Riding Willys in the Rain and Playing with Gunpowder – Salento

The Valle de Cocora

Hi all, the below happened about three weeks ago. In the intervening time we’ve made it to Ecuador, walked the Quilotoa loop and started our four week Spanish course. Unfortunately a combination of poor Internet and a lack of time have made getting things published quite difficult. I’m actually writing this now from a hammock in the middle of the Ecuadorian rainforest where the nearest internet access is a 4km walk away in the nearest town! Anyway hopefully I’ll be able to publish this soon as I have a huge post on the Quilotoa loop nearly ready to publish after this one! In the meantime the story continues with us leaving Cartagena in Colombia…

The flight to Pereira was delayed by an hour but otherwise uneventful. Once we arrived in Pereira we had to decide whether to catch a taxi straight to Salento or to get a taxi to the bus station followed by a local bus. There were only three buses a day and every source of bus times had contradicted each other so we knew that there may be a long wait for a bus. We were just debating what to do when an English couple, looking equally confused asked us if we wanted to share a taxi to the bus station. We mentioned that we were considering a direct taxi and they immediately jumped at the chance, cutting our cost in half! We’d pre-booked a hostel, El Ciudad de Segorbe, for our stay in Salento but the other guys hadn’t so once we arrived they headed off to look at the options. Twenty minutes later they arrived at our place and checked in after us. The guy who checked us in spoke perfect English and quickly gave us a full brief on what we should do in Salento.

Salento is a small town in the middle of the coffee region. Due to its location near coffee plantations and its proximity to some great walking it has become a bit of a tourist hotspot for Colombians and foreigners alike, although when we arrived, on a weekday in the low season, it was fairly quiet.

Looking towards the Cocora Valley
Looking towards the Cocora Valley

Since we now had most of the afternoon we decided to climb up to El Mirador (the viewpoint) and both test our ability to handle the new altitude and to get a view of the valley behind the town. We reached the top a little short of breath and were delighted to see some large birds gliding through the valley below us. After a couple of minutes watching them Alex realised that we were actually looking at Andean Condors! On our honeymoon in Peru we especially visited the Colca Canyon to see the Condors and here we were spotting them by accident during our afternoon walk! On our way back into town we bumped into the English couple again, walking up to where we’d just come from, and they suggested we meet up for a drink later that evening.

Colonial Style Shops in Salento
Colonial Style Shops in Salento

For dinner we had our eye on a little restaurant, La Eliana, a few blocks away that was rumoured to do a decent “English Style” curry. Although the choice was limited I enjoyed a great veggie curry and Alex had the chicken Madras. We’d been warned that their idea of spicy was a little tame so I opted for as hot as possible and Alex chickened out and went for a medium (it was a Madras after all). Both curries were delicious, mine was hot enough however Alex did regret not asking for a bit more spice!

After dinner we headed over to the bar where we’d agreed to meet the English couple. By now we’d discovered their names (too often we tend to meet people and have great in-depth conversations without ever finding out their names!) and shortly after we arrived they wondered in. Martin and Faye, a civil servant and an occupational therapist, were in Colombia on an extended honeymoon. They were a little older than many of the travellers that we’ve met so it was nice to spend some time with people more our own age!

Tejo - the national sport of Colombia
Tejo – the national sport of Colombia

We’d picked the bar, Beta Town, for one aspect in particular. They had a Tejo court. Tejo is, as we discovered, the national sport of Colombia. There is nothing really to compare it to in England although I guess darts would probably be about as close as I can get. However since Tejo is actually nothing like darts I’ll attempt to describe this crazy game.

Tejo is a team game where the two teams compete by throwing a steel weight (called the tejo) 8 metres (for tourists, real Colombian’s play at 20m) where it lands in a bed of clay raised off the floor at 45 degrees. In the middle of the clay is a steel ring. On the edge of the steel ring is a triangular paper packet placed onto the ring and embedded into the clay. The paper packet contains a surprising amount of gunpowder. Again to make this a little easier for tourists our metal ring had four packets of gunpowder on it. When the tejo hits the paper packet and the metal ring below it, the impact causes the gunpowder to explode making a rather loud bang. This is called a Mecha and scores three points for the team that threw the tejo. I won’t bore you with the full scoring system but I will say that despite an early lack of Mechas we soon improved and, by the time we left the bar two games later, our ears were ringing from the explosions and we smelt of gunpowder. We must have done alright as after teaching us the rules the bar staff ran upstairs every time we scored a Mecha, impressed at how the well the Gringos were doing. When playing Tejo formally the rules dictate that beer must be drunk at a certain rate (there are forfeits if you don’t keep up) throughout the game and the losers pick up the tab at the end of the night. We finished at one game all with Alex winning the final game for us with a particularly loud explosion!

The view of the Willys in front
The view of the Willys in front

The next day we grabbed an early breakfast and headed over to the central plaza to get our transport for the day. We were going to spend the day in the Valle de Cocora, a great spot for walking and only a few kilometres from Salento. The only option to get out to the Valley is on a ‘Willys’, a refurbished World War II (or shortly after) Willys Jeep. They are not large vehicles, having only enough space to cram four people sitting sideways behind the driver and, behind that, on a footplate sticking out of the back of the vehicle, another 3-4 people can stand side by side and hold onto the roll bars. In an attempt to be chivalrous I gave up my seat inside the vehicle for an older lady and climbed onto the footplate. We were soon underway with two others and myself standing on the back

Our Willys
Our Willys

of the ‘Willys’ holding on for dear life. The journey to the Valle de Cocora took around 20 minutes and although some of it consisted of straight roads there was a long descent into the valley where every corner had me holding on for dear life. We eventually made it to the valley and climbed off the Jeep. Luckily there were a few of us all going the same way so we had a quick look at the map and started the walk. Within 10 minutes or so we were keeping a similar pace to another group and started chatting to them. This group consisted of an Italian girl, a Polish guy and a Taiwanese girl. All were solo travellers and appeared to have only just met each other. We ended up tagging along with them.

Stopping for hot chocolate and cheese
Stopping for hot chocolate and cheese

From the valley we quickly entered a dense rainforest on a path that followed the river. For some reason the path repeatedly crossed the river and each time we crossed it was via a log bridge. Some of the log bridges were fairly well maintained and featured a wire to hold onto. Some of the bridges however looked fairly rotten consisting of few logs and were a test of balance. We safely made it across seven bridges and finally reached a rest stop. An enterprising local had realised that if they put out some bird feeders to attract hummingbirds tourists would come to see them. For the princely sum of just over £1 we were able to sit and watch the hummingbirds (Colibri in Spanish) while enjoying a hot chocolate with cheese that came with the entry price.

Hummingbirds at the feeder
Hummingbirds at the feeder

After our break we rejoined the trail to make the ascent to the highest point of the walk. As we climbed we left the rainforest and entered the less dense cloud forest.  Eventually we left the forest and reached the highest point of the walk, appropriately called La Montaña. From the top we had a great view down the valley. After a break and a snack we started our decent. After a few minutes we started to see the wax palms which the area is famous for. The wax palms (I have no idea why they are called that) are the tallest palm trees in the world, growing up to 60m tall apparently. Walking through fields with these tall palms either side of the path was quite surreal. We were on the last few kilometres of

Wax Palms - The worlds tallest species of palm
Wax Palms – The worlds tallest species of palm

our walk back to the Willys when the sky opened and we were quickly drenched. Luckily we were prepared and had coats in our bags, however a couple of our companions were not so lucky. As it happened we’d been carrying the emergency ponchos that my work colleagues had bought for me as a leaving present and we lent one to the Polish guy who was incredibly grateful. We made it back to the Willys and waited for there to be enough people to fill a jeep. Somehow for this journey both Alex and I ended up standing on the footplate at the back. The first few minutes of the ride were okay as the rain was not too heavy, however it quickly worsened and within minutes we were totally blind and holding onto the Willys for dear life. Once you can’t see the corners coming towards you it is very

Riding a Willys in the rain
Riding a Willys in the rain

hard to brace yourself for them so we were constantly being thrown around. Luckily the driver drove a little more slowly than on the way out. Halfway back to the town we stopped and a little old farmer climbed onto the back next to me. I felt something moving next to my feet and realised that he had brought his dog which was also now sitting on the footplate on both of our feet! Eventually we arrived back in the town half blind and completely soaked and quickly made our way back to the hotel for a shower.

That evening we sought out a place called Brunch. We’d read that it was run by an American and widely regarded as the best place in town. Sure enough when we arrived we were greeted by an old American guy who gave us a few recommendations from the menu. Since the menu was obviously more aimed at providing tourists with a bit of comfort food we opted for the burgers. The burgers arrived and were both massive with chips overflowing the plate. Mine was a homemade bean patty piled high with guacamole and Alex’s had a piece of fresh pineapple on top that would have filled an entire can at home. We managed an impressive amount of the food (the walking & Willys ride helped!). Tired from our walk and stuffed from Brunch we staggered home.

Picking coffee cherries
Picking coffee cherries

The next day we got up at a reasonable time to go on a tour of the Ocaso coffee plantation (finca). The finca that the hostel directed us to was around an hour’s walk from the hostel. When we got there we were met by a guide and slowly enough people arrived for a guided tour of the finca. The tour started off with us all getting traditional coffee picking baskets tied around our waists. We were then taught about the history of the coffee industry in Colombia as well as shown the various coffee varieties before being let loose to go and start picking coffee beans ourselves. Once we’d picked the beans (in 10 minutes we only managed to successfully find and pick about 20 ripe beans each) we then put the beans through a machine that separates the bean from the fruit. Once we’d learnt about the rest of the coffee lifecycle we were finally able to taste some of the finca’s own coffee. The whole experience was fascinating and showed the huge amount of manual labour behind every cup of coffee (it takes 30-60 hand picked beans to make a single cup of coffee). It was also interesting to see what labels like Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance actually mean on the ground in terms of how the environment and workers are looked after.

Alex making coffee at the finca
Alex making coffee at the finca

There was a couple of Americans from Portland, Oregan on the tour and we walked back to town while chatting to them. That evening we ate salad at BetaTown and played some more Tejo (just Alex and I this time) after watching the end of a 90’s Meg Ryan film playing at the bar (being dubbed into Spanish made it slightly more entertaining).

The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast and went to find the bus back to Pereira. The journey was pretty quick and soon enough we made it to the bus station. When we got off the bus an Israeli guy and his Peruvian girlfriend asked us how to get to the airport and we ended up sharing a taxi with them. The flight was short and soon enough we were in a taxi on our way back to our old hotel in Bogota!

Author: Chris Greenwood

IT Consultant, traveller, foodie, husband and occasional blogger

3 thoughts on “Riding Willys in the Rain and Playing with Gunpowder – Salento”

  1. Hooray, another post and fascinating too! Although I wasn’t too keen on the idea of the Willy Jeep, rather you than me. I would love to hear more about the Fair trade effect on the lives of coffee bean pickers, no doubt we will in due course (next April?)xx

  2. Hellooo! I finally got onto your blog (a complete mystery why y computer wouldn’t let me). Anway its such a pleasure to read about what you’ve been up to, sounds like you’re packing in some wonderful experiences. Those wax palms and the hummingbird are beautiful. Good effort with the Willys! Meanwhile, enjoy learning SPanish in the Ecuadorian rainforest!

  3. Well done on winning Tejo Alex! Can we play when you’re home? Looks like articulate might have a rival…

Leave a Reply