Tour guide Alejandro Naranja is rhapsodic when he gazes up into the foggy hillsides at the nearly-200 foot tall wax palms speckled throughout the cow fields in Caldas department. “The nature, the silence, the view of the country, the air, the tranquility – all of this feeds the soul,” he says.
We’re standing in the middle of a muddy dirt road a few kilometers above San Félix, about 200 kilometers south of Medellín in search of the famous wax palm, Colombia’s iconic national tree.
But unlike the trails outside of the tourist hub of Salento, there’s hardly a soul in sight, save for a few Holsteins munching grass, and a flock of Golden-eared parakeets squawking above us in search of the bright red berries that hang from the wax palms.
The region has seen just 12,000 visitors in the last two years, according to Naranjo, which is fewer than the number Salento often sees in a day.
“It’s a region preserved in time,” Naranjo says.
The paucity of humans means a tranquil and intimate experience for tourists who are interested in getting off the beaten path and learn about the storied Ceroxylon quindiuense.
The tree was first described by German naturalist and explorer Alexander Von Humboldt around 1800 as he trekked across the South American continent. When Humboldt reported seeing the palm trees at the mountainous elevations above 3,000 meters, Naranjo tells us, his Europeans figured the legendary Humboldt had made a mistake. Palms grow on the beach, not in the mountains, they told him.
Wax palms developed unique adaptations to deal with the extreme conditions, and can survive in below zero temperatures thanks to their protective wax. Further, while most palms have short roots, the wax palm evolved with deeper tendrils to resist the high velocity winds that can be frequent in the area.
Indeed, the palms look startlingly out of place among the bare cattle fields, as we walk up the muddy dirt roads under a light mist.
When Europeans began colonizing the area around San Félix about 150 years ago, they burned vast swathes of virgin forest, but the brittle wax that coats the stem of the palms kept them from catching fire, leaving grassy fields punctuated by the palms up to 70-meters high. The young palm chutes, which grow from the ground before the stem sprouts, were also harvested for use on the Catholic Palm Sunday holiday, leading officials to list the species as endangered in 1998.
Wax palm forests were preserved here in just a few pockets around Cordillera Occidental: outside of San Félix, in the PNN Parque Nacional de los Nevados outside of Salento, and in the Tochecito River basin. The Tochecito canyon reopened to tourists with the signing of the 2016 peace accord with FARC, and scientists have documented the largest sanctuary of the wax palms in Colombia, estimated at about half a million trees.
In the hills outside of San Félix, few of the hilltops and river valleys are partially covered with virgin forests, and Naranjo points out that the palms are growing much more densely in those patches. The owners of the farm estimate there are about 2,300 palms on his property, one of several in the region. Of those, just 300 have lived long enough to have trunks.
Naranjo explains that the palms in fact can’t reproduce in the bare fields, where the high-elevation UV light prevents seeds from germinating, and cows eat the young chutes. The remaining palms are approaching the end of their 250-year life-span, meaning that within 15-20 years, they’ll die off.
“It’ll be really sad to see,” said John Alexander Abril, the owner of a cattle farm in El Mirador, Valle de Samaría. His farm is now working on a program with university scientists to cultivate wax palms with the hope of one day replacing the geriatric palms that are expected to die off in a few decades.
To that end, Abril has planted about 400 seeds in fenced off plots beneath a canopy of larger trees to give them shade from the UV light and protection from the hungry cattle. The problem is the seedlings won’t be ready to be planted before the older, existing trees die off. That’s because the trees take 50 years – when the silvery stem starts to produce vertical growth rings – until they’re ready to plant. Even though he might not see the fruits of his eight years of labor, Abril says it’s worth it to keep the species healthy for his kids, who help with tours on the farm.
“We’re doing it as a legacy to our children,” he said.
In the last 8 years since opening the Valle De Samaria farm for tourists interested in the wax palm, Abril said he’s hosted about 14,000 visitors. A portion of the entry fee is used to plant a seedling. Abril cooperates with a handful of tour operators based in nearby Salamina, including Naranjo, who started the business with his brother about six years ago after the signing of the peace accord with the FARC led to an increase in foreign tourism.
Salamina lies about an hour and a half away by Jeep. A trip to the palm forests of San Félix lasts four to five hours and includes a delicious lunch filled with trout and home-grown vegetables at Abril’s Valle de Samaria farm.
With his family, Abril developed a short, 1.5-kilometer hike that starts with a tour through the young wax palms.
With our guide, Naranjo, we continue down into a dense virgin forest, where we start to notice fledgling wax palms all around us. Red seeds are scattered along the dirt path, shaken off the trees by birds flapping through the canopy above us. Naranjo points out a toucan fluttering between the branches.
The path continues through a narrow footbridge across a creek that straddles the clear-cut cow pastures and thick forest, and passes within a few feet of some of the tallest palms on the farm.
As we pass by one of them, Naranjo steps off the trail and wraps his arms around the trunk. His arms barely wrap around the base, and he says he’s demonstrating the diameter of the trunk. The way he holds on to the tree for a few moments, it’s clear that he also just has a lot of affection for the trees.
Travel tip: To arrange a visit to the wax palms of San Félix, take a bus to Salamina, (around 8 hours). From there, you can contact Alejandro Naranjo’s business, +57 302 256 5800, or visit the local tourist information center to find other operators.