Valledupar is a city of a half a million people, the capital of the Cesar department and known as the birthplace and capital of vallenato music. Though a mountain town, it is very much a Colombian Caribbean city rarely visited by foreign or Colombian tourists. But during a single week in April, when they hold the prestigious vallenato music legend festival, the city is invaded by a swarm of vallenato music afficionados from all over the country.
I discovered the city by accident. I was leaving the Guijira penisula, on Colombia’s north Caribbean coast, and heading inland to Bucaramanga and San Gil down in the province of Santander. Facing a 13 hour bus ride from Riohacha to Bucaramanga I looked for a layover. Valledupar was the logical destination, just a 4 hour bus ride from Riohacha and on the road to Santander.
The city sits on a long, fertile valley amidst a scorching, dry savanna, on the plains between the mountain chains of Venezuela’s Sierra de Perija and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a mountain chain on Colombia’s east Andes. On a clear day the snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains can be seen from the city. If you are familiar with the port city of Santa Marta and Parque Tayrona, with their dramatic back drop of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Valledupar lies on the other side of the same mountain range.
Founded back in 1550, the city prospered during the colonial period. Today the city is an agricultural and commercial hub. The city center is Plaza Alfonso Lopez Valledupar, an attractive commercial/residential area of well-preserved Spanish architecture.
The main square boasts the city’s most typical restaurants – El Joe and Compe Chipuco. At the latter I dined on an outdoor terrace on a late afternoon. The signature dish was chivo en salsa Chipuco which was slow cooked goat in a coconut milk sauce – delish.
Evenings and Sundays the city’s center is empty. I got a taxi and had the driver show me the city’s sights.
He took me to the Balneario Hurtada on the Rio Guatpuri. The river comes down from the Sierra Nevada mountains and passes through the city in a river gorge formation. The Balenario is a park, swimming hole and heart of the city all rolled into one. The water comes down from the mountains. It’s cool and clean and a popular destination for the locals who enjoy diving off the rocks and bathing. On the edge of the gorge sits a huge golden mermaid – called the mirador.
Near the gorge is the park where the week long vallenato music festival takes place in April – Parque de la Leyenda Vallenata. A large park, shaded by mango trees, families congregate for a stroll in the cool evening air. They pose for pictures in front of the bronze statues of the Valenato greats: Jorge Onate, the Dio Medes Diaz, who was blind, and Poncho Zuelta. A large American cargo plane sits in the park. Once used to run marijuana, the confiscated plane now serves as a monument for the children to play on.
Colombians love vallenato music. One week every year more than 40,000 people come to the week long music festival to hear the music. The festival was founded in 1966 and has become one of Colombia’s major musical events.
Vallenato is a type of ranch (ranchero) country music with origins in the songs and stories of working cowboys in the Sierra Nevada plains. Along with the cumbia it is the most popular folklorist music in Colombia. It is composed mainly of 3 instruments.
The flute, which was originally an instrument used by the Tairona people to mimic the call of a local bird called the guacharaca – which is also the name of the flute. Congo drums, or the caja, captures the beat of the African slaves. And the German accordion, was brought over by the European settlers, is the main and show stealing instrument. Guitars and piano are thrown in the mix stirring up some vigorous dance music. Battling duets of improvisational, rapid-fire singing, over a racing accordion, is called a piqueria.
The noble prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a life long fan of the vallenato. He said the music had a way of just telling the story at hand – a style deeply influencing his written works.
There are other things to do around the city:
La Mina – if you want to get out of the city, La Mina is a stunning section giant white rocks carved out by the Badillo River surrounded by the Sierra Nevada mountains rising in the distance. Here one can find secluded river swimming holes to occupy and enjoy. A moto-taxi can take you there from the city center for 15,000 COP.
Nabusimaki is a small settlement and spiritual capital of the Arhuaca tribe. Though a grueling four-hour drive to the village, the Arhuaco people, their dwellings and unique civilization, in a natural setting, is impressive. It costs 10,000 COP to enter the village.
Eco-parque Los Besotes – is a 1,000 hectare ecological park in the Sierra Nevada mountains 9 km. outside of Valledupar. The park contains 210 different species of birds and has 14 km. of hiking trails where one can also spot monkeys, pumas and jaguars.
How to get there:
There is a small airport in the city, the Alfonso Lopez Pumarejo airport, which can be reached by Colombian national airlines.
From Riohacha, Valledupar is 3.5 hours by bus or car – 160 km.
From Bucaramanga, it is 8 hours or 430 km.
From San Gil, Valledupar is 10 hours or 550 km.
And from Bogota it is 14 hours by bus 865 km.
For more information on Santa Marta beaches, Colonial towns in Santander and La Guajira – see the following articles: