Did you know that trees can talk to each other? No, neither did I until I spent three days in Salento, a charming town in Colombia’s coffee region and surrounded by some inspiring scenery. It’s the home of the palma de cera, the wax palm, which is the national tree and here grows the highest in the world. And as for the Willys, well they are old WWII jeeps which are the main way of getting around.
I was happy to leave Medellín and head for the countryside. I was even happier to discover that there was a direct bus, although this was occupied entirely by foreign tourists, so there was little local experience to be had. The driver was a character, though, and had obviously made an attempt to learn some English. When language failed him, he was quite adept at miming, for example, when demonstrating how to use a sick bag.
I stayed in a traditional family guesthouse with just two rooms and this also made the trip for me. Salento now receives about 130 tourists a day and the main square and street are buzzing with shops and restaurants. The main attractions, however, lie outside the town.
On the first day I took a fascinating tour of a nature reserve, the Kasaguadua. It was there that our enthusiastic guide, Nick, an expat from London, told us about an astonishing discovery that scientists have only recently discovered about how trees can communicate with each other. I’ve seen so-called walking trees in the Amazon, those which can bend and move their roots to seek sunlight in the overgrown canopy, but talking trees?
Nick showed us a tree which seemed dead, but which he explained was merely on holiday, or in a kind of hibernation. It turns out that when competing for valuable and scarce resources in the soil, these trees can send chemical signals to each other, instructing one to shut down for a while and conserve energy. Two others nearby of the same species were thriving, while the third was resting. It seems Nature knows things work best when they cooperate together. It’s such a pity we don’t seem able to learn that lesson.
On the second day I set out to see the star attraction, the wax palms, in the Valle de Cocora, despite ominous rain clouds looming overhead. I jumped in a Willy and headed out to the start of the trail. To do the whole loop takes about 5 hours, although there is a shorter route. The trail was incredibly muddy, so I decided to hire some Wellington boots which proved to be indispensable as at some points I was ankle deep in water and mud.
The path takes you through farmland and past grazing cattle before entering the cloud forest and there are some rickety old suspension bridges to negotiate. It’s then a steep climb to a hacienda, before the descent takes you right into the thick of the palms. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, it was raining heavily, but the enormous palms rising out of the mist still made for an impressively eerie sight.
No trip to the area is complete without doing a coffee tour and there are many farms offering this. I went to the one at El Ocaso and it was a fun 90 minutes, learning about the whole process from planting to processing. We also got to strap on a traditional basket and go out to pick some berries for ourselves.
Salento is growing in popularity all the time and may be too touristy for some, but for me it provided a welcome respite from Medellín and I really enjoyed living in a local house and being able to interact with a Colombian family. One afternoon I took a trip to the nearby town of Filandia, which was actually much nicer than Salento and sees very few tourists and so would make a great alternative place to stay.