It’s Saturday night in Jericó and somewhere a jukebox is playing. The blast of trumpets you might expect from a town with a biblical name seem to have fallen silent. After a three-hour drive from Medellín, I find a bench in the main square and watch the night unfold. Lit up with bare hanging bulbs of food stalls, the town is teeming. Elderly folk with white hats converse while youngsters chase each other around a fountain graced by surrounding palms.
Under the arcades on one side of the square, neon lit bars burst out a tune to terraces decked with wooden tables. The night seems young and it won’t take long until the vibe pushes everyone on the dance floor. The pantone-colored buildings surrounding the plaza gives this picture-perfect town its charm. It’s mitaca – middle crop – and the coffee harvest brings a wave of prosperity, swelling Jericó’s ranks, and a vibrant hub of this fractured region.
As the baroque meets children’s book church of Jericó looms over a festive crowd, I am told there are few things I should not miss on my trips to the villages of Antioquia: one of them being breakfast. Forget French croissants, thick raspberry jam and other European sweets; what you yearn for is arepa. I had mine lightly toasted, topped with farmer’s cheese and, best of all, served with a smile and the inescapable: “Con mucho gusto!”
The birthplace of poet Manuel Mejía Vallejo is undergoing a spiritual revival as a result of the canonization this year of Mother Laura Montoya, the first saint of this Catholic country, and a stubborn woman who was born a few streets from the main church of Jericó. Founded just two decades before Madre Laura was born in 1874, the family’s home is a busy pilgrimage site for hundreds of Colombians who make the trip to Jericó to pray everyday in one of the town’s 17 chapels. In the town’s main square, one can buy ceramic statuettes of blessed Laura.
As the founder of the Congregation of Missionaries of Mary Immaculate and St. Catherine of Sienna, Mother Laura is venerated as ‘the mother of the Indigenous peoples,’ due to a lifetime educating Indians in remote communities from the Amazon to northern Antioquia.
Laura’s conversion began early and she worked until her death in 1949 to emancipate Indians who were being mistreated by landowners. She died in Belencito, Medellín, and today her house is both museum and shrine. Two miracles have been attributed to Mother Laura, although many faithful continue to be healed by her grace.
Like neighboring departments of Caldas, Risaralda and Quindío, the terrain surrounding Jericó is astoundingly beautiful. Nestled on a plateau overlooking the Cauca River, the village is a patchwork of houses with sculpted balconies, all covered with pot of flowering begonias.
I wander the streets during the busy morning hours immersed in the village’s hustle and bustle. In Jericó, coffee is the fuel of trade and thanks to the beans and a long history of stitching carriels – soft hide and leather pouches – this town of 15,000 is considered prosperous. Hence, the locals take great pride in their architectural and religious heritage. It’s also very safe to travel. Many locals attribute Mother Laura’s permanent presence in town in having helped eliminate crime.
I walk east down the gentle slope of the streets and soon head out of the village towards green hills, coffee plantations and the cold waters of the Piedras River. The web of dirt roads linking rural hamlets offers good ground for my stroll. After crossing Piedras, I gradually turn west.
The tranquility of the countryside is stirred by a rickety Willys Jeep racing by with a load of 15 passengers hanging from every possible grip. My legs are carrying me well enough, so I resist the temptation to hop on to what would have been a pretty interesting ride. All of a sudden, coming out of a bend, I catch a stunning view of Jericó from across the valley. I can hear activity in the distance and come across a few farmers in long sleeve shirts and dusty hats, idly guiding their cows. Untroubled by my alien appearance, they return my greetings with a smiley nod and trundle on, away from the increasing pulse of Jericó.
As I enter the village, there are jute bags stacked high outside a white house with blue and orange windows. ‘Compras de Café Rondinela’ says the sign. The door opens on a small room with giant heaps of loose beans in a corner. Two bare-chested men are filling bags and hauling them on their backs. I ask where the cargo is headed. “A Pereira,” answers one, “Mañana temprano”- Tomorrow early!. Mid season harvests are short and intense. After catching his breath, there seems no time to loose.
I leave the men to their task and head back to the main square: that central space where Jericó meets and has welcomed me as one of its own. I may not have heard trumpets from stone towers, but the mettle of these paisas makes the world sit up and listen.
Getting there: There is regular bus service from Medellín’s Terminal Sur to Jericó’s Parque Central. One way bus fare COP$20,000. There is a tourist booth across from the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes.
Accommodation: Hotel Casa Grande and Hotel Portón Plaza.