When I travel, I typically have my camera constantly at the ready, but in the last year I have made more of an effort to take note of other qualities that characterize certain places, the observations that a photograph simply cannot capture. Last week when I arrived to the small town of Barichara, I stepped off a cramped buseta and was greeted by the most delicious smell in the central park of town. I immediately knew that this scent would be the defining quality with which I would remember Barichara.
Barichara was officially declared the most beautiful town in Colombia, so I expected a quaint village with pleasing architecture and visual appeal. But I hadn’t been warned about the fragrance, and it was much appreciated after days of travel on buses where odors ranged from grilled corn to burned rubber and vomit. For the next few days in Barichara, I passed through and lingered in the park at every opportunity. I enjoyed watching the school children from the school on the southern edge of the park and observed an extravagant wedding photo shoot in front of the cathedral at the north end of the park. But as I people-watched, wrote, and read in the park, I was also on a mission to identify the source of the wonderful smell. Since it was so strong and distinctive I felt certain I could figure out what plant was responsible.
Unfortunately, I am far from an expert when it comes to pinpointing an odor–I can’t even name flavors and seasoning in dishes I love, so identifying smells is way beyond my sensory capabilities. The best I can describe the scent in words is that it has a freshness and sweetness. My first guess was that the smell was gardenias or jasmine, but I didn’t see any of these plants.
In a manner typical of Colombians, all of the locals I asked about the smell gave me answers, but each answer was different. Fact-checking the plant names I was provided with using Google image results led me to conclude that the guesses were off. The more common guesses from locals were plants I’ve seen in other areas of Colombia: caballero de la noche, or night-blooming jasmine (also known as lady of the night), a plant with white flowers that releases strong fragrance at nighttime; and flor de borrachero, or brugmansia (also known as angel’s trumpets), a plant with drooping flowers that will make you feel woozy if you smell them for too long. A bit of investigation online led me to an article describing the smell as coming from flowers of ylang ylang trees, and photos of the trees match what I remember. There could also be some caballero de la noche plants in the park.
Appropriately, the scientific name of the tree species is Cananga odorata, and the essential oil from the flower is considered to have antidepressant, aphrodisiac, and sedative properties and is also used in aromatherapy as a treatment for high blood pressure. It’s curious to think about the potential impact of these qualities given the strength of the smell in the public park–particularly the sedative quality makes me consider the phrase “sleepy town,” often used to describe Barichara, in a new light. Since I can’t attach a file to share the scent, try to get your hands on a sample of Chanel No. 5–the main component of the perfume is the distillation from the ylang ylang tree.
So if you ever get a chance to visit Barichara, don’t cut yourself short of time in the town. It is already a tranquil destination, and wandering the park, reading, or people-watching is relaxing on another level thanks to the fragrant ylang ylang trees.