February 2nd, 2018
The morning spent writing. The wifi works for a while, then is down again. Breakfast at a small place with terrace just around the corner, between the Colegio Maldonado and Claustro San Agustino. Further up the hill towards the Plaza Bolivar, a cafe campesino artfully prepared by the chaty owner of the café Guemo, yet another small and charming coffee place in the centre of town. How she manages to get karaoke going here is beyond me, though!
Packed and ready to leave at noon, I realize that yet again, I have lost my red rain jacket. It seems that at the time I leave for breakfast, the air is still cool and crisp, but when I leave the eating establishment again following breakfast, it is already too warm to wear a jacket. Back to the café: no, no jacket, and at the eatery, the woman confirms that I did indeed leave my jacket.
One last brief conversation with the owner of the Hotel las Nieves II. It turns out that the serious woman is consumed by stress, heavily indebted to the bank, thanks to the construction of the Hotel Victoria Real next door, a brand new and very modern establishment which has seen almost no business since it has opened in the past month. Then again, the months of February and September are the slowest months in the country, although normally at the Nieves II, she enjoys an occupancy rate of 40%, which is enough to pay for costs as well as pay the bank what they want.
So it’s a question of getting her bank in Chiquinquirá to allow her to extend the length of the loan far off enough into the future to make her payments manageable, and then also give her the option of resolving a larger part of the loan when revenues increase. She needs to be aggressive in making publicity for the hotel, although there is of course lots of competition in town. She is certainly asking reasonable prices for her rooms, COP$60,000 for a single and 90,000 for a double, a good price for such immaculate rooms. The six rooms are largely windowless, but then also get none of the noise I have been experiencing next to the Carrera 10.
The bus to Sagamoso passes through a valley with the hills rising on either side, the road weaving slightly, but not gaining or dropping in elevation. The countryside has a sense of being somewhat bucolic, although in the end it doesn’t quite live up to expectations, the renowned towns of the area seeming quite inconsequential, at least from the periphery. The big attraction in the region is Lake Tota, although without personal transport, it may not be possible to spend much time along the lakeside.
The Libertadores van is the image of comfort and cleanliness, the vehicle new, with a very smooth ride, unlike the less memorable vehicles I have traveled on thus far in Colombia. After all, the taxi driver who took me to the bus station in Bogotá did recommend the company!
Closer the Sagamoso, the appearance of housing takes a turn for the worse, appearing largely unfinished or simply crumbling. Appealing would not be a word appropriate for the sprawling town, and the fact the bus slows to a crawl some distance before the bus terminal makes the town even less inspiring.
Inappropriately, I decide to walk from the bus terminal to the hotel, as it is some distance, and worse, the streetscape rotates somewhat, making it even more confusing to follow the calle/carrera designations typical of Colombian streets. Naturally, most people I ask don’t know the town or simply give me the wrong directions.
I had expected the hotel Cordillera in Sagamoso to be a dive based on the photos I saw online and the low price, never mind the impression of Sagamoso in general. However, it is actually as good as it could get for a budget place, the room moderately spacious, with a bed equipped with a reasonably comfortable queen-sized mattress, a huge TV screen, working wifi, a spacious bathroom, a tidy closet to hang things, wooden furniture, a view out over the street and the crest of buildings on the main plaza, as well as the hills in the distance. The adjacent supermarkets and fruteria are perfect for buying food, meaning I can finally enjoy good fruit to supplement the normally starchy fare that Colombians seem to enjoy.
Meandering across the Plaza de la Villa, I enter one of the religious artifact stores adjacent the cathedral and inquire about the local museum. The woman tells me I would better not walking to the museum, as it is in an unsafe area, hard to believe in a town as small as Sagamoso. Then again, Sagamoso doesn’t inspire much confidence to begin with. She continues that the museum is tiny, has very little, and is probably not worth visiting.
Sagamoso appears to be a sad and decrepit town, really at the nadir of the Colombian urban experience. Reflecting on what seems to make the town aesthetically so unfortunate, the amount of workshops and industrial facilities in a state of considerable disrepair, the lack of green, and the overcast skies don’t help.
Closer to the ostensible centre, the roads narrow, and brighter, cleaner shops appear, sandwiched between small office buildings as well as cafes and restaurants. The sense of dilapidation prevails, as the sidewalks are in terrible shape, and there are still gaps in maintenance, but overall the town centre is somewhat more appealing.
It is difficult to believe that the country’s premiere nature setting lies in the vicinity of Sogamoso. Despite the overall sad character of Sagamoso, the nature of retail in this town suggests a fair amount of money. Perhaps because it is a newer town with no historic core, it is easier and cheaper to situate large businesses closer to the town centre.
I feel at loss in this town, and certainly not motivated to do any photography. But what does it mean to be photographically engaged with a place – to impose one’s expectations on a place, or interpret the place as it is?
The Montañita restaurant promises a Paisa-style traditional rice dish, but amounts to nothing more than a fairly obnoxious mish-mash of poorly prepared and inappropriate ingredients.
I pull out my camera and start shooting.
The photos I take are cathartic, the visual sense of the town opening up to me, particularly as the light approaches the special golden quality of the late afternoon. The more I shoot, the more material seems to become available in terms of incongruous juxtapositions of subjects on the streets and innocuous squares in the centre of town.
As I return to the plaza via Carrera 10 and 11, the area springs to life. Canary Island palms line the narrow street to dramatic effect. Cars carefully navigate the narrow road, the shops and cafes beckoning the sidewalks full of pedestrians. Closer to the plaza, the shops become brighter, shinier, selling international brands out of spacious and brightly lit settings.