For most of my adult life, when I thought about Colombia at all, it was in the context of drugs, kidnapping, murder, and endless civil war. When our son announced he was going to join the Peace Corps and commit to 27 months in that country, I was motivated to attempt to revise my opinion.
Almost exactly a year after his departure, my wife and I boarded a Delta jet in Atlanta for a surprisingly brief (three hours, 20 minutes) flight to the Caribbean coast of South America. By then, I had reassured myself that the worst of the drug violence had ended with the 1993 death of kingpin Pablo Escobar, and a peace deal had just been reached between the Colombian government and FARC, the country’s main rebel group.
By the time we boarded an Avianca flight in Cartagena for the hour-and-20-minute trip to the Colombian interior, we were fully committed, but not without a small slice of trepidation. I can’t say what we expected, but it sure wasn’t a brand-new jet with individual video screens on each seat, or the tidy little hotel whose balcony I found myself standing on a couple of hours later.
A van and driver we had prearranged picked us up at Matecana International Airport in Pereira and drove us out of the not especially attractive, medium-size city. But as soon as we began to climb out of the crowded chaos, we found ourselves lifted into a pristine landscape of relentlessly green mountains. The hammering tropical heat of the Colombian coast had been replaced by a cool breeze infused with the irresistible perfume of spring growth, as though everything in the world were brand-new.
We soon learned the climate was like this year round; a delicious little chill in the early morning and late evening, and mid to upper 70s while you’re up and about. In just more than an hour, we crossed a rushing mountain stream and entered an early-19th-century Spanish colonial town. One- and two-story stucco buildings were arranged in neat rows, their barrel-tile roofs and rainbow-color balconies lining up into fairy-tale streetscapes radiating from a central plaza dominated by a wedding-cake of a church tower.
This was Salento, a town of about 7,500 permanent residents living along a steeply canted grid of paved streets more than a mile above sea level and ringed by mountains ranging in elevation from 7,000 to 10,000 feet. The Terrazas de Salento Hotel, which we found online, featured two floors wrapped around an open courtyard filled with flowers, banana trees, palms, rubber trees, ferns, and plush moss.
We ate the ample, included breakfast in the first-floor lobby looking out the open front door at the mountains and the town stretching away below us. The afternoon was a…