‘Are we there yet?’ I ask Don Pedro.
Cristal, my Colombian travel buddy on the journey, visibly suppresses a smile. By this stage, I am morphing into Donkey from Shrek on the endless voyage to Far Far Away. This day trip is not just taking longer than I expected, but since we passed the mirador above the town of Salamina, it has become distinctly uncomfortable. More to the point, it is now downright perilous at times.
Banks of fog obscure the mountains around us. It is raining hard and mounds of earth from recent mudslides force Don Pedro to carefully manoeuvre the jeep out towards the edge. The vehicle shudders each time we hit another rock or sink into another pothole. Injured muscles make me aware of their existence…and pain. The fog may lend a romantic beauty to the mountainous topography, but it renders visibility on the road almost nonexistent.
Every local I spoke to in Salamina told me that the trip to San Felix and Samaria was ‘chevere’. This word of African origin apparently first became popular in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Nowadays, Spanish speakers throughout Latin America use it to describe anything that is good, great or simply cool. Of course, in Salamina they were probably referring to the places in question, not the road on the way up!
The big draw of Samaria is its wax palms. Ceroxylon quindiuense, to state the correct botanical name, grow on average to a height of 45 metres. Some can even reach 60 metres. These giant plants, which are under grave threat, are a symbol of Colombia. Most foreign tourists in Colombia come across them in Parque Nacional Los Nevados in Salento. However, the people I spoke to in Salamina said that there was a veritable forest of them in nearby Samaria. Like my fellow countryman, Oscar Wilde, I can resist everything but temptation.
The Road to San Felix
Expect the unexpected, as they say. When we left Salamina I expected a short journey by jeep, not a veritable quest. Despite the discomfort, there are moments of bliss- that exhilaration you feel when you experience something unanticipated. As we climb higher into the Andes near San Felix, the jeep is above the clouds and we are looking down on the mountains and the storm below us. It is almost like air travel. Even if the road beneath us continues to cause significant turbulence, the views are just that- pure bliss.
Journeys are, it goes without saying, about more than scenery and pretty landscapes. In this case, my travelling companions bring their own colour to the trip. Cristal, a visual artist from Pasto in Southern Colombia, enthusiastically shares the travel secrets of her native land with me. Apparently, her mother, who runs Hospedaje Rural La Boira in Jardin, has a secret recipe for a delicious herbal coffee that even featured in a New York Times article. As for Don Pedro, he has a great backstory. Having spent decades in the US, he met a local lady on the internet, came to Salamina, and fell in love with the lady and the place. As a result, the road to San Felix may be physically painful, but it is never ever boring.
The jeep starts to travel downhill, no longer straining but picking up speed. Finally, not only is the road paved, but the fog lifts slightly, revealing the spires of a church and the terracotta roofs of a small Andean community.
‘That’s San Felix,’ Don Pedro informs us, looking relieved.
Cristal and I are about ready to let out whoops of joy at this point. Don Pedro’s jeep, on the other hand, is not feeling well at all. In fact, a cloud of steam rises from under the bonnet as we park in the main square. While we stop for a coffee and a quick bite to eat, Don Pedro leaves in search of water, lots of water.
Like every town and village in Colombia, a small park sits at the centre of San Felix. However, unlike Salamina, men in heavy ponchos stand around talking in front of the local Centro Social. Although the towns are geographically close, the air here has a chilly feel. There is, after all, a reason why these people wear thick layers of clothing.
As we leave the little town the road reverts to a dirt track. Don Pedro, normally exuberant, is pensive. Every bump is a cause for concern. The jeep had seriously overheated when we stopped in San Felix. For Cristal and I, our discomfort soon turns to excitement. All around us, gangly wax palms pop up like upturned exclamation marks on the surrounding mountain slopes. Rather than appearing at a distance as in Salento, the trees here are mere metres away.
Our driver is increasingly worried. The engine is not responding as it should and it is getting late. Not only have we yet to reach the mirador, but the return trip to Salamina still lies ahead. A herd of cows grazing amidst the giant trees provides the perfect excuse for another stop. The passengers want to walk and take photos, while Don Pedro needs to give more Tender Loving Care to his jeep.
The Mirador of Samaria Valley
Once everyone has accomplished what they wanted, we set off again. Not long after, the jeep labours into a property marked ‘Mirador Valle de la Samaria’. We have finally reached our destination. Luis and his wife, the owners of this attraction, come out to welcome us. They want to serve us some chocolate, but we are eager to see the views of the valley. Don Pedro, by this stage, has no desire to linger because of the rain, not to mention his poor, suffering jeep.
For all the harshness of the journey, the reward turns out to be simply magical. The sweeping views reveal a green expanse of giant wax palms. Some of the trees seem to be the height of four-storey buildings. An unintended consequence of our delays is that we have arrived close to dusk. At this time, birds leave their treetop homes and fill the air. Consequently, bright green and yellow parrots fly overhead and their song provides the landscape with a melodious soundtrack. Incredibly, apart from us, there isn’t another tourist to be seen.
A Tale of the Unexpected
The scene radiates peace. I feel as if I could stay forever, just observing the tropical birds and taking in the landscape.
Luis interrupts my reverie.
He has something that I must see. I protest, wanting to take some photos, but he insists. We stop in front of a tiny plant that barely reaches halfway up to my ankle. I look down at the plant and then up at the giant trees in the valley. A sudden realisation takes hold. I can hardly believe what my eyes are seeing!
‘No puede ser,’ I laugh.
‘Siii,’ he answers enthusiastically.
This is a baby wax palm! It turns out that Samaria, due to its pristine environment, acts as a nursery for these trees. Once they reach a certain maturity, they will replant them here or at other sites around the country.
When the approaching night makes it impossible to take more photos we enter the main house. By now, the claps of thunder outside alert us that the storm is closing in again. Luis is upbeat as we discuss the prospects for the future. He shows me the dormitory accommodation that he has built to accommodate visitors.
Clearly, tourism is taking off and more foreigners are making their way to Samaria. Looking through the Visitors’ Book, I notice a few names and addresses from various locations around the globe, though the vast majority of those who make it here are still domestic tourists. I cannot help but reflect on my experience here. The views of the valley and the birdsong accompaniment provoked the same frisson of excitement that I felt when flying over Iguazu Falls or seeing dawn on the ancient stones of Machu Picchu. If Samaria were anywhere else, it would possibly already be an established destination on the South American tourist trail. But it is in Colombia!
The Future of Samaria
Years of war, terrorism and general instability have kept tourists away from Colombia, but this is changing. Lonely Planet named the country in its Best of Travel Top Ten Countries for 2017. With Atlantic and Pacific coasts, colonial towns, and the Amazon, it could easily rank as a traveller’s favourite for years to come. Luis and many others see a rising tide that could lift their boats.
As the rain starts to beat down outside, it is time to leave and to brave the storm on the road back. Samaria is a place I will never forget. For now it may be South America’s best kept travel secret. My heart tells me that I must come back someday, but I wonder what I will find on my return…
Getting There and Away
Samaria is accessible from the national heritage town of Salamina. Inquire at Fruty Caffe in the main plaza of the town. It occupies the building that used to be the theatre (find out more by following this link). Don Pedro, the owner, provides tours to San Felix and Samaria for about 150,000 pesos ($50). This covers the cost of the jeep, so the price will be less for travellers who do the trip together. Don Pedro spent decades in New Jersey and speaks fluent English.
Another option may be the Tourist Information stand at the top corner of the main plaza. The lady there organises trips within the town and she should also be able to organise transport to San Felix/ Samaria.
To get to Salamina, the easiest option is to take one of the regular buses or shared taxis from Manizales Bus Station. Travellers from Medellin and Jardin may want to first travel to Aguadas, also a national heritage town, and then on to Salamina.
Travellers who want to stay at El Mirador de Samaria will be happy to learn that Luis has been true to his word. His accommodation is ready and it is possible to contact him directly on the Facebook page of El Mirador Valle de la Samaria. Those who prefer to use Salamina as a base should know that the town is not yet on the backpacker radar. Although there is a dearth of backpacker-friendly hostels, Hotel Colonial and Hospedaje La Casona offer good value for budget travellers. Travellers with bigger budgets should check out La Casa De Lola Garcia, a boutique hotel in a traditional colonial house.
Have you visited a destination that stole your heart? Leave a comment below or send your story to me by email at Unlatinoverde@gmail.com.