Colombia is a wonderful country to visit, no doubt about it. The people, the coffee, the food, the atmosphere, everything about it makes you want to bust out some salsa, both the eatin’ kind and the dancin’ kind. I’ve always been one to travel off the beaten path. Yes, I was in the usual places visitors go like Bogota and Cartagena, but the problem with big cities and tourist towns is that they almost never have any the true original culture left in them.
For example, most people who come here to Panama and go to the tourist locations get so excited, and buy the “traditional” purses, hammocks, hats, ponchos, etc…. What they don’t know is that Panama doesn’t really have traditional versions of those things, not that people would want to buy anyway, nor do they mass produce them. Anyone who lives here knows the “authentic Panamanian” souvenirs are actually brought in from Ecuador or Peru, because those cultures are more colorful, and people want to buy soft, prism-colored cotton hammocks rather than scratchy white nylon twine creations like the locals make. Also, I’ve never even seen a Panamanian wear a poncho especially not like the ones tourists buy.
That said, I know full well when you go to a touristy place it is going to be beautiful, nice, double the price of anywhere else in the nation, but also generally a bubble of safety. But you don’t get to really see the culture you paid all that money to get to.
In my recent trip to Colombia to meet with Wiwa people, I spent a couple of days in a little town called Valledupar and the even smaller town next to it named San Diego. To be honest I didn’t expect to take any time to enjoy the experience. I planned to get off the bus, go to sleep, and head out, but things took a pretty dramatic shift.
When we arrived at our host home, things started as usual. Greetings, hand shaking, introductions and so on. The hosts were so friendly and welcoming, one of those families that is there to show you how much they love you, and you have no real way to repay them for the kindness. However, this time there was a way!
After a couple of hours of chatting the lady of the house told us there was a man dying of AIDs on the other side of town and they wanted us to visit him before his time. Myself and the three others in my group decided to go visit the family and some some time with the man and his family members.
Sparing you all the details of the visit, let’s just say it was hard. AIDs is a horrible, horrible disease and what it does to the human body is beyond what you can imagine. The man died an hour and a half after our visit.
Some good did come from the experience though. In such a small town like San Diego word got out quick about our visit to the sick man, and we became one of them. That town had something unique that I absolutely loved, and it made me want to move there. I haven’t seen a town like this before, but it had a quality you imagine small towns have. I’ve been to lots of rural zones, and they aren’t the Mayberry we all think they are, but San Diego and Valledupar truly are.
If you want through San Diego at night, like I did, there are people everywhere. And they aren’t just going on with their own lives without a thought for anyone else, they are all gathered in clusters out on their porches gossiping or playing cards or dominoes. Not just a random group here and there, every street, every couple of houses, people are shouting back and forth, laughing, listening to music, and carrying on as if the whole town is one big family (and in a place that rural a lot of them probably are!).
Some of our group decided to play basketball one of the nights we were there, and over a hundred people gathered around to watch the game!
These two towns, especially San Diego have to be the friendliest towns I’ve ever been in. Unlike Cartagena, I never once felt like I could be in any danger. As a matter of fact, I felt so welcomed by the town that I thought if anyone did try to rob me, the town folk would step up on my behalf and stop it.
Aside from the incredible atmosphere, there are amazing statues full of stories and legends. One statue you can see in the image above is a massive golden mermaid overlooking a popular river. The last weekend was there, hundreds of people were swimming together below it. The place is packed with oodles of beautiful scenery, mountains and rivers and more. It’s a paradise for people who like nature and history.
Lastly is the food. There are several unique meals you can have in Valledupar, although I can’t say everyone would approve or enjoy them, I myself couldn’t stay away. One of the most delicious meals I tried was chicken and rice. Big deal, you say? Have you ever tried chicken and rice cooked in Coca Cola rather than water? It sounds weird, I thought so too, but wow was it delicious. I also ate iguana there, which isn’t unique to the area, but it was the first time I have ever seen iguana being sold from a food cart like hot dogs in New York.
If you find yourself heading to northern Colombia or want to try somewhere off the beaten path, I would highly recommend making a trip out to Valledupar and San Diego. Although I do have to add a disclaimer to the whole visit; make sure you check for any travel warnings in that area. Valledupar has had a history (although it has been at peace for a few years) of rebel incursions and violence. You don’t want to get caught in any of that, so make sure it is safe before you go into the area. It will be well worth the visit!