Always Talk to Strangers

May 1, 2010

Getting up from the table, you walk by the front window of your home and are surprised to see a complete stranger staring inside. He is clearly not from around these parts. What do you do in this situation? Politely and firmly ask him to go away? Threaten to call the police? Or, invite him in, give him a tour of the house, and feed him a hearty lunch? That is exactly what Roberto, from Jericó, Colombia choose to do. This generous act is emblematic of the residents of the majestic coffee region of Colombia, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful areas in all of South America.

Salento, Colombia

After spending a week in the salsa-mad city of Cali, I hopped on a bus towards Salento. Salento is a quaint, colorfully painted old town set in a lush green mountainous backdrop. Every night, aguardiente sipping old-timers don cowboy hats and fill the numerous billiard halls. And every weekend, the stores and restaurants in town center become flooded by Colombian tourists. Many are here to shop, but many also come to visit a nearby natural reserve that is majestic beyond words: The Valley of Cocora.

The Wax Palm reaches heights of over 150 feet, and can only be found in this small corner of the world. After being conditioned to associate palm trees with warm beaches and tropical climates, it is downright surreal to observe these monoliths growing in a misty valley. And their size is simply staggering. Humans and animals appear more like ants when standing near their trunk. I rented a horse in order to explore this bizarre landscape in-depth.

The Valley of Cocora was the most spectacular place I had yet visited in Colombia and I left the reserve with spirits high. So, the next day, I resolved to take advantage of this momentum and cross a hurdle which has eluded me for my 29 years: drink a full cup of coffee. And what better place to "break through" than on an authentic Colombian coffee plantation? Well, I gave it my best, and still think coffee tastes terrible. Why do people like this bitter drink? I put in three spoonfuls of sugar and I still couldn't bare to take half the mug. In any case, La Finca de Don Elias was definitely worth the visit. Thanks to Señor Elias, I witnessed firsthand the interesting process of creating this substance which other people enjoy so much.

Originally I had planned to bus straight from Salento to the large city of Medellin. But I was becoming hooked on fresh mountain air and small-town charm, so I decided to delay and visit some more villages in the region. Receiving a strong recommendation for a town named Jardín, I took off with two German backpacker friends on a multi-leg journey to this hamlet. Jardín is little visited by foreigners, and it's difficult to comprehend why. This place is breathtaking.

Blessed by a mild climate, and surrounded by verdant hills, Jardín is close to paradise on Earth. An impressive stone cathedral fronts the elegant, table-filled central plaza. The cobbled streets are refreshingly clean and lined by beautiful homes with flowers hanging from their balconies. An easy walk out of town and the intrepid adventurer is in the midst of rushing streams, livestock farms, and banana plantations.

A winding journey through the Andes took me from Jardín to Jericó, another picturesque village in the region of Antioquia. In fact, Jericó proved to be my favorite place in the entire coffee zone. Once again, there were no other foreigners, and locals were incredibly friendly, as the aforementioned Roberto exemplifies. In addition, I've never felt so safe in all of South America. Residents bragged that their streets were free of crime, and anyone could walk anywhere at anytime without thinking twice. For the past eight months, I had trained myself to be constantly vigilant, familiarizing myself with areas before wandering, keeping my camera hidden in my pocket when not in use, and occasionally glancing over my shoulder when walking down empty streets. So, I felt immense relief to be in a place where these precautions were unnecessary. I was inspired to take dozens upon dozens of photos in Jericó, and only hope that these visuals can do its beauty some justice.

Walking through Jericó on a sunny day is a feast for the eyes. Every corner brings something new to appreciate. Remarkable vistas of steep mountain ranges come into view at each intersection. Attractive houses are painted in bold colors that complement the palette of the neighboring buildings. Children play in the street without calls of worried parents. And even though Jericó is small by almost any standard, it boasts an impressive Botanical Garden in addition to a cable car that lifts you to a pristine park overlooking the astonishing surroundings. One day, if I decide to give up the city life and move to a place where the air is pure and time moves slowly, I can't think of anywhere on Earth better suited than Jericó.

I had time to visit one more village in Antioquia, and I wouldn't regret it. Guatapé is uniquely captivating in its own right, and is known as the town of zócalos, three-dimensional murals that adorn nearly all of the buildings. These frescoes convey the rich traditions of the region. I appreciate the importance of museums, but when public art is done tastefully it holds my attention far more than a painting on a wall ever could. And Guatapé is public art at its finest.

As in Jericó, I was moved to take many pictures in Guatapé. I was also invited into the home of another stranger on the street, a kindly old lady who showed me the house that her parents built and in which she and her sisters had lived for most of their lives. It was touching to visit towns where residents took an enormous pride in the place they lived. And when you leave somewhere as pretty as Guatapé, how could you not?

Visiting the Zona Cafetera of Colombia was one of the best decisions I've ever made. The time I spent in sleepy villages like Jericó and in stunning nature such as Cocora was truly unforgettable. When I return to South America, spending more time in this region will be near the top of my list. And when I come back, I'll know that staring into a stranger's home may be rude, but not necessarily unwise. Sometimes good things can result when you refuse to listen to common sense.



  1. Adans!!! Great blog post cuz! That place looks beautiful! I want to visit! Great storytelling!

    -your cuz G$

  2. Wow! That sounds so amazing Adam. As usual I love your incredible photos and writing. You really brought the place to life for me and I can´t wait to visit this area! I hope you continue blogging even now your trip is coming to an end - it would be a waste of your talent otherwise.

  3. El texto me emociona Adam, no conozco la zona cafetera pero despues de ver las fotos y leer el blog con seguridad será el primer viaje que haga cuando vuelva a Colombia. un abrazo

  4. gorgeous fotos. it makes me want to visit soon! go to J-School or better become a full time travel writer.
    un abrazo.

  5. Buenos dias, Adam! Your descriptions of the areas you have visited make it come alive and your photos are stunning! My husband and I will be arriving in Colombia the first of November and plan exploring the country for at least three months. You have totally inspired us and we look forward to more of your travels. Saludos, Laura

  6. Hi Adam,
    I came across you blog.
    AMAZING pictures!
    And Im from Colombia.
    Currently live in San Diego Ca., and your pics helped me add this part of Colombia on my next travel trip.
    Thank you for helping show (just a fraction) of the enormous beauty Colombia has to offer.
    Though most modern people have discovered beautiful Colombia, I know it is images and experiences like these that will help others who are mentally stuck in the 90's to move past what Hollywood says is Colombia

    Chao Adam.


  7. This post makes us want to to visit Colombia. Love the pictures1!!

  8. Adam, thanks so much for this post! I'm writing this comment from Salento (in fact you can just make out the balcony I'm on in the 2nd photo). Valle de Cocora was staggeringly beautiful. This is an amazing place.

  9. Glad the post was helpful, Hari! Valle de Cocora is amazing, isn't it! Can't believe that place isn't more well known. Hope you're enjoying Colombia as much as I did!

  10. Hi Adam, My daughter from Ireland and her 3 friends are in Columbia and have visited some of the places you have photographed It is lovely to see such wonderful pictures and we are so glad they have the opportunity to travel. Your spectacular pictures capture so much and were wonderful to view-so colourful and picturesque. When we next skype I will have better sense of where she is and what they are experiencing! They head for cali next - then Peru.Thanks Irish mammy

  11. I just returned from the area. We covered quite a bit of ground between Sevilla to the west of Armenia and Salento to the east. One word decribes the sights. Breathtaking. Great people too.

  12. Wow your photos are amazing !! My favourite is Salento, Colombia it is great how you got alligned with the road to get the photo !!

  13. Thank you for showing a beautiful side of Colombia.

  14. Beautiful, beautiful photos! You've done an amazing job of capturing the beauty of Colombia. I just love all the colors covering every surface of every building and your lesson of not being afraid to get to know locals on vacation is a good one.

  15. Wonderful post!!
    Just came across your post as I was looking for places to hit on our upcoming travel through Colombia. We're in Ecuador right now, looking to begin in Colombia early July. Did you bus yourself around or have your own means of transportation?

    We're doing a year or so in South America with our young kids ( so any tips you've got for getting from point A to B and worthy stops in between would be welcomed with open arms. :)

    Thanks for sharing these photos, they are amazing. :)

  16. I always enjoy your writing and beautiful pictures. May be you should write a book about how to be a world traveler. I learned about your blog through your father. Thank you very much for sharing your experience. I wish I could do what you're doing now.

  17. An impressive site. The photographs are stunning and well taken. Also, I enjoy your writing. This is my first visit to your site and will not be the last. I have worked with your father on and off for the last twenty years or so and he is rightfully proud of your accomplishments. Darell Hainline

  18. Con razón contestaste con Colombia a mi pregunta ayer! Me tienen fascinada las palmas de Cócora y las fachadas llamativas de Guatepe.

  19. Love this post--it seems I'm almost following your path! We tried to get to Jerico, but didn't quite make it. Salimina is a very similar town to it though and is easy to get to from Manizales if anyone is interested!

    Salento is also a must, best coffee I've had!

  20. love the vivd images of your trip abroad and i do agree you get to meet some wonderful people by talking to strangers

  21. Thank you for all of your comments!

  22. gorgeous photos. It post makes us want to to visit Colombia. Love the pictures1!