Nes­tled in the cool of the An­des, Sa­lento is a hot des­ti­na­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY TOM SHRODER

For most of my adult life, when I thought about Colom­bia at all, it was in the con­text of drugs, kid­nap­ping, mur­der and end­less civil war. When our son an­nounced he was go­ing to join the Peace Corps and com­mit to 27 months in that coun­try, I was mo­ti­vated to at­tempt to re­vise my opin­ion. Al­most ex­actly a year af­ter his de­par­ture, my wife and I boarded a Delta jet in At­lanta for a sur­pris­ingly brief (three hours, 20 min­utes) flight to the Caribbean coast of South Amer­ica. By then, I had re­as­sured my­self that the worst of the drug vi­o­lence had ended with the 1993 death of king­pin Pablo Es­co­bar, and a peace deal had just been reached be­tween the Colom­bian gov­ern­ment and FARC, the coun­try’s main rebel group.

By the time we boarded an Avianca flight in Carta­gena for the hour-and-20-minute trip to the Colom­bian in­te­rior, we were fully com­mit­ted, but not with­out a small slice of trep­i­da­tion. I can’t say what we ex­pected, but it sure wasn’t a brand new jet with in­di­vid­ual video screens on each seat, or the tidy lit­tle ho­tel whose bal­cony I found my­self stand­ing on a cou­ple of hours later. A van and driver we had pre­ar­ranged picked us up at Mate­cana In­ter­na­tional Air­port in Pereira and drove us out of the not-es­pe­cially-at­trac­tive, medium-size city. But as soon as we be­gan to climb out of the crowded chaos, we found our­selves lifted into a pris­tine land­scape of re­lent­lessly green moun­tains. The ham­mer­ing trop­i­cal heat of the Colom­bian coast had been re­placed by a cool breeze in­fused with the ir­re­sistible per­fume of spring growth, as if ev­ery­thing in the world were brand new. We soon learned the cli­mate was like this year round; a de­li­cious lit­tle chill in the early morn­ing and late evening, and mid-to-up­per 70s while you’re up and about — day af­ter day af­ter day like those mid-May beau­ties in Wash­ing­ton, when it’s im­pos­si­ble to re­press a smile. In just more than an hour, we crossed a rush­ing moun­tain stream and

en­tered an early 19th-cen­tury Span­ish colo­nial town. One- and two-story stucco build­ings were ar­ranged in neat rows, their bar­rel-tile roofs and rain­bow-col­ored bal­conies lin­ing up into fairy-tale streetscapes ra­di­at­ing from a cen­tral plaza dom­i­nated by a wed­ding-cake of a church tower.

This was Sa­lento, a town of about 7,500 per­ma­nent res­i­dents liv­ing along a steeply canted grid of paved streets more than a mile above sea level and ringed by moun­tains rang­ing in el­e­va­tion from 7,000 to 10,000 feet. The Terrazas de Sa­lento ho­tel, which we found on­line, fea­tured two floors wrapped around an open court­yard filled with flow­ers, ba­nana trees, palms, rub­ber trees, ferns and plush moss. We ate the am­ple, in­cluded break­fast in the first-floor lobby look­ing out the open front door at the moun­tains and the town stretch­ing away be­low us. The af­ter­noon was a good time to stretch out in a ham­mock strung in a rooftop gazebo and watch the hum­ming­birds flit among the flow­er­ing trees to all sides.

Sa­lento is in the mid­dle of Colom­bia’s cof­fee-grow­ing re­gion, where the tem­per­a­ture, soil con­di­tions and al­ti­tude all con­spire to pro­duce some of the finest beans in the world. Un­til 10 or 15 years ago, it was an out-ofthe-way place, more or less frozen in time ever since the main road from colo­nial days was rer­outed else­where. But more re­cently, the charm of the well­p­re­served ar­chi­tec­ture, the spec­tac­u­lar sur­round­ings and the im­prov­ing po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion have made it one of the hottest tourist des­ti­na­tions in the coun­try. The town is now filled with hos­tels, cute bars, good restau­rants and back­pack­ers from all over.

It hasn’t tipped en­tirely into the er­satz ter­ri­tory of hy­per­tourism. In among the shops and restau­rants, Colom­bian fam­i­lies still live — hang­ing out their laun­dry and gath­er­ing for card games vis­i­ble through open win­dows. A pool hall on the main street looked pretty much how it must have looked half a cen­tury ago. But the ameni­ties that come from touris­tic de­vel­op­ment were wel­come — restau­rants serv­ing a grat­i­fy­ing range of good food, in­clud­ing veg­e­tar­ian In­dian dishes, jumbo Amer­i­can-style burg­ers and ex­cel­lent, fresh and lo­cally farmed trout with fried mashed plan­tain cakes; bars with live mu­sic and fab­u­lous views; a net­work of jeeps wait­ing in the town square to take hik­ers to trail­heads in any di­rec­tion. And all of it — the meals, the trans­port, the lodg­ing — costs a frac­tion of what it would in a sim­i­larly de­sir­able lo­ca­tion in Europe or the United States. (Four trout din­ners with drinks cost about 70,000 pe­sos, or un­der $25.)

As for en­ter­tain­ment, all you need to do is walk. A down­hill hike of 45 min­utes or so brings you through breath­tak­ing hills to a cof­fee plan­ta­tion of­fer­ing in­ex­pen­sive tours where the sus­tain­able, or­ganic grow­ing meth­ods are lov­ingly ex­plained — right up to the point of brew­ing and drink­ing a cup of grade-A Colom­bian. When we went, one of the fat, healthy and happy look­ing Labrador re­triev­ers who seem to wan­der ev­ery­where adopted us about 15 min­utes out­side the finca and led/fol­lowed us wag­gingly all the way through the tour.

The next day, we piled into one of the jeeps (less than $2 each) for the ex­hil­a­rat­ing 30-minute drive into the Co­cora Val­ley for a longish hike into the Los Ne­va­dos Na­tional Park. A va­ri­ety of trails, from very chal­leng­ing to less so, would take weeks to ex­plore fully on rented horses, much more on foot. The trail we took re­quired con­cen­tra­tion on ev­ery step — to avoid mud and pick over the logs and rocks on the some­times steep as­cent. But the ef­fort was more than re­warded. The majesty of the green val­ley un­fold­ing be­tween steep­sided moun­tains com­pares to the awe-in­duc­ing vis­tas of an Amer­i­can na­tional park such as Yosemite. On a clear day, in the far dis­tance, the per­ma­nently snow­cov­ered peak of the 15,617-foot Ne­vado del Quin­dio is vis­i­ble. On slopes near and far, the wax palms — which ex­ist al­most nowhere else — soar to nearly 200 feet on their straight, smooth trunks un­til the fronds are of­ten kissed by pass­ing clouds.

A hike in the op­po­site di­rec­tion on an­other day led us along the banks of a river, through a rough-hewed tun­nel and across a sway­ing cable bridge to a hole in the jun­gle carved by a gush­ing 50-foot water­fall.

With Colom­bia be­gin­ning to emerge from its trou­bled past, it’s hard to imag­ine any fu­ture in which this jewel-like par­adise in the An­des isn’t in­creas­ingly over­run with en­thu­si­as­tic tourists. My ad­vice: Go soon.

Shroder is the au­thor of the nonfiction best­seller “Old Souls” and the re­cently pub­lished “The Most Fa­mous Writer Who Ever Lived: A True Story of My Fam­ily.” He was an editor and writer at The Wash­ing­ton Post from 1999 to 2009.

TOM SHRODER

BARNA TANKO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

TOP: From a bluff above the cen­ter of Sa­lento, the 19th-cen­tury colo­nial Colom­bian city is seen among the back­drop of the An­des. ABOVE: Col­or­ful bal­conies and hang­ing bas­kets with equally bright flow­ers are com­mon­place through­out the area.

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