Valle de la Samaria: Colombia’s hidden gem

I am a big fan of Salento, the colourful town visited by scores of tourists every year. Many of them travel to the nearby Valle del Cocora, which is one of the most impressive places in Colombia thanks to its wax palms. You can find plenty of information about that online, so I am going to focus on something else today. If you have some spare time to explore the country, I would like to recommend a destination that is just as impressive, and it has the added bonus of not being crowded at all.

Valle de la Samaria is absolutely breathtaking. There are countless of wax palms set in beautiful scenery and yet many Colombians have never heard of it. If you travel there, you will be one of few visitors; you may even get lucky and be there just by yourself.

The reason for Valle de la Samaria’s lack of popularity is very simple: it is not that easy to get there. The closest city is Manizales, which is not the most accessible location itself because its airport often gets closed in bad weather. Then you have to go to Salamina. A bus from Manizales takes three hours, or you can take a shared taxi, which is faster but more expensive. Both leave from Terminal de Manizales.

Another option is to take a bus from Medellín’s Terminal del Sur. There are two routes available (via La Merced or Aguadas) and both should take approximately five hours. The problem is that the closer you get to Salamina, the worse the road becomes. Travelling by bus on an unpaved winding road isn’t exactly a comfortable experience. The road becomes unsafe in bad weather conditions, and there have been some tragic accidents on the way to Salamina. I don’t think the town will have to deal with mass tourism in the foreseeable future.

Salamina is a nice town with colourful houses. It is worth spending a night or two there so that you can enjoy its atmosphere and try some traditional dishes. There is a possibility of hiring a jeep to take you to the valley. Since I don’t like paying exorbitant prices, I opted for a bus. I recommend that you check the schedule at the small station on the corner of Calle 10 and Carrera 6. There were only two options when I was there: one bus early in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Don’t forget to ask about the return journey to avoid being stranded in San Félix, which is the closest village to Valle de la Samaria.

San Félix is a sleepy little place with a nice church and no amenities for tourists. If you arrive in the morning, you may find it almost completely deserted. There is a small grocery store at the corner of the main square where the path to the valley begins. The 6-kilometre walk is really pleasant. At first you pass bright green cow fields, and then beautiful hills covered with wax palms emerge.

There is just one place that caters for tourists. Fortunately, it is a great one! Mirador is a mountain cottage, which is run by the Abril family with the idea of promoting sustainable ecotourism. The facilities were built from scratch only a couple of years ago, and I actually became the first visitor from the Czech Republic there. The owners are amazing people with big plans for the valley, and they are involved in planting new palm trees. You can go for a guided hike and enjoy delicious food afterwards. There are even rooms for guests in case you wish to stay overnight.

Mirador reopened its doors a few days ago, but you should call them or get in touch through their Facebook page in advance to make sure that you can be attended. Don’t forget to take a jacket with you because the highest point is at almost 3,000 metres above sea level. It is also very easy to get sunburnt at that altitude, so it is necessary to apply sunscreen!

There are a lot of beautiful places to visit in Colombia, but Valle de la Samaria stands out thanks to its serene atmosphere. It is a perfect destination to escape the noise and pollution of major cities. Going there requires a bit of effort, but I highly recommend it to every nature lover. You can spend time in an amazing fairy-tale landscape and support a conservation project that is worthy of our attention.

Everybody wants to live in Medellín

Many people say that Medellín is the best city in Colombia. The usual arguments are that its weather is perfect all year round, the locals are friendly, and they have the only metro system in the country. I completely agree with that. I would also add opportunities for nice trips in Antioquia and a very strong entrepreneurial spirit in the whole region. The truth is that I genuinely love the place. There’s just one problem with all of that. There are loads of other people who feel the same way!

Medellín has been receiving praise in mainstream media and on blogs for years. As a consequence, the capital of Antioquia receives a steady stream of starry-eyed English teachers who want to live in the city of their dreams. I know that very well because I was one of them. This influx has been interrupted by the pandemic, but I am pretty sure that is just a temporary blip.

Medellín: a view from Pueblito Paisa

What usually isn’t said is that the high number of foreigners living in Medellín has an inevitable effect on the job market. Simply said, you are easily replaceable. As a consequence, many employers will offer you a crap deal that involves working split shifts from Monday to Saturday for a very low salary. If you don’t like it, they will find someone else. Another effect of Medellín’s positive reputation is its rising cost of living. If you are an inexperienced teacher, you may end up working long hours and make only enough money to pay for a room in a shared flat. To be honest, I’d prefer to aim a bit higher than that.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to get a good job in Medellín. If you have found one, hold on to it and enjoy the experience! I would just like to suggest an idea that may actually make your time in Colombia more pleasant: Consider looking for a job in another city.

Colombia is a big country and there are numerous options in terms of locations. The most obvious ones are the other two big cities: Bogotá and Cali. I have a love-hate relationship with Bogotá. On one hand, there are tons of things to do. On the other hand, it gets really cold at night and the traffic is terrible. If you get a job that involves teaching off-site, you’ll waste a lot of time travelling around the city, and that could quickly make you feel miserable. Cali sounds like an interesting place, but I’ve never been there, so I can’t really comment on that.

What I want to suggest is looking at smaller cities. For example, if you love Medellin’s climate, you should check out Pereira and Armenia. Both of them are located at the same altitude as Medellín, which guarantees spring-like weather all year round. Pereira and Armenia are developing cities in the coffee region with some really nice areas. There are shopping centres where you’ll find everything you need. Both cities are close to Salento, a major tourist destination.

If you prefer a warmer place, you could try to look for a job in Ibagué and Bucaramanga. You can wear shorts day and night in those cities because of their climate. That said, I can’t imagine living on the coast due to the heat. Places like Cartagena and Santa Marta are great for vacations, but I’d find it difficult to stay there permanently. If you don’t mind very hot weather, you could consider those as well.

Manizales: a view from Los Yarumos

Probably the most livable city in Colombia is Manizales. The capital of Caldas is really developed and you can have a great time there. Just prepare yourself for cold nights and two rainy seasons; and rain in Manizales means torrential downpour. If you for some reason prefer a place even colder than Bogotá, go to Tunja (the capital of Boyacá) where you need a proper jacket to stay warm.

The point I am trying to make is that Colombia is more than just one city, and it’s worth checking out other options. Do you research, starting with capital cities of each department. They may not be as glamorous as Medellín, but there are nice and safe areas in each of them. A huge advantage of living in Colombia is that wherever you are, you are always close to some spectacular places, so moving to another region represents a good opportunity to explore them.

Going off the beaten path can be beneficial in terms of your job prospects. As one of few foreign teachers living in the city, you can negotiate better working conditions. Couple that with a lower cost of living and your odds of enjoying the whole experience will inevitably improve. You can have a really good time instead of just surviving in a big city. Many websites paint Colombia as a paradise for English teachers. Well, they don’t tell you about the people who leave the country disappointed. Working crazy hours, commuting, and living in a place where you can’t relax eventually takes its toll on everyone.

Yes, moving to a smaller city means leaving your comfort zone. If your Spanish is limited, it will have to improve fast. There is no option of staying in your bubble composed of foreigners or English-speaking locals like you can do in El Poblado. It won’t be easy, but it’s definitely worth it. Working away from big cities will broaden your horizons and provide you with a more authentic Colombian experience.

I would like to happy to hear from other teachers who work in lesser-known locations. How did you get there? What do you like about the place? Let me know in the comments section.