Colombia is a travel destination steadily growing in popularity, both among long-term expats and savvy backpackers. Even luxury vacationers are after colonial Caribbean getaways on the northern coast, with the region’s sunset beaches and beautiful national parks sprawling inland, offering an array of activities and lively experiences.
Aside from some of the most visited areas such as Cartagena, Bogota, Medellin, Cali, and even the adventure capital of San Gil, we found that southern Colombia offers quite a different experience than the rest of the country. There are many astounding sights to be had there, and it is a region well worth exploring.
After spending a month and a half in this part of the world, we realized that it was southern Colombia with its rugged mountain-town feel and hidden wonders that truly caused us to fall in love with this country. With the miles of coffee farms near the Zona Caféteria, to majestic wax palm valleys, and a hidden cathedral near the Ecuador border, this area of Colombia had us baffled in so many ways.
SALENTO – THE HEART OF COLOMBIA’S NATURAL BEAUTY
From Medellin, it takes a full day by bus to reach Salento (around 6 hours). Still, the country scenery is gorgeous the entire ride. There is a halfway stop in one of the villages for a hearty traditional lunch of chicken soup and grilled meat dishes.
On our bus, we were equipped with strong WiFi and a comfortable experience for less than 15 USD. If heading to Salento a little more south of Medellin from the salsa-dancing hub of Cali, the ride to Salento will be just a couple hours and an even cheaper ticket.
We cannot suggest it enough: Salento should be a top destination on everyone’s itinerary to Colombia. We loved it so much we booked a few extra nights at our hostel. Technically not in southern Colombia, this sleepy mountain town lies more towards the central west, but south of Medellin.
Many visitors stay in the rather large and busy cities of Pereira or Armenia to visit the coffee region of Colombia, but Salento offers a small-town mountain feel and a tranquil energy that shouldn’t be missed.
The town itself is characterized by colorful buildings from the 1800s, feeling like a wild west cowboy town that’s never gone modern. During the day, bright artisan craft shops are open for business adjacent to the town center, just begging to be perused.
Jeeps are the primary method to get around, and they buzz about town taking muddy backpackers to and from attractions. Locals can be seen riding about on handsome prancing horses near the central square.
Friday through Sunday, the town center comes alive with traditional street food vendors and a lively party scene, to accommodate the influx of Colombian weekenders from nearby cities. For a unique experience, a game of Tejo (pronounced “tay-ho”) can be played in a few different locations around Salento.
Coupled with cold beer and lively friends, this traditional Colombian game requires throwing heavy handheld weights into a bed of soft clay for points, being careful not to hit the tiny exploding envelopes of gun powder in the middle!
Salento is nestled within a valley, surrounded by coffee farms and chilly mountains crowned in fog. This town quickly became our most favorite place in Colombia. Its epic natural beauty and deep cultural scene were not easy to break away from. It is definitely a nature lover’s paradise as well with many outdoor activities like mountain biking, horseback riding, and trekking to be experienced throughout.
Cocora Valley: the #1 trail in southern Colombia
Located less than half an hour outside of town, Cocora Valley is one of the most breathtaking places we have ever witnessed, and we could barely bring ourselves to leave it. For just $3 USD, anyone can board a decked-out jeep in Salento’s center to get near the trail head. The hike itself takes around five hours in its entirety. Passing hillside avocado farms aboard a bright blue jeep, we couldn’t believe how beautiful the Colombian landscape was, even in the pouring rain.
What makes Cocora Valley special are its strange, towering wax palms dominating the entire landscape in the middle of the Colombian wilderness. These palms can reach a spectacular height of 200 feet. Only a few shack-like homesteads and cow farms dot the area, and the palms seem to take precedence over all other types of plants and trees in their vicinity.
Even in a rainstorm, we excitedly made our way up slippery slopes and along pastures full of baby cows and horses. Once we arrived at the valley, the rain had stopped and an eerie majestic fog began to settle around the palms.
The silence of the area and the earthy landscape made us feel as if we were walking on another planet. The sun shone dimly through grey clouds, and the dark silhouettes of the palms surrounded us on all sides.
The wax palms towered 60-100 feet above our heads, and no other flora could break the land around them. Only spongey, bright green grass blanketed the floor of the valley. On the surrounding hillsides, the mist covered the horizon like a veil, with even more palm giants poking up from the mist.
Just after all the other hikers cleared out around us, the clouds parted and the sun began to peek down on the valley. As we slowly made our way out, we felt like we had just undergone a lengthy meditation session. The natural beauty of Cocora Valley and this experience in nature helped us feel refreshed and content and closer to life, as mother nature should.
It is a must that the Cocora Valley be at the top of your list when visiting southern Colombia. Not only is it fun to get to, but it is an extraordinary experience and a place like no other.
Coffee Plantations: into the Land of Caffeine
Salento a great jumping-off point for Cocora Valley, but it is also surrounded by coffee farms, that are easily accessible from town. You can ride a horse, hop a jeep, or hoof it yourself (our choice) the hour/hour and a half down the dirt road to the farms and through some small villages. In particular, we visited the Finca el Ocaso Salento.
Tours are held around three times a day on the plantation, and both the walk to the farm and the surrounding agricultural landscape are worth the trip alone. Our tour was small – just us two and our guide. Visitors can learn all about the life of the coffee plant, the types of coffee plants grown there, and the lifetime process of farming the delectable beans.
Attendees are encouraged to participate hands-on. We were shown how to gauge the ripeness of the beans and could pick them on our own, and taste the differences in each bean type. We wandered the coffee fields and learned about the plantation workers. (It’s not an easy job!)
We planted a couple of beans ourselves, and toured the equipment and processing houses. And then came the grand finale – the tasting. We ground the coffee, and learned how coffee is made traditionally in Colombia.
We happened to be ending our tour just in time to pass the farm workers leaving for the day, and exchanged a laugh with them about something lost in translation. As we waited for the next jeep to arrive we made friends with a crooked-toothed farm dog roaming the grounds.
Hummingbirds were buzzing in the trees and birds sang, and we realized what a great day it had been as we took in the mountain scene. On the ride back, we met some fellow travelers and went for a beer in town.
Visiting the farms in one of the top coffee-producing countries in the world is a rare privilege, and it’s a bit surreal. Though a typical trip takes just a few hours out of the day, it is an activity to undergo at least once visiting southern Colombia. It’s also possible to stay overnight on some of the farms, as some of them operate as guesthouses – coffee included.
POPAYÁN: THE WHITEWASHED CITY
The colonial city of Popayán is less well known, but a very charming place. Popayan is about the same distance from Salento as Medellin, and it’s about a 5 hour bus ride. Though not as touristy as other areas, a good amount of travelers still manage to make their way through here. Popayan is a nice stop-over point before hitting Salento moving north. It is also a nice point to have a rest if you’re heading south to cross the Ecuador border over land.
Popayan is a very distinguishable city in the fact that most of its buildings are radiant white. The many cathedrals and residential complexes are originals from colonial times in Colombia. City workers are constantly scrubbing them to maintain their brilliant appearance. Historically, Popayan is a political landmark for Colombia and is well-known as the “University City”, since it houses one of the oldest universities in the country (the University of Cauca).
Colonial Popayán is the perfect place for the aimless wanderer. Around every corner, there’s stylish coffee shops, mom and pop cafes, and historical political buildings ready to immerse you in a more recent Colombian history. The Humilladero Bridge near the center of the city is a small engineering marvel, and has managed to remain intact through multiple earthquakes since the 1800s.
At night, the city explodes in all the colors of the rainbow. Bright lights illuminate the pale buildings throughout the city. Dinner isn’t until later in the evening in Colombia, and it is only a small meal. We enjoyed sauntering around to various street food vendors selling cheese-filled arepas (grilled rounds of cornmeal and flour similar to an English muffin), and salchipapas (french fries topped with fried hot dog slices and pineapple sauce).
Even just a couple of days in Popayan and you’ll have an interesting experience. The political energy of this town grants it a more serious feel – unlike the laid back and sleepy Salento. Still, Popayan is a charming colonial city and provides visitors with a greater understanding of Colombia’s political history.
IPIALES AND THE FAIRY TALE CATHEDRAL
The commercial town of Ipiales is so far south in southern Colombia that it’s only several miles to Ecuador! From Popayán, Ipiales is a 7-8 hour bus ride, which is a long one. As with all bus rides in Colombia, the scenery through local villages and the natural landscape is truly beautiful, filled with rolling hills covered in a patchwork of farm fields.
There are a couple of places to stay along the way should you not feel up to the entire ride. The city of Pasto or the smaller town of Túquerres are both possible settle spots for the night. Though good resting points, both of these places leave a lot to be desired in terms of the sights to see or anything to do.
Pasto, where we had settled, is a commercial town specializing in the manufacture of motorcycles. At least we were assuming so, since every other shop in the city was a motorcycle showroom.
Though it sounds cool, Pasto is an industrial town and not a very picturesque place. There was more poverty there than the other parts of Colombia that we had seen. Even Ipiales city itself is more of a commercial town and not so flattering.
“All in all, Colombia is a very safe place to visit these days, even in the more poverty stricken areas.”
Our guesthouse and host were fabulous in Pasto though, and the people we encountered were friendly to us. All in all, Colombia is a very safe place to visit these days, even in the more poverty stricken areas. Since Túquerres is a smaller town than Pasto or Ipiales, it probably would have been the better choice to escape the long bus ride, just because it could have been quieter.
So why go to Ipiales in the first place?
The Las Lajas Sanctuary
As it turns out, Ipiales is not just a place to cross the border to or from Ecuador. There is a mesmerizing hidden destination just outside of the city, called Las Lajas. The place literally resembles something out of a story book. Situated within a canyon overhanging the Guáitara River, this neo-Gothic cathedral is a spectacular sight.
Small waterfalls plummet from the canyon walls around the cathedral and into the river below. Wandering along the tiled paths surrounding the church, plaque-style memorials are embedded in the canyon stone in memoriam of those whose bodies are kept in the cathedral’s tomb.
The interior of the church is equally spectacular, with colorful stained glass and towering white and gold ceilings. Heading lower into its depths, the belly of the cathedral resembles a dark medieval castle.
The grounds around Las Lajas have quite a few spots to sit and enjoy the scene, and you could spend hours wandering around riverside or overlooking the canyon. Making the walk across the bridge and to the gazebo next to the largest waterfall, the view of Las Lajas hanging over the canyon is almost unreal.
Though the church is newer compared to others, being built in the late 1800s and finished in the 1920s, it’s history is mysterious. An image of the Virgin Mary carved into the canyon stone was all that was present before the church’s construction, and no one knows who created it. The original alter still remains behind the new altar of the church.
It is said that the old altar may have marked the very spot a young girl and her mother had taken refuge from a raging thunderstorm in the mid-1700s. As the story goes, the daughter, both deaf and mute, pointed to a lightning-lit silhouette of the Virgin Mary on the opposite side of the canyon, stating that the apparition was calling to her.
Thousands of pilgrims have visited the site and the mysterious stone altar since then, and thus the Las Lajas Sanctuary was built there to commemorate the legend.
This place, and the quaint village surrounding its location, was a rare sight that we knew we couldn’t leave Colombia without witnessing. A true hidden treasure, Las Lajas Sanctuary is yet another reason to explore this region of Colombia.
Southern Colombia is indeed a place of true culture and beauty, and the best way to truly experience such an inspiring country. From lush landscapes and caffeine-filled coffee farms, to the towering wax palms and hidden cathedrals, the road less trekked to southern Colombia was well worth the effort and longer travel time.
We were extremely happy with our choice to go further south, and our experiences there are unforgettable. Southern Colombia was one of the many things that made us fall in love with Colombia as a whole, and we’ll never forget how hard it was to leave and just how much we loved it.
Have you ever been to these cities? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!