It’s a beautiful 360o view and also a social scene. Musicians perform at the base of the large cross at the summit, children romp around the adjacent playground, and vendors sell drinks as locals and visitors enjoy the last moments of the day.
A few miles outside of Salento is one of the most unique landscapes that I’ve visited. La Reserva Natural del Valle del Cocora is named for the 1000s of wax palm trees that grow there. These trees, the national tree of Colombia and tallest palm species in the world, can reach up to 60m (~200ft) in height. While many come just to see the palm trees, I did a longer hike through the cloud forest. Many hikers take this trail daily, but few do so at daybreak. My only companions for the first few hours were the beautiful scenery, vibrant bird life, and one farmer bringing milk into town, on a trail that eventually weaved through the palm-filled valley. As with most long hikes, the biggest reward was that there weren’t many people around. Moments spent alone in places this spectacular are indescribable. As the trail led back to the parking area, the chatter of people increased in volume and as is usually the case, I was happy with my decision to take the less traveled path.
On New Years Day, another trail beckoned, this one in the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, outside Manizales. Our final destination was one the glaciers in the area, on Nevado de Santa Isabel, which stands at 4800m (15750ft). (Nevado means snow-covered in Spanish; the park received it’s name from the several mountains within the park that are topped with glaciers.) At the beginning of the hike, we walked through a páramo ecosystem, which is mostly found in the high altitudes of the northern Andes. The spongy ground was covered with a variety of medicinal plants and tall frailejones.
Our ambitious group of six hikers and two guides eventually dwindled to two hikers with one guide as the altitude worked its magic on those from lower elevations. I was thankful for my time in the mountains of New Mexico and the conditioning that living at high altitudes does to a body as I took my first step out onto the ice. As we had approached the glacier, our guide decided to backtrack to check on some of the folks that had been left behind, so my companion Carlos and I were the only two people on the glacier during our 20 minutes there.
This glacier was very different from the tidal glaciers I had experienced in Alaska three months prior. It was much thinner and smaller, but still a sight to behold. And, like many of the glaciers worldwide, this one is receding. It’s estimated that Colombia has already lost 50% of its glaciers, and those that remain are expected to fade into history within the next 30 years. There were spray-painted numbers on rocks indicating where the glacier had been 2, 5, and 10 years ago. To stand beside the painted numbers and see where the ice had been and where it currently was is a very different experience than hearing or reading about how quickly these systems are changing in books or presentations.
We rapidly descended the mountain in order to avoid the approaching afternoon snow and began the bumpy three-hour ride back to town. It was an invigorating start to the New Year and a gratifying end to my first visit to Colombia. It will not be my last.