Valle de Cauca Region – The North Valley of Cali
South of the traditional coffee triangle (an area surrounding the cities of Manizales, Pereira and Armenia) the Pan American highway travels along the hot valley floor between the cities of Armenia and Cali – right through the heart of Valle del Cauca. Lodged between two mountain ranges, Cordilleras Occidental and Central, this fertile valley is an agricultural powerhouse growing wheat, sugar cane, coffee, pineapple and cattle.
These towns will probably never appear in a glossy travel magazine or even mentioned in a list of ‘must see’ Colombian destinations. Hard to even find on a map, about the only information readily available on these towns is the lone statistic – their distance from Cali, the Valle de Cauca capital.
I’m always on the lookout for quaint, quiet villages. Diamonds in the rough. Places off the beaten path travelers never visit. Then I like to find out what’s particular and interesting about them. And then I either leave, stay longer or decide if I want to someday return.
Buga – the town of Miracles – 46 miles (74 km) from Cali –is easily the most the famous and visited town in the valley. A colonial gem, Buga is a celebrated religious site, a destination for over 3 million pilgrims every year. Because this is a town where miracles happen.
Back in the 16th century, a indigenous woman, washing clothes in the river, was reported to have found a silver crucifix on the river bed. She took it home and said the cross grew in size everyday. And then miracles began to happen. The cross became famous. Associated with divine intervention, the crucifix was believed to have the power to heal the sick and perform miracles.
A church was built in honor of the miracle granting crucifix which was called: El Senor de los Milagros (Lord of the Miracles). Today the cross is on display in a special chapel inside the church.
Faithful Catholics, from around Colombia, visit this church every day praying for miracles. Devout, religious pilgrims will walk for days along Cauca’s hot valley floor to reach the shrine at Buga and then pray for a divine intervention. They say the physical sacrifice of a long trip on foot to the shrine strengthens their resolve.
The church, Basilica Menor del Senor de los Milagos, is a large church with twin towers and a cupola. It was built in 1907, replacing an old church which had stood on the site since 1573.
But one doesn’t necessarily have to be a religious tourist to enjoy Buga. The town, part of the Network of Heritage Villages, was once called home by many wealthy families coming from Spain during the settlement of the new world. Today the town preserves its colonial historic center which is filled with modern boutiques, hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and religious souvenir stores.
The town is also famous for the Holy Water Ale Brewing Company. It’s a microbrewery and one of the few brewery/hostel combinations in South America. Run by the Colombian government it is staffed with Germans.
Trujillo – a story of terror and horror – 72 miles (117 kilometers) from Cali is a seemingly quiet, sleepy, little agricultural village in the Valley.
But this pueblo harbors deep, dark, shameful secrets. And if one wants to come to terms with the unsettling recent history of violence in Colombia, the ever present elephant in the room, this village is willing to share it’s stories of terror, horror and inhumanity.
Visiting the tranquil farming village with a population of 22,000, one would never sense a major tragedy engulfed the town just 15 years ago.
The town is famous in Colombia for the gruesome massacre called the massacre of Trujillo (La Masacre de Truijillo), a series of murders in and around town carried out between 1986 and 1994. During these years 350 – 500 progressives, unionists, farmers belonging to the cooperatives and suspected guerrilla supporters were tortured, dismembered with chain saws and thrown in the Cauca River running through the town.
The murders were carried out by the Cali drug cartel and paramilitary groups with the complicity of the Colombian police and military who ran an aggressive counterinsurgency operation against the ELN (Ejerecito de Liberacion) guerrilla groups that had occupied the area.
During the counter insurgency operation many innocent civilians were killed. One of the most notable was the town priest, Tiberio Fernandez. He ran a social assistance program for farmers called tejido social or the social web. The priest and many of the poor farmers and village residents, who were suspected of aiding and abetting the guerrillas, were rounded up, interrogated and often tortured and killed. This was called ‘social cleansing’ or limpieza social. The town priest was killed after watching the paramilitaries rape and kill his cousin. His hands and head were cut off and he was thrown in the Cauca river.
Innocent farmers were killed if there was any suspicion of sympathy or collaboration with the revolutionary forces. If someone was killed and later found to be innocent they were called falso positivos or false positives.
The murder spree was investigated by the authorities but no one was ever arrested or tried for the killings. And the killings continued.
Bodies of dead were burned or thrown in the Cauca river to float past the town as yet another message of terror. Farmers were threatened, intimidated and many, in fear for their lives, left everything and just fled the area. The paramilitaries and narco traffickers appropriated their abandoned farms.
Today on a hill just behind the town there is an extensive memorial dedicated to the massacres. Called Monumento a las Victimas, not only does the indoor and outdoor memorial mention and commemorate the victims of Trujillo, but of all Colombia.
The park, established 10 years ago, revisits the events of the years of violence where farmers, workers, truck drivers, merchants, politicians, police and priest were killed. There are hundreds of tombs on the hills behind the museum for the desaparacidos or the people who had gone missing and were never found.
The museum looks at the impact these violent years of terror unleashed on the community. Today the residents of Trujillo just want to remember the victims, family and friends, with dignity. The memorial wants to help overcome a collective trauma. They will never forget the terror and extreme cruelty of these violent years. But today they can live and try to act like it never happened.
Tulua’ – 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of Cali –
is a city located in the heart of Valle de Cauca. A major industrial and commercial center and the region’s fourth largest city after Cali, the Pacific port town of Buenaventura and Palmira.
The city is a manageable size with a population of 200,000. It is known as the Corazón del Valle (The Heart of Valley). It is well known throughout Colombia and many parts of South America as a cultural center for salsa dancing.
The Tuluá River runs through the bustling city center. Just three degrees north of the equator, the weather in Tuluá is very tropical, with hot, sunny days punctuated by intense storms. Thanks to the diverse climate, a lot of different vegetables and fruits can be grown here.
The city has a botanical garden, a soccer stadium for 17,000 people and the Guadua Park (Parque de la Guadua) a 12 acre park with nature trails, a waterfall and natural pools of warm, thermal water, a children’s pool, an adult pool, playgrounds and restaurant.
The city center is bustling during the day but empties after the shops close in the evening. There are jugo and ice cream shops along the river and busy streets filled with boutiques and sidewalk kiosks with a nice food market by the bus terminal.
Sevilla – 90 miles (146 kilometers) northeast of Cali -pop. 41,000. It is known as one of the best coffee producing villages in Colombia. At an altitude of 5,000 feet above sea level it has a pleasant climate and beautiful landscape.
There is a great variety of agricultural products as a result of its climatic diversity: citrus fruits, banana, sugar cane, corn, yucca, and vegetables are abundantly produced. Since the core farming crop is coffee, a coffee culture surrounds the town. There are also gold, silver, and platinum mines nearby.
La Union – Parque Nacional della Uva – 97 miles (157 km) from Cali – It may come as a surprise but Colombia is a wine producing country, too. What country today doesn’t produce grapes and wine? Chile and Argentina are big wine producers. But Colombia only has 3 working wineries and their wines can only be found in Colombia.
La Union is known for The Parque Nacional de la Uva (the National Park of Grapes) is relatively new park located in town. The park features a tour of the Grajales Winery to explain the grape growing and wine making processes.
The tour, which costs $8 per person, also offers a petting zoo and exhibits on how to manufacture sugar cane (panella) and how coffee is produced. There is a restaurant in the park and a hotel onsite. Wine and table grapes can be purchased in and around the winery. At Grajales they make white, red and rose wines – simple wines, mostly on the sweet side, which taste best chilled.
This wine business is new to them…
This winery tour is not at the level of winery tours in other countries where wine is an integral part of the culture. Colombia is still a beer, aguardiente and rum country. This wine business is new to them.
While there has been a growing selection of supermarket wines throughout the country, the taxes on imported wines to Colombia is high. South American and European wines cost as much as they do in the USA and Europe. Wine prices need to come down if Colombia wants to make wine a national beverage.
Still, El Parque Nacional de la Uva is a good showcase for a developing industry. With the diverse micro-climates in and around Colombia;s mountain ranges, it’s only a matter of time before quality wines, matching Argentina and Chile, are developed.
Another Colombian winery to visit: Marques de Villa de Leyva located in Boyaca near Villa de la Leyva. Here they make a good Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and an award winning Sauvignon Blanc.
La Victoria – 94 miles (152 kilometer) from Cali just down the road from La Union is the quaint little village of La Victoria, pop. 2,000. It’s a small town sitting in the middle of farms growing coffee, corn and cotton. Here roosters can be heard at dawn and people ride through town on horses.
There are two bakeries on the main square and when the smell of bread and freshly brewed coffee waft down the street on a fresh mountain breeze it’s a few steps closer to heaven. There’s a restaurant in the square and a few descent lodgings in town. La Victoria is a nice place to unwind – simple, unpretentious with few distractions.
Cartago – 111 miles (180 kilometers) from Cali is a small, hot, busy city in southern Colombia, about 187 miles west of Bogotá. It is in the extreme northern portion of the Valle de Cauca Department. It is located very close to the city of Pereira, a 20-minute drive away, a city which it resembles. With a population of 132,000, Cartago is the fourth largest city in Valle after Cali, Palmira, and Tuluá. I would like to explore this city a little more in the near future.
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