Bucaramanga has a reputation for being a perfect, manicured, plastic tropical paradise. Some of this seems fair--the road from the airport is indeed lined by pleasant but soulless landscaping, the people all dress immaculately, and women tend to be heavily operated. However, the city as seen from the airport on the other side of its deep valley is a harmonious, naturally elegant sight. Houses perch on flat planes nested into (and dwarfed by) the forested mountainside, and there is an air of wild majesty about it all. The dinky airport, thought typical of what I'm coming to know of Colombian provincial airports, does not live up to the city's stylish pretenses, but the bus terminal is big and orderly and complex. Everything in Bucaramanga costs even more than in Bogotá, from cab rides to toilet service.
If you're headed for Cesar, the lowland department that commences the Caribbean plain zone, the culture switches to Afro-coastal as soon as you get in the bus. Fellow passengers, from the guys on leave from oilrig work in the Eastern Plains, to the driver who doesn't respond to his 8-year-old son's questions and curiosity but does lovingly tolerate the boy's playing with his right (transmission) hand or feeling his stubble, don't look very African. More like very tan southern Europeans or Pakistanis. But the cadence of their speech, their inelegant clothes, the humble houses with ample front sitting areas that they get off at during the four-hour ride, all speak to Afro-Colombian influence more than the Andean culture of Santander.
The ride is mainly descent, sometimes down twisting switchbacks. The houses starting around El Playón are surrounded by cacao groves, citrus trees, and plantain, a warmer-climate twist on the small peasant gardens I know from Boyacá. After a short and subtle rise, during which we go parallel and upstream to a river flowing southward, we descend a bit more, over a hump past which all rivers will flow north (though in both cases the final destination of the water is the Magdalena river and eventually the Caribbean sea). The land here is rolling hills, but essentially flat. We're out of the Andes now.
With my sustainable grazing advocate's eye I scan the pasture on either side of the road. Judging by the short grass and infrequent fences, I believe the cattle are left to graze free many days in each lot, instead of being moved every day or two to a small new patch of grass. This means the livestock system is inefficient and damaging to the soil.
Sometimes we pass huge oil palm plantations, all long, endless alleys of mossy, fern-draped shade and low undergrowth on the ground. This production system is usually demonized because it impoverishes native forest and drives people off the land. But these cool, quiet groves seem like a big improvement on mismanaged pastures.
Roadside villages follow an African model. Venerable big mango and ceiba trees dotted about the town, ugly concrete houses shaded by backyard fruit groves, packed dirt yards and congregation spots, ramshackle unpaved roads leading off the main asphalt thoroughfare. There is even a kind of sacred wood in the middle of Aguachica, a very African touch. Atop the poultry truck in front of us there is a man sleeping soundly inside a cage he has fashioned perched amid the squawking chicken crates.
Then all of a sudden we're at a chaotic crossroads, the outskirts of Aguachica. The driver shoos me off the bus in his unintelligible drawl, and a taxi spirits me to a massive concrete hotel in the city center. My toilet there flushes weakly, the internet signal doesn't reach my room well. I make a reserved fuss, but eventually decline the cavernous 5-bed room they offer me for the night, which doesn't get internet either. I think my keeping my cool has won the sympathy of a hotel administrator, who promises to take care of my case and get me a better room tomorrow.
I take a walk in the neighborhood, and am a bit spooked by a guy waiting alone on a landing of the pedestrian bridge over the main avenue. Is he going to rob me? Recruit me into a paramilitary group? But then I see a father and daughter on the bridge taking photos of the traffic below, then a pair of pre-teen girls sitting and talking in a corner where a tree overhangs the bridge. All these people are just enjoying the moist, black, private cool, high above nighttime's urban bustle. A respite before facing a new, sweltering tomorrow.