The instructions seem easy enough, my car steady. Alvaro, my well-intentioned mechanic from Tolima assures me it’s an easy drive to La Chamba. He knows the hamlet exists and confirms that it’s off the Pan-American Highway. “Cross the suspension bridge over the Magdalena River, take the highway to Espinal and when you reach a sign saying La Mona make a left.”
I trust Alvaro as I do a new set of new brakes, so I venture west, leaving urban sprawl in search of a town that lends its name to unique pottery so essential in a Colombian home yet rare and costly around the world. The drive from Bogotá to the Magdalena takes me through the resort towns of La Mesa, Anapoima and Apulo, typical pueblos built around blue tile swimming pools.
In three hours I pull into Girardot’s main square overlooking the languid river flanked by the three-tier market, built at the turn of the last century. As Girardot was a port town where goods would arrive by boat from Barranquilla and beyond, a market flourished here. Today, it’s an obligatory stop on the road to southern Colombia.
I start looking for La Mona, Alvaro’s key landmark. Charred and exposed under the midday sun and caressed by the exhaust from passing cars, the stuffed pigs of “La Mona Original” are a gut wrenching sight. Stuffed with chickpeas and rice, the home of the traditional Lechona Tolimense seems to be doing brisk business. I stand in line to pluck at pork rind. Whoever La Mona is or was, she seems to have been cloned. After chewing off some greasy chicharrón and a plate of fried pork; just down the road I see half a dozen other “Mona” grill pits.
I finally find the exit next to another pig on a steel tray. Now entering rice fields and acacia trees, gravel turns to dust. After twenty minutes of potholes, I arrive at La Chamba. This Colombian hamlet is rich in fruit, yet seemingly poor. The drone of the Magdalena River seems to have washed away ambition. The sale of wild mangos and avocados brings in some petty cash for local potters. The tourists just don’t come the distance.
On the front porch of every thatched hut are rows of plates and bowls. Being the only outsiders in town, we have the pick of the pottery. Luz Maria Rodríguez extends her elbow to greet me, her hands caked in clay. She escorts me into her courtyard where she has been sitting all morning working the black earth. Her husband, José Angel, is glad to have guests in his village and eager to walk me through his garden orchard. Stepping over shards of broken pottery and decaying banana stumps, I join Luz Maria at her pottery wheel. There is no talk of having me buy her Chamba, just a genuine interest in explaining what makes this pottery so unique.
La Chamba’s pottery is naturally black, thanks to the sediment of the Magdalena. By mixing the black clay with some coarse sand, the women mold their creations before placing them in ovens to dry. Once the objects are cured by the tropical sun and fire, they are polished with an agate stone.
Luz Marina laments that times are tough in La Chamba. Although the plates and bowls fetch good prices in Bogotá, the return for their work is marginal given the cost of transporting by truck and the wholesalers’ cut. As she polishes-off a handsome looking flower vase with a pink stone, José Angel hands me some green bananas cut from his garden. It’s a generous gesture from an elderly man who lives to put food on his table and buy expensive medication to curb the spread of his wife’s cancer.
I stock up on plates and serving bowls from Luz Marina’s store before hitting the dust on four wheels. As the afternoon casts a golden hue over huts and grazing cattle, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of this fertile valley and the generous spirit of La Chamba’s pottery makers.