Falling in Love with This Charming Colonial Town in Colombia

As the bus rounds the bend, a town appears in the distance—perched majestically atop a mountain, surrounded by deep green forests, cattle ranches, and coffee farms. White-washed walls reflect the golden afternoon sun and a church bell tower rises into the heavens. This is where expats go to live a stylish country life.

Salento is a tourist town, no doubt about it. Artisans peddling handmade jewelry share space in the main square with food vendors serving trout. In the downtown, you find restaurants, coffee shops, an Internet cafe, a grocery store, bars, a farm supply shop, and a hardware store, most occupying colonial buildings with brightly-painted doors and shutters.

Colombian tourists have been visiting Salento for 50 or 60 years, but the last decade has brought foreign travelers, too. Most people come to hike in Cocora Valley, the area’s most popular natural attraction. Some fall in love with the Salento lifestyle and never leave.

British expat Tim Harbour, 58, is one of them. When he was working as an Oracle database administrator, Tim never dreamed he’d one day settle in Colombia and open Salento’s first backpacker hostel, The Plantation House. “I came to Salento in 2004. At that time, there was one foreign backpacker coming through Salento every six months. There are more backpackers coming through these days.”

Tim found business success in Salento, but personal fulfillment keeps him rooted here. With his wife Christina, Tim shares a house with a breathtaking view of the countryside. “I have no intention of ever going back to the rat race.”

Baltimore native Jonathan Schwartz, 36, has embraced life here. He opened La Serrana, an upscale hostel in 2010 in the rambling countryside near Salento. When an adjacent home and avocado farm went on the rental market, Jonathan moved in to open another lodging house, Finca Las Camelias. The finca (a country house or estate) sits just down the road from La Serrana.

Jonathan has an apartment in the nearby city of Armenia, which he shares with his wife and young daughter, but he spends six days a week in Salento. You might not expect a former country-club member to embrace farm life, but Jonathan dove in headfirst. He recently started an organic vegetable garden to feed La Serrana’s kitchen, and a chicken coop and pig pen are in the works. “It’s very easy living. There’s not a lot of traffic here, there’s not a lot of crime, and it has a very good climate.”

Lollygagging is a Salento pastime. If the mood strikes, you can stroll up to the Mirador to get a bird’s-eye view of the valley below. On weekends, Chufla the clown performs circus acts on Calle Real, sometimes accompanied by his wife. On Sundays, locals escape the crowds and head to the countryside.

Before my first trip to Salento, I scoured the Internet to find good restaurants. I wasn’t expecting much—maybe a few places serving typical foods, such as bandeja paisa (a dish with red beans and rice, pork, fried eggs and other ingredients, served on a platter) or ajiaco (Colombian potato soup). However, Salento’s gastronomic scene isn’t your standard fare, even for a tourist town.

You can’t go wrong with trout for lunch, and you’ll find dozens of places serving it, some for as little as $3.

For dinner, try Restaurante Pizzeria La Eliana, and its gourmet dishes for $5. On my first night in town, I ordered a salmon-filled crepe with yellow curry sauce. Before I left town, I returned time and again for pizza, beef stroganoff, and barbeque pork tenderloin.

Salento has only 7,000 people, so its hospital isn’t equipped for major treatments. But hospitals in Armenia (a 30-minute drive to the south) and Pereira (one hour to the north) can handle any type of medical need. For minor medical problems, like a virus, the local pharmacist administers medications, even injections.

Pereira and Armenia also have several malls, building-supply stores, garden centers, and furniture stores. Buses leave for Pereira several times a day, and you can find a bus leaving for Armenia about every 20 minutes.

You’ll find a few houses for sale in various Salento neighborhoods. Two- and three-bedroom houses sell from $50,000 to $80,000, and nice apartments in the town center rent for about $300 a month. Large-scale housing developments haven’t come to Salento, and the expats living here want to keep it that way. They like Salento the way it is—quiet and friendly, as it’s always been.

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