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It’s not exactly a case of hit-and-miss for me when it comes to visiting random Colombian pueblos. When an escape from Bogotá’s badness and madness is needed, pretty much any town will suffice. It is the getting away that matters more so; the destination is largely of secondary importance.
Some towns, though, naturally enough, have more going for them than others. Of course, that ‘going for them’ is subjective. My likes are another’s dislikes (and it seems, shockingly enough, that my likes are far from universally shared).
The long and winding road
Regardless of a visitor’s preferences, however, La Palma, in the north-west of Colombia’s Cundinamarca department, is unlikely to get top marks in any category.
Yes, its setting is impressive. But the same can be said for pretty much any Andean town. Ditto for its friendly-but-not-overbearingly-so locals.
That it’s not quite a popular tourist spot is, as far as I’m concerned, more a positive than a negative. Yet, with that, there’s the what’s-there-to-do question. OK, I like wandering around hilly terrain, but La Palma has plenty of better-organised competition in this regard.
The journey getting there does see one pass through some rather spectacular Andean scenery as the way winds alongside the fast-flowing Río Negro at various intervals.
However, after Pacho, large tracts of the road resemble conditions akin to what the Spanish must have had to deal with when on their initial rampage in these parts. In contrast, for example, on the equally aesthetically pleasing and winding route to San Luis de Gaceno, 26 kilometres further away from Bogotá than La Palma (in another direction that is), the road is more 20th century than 15th century.
The result is that having safely arrived in La Palma, one really needs at least 48 hours there before facing into the return journey. Perhaps the locals want it that way.
‘Years ago, it probably was a no-go area for visitors but, like many places in Colombia, today it seems safe.’
Tucked away at an altitude of just under 1,500 metres above sea level and surrounded by many forested hills, the town’s mid-20s (degrees Celsius) temperature average is more than agreeable. It makes the thunderous downpours of this time of year more tolerable compared to a chillier, duller Bogotá.
As is the case with many similar-sized towns in Colombia, there are various hotel options. I threw in my lot with Hotel Ruby, just off the main square. While there are “fancier” options, when one just needs a comfortable bed with toilet facilities in a relatively clean environment and, of course, steady Wi-Fi, Ruby does the job. At 20,000 pesos per night, it’s also far from extortionate.
However, what is a little — just a little — more expensive in La Palma compared to my basic Bogotá barrio is socialising. This is because this side of Cundinamarca — it’s the same in nearby El Peñón — is averse to 750 ml/litre bottles of beer.
Thus, one gets less pop for one’s peso, so to put it i.e. 2,500 pesos for 330 ml of Poker in La Palma versus 4,000 pesos for a litre in my Bogotá local. It does encourage one to drink less all the same, so it has its plus side.
Also lacking, considering the town’s size — easily twice as big as San Luis de Gaceno and a good bit bigger than El Peñón — are a few standard, traditional tiendas. By traditional, I refer to what some may consider tacky. This is “tacky” in terms of tables and chairs anyway — those Aguila- or Poker-labelled plastic ones supplied by Colombia’s beer beast, Bavaria.
Something in the air
Balancing out this beer bleakness, it has the odd establishment that actually offers decent coffee. This is quite the positive in light of the fact that in many non-touristy Colombian towns getting an unsweetened, strong brew is practically impossible.
One, somewhat strange commonality La Palma has with other places at a similar altitude is that it occasionally has a certain whiff in the air. It reminds me of a globally popular Colombian product, beginning with the letter ‘c’. No, not coffee, the other one.
I must add, I did not see it nor did I get any hint that the locals consume it. I’m solely referring to that distinct, petrol-like smell of the substance in its refined form. And I don’t think it was simply petrol that I smelt.
Now, my Bogotá friends did tell me that La Palma was ‘caliente’, ‘hot’. They weren’t, though, referring to the weather. By this ‘caliente’ they meant it was a conflict zone. I got no real hint of that. Years ago, it probably was a no-go area for visitors but, like many places in the country, today it seems safe. One is unlikely to find trouble unless one looks for it.
My biggest bugbear was the loud music blaring out of a couple of bars on the main square well into the early hours on my first night there, a Friday. The thin walls and open-court layout of Hotel Ruby offer scant sound insulation.
This particular racket might have been for a special occasion, as it wasn’t as much of an issue on the subsequent nights. And going by the overall vibe, I’m sure things are rather tranquil midweek.
I won’t, however, be in any mad rush back to see if that is actually the case. This isn’t to say that I didn’t like my stay there. On the contrary, I enjoyed it.
It’s just that, from Bogotá, there are easier country towns to get to. It’s far from a rule that the more taxing the journey is in inverse proportion to the quality of the destination.
Listen to Wrong Way’s Colombia Cast podcast here.