The Only Gringos Around
All photos by Josh Meister Photo.
In the past ten months, we've visited over 15 countries and often found ourselves surrounded by other travelers all seeking out the same amazing sights, experiences, and cultures. Social media has made “hidden gem” a somewhat laughable term as any desirable locale quickly catches the travel feeds on fire and sadly becomes overrun. So when a Colombian friend recommended we visit his favorite place in the country, and it was a name we hadn't come across in our own research, we said si, si, si!
Salamina lies sleepily in the well-known coffee country region and is actually only about 40 miles from the closest – albeit tiny – airport of Manizales, yet the roads in that area are so windy and bumpy, it takes two hours in a nausea-inducing shared taxi ride (extra not fun when you have to sit in the middle seat!) to get there. Which, I guess, is one of the reasons it's not all over the internet and infiltrated with tourists.
The town is extremely vertical, settled about 6,000 feet above sea level on the knife's edge of the Andes mountains and trickling down into the valley. Caballeros shoulder lumber or groceries as they hike up the hill from town to home, children burst out of doorways to hail the minibus when they get the chance to avoid walking up up up, and everyone floods the centro on Saturdays for market day and socializing.
We were lucky to have not only a recommendation for the area but also for an Airbnb in the home of our friend's friend. Martin and Angelica's place, Alto Bonito, is situated on one of the high points with amazing views and (one of the best parts in my opinion) five sweet dogs. And even though it was out of the way for the other passengers in our taxi, they both declined to be dropped off first so that they could check out where on earth the gringos they were crammed next to were headed in their quiet town.
Unique to most Airbnb hosts we've encountered, and truly above and beyond, Martín relishes in treating hosting as a full-time job. Which suited us just fine! We spent several days galavanting around town with him, even visiting his mother's home at one point for the weekly family gathering.
One day Martín guided us down too many steep hills with intermittent stops for refreshment (homemade coconut popsicles at a hole-in-the-wall shop so good that we discussed braving the hills for them every single day) until we made it to the local panela “factory”. Panela is a unrefined sugar cane unique to Latin America, and most locals – and now Josh – are slightly addicted to it. We got to duck into the tiny farm structure and watch them churn out the staple while sneaking tastes while it went through the various forms of production.
Afterwards, Martín gave us the option of climbing the hills back to town or hitching a ride on the back of a Jeep as the locals do. I had been dreading the return climb from about the 47 second mark of our outing, so I immediately screamed “JEEP!!!” We hit the road and within a few seconds, we saw a red one barreling towards us. Elated, I watched Martín flag it down and then sadly realized it was completely jam packed with people already and we'd have to wait for another one. But Martín just jogged on over, lazily looking back at us like we were idiots for not following him. Oops. We scuttled over and the five or so people already hanging on the back of the Jeep shifted to make room for us, most of them moving to the side of vehicle, grasping the roof cage. Josh and I held on for dear life as we bumped our way up to town. It was one of the most fun rides I've ever taken!
Salamina has a few claims to fame of its own, in the food variety, my favorite kind. We hit up Cafe El Polo for Huevos al Vapor, eggs cooked in a teacup by the steamer of a cappuccino machine with salt, butter, and ham, as well as La Macana, a dessert-like hot drink made up of milk, cookies, butter, cinnamon, and sugar, which is absolutely delicious. Martín and Angelica also took us to Super Kumis for another local drink that, from what I understand, is made up of fermented cow's milk and wine and served with a cookie for dipping. It's ... well, let's just go with "an acquired taste."
Our last full day in Salamina, we decided to brave the local bus and head even further down the windy, bumpy road to San Felix to see the wax palms, the tallest palm trees in the world. They can grow as tall as 200 feet. We got dropped off in the even quieter town square, asked a local which way to head, and started walking. It took us about 1.5 hours (including two wrong turns) to find Finca La Samaria, which we had read was a good one to check out for a farm tour. But in actuality, we think it may have been the ONLY one to check out for a farm tour. Regardless, the proprietor, Luis Abril, was super sweet and took us un a fully Spanish two-hour walking jaunt around his property. We concluded that with our limited Spanish and his excellent charades, we actually understood about 75% of what he told us – not bad! After the tour, his wife cooked us a delicious trout lunch, and then we were on our way to hike back to town.
In the entire week that we spent in Salamina, we only saw one other American, a musician from California, who also made the trek out to Alto Bonito on the recommendation of Martín's friend. It's not often that we feel like we're truly seeing a place not many other travelers see, and it was a great inclusion in our Colombia itinerary.