We first learned about tejo from Anthony Bourdain who played the game in an episode of one of his TV shows (who can keep track?). Despite being a beloved Colombian pastime, which literally involves explosives and beer, it proved surprisingly hard to find a bar that offered the game until we visited Salento.
What could go wrong?
Tejois a simple game which involves a metal disc (called a tejo) which weighs around 1.5 lbs. (0.7kg). You toss the tejo underhand toward an angled board which is covered in wet clay. Your goal is to hit pieces of paper stuffed with gun powder which have been arranged around a metal ring which is pressed into the clay.
A clay covered tejo board.
You know you’re doing it right when the reaction between your tossed tejo, the gun powder and the metal ring causes an explosion. We finally played tejo in the otherwise tranquil mountain town of Salento where the Los Amigos bar has a massive open air tejo area set up in the back. Just pay 1,000 COP (about US$0.40) per person, grab a cold beer for 3,000 COP (about US$1.00), choose one of the half dozen or so tejo set ups and start tossing.
Karen tossing a tejo in Salento, Colombia.
How to score tejo
You earn one point for the tejo which lands closest to ring. You get three points for an explosion. You get six points for landing in the center of the metal ring and causing an explosion. You get nine points for landing in center of metal ring without causing an explosion. The first person who racks up 25 points first wins.
Though Karen hates loud noises, she somehow won anyway.
The Cocora Valley near Salento is famous for its wax palms which are the tallest palms on the planet and the national tree of Colombia. However, the best wax palms in Colombia exist one valley over and you can see them during a bouncy, dusty jeep ride from Salento along the road to Finca La Carbonera. We visited the area twice and here are our favorite photos of these amazing stands of wax palms. Don’t miss our drone footage at the end of the post for a birds-eye-view of these awesome palms.
Finding the best wax palms in Colombia
To get to these wax palms, hire a Jeep taxi in the square in Salento for the three hour round trip drive up above Salento along a dirt road toward La Carbonera and back down again (150,000 COP or about US$50 round trip for the whole jeep which will seat five people in addition to the driver, allow four to five hours for the full excursion). Here you’ll find much larger, denser groups of palms than you’ll ever see in the more famous Cocora Valley. Enjoy!
If you’re lucky your Jeep taxi driver may find and capture a wild armadillo along the way too.
Get a birds-eye-view of these amazing trees in our drone travel footage, below, taken over the wax palms near La Carbonera.
With nearly 2,000 miles (3,200 km) driven, June was our biggest driving month in years. It was also one of the most dramatic with two tire blowouts, a missed border crossing, an Incan rope bridge re-building festival, a traditional vicuña round-up and miles and miles of gorgeous coastal, Andean, and Altiplano scenery. It’s all captured in our drive-lapse road trip travel footage shot with our Brinno time-lapse dash cam at the end of this post.
Making a run for the border
The primarily reason we drove so much in June was because we had to make a border run to renew our Peruvian vehicle importation permit which requires that we exit the country and re-enter. This called for an 800 miles (1,300 km) drive south into Chile. We expected it would take us two long days of driving to reach the border from Lima. What we didn’t account for was a pair of blowouts that left us stuck on the side of the highway for more than seven hours struggling to get over-tightened lug nuts off due to some careless work that was done on our truck in Lima.
This caused us to arrive at the border a day late. Did we mention that in Peru if you overstay your permit they have the right to confiscate your vehicle? Many tense hours, a day of waiting and lots of paperwork and explanations later we finally got special permission to cross the border with our truck and re-enter Peru with a fresh permit.
Incan festivals galore
Then we made a 450 mile (725 km) bee-line from the coastal border to a village high in the Andes to catch the Q’eswachaki Bridge festival which is the annual rebuilding of the last traditional Incan rope bridge in Peru. The drive from Tacna to Monquegua to Puno to Juliaca and then to the bridge took us up and over the high Andean Altiplano where we spent four hours driving between 13,500 to 15,500 feet (4,115 to 4,725 meters), not an easy task when you aren’t acclimatized to the high altitude. Luckily the road was spectacular, the pavement was good, the views were epic and there was almost no traffic. Just the way we like it.
Following the bridge festival we carried on to Cusco, then drove to Abancay and then to Puquio which we used as a base to attend an annual vicuña roundup and shearing festival called a chaccu that takes place near the Pampa Galeras National Reserve. This all happened at around 13,000 feet (2,200 meters) so once the chaccu was over we decided to warm up in Nazca (at a mere 1,700 feet (520 meters) where we finished up the month of June by visiting area archaeological sites and the famous Nazca Lines.
Check out all of the gorgeous scenery in one month of driving in Peru and Chile in our drive-lapse road trip travel video shot with our Brinno time-lapse dash cam.
Salento is not a secret. Lots of travelers to Colombia visit the mountain town above the gorgeous Cocora Valley every year. Locals love it too. After spending weeks in Salento over four separate trips, we’ve got your insider’s travel guide to paradise including a great new hotel, the smartest days to visit and where and how to see the best of the area’s famous wax palms (it’s not where you think).
Traditional architecture and a laid back vibe bring many travelers–foreign and Colombian–to the mountain town of Salento.
Salento, a Colombian paradise
Salento was founded in 1850 and proudly wears its badge as one of the oldest towns in Quindio province. The more charming parts of town take you back in time with cobble stone streets, meticulous traditional paint jobs on original adobe buildings with terracotta roof tiles and fire-engine-red geraniums everywhere. In 2011 UNESCO named a large swath of Quindio province, including Salento, as a “Coffee Cultural Landscape”.
The main plaza and church in Salento, Colombia.
Salento is like a smaller, more tranquil version of the town of Jardin except on weekends when Salento bursts at the seams as Colombian visitors descend on town creating traffic jams in the main plaza, filling hotels (some charge higher rates on weekends) and jamming the pedestrian street lined with shops selling everything from coffee to hats. On weekdays the town slips back into a sleepy pace, so our first Salento travel tip is: avoid weekends if you want a more peaceful experience.
The road into the Cocora Valley from the town of Salento, and it just gets more and more gorgeous from here.
Finding the (best) wax palms in Salento
There are plenty of things to do in Salento including hiking, biking, horseback riding, shopping, coffee touring and tasting, playing an explosive (literally) Colombian bar game called tejo and there’s even a zip line now. But the real reason you’re there is to see the famous wax palms of Salento, right?
Wax palms in the Cocora Valley below Salento.
Wax palms are a distinct species found only in the Andes in parts of Colombia and Peru. They are the tallest palm in the world and most grow to about 150 feet (45 meters) but some shoot up to 200 feet (60 meters). They’re also the national tree of Colombia.
The Cocora Valley unfurls below Salento.
Salento sits on a ridge above the Cocora Valley which is home to some of the few remaining stands of wax palms. Most visitors take a shared jeep taxi from town down into the picture perfect valley a few miles away: green pastures, rolling hills, an ambling narrow road, babbling brooks, historic haciendas – it’s got it all. See what we’re talking about in our drone travel footage of the Cocora Valley, below.
At the head of the Cocora Valley there’s a five hour loop trail which winds through small stands of the palms. It’s picturesque and the palms are stunningly tall, like the giraffes of the palm world, but these most famous wax palms are not the best examples on offer.
Wax palms in the Cocora Valley.
It wasn’t until our second or third visit to Salento that we learned that the Cocora Valley wax palms are nothing compared to the even more amazing palms that exist in a neighboring valley on and around a finca called La Carbonera. How do we know this? Because we’ve been adopted by a magical Colombian auntie (Hi B! We miss you!) and her family owns La Carbonera.
Classic Willys Jeeps are used as taxis in Salento.
She took us to La Carbonera, which is located about about 1.5 hours from Salento on a road that includes parts of the Camino Real which Latin revolutionary hero Simón Bolívar traveled along between Ecuador and Nicaragua. So here’s our next Salento travel tip: hire a jeep taxi and driver in the main square to take you to La Carbonera. Be ready for a bumpy, dusty ride, but it’s worth it (150,000 COP or about US$50 round trip for the whole jeep which will seat 5 people in addition to the driver).
Travel tip: the wax palms on the road to a finca called La Carbonera are much denser and more impressive than those in the Cocora Valley and we can tell you how to get there.
Right from the road to La Carbonera you will see thousands of wax palms clumped in large, swaying stands which blow the palms in the Cocora Valley out of the water.
What to eat and drink in Salento
Small trout farms are abundant in the area and many restaurants sell trout in various forms. Another Salento travel tip: you will see trucha al ajillo (trout with garlic) on menus everywhere. Be aware that this dish is not simply trout cooked in garlic. Your fish will come smothered in a milky, mildly garlicy sauce. Just so you know.
Fried trout on a platter-sized patacon is a common (and delicious) dish in Salento.
Dairy products are also huge in Salento thanks to sprawling cattle farms. Get some local cheese, then head to the small supermarket on the main square, walk to the back near the produce section and look for baskets of small baguettes made daily by a local woman. Yep, that’s another tip.
Many diary products are produced in and around Salento and some are sold at this creative road side stand on the way into town.
Whatever you do, don’t leave town until you’ve tried a patacon. Usually, patacones are thick discs of boiled, pressed, then fried plantain which come as a common side dish. In Salento, a patacon is a very thin, crispy version the size of a dinner plate which is topped with cheese, chicken, trout, etc. and garnished with rich hogao which is a common Colombian sauce of chopped and simmered vegetables. You won’t find this delicious dish in many other parts of Colombia and we still crave it from time to time.
Don’t leave Salento without trying a thin, crispy patacon topped with meat, cheese and hogao.
Salento is in the so-called “coffee triangle” so there are lots of area coffee producers (some offering tours of their farms and facilities) and many cafes in town. We liked Cafe Bernabe Gourmet because the coffee was good and so was the art on the walls. Another solid place to caffeine up is Cafe Jesus Martin. We liked their coffee so much that we bought a few bags of beans to keep with us in the truck for future use in our beloved Bonjour insulated French Press.
Excellent coffee at the Jesus Martin cafe in Salento.
On weekends, open air bars open around the square under tents and they’re a great place to grab a beer and watch Colombian families. Speaking of beer, if you’ve been looking for an opportunity to play tejo, Colombia’s beloved bar game, you can do it in Salento. Here’s where to play tejo in Salento.
On the weekends enterprising locals push Colombian kids around the main plaza while their parents relax in the casual restaurants and bars around the square.
Where to sleep in Salento
There are more than 70 hostels and hotels in little tiny Salento, so choice is not the problem. During our very first visit we stayed at the stylish and peaceful Hostel Tralala, just off the main square, which has a dorm, two lovely shared kitchens which include free coffee, there’s a casita off the garden and a handful of and private rooms (70,000 COP or about US$24 for a private double with bathroom/60,000 COP or about US$20 with shared bathroom).
We also spent a few days in a one room apartment outside of town which is rented by Maria Clara who also bakes those baguettes we recommended above. It’s sunny, clean and comfortable with a large porch with a hammock. It’s a great option for families or those staying longer term, but her current rates are a bit steep for us at 120,000 COP or about US$40 per night, contact Maria Clara at claragarciamar AT hotmail DOT com or call 3133717249, she speaks English).
We also stayed at La Floresta Hostel which has a parking lot and basic but fairly clean rooms and a pretty filthy shared kitchen (55,000 COP or about US$17 per night for a private double with bathroom, there’s also a camping area and dorms).
Reserva El Cairo Hotel is a lovely new addition just a few miles from town in the Cocora Valley.
During our most recent visit to Salento we were delighted to tour the new seven room Reserva El Cairo Hotel. Located two miles (3 km) outside of town in the Cocora Valley (taxis are common and cheap), this hotel is peaceful and combines sustainability with traditional architecture. The restored building, formerly a private house, is more than 100 years old and rooms now have modern bathrooms and good beds plus a basket full of locally-made snacks. Staff members speak English and they’re passionate about service. They grow their own organic fruits and vegetables and produce their own milk, butter, eggs and chickens on their 100 acres (40 hectares) of land.
Despite the importance of Salento and the Cocora Valley as a tourist destination, the area’s UNESCO site status, and it’s standing as home to the country’s rare national tree, there’s a new plan afoot that would allow open pit mining for gold in the region. There is local backlash, so stay tuned.