Smack-bang between the Andes and the Caribbean coast, the dry plains of Valledupar were home to South America's first cowboys (vaqueros) in the 17th century. Like a kind of Wild West south of the border, this was true big sky country – every man for himself, come hell or high water. Spanish haciendas peppered the arid horizon, their livestock and land tended for the most part by African or indigenous slaves, and frequently threatened by attacks from cimarrones (escaped outlaw slaves).
That same feisty spirit rides today, although the hacienda system is gone and the vaqueros are now a genetic mishmash of their Spanish, indigenous and African ancestors. Itinerant cowboys might work a handful of ranches for 30 years until they scratch together sufficient coin to buy a plot of land to run as their own. Every so often, they’ll scurry into Valledupar to stock up on water, ropes and pistols, before heading back to the ranch to herd cattle and brand bulls, while chickens, pigs, geese and grandchildren squeal and scatter in their wake.
In 2006, Valledupar was the scene of numerous kidnappings and murders as the leftists fought the paramilitaries for dominance. The government's hands are full quelling the residual chaos, and there's no money left over to subsidize farmers during lean times. Though the recent violence hasn't done wonders for the tourist trade, working farms are beginning to realize the potential financial benefits of catering to travelers.
Meanwhile, the growing popularity of Vallenato music is turning Valledupar into a Colombian Nashville, thrusting vaquero pride into the national consciousness.
Vallenato music is an organic fusion of Colombia's three main ethnographic strands, with one instrument for each group: the accordion from the Europeans, the caja (drum) from the Africans, and the guacharaca (scratching stick) from the indigenous peoples. Originally conceived as a way to spread news and share dreams, aspirations and stories of lost love around the evening fire, Vallenato has since achieved international cult status.
Every April, the Festival of Vallenato sees fast-fingered muchachos strutting their stuff in amphitheaters packed with adoring fans who know every word and go bonkers during the guacharaca solos. The songs can range from slow ballads to frenzied extendo-symphonies where the pace seems dictated solely by the level of coke in the musos' bloodstreams. Think of your granddad's German polka music with an exotic bongo backup, played on a turntable at three times the normal speed. It's the score to a Disney movie about a hummingbird with a crack problem!
The llanos (plains) are not for everyone: tourist infrastructure is minimal and the agriturismo scene is still very young. Life here is a bracing mix of tradition, tenacity and hard work, and travelers to the region need a certain measure of grit. But for John Wayne-wannabes and Latin country music fans, you can't go past Valledupar.
Dominic Bonuccelli travelled to Colombia on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow his adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.