Murillo: Mules in our midst

Dogs keep a mule train in line as a farmer shops at the general store.

When you drive into Murillo on weekdays, its shuttered windows and empty streets may lead you to believe you’ve stumbled upon the site of an alien abduction. The town lies in the Tolima department, about 10 miles east of the Nevado del Ruíz volcano, the last community you’ll pass through on the way to Los Nevados National Park.

Farm children stand guard over the horses as their parents shop for supplies.
Farm children stand guard over the horses as their parents shop for supplies.

Founded in 1872, Murillo still has a handful of rustic Republic era buildings, all brightly painted in tones of orange, yellow, green, and blue. It’s a place where the walls of a general store hold decades of coarse history and creaky wooden floors intone folk songs. Although the town boasts around 100 businesses, you won’t find chain stores or strip malls, and the surrounding area is devoted to cultivating potatoes and tree tomatoes, and raising cattle, chicken, and pigs.

If you’d ventured to Murillo during the 1990s and early 2000s, you would have found a community wearied by tensions between government troops and the ELN, National Liberation Army. In 2001, rebels captured two police officers, including a lieutenant and held them captive for weeks.

As recent as 2012, Murillo’s police station – situated in the town square – looked like a frontline battleground position, with layers of sandbags standing two meters tall and a machine gunner at the ready. But today, the sandbags are gone, replaced with a new, fortified police station; and townsfolk seem undisturbed by the past.

You’ll find all manner of animals wandering Murillo’s streets, but it might take a while to spot a two-legged resident. The people are there, just indoors, trying to escape the chill of the frequent fog. But on weekends, the town comes alive – sort of – as farmers converge to restock supplies and gather in hole in the wall bars for a little social life.

Milk is delivered to homes each morning on the backs of mules.
Milk is delivered to homes each morning on the backs of mules.

In a country filled with unique towns and villages, Murillo emerges distinct, seemingly untouched by modernity. Sure, you’ll see electric lights, cell phones, a few cars and motorcycles, and the occasional computer, but overall, Murillo exists as it has for generations. Locals step out wearing heavy wool ruanas and straw hats, dairy farmers make home deliveries, and mules carry crops to market.

The nippy air and ghostly feeling of Murillo might give you the shivers, but the townsfolk will bid you welcome and warm your spirit with their stoic air of pride. It’s a town where 800 pesos will buy you a cup of coffee and freshly baked pastry, and curious residents will chat you up and invite you to lunch.

Outsiders pass through Murillo daily en route to the national park, but few take the time to stop and look around. However, savoring Murillo takes a bit of time. You’ll always find picturesque landscapes of rolling hills and pastures, and scenes from times gone by, but if you stick around a while, you’ll fall in love with Murillo’s inimitable innocence and quirky charm.

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