Views of Panama

Salento and Valle de Cocora: Stars of Quindío

The colorful atmosphere of Salento —the most-visited municipality in the department— and the peaceful greenery and wax palms of the Cocora Valley join forces to bring delighted visitors to this part of Quindío, one of the most alluring natural tourist destinations in Colombia.

By Vicky Santana Cortés

Fotos: Andrés Mayr, Shutterstock


After traveling fourteen miles from Armenia, the capital of Colombia’s Quindío department, through greenery scented by sugar and coffee, Salento welcomes us with a row of colorful houses and flowering balconies.

We’re here on Calle Real, in what Colombians refer to as the “father municipality” because it is the oldest in the department, celebrating its 180th anniversary this year. Doors and balconies painted an incredible variety of colors (orange, lime green, yellow, red, Pacific blue) contrast with the white walls, most of which are made of adobe or tapia pisada (layered mud).

Imprinted in Salento’s well-preserved architecture are traces of the colonists who migrated to the coffee-growing region from Antioquia in the mid-19th century. Colorful doors swing open onto a long corridor, the bottom half of which is painted a bright color and lined with wooden railings whose balusters were carved from the wood of the macana palm. Rooms surround the courtyard: the kitchen and bathroom are to one side and in the back, a patio with a vegetable garden and fruit trees. 


The Alto de la Cruz viewpoint, atop 250 stairs, offers a panoramic view of the town, rightly considered one of the most beautiful in Colombia. Those who make the climb can see the straight line of Calle Real, the Our Lady of Carmen Church, the town’s colorful houses and, on a clear day, the Valle de Cocora and surrounding forests in the distance.

The cafes, restaurants, inns, and hostels along Calle Real are interspersed with one- and two-story houses. Travelers never lack accommodations in this town. Salento welcomes 28% of all visitors to Quindío, making it the most-visited municipality in the department. Many who visit come to stay; about 40% of the town’s houses are owned by Salentinos and the rest belong to foreigners who have found that the town’s climate, with temperatures ranging from 59 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and its beauty and tranquility, make it a perfect refuge.

Enjoy a warm aromatic drink at Café Don Matías in the Photography Museum, where you can also learn about the town’s past —over the years it has been called Boquía, Barcinales, Salento de Creta, and Nueva Villa de Salento— through drawings and photographs created by local artists.

Handcrafts, especially silver and costume jewelry, are an important part of Salento’s cultural landscape. Fascinating stores display a wide variety of jewelry, dresses, and hats, as well as decorative items made of silver, fine wood, fiber, and natural stones. And, of course, there are specialty coffee shops that sell the coffee produced by the Quindío haciendas.

You’ll notice the old Willys jeeps in the main square, many of which date back to the 60s and 70s. These vehicles have played an essential role in coffee culture since they arrived in Colombia after World War II, all but replacing the work that had previously been performed by mules. The famous term “yipao” (jeepful) defines the size of a load of bananas, corn, or anything else the Willys can carry. True symbols of the coffee-growing culture, these jeeps are now tourist attractions in their own right. Drivers alternate between offering their services to tourists and transporting cargo like merchandise and personal belongings. 

Lining the other sides of the square are the Our Lady of Carmen Church, dating from 1843, and the Municipal Mayor’s Office. Lose yourself in the streets surrounding the square and you’ll be continually surprised by architectural details like the door knockers and the terraces overflowing with flowers that grace the facades with color, scent, beauty, and grace.

Salento is quiet during the off-season for tourism, but frenetic around holidays such as Holy Week or the end of the year. If you are seduced by Salento’s charms, prepare for more surprises. The town is but the tip of the iceberg, serving as the gateway and obligatory passage to another Colombian wonder: the Cocora Valley.


The Cocora Valley: Changing Landscapes

Just seven miles from Salento, the Cocora Valley landscape is one of the most iconic in Quindío and all of Colombia. The 2,400-acre Valle de Cocora Natural Reserve is the natural habitat of the Quindío wax palm, Colombia’s national tree; the reserve serves as home to 85% of the wax palms in Colombia.

The Andean cloud forest ecosystem takes on an almost theatrical dimension as the silhouettes of the palm trees are highlighted on the hills. Inside the reserve, visitors can choose from a selection of walks ranging from two to nine miles long; guided tours on horseback are also available. The tours take visitors across seven hanging bridges for a closer look at the source of the Quindío River, which is the department’s main water resource. Its source lies near the Estrella de Agua Biological Station at the entrance to the Nevados National Park, another adventure tourism attraction in the area. 

As a reward for your efforts, you may catch sight of the impressive flight of an Andean condor —one of the most famous birds of Central Cordillera— but if not, the hummingbirds at the end of the three-mile tour will make pleasant company.


And for a Taste of the Cocora Forest…

The less hardy can view the landscape from the Bosques de Cocora-Donde Juan B restaurant, while enjoying the delicious local specialty, trout served on a giant patacón (fried plantain) with your choice of sauce. And, naturally, you’ll have to try the famous canelazo cinnamon aperitif, made from panela and, as its name suggests, cinnamon. Rainbow trout raised in the Quindío River and its tributaries are one of the region’s unmissable gastronomic delights. Enjoy your meal!


How to get there

From North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean, Copa Airlines flies to Armenia, capital of the Quindío department, from its Hub of the Americas in Panama City. 

Fourteen miles of well-paved road take you from Armenia to Salento. Tourists can travel by jeep from Salento’s main square to the Cocora Valley.

What to eat

Don’t hesitate to order the rainbow trout at any restaurant in Salento or its surrounding towns; they are experts in its preparation. We recommend the trout with garlic at the Bosques de Cocora restaurant.

Olier Chocolatl’s Sueño de Fresas (Salento)

Where to stay

Finca Hotel El Ocaso, located just 2.4 miles from Salento, is a traditional coffee farm with more than a hundred years of history. Its coffee tour is very popular with travelers interested in learning about coffee culture.

The El Mirador del Cocora hotel offers spectacular views from its privileged location; it is also a highly desirable and recommended destination.

The Hostal Ciudad de Segorbe is over a hundred years old. The remodeled house makes another pleasant option.


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