Salamina, in many respects, personifies Colombia. The brightly painted buildings so typical of the town are almost like works of fantasy. However, scratch the surface and another reality emerges. Behind the soft pastel facades of this national heritage town, evidence remains of the brutal class divisions that have scarred the country. The stories are everywhere…hidden in open view.
Sitting on a bench looking towards the cemetery and the surrounding valley, it was hard not to feel enchanted. A rainbow hung in the sky above my head. Birds chirped and the buildings all around me looked as if they had emerged from a paintbox: cream, baby blue, peach and a lively shade of grey. The buzzing cicadas brought the vegetation to life (a curious sensation in a cemetery). Yet, even here, the evidence of the past wasn’t too far away.
A plaque opposite the entrance records two interesting facts. Firstly, the site is a Colombian National Monument. Secondly, a wall ran right through the middle of the cemetery until 1975. Its purpose was to separate the rich from the poor. In other words, class division in Salamina continued…even in death.
Why visit Salamina?
Visiting the town requires a detour from Manizales, but the physical and architectural beauty of Salamina more than justify a visit. The buildings in the centre have earned the town National Heritage status, something that touristy Salento hasn’t yet achieved. However, it’s the exuberant vegetation that often captivates travellers who make it to Salamina. Relative peace means that increasing numbers of people are ‘discovering’ Colombia. In the process, local beauty spots like Salamina are opening up to the outside world.
Architecture in Salamina
Like every city, town or village in Colombia, the centre of Salamina is Plaza Bolívar. Simón Bolívar, the military hero who led much of Latin America to freedom, died penniless in Caracas (modern-day Venezuela). In Salamina his bust stands in front of the fountain, the centrepiece of the square, and he gazes almost directly across to the Davienda ATM. Think about this! Fans of aguardiente, the local firewater, will note that the town drunks often hang out on the bench right in front of The Liberator. Indeed, we can only speculate about what the great man might have made of this location.
Interestingly, Bolívar has his back turned to the church that dominates his plaza. It was apparently one of the first churches in Latin America to have been built without supporting pillars. Also, unsurprisingly in the local context, seating was according to social class. The upper and middle classes had designated seats in the centre or at the sides. Meanwhile, the poor could sit or stand at the back.
Outside on the streets is where the real architectural marvels lie. Houses climb sloping streets. Each one seems determined to outdo its neighbours in a battle of intricately decorated doors, windows, balconies, and zócalos (the distinct lower sections of the whitewashed facades). Adding further drama to the scene is the hilltop location of the town centre. Entire streets sometimes appear as if they are about to slide off the side of the mountain.
Local character and local characters
The town Culture Museum feels like a trip down memory lane. It houses a wide-ranging assortment of items that chart the social history of Salamina. My favourite was the Cimbalino espresso machine from the 1930s, a token of Italian sophistication in a far-flung corner of rural Colombia.
Photos look down from the walls, reminders of town characters from times past. The museum curator is happy to tell the backstory of each portrait. Some were fond of the drop (of aguardiente), as the Irish expression goes. Others mysteriously disappeared during the troubled times. The violence of Colombian history was once an everyday reality in this area.
Places are more than memories on walls and Salamina is still full of interesting characters. Don Pedro, the owner of Fruty Caffé in the main square, is a case in point. Originally a native of Boyaca, he moved to the US when he was young and he spent most of his life in New York and New Jersey. A number of years ago he met his wife online and moved to the town. Having worked in construction, he had to learn the coffee trade from scratch. Today, he is a ball of energy who enjoys sharing the beauty of Salamina and its environs with visitors.
Day Trips from Salamina
A visit to Don Pedro’s Finca makes a great day trip. With a dramatic location on the side of the mountain facing the town, the views are framed by lemons, mandarins, avocados, bananas, and plantains. Looking down, visitors will see the river that snakes through the valley below. Meanwhile, the views across to Salamina are near picture-perfect. A huge amount of work goes into tending coffee plants and Don Pedro laughs when he tells the story of a nearby town where coffee labourers reportedly dance for tourists. Picking coffee is hard work- literally backbreaking work!
Although there is plenty to keep people busy in Salamina, everyone should try to get to Valle de la Samaria. El Mirador is home to one of the largest wax palm forests in the entire country. Cocora, near Salento, is like a small collection of trees in comparison. The road up to San Felix and Samaria is not always easy (see here for details). However, the rewards are views and memories that will last a lifetime.
Why you must go now
From the moment I set foot in Fruty Caffé, the former town theatre before it fell down one night (read here), I was hooked. Salamina is a heady brew: a mix of colourful buildings, coffee, characters, stories, and living history. Locals understand the dangers of mass tourism and they want to avoid its excesses. However, with Colombia at the top of many bucket lists, towns like this are at risk. Alternatively, violent conflict could kick off again and sink everyone’s plans.
Either way, the time to visit this spot is RIGHT NOW!
Getting There and Away
Getting to Salamina is straightforward. There are regular buses to and from Manizales Bus Station. In addition to this, there is the option of taking a taxi. This is a better choice for travellers who are short of time or who need to make connections to other destinations in Colombia. Travellers can also take a bus to Aguadas, another heritage town north of Salamina. From there, it is possible to connect on to destinations further north such as Jardín and Medellín.
Salamina is not yet on the backpacker radar, although this is changing rapidly. However, the result is a lack of backpacker-friendly hostels. Hotel Colonial and Hospedaje La Casona offer good value for budget travellers. Those who want a bit of pampering should check out La Casa de Lola Garcia.