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A sleepy town beautifully suspended in time – Colombia

I arrived in Manizales via nightbus. My eyes were shiny and framed by deep blue bags; I had hardly slept. I located a taxi colectivo and paid my 20,000 pesos for the ride to Salamina (new destination in the 3rd edition of Colombia Fácil). Such tiredness was an invitation to sleep I’d usually accept without hesitance or compromise. The taxi ride was mesmerising however and even a blink was a wasted opportunity.

Coffee Plantation Buenas Aires outside Salamina

We zigged and zagged, ascended and descended through imposing mountains. Mysterious lone houses were precariously perched on the hill faces, supported by skinny stilts. A myriad of greens, some deep and lush and others bright and sharp, bordered the road. Coffee plantations lined the mountains and clouds melded with their apex. This landscape is the signature of the Caldas and Salamina region. Within no time, I was being greeted in Casa Carola by Felipe: Spanish teacher, hotel owner, amateur tour guide and soon to be Amigo.

El Mirador at las Palmas

I came to Salamina with a goal: to learn some Spanish. I was “gringo” (what is a gringo) personified. I gave myself just one week to grasp the basics and then I was would be off. I would leave, reluctantly, after three and a half.

Salamina is a sleepy town beautifully suspended in time. Some days, a whisper could waft from one edge of the town to the other without being heard. Others, raucous locals in cowboy hats can’t hear each other from the same bar stool. The tourist trail has yet to trickle down to Salamina and as a result, the town possesses the allure and charisma of the untouched.

The main square, an often bustling hub for the elderly and the curious youth, contains an endearing water fountain surrounded by tall, wise, broody trees. Delicate fairy floss strands fall from the sagging foliage. A giant and lovely cathedral symbolically overlooks the square and town. The locals are largely devoutly catholic. The carrreras which intersect the town’s two principal calles descend sharply down the mountain face and always, without exception, offer a breathtaking panorama of the neighbouring mountains and farms.

The sumptuous houses of Salamina are enchanting and like nothing I had seen before. Each house is unique in colour and architecture. Their sheer brightness and meticulous adornment are a sight to be seen. If you’re lucky enough to find a friendly local (hardly an issue here) you may be able see a traditional courtyard inside.

On my first day of classes Felipe took me to Los Mangoes by motorcycle.

Los Mangos Swimming Pools

Here, swimming pools fill each morning with fresh spring water and are flushed out by night. We studied with the help of an incredible panorama. I could get used to this, I thought. The owner and patrons smilingly insisted on conversations that I simply didn’t have in me and offered me local cuisines. A classroom? In Salamina- Yes. In the coming days this classroom would morph into the top of a mountain at Felipe’s stunning farmhouse, to the immaculate courtyard of Casa Carola and finally into a swimming pool next to a coffee plantation.

The weekends are a bustling, vibrant and glorious mess. Farmers flee their farms, drink bottles of Rum and dance shambolically to a scattergun DJ who joyously skips from genre to genre. The bars are dark and magnetic. In one, a man stood crooning into a microphone one night. Whether it was karaoke or not I was not sure, but he swayed and warbled as if 100 cows depended on it. Patrolling police gleefully declared to me they have “the easiest job in the world in Salamina”. Once a man sipped pensively on a beer; his horse was parked out the front of the bar.

Waterfall near Salamina

Felipe focused on the basics and soon my smiling non-answers transformed into smiling almost answers. Classes were broken up by activities. One day, we were treated to a free rollercoaster ride in the back of a madman’s van. We jumped and jostled, losing just one ice cream in the process, down a steep descent to a local waterfall for a picnic.  We took “selfies” in front of the careering stream and the water was piercingly pure and rejuvenating. Other days, we were given a tour of a coffee plantation, a local Panela farm Panela factory near Salamina and checked out the gigantic palm trees of San Felix.

Las Palmas San Felix

Las Palmas San Felix

I bought a basketball and played with the children. More and more children each day. Their faces exploded when they could respond in English and me in Spanish. I was an alien to them and I could even shoot a three pointer. The children were a great example of all the locals in Salamina, from the basketball court to the cafes to the main square. They were intrigued by me and they were happy that I’d taken the time to visit their town. For this, I was repaid with immense charity and the occasional perplexed look.

My stay culminated in a spectacular finale: the opening of the 13th Noche Del Fuego Festival.

Faralitos and catedral during Pregnon Noche del Fuego

A wildly spontaneous yet meticulously planned parade commenced the night’s affairs. A policemen on stilts plummeted to the floor, someone breathed fire and locals dressed up and danced in rapture. A singer performed a set of traditional songs to the packed main square and Aquardiente flowed like fine wine, bottles being passed from hand to hand like a game of pass the parcel. Afterwards we moved onto La Funda, the town’s hip meeting place, and danced for hours.

The festival proper finds its way back to Salamina on December 7. I implore anyone who can to be there. While slightly bigger, I cannot see that night losing the ground-roots and community feeling of the opening ceremony.

Pregon Noche del Fuego

Salamina will remain a very special town for me. If word spreads however, it won’t be off the beaten track for long. So go now, while it still contains all the vibrancy, unpredictability and charm that matches its history.

Schoolhouse near Salamina

TIPS

1. Taxi Colectivo to Salamina from Manizales for 20.000 pesos, it takes 2 hours. There are also buses for 16.000 pesos/pp but it picks up people along the way.

2. Direct buses to/from Medellin for 32.000 pesos, it takes 4,5 to 5 hours. The bus leaves at 7 am with the company Sideral.

3. Panela farm only open on Fridays.

4. Go for the festival on December 7.