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Back in mid-2009 during my few weeks travelling around South-East Asia a German I met, a guy who had been in the region for some time, introduced me to the initialism AFW. After seeing my relative excitement about the prospect of visiting another impressive Buddhist place of worship, he said he could take or leave viewing an AFW.

“An AFW?”
“Another f**king wat!”
“Ah. I see.” (Well, something like a punny WTF would have worked better. He was German, though, so I cut him some slack.)

I didn’t stay in that part of the world to become completely indifferent to the, um, power of the wat but I could see where he was coming from.

After a while, no doubt, the novelty of seeing these magnificent monuments well and truly wears off. A case of ‘seen one wat, seen them all.’

Parque de los Presidentes, Chaparral, Tolima, Colombia.

A helpful sign, just in case you thought it was somewhere else!

Same same but different
This thinking, superficially at least, could be extended to the small towns in this part of the world: ‘Seen one Colombian or South American pueblo, seen them all.’

A colonial-style main square home to a standout cathedral/church with, if the settlement is of adequate size, another few similar squares dotted around, all in the standard grid plan.

In terms of Colombia, the general belief is that if you’ve been to either Barichara or Villa de Leyva (or both, as I have), then you’ve seen the best the country has to offer in this regard.

Again, aesthetically in any case, there is merit to this viewpoint. Yet, such high acclaim tends to reel in the tourists in big numbers. For some, this isn’t a major deal. Plus, off-peak visits usually see the towns at their more normal rhythm, whatever that actually is nowadays.

“A ‘town’ of 50,000 people here seems rather rural.”

Nonetheless, as I’ve let it be known on umpteen occasions, their obvious similarities aside, I do like to check out the less well-known towns. And in a big country of close to 50 million people, there are many to discover. What’s more, each place has its own story to tell, its own unique character with its own unique characters to boot (not literally, now), from the interesting to the annoying and everything in between.

My recent trip to Chaparral in the Tolima department certainly fell into this category. Why I decided to go there was simply down to the fact that an employee in a local panadería told me she was from there. I’d never heard of the place but at about a four-hour bus journey from Bogotá it fell, just about, inside the travel-time limit of a long-weekend escape from the madness of the capital city.

A quick Wikipedia check confirmed that it also met another important requirement. It was small enough, just under 50,000 people in its greater urban area. (By Irish standards that might seem pretty big. Here, though, a town of that size is relatively bucolic. It must be down to the way they space themselves out. Or is that cramp themselves in?).

Now, I generally don’t like travelling on holiday weekends as you’ve to deal with all the extra traffic. However, the full-time job these days has limited my flexibility — I’ll have my vengeance on that yet — so I have to take advantage of a day off when it comes along.

To give me a little more time and avoid the horrible traffic returning to Bogotá on the holiday Monday, I booked the next day off. Unfortunately, it seemed a lot of other people had the same idea considering the Tuesday afternoon’s congestion entering the capital.

Outbound, the queues to buy bus tickets at Bogotá’s southernmost terminal on Saturday morning almost led me to abort ‘Operation Chaparral’ before it got going at all. Thankfully, these were for the more popular destinations such as Girardot and Melgar. My hour or so wait was relatively minor all things considered. Indeed, being allocated the passenger window seat in a minivan for the trip was a nice little bonus.

Great chaps
Now before I start talking up Chaparral, I must say I went with little or no expectations. I knew it would be warm. I knew I could grab a beer or two or three to unwind in somewhere that was new to me and with few other tourists around. I didn’t need anything else really. Anything different from Bogotá would have sufficed, it just needed to be somewhat rural.

A few of the town of Chaparral, Tolima, Colombia, from a distance.

There’s a reason why it’s called Chaparral …

Aesthetically, there’s nothing too special to the place. One immediate difference I noticed from other similar towns is that its main square, the plaza principal, isn’t named after the great liberator Simón Bolívar (akin to Paipa). It’s called Parque de los Presidentes, the Presidents’ Park.

The reason? The town is the birthplace of no less than three men who held the office of Colombian president: Manuel Murillo Toro, José Maria Melo and Darío Echandia. Attorney General Alfonso Gómez Méndez was also born there. It’s not for nothing that its old mottos were ‘Tierre de Grandes‘ and ‘Cuna de Presidentes‘, ‘Land of Greats’/’Cradle of Presidents’.

“Chaparral has played a significant part in Colombia’s history.”

The story also goes that Chaparral and its surrounds, in the form of the Pijao people, was one of the last bastions of indigenous resistance against the Spanish conquistadores. There’s a monument representing this a few streets down from Parque de los Presidentes.

More recently, it was this part of Colombia that gave rise to the Farc guerilla movement. So in terms of the country’s history, it’s well served, for good and bad, whatever your viewpoint. (Perhaps as a nod to emerging, hopefully, from that recent bloody past, the town’s current motto is ‘Cradle of Peace and Progress’.)

Tourism infrastructure wise, common to most less-popular Colombian locations, it’s not well served. It did, after all, have to deal with more life-or-death matters of late.

Nonetheless, there are some locals trying to change this as I found out thanks to a serendipitous encounter — you never know what afternoon beers in a quaint tienda might throw up.

There I met Diego Ceballos, son of the very affable owner Cesar. Diego is currently taking a course in tourism and has already established a fledgling company with a focus on birdwatching. He gave me an impromptu photo presentation of the impressive, secluded sights — with an ornithological flavour as is his wont — all around Chaparral, areas that were very much ‘off-limits’ to most only a few short years ago, being in rebel hands as they were.

Time constraints meant I couldn’t actually visit any of them (did I mention that uncooperative full-time job?) on this occasion. Their apparent remoteness and very interesting recent history have given me solid reasons to return, though.

For sure, you can find comparable places all over Colombia. Yet, as similar as Chaparral is to other towns, it has, as we’ve seen, its standout differences. In the region’s bid to join Colombia’s tourism rush, here’s hoping it doesn’t lose sight of its unique identity.

*For a town that doesn’t seem to get too many tourists, it is well served on the hotel front. The one I happened upon was Hotel Tuluni, a couple of blocks from the main square on Carrera 8a #6-54. At 20,000 COP for a basic yet spacious en suite room with fan and a decent internet connection, you could find worse (I didn’t bother trying!). Mob: +573183178898.
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La vida en Colombia desde la perspectiva de un periodista y locutor irlandés, quien ha vivido en el país desde 2011. El blog explora temas sociales y culturales, interacción con los nativos, viajes, actualidades y mucho más. Escucha su podcast acá: https://anchor.fm/brendan-corrigan.

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