Cañón del Combeima provides a good reason to visit Ibagué

The city of Ibagué isn’t known as a major tourist destination and most foreign visitors don’t consider travelling there. To be honest, the city itself isn’t that appealing. There are big shopping centres and some really good restaturants, but most of Ibagué resembles a nondescript small town. The most interesting thing about the capital of Tolima is the fact that there is a square named after Lidice, a village that was destroyed during World War II in Czechoslovakia, with a sculpture commemorating the massacre. I had a chance to meet its author, José Augusto Rivera Castro, who now plans to donate a large version of the sculpture to the Vatican City.

Even if you aren’t a history nerd, there are other good reasons for visiting Ibagué. Its warm weather is really pleasant and there are many green spaces. You can find two impressive places just a short taxi ride from the city centre: Jardín Botánico San Jorge is a great spot for hiking in a beautiful area, and if you like flowers, you shouldn’t miss Orquídeas del Tolima. Ibagué is also used as a starting point for climbing Nevado del Tolima, which is one of the most challenging adventures in Colombia. There is no need to go as far as the volcano, though. The access road via Cañón del Combeima will take you to other amazing sights.

Cañón del Combeima

If you are on a budget, you can simply take bus number 48 to its final stop in Juntas, which is approximately 20 kilometres away from the centre of Ibagué. Most of the road is fine, but there are some bumpy parts as well. You will see numerous restaurants along the way, and that’s where Ibaguereños like spending their weekends.

There isn’t that much to see in Juntas, so when you get off the bus, you can just continue walking down the road. When you cross a bridge, you will see a path to Termalitos through Quebrada Las Perlas. That used to be a popular camping spot, but the whole area is protected, and many activities, including swimming in hot springs, have been banned. It’s still a very nice location for hiking and you are allowed to walk there. Just remember to respect the rules because the river Combeima is Ibagué’s main water source and it needs to be kept pollution-free.

La Rivera, Cañón del Combeima

If you stay on the main road, you will soon reach Mirador Los Sauces, which is worth checking out since it offers very nice views of the canyon. The best sights are found further north, though. You can try to hitch a ride because there are always visitors at the viewpoint, but even if you have to walk the 4-kilometre distance, you won’t regret it. Amazingly, there is a gondola lift ready to take you to La Rivera.

Yes, someone really had the brilliant idea of building facilities for tourists on the other side of the canyon! The cable car looks a bit scary from the outside, but the 5-minute ride is actually quite comfortable. La Rivera is located in a brillant spot and you can even see Nevado del Tolima when the sky is clear. There are various activites that you can do there; I particularly liked the greenhouses with carnivorous plants. La Rivera was accessible to the public when I went there, but it seems that you need to make a reservation now, so make sure to get in touch with them before your trip. Don’t forget to pack a jacket because it can get rainy and chilly in the mountains.

A carnivorous plant, La Rivera, Cañón del Combeima

If you have some spare time, consider adding Ibagué to your travel itinerary. A bus ride from Bogotá usually takes 4 hours, unless you get stuck in a traffic jam in the capital during peak hours. Lesser-known cities may not be among the most popular places to visit in Colombia, but they can offer nice opportunities for interesting trips. Cañón del Combeima is a great example of that because it’s a pretty impressive destination that is definitely worth exploring.

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.