Playa Belen is considered one of the most beautiful villages in Colombia. But it is so far off the beaten path few people ever visit.
The name of the town means “The Beach of Bethlehem” and I always thought this inland town had a beach on a river, a lake or something. But this semi-desert town is bone dry and beach-less. It was called Playa because of the fine beach-like sand of the surrounding desert constantly blowing through town.
Located in northeastern Colombia, Playa Belen is a 4 hour bus ride from the Venezuelan border town of Cucuta – now a closed border, it’s another place tourists rarely visit. But Playa and its surroundings are surprisingly stunning. A diamond in the rough located at an altitude of 5,000 feet. Distance and the isolation give this pueblo its own peculiar personality and a weird, quirky energy.
The desert surrounding the town was declared a 1,500 acre protected park in 1988. Named ‘Los Estoraques’, the natural park is unique in Colombia due to its weird geological formations of columns, caves, cones and pointed pedestals formed by 4 million years of wind and water erosion. It has a medieval presence. The rocks resemble castle walls and primitive skyscrapers.
One can just leave the edge of town and wander through the rock formations of this unique landscape. But since it’s easy to get lost, a guide is recommended. And, being so close to Venezuela, they say you never know who you might run into out there. A lot of desperation across the border these days they say. Buzzards glide in clock wise circles above cliffs. Snakes and ant eaters hide in the shadows of the rocks.
Estoraques, after which the park was named, were actually trees of Spanish origin that once grew here towering 60 feet over the desert floor. Whole forests once thrived. A valuable lumber for paper production, the tree’s resin was used as an incense. Exploited until their extinction, the last trees were seen here 40 years ago. Attempts to bring them back proved futile.
Playa is a small town. At last count there were 3 main streets, 367 homes, 2 bakeries, 6 hair salons and 16 ‘tiendas’ or party stores. There’s a couple small hotels 3 miles outside of town. And the town cemetery is located on a mountain top overlooking the town.
In 1988 the department of North Santander had a competition to pick the most beautiful town in the state. Playa was determined to win. They painted the whole town white, the doors and trim of the outside buildings all brown and the roofs were already of red clay tiles. They handily won the competition.
Today Playa is rightfully rated as one of the most beautiful Spanish colonial towns in the country and on a government list as one of the 17 most beautiful villages in all Colombia.
There are 8,500 people in town – all of them of Spanish descent. And everyone in this town belongs to one of four families: the Claro family, Arevalo, Perez and Ovallos. Everyone is a cousin and related. An attractive people, they are uncommonly tall – many well over 6 feet, with jet black hair the women wear down to the small of their backs.
But there are secrets of which they are reluctant to speak. Rumors have it many people in town suffer sever depression, frequent bouts with hysteria and other aberrations of behavior.
Some blame it on a closed uranium mine a mile outside of town. Some blame it on the homemade hooch they like to distill and consume in quantities. Its called ‘bolegancho’ – a clear aguardiente liquor with an extra heavy dose of anise and other secret desert herbs.
Yet others blame it on the town witches – a secret cult of elderly women who practice sorcery, conjuring the spirits dwelling among the deserts’ walls of sorrows.
Something may not be right but they’re not suppose to talk about such things. Especially not to the outsiders.
The town’s isolation had also recently left them at the mercy of a boss and his militia. They were affiliated with the leftist, revolutionary group – the ELN – and financed themselves through narco-trafficking and extortion. The occupation lasted for years. The dark period only ending with the boss’ natural death less than a decade ago.
Today the town people are turning to tourism in hopes of creating more jobs so the young people will stay and not leave the desert. They want to create more infrastructure. A town committee meets regularly debating how to lure more visitors.
Its been 168 days since the last rain. They’ve been irrigating their crops of onions, beans and tomatoes. The cows are forced to wander deep up the mountain ridges searching for grass.
At night the men play tejo – a bocce ball game where a direct hit explodes a firecracker in the mud. For an entrance fee of $2 they get a bottle of the home made ‘bolegancho’ and can play tejo until late in the night under the dim lights behind the town’s tejo bar.
Playa might be too far from Colombia’s other tourist destinations to attract more than the occasional aberrant wanderer. The closest tourist towns are 10 hour bus trips – from Santa Marta on the coast in the north and to the popular extreme sports village of San Gil in the south. A visit to Playa requires at least a two day commitment. But the sights and the stories are well worth it.