English, Stories from Colombia, Uncategorized

The other home of the wax palm tree

The wax palm tree (Ceroxylon quindiuense) in Roncesvalles, Tolima (Colombia).
Photo by Rocío Sánchez

Without fear of being wrong, I dare to say that for most Colombians, the ideal place to admire the wax palm, our national tree, is Salento a small mountain town in Quindío. But if you ask me where I fell in love with the majesty and elegance of this palm, I will not hesitate for even five seconds to answer differently. My love for not just the wax palm, but also for the countryside and the mountains is related with a place called Roncesvalles. Unlike Salento, very few people have probably heard about Roncesvalles. Perhaps, they might think about the Spanish town in the Pyrenees, located near the French border; but not the Roncesvalles that I love, which is the last corner of Tolima just at that point where the departments of Tolima, Valle del Cauca and Quindío share their frontiers.

Only the twists and turns of life can take someone to such a hidden corner in the Colombian mountains. Although Roncesvalles is separated just by 110 km from Ibagué the capital of Tolima, the poor condition of that forgotten road makes the journey longer and harder. Thirty years ago, the twists and turns in my father’s life took him to Roncesvalles for the first time; and from that moment onwards he fell in love with that region and bought a farm there. I can sincerely confess that it is impossible not to fall in love with those green mountains, those crystal-clear rivers, those infinite valleys, and of course with the wax palm which is the lady of the mountains. Due to our love for the countryside, my family and I used to go to the farm in Roncesvalles and spend our holidays there since my early childhood. That is the reason why my brother and I learnt to handle the reins of the horse, much before learning to ride a bicycle. During that time, the road was built only up to the town, so horses and mules were the only alternative to cover those muddy country horse-paths that led to the farm. My father, with the calmness that characterizes the people from Tolima, is never in a rush; so very often we found ourselves riding on a horseback in the night. All those nights made us learn from a very young age that the horse have very good night vision, and that the best thing to do while riding in the darkness is to loosen the reins and let go. It is not easy for a young child not to fall asleep while riding a horse for hours and hours, so we also memorized songs that we used to sing under the moonlight incessantly.

My father with his “father´s outfit” . Rubber boots, old jeans and vueltiao hat (typical colombian hat). Cogua, Cundinamarca. (Colombia)

The remoteness of this place also contributed to maintain its pristine ecosystem. The ecosystem that covers the high mountains above 3,400 meters over sea level is known as Paramo, and its vegetation is composed of tall shrubs and small trees that rest in between grasslands. Paramo is not a word well known, because this ecosystem is restricted to the north of South America, small areas of southern Central America and East Africa. The most important and largest Paramos in the world are in the North Andean region of South America. Among Paramo vegetation a plant called frailejon (Espeletia) stands out over other species. The most important characteristic of the paramo is that it is an ecosystem that produces water. The frailejon takes the role of collecting the drops of water from the atmosphere using its fluffy leaves and direct this water through the interior of the stem conducting it to the soil. The small amount of water collected by millions of frailejones form miniscule streams, will eventually become larger streams, giving origin to small rivers.  Walking through the paramo is an amazing experience, not only because of how peaceful and clean the environment is, but because the ground is a damp mattress of moss covered by tiny plants and flowers of different colours, that make each step a wonder. The conservation of the natural ecosystems in the Colombian high mountain area is especially important since all the rivers that carry water to the cities or irrigate the crop fields are born in the Paramos. To learn more about the Paramo click on this link.

Yerbabuena Paramo. The hight of the frailejones shows the perfect state of conservation in the ecosystem. Roncesvalles, Tolima. (Colombia)

From a very young age, my parents instilled in us the importance of caring and respecting nature; this was the same philosophy that was followed from the beginning in the farm. Next to the pastures where the milking cows grazed, there are deep humid forests that are characteristic of the high mountain forests in Colombia. Livestock can be a threat to the environment when it is not managed properly; but when this activity is carried out in a responsible way, it is possible to provide milk and meat for human consumption and at the same time ensure the protection of the surrounding ecosystems. Thanks to the conservation work that has been carried out successfully for years in the mountains of Roncesvalles, even today it is possible to find in those forests endemic wild animals of the high Andean mountains. The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus goudotii), spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), and even pumas (Puma concolor), not to mention thousands of species of birds and other small mammals which can be found abundantly. In the same way, the water sources are preserved intact, to guarantee the quality and quantity of the waters of the numerous rivers and streams in the region.

La vida de finca, siempre rodeada de vacas y caballos. Roncesvalles, Tolima (Colombia)

The inhabitants of Roncesvalles embrace more and more the idea of conservation which is so important in the current situation of the world. They try their best to make agricultural productions sustainable and avoid any ill effects over the environment. Several projects are carried out in Roncesvalles trying to address conservation issues. Within these projects, there is one project that I would like to highlight, especially because I witnessed how their ideas were developed over the years showing very palpable results. The yellow-eared parrot (Ognorhynchus icterotis) is a bird that inhabits the humid Colombian high mountain forests, and until a few years ago it was reported as a species in high danger of extinction. The risk of extinction of this specie is extremely high, since its nesting and feeding habits are related directly with the wax palm. The wax palm is also a threatened species, since its branches were used for the Catholic celebration of Palm Sunday in an indiscriminate way, until the Colombian government decided to ban its use over a decade ago. With these ideas in mind, the Proaves Foundation in Roncesvalles took the yellow-eared parrot as the flag of its conservation programs, achieving such a considerable increase in the population of these parrots that although they are still a threatened species, the current rate of reproduction guarantees their survival. The work carried out by the Foundation covers several fronts, its projects include the assisted reproduction of the parrot with artificial nests, public awareness focused mainly on children, donation and tree planting campaigns, and purchase of land for conservation. The work made by the foundation during these years has been remarkably successful, not only in relation to the conservation of the yellow-eared parrot, but also recovering areas of the Paramo and the forests that were previously degraded; I hold their efforts in high respect. If you want more information visit https://proaves.org/

Una pequeña muestra de la población de aves en Roncesvalles, Tolima. (Colombia)

Roncesvalles always brings back to me thousands and thousands of memories. Traveling to the farm was a big part of my life, and I generated such a great love for this place that I went on to study veterinary medicine and zootechnics. Nothing made me happier than knowing that the holidays were about to begin, and I was going to be able to visit Roncesvalles, the land that I love so much. Going to the farm went beyond the lovely landscapes, the cold mornings among cows and the fresh milk, or those endless days  horse riding; for me going to the farm also meant visiting my friends, sharing adventures, getting lost in the pastures playing without counting the hours, total freedom. Each one of those moments and each one of those people with whom I shared are kept in an important space in my heart. I cannot thank enough when I think about those twists and turns of life that led my father to Roncesvalles.

If you want to admire the wax palm, do not hesitate to visit Salento, which is an incredibly beautiful little town with houses painted in different colours and the flavour of rainbow trout freshly brought from the mountain rivers. But, when you think about wax palms, mountains and fresh trout I would ask you to also give a thought about visiting Roncesvalles, that town in the middle of the Tolima mountains. Maybe it is not that easy to reach Roncesvalles due to the bad shape of the road that still requires a lot of work, but I hope that the twists and turns in your life will take you to enjoy the treasures of these mountains. I cannot guarantee that everyone will be lucky enough to see a spectacled bear, as it is the privilege of few, but I do guarantee that you will be able to admire spectacular birds that adorn the forests with their vibrant colours. Roncesvalles is a paradise not only for nature lovers, but also for food lovers. The quesillo (Mozzarella type cheese), beans, freshly ground corn arepa (Colombian bread made of corn) and buñuelos (Fried Colombian snack) with a steaming cup of agua panela (Jaggery water) are the perfect companions for the cold weather. Most importantly, the people are very welcoming and you will make so many friends that you will always want to return. At the end of the day, Roncesvalles will no longer be just another town in the Colombian mountains, but a second home.

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