As we pass into the valley, and the town of Honda, the whole topography changes. It’s less West Virginia and more eastern Tennessee – in the summer. The temperature has become hot and a bit humid. The land is more flat, and as the land straightens out, so does traffic. We can finally accelerate to 50km/h for the remainder of our journey.
(It’s this limited speed that makes the road signs for Cartagena and Barranquilla (1150+ km) so terrifying, yet correspond with other visitors stories about 20 hour bus rides). But the view is so interesting, and I have great company, so it makes for a pleasant drive, especially once we escape the industrial traffic.
Even the mountains here in the valley are different, the ones that are visible in the landscape are more like hills, with exposed rock crevices.
My ‘guide’ for this trip just amazes me with the breadth and knowledge he has of this area of the country. As we pass different outcroppings, and tiny towns – he knows a bit of folklore, facts of interest or history on each one of them. We travel through places that seems a million miles and twenty years from the sophisticated enclaves of Medellin, Bogotá or Cali.
In the Colombian state of Tolima, we drive through the small city of Caldas. This seemingly unimportant but bustling town is actually one of the more important towns in Colombia’s history. When scientific explorers (Spanish) first came here they found an amazing bounty of plants, flowers and fruits. Many of which are only found in Colombia.
They also found gold here (and in the neighboring towns such as Mariquita). It was their treatment of the native population in pursuit of this shiny metal beneath the nearby mountains that led to a local uprising (and eventual revolution – leading to Colombia’s independence).
Modern day explorers also made important discoveries in this area of Tolima, near Caldas: large pockets of natural gas.
In the next town, of Mariquita – gold mining both recently and in the past, has shaped the town. It was the uprising here in Mariquita against the Spaniards and their gold mining efforts that shapes this town’s history. Further gold exploration in more recent history has also caused problems – my guide tells me that the tunneling and excavations have caused major subsidence problems, with homes disappearing into sinkholes. (As someone who lived in the Monongalia Mine area of West Virginia, I can well image the scene.)
Marquita is also home to a historic church – and the “Milagro senor de la ermita.”
Church services were actually in session when I arrived, so I didn’t many pictures. (I took the one interior picture from a little alcove so I wouldn’t disturb services while my companions lit candles).
The state of Tolima is famous for it’s tamales – which have little in common with the Mexican version. Mariquita itself is famous for having excellent tamales tolidense so we stopped at a place off on a side street which was recommended by the locals, called “El Tamalito” en San Sebastian de Mariquita. The tamales were, indeed, delicious.
The owner, Mr. William Naffati has been making tamales for over 20 years. He lived (and worked) in Bogotá for 40 years before coming back to Tolima (where his family is from) 2 years ago. He states that he makes the ingredients for 200 tamales at a time, in huge metal VATS.
He states that the secret to the rich flavor of the tamales is due to three key oils: chicken, pork and another which he’s keeping a secret for now. Then the meats and vegetables are slow cooked for a minimum of four hours before final preparations. He reports that during the course of a weekend he will prepare and sell over 1200 tamales.
Now this next part of our journey probably deserves its own post – but since I am using borrowed internet to post this – it will have to do.
Lastly, as the sky darkened we passed Armero, a ‘lost town’ that was destroyed in the November 1985 volcanic explosion that spewed rock and lava throughout the area. The official death toll was 24,000 but locals estimate that it was higher. As the lava rained down on the town – it burned and destroyed many of the buildings, and their charred and abandoned structures remain – as a memorial to the site.
My guide and my traveling companions know a great story about this town too. As the volcano rained death down on the 29,000 residents of Armero, and a sea of mud/ sludge began to destroy the town, somehow, despite being in the center of the storm of rock and lava, the local hospital (which did sustain heavy damage) was spared. Not a single one of the hospitalized patients (who were on the second or top floor of the building) were harmed.
I guess when you consider the devastation to the area, that would make the hospital of Armero the second miracle of our journey. I’m not usually so sentimental, but looking at the town, it’s hard not to be.
Unfortunately, it was getting dark as we came through, so I couldn’t get any photos. (But we came back through the next day – and I managed to get a few.) We didn’t get out of the car because the structures are unaltered and are considered unsafe. I would have loved to crawl around them a little bit, but I try to take good advice.
My guide for our trip is Mr. Alvaro Palacios, an adoption attorney. Last year, when I was writing the Bogotá book, I was renting a room in one of the apartments he and his wife own. After being there for six months – we became pretty close. Especially since once my roommates returned to their home countries, I was alone (sometimes lonely, when l had enough time to think about it) in the apartment.
But they always made me feel safe and secure in the fact, that they were next door, and that someone would notice if I didn’t show up one day*. So I came to very much enjoy talking with the Palacios, their daughter, Camila and their son, Alvaro who was a medical student at the time.
In fact, that’s the reason they’ve invited me along – we are heading to Lerida to visit their son who is doing his intern year at the hospital here. (In Colombia, all doctors have to do a ‘social service’ year working and training in underserved areas.)