Salento’s main square sits at the foot of a hill, surrounded by colonial buildings-turned-cafés and oblea carts selling wafers dripping with caramelo. A child throws a handful of rice in the air and pigeons appear seemingly from nowhere, cawing and diving for their treat. At the head of the square, several jeeps of different colors are parked, bags of rice and platanos stacked on their roofs.
Plastic covers are rolled from the back portion, exposing the skeleton of the jeep and two small benches for us. Our driver climbs into the front seat and turns to wink at us as four of us clamber in. “Stand up,” he encourages. “You’ll get a little breeze that way.”
I opt to perch on the seat itself, while others stand on the jeep floor or cling to the bumper, human accessories on the rumbling Jeep. We drive through the skinny roads of Salento, where baskets hang heavy with fuschia flowers from whitewashed balconies. Dogs watch us pass, blasé, from front steps of restaurants as their owners call out their daily deals to entice passerby.
Soon we are snaking through the winding roads of Cocora Valley, wax palms reaching far above other trees into the fog drifting between mountains. As we sputter further up the mountain, the balmy heat from Salento slowly melts away into refreshing mountain air as we drink in the view of a river coursing through a myriad of greens in a valley far below. 8,000 feet above sea level, many creatures have made the Cocora Valley their home, from pumas and mountain toucans to Colombia’s statuesque national tree, the wax palm.
A New Life
We have lunch at local restaurant Donde Juan B, along with a comforting glass of canelazo before we make our way over to the foggy field out front. There, we take budding baby wax palms and dig deep into the rich volcanic soil to plant them as a stray dog approaches, looking to make friends. Although wax palms are scattered among the valleys and rivets of the scenery around us, the species is at risk. The wax palms around us have survived humans and stretch impossibly high in their old age, but new wax palms aren’t as lucky: most don’t make it past their sixth birthday, instead being cut down to be brought home on Palm Sunday. The wax palms we plant today will be protected, and as we stand there with moist dirt on our hands, the biologist invites us back to come and visit our palms next time we’re in Pereira.
After the excursion, we pile back into the jeeps. This time I dare to bring my camera up with me, and with the wind blowing hair into my eyes, I’m rewarded with a few fantastical pictures of the magical Cocora Valley, enjoying my last few breaths of misty mountain air. This may be my new favorite way of traveling.