How the Colombian páramo thwarted the Spanish conquistadors

The story I’m about to tell might be total bollocks, but it’s a funny story, so I’m going to tell it anyway. It was told to us by one of our guides as we trekked through the páramo landscape of Colombia last month.

The páramo is a high-altitude ecosystem found between 3,000 and 4,500m in just five countries in Latin America: Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica. It is characterised by long, wet tussock grass (known locally as paja), lakes, peat bogs and a number of unusual plant species found nowhere else in the world.

Forest of frailejones in the Colombian páramo
Forest of frailejones in the Colombian páramo

In fact, 86% of all plant species found there are endemic to the páramo. This is because species have been forced to adapt to lower atmospheric pressure from the altitude, higher UV radiation from the sun, and the drying effect of the wind. Generally, the climate is cool, damp and windy (like you get in Scotland) with frequent mist.

I wrote about two particularly unusual plants of the páramo last time I returned from Colombia in 2012. The landscape is treeless, but there is one plant in particular that has a passing resemblance to a tree.

This plant, the frailejon (plural: frailejones, pronunciation: fry-lay-hon-ez), also known as espeletia, occurs in great numbers in the mountains of Colombia if not the other four páramo countries (in fact, I understand it is estimated that 80% of all frailejones occur in Colombia and I have never seen it in any of my visits to Ecuador).

Frailejones can grow up to 7m in height
Frailejones can grow up to 7m in height

Frailejones start their life at ground level (as we all do) with a rosette of soft, furry green leaves. I understand these make good toilet paper, but as I’ve only ever seen them within the confines of a national park, I’ve not been permitted to put this theory to test (though I’ve certainly been tempted to do so).

As the frailejon grows, this rosette of leaves remains, crowning its top like a muppet haircut.

And boy does the frailejon grow. Slowly, admittedly: only a metre every hundred years (so they say, although I’m a little sceptical), but it continues growing up to a staggering 7m in height in some places. This ‘trunk’ consists of dry, woody leaves that are fire resistant but flake off to the touch.

Once a year, the soft green leaves sprout bright yellow flowers. The frailejones grow all year round. This means that they don’t all flower at the same time. A hillside of frailejones will contain a mix of plants in and out of flower.

The leaves of the frailejon are very soft
The leaves of the frailejon are very soft

The word fraile means monk in Spanish, and the plant takes its name from the fact that a clump of frailejones is supposed to resemble a procession of monks (in much the same way that the penitentes snow formations found on some Andean mountains are supposed to resemble penitent monks, but I think the people responsible for naming these things need to start looking at life more broadly for their analogies).

But anyway, this brings me to my story, involving ‘The Liberator’, Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan military leader responsible for liberating much of South America from the Spanish empire in the nineteenth century. In a glorious six years between 1819 and 1825, Bolívar and his armies helped to achieve independence for Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and finally Bolivia, the country which took his name.

In 1821 Bolívar’s forces defeated the Spanish at the Second Battle of Carabobo (an area now in Venezuela), a decisive victory that led to an independent Venezuela and the establishment of a new state, the Republic of Gran Colombia.

Frailejones sometimes grow bright yellow flowers
Frailejones sometimes grow bright yellow flowers

It’s the First Battle of Carabobo in 1814 to which this story is more likely to relate, but I would like to think that it took place in Colombia.

Bolívar was known for being a great military strategist, and when he saw that a battle looked likely to take place in the páramo he devised a cunning plan. Noting that a forest of frailejones on a hillside bore a passing resemblance to people, he decided to dress them in uniform so that they looked like an army (although I’ve yet to see a soldier who is 7m tall).

Upon seeing this army out in the open, the Spanish promptly unleashed their cannons. But after the bombardment, they were astonished to see that many of these soldiers were still standing, apparently unmoved.

Simon Bolivar leads his forces in the Battle of Carabobo (Picture: Palacio Federal Legislativo, Caracas / Wikimedia Commons)
Simon Bolivar leads his forces in the Battle of Carabobo (Picture: Palacio Federal Legislativo, Caracas / Wikimedia Commons)

The frailejones, as we know, are fire resistant, but if you lean against one then you can easily push it over. How they were able to withstand cannonballs is another question, but let’s not spoil a good story.

The bombardment had caused the Spanish to reveal their position, during which Bolívar sent his forces around the back of the hill to take the Spanish in the rear (so to speak).

And that is how the Colombian páramo thwarted the armies of Spain.

Is any of this true or is it just a funny story for a mountain guide to tell his clients? I’d love to hear in the comments if you know of any references.

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4 thoughts on “How the Colombian páramo thwarted the Spanish conquistadors

  • January 16, 2020 at 6:45 pm

    “so to speak” 🙂 Thank you for a great anecdote!

  • January 17, 2020 at 8:42 am

    Many practical questions, but a charming idea! Thanks, Mark! PS As a horseperson, I wouldn’t like to be trying to get my mount near to a cactus wearing a uniform.

  • January 17, 2020 at 6:13 pm

    These are soft and furry plants, Roz, not at all prickly like a cactus. I’m sure horses would love them!

  • January 17, 2020 at 6:18 pm

    Great story never heard it before.

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