salento: do something that scares you a little 

But try not to hurt yourself.

I got to try out this maxim in Salento when I decided for some reason that downhill mountain biking was the best way to see giant wax palms, which are only found in a few places in Colombia and Peru (it’s Colombia’s national tree and can be found on the 50,000COP bill).

My cycling skills are rudimentary and rarely used. So this clearly had all the makings of a bad idea.

But I wanted to go. The Valle de Cocora is the most popular place to see these palms, and can be done in a 5-6 hour hike from Salento. This is what most people do.

Then someone told me about La Carbonera valley, which is privately owned land and was at one point inaccessible as it was controlled by FARC guerrillas, was even better than Cocora. It has thousands more of these trees, and a fraction of the number of sightseers.

The catch – it appeared that only cycling companies bring people there. Well, sure, I thought. Sounds fun.

And it was fun. The sensation of zipping down is pure exhilaration and the setting is beautiful – cloud forest, mountains stretching into the distance on a clear day, and yes big swathes of the giant palms. My photos don’t do it justice at all.

But. I fell not once but three times, the third time bad enough to hurt my wrist and see me sitting out the rest of the trip.

Was it tough? For me perhaps but no one else had any trouble. The route taken is also meant to be suitable for all levels. I found the bikes comfortable, considering how madly bumpy the ground seemed to me.

But I think for anyone who isn’t confident on a bike, it’s definitely a bad idea – the speed picks up very quickly and combined with the bumpiness, it’s a lot to handle if you’re totally new to the experience and haven’t climbed on a bike in a while. I feel lucky that I didn’t break anything – not even my glasses, or the phone in my pocket.

If you’re confident on a bike, I highly recommend the experience. I would have liked to get better at this because while the going was good, it was pure joy. Other cyclists in the group also told me that the view was infinitely better than the view at Valle de Cocora.

It’s not cheap though – the trip for a group of six was COP120,000. In comparison, doing the trek yourself at Valle de Cocora costs around COP10,000 to 15,000, including the cost of taking a shared jeep from Salento to Cocora.

The company I went with is called Salento Cycling, and they were lovely generally, though their first aid kit could be better stocked. They’re passionate and responsive to queries, the guides Eduardo and Juan were very reassuring during the ride, and their sense of pride in what they do and passion for the landscape is infectious.

I’ll keep trying things that frighten me a little. But I suppose this little trip-up is a reminder that yes I can get hurt and there are some things enthusiasm cannot compensate for. There are 10 million ways to scare yourself and the least I could do is try to pick something with a smaller chance of killing me.


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