Please don’t let me be the only foreigner on this bus. Please don’t let me be the only foreigner on this bus!
This is running through my head as I wait aboard a bus bound for somewhere south of Medellin. It works.
I spot another solo traveler, someone I met while riding a cable car in Medellin. We greet each other and I sense that she is also relieved. We are the only two passengers going to Salento and we know that we are in this together.
I don’t mind solo bus travel because I can spend hours gazing out the window at all there is to see in between the places on my agenda. But in Colombia, bus travel can be tricky and direct buses are rare unless you’re traveling between major cities. On certain routes, finding people who are going to the same place as you can be an invaluable addition to your peace of mind.
Even though Salento is one of Colombia’s most popular tourist destinations, information on how to get there from Medellin is hard to come by and there are no direct buses. My guidebook offers two equally bad suggestions of cities where I can transfer buses: Pereira and Armenia.
Pereira is on the way to Salento, but not many buses go to Salento from there and service stops early. Armenia has more frequent buses, but it’s south of Salento and having to backtrack would add an hour or more onto an already long trip.
I poke around the internet and find a third option: you can ask the bus driver to drop you off on the side of the road near the Salento junction before you get to Armenia. From there, you can catch a small bus to Salento.
I tell my new travel buddy about this option. She looks skeptical, but goes along with it. Our bus driver agrees to drop us off at that location after laughing heartily at us for a reason we can’t understand. Asking bus drivers to drop you off in random places is commonplace in Colombia, so I hope he’s laughing at our accents and not at our request.
Medellin to Salento
A couple hours into the drive, we stop for lunch. After our bus driver finishes eating, he chitchats with other drivers for over an hour. We sense they’ve forgotten that they all have busloads of passengers to transport to other places. After people have eaten huge lunches, stocked up on several flavors of arequipe from the gift shop, and shared their life stories with each other, we are finally on our way again.
Brilliant greens and gray skies disappear into darkness as the hours pass by. The once fully packed bus empties out as people are dropped off wherever they request to be let out. When I begin to see signs for Salento, it begins to rain. I’m not too excited about the prospect of waiting for a second bus on the side of the road in a nighttime rainstorm.
However, when we reach the location, I’m surprised to see that it’s actually an established bus stop with a little hut. We collect our backpacks and run across the highway to get to the hut. We buy tickets and five minutes later, a minibus bound for Salento stops by to pick us up. Aside from running across a highway, it’s easier than I thought it would be. But things are about to get complicated.
It’s still raining as we pull into the little village of Salento. Now our adventure begins. It’s late, it’s wet, and we both don’t know where we are going to sleep.
I spot a sign for a hostel I’d read about in my guidebook. We follow it and it leads us to the main square. When we get to the edge of the plaza, we encounter an older man in a Colombian cowboy hat. He sees us trudging up the hill and greets us. He appears to be the unofficial ambassador of Salento.
He asks us where we are planning to stay and if we have a reservation. He informs us that even though it’s Sunday night, the weekend isn’t over. Tomorrow is a holiday and lots of people have come from nearby cities for a long weekend getaway. He tells us we have no chance of getting beds at the hostel we want to stay at. He says that there are no beds left in all of Salento tonight.
“Everything is full!” He is warm, welcoming, and blunt.
We try the hostel anyway. It’s full. The guy who answers the door has a little smirk that suggests we are ridiculous for even bothering to ring the doorbell. We walk back to the town square to find the unofficial ambassador and get some tips. He rattles off a few suggestions. He is still cheery in his delivery and still pessimistic about our prospects.
My backpack is not going to win any light packing awards, but so far on this trip, I haven’t minded it. This is the one day I hate it. It feels heavier with each step through this high altitude town on this fruitless search for a place to stay. And my feet are soaked and slipping and sliding in my flip flops. Back in the eternal Medellin spring, I hadn’t planned ahead for Salento’s colder, damper climate.
The Worst Room
After knocking on a few more doors, we go back to the square for a breather. A guy approaches us and says he has room for us at a hotel just steps away. I usually avoid touts, but our options are limited so we see what he has to offer.
We are excited when leads us into a hotel with a charming, homey lobby. We warm up by the fireplace while we wait. They have to fix the room and there’s some sort of catch, but our combined Spanish skills are not advanced enough to help us figure out what the catch will be.
As we sit in the lobby, a large family from Cali surrounds us and beams at us. We are a novelty to them — two backpackers from the United States in a hotel that mainly receives a Colombian crowd. The kids practice their English with us and ask us questions. The family cheers when I inform them that Cali will be my next stop after Salento. Eventually they run out of questions to ask us and head into town.
Someone tells us our room is ready and woman leads us up some dangerous stairs to the very top of the hotel to show us our room. I’m speechless.
It’s not a room, but some kind of rooftop storage space they cleared out for us. It’s dark with a cement floor and there is nothing inside the space. It smells like a campfire because of its position near the chimney of that lovely fireplace we were warming up next to moments before. There is no window, but there’s a huge space in the wall where a window could be. On the ledge of that space, they’ve placed an old table lamp which is plugged into an outlet outside of the room because there’s no electricity inside the room. They tell us they will cover the “window” with a sheet and they will bring up a mattress for us.
The whole time, I’m thinking, “Hell no. Absolutely not.” But I’m hearing these people out to be polite. My travel buddy is apparently looking for more of an adventure than I am. She likes the idea of staying there and tries to convince me that it’ll be fine. Then we ask for details on the mattress situation and they tell us all they have is one twin mattress. She comes to her senses. We decline.
Dejected yet amused, we collect our bags from the lobby and continue the search. We head further away from the town square to a hostel that has terrible reviews online. At this point, we only want to avoid sleeping on a cement floor in a cold, smoky open air room.
We talk to a stone-faced woman outside the hostel who turns out to be the manager. There are exactly two beds left! If I wasn’t wearing this large backpack, I would probably jump for joy.
Without showing us the room, she demands that we pay her up front so we don’t dorm and ditch. She takes our pesos, gives us a key, and points around the corner of the building to the entrance of our dorm. It’s clear from the industrial metal door that the room was once a garage. We have to open up the bottom of the door first, crawl under, and open the top part of the door to get our stuff inside.
Despite the door, the room is just fine in a tacky 1970s polyester kind of way. It’s not really a dorm, it’s more of a large shared room with 5 beds. Two beds have backpacks on them, so we put our bags on free ones and dash out the door. We are hungry.
We go to the cute little restaurant we’d been eying as we walked up and down Salento looking for a place to stay. A waiter welcomes us warmly with an American accent and a knowing look. We must look like weary travelers arriving at an oasis. We ask about his accent and he tells us he used to live in the United States. Between the menu, the staff, and the patrons, this is the most Americanized place I’ve been in Colombia and I’m loving it. I’ve had my adventure for the day, now bring on the delicious familiarity.
We both order hamburgers and reflect. Even though my travel buddy was seriously considering staying in the rooftop closet, she’s glad I refused. Where we are is strange, but it’s comfortable and we won’t run the risk of getting frostbite or be subjected to chimney smoke all night.
Settling into the “Bates Motel”
Back in our dorm, we find a pair from France. We find out that this place was also their last resort. As we settle in and get ready for bed, we hear someone banging on our metal door. We look at each other nervously. The person keeps banging.
Finally we open the door. Thankfully, it’s not a criminal. It’s our 5th roommate, a boisterous guy from Ireland. In contrast to our polite conversation with the French couple about our room, the Irish guy holds nothing back.
“What the hell is this place?! This place is creepy! Is this the fucking Bates Motel or something?” He is absurd and hilarious and we are all cracking up.
The Irishman tells us he reserved a bed here because it was the only place available on the hostel booking websites. He can see why it’s not popular. He explains that he got to Salento so late because he took a bus to Pereira. When he got there, there were no more buses going to Salento. He had to catch another bus to Armenia where he caught a cab to Salento. But at least he had a reservation when he got here.
I laugh at his commentary and the funny way he tells his stories, but I’m also laughing at our whole day. Because what am I doing here laying underneath this cheesy polyester bedspread in this garage-cum-dorm room bonding with people I don’t even know? We may not all be loud like this Irish guy, but we’re all a little bit wacky to have somehow ended up here. And in this moment, this is exactly where I want to be.