“Quiero ir a Alemania,” (“I want to go to Germany”) I announced. Understandably, the ticket agent at the Bogotá bus terminal gave me a strange look. Having no doubt dealt with many confused gringos in the past, the agent eventually realized that my intended destination was not Alemania but Armenia, a city in Colombia’s coffee-growing Zona Cafetera region, eight hours by bus from Bogotá. It would be my last side trip before returning to the United States.
From Armenia I caught a shuttle to Salento, a small town near the scenic Valle de Cocora, and checked into a backpacker hostel owned by a white-bearded, ruddy-faced Brit named Tim. “Do you like coffee?” Tim asked.
“Sure,” I lied. Tim encouraged me to sign up for a coffee-tasting class being held that afternoon. I skipped the class but took Tim’s other suggestion and went to see his coffee plantation, just a short hike from the hostel. Along the way I passed one rural Colombian character after another – a miniature old woman hauling burlap sacks full of vegetables, a young couple walking hand-in-hand, a farm worker pushing an empty wheelbarrow along the muddy trail. Later I explored the town, and that evening I watched the sun set from a mirador overlooking the main square.
Salento is just seven miles away from the lush green Valle de Cocora, ground zero for Colombia’s National Tree – the super-tall, telephone-pole-straight wax palm. I caught a ride to the valley in a four-seat jeep that kept picking people up until it held 14 of us. The jeep dropped us off on Cocora’s main road, and from there I began the hike to Acaime, a privately-owned nature reserve known for the variety of hummingbirds it attracts.
The first half of the trail led through gently rolling farmland. I passed a distressingly large group of Colombian tourists and quickened my pace so I could have some time at Acaime before they arrived. The second half of the trail rose steeply though a dense cloud forest. Primitive bridges – really just thick tree branches lashed together with barbed wire – crossed and re-crossed a fast-moving creek.
I made good time and arrived at Acaime well before the other tourists. A wizened caretaker greeted me and asked how many people I’d seen on the trail. “Maybe 30,” I told him. “How many do you usually get here each day?”
“Most days only eight or 12,” he said.
Hummingbirds buzzed by my head, one after another. They seemed to have no fear of people. A line of feeders stood in front of Acaime’s main building, and with a few minutes I’d seen hummingbirds from at least five different species stop for a drink.
Hummingbirds in Reserva Natural Acaime (Video)
I spent an enjoyable half hour photographing the hummingbirds before the vanguard of the big tourist group appeared. Within ten minutes the place was as congested as a city street, prompting me to make my escape. On the hike back I passed a steady stream of tourists. Why were there so many? It wasn’t until I arrived back in Salento and saw the Colombian flag flying from every building that I remembered it was July 20th, Colombia’s Independence Day, and the entire country was on vacation.
The celebration in Salento was surprisingly low key that night – no fireworks, no big festival, just some party tents around the main plaza. The next day I took a bus back to Bogotá and tried to wrap my head around the fact that the international part of my trip was almost over. I was so discombobulated that I actually decided to visit a museum (Bogotá’s surprisingly modern and impressive Museo del Oro).
Early Sunday morning I took a taxi to the Bogotá airport. Half of me couldn’t wait to go back home, to see friends and family, to return to the familiar. The other half just wanted to keep going. I felt similarly torn as I struggled to process the fact that I’d been traveling overseas for an entire year. The way time had passed on this trip reminded me of childhood, when each day was so filled with new and meaningful experiences that a year seemed to stretch out endlessly. And yet somehow it also it felt like only a few weeks ago that I’d landed in Vietnam and started working my way west.