Tamara – A Colombian Coffee Town

A visit to Casanare’s ‘zona cafetera’, on the trail of a bloody historical chapter and into the patio of lovely people, los Tamareños 

“Six hens and a rooster”, Doña Marina sums up her most precious possessions. “And this mandarine tree”, she adds and reaches for two impressively large mandarines that she hands over to us in a casual gesture.

We are standing in a tiny back patio next to an outhouse, a flock of chicken and an outside laundry and cooking area. The mandarine tree and some lovingly cared for flowers, planted in halved plastic containers and pop bottles, bestow the patio some idyll and homeyness. And then there is Doña Marina herself of course, a soul of a woman. Deeply tanned, in her seventies, friendly wrinkles and grey hair made up into a tight knot at the back of her head, she smiles at us with the content look of someone who is satisfied with the way life is. It’s Saturday and her grandchildren and daughter are visiting from Bogotá for a long bank holiday weekend.

We enter Doña Marina’s house. A wooden table, a mattress on the floor and a wardrobe are all we can spot in the dark room that is only lit by the daylight coming in from the patio’s door and the two-winged entry door, through which we had entered the house in the first place. “Good afternoon. Anybody here?”, we had shouted upon entering. We had been curious to see the inside of a traditional Tamara home. As nobody had answered we carefully entered, finding Doña Marina, her daughter and two grandchildren sitting on plastic chairs in the back patio. No hostility, just an open smile greets the four(!) strangers that had crossed her house without any invitation other than her open doors.

“Do you ever close your doors?” “I shut them at night but I never lock them.” “Aren’t you scared?” “Of what? Who steals an old woman like me?”, she laughs, “Besides, I have many neighbors. Here we look after each other. A couple of months ago I went to Bogotá to visit my daughter and the neighbors took care of my chickens.”

Tamara, a small traditional town in Northern Casanare located at the foothill of the Andes on the banks of the river Pauto, has not always been so peaceful. In the past FARC troops controlled the area for years and terrorized the population of the lofty village, which beautifully looks out onto the Pauto and into the mountains.

“All night we heard helicopters above our houses. Young adults and teenagers just disappeared. One never knew if they survived the night. We were so scared. We left our farm and fled to Yopal. I wouldn’t go back there for anything in the world, not even to visit”, our neighbour in Yopal describes her Tamareño childhood.

Now, over a decade later, Doña Marina and her chickens paint a very different picture. Had she been scared, too? Has she lost family or neighbors? We do not ask. Instead we chat about nice things like cultivating vegetables, traditional dishes, chickens and family.

The soldiers, however, we do ask, the friendly café owner we ask, the school’s security guard, who lets us in to have a look around the typical village school, we ask and also the policemen and military we meet at one of the control posts we ask. They answer in unison: “Sano.” Literally translated this means ‘healthy’. Nothing’s dangerous anymore, nothings critical or insecure about Tamara. Tamara has left its dark chapter behind and moved on.

“The Guerrilleros have left Tamara and we are here so they don’t come back”, a young soldier assures us with a sweeping gesture into the mountains before he takes our photo on the loftiest of all lookouts of Tamara, a spectacular 360° panoramic view across the valley of the Pauto river and into the mountains.

In the village we come across excellent food in cozy patios, freshly painted dark green and white houses, flower decorations, souvenir shops and about a dozen of exclusive coffee vendors. Tamara is Casanare’s very own take on ‘la zona cafetera’ and about an hour drive from Yopal, the department’s capital. The small Colombian town even exports its beans to Europe’s popular Italian Illy coffee company (among others!).

There is nothing that is not to like about Tamara whose people always have time for a chat and who do not bother to lock – or even close – their doors. Not many strangers find their way to this remote town of Casanare. One single road leads into Tamara and out of Tamara. Unless one wants to go there, there is no chance of passing by accidentally. The drive from Yopal is a scenic one, passing trees full of white herons, enjoying the views of the plains (los llanos), crossing the Pauto river and ultimately driving on a small single track road that winds its way up into fertile plateaus such es ‘El Tablon de Tamara’ (the table mountain of Tamara), past fincas, mule riding farmers and lush vegetation featuring plantains, bananas and, of course, coffee!

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