March 2nd, 2018
I emerge from a somewhat uneven sleep, possibly due to the noise of the air conditioning unit, the firmness of the mattress, or the state of my existence, but nonetheless: I arise at dawn, peering skeptically at the dull grey light Yopal is bathed in at this early morning hour.
A baptismal walk around the terrace that wraps around the girth of the building is in order to take those impressive photos of the city from this privileged vantage point, although the very fact that I was given access to this select space for such a low price is indicative enough as to how little value is placed on viewing this aesthetically relatively inconsequential place.
It is my understanding that one of the places to have breakfast in town in the Mamona, but while the spacious outdoor cafeteria on Calle 11 has a slight whiff of cattle rustling, the place offers individual breakfast items for inflated prices, rather than the typical all-inclusive, relatively inexpensive breakfast bandeja, which is better enjoyed at an equally spacious and clean establishment across the street, where I am introduced to the sheer size some llaneros can achieve, both in terms of height and girth. And the food is very good, too.
Further east on Calle 11, I discover the sights and sounds of what constitutes the llanero culture, what with the fragrance of pesticides and shops dedicated to the sale of pesticides and the equipment used for spraying, some clothing stores dedicated to the vaquero, and the occasional appearance of men in cowboy hats, completing the look. But in the end hardly a look that is far off what would be seen in Boyacá. Children’s backpacks, hammocks, drogueries, cafeterias with terraces, some hotels, cell phone shops, hardware stores, much of the same as elsewhere, the one difference from the typical array of clothing being the prevalence of stores selling branded sports gear to the hip young llanero.
The layout of the town is rectilinear, thanks to the flat terrain, housing development continuous, the profile of the buildings relatively low, and the roads lined by an uninterrupted series of small broad-leafed. Traffic is relatively moderate, cars and motorcycles present in equal measure. The evenly spaced trees provide a pleasing touch and much appreciated shade over the narrow, uneven sidewalks, some crowns sculpted, others left to unfurl naturally.
Shooting photos on the street always provokes unusual looks, as it should, although I try to be discrete about people shots, so as to not elicit particularly negative reactions at close quarters. I try and explain my mission to anyone interested, although the rationale typically comes across as far-fetched. A man stops me on the street, not to discuss photography, but to practice his English.
Germán has lived in Yopal for many years, works in the field of oil-field security, taking a conservative stance in protection of his industry’s viability, and that of the country at large. Oil is what drives the economy here, Casanare being the source of the country’s oil wealth. But inviting me to speak in English unleashes the furies, and I soon blabber myself into rapture about the economic and political permutations available to the unwashed Colombians, driving the poor man from the bakery we are enjoying a coffee in to find more productive and calming activities to spend his spare time with.
Yopal is the capital of the departamento of Casanare, and one of the most important cities of the llanos orientales, the expansive, flat tropical prairie region that occupies much of the eastern part of Colombia. The llanos – also named llanos del Orinoco after the mighty river that flows through neighboring Venezuela – are bounded by the altiplano of Boyacá to the northwest, to the east by Venezuela, to the south by the rio Guaviare – beyond which lies an endless expanse of tropical rain forest – and to the west by the Cordillera Oriental.
Casanare is a smaller version of the Meta, by far the largest departamento of the llanos, whose capital Villavicencio is both larger than Yopal and lies immediately to the south of Bogotá, and yet may as well as well lie in an entirely different universe. Despite a history of marginalization from the seat of power in Bogotá and ensuing strife for greater recognition, the region of the llanos came into its own with the discovery and exploitation of oil in past decades, becoming one of the most important regions on that front in the country. Despite the decline in oil prices, the city of Yopal still appears relatively affluent, and would have benefited considerably from the signing of the recent peace accords in the country.
Calle 11 peters out to several blocks of modest institutional buildings fronted with the continuing column of small trees with leafy canopies prior to arriving in the posh compound closer to the river, with the expansive cafés and trendy restaurants. At this time of day, there isn’t much life to the area, but I want to take the opportunity to find out more about the attractions in town.
Maryuri Smith in the Super Drogueria la 25 is only too happy to extoll the virtues of the individual attractions of town, which largely focus on places further up the river. I should not under any circumstances be wandering down to the river in town, as it is a haven for drug addicts, thieves and general lowlife. If I go, it should be with nothing to steal of any sort, but best not go at all. On the other hand, a nice place to the pass the time would be the Tapas, or even further along the Rio Cravo, the Garcero, where swans come to roost for the evening.
She continues that I can see some typical local animals at the Moraray somewhere else in town, and some other attractions as well. She is effusive to the point of the comical, her daughter seated behind her glued to her cell phone screen the entire duration of Maryuri’s invective, occasionally grinning when her descriptions become excessive. The lone male employee at the Cascada outlet across the street is more skeptical, telling me the only one of the attractions really of any interest would be the Garcero, which involves a late afternoon visit, or the Guatoca, a swimming hole that is attractive all day long, except that I should under no circumstances swim further out, as there are life-threatening whirlpools.
The sheer size of La Cascada pastry shop and cafe is astonishing, never mind the fact that the business has outlets throughout the centre of Yopal. And not that the small city is bereft of other alternatives for opening the wallet and enjoying food and beverages.
For those more intent on street fare, there are as everywhere else in the country carts with fresh fruit, peaches (always unripe), pineapple, plum, and giant mandarins (unexpectedly one of the most common fruit in the country now). Fresh juice stands offer welcome rehydration in the heat, and how could Colombians do without their arepas, hamburgers or hot dogs!
Even in this tropical climate, unwanted creatures are hardly in evidence (other than nuisance dogs), hence my surprise at seeing an iguana bouncing through the garbage-strewn grass.
Returning to the area of the hotel along Calle 9, a man calls to me exuberantly from within his gate, and so of course I just have to enter his own private domain, focused on a charming narrow courtyard, and hold court on a gamut of far-flung issues, political, social, historical and otherwise, to the backdrop of Bach and Haydn at full volume emitting from one of the rooms in his compound.
Augusto is no slouch, in politics progressive, and in intellect and education sophisticated, easily embracing random and incongruous subjects with gusto. He tells me that his home town of Sogamoso was built on the foundations of liberals fleeing the violent depredations of the Conservatives in the smaller towns of the region, which may also explain why the town has such an open and welcoming feeling to it.
But then of course Yopal even more so, the tropical climate serving to underline the easy warmth of its citizens. Augusto speaks at length about the corruption of the government, and particularly the depredations of the Uribe regime that the Supreme Court is trying to get a grip on. Under his purview Uribe has acquired vast estates in the country, constructed by means of violently dispossessing existing tenants and landowners, a phenomenon that was rife under his regime. Alone in Casanare, Uribe is beholden to substantial tracts of land, guarded with heavily armed security.
When I finally leave Augusto’s compound, the better part of the afternoon has passed, although Yopal looks even more dreary at this time of day than it did earlier on. More prosaically, the spacious and very empty Violetas Restaurante offers an excellent almuerzo at this late hour, including a stir-fried rice dish laden with ingredients, a combination vegetable and fruit salad, and an equally good cream of corn soup. As much as I rail on about how mediocre Colombian restaurant food is, the food offered in the lunchtime almuerzos of often superlative – and inexpensive.
Returning to the hotel to regroup, meaning to change clothing as my current duds are soaked due to the high humidity, it turns out that the air conditioning unit is not working again. Apparently, the hotel is already on it, as the Venezuelan receptionist tells me repairmen are coming at 3:30 to look at the unit. She imparts some more information regarding the sights of the area. In the interim, I wonder if the night receptionist had her in mind when he warned me of those nenas Venezolanas …
On the way out, I leave the room wide open for the air conditioner repairmen, and the receptionist is nowhere to be seen. I had planned on spending the rest of the afternoon walking along the blocks to the north of Calle 10 on which my hotel is located, and that becomes an interesting proposition, revealing more about the nature of the town. Just north of the Exito is a park of sorts where it seems the llaneros in full regalia gather to spin stories and drink amidst the hardware stores and droguerias, probably the only rough and tumble pocket of northern Yopal.
To the east of the carretera, there seems to be a military compound (don’t take photos!) and then above, the Mirador De La Virgen De Manare. I could have considered climbing the hill to visit the mirador, but the light has been so bleak for most of the day. And yet broaching Calle 8, a small espresso bar with apropos design elements, a good place to recharge for the afternoon amidst the accommodating female staff, and then beyond, past the well-maintained residences, office buildings, occasional hotels, veterinarians and dealers of commercial pesticides and fertilizers figuring prominently.
In fact, it seems one of the most prominent aromas in this country is that of pesticides, a sad state of affairs indeed. And now the late afternoon sun is out in full force, the oppressive haze that hung over the city finally breaking. But it is probably too late to visit the Garcero, as the swans come to roost between 4 and 5, and then soon thereafter night falls.
I am happy to be in what appears to be the centre of town, the Parque Francisco De Paula Santander, with its wide walkways, stone benches, surrounded by office buildings, the church itself a surprisingly modest, whitewashed modern affair. A parade of vehicles and horses with riders erupts along Calle 7 on the north side of the parque, apparently to celebrate the female rodeo taking place this weekend, although most of the riders are male.
In fact, one of the only female riders seems more intent on chugging her beer than riding her horse, not that the particularly overweight riders aren’t busy doing the same. For better or worse, a few vehicles from political parties have sandwiched their way into the procession, and I can well imagine that this kind of event would hardly be pulling in a fan base from the left.
Further along Calle 7, other than a few prestigious-looking restaurants, the town assumes a more residential air, culminating in a railing and staircase leading to a dry forest whose bed is covered with dry leaves, the path leading among the trees below lined with trash. I had been warned: do not go down to the river, as the wrong people hang out in the area, and you are guaranteed to get mugged. On the street, there is visible affluence, but that also implies a real carrot for all those who are disenfranchised. There must be a lot of Venezuelans floating around here, certainly also those desperate for survival, given how close the border is. So all the wealth can also be deceptive …
Continuing north along the residential buildings, my problem assumes more of a canine form, the bane of dogs, an aggressive chihuahua pursuing me as I walk north along the side streets. I charge the dog regularly as it approaches me closely, the reaction on the dog’s part hilarious, if it weren’t for the fact that I consider dogs of that type less desirable than cockroaches. At the northern culmination of the town, some abandoned residences, another entry point to the park, the small plaza reeking of urine, on which some chorros are lounging. There is little to entice the random visitor, as so I re-enter the residential neighborhood, and soon find myself in the Parque Ramon Nonato Perez, a narrow park that extends northwards from the parque principal.
From the desultory residences languishing at the crest of the escarpment leading to the river, the Parque Ramon Nonato Perez heralds a different world, more familiar in Texas than here in the llanura. Western-style bars spread across terraces on either side of the expansive plaza, a bulky ceiba with innumerable tentacle-like roots flowing over the bulky trunk on one side. The llaneros love their outdoor cafes and bars, there is no question about it! The parque culminates in a sequence of laudatory signs, extolling the virtues of the llanero culture, and the natural beauty the land holds. It seems very compelling, and yet I have no sense as to how I would actually be able to access such natural settings, especially in virtue of no meaningful resources in Yopal.
Back on the Parque Francisco De Paula Santander, the parque principal, I cast around for any person or agency that may be able to provide me with further information. A museum? Why not? I am directed to a man seated in the far corner of a large room, and proceed to grill him, completely ignoring the admittedly relatively inconsequential exhibits on hand. He speaks enthusiastically about the sites worth visiting in town, although that is not really what I asked about. For some reason, he continues even more passionately about the region along the Panamanian border and on the north Pacific side of the country, true pristine territory in terms of culture and nature. Even better, he knows of a group that is heading for Easter on a trek through the Reserva Nacional Natural Nukak in the Guaviare departamento, for only CAD $1,000, which seems like an incredibly good deal, considering. Yes, considering the average worker makes what – $10, $20 a day? Anyway, I already have other plans for Easter.
He returns to the subject of the star local offerings in town, allowing me to formulate the itinerary of at least one action-packed day. It becomes apparent that I could easily spend the entire week here, and given that I have to be back in Bogotá in a week, I humbly accept the fact that I will not have made more than just a mark on Casanare.
Returning to the subject of nature in the area … he recommends that I would be best to speak to a woman who works in such affairs, and she can be best reached at … but how about we just walk to her office, which isn’t far.
I hadn’t really wanted to sign up for an expensive ecotour, but considering how little time I have in the area, and considering the unlikely reality of not being able to access any true wilderness without some assistance, I may as well commit to spending hard-earned cash and join the couple already signed up to visit some nature area several hours outside of Yopal on behalf of the Cunaguara ecotourism group. The price for the day trip – even when conjoining forces with two other people is quite high, but my problem lies elsewhere, that is, with the possibility that the nature area we are being ferried to is no more than a petting zoo. Let’s say that perspectives around what constitutes natural settings varies considerably in different parts of the world. We will see: and at this point, I have little choice than to go with whatever options make themselves available.
Having been embarrassed into coming to the French restaurant in virtue of having run into the owner on Calle 10 – not that I didn’t want to go – I make an appearance, and am not disappointed, at least not by the food. The waiter recommends I order the pork chops, which come with pasta. But this is no ordinary Colombian food: The pasta is perfectly prepared, amended with fresh basil and a touch of garlic, the pork chops breaded, wrapped in ham, and stuff with a spiced ground meat preparation, and baked in a slightly tart tomato-cream sauce.
The quality is very good, the flavour and texture far beyond anything I would normally be able to eat here. The wine selection is surprisingly good, the French cabernet sauvignon with some depth and finish, while the white Chilean sauvignon blanc is reminiscent of a sweet Vouvray. I am astonished by the meal – well, actually not – this is what the French are good at. But the meal closes on a sour note, as I wait some 20 minutes for the waiter to bother getting around to my table when I have finished, given that he has been spending his time texting, not paying attention, or leaving the room altogether. And that with only 3 tables occupied. Seems trivial: but inappropriate for the business.
Returning to the hotel, I engage in the last errand of the day, that is to purchase a large bottle of water. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But it’s not: most of the bottled water offered in stores the centre is in small bottles, which is even more wasteful. No, of course I shouldn’t be drinking bottled water: except that tap water isn’t safe, and the area is hot enough to warrant continuous rehydration. And then the few places that even sell water at this hour charge ridiculous prices.
One woman has the audacity to tell me that the COP $1,500 printed on the Crystal 1.5 litre bottle is a wholesale price. I am compelled to tell her what I think of her, but keep it to myself. The crowning touch of the walk back to the hotel involves passing a bingo hall, where a loosely knit crowd occupies a handful of rows of booths, each set up with a bingo board. Other than staring quizzically at me, the participants don’t look like they are taking their mission lightly. This sighting made my day …
Back at the hotel, the air conditioning is still working full force. Music on the laptop, and with the functional air conditioning not likely to overheat and crash, an ideal setting for writing in my journal, with the assistance of the passion fruit and tomato de arbol fruit pulp and aguardiente ideal for a series of mixed drinks to fuel my less-than-inspired words. And yet it seems I still have so much to do: edit photos and review text for the coming weekend blog posts, write content for the last few days, research the hotel offering in Villavicencio, do laundry, and then not get to bed too late, given my plans for tomorrow.