by Nancy Kiernan
Salento is a quaint pueblo (town) in Colombia’s Andes mountain coffee region. With a population of only 7,100, the town covers just 12 by 10 blocks. Like many Colombian pueblos, life centers around the main square—Plaza de Bolívar. Our Lady of Carmen church is the main focal point and towers over the palm trees, flowering plants, rustic benches, and of course, the statue of Simón Bolívar. On weekends the plaza becomes a marketplace filled with food stalls, souvenir vendors, and pop-up restaurants. Walk a few blocks from Plaza Bolívar and you’ll be out in the countryside, surrounded by coffee fields, rolling green hills, cattle ranches, and distant mountains.
Salento is one of the towns that make up Colombia’s eje cafetero (coffee triangle). Sitting at 6,200 feet above sea level, the area has perfect conditions for growing some of the world’s best coffee beans. Coffee farming and ranching were, and still are, Salento’s mainstay. Today, descendants of the town’s original settlers still harvest crops and raise dairy cows.
In the last 10 to 15 years the tourism industry has begun to blossom. Salento attracts scores of Colombians and foreign travelers who want to enjoy the richness of its traditional charm. Strolling through Salento’s downtown, you might think you’ve been transported back to the late 19th century. Many of the town’s original homes remain. White-walled houses and shops in Salento have vibrantly painted doors and windows in eye-catching shades of cobalt, tangerine, and turquoise.
Calle Real, Salento’s main tourist drag, contains a host of cafés, restaurants, and shops. While a few of the shops sell mass-produced items aimed at tourists, others offer an ever-changing selection of handmade crafts. Although tourism-related businesses occupy many of Calle Real’s buildings, a few general stores, farm supply shops, billiard halls, and bars add to the mix.
Salento does not have taxis. But don’t worry, because you can walk pretty much everywhere you need to go. Along one side of Plaza Bolivar is a line of Willy Jeeps (Salento’s version of a taxi) if you’d rather ride. Bus tickets to other cities in the coffee triangle are downright cheap. A ticket to Armenia costs $1.80 and you can go to Pereira for around $2.
Retire in Salento, Colombia
History defines Salento, but tourism is playing a bigger role in making it a charming place to retire. The townspeople are a mix of Salento-born natives and transplants from other Colombian regions. In recent years a growing number of expats have joined the ranks, most starting businesses such as hostels and restaurants that support the tourism industry.
Healthcare is always an important factor for retirees. Salento has a small clinic, but it’s not equipped to handle serious illnesses or injuries. For everyday illnesses such as colds and flu, residents turn to pharmacists. Colombia’s pharmacists can diagnose and prescribe medication for many common illnesses, and even give injections.
For serious conditions, residents typically go to Armenia, Quindío’s capital, located 45 minutes south of Salento. Armenia has seven medical institutions, including the University of Quindío’s San Juan de Dios Hospital. San Juan de Dios offers inpatient and outpatient services in gynecology, cardiology, internal medicine, neurology, radiology, and orthopedics, to name a few. The hospital has 240 beds, an intensive care unit, and five operating rooms.
Since the town is so small, there are no “best neighborhoods” for retirees. Every area is suitable depending on what lifestyle you want. Living in the center of the town offers easy walking access to all your daily needs. Banking, groceries in small stores, cafés for your daily “cup of joe”, and restaurants to enjoy a relaxed meal are within minutes of your home. A little further out into the countryside and you will be surrounded by spectacular mountain views, green coffee fields, and peaceful quiet.
There isn’t a lot to do in Salento. But that is kind of the point of living here. It’s a place to come to reconnect with nature. Somewhere to take long hikes and indulge in lots of food. Hiking and horseback riding are excellent ways to enjoy the beautiful surroundings while keeping fit at the same time.
Retiring to Salento might be the perfect opportunity to devote time to photography, painting, or writing. The stunning scenery and serene surroundings are terrific backdrops for your artistic expression.
Lifestyle in Salento, Colombia
Salento has a mild climate, with highs in the 70s F and lows in the mid-50s F year-round. A sweater or light jacket is all you need to be comfortable. The town receives around 515.2 inches of rain per year, with the most rainfall occurring in April/May, and October/November. During these two rainy seasons, coffee fields fill with workers harvesting bright red coffee beans. Roosters crow in the early morning hours to help you greet the day. The town has a decidedly relaxed feel.
The Cocora Valley is Salento’s top attraction. Part of Los Nevados Natural National Park, it encompasses 225 square miles of mountains, valleys, and rain forests. You can take one of the Willy jeeps from Plaza Bolívar for the 15-minute drive to the valley where you can explore on foot or horseback. If you choose the latter, you can join a horse-riding tour at the mouth of the valley for about $30.
The valley is one of the park’s most visited attractions, due in part to its most famous inhabitant, the wax palm, Colombia’s national tree, which grow to reach a height of 150 feet, and some even make it to 200 feet tall. Hiking in the area lets you get up close and personal with these majestic trees. One of the most popular trails leads to a rainforest, which is home to sloths, parrots, pumas, and spectacled bears.
If you want to do more than just see the trees, stop by Donde Juan B’s restaurant. It is renowned for its delicious trout, Salento´s most celebrated food. Sourced from local rivers, the trout has a golden color and mild flavor that is quite similar to salmon. The restaurant frequently has a tree-planting ceremony with an official botanist of the region. The ceremony says, “when you plant a tree you leave part of your heart from your country in Colombia and put a part of Colombia in your heart.”
When you live in Salento, you always have opportunities to celebrate and explore what defines the coffee triangle—coffee. One of the best ways to dive into the coffee culture is to take a coffee plantation tour. Finca Don Eduardo offers tours in English. That’s because this coffee farm, located within walking distance of Plaza Bolívar, is owned by a British expat. And for a truly unique coffee adventure, you can take a two-hour hike out to Coffee Reserve Sacha Mama, an extremely unique farm, where plants grow naturally to their full splendor.
For a small town, Salento has a surprising number of varied restaurant options in addition to local Colombian fare. The expat-owned Brunch de Salento serves a selection of American favorites, including hamburgers, pancakes, Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, and to-die-for peanut butter brownies. La Eliana Restaurant serves sandwiches, gourmet pizzas, Indian curry dishes, and vegetarian plates. The restaurant also offers Italian-style coffees, Chilean and Spanish wines, and imported beers.
Cost of Living in Salento, Colombia
There are no high-rise apartment complexes in Salento. This may be a welcomed change from living in larger cities. Single-story homes and two or three-story apartment buildings are the norm. Since Salento is in the countryside, the selection of grocery stores and shops are pretty limited. As with most places in the world, your cost of living will depend on the lifestyle you want to have.
Below is a moderate sample budget for a couple living in Salento:
|Rent (two-bedroom/ two-bath small house)||$300 to $550|
|Water & sewer||$20|
|Telephone (land & cell)||$30|
|Transportation (buses & taxis)||$40|
|Entertainment (dining out, movies, etc.)||$150|
|Health plan (public basic)||$70|
|Cleaning service (once per week)||$50|
|Clothing and personal care||$125|
|Total||$1,048 – $1,280|
7 Best Things to Do in Salento, Colombia
By Michelle Thompson
The spectacular mountainous landscape in and around Salento makes this town a hiker’s paradise. If you love the outdoors, you’ll be at home here. The region has several beautiful locations to visit and there are frequent group tours available. There are several options to get around, including hiking, biking, or horseback riding. The bus to Pereira also makes local stops around the region.
Here are seven of the best things to do in Salento, Colombia:
1. Hike at Los Nevados National Natural Park
Salento is known for its endless peaceful natural landscapes. Its impressive view of the Cocora Valley and mountains makes it ideal for hiking. Los Nevados National Natural Park (Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados) is accessible by a short jeep taxi ride of less than seven miles from the town center. The park is located in the Cordillera’s of the Andes and surrounds several stunning mountains including the Nevado del Tolima, the Nevado de Santa Isabel, the Nevado del Ruiz, and the paramillos of Cisne. The views are stunning and will be a dream for any amateur or professional photographer. The trip from town to the hiking trail takes around 30 minutes and costs 4,000COP (about $1). At the time of writing the entrance to the park was free. During your visit, you’ll likely come across exotic birds like toucans and hummingbirds while you’re out and about.
2. Visit Santa Rita Waterfalls
Not far from the town of Salento, you’ll find a hiking trail that leads to the Santa Rita Waterfalls (Cascada Santa Rita). There are several ways to get there: you can hike from Salento, rent a bicycle, arrange for a horseback ride, or take a bus or jeep to the starting point and then walk. Biking tours and bike rentals in Salento are easy to find. Try OK Bike, Salento Cycling Centre, or Mountain Bike Tours Salento. The Santa Rita Finca (farm) is a one-hour walk or a 16-minute drive from Salento. The Finca is the starting point for this picturesque walk. The 3.2-mile trail starts at the Finca where you’ll pay a 3,000COP ($0.75) fee to walk the trail that leads to the waterfalls. Another option is to take a bus from Salento towards Pereira or Armenia and ask to get off at Boquia. The trail there begins at a yellow bridge and leads into a dirt path. You can also walk along the path or the river where you’ll arrive at the same entrance near Finca Santa Rita. In addition to its amazing view, the Santa Rita Waterfalls site has a natural pool where visitors can swim. The walk itself is fairly easy and takes around three hours there and back.
3. Play Tejo
Tejo is one of Colombia’s most popular national sports, second only to soccer. Its origins are believed to have come from the Indigenous Chibcha people before the arrival of settlers, but modern tejo was developed in Boyaca, Colombia around 450 years ago. Tejo is played by throwing a metal disc (the tejo) onto a wooden board covered with clay (the cancha). The goal is for the tejo to land inside an exploding target containing gunpowder. Colombians play it in tournaments known as Torneos Relampago and it has become a popular activity for many travelers and expats. You can try a game of tejo at Los Amigos on Carerra 4 in Salento. One game will cost you around 4,500COP ($1.50) per person. The price includes a beer. Alcohol and explosives; what could go wrong?
4. Walk Around the Town Center
The pueblo of Salento is a major tourist attraction and represents the coffee cultural landscape of Colombia. The town and surrounding areas are a symbol for coffee growing. Unsurprisingly, the town center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011. Walking around the town center is one of the highlights of being in Salento. The streets reflect rich cultural traditions still practiced by the local population. In addition, the charming architecture in the town is in the Antiochian colonial style. It was influenced by Spanish settlers and the Indigenous culture of the region. The structures are built with cob and cane and the roofs are made of clay tiles. Our Lady of Carmen church at the top of a hill makes for a great photo opportunity. There is also a look-out point towards the Valle de Cocora accessible on Alto de la Cruz road.
Insider tip: Salento’s streets are best enjoyed early in the morning before the crowds arrive.
5. Eat, Eat, and Eat
Salento has a great selection of restaurants, in part because of the steady flow of tourists who come into the town. That said, it’s famously known for its regional trout. Local restaurants prepare it with toppings like garlic sauce and cheese. Restaurants like Venga Pues Mijo and Donde Laurita offer a plate of trucha with juice and a side of rice, salad, and patacones for around $12,000COP ($3). A popular option for breakfast or lunch is Brunch de Salento. The restaurant has a variety of international dishes and offers huge portions. Try the Navajo taco. For a more traditional Colombian meal, visit Donde Laurita and try Bandeja Paisa, a generous breakfast with rice, chicharron, a fried egg, plantain, arepa, and red beans.
6. Sample Locally Sourced Coffee
The region of Quindío is known for its coffee farms. Many of them offer tours and allow visitors to see how the coffee bean is processed and prepared. Finca Momota Coffee Farm offers the Traditional Coffee Tour of their plantation for 35,000COP ($9) per person, a three-hour tour of the property including information about the growing process, reforestation, and bird watching for 60,000COP, or the Coffee Lab workshop where visitors can get hands-on experience in the coffee making process and taste different coffees. The farm is located only a nine-minute walk from Salento. For an amazing cup of coffee in town, visit Café Jesus Martin. It sources local coffee beans and offers its customers an explanation of the coffee, its production, and the preparation.
7. Visit the Neighboring Towns
If you’re enjoying Salento’s vibe but would like to change things up, some of the neighboring towns and cities might be up your alley. Filandia is 16 miles from Armenia and about a 35-minute car ride from Salento. A town of 13,000, it features a viewing tower (mirador) with breathtaking views of the Cauca River and the Los Nevados National Park. You can also see Armenia and Pereira from a distance. The area was once known for the gold metalwork of the Quimbaya people.
For a change of pace, visit Armenia for the day and stop by the Quimbaya museum and the El Mariposario, the butterfly vivarium. Spend some time at the Quindio Botanical Garden and Parque de la Vida for a small fee of 1,500COP ($0.40). For some shopping, visit Carrera 14 and discover the many coffee shops available. Try Café Quindio or Café Sorrento Gourmet. The city of nearly 300,000 people is only an hour’s drive outside of Salento and is perfect for a day trip. However, try to return before nightfall. Whether you’re taking a car or a bus, the mountainous roads are dark and windy at night.