There aren’t many places in the world where you descend 2,300 metres, climb 13 degrees in temperature and survive thousands of curves before reaching your destination in one piece.
Arriving in Melgar is an assault on the senses. Within minutes of getting off the bus I am handed business cards of places to stay for the night. Crossing the busy main street some graffiti offers timeless advice: “Yielding to vice costs more than it does to raise a family.”
As my girlfriend talks on the phone arranging our pick up from the main terminal we are shadowed by a vendor delivering her sales pitch: “Sandals, bathing suit, shower cap, slippers…” We immediately get down to the business of talking swimsuit fashion after being taken to a nearby store. With half a dozen outfits exhibited on foam mannequins, Kary points to one and asks about the price. Picking out a design, we settle for two swimsuits for $10,000 pesos each. The morning was off to a great start. We celebrate our Melgar bargain moment with cold beers. Before we can polish off the cervezas we are met by Giovanni who navigates the town’s grid before entering an open road flanked on one side by the meandering Río Bogotá and the other by the concrete barracks of the Tolemaida Air Force base.
We arrive at a string of cottages called Anebre. For $45,000 pesos a night we can partake of all the swimming activities, ping-pong, basketball and night clubbing on offer. We would also be given three meals a day. It seemed we were heading towards a very working class version of Sandals Resorts. A quick glance at the parking lot, which wasn’t more than a dirt hill and a few trees, revealed that there weren’t more than 4 or 5 other families here with cars.
Our room was basic, but with pretty much everything we required for a weekend in ‘hot country’: a bathroom, two sets of bunk beds, cleans sheets, fan and closet. With the midday sun rising over this valley of palms and overgrown hedges, we hit the pool while songs emanated from the hotel’s sound system. Lunch consisted of Bandeja paisa; homemade patacones, rice, ground meat, pork rinds, bean soup and fresh lemonade.
After a day of lounging around the pool, eating bat-shaped ice cream, as well as two generous meals, we put the kids to bed and strolled over the resort’s disco. The discoteque had a total of three groups in attendance: a small bachelorette party, which simultaneously drank, smoked and danced while yelling their musical requests to the DJ. Another, more the picnic crowd: sitting around drinking beers calmly as each one took turns dancing with their pajama-wearing infant on the dance floor. And then, the businessman stray who approached our table reciting the names of as many English-speaking nations he could remember under the influence of ‘guaro’- firewater.
Taking full advantage of our weekend, we settle on exploring nearby Girardot and an easy 20 minutes from Melgar. Driving at breakneck speed down the newly-expanded double highway, Giovanni appears in a rush to get his Avena fix for the morning. Avena being ground oatmeal drink blended with milk and poured over ice. After polishing off a glass at ‘Avena Las Delicias’ we decide to do what many in Girardot do on a leisurely Sunday: walk to the not too distant banks of Magdalena River and across the 466 meter long suspension bridge which links Tolima department with western Colombia. Even though the train tracks are no longer in use, Girardot remains a junction for all commerce passing from the interior to the highlands and on to Bogotá. One of the town’s more memorable landmarks is the dark and dank Mercado Municipal, where spices and all varieties of tropical fruits are sold from cramped stalls. On three levels, and with narrow views of the Magdalena, the Mercado is still where many locals buy their goods, while Bogotanos, out for the weekend, stock up in the chilled malls out of town.
As a holiday place, Girardot is home to two well-known hotels: the retro Tocarema perched on a hillside overlooking the old city and the Girardot Resort with its faux-Cancun theme and cascading waterfalls. Just one block from the cemetery is the municipal ice making factory and a key landmark for anyone driving, given the midday sweltering heat.
We leave Girardot under heavy traffic, finding our way back to Melgar through small roads scratched into the sides of mountains. Two hours later, back in Bogotá, we welcome the opportunity to rest our sun burnt skins, expanding waistlines and frayed nerves.