Colombia: Salento

After three weeks laying over in Manizales, finally I got a move on... to Salento. The door merely brushed my butt on the way out of the hostel, heading to the bus station; from there it'd only take about an hour to find myself in big(gest of the Coffee Axis towns) Pereira. There I missed the last direct bus to Salento (at 4:30p.m)., entailing a hop on board of the next Armenia-bound bus. About 35-40 minutes later, I was dumped off on the side of the road: somewhere over yonder was Salento. Huh.

I was at what was called the "entrance" to Salento - that was the bill of goods sold at the Pereira station, anyway. Like I had a choice. In any event, there I was with a large sign just off the highway immediately confirming that. So where was the town?

Ah - I quickly realized that I was but at its junction to the main road. Kind of like the beaches of Normandy being the "entrance" to Paris. Crud - I had about 10-15km to hike with my full pack, and no one providing cover fire! Not that I registered that distance precisely, either, but I could see the town perched on a hill in the distance somewhat. With otherwise no gauge in my possession, showing what it would take to arrive there, only exploration would show what hills and valleys lay in between. Nothing to do... but to do it.

I started by trudging along a very pleasant road, only moving downhill. One lonely car passed some ten minutes later, barely slowing down on the numerous curves - yeah, lonely this was going to be. I quickly decided to not even bother with thumbing it - who wanted to pick up a stinkin' mochilero (backpacker), anyway?

After only ten minutes more, though, I'd have an answer to that. A second car - a pickup truck - swerved over and stopped almost as soon as I had made up my mind to keep my thumb to myself. (I'd later find out this was rare for anyone to stop - maybe the trumpet case helped?) Not questioning my luck for longer than a second, I quickly scrambled with my pack to jump into the truck's bed. There I found another passenger already holding on to the bed's railing, looking at me in amusement. Hola!

Frankly my new compatriot-in-travel looked a bit crazy, but he immediately tried to engage in conversation with me in English. I responded in Spanish, as was my long-accustomed nature. I didn't want to give the game away should it lead to a sales pitch - it didn't. Whew - turned out that he was just curious and bored.

Soon we chatted away, mostly about what lay ahead as we plunged downhill for seemingly about 10km down to Boquira (which I'd find out shortly). Still, with the constant swerving, I'd never find a comfortable position as I perpetually warbled about. The challenge initially lay in trying to go from my knees to a crouch - then back again with each curve - before I finally called it a day and sat on my butt. That was only marginally better. It didn't help that I had my backpack on still - I had no idea how long this ride would last.

Not long. At Boquira I was glad to get out, even though it was by necessity - the truck was turning off. Another several kilometers remained to go, but more than anything else I was amazed that my hat and sunglasses had actually stayed in the bed of the truck for that rollercoaster. It took a moment to catch my breath and realize that I was in a place called Boquira, a modest settlement at the valley's bottom. Here was where the river went by and some kind of eco resort took advantage of this. Meanwhile I pondered whether I should just take to foot again. Hmmm.

Nah - I spied a jeep idling nearby. Filled with farm workers, the driver nevertheless agreed to let me onboard as well if I could find room. Sure I could, if I was willing to hang off the back bumper for the 4km uphill to Salento. Done.

I was sold by necessity more than anything else, soon holding onto the jeep's canopy framework for dear life. Fortunately this time I had stuffed my hat and trumpet inside - this only left my entire body to be whipped about, with my backpack providing cumbersome ballast from the rear. My arms were rather more than tired when we summitted the valley's top and neared town; I immediately jumped off at the fire station by the town's entrance.

From there I was only a couple blocks away from the one known hostel in town, Plantation House. That'd turn out to be quite full up - oops. Trying to make up for that short wasted trip, however, I perused the purported library of books for exchange. I was ready to part with The Enigma of Arrival and The Life of Pi, both recently completed in Manizales...

...but no dice there, either. The famed stock of the bookshelves, supposedly stuffed to the brim per the Lonely Planet, turned out to be a ruse - cleaned out. The genial owner gave me some lodging recommendations for my detour's trouble, though - it was thus that, several blocks and two look-sees later, I found myself happily ensconced in Hostal Ciudad de Segorbe. Salento!

At Segorbe I became the proud dweller of a two-bed dorm room, all for a little more than $10 in a boutique hostel - a misnomer. I was in fact in the ONLY hostel room, and had immediately scored to boot - no roommate! The room had a balcony to one side, and opened onto a broader access balcony/terrace on the other. This latter opening had a sweeping view of town should I merely open the tall colonial door. Door... open!

The owners - Luis from Spain (Valencia) and Enrique from nearby Cartago - had done an admirable job of restoration of this old colonial house. Indeed, it was in chatting for a long while with Enrique about the town that I soon knew I'd like the place. Pretty hard not to, with such a view as a welcome. He gave me a quick - and quite positive - head's up about my new surroundings.

A walk out my first night confirmed this sentiment, as I watched families strolling about town with kids playing in their wake. A local paisa dinner, a heaping of trout, plantain, beans, rice and salad covered with gobs of homemade salsa, provided unnecessary icing. I greedily dumped the entire contents of the (not-screaming-hot) salsa onto my beans, again (and forever) marveling how salsas in Colombia were almost always made daily and fresh. Great stuff - yes, indeed!

Fortified, I now completed this initial survey in making a circle - okay, rather a square - about the town's main plaza (square!), with dominating wax palms adorning the center. All of a sudden, and just as I turned to head back home from the plaza, I unwittingly next took in a dozen ponchoed and sombreroed horsemen. They quickly came trotting into the plaza at a quick step canter, horses clip-cloppitily high-stepping.

Where'd they come from? Who cared? - I felt taken back in time. Indeed, the vision I had originally had, of a magical town seen from the carreterra (highway) perched on a hill, and set amongst misty mountains in a verdant oasis, now rang true.

The next day I turned to daylight surveying, walking many of the various streets of town. I quickly took to gauging the beautiful dropaways from Salento's summit-like setting in all directions - such views! From the top of a long staircase, located at the end of the tourist artisan's street, I espied an immediate goal, too: a hill (which would become a mountain) stood just to the east of town. To the south, meanwhile, lay a similarly alluring old cemetery and its valley beyond.

First things first, though, and on that account the nearby hill had won. If only for proximity's sake - I was already upon it. Soon I found myself testing a route toward the "peak", not long in befriending two adults walking with four kids when I got a little lost. In but a few minutes I had all entranced with my trumpet, with the requisite blazing through Reveille, La Cucaracha, and some cartoon songs to explain why I carried the thing around. I knew my crowd; now I had new friends to show for it.

They promised me that I'd likely be playing soon for others in town, too, perhaps explaining the horn's mechanics in the next few days at a school. The adults knew the local music conductor - this sounded good, and it was something I'd done a few times before. I also learned that the woman was part of the family where I'd end up having many trucha (trout) dinners - El Rincon de Lucy. THAT (soon-to-be) routine had actually started with the previous night, coincidentally. Finally I also received a bit of trail information, too - oh yeah, that!

Back in town I would soon add a café of choice (Jesus Martin's) to accent Lucy's meals. By Night #2 I had a chosen bar as well - the tapas/wine place adjacent to my hostel. There I found myself playing the horn for a couple hours already the first night; this would continue.

I was more than happy to restart the tradition, too, of spreading music over my bedspread to work on. With only two beds in a spacious room this was entirely possible. In Salento I'd find a musical regimen, a rhythm consisting of playing tunes resonating the bebop strain. This would be found in Lee Morgan's Ceora, for example... or I'd memorize a few more traditional tunes like (finally) Take the A Train.

One of the hikes I was recommended would take me to the large hill I had first spied outside of town. By the time that slog was over I'd be calling it a small mountain, of course. To get there, first I took the road out of town (the old highway to Ibague), located starting at the base of the mirador (lookout) staircase. I followed that for only ten minutes, though, before heading up the steep driveway for the half kilometer to Montiel's.

Outside Montiel's gate, I achieved a first view toward Cocora... only before turning to begin the rest of the hike in that general direction through a widened mud track to my right. I followed this clay-floored ridge for the next hour or so, always looking toward an ever-distancing summit while marveling in both its steepness - and the mountain bike tracks that ran down it. Holy crud! THAT would have to be a tough climb on a cycle! And a dangerous descent.

Near the summit I'd have some answers regarding the tire track, even as ever more views popped out to greet me. Two downhillers in full body armor came barreling down - yowza! I moved out of their way quite easily, immediately asking myself if I wanted to be them - or not. Nah. In any event, near the top I saw that the trail continued, now finally level, as a double track - was that their access? I bet on... yes.

Whatever - I needed to find my own way to get to the REAL top of this thing, above the double track. Not spying an actual trail to the summit, I resorted now to bushwhacking, soon stepping my way up even steeper terrain than before to gain the top. This involved a few crossings over barbed wire, avoiding many a pile of cattle poo... until I stepped in one. CRAP!, I punned. Fortunately, it had seen some drying out.

From the top, another ridge greeted me. From that vantage point, though, I could see where the double track met the road again. I concluded with certainty that that HAD to be the ascent route for the MTBers, even if there was still no view of town. Which reminded me... where was the expected lookout, anyway? I walked the ridgeline from my new perch for a kilometer or so, but this lack of town-spotting stayed consistent. Oh well.

The other 270 degrees of viewing were marvelous, however - there was THAT as consolation. Conceding defeat in not being able to view town gloriously from above, I made my way down the ridge. I achieved the road as expected, hailing a lone cowboy on horseback as I arrived.

The only human I had seen all day since the MTBers, I had spotted this man below briefly dealing with the cows not long before. Cowboy thus felt a fairly-applied appellation. Hey - he had the hat, too. The cows also explained the degradation of the hillside, that telltale terracing look I had become accustomed to in the Andes.

Now officially on the road back to town I eventually found a plaza de toros (bullring) I had been told about, too. That was only after winding endlessly on the road to achieve it, though - I was apparently taking a very indirect path back to town, probably a consequence of its much calmer inclination. More importantly, I hoped to check out the bullring. I was hoping to find good accoustics, much like I'd found at its decrepit counterpart near Colonia (Uruguay). There I had once similarly abused a ruin with my trumpet stylings.

The facility was all locked up upon arrival, though, a minor deterrent, but it didn't take long to spy a hole in the fence. That was followed by another through some bushes to allow access and gain the ring. I walked through the vacant spectator seats, happily noting that the ring was complete in form, even with some elevation to its walls. How would it sound? I descended through one of the bull pens, entered the ring, and pulled out my horn.

I had no choice with how to begin - the classic bullfight announcement sallied forth with whatever I could muster. By law all trumpet players know that call, right with Reveille and the charging section of the William Tell Overture. In this case I followed that triumphant entry with the likewise appropriate The Lonely Bull - and soon found I had company.

Willem, the ring and hacienda's caretaker, clambered over a wall and took a seat in the stands. A trained biologist in mudboots, he clapped after I finished another tune. Unfortunately, my mouth was too dry to play more than a handful of tunes to such acclaim, though: de-hy-dra-tion! I soon indicated that I wouldn't be able to continue, disappointed in my lack of forethought. My water bottles were tapped out completely.

To this my new friend wandered back into the house to fetch me something. Water? Of course not, but it did turn out (unsurprisingly) to be an agua de canela/lemonade concoction for which I was quite grateful. Soon we were both seated in the stands and chatting a bit about the area and the bullring's history.

These days the ring was mostly left to rot, but Willem assured me that on random occasions it was used other than for bullfighting. He additionally warned me, however, that its disuse might have come to be for the best - guerrillas might still be in the area. This was in spite of the police presence in town, which had pushed them ever more back into the hills. To be fair, there hadn't been any noticeable activity in several years, but what to think? This was news worth knowing, at a minimum - I guessed that the guerrillas probably slept in town each night. Willem agreed that was likely.

Eventually the time came to bid Willem adieu. I promised to return in some days, both more hydrated and ready to blast a triumphantly appropriate suite of tunes. Tearful goodbye accomplished, half an hour later I found myself again in Salento concluding a projected two hour hike... that had become four and more. Blisters were already starting to form as proof, but what a day!

With such a good outing, I thought only of changing shoes to try another hike the next day - theoretically much shorter. "Shorter" would turn out to not be the case, though - I would receive all the benefits of medical experimention on potential blister sizes for my efforts. This time I left Salento by way of the cemetery (always interesting to me) on a dirt road, next finding myself heading down, down, down through lush foliage and a number of banana/coffee fincas.

At a junction in the road I was faced with the choice of checking out a river (spied deep below to the left), or continuing on my right-turning-only trek. With that can't-get-lost logic, the alluring river would have to wait for another time. I resumed my down-down-downward march, achieving a (different?) river all the same.

Meanwhile I hadn't been seeing any cars, but a truck passed me a few times near the valley's bottom. It had done so each time only after pulling sand and rock from the river to deliver elsewhere. THAT seemed a lonely task, with no one else around; I crossed the river over a low bridge at the road's bottom finally myself. From there it was only a short way to encounter an unexpected police/army station, where I confirmed the rough direction I was taking. Take another right turn, I was informed - check!

From the outpost I made the sharp right turn back toward Boquia, on yet another long and lonely - but blessedly flat for a change - road. I had a couple of dog standoffs for this trouble, before finding I was in Boquia again at the river Quindio. This time, with no large backpack, I'd pass on waiting for a jeep. Hiking the highway for the 5k or so to Salento seemed a fitting and pleasant ending, actually.

While walking up the hill I nevertheless tried the thumb on up to a dozen cars, but with no dice on them I soon gave up. I'd climbed about halfway by then to negate the benefits, anyway. Instead I stopped at a lonely artisan's stand, where I had a musical chat with the one artist in residence. I promised to come down from town sometime again to reincarnate Louis Armstrong soon, in hommage to his and my hero.

In town I made the small detour to stop in at Plantation House, again for a book-spying mission. THIS time I was rewarded: a thin Garcia Marquez book in Spanish (My Melancholy Whores) was soon to be mine. SCORE! - I quickly ran home to fetch my two much heavier doorstops of books in exchange. That done, I left Plantation House a last time blissful with my luck... only to next hear a trumpet player on my way back. Ho... la?

Yelling into the doorway of the house from where the sounds emanated, I now met Oscar, a young man studying classical trumpet in Cali. I invited him to stop by "my" tapas bar in the evening, something he did only a few hours later. We naturally turned to talking trumpet for a couple hours, while I threw in a few tunes and jazzy trumpet licks. I wanted to hear him play some stuff, too, which he promised to do - perhaps his bassist and keyboard friends would show over the upcoming weekend, too.

Before any such musical fun, though, the time had come for me to take in Salento's main attraction, the Valle de Cocora. Outside of locals coming to town from the three cities of the Axis to whoop it up, this national park was Salento's major draw. It was home to many a wax palm over an ever-changing terrrain, one which led back as far as even the volcanoes near Manizales.

Hiking, palms, mists and volcanoes all sounded great to me: at 7:30a.m. the next morning I was in a Willys Jeep, waiting to take off and check it out. However, although a veritable flotila of these vehicles were lined up and waiting in the main square come morning, they'd each need to be (typically) stuffed to the maximum before actually departing. Hurry and wait, as is said, but eventually I found myself crowded with ten other souls for the drop down from Salento. We crossed the valley below and took the 40 minutes necessary to arrive in Cocora.

Fortunately the majority of the trip was through that low valley, keeping us at a low speed due to our top-heavy, overloaded cargo. I didn't want to think what it would be like otherwise - I was one of the four souls standing on the back bumper ledge. I saw this as a treacherous proposition should the steel plate get the least wet, but in the meantime it had the best views.

As it was, though, there was barely enough room for eight (human) feet jammed together in a row. I mused that at least this time I was not loaded with my backpack. It was tiring regardless, so we all hopped off as quickly as possible when we stopped in the "town" of Cocora. This aggregation of humanity was nothing but a linear collection of several buildings that the (by now) dirt road passed through.

The eight tourists from our jeep (there was another, even more crowded) quickly dispersed, each making tracks to the trailhead only after checking out the confusing map found there. It was painted onto a large wooden board, with various colored lines squirreling off in many directions.

For my part I'd soon be hiking with two Americans, Miles and Luke. Recently arrived from their purchase of a $7500 house (and property) outside of Armenia (and located two hours from Salento), M&L were off for a six day hike. My intended section would only cover part of their first day - making me feel at least better about MY undertaking, anyway. They were appropriately loaded down, too, leaving me no room for bellyaching should I desire to do so... which I soon might very well have wanted to do. But of course couldn't - damn!

We followed a stream for the first 30+ minutes, crossing it at numerous times over dubious - and very uneven - log bridges. Slowly we gained altitude, while also spying several signs advertising the finca ahead on the trail. That'd be at Acaime, a place supposedly with an ecotrek and a number of hummingbirds.

How Acaime's proprietors were legally allowed to post so many advertisements in the park seemed mysterious - but then again, this was Colombia. Most likely they were the original owners of the land before its park status, knowing all officials concerned. All politics is local, as Tip O'Neill used to say. Still, I was tempted to spraypaint my favorite Spanish phrase, "La avaricia rompe el saco" (greed breaks the sack), on at least one - there were so many!

At the turnoff for the Montana finca, where one either ascended steeply toward the finca or just as steeply toward Acaime and beyond, we stayed on the main trail. For the time being we bypassed the wonders of Acaime (it was only all of 3000 pesos to walk the trail, with a free beverage and even cheese thrown in) - we all wanted to get the climbing section in first should it prove tiring. It would.

After the long steep section which found us at the other end of the Acaime trail bypass, I was ready for a break from the sloppy wide trail ever dotted with muleshit. Enough of the poop, already! Thus, when I spied a tiny trail which I guessed might lead me to the mirador, I took it. How could I go wrong, I figured - we were bound by a narrow ridge. It couldn't do much outside of roughly follow the main trail, no? Amazingly... true!

With my companions now behind me somewhere, I made my way through increasing brush and bush. Criminy - it had just gotten even steeper! From the number of spiderwebs I next was breaking with my face, now used as a web-battering ram, I shortly knew I had to be the first person going this way on this day. Flashbacks of a green ant attack in Queensland, Australia, where I had subsequently suffered when I similarly broke webs, came to mind.

Soon it was obvious why this trail was avoided, though, and it wasn't due to spiderwebs. Steep only went to steeper, as I resorted to using my hands to be able to continue. I passed a number of ancient Quindio tombs for my trouble - all like and former hikers of this terrain, I noted.

Each tomb looked like it had been looted ages ago, however. Now they were mostly depressions, each with a big stone plate that must have closed them off previously. Whatever treasures they had contained were long gone. I mused that I wasn't carrying particularly gilded to be buried with similarly. Thus I wouldn't die! Whew!

When I finally got to the mirador, instead of finding Luke and Miles - as expected - I ran into two Colombians local to Salento. Surprise! They were hiking to go trout fishing, up still higher. Fortunately they had plenty of info about the path ahead; unfortunately, all of that would prove largely wrong.

That should have come as no surprise - I had already come to notice in Latin America that locals often didn't know their surroundings well... even if they'd be the last to admit so. Many seemed to have an entirely different concept of up, down, left, right, hard and easy, I found. So it went. Who could complain as long as the commentary was colorful? Sometimes it even was.

Meanwhile my two American friends finally joined us near the mirador area. We all continued on to Estrellas de Agua, the furthest point out if only for my intentions. For this section of the adventure we received plenty more of the steep stuff, including some down. From the beginning of the hike we had needed altogether 3-4 hours to reach Estrellas.

For this effort, what did we receive view-wise? Only two truly clear views of the valley. The first had been at the mirador, the second just 10-15 minutes before Estrellas. That was a lot of work - I´d recommend to anyone thinking of the same to ponder turning around after the mirador... hint, hint.

Thankfully both views were deep into the valley, not a given expectation by any means. That had been THE reason to the day's early start. The mist was still getting its act together on THIS day, however, even if it wouldn't be long before much of the upper valley would be completely occluded.

At Estrellas we didn't find much of interest otherwise - it was just a former (and sort of current) settlement of one building. There was evidence of the fire that had burned down the old finca; the burned-out hulk was still in use to the extent possible for the soldiers stationed there. A new one was buing built, seemingly mostly of concrete - which explained the acres of mule shit to arrive at Estrellas. We were told that mule trains of eight proceeded up to the site 2-3 times a day, each loaded with two sacks of cement. That was a lot of crap - I mean cement!

Yes, not only was each mule carrying a heavy load, but their frequency and numbers used in these trains were the likely source for much of the trail degradation I had seen. Ironically, in currently destroying the beauty of the trail for tourists, this new building's raison d'etre was to be a place to house tourists to witness beauty in the future. A great day it would be when that construction ended, taking all of those pounds on the hoof with it.

After Estrellas I left behind my four new friends to their fate. Supposedly the trails would be closed ahead due to fire danger anyway, just like in the more southerly parks of Farallones and Hermosas near Cali (ahead for me). So I'd heard. I turned around, now moving rather quickly downhill - it was steep after all. I resumed the dodging of loads of mule shit, now while wearing out my calves in the endless decline.

When I passed the lower Acaime turnoff, this time I took the Montana turnoff just after it. A grueling half hour ensued of very steep stuff to get me up to Montana finca - I had no idea! Panting upon arrival, I didn't stay there but for a moment to take in a view already clouding in.

I wasted no time there, instead taking the dirt road beyond to start getting me back to Cocora. Views of the lower valley soon abounded, although sometimes the mist rolled in heavily to obscure everything, too. After an hour and a half of winding, wending downhill, the ever-increasing-sized stands of wax palms caught me eyes, they did. The tallest palms in the world, and Colombia's national tree, they were nothing approaching a forest as advertised. That didn't take away anything, though. Here they were - and I was - in an awfully beautiful place.

In Cocora a jeep was waiting with a few people when I returned at 4p.m.; the driver insisted we would leave at 4:15 or 4:30. What luck... IF. The departure time later changed to 5p.m., at which point our growing group jumped out ensemble when a different, more promising jeep pulled up at 4:35p.m. His promises proved for naught soon, too, when we ultimately left at 5p.m. on the dot.

Prior to leaving, notably, neither driver would deign to meet any of us in the eyes with their own. From this we all surmised that they knew we were more than ready to go. All in good - i.e. THEIR good - time, however.

This time there were fourteen of us in total to load down the small jeep, finally dutifully chugging its way back to town. Seven of us were seated, four were standing in the back, I ended up standing in the bed, and two more people found themselves sitting on top in front. OVER, meet LOADED. This was not exactly safe, as one could imagine, making it a good thing we were only perceptibly moving as we made our way back to Salento.

Another day I decided to take another hike down to the river Quindio. Again I'd take the main road out, but this time on a Sunday - what a change! And not for the better. What had been so bucolic only days before became way more crowded, even circus-like. I hugged the curves while walking the road this time; many motorcycles banked in pretty hard, oblivious to what lay around the bend - namely, me.

At one kilometer down I stopped in again at the artisans' stands to find my Armstrong-loving friend. This time all the other artisans were also in attendance; soon I was running through about ten Armstrong tunes for the guy I had met before. All of this effort was well-received, but the open air scenario sorely lacked accoustics however hard I tried to make it happen. Nothing like trying to fill a space the size of... Earth's atmosphere.

Saying goodbye, then continuing down the road to the river, I next tried a 20-minute loop detour to check out an old train station. This was something I had been recommended to see, something "off the beaten track". For such an enticement it was a bit of a yawn, though. So was the "secret" arched railroad bridge further in - now just a road instead. There at least I found some accoustics under the bridge, playing it dead on from the center. I belted out Fanfare For The Common Man, the inappropriately-timed Round Midnight, then the more apropos Chelsea Bridge (minus the urban confines of NYC, however).

Coming out of this loop-less-ventured, I again encountered some military folks on full patrol in cammies (camoflauge uniforms) and rifles. Ya never knew in Colombia... Then I ran headlong again into the weekend zoo on the river. So much for a peaceful outing. Indeed, this madness would continue on up into town, where the main plaza had converted into a tented party zone on weekend nights for nearby Armenia, Pereira, Manizales, Cali (and even Bogotá) weekenders.

Meanwhile, escaping the muchedumbre (crowd) at the river, I decided to take the Paso de Quindio trail to return: no cars, and no banking motorcycles either, I knew. An old trail made by prisoners, nowadays the Paso turned out to be mostly a clay slop path. It was mostly soon notable to me for its prodigious quantities of mule shit. Surprise.

Back in town, how did one celebrate such fine adventures? Yes, one might ask at this time. For my part, I had settled with Jesus Martin's fine coffee (the best in Colombia I'd had). And, after the mule-shitrific Paso de Quindio, this would require being followed by a beer at the Portal de Cocora, too. This latter restaurant-pub had the finest views of the Valle de Cocora; I was joined by a couple of Seattlites I had met at Jesus's joint.

Indeed, it seemed like everyone was from Seattle that was from the U.S. Why was this? And why were we all so weird? Oh yeah, I now told myself I didn't live there anymore: why were THEY all so weird? At least I wasn't a self-proclaimed psychic, either - what had been a pleasant travelers' conversation soon trickled away after the requisite beer or two taking in the valley.

This dearth of talk occurred not long after my new coupled acquaintance's female of the species got started with the moon and stars. Sigh. At least the moonsome twosome next introduced me to some of their own recent acquaintances back in town. It wasn't long before I was playing tejo with Robert and Rachel from Sydney, Australia. That was more like it.

Finally my butt (and ears) found itself on one of these famed courts endemic to Colombia. Previously I had seen tejo played a few times from a short distance, yes, but now I'd get the official rules. It was fortunately a simple game.

To play, one tossed a lead (or iron?), puck-like object at an inclined target on the ground some distance away. This (45-degree-angled) mudpack held an iron ring in its center; two paper packets loaded with gunpowder sat on the top and bottom of the ring. For all practical purposes, these were the targets - or the small space between them was.

Scoring went as such: six points were scored for placing the puck between them, quite a feat; three points were yours for exploding a packet instead. Otherwise, of the pucks actually thrown onto and sticking themselves into the clay board, the person with the puck resting nearest to the metal ring gained all of one point.

Over a couple of hours, and numerous beers, we went at it gamely. Robert and Rachel both had vigorous throws; I went for tosses instead, feeling more control with them. My tosses looked wimpier, true, and this may have been the source of R&R's satisfaction in contrast to their more energetic style... but on the few occasions I hit the packets, my explosions were considerably louder. Ker-blam!

Gravity had its weighty place, apparently, with my pucks dropping down more from above. Ker-BLAM! KER-BLAM! I won the first game of 30 points handily, then lost a second game (of an abbreviated 15 points) by about the same percentage of margin as I had won earlier. Not bad, I figured.

Meanwhile, the best thing about tejo was that it was free. That is, you played for free as long as you kept buying (reasonably-priced) beers. we were all sold on the concept - and next time we vowed to think about even moving up from the kiddie-length court. The locals in the place all played at the real thing, about twice as far in distance. Tejo worked just fine by us, regardless.

In keeping with my ongoing explorations of the Salento area, I one day decided to rent a bike for some hours. THAT should offer another - longer-viewed - perspective. A Brit in town with such a business, Ritchie, had several such steeds for the offing; soon I was provided with a map and away I went.

It felt good to be on a bike, and this wasn't a poor steed of an MTB, either: it was relatively new, even with disc brakes. The map proved suitable, even if relatively out of scale, too: it wasn't long before I was making my way between its highlights. It felt good to just be on a bike again, let alone in a beautiful area.

Past midway into the prescribed longer loop, I'd also decide to undertake an extension onto the main highway - why not? Why indeed - I would find out later from Ritchie that he himself had never done it, only some crazy German had. HE had only done it once, when he was lost. Hmm.

I only found THAT out later - Ritchie had taken to calling it the Crazy German route, or soon would officially. That addition fortunately wouldn't prove too great a problem, though: it was hard to get too lost when afforded terrain-defining views, both up and down valleys into the distance. Plus, the river made for a good landmark. It was only about the effort.

That'd be getting ahead, though. FIRST the start of the trip took me plunging past the cemetery again, this time on a bike (not walking) and taking the sharp left toward the river. That was the one I had seen the other day and passed on. Not too much time was available for musing, though - I had to pick my way attentively through the rough, rock-strewn surface that passed for a road.

On the worst parts such sections were miraculously paved, even allowing my soon-suffering palms a small break. There was no shortage of jarring motion otherwise. Indeed, this large plunge down eventually only led to a short flat part... followed by a small climb. The ensuing river crossing next was followed by a more substantial climb over more of the rough stuff.

Now at a highpoint again on the other side of the river, some marvelous views began anew when following the ridgeline a short ways. Then came an extended descent to a trio of bridges, each separated by small hills. I... needed... more... water. Just in time, too, to begin the Crazy German detour at around noon in the blazing sun. This only proved brains a blessing... which I lacked.

For the Crazy German section I went up, up, up in a very, VERY steep section. All this was only to ultimately gain the main highway between Armenia and Pereira. Before that, though, steep was truly the operative word: I actually got to such a point where I felt required to walk 100m of it or so. Who DID ride such a thing? I wondered if the German was crazy for taking the detour or crazy enough to have cycled to the top of it. For my part, I was now rather tired after a pounding two hours of steady riding. This was both on account of riding without gloves and lacking the clipped-in shoes to which I was so accustomed. Whine, bitch, whine.

The highway at least fortunately proved to be only several kilometers of gentle climbing on a very smooth surface. After that, all that was left for me was a repeat of my arrival in Salento. Then I had been dumped off at the turnoff by the bus, but this time I wouldn't be on foot - or hoping for a ride. Instead I received a nice long plunge to the river Quindio for my efforts, still on paved road. From Boquira, I only needed to climb about halfway up again heightwise on the easier grade to Salento.

Ritchie was waiting for me back in town, not having been entirely sure how long I was going to take going Crazy German and all. Yes, I had indeed done it - and we soon found ourselves again in a continuation of our earlier conversation before the ride. That had concerned the marginal profit of renting bikes and living in Salento year-round. The latter had delivered its share of boredom for Ritchie, even as it had been of growing interest to me. Indeed I had seriously been considering such a thing, though likely for less time through the year.

Conversation next turned to bemoaning the turbo tourism that was beginning to run rampant in Colombia, not to mention the distasteful cokehead parade found here and there. From Ritchie I received more secondhand knowledge of nearby guerrilla activity, too, when we both speculated on Salento and Colombia's future. That was the big question mark to all the folks like me thinking of living in Colombia full- or even part-time. However safe and stable things seemed to be, it didn't take much imagination to see a slide back to the violent near-past.

Still, at only 20,000,000CP ($10000) for a lot in Salento, it didn't seem like the harshest bet: tourism was unquestionably on the upswing in the area. One could see this both given the crowded lodgings at Plantation House - or the fact that my own hostel was run by a gay couple in such a tiny, traditional town. These things added up in their implications.

Meanwhile, with only one paved road coming from the main highway - down to the river (at Boquira) and up to Salento - another bit of hiking found itself on my plate. I had been thinking about continuing on this road's path out of town toward Cocora, seeing where things would lead to on foot. I knew the road led to the river - yes, it was the way to the Valle de Cocora - but maybe there was some other cool stuff in walking past the Portal de Cocora at town's edge.

Naturally I would receive repeated views of Cocora upon this undertaking, but that was only when the views opened up at bends in the road with low foliage. Soon my eyes turned downward, too, and there they stayed for a bit. I rued the amount of trash I saw on the roadside.

Mostly this was just little stuff, but it was continual. Yick. I couldn't escape the contrast between the long view and the short, soon vowing to do something about it. With no bag this first time around, though, I made my way down to the river to read a book in French instead. I wasn't exactly in a hurry in Salento, after all.

At the river my mind moved away from refuse to the opposite: I found out that Truman Capote apparently translated well. In high-falutin' French I made my way through the first of his three short stories in Monsieur Malefique. Now THERE was quite a contrast to the book I had just finished prior to it, Updike's surprisingly racy Brazil. Still... whatever - there was nothing like sitting on a boulder in a river, dawdling under a warm sun with two feet in cool, refreshing water. Downstream, perhaps a few fish thought differently.

More talking with Richie came that evening, at one of the bars on the main square. My former hikemate Miles soon joined us, too, after successfully returning from an adventurous hike. It turned that he was quite a jazz and music fan in general, and he offered us both a place to say in his (secret) town should we want to take a trip into the past some day. That sounded appealing; we exchanged contact information.

Once again, now it was three of us returning to the theme of how fast Salento was changing as the number of hostels quickly increased. How long was it before the backpackers arrived in even bigger numbers, we wondered, not losing sight of our own culpability. Indeed on this very evening we had seen an incredible quantity, the most Ritchie had seen to date in almost a year in the town. Instead of four or six backpackers in an evening, the numbers on this night were more like 25 or 30. Not Cartagena-big, but the scale change was remarkable even to me in my short time in Salento.

The upscalers were on the way, too, as my own boutique hostel attested to. When Miles had been through Salento five years prior, there was only the one hostel (Plantation House), usually half empty. This time he had trouble finding a spot anywhere in town. We speculated: could the likely reason for so many backpackers be that carnival was approaching soon in Barranquilla? Salento COULD be a pit stop for travelers heading north; perhaps it was an anomaly instead of an omen. Further musing ensued about carnival, as beer fuels more reason for beer... and talk.

We each noted how Salento had the odd problem of being inconveniently joined at the hip to unloved Armenia. Wasn't bigger Pereira almost the same distance away? Mysteries abounded as to why this was, but what it all suggested to Miles was to keep the place where he had bought property a secret. We all pulled out pocket knives to draw a finger's blood, etching solemn oaths forever and swearing to secrecy - maybe. Property aside, we finally turned to more interesting subjects - like why all the cute single women of Salento already seemed to have kids...

Eventually I was ready for a return trip to Valle de Cocora. With the greater number of backpackers now in town, though, this time it was a caravan of six jeeps making the trip... and I was the knowledge bank of warnings and suggestions for what lay ahead. I dispensed with such advice before we made it to Cocora "town" as best as I could.

Hiking, and staying alone at the start this time, I decided on the river as my start again. I quickly abandoned any idea of ascending the big rock mountain looming unexplored through the San Jose finca detour. THAT would make for a full day's adventure - some OTHER day.

Instead I started on the path as previously done, this time taking an elongated stop at the waterfall when I entered the woods - the slow road took over. There I played a little trumpet, for example, soon befriending two birding couples from England and France. I learned about some of the birds I had seen in town, plus about others such as the brilliant blue-winged, cloud-blue-gray chested tanager. Yes, the slow road paid dividends.

This ad hoc group soon separated at Acaime, however - this time I'd make my way up to the finca. SOMEone had to listen to all that advertising! I now was ready to plunk down my 3000CP and see what there was to the place. Hummingbirds, perhaps... ? The signs certainly promised as much, plus a generous portion of agua de panela and local cheese to also cover the tiny ($1.50!) tab sufficiently.

And how: I was next treated to a show of hummingbirds the like of which I had never seen. The feeders were out, and the birds kept a-coming... and a-coming. Otherwise wild and uncaged, the birds heeded the offerings of sugar water in great number. Stupendous.

Of three varieties that I'd see, one struck me as rather typical, while another merited greater attention. It was colored a sharper green, with an almost jet black and white banding. It was the third, however, with its florescence and long tail, which stole the show. I wanna photograph THAT, we all thought simultaneously. Wow.

It next turned to be quite a waiting game trying to take pictures of THE MAGICAL ONE. IN the meantime, a blue tanager also made rare appearances to further whet appetites. All good. Usually I'd be loathe to worry so much about photos, but the challenge of capturing these birds' darting, fluttering ways - while droning at high speed - captivated me for a good hour. I happily succumbed to the hype.

At least I'd have plenty of time to enjoy the drink and cheese, both quite tasty. The owner of Acaime, meanwhile, was a cranky ex-pat Spanish woman. She was most genuinely worried about who had paid or not, making the numerous signs seen on both of my Cocora hikes that much more explained.

A final bird show came unexpected, however. Leaving the Acaime preserve, I had a bonafide nature moment when a pair of birds crossed my trail and decided to sit only a short distance away. Obviously a male-female couple, they handily sat for as long as I wished for inspection. I... so wished.

While the male had a green blue flouresence, the female had a rich chocolate-y back of soft brown. Both sported brilliant chests of red with a splash of white above, something to behold. Fortunately, once I had gotten past the immediate rush of wanting to capture them on (digital) film, they graciously hung out for a long while, too. I noted to myself how it was both funny and sad how the first impression in such an amazing moment was to capture the experience for remembrance - even before truly having had the experience itself.

Finally I left these new acquaintances also behind, descending for more trumpeting by the river. Meeting a pais vasco (Spanish Basque Country) couple there, as a pleasant consequence, just added to my thinking: this relaxed return to the valley was a great idea. I timed the return jeep better, too.

Back in town I kept up the theme of repeats. I again took a walk out of Salento downhill, toward the river and toward the Valle de Cocora. This time I'd make good on my vow to clean up the road of trash, possibly setting some kind of example. Or maybe I was just making a trash run - who knew?

I started with only one bag, thinking that would be sufficient... it wouldn't be. Sadly that only got me to the bottom of the hill on one side, and with an exTREMEly stuffed bag at that. As a result I resorted to begging for a couple of bags from a lone house below, before making my way back up the other side. Those were eventually filled sufficiently as well. Sigh.

Nice things happened as a result, though. For example, a few of the locals said thanks as they passed by. More importantly, I had the great satisfaction of doing something positive. For not much work I had disallowed a quantity of (primarily) plastic (or plasticized) wrappers to disintegrate into a toxic mess down at the river.

Fortunately I was never faced with the choice of picking a piece of garbage out of any of the goodly amounts of muleshit on the road. To be fair, I never had any intentions of pushing my niceness quite that far anyway. I thus washed only reasonably dirty hands, feeling good in a good deed done. This I followed by patting myself on the back as one invariably does in such situations. Nevertheless, I wondered if it would only be a short while before the mist of spray would hit my face from such a blatant act of pissing in the wind. It was a trashy world in Colombia, where nary a bin could be found for even the most diligent of refuse tossers.

Keeping with the theme of repetition I returned to the abandoned bullring, too. It was a bit tougher to squeeze into the fence this go-round - the fence had been moved around some. I was barely able to escape the barbed wire this time, too - such metal meanness had recently claimed a tear in my jacket from the first Valle de Cocora hike.

Again I'd be watched, though, even if not by Willem again. Instead, there'd be a half dozen people, each evidently wondering what I was doing. Uh... Willem? A little help? Soon I set their curiousity to rest, however, when I entered the ring and blared many numbers of the most imposing and dramatic kind. No applause followed as previously with Willem, but everyone stopped what they were doing to gather at the top of the ring to watch.

After having played a half dozen tunes or so, my curiosity finally got the best of me. I asked my non-commital audience if they liked what they were hearing. Pleasingly, I was answered in the affirmative. Thus emboldened, too, I soon asked to have someone take a few pictures of me playing before it was time to go. Might as well - that sun was really beating over the white sand ground of center ring! I didn't want to stay and sizzle too long. At least, being only a half hour walk from town (the opposite approach from previous), I was well-hydrated this time. I was able to do the place justice, trumpet-wise. Olé!

Indeed the only wrinkle in the adventure would come on my return home, when I accepted a ride from a motorcyclist. My benefactor pulled up alongside me only several minutes down the road from the ring, offering me a ride. I accepted, and we soon found ourselves barreling down the hill and me wondering when my hat was going to completely blow off.

I should have been thinking of the shirt I had draped about my shoulders instead. It flew off unnoticed just as we entered town, immediately getting caught in the motorcycle's chain and shredding instantaneously. It wasn't easy to extract, either - that would require a machete. What an ignomious end to the illustrious career of my aged, frayed, white, long-sleeved poly-whatever shirt, a veteran of all my south America trips! Then again, with its stains and small holes it was perhaps not the most unfortunate thing to happen to my wardrobe.

With more time in Salento, I also had time to talk more with Richie. What other experiences did he have in this town? He was itching for an escape from Salento by this time, soon entertaining me with the idea of taking over his bicycle-rental business for a spell later in the year. The prospect was unquestionably alluring; I mused additionally that it could provide a perfect cover for me to get an identity card while researching Salento further.

Indeed, Salento had become the first place I had ever thought I might buy into, literally purchasing land. By this time I'd been having numerous conversations with the owners of the Jesus Martin Café (again, the best in Colombia) about such a thing. This was in addition to various locals and foreigners alike found in attendance there, all roughly about the same subject. Bikes could be the perfect racket for me! True, troubles could be found in liability, or how to properly sublease the business, but one never knew... hmmm.

Also of great interest to me was the use of the local guadua bamboo in constructon. This was the same stuff I had been seeing ever since I entered the Coffee Axis proper. The biggest and strongest of the bamboo family, guadua was rather cheap construction material - while being both beautiful and a good guard against earthquakes. Not to mention cheap. It was with that in mind that I took some more time checking out Plantation House's two buildings constructed of bamboo. I took pictures as ideas came to mind - how might I try something myself of that order? Land first, however...

I had been having numerous talks throughout my Salento stay with folks as well about Plantation House, the area's original hostel. It was both the source of the town's increased tourism, but also (perhaps later down the line) could be culpable for its eventual decline in terms of quality.

For the time being the hostel scene had already grown to around five; the owner of Plantation House was already becoming far more interested in running his plantation down the hill from his hostel than the hostel itself. Indeed, the hostel could merely provide his income while he looked into getting into the world of boutique coffees. This was all well and good at this stage of the game, but one really had to wonder if this explosion of interest in Salento would be well-managed or not.

I thought a lot about the main plaza in town, still the domain of locals. It didn't take much to envision all of the tables and businesses turning over 180 degrees. They could easily find themselves only full of extranjeros (foreigners) in the short span of only several years, with locals moved to the neighboring streets by sheer economics. Money talks, and the locals were already showing signs of being shocked with how much could come their way. Thus happens the sell out. I feared for the future of Salento - while simultaneously questioning if I should be a part of it.

That thought would have to ruminate from another place, however. The time had come to leave my cast of Salento characters behind. The crazy Dutchman would build his ill-conceived hostel; the family at Jesus's would grow their organic coffee business; Joseph's art hostel would keep up some local color.

The glue-sniffing scion of the local rich family would still stumble around the main plaza; the random cowboy might shoot a similar rival on a hard-drinking night in a saloon on Artisan's Street. Lucy's would still be the best thing going for local trout and cuisine this side of the Bandeja Paisa; Ritchie might be still looking to get out of the bike business. Tim might want to get out of the hostel business to make mini, custom coffee plantations; a gay couple could choose to run a hostel outside of a closet.

The smiling, Santa Rosa-styled sausage lady might wait for me to drop by every Saturday afternoon; Tito and Co. might still find the wayward tourist (like me) to help build some local culture talking music and literature. It was all possible - it was all probable. But, for as fast as Salento was changing, how long would it still be Salento?

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