Instant coffee is the norm for locals in Salento.
A cup of coffee in Salento. Photo by Flickr/Diego Urrucelqui

The Plantation House is the best hostel in town, a lively place that offers all sorts of accommodations, including a bamboo tree fort like cabin out in the middle of their finca. The owner, Victor, is petting his dog, I-pod, and telling me about coffee. Before they seal the can of instant, it’s sprayed with a scent that “makes it smell more like coffee”. He also tells me that the whole shade grown thing is a marketing hoax. All coffee needs shade. Salento beans seem to need the shade of sweet baby banana trees. And avocado trees. And the occasional tall papaya tree. Fruits that don’t shade this coffee are pineapple, orange and passion fruit, whose orchards grow alongside them. It’s the Carmen Miranda of coffee regions.

And to answer the question which lots of people I know wonder, “But is Colombia safe?” No. It’s not.  But not in that Pablo Escobar-is-after-me kind of way. Sure, there are relics from the day. The desk clerk at our hostel was in a street gang as a teenager in Medellin, dealing dime bags, “just like all the teenage boys in the eighties.” But now he makes jewelry. And I met quite a few non-Colombians doing the drug tour of South America who I wouldn’t want to take tea with. When stopped by the military on a remote mountain road, I assumed the worst. They just wanted to know where our driver got the batteries for his cell phone from.

The real safety issues for tourists are physical and sports oriented. They are the result of tourism’s growing pains, the slow understanding that people not from Salento don’t know certain things.

Some of us tourists may not already know how to ride ranch horses at a full gallop through rivers, for example. When a gentleman asks me how he could make his ranch-turned-B&B more tourist friendly, I suggest that he teach his ranch hands not to put people who’ve never been riding on the fastest horses. And maybe teach the guests how to stop. He contends that his workers can’t imagine a grownup who doesn’t know how to ride.

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