The accent of Ibagué is a slow relaxed drawl, the kind of accent that conjures up Huckleberry Finn type images of straw hats and wooden rafts, amiable characters and a very distinct provincialism. Those images aren’t far off. The city, which is known as Colombia’s “Musical Heart” is green and breezy, and despite its relatively large size (approximately 520,000) maintains the ambiance of a small pueblo.
The capital of the department of Tolima lies on the eastern slopes of the Cordillera Central between two tributaries of the Coello River. It is situated on the road from Bogotá to Cali in a large flat valley, surrounded by fertile fields which produce rice, tobacco and coffee. Much of Ibagué’s development is due precisely to its location, being a midway point between the capital and the Pacific.
Capital of culture
The city was built around Plaza Bolívar, a spacious square with beautiful tall deciduous trees. At most times of the day you can find old men with Aguadeños drinking, smoking and gossiping. Ask them about Ibagué and they will proudly chat with you about its musical history, the fantastic festivals and the central place it holds in Colombian folklore and traditions.
It is true that around the city there are many places to sample the famous music of the city. If you walk down Calle 9 from the square towards the mountains you will find the Salon Alberto Castilla, the Music Conservatory. Built in 1854, the Conservatory is beautifully ornate inside, with high ceilings, clay tiling and hard wood floors. The conservatory acts as a school and a live venue. The shady Parque de la Música in front of the Salon, offers a cool stopping point with striking view of the mountains, a fantastic spot to eavesdrop on the music coming from inside the old building.
Heading back up to the main plaza past the Palacio de Justicia, which occasionally has photographic and historical exhibition and the large white Cathedral, you will reach Carrera 3, the main commercial street in the city. Teatro Tolima, the best place in the city to listen to music and sample local dance lies at the centre of the street. In this area you’ll also find many restaurants, bars and shops selling various handicrafts, such as instruments and hats.
Taste the local lechona
A short taxi trip out of the centre to Lechoneria Eduvina on Carrera 14 with Calle 31 in the east of the city is absolutely essential. Here, in this 117-year-old restaurant you can sample lechona, one of Tolima’s most emblematic dishes. Preparation involves stuffing a pig with rice, yellow peas, green onions and spices and cooking it for ten hours in a clay oven. The restaurant is a favourite of Ibaguéans, and there is often a queue to sample the delicious delicacy.
Close to the city you can visit the San Jorge Botanical Gardens, the Tolima Orchid Foundation and the Santa Fe de Los Guaduales Ecological Reserve. All of these places are easily accessible by bus and offer trails which allow you to observe beautiful vegetation up close.
Leave town behind
Another option for a day trip is Club Campestre de Ibagué. This country club, 5 kilometres outside of the centre, is a sports lover’s paradise. Here you can play golf, tennis, squash, basketball, football, tejo, swim or get a massage. It’s a particularly good choice for families with small children as there are multiple kids’ pools with lots of lifeguards.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, head to Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, home to the imposing, snow capped Nevado del Tolima. To access the mountain, you have to travel about an hour away from Ibagué to a small town called El Silencio. Of course, the peak of Nevado del Tolima is some 5274 metres up and you’ll need to have proper training and experience to climb it. Nonetheless, the National Park is beautiful and offers many accessible walks and hikes, the area around Cañon del Río Combeima being particularly breathtaking.
Colombia’s appreciation for the joys of a long weekend is virtually unmatched by any other culture and Ibagué with its climate, proximity to Bogotá, music, culture and outdoor activities make it one of the best places to understand why this tradition has such a central place in the hearts of Colombians.