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Salento is the most-visited town in the Andean region of Colombia’s Coffee Triangle (Eje Cafetero), best known for its lofty palms in the Cocora Valley, its colourful, colonial streets and of course coffee! It was one of our favourite places in all of Colombia so we think it should definitely be on your Colombia itinerary. The region is a UNESCO heritage site due to its sustainable cultural landscape, Spanish-influenced architecture and coffee growing tradition. In this post we will share the 11 best things to do in Salento, Colombia in 2023 and everything you need to plan and enjoy your time there.
Salento is very popular with domestic tourists and foreigners alike and its recent claim to fame is being a big part of the inspiration for the Disney movie Encanto. If possible try to visit during the weekdays when it is less busy and avoid visiting during any Colombian holidays.
It’s mild climate, thanks to its location at 1,900 m (6,200 feet) elevation on a plateau is comfortable and due to the 300 days of rain it receives each year, it is carpeted in green. You could spend your days simply wandering the small town and enjoying its colourful buildings, but if you are wondering what to do in Salento, there is actually a lot to keep you busy in Salento and the surrounding area.
- 1 When to Visit Salento
- 2 The Best Things to do in Salento
- 3 If you have longer in Salento…
- 4 Where to Stay in Salento
- 5 Where to Eat in Salento
- 6 How Many Days in Salento
- 7 Getting to Salento
When to Visit Salento
Salento has a mild climate with temperatures that are consistent throughout the year. What does vary is the amount of rain with June-August being the wettest months and November to February having the least rain and most sunshine. Daytime temperatures all year average in the low 20s C (low 70s F) with evening temperatures dipping down to the low teens (low 50s F). After the sweltering Caribbean coast, it was a pleasant change and we enjoyed donning a jacket in the evenings.
Salento is very popular with domestic tourists, so you should avoid visiting during public holidays (December/January and Easter). It is also much busier on weekends, so if you can play your visit for during the week, it will be quieter.
The Best Things to do in Salento
There are three big things that attract visitors to Salento: the massive wax palms of the Cocora Valley, the cuter than cute colourful town and its reputation of growing some of the best coffee in Colombia. While each of these are reason enough to visit Salento, there are many great things to do in Salento beyond the big three.
Hiking is one of the best ways to enjoy the Salento region, however you may be doing a different style of hiking than you are used to. Remember those 300 days of rain I mentioned above? Well that makes the trails incredibly muddy and you learn quickly why the standard locals’ footwear is rain boots. We were skeptical at first too, but after hiking for 3 days in rain boots, we can confidently say that it is the best way to hike in the Salento area. Most hotels and hostels rent or loan rain boots or they can be rented at the outdoor shop, Kilometro Cero in town.
Visit the Cocora Valley
The Cocora Valley is the location of another one of the most popular tourism photos of Colombia – others being the stunning Playa Cabo San Juan in Tayrona National Park and the beautiful stunning architecture of Cartagena. Home to the world’s tallest palm trees, the Quindío wax palm, which can grow up to 200 feet tall (70 m), the Cocora Valley is the best place to see these Dr. Seuss-like mammoths. They grow best at these high elevations and are highly valued since they are the national tree of Colombia. Sadly, they are threatened due to habitat loss and overharvesting.
The photos you will see of the trees are skinny trunks rising high out of the hilly pastures, but these trees are meant to grow in the forest and the surrounding cattle grazing lands limits the ability of new plant growth.
Visiting the wax palms of the Cocora Valley is one of the best things to do in Salento and there are a variety of ways you can do it. You can organize a tour in town, or another popular way to visit Cocora Valley is on horseback. Alternatively, if you want to visit on your own, you can take one of the public jeeps to the Valley – it is a 25-30 minute drive. Catch the jeeps from the main square in Salento – they leave every 30 minutes or when they are full. A ride in these jeeps (called Willys) are another one of the things you should experience in Salento.
You can choose to complete a circular loop hike of the Cocora Valley or you can walk (or horseback ride) 30 minutes to see them for a shorter activity. If completing the full hike, set out early in the morning since the rain usually comes in the afternoon and bring a packed lunch (we recommend ordering from Salento Brunch). From where the jeeps drop you off you will walk through the blue metal fence on the main road to start your hike, which will take you through cloud forest, across suspension bridges, to a Hummingbird Sanctuary, Finca La Montaña (great place for your packed lunch or you can buy drinks/snacks). Continue on for miradors and then descend through the palms. This hike is strenous, so be prepared with enough water, start early and consider using rain boots (ask what the conditions are like before you set out).
If you aren’t interested in the long hike option, you can still easily visit the Cocora Valley and see the glorious palms. Take the jeep from town and from the jeep parking lot, walk up the road for 15-30 minutes. There are a few different private property spots developed for visitors where you can be amongst the palms with some great miradors and even some Instagramy photo spots. We paid 10,000 COP/person at “Bosque de Palms”, walked up to the mirador and enjoyed our packed lunch.
Wander Calle Real
When visiting Salento, you should wander the whole town – you can walk from one side to the other in 15 minutes, so you aren’t going to get lost. However, Calle Real is the busiest street in Salento, extending out from the main Plaza, Plaza de Bolivar. This charming street is packed full of shops and restaurants and of course each building is brightly coloured.
There are numerous cute shops where you can buy really unique items and souvenirs. And of course there are so many colourful doors, balconies and buildings to take photos of.
Visit a Coffee Farm
Throughout your travels in Colombia, you will have many opportunities to visit a coffee farm (finca) and learn how coffee is produced. However, there is no better place to do this than Salento since the Coffee Triangle produces the best coffee in Colombia. Most visitors tour Finca El Ocaso and we found the the 1.5 tour was perfect for us. You can also choose the Premium Coffee Tour Salento (3 hours) for a more in depth experience.
You can book your tour from your hostel or guesthouse – tours are offered at 9 am, 11 am, 1 pm and 4 pm in English (2 pm for the Premium Tour). Reservations are not required for the shorter tour, but are mandatory for the Premium Tour. Tours cost 40,000 COP/person for the short tour and 100,000 COP/person for the premium tour.
The farm is located 4.5 km from Salento. You can take a Willy (jeep) there or it makes for a nice 1 hour walk through the countryside. During the tour, you will learn about what makes this region optimal for coffee production, the different types of coffee, the roasting process and tips to prepare the perfect cup. The tour is very interactive – you will get to pick coffee beans, see the production and roasting process and help make coffee to be enjoyed at the end. One of the most interesting things to note is that most of Colombia’s best coffee is exported and it is only recently that the coffee scene in Colombia has advanced from second-rate beans to the premium stuff. Most Colombians drinks tintos, black drip coffee prepared with the second-rate beans. However, independent premium coffee shops with experienced baristas have started a coffee renaissance.
Mountain Bike La Carbonera
While the Cocora Valley is the most popular place to view the famous wax palms, many travellers are venturing further to see them in groves at La Carbonera. This used to be a “hidden gem”, but is now one of the most popular things to do in Salento. Due to landslides, the road to La Carbonera was closed when we visited in March 2023. However, we will have to return to see the majestic palms in their natural environment.
La Carbonera is a 2-hour Jeep ride from Salento, so it does take more effort to get there. At La Carbonera, you will see groves of trees in the forest, instead of the spread out trees doting the Cocora Valley. You can book a tour to La Carbonera from your accomodation or in town. However, if you are up for an adventure, we suggest a mountain biking tour. These tours cater to people of all riding abilities and since it is a downhill ride, you don’t even have to work that hard. Salento Cycling is the company with the best reputation. Their La Carbonera tour is 5 hours and includes great quality bikes and safety equipment (full face helmet and knee and elbow pads), lunch and transportation for 220,000 COP. Note, that due to insurance reasons, they cannot take kids under 18.
Go Hiking in Los Nevados National Park
Remember we said that hiking near Salento is one of the best things to do in the area and if you love hiking, you should consider a multi-day hike in Los Nevados National Park. The 3-day hike we did with Paramo Trek was truly one of the highlights of our 5 weeks in Colombia.
I will try to give you the short version of why you should hike in Los Nevados. The Park, located only 30 minutes from Salento offers ice-capped volcanoes, galciers, lakes, cloud forest and the big draw for us, the unique paramo ecosystem. The paramo is an alpine tundra ecosystem above the continous treeline and below the permanent snow line with otherworld vegetation. You can choose a variety of treks from summiting Nevado Santa Isabel, a tropical glacier at 5,000 m to 3 and 4 day treks between remote fincas through cloud forest and up into the paramo. The crown jewel of Los Nevados is Nevado de Ruiz, and on a clear day, you may be able to view this ice-capped, active volcano.
Read our full post about our Los Nevados Trek here. If you like hiking, this should definitely be on your Colombia itinerary.
Visit the Salento Mirador
I love miradors in Latin American countries – even the word sounds so nice and luckily most towns in Colombia usually offer at least one mirador over the town. Often these miradors are religious with crosses errected on the hill to protect and look out over the town.
Walk down Calle Real, away from the Plaza and you will find the steps to the Salento mirador. The walk up is a short five minutes by stairs and you will pass the Stations of the Cross as you ascend. At the top you will be rewarded with a lovely view of the town and surrounding hills. There are a few vendors at the top selling souvenirs and drinks (the agua panela – sugar-cane juice – is tempting).
Hang out in a Coffee Shop
Up until a decade ago, visitors who thought they were coming to Colombia to sample some of the world’s best coffee were disappointed as all the good stuff was exported. However, things are changing and there are a number of places to get great coffee in Salento. The most famous is Cafe Jesus Martin, just off the main Plaza, owned by the man that is sometimes billed as the “man who saved Colombia coffee”. This is a great place to enjoy premium Colombian coffee brewed by talented baristas, enjoy a slice of cake and even buy a bag to bring home.
Get Around in the Willys
Taking public transit is not always listed as one of the best things to do in a destination. However, when public transportation comes in the form of colourful, vintage jeeps, it moves way up the list. These jeeps have been lovingly restored and maintained and travellers pack in the back or stand on the back step as they take you to nearby locations.
Theses jeeps are referred to as Willys and all depart from the main square (Plaza) in Salento for nearby locations like the Cocora Valley, Finlandia, various coffee farms and just about anywhere you want to go. You can buy your ticket from the booth in the main plaza. Jeeps leave every 30 minutes generally, or when full. Make sure you take at least one when in Salento.
Do you know Colombia’s national sport? Unless you have visited, you likely have never heard of it: tejo. It has been played for more than 500 years and involves hurling discs at a metal ring that is rigged with gunpowder. To make matters even more interesting, it is often played while drinking beer. The game has become popular with tourists and has become an interesting way for locals and tourists to interact. This is a popular activity in Salento and the best way to get introduced to the game, is to join one of the tejo nights offered my most hostels. Los Amigos is one of the most popular places to play in Salento.
That sounds like a funny thing to do, but you will see trout on almost any menu in Salento. Interestingly trout is not native to the region, but was brought here and has thrived in its rivers and is now farmed as well. The trout is delicious and you should definitely eat trout at least once when you are in Salento.
Spend Time in Plaza de Bolivar
Salento is so small and since Plaza de Bolivar is the centre of the town, you can’t help but walk through the Plaza. The Willy jeeps leave from here and Calle Real extends from Plaza de Bolivar. Spending time in Latin American plazas is one of our favourite things to do – we love peoplewatching and taking in the energy of these community gathering spots.
Plaza de Bolivar is surrounded by colourful buildings, Parroquia Nuestra Señora del Carmen church, cafes and restaurants and this is where most of the ATMs in Salento are too.
If you have longer in Salento…
There really are so many great Salento things to do and if you have more time, we would suggest these:
- Visit Filandia – Finlandia is a nearby town 30 minutes from Salento, a bit quieter, but equally as beautiful. We had planned to spend 3 nights here, but ended up booking our 3-day Los Nevados Trek, so unfortunately we didn’t get to visit.
- Los Termales de Santa Rosa de Cabal – with all of the volcanic activity in Colombia, it is not surprising that there are hot springs. Located 2 hours from Salento, beautiful waterfalls lead into the hot springs.
- Santa Rita Waterfall – beautiful waterfall, close to Salento, you can walk there (1.5 hours) or take the bus halfway, or do a horseback tour.
- Kasaguadua Nature Reserve – located a one-hour walk from Salento, you can stay at the Nature Reserve, but you can also do a 2-hour tour to learn all about the special ecosystem and sustainability.
- Go Horseback Riding – horses rule Salento and you will often seeing them trotting through the streets of Salento unaccompanied. Therefore, horseback riding is a great way to experience many of the best places to visit in Salento. There are numerous tours that involve horseback riding.
Where to Stay in Salento
The first thing you need to decide is if you want to stay in town or in the surrounding countryside. The advantages of staying in town are accessibility and great restaurant options, but the downsides are it is noisier (dogs and roosters).
We usually like to recommend a variety of accomodation options in each location, but we loved the place we stayed so much that we don’t think you need any more options.
Coffee Tree Boutique Hostel was one of our favourite places we stayed. They offer a variety of dorms and private rooms and even a family room. Located on the edge of town, the views are incredible from the large main common room. The staff are really helpful organizing Salento activities and they even offer free activities each day from tejo nights to campfires to yoga. Great wifi for working, yummy breakfast, hot showers and a great vibe, make this one of the best hostels in Salento. Click here to check the latest rates.
If you do want some other options:
Glamping Lubre (mid-range/luxury) – offers unique domes where you really can sleep under the stars, located 8 km outside of Salento. The gorgeous property, good food and spa and nature surroundings, make this a great Salento glamping choice. Click here to check the latest prices.
Hotel Terasu Salento (mid-range/luxury) – located on the outskirts of Salento, this stylish hotel has great rooms with views and lovely balconies, an excellent breakfast and helpful staff and is one of the best hotels in Salento. Click here to check the latest prices.
Where to Eat in Salento
For a town of its size, Salento offers a lot of choice when it comes to where to eat. There are so many great restaurants, but here are a few we really enjoyed and can recommend.
Brunch Salento – if you are doing any day hikes or if you want a lunch for the bus, Brunch Salento makes the best packed lunch we have ever seen. For only 18,000 COP you get a bag with your choice of ham, chicken, veggie or peanut butter & jam sandwich, their signature PB brownie, a banana, water or juicebox, granola, and crackers with a side of PB. We ate from our lunch bags for days! They also have great meals you can eat inside their restaurant.
Wabi – you don’t get much good Asian food in Colombia, so this was a suprising gem. This tiny place run by a Japanese family, offers great food including their unique trout sushi.
Cumano Bistro Food – we had never had Venezuelan food, but this restaurant was recommended to us, and the food was really good. They have traditional Venezuelan drinks, dishes, trout of course and even burgers. They get busy and close early, so come early.
Barrocco 1842 – we stumbled upon this place, because we kept trying to go to the much recommended Etnia Arte next door, but it was always closed when we were there. Sometimes things are meant to be – we had the best hospitality by the family that runs this place and the most delicious pasta and vegetarian dishes. The menu is limited, but just let them serve you whatever the menu del dia is.
How Many Days in Salento
We were in the Salento area for 5 days, half of which included our multi-day hike in Los Nevados National Park. If you are only visiting Salento, give yourself a minimum of 3 nights, but if you are planning on hiking in the National Park, I would suggest a full week in the region. Salento is a place that people often end up staying longer than they planned because there is so much to do and it is simply so pleasant.
Getting to Salento
Salento is located an 8-9 hour bus ride from Medellin or Bogota, but you can also fly into the nearby airports of Pereira or Armenia. Salento is then about an hour’s bus or taxi from these airports. If your time is shorter, we would recommend flying, since inter-Colombia flights are often very reasonable. However, if money is tight, a night bus is your best option as you can save the price of a night’s accomodation.
From Bogota to Salento you will have to transit through Pereira or Armenia, there are no direct buses. The bus Medellin to Salento is direct and we recommend Flota Occidental as it is the fastest (6.5 hours) and most comfortable.
We flew from Santa Marta on the Caribbean to Pereira and then splurged and took a taxi right to Salento for 160,000 COP (fixed price).