The best thing about Melgar was how easy it was to leave. They checked our cabin over to make sure we hadn’t stolen anything. Then we went to the front to pay for the sheets, towels and lighter we had made use of; then the lady gave me 2000 extra in change–which I returned. We ambled out to a waiting taxi in which we were delivered swiftly at the bus stop. No sooner had I handed over the 3200 to the driver than my luggage was in the hands of a hasty youth who was shoving it into the back of a bus out of town. We left Melgar in the dust, the Kat clocking the exit at exactly 20 minutes.
Our destination: Ibagué.
Unless I am sadly mistaken, and I have not bothered to fact-check what I am about to state as a fact, the whole modern insurgency in Colombia had its origins in the department of Tolima, the capital of which is Ibagué. They are hardy people there with determined ideas.
As you may remember from previous lectures I have delivered on this blog, the geography of Colombia is organized into the three ridges which spread out from the spinal column of South America which stretches from Argentina on to better things. These Andes in Colombia have an occidental ridge: the lowest; a central ridge, the highest; and the oriental ridge, the widest and the locus of our sojourning. Tolima straddles that central ridge, rising from the Madgalena valley–a considerable portion of which it owns–up an over. The great Nevado del Tolima lies close to Ibagué–though I never got a glimpse of it. I’ve seen them from the plane, the line of snowy peaks that stretch along the proud, aspiring central ridge.
Now you should keep this consideration in mind when thinking about snow-capped mountains here: we are in the tropics. The one in Huila–a bit further south–is the highest, but the one in Tolima is 5,216 meters above sea level, and that, my friend, according to my rough calculations is about 17,112.860 feet, which works out to a few miles. Bogotá is half as high as that sucker reaches into the air. Ibagué is nowhere near, being 1,285 m (4,216 ft).
Anyway, Tolima is one of those departments with characteristics. When you, for example, think of Kansas or Nebraska, you may not think of very much and I don’t blame you. Think of California or of Texas and you get a little more, if you see what I mean. Tolima is like these latter. Has traditions: has tamales named after it, has the famous lechona (stuffed pig), has Silva & Villalba for crying out loud, and hearty mountain men of which not a few presented themselves to my gaze in the capital. In Ibagué one would run across saddleries at odd intervals. Not that they don’t ride horses elsewhere–especially up along the Atlantic coast, but it just goes to show what a tough, mountaineering, horse riding, hard core type of chaps these Tolimenses tend to be.
And Ibagué is built on a hill, like Tunja or Manizales. It descends in ridges, so that the slope descends more or less evenly from west to east and from north to south you go up and down like on a washboard (my orientation depending entirely on the Cathedral facing west, which if it does not, then is all wrong). It is a center for transportation and a biggish city with half a million or so in the metropolitan area. Not large, but not small. It has the 70s and 80s climate, a great favorite with many persons of this planet, it appears.
We got there in a gentle rain, and walked in it, and stopped for lunch. It is no secret that the worst of Colombia, after Melgar, is Bogotá. Any of its other cities is likely to be better, especially if you get into the central ridge and the valley beyond it which is the coffee zone. Ibagué is no exception. A fine Colombian city, as far as Colombian cities go. Too much traffic and disorder, but the gentle chaos is like the gentle rain which the locals pay little attention to: nobody covers the outdoor stands, few umbrellas appear, the crowds are no wise dissipated.
And they are polite. Not a lot of foreigners in Ibagué, to judge from the people who wanted to stare but would politely look away. Very welcoming at the hotels, friendly like Paisas–the natives of the largest department generally gathered around Medellin, when not gathered into drug cartels. Yet not aggressive as the people tend to be in Cartagena, and not sulky or sarcastic.
It looks like the city was founded around 1550. They have a lot of churches, a lot of tall buildings, an amazing 14 story parking garage downtown (it is the capital of the department, but it blew me away that they’d have so much parking downtown. I do not think we have anything that size here in Bogotá, as far as parking lots go), and this happy new trend, a pedestrianized downtown stretch of road. More interesting restaurants than Melgar too, and more accessible than here in Bogotá. In a smaller town, things are more mingled, which is part of the charm.
Has its mean sections too, but on the whole seems a lot friendlier and wholesomer and generally well treed. The weirdest thing about Ibagué is Dunkin’ Donuts. I saw some six or so. Even at the bus station there were two, and let me tell you about bus stations: that is really high-class for such a place. It means the chain is wildly popular in Ibagué, though I will permit myself to observe that the bus station seemed a cut above the ordinary as well . . . it had several tiny cafeteria type places for lunch (unusual to see choices) and about six gambling dens.
We had an ample late lunch sitting on old-fashioned red chairs at a hotel restaurant, and then proceeded to survey hotels. Our ingenious plan here is just to walk around and enter boldly any hotel establishment and ask to be shown a room. I have found it helps if you enter with panache. Then, if it looks interesting and the amenities add up I ask, “Y en cuanto me lo puede dejar?” which is a secret code that we have for getting the best deal. We ended up in a pretty new and nice one, more expensive than we usually do, but the draw there was the sauna and jacuzzi, which we used the following day.
The service was of the quality which borders on the right side of obsequious, mostly. It is one thing I value greatly in hotels: the respectful setting down of dishes, the cloth napkins especially in this country, the yes sir we’ll turn on the sauna for you at 11AM even if it has never in the history of this hotel been done before. One of the waitresses seemed to be unable to take me very seriously at first, but that passed eventually as I conducted myself with more than usual aplomb.
And we explored the city a bit. Had good coffee there, but then, it is a coffee producing part if not the famous coffee zone. If I were a missionary of the old school, I would certainly walk away saying that I definitely felt the Lord calling me to Ibagué. Alas, I am neither a missionary or of the school that felt particularly led or perhaps you, my friend, could be funding my life there indefinitely. Another rain came later, and it gentled by the time we left, clearing completely as the bus backed out of the bay.
But no doubt someday I will go back. A quick flight perhaps. You see, that’s the drawback with the southern end of things: getting out of Bogotá via the south is the worst. You can spend two or three hours to Ibagué just stuck in traffic in the south of Bogotá. It looks like Avianca flies in with Fokker 50’s. That would be interesting–I’ve never been in one of those before.