I drift to sleep lulled by the sound of Tejo explosions and Horses on sounding boards in Santa Isabel, Tolima. The noise of a pueblo in full “rasca” or party-mode didn’t even phase me as I had had a busy day exploring and uncovering the secrets that I am going to show you in this article!
Santa Isabel, Tolima – Pueblo of Tranquility, Friendship and Coffee Axis Tradition!
The quaint pueblos of the Coffee Axis are united in their solidarity with tradition. It is no surprise that in their solidarity, they also create unique identities which aren’t to be compared with each other. That is the beauty of what we call “puebliando,” or Pueblo Tourism.
Santa Isabel is a remote pueblo on the Coffee Axis side of Tolima in the volcanic mountain system of the same name. It is a place steeped in tradition and seemingly untouched by modern Colombia. The residents carry a strong sense of identity and unity. It is possible they grew this solidarity as much from the challenges they face on a day to day basis. At one time they faced extreme violence at the hands of the guerrillas during a previous chapter of the Colombian Civil Conflict which endured more than half a century.
Now, they are looking to the future with a new hope – to open the door of their legacy to international travelers and investors, with what we consider to be an enormous potential!
Is it very important to have a few things clear before you arrive.
- The Weather: With an average temperature of 16 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit) and an altitude of 2,250 meters above sea level (7,381 feet above sea level), this microclimate is chilly interspersed with sunlight and cloud cover. A medium jacket is necessary both day and night. It is advised to layer on and off as needed. Wool ponchos are common due to their propensity to trap heat while releasing humidity.
- The Location: There is no direct route to Santa Isabel, Tolima. It is necessary to travel by bus to Venaldillo, Tolima and then catch a Jeep or Bus to Santa Isabel. A private motorcycle is the fastest and most direct, but can cost up to 50,000 pesos. The bus from Venaldillo to Santa Isabel is 14,000 cop. The road is very curvy. It even has areas which are unpaved due to rockslide damage. Be careful if traveling in your personal vehicle.
- The Terrain: This is the last pueblo nestled high on the slopes of Santa Isabel, a dormant volcano system. The roads to the pueblo are windy and rough in places. The pueblo itself is level on the main street and slopes downward on both sides via the surface streets. Bring sturdy hiking shoes and/or rubber boots for wet days or rural excursions. Keep in mind that at high altitude, you may notice you are shorter of breath and energy may be lower, so plan appropriately.
As a pueblo under development, many of the tourism opportunities are the traveler who has a pioneering spirit and is willing to rough it a bit for great rewards. The sheer originality, and untouched splendor gives it a remarkable charm as visitors will feel like they have been transported 50 years back in time. We are going to show you why!
Mule Teamsters – Arrieros
The developed parts of Colombia very rarely see this rare demographic of cultural tradition. In Santa Isabel, there are more mules and horses than cars, trucks and motorcycles. Due to the rough terrain and wet rainy seasons, many residential areas aren’t even accessible to Jeeps – and therefore must be accessed on foot or via four-legged friends.
Our recommendation: Plan an excursion via mule-teamster and/or horseback to see the local sights and local areas through the eyes of the Colombian Campesino. Experience the rural life first hand as you ride the rural roads and drink in the soaring mountains and constantly moving fog which comes and goes throughout the day.
Saturday Market Day
Saturday morning is the busiest day in the pueblo – and a visual comedy which visitors won’t want to miss! Wander amidst the horses, mules, motorcycles and jeeps which bring the rural inhabitants to town. You will see pigs, chickens and cattle being moved through the streets. Children help their parents prepare their stands at La Galeria where meat, fruits and vegetables are sold or prepared for shipment to bigger cities.
Our recommendation: Drink a cup of chocolate or coffee in La Galeria in the morning and watch the hustle, the humor and the drama of the country inhabitants on market day. Be sure to buy a pound of “Gulupa” an exotic fruit which is grown locally. To eat, make sure it is purple and slightly wrinkly – then cut in half and scoop the pulp out with a spoon, swallowing or spitting out the seeds. Be aware of your surroundings, it is a local joke to ride a horse up into the gallery and parade it through raising a ruckus!
Hike up to Waterfall de Colon
One of the most spectacular, and accessible waterfalls to be found in the Coffee Axis of Colombia, is El Colon. It is over 70 meters from top to bottom. The falls step down and visitors can swim a natural pool, climb up to the highest level and find a small tunnel behind the falling water, or simply enjoy the spectacular view of nature! The cost of a jeep is about 40,000 cop total (more people to share the cost is best! Ask around in the pueblo to see who will travel to that location). By motorcycle it costs about 25,000 cop.
Our recommendation: The journey is about 45 minutes from the pueblo down to a nearby corrigimiento, called “Colon” – and then an easy 20 minute hike to the waterfall. Be sure to bring sturdy shoes and a rope (Check with your guide/jeep driver). When ascending the steps of the waterfall, it is advised to bring a guide who can climb up and throw down the rope for stability as the surface is very smooth and slippery in some parts. Use extreme caution. Emergency assistance services are not easily available in the area. Be sure to grab a guava and mandarina fruits which grow along the path! According to locals, the water at the waterfall is potable.
Go Hiking in the Paramo Eco-System
The opposite direction of the waterfall, ascending instead of descending, is a completely different eco-system called “Paramo.” Considered the cradle of life and the birthplace of water, this is a special and carefully protected eco-system which only exists in a few places worldwide – Colombia being one of them. Almost each Nevado (mountain) system has it’s own Paramo which consists of scrub brush, open plains and occasional views of the glacier at the peak of Santa Isabel where the volcanic caldera lies.
Our Recommendation: Hire a local guide and jeep to take you up to this area. Be sure to dress warm (hat, scarf, wool socks and gloves), the temperature will be much colder and in the open, it can be windy. Do not over-exert yourself to prevent altitude sickness or dizziness. Tread lightly and do not leave any evidence of your passing. Be sure to visit the hot springs or termales, which are also accessed nearby.
Pueblo Nightlife: Tejo and Horses
With a full Tejo pit in the middle of the pueblo, you will have the opportunity to take part in a pueblo tradition. Tejo is a Colombian pastime where small explosives are tied to posts and you throw a rock at the post. When you score a hit the firework/popper explodes and you score a point. The activity is so unique that the Colombian government declared it as part of their national heritage (patrimonio nacional).
Our Recommendation: Bring a friend, plan to spend a couple hours and enjoy. This is traditionally a drinking activity, know your limits, don’t over-imbibe and be careful of trying to match the pace of the locals.
The Culture of Santa Isabel, Tolima
In this pueblo you will find people who are warm, welcoming and busy making a life. Visitors are welcome to come, ask questions, experience a very authentic pueblo which stands apart for it’s rural location and incredible scenery.
From the typical Colombian food to the quaint enjoyment of market-day, visitors will see a variety of color and sounds as they soak up pristine mountain views.
Where to Stay in Santa Isabel
The town has a couple hotel options and a hostal option. Be sure to call ahead for pricing and reservations. They are centrally located and feature basic amenities like WiFi, hot water and private bathrooms. Cost per night can range from $10 – $50 per night.
For adventure tourists who like offbeat destinations which aren’t in Lonely Planet yet, then this is for you. Here you will discover a traditional coffee axis pueblo with a stunning glimpse into the past mixed with all the hope and anticipation of future opportunities.
If you enjoyed Santa Isabel and would like to help contribute to future publishings, check us out on Steemit.com, search for @openmindedtravel! Together we can create information about tourism and expat lifestyles in the Coffee Axis of Colombia.