Suddenly the narrow, dusty street filled with children on scatty ponies, screaming and laughing as they tried to avoid my camera. I was perched on the back of a farm truck, laughing too. This is why I love Colombia’s coffee district. This is why I keep going back.
It’s supposed to be a travelling ‘no-no’, going to the same place twice. There are dozens of beautiful places I’ve yet to visit in Colombia, but somehow I have been to the little town of Salento, an hour outside Pereira, twice now.
I’ve no doubt I’ll go back a third time.
On my first visit, I fell in love with those giant palm trees. I went wandering off into the Cocora Valley, where the clouds hang low and the morning mists refuse to clear for hours. I walked until the blue skies appeared, up and down, trampling through the mud, admiring the endless countryside, the famous trout farms. I walked until I couldn’t walk another step and then I hitched a lift back to Salento. I was ravenous.
They’ll sell you a huge bandeja paisa in Salento or one of those trays of trout drenched in creamy sauce. I ate and ate, then wandered back to the lodge, falling asleep the moment I closed my eyes. I’m a Bogotá girl now and that’s what the countryside does to me.
The following morning I meant, I really meant, to get up early, find a pony trek and immerse myself in all that greenery again. But it was too difficult to leave my bed. When I finally emerged, I spent the morning wandering around the village square, browsing the little craft shops and sneaking glances into the pool halls, where the men were already donning their best ponchos and preparing to get stuck into the game.
There are cute little cafes in Salento, even a chocolaterie and with a good book you can lose yourself entirely. But the countryside was calling again so, a little reluctantly, I decided it was finally time to track down that pony. It wasn’t hard in Salento – renting a pony is something every tourist does. There are willing farmers everywhere.
Except I’m not your average tourist, partly because I hadn’t so much as touched a pony since I was a child, but mostly because I am scared of anything over which I don’t have total control. Pony trekking in Salento is an organic business; ten people disappear into the hills without so much as a safety hat. The ponies aren’t riding school hacks, they’re fit and sleek and they aren’t forever plodding the same path.
But Colombians are kindly people and the farmer I found was even kinder than most. He gave me the sweetest, most placid pony he could find and suggested I trot gently at the front – avoiding the hustle and bustle of the pack. Eventually, even I managed to relax and gave up pretending I had any influence over where we were going. My pony and I settled into an easy rhythm and somehow, viewed from on high, the countryside grew more beautiful.
We dismounted to explore a few waterfalls, raced past some coffee plantations and suddenly we were back in town. It was a weekend of food, mud and ponies and so it’s no wonder I went back – besides, I had to return. I’d somehow failed to visit a coffee farm.
That became the priority and probably the main reason I went to Salento a second time. It was as beautiful as I remembered; the morning mists, the overwhelming sense of peace. I decided to walk to a coffee farm, but that became a mistake the moment I passed a cottage with the word ‘ice-cream’ hastily written on a sign in the window. Of course, I stopped for ice-cream. Of course, the family had dozens of kittens, puppies and children which waylaid me for over an hour, as I gossiped and ate far too many homemade goodies.
Finally I reached said coffee farm, paid a few thousands pesos and dutifully trailed along behind the farmer (Don Elias). He was a wizened old fellow who spoke cheerfully about yields and beans and described his techniques and routines. But I found it hard to concentrate. His was one of those natural farms, apparently fertiliser free, which means the birds come and go and the flowers wrestle for space among the beans. I would have walked in that garden forever, enjoying the chaos within the order. The farmer soon guessed I didn’t want to know the tricks behind his magic – I just wanted a cup of his precious coffee.
And so we sat there, the farmer, his wife and I, drinking tinto as the sun set onto the sprawling hills. The ice-cream break had made it far too late to walk back to town, so my new friends arranged for one of their workers to turn his old truck into my taxi. I climbed onto the back and prepared for a bumpy ride at the moment those children arrived on their ponies, kicking up dust and filling the dusk with their laughter.
That’s Salento. Anyone want to accompany me when I go back for the third time?
(Originally written for The City Paper, Bogotá)