Urrao – A Pueblo Full of Surprises (From Issue #7 of The Arepa ©) By Robin Finley
Rich multi-cultural diversity is seldom the first thing that comes to mind when talking about rural agricultural hamlets. Yet Urrao is one pueblo that is as fascinating in its cultural make-up as it is in its pristine natural beauty. Eco-tourism, a youthful artistic consciousness, cock fighting, and weekends by the finca pool; Urrao is a fitting microcosm of the diversity of people and lifestyles found in Antioquia.
Ask anyone who has been to Urrao, and they will first take a moment to reflect on its verdant beauty. Four hours southwest of Medellin, Urrao is a lesser-known paradise even for locals, namely because the principal route there is a never-ending odyssey of twists and turns. Pass this gauntlet and you reach a plateau high in the mountains, a heartland of dairy farms and idyllic green pastures enclosed by the convergence of half a dozen rivers. This marvelous landscape gave inspiration to professional cyclist Rigoberto Urán, who moved from Urrao to Italy and now competes in the Tour de France and the Olympic Games.
For those with a true desire to escape the noise and bustle of the city, Urrao delivers a placid environmental respite of sweet clean air and big open skies. It is no wonder that eco-tourism is one of Urrao’s major industries; rafting and trekking opportunities abound, and Urrao is home to the highest peak in all of Antioquia (“Paramo Del Sol”, 4,080 meters). The route to the peak winds up into the clouds, sampling robust eco-systems and microclimates that feature jungles, waterfalls, lakes, marshes, and high mountainous cactus terrain.
Back in the urban center of Urrao, the pueblo is alive with an almost cosmopolitan hum. As the first town on the cusp of the jungles leading to the Pacific department of Chocó, Urrao has a diverse population of Afro-Colombians, Latinos, and indigenous people. Like indigenous communities in the U.S. and Australia, the Embera native population is so strong in Urrao that the city has two legal systems, one for “locals” and a separate one for the indigenous community. Sadly, many of the Embera people from Urrao have been displaced by armed conflicts in Chocó. In light of this, progressive local government policies respect and integrate the indigenous community and its tribal legal system, a laudable act of upholding human rights that would be worthy of note in any investigation of multi-ethnic communities. Despite its displaced sub-community standing, the Emberas in Urrao have an independent cultural center and continue to actively practice their tribal rituals and practices within the pueblo.
In striking contrast to this lifestyle is that of the typical Urrao dairy or bean farmer, a traditional and conservative member of the population whose concern is sales and distribution of Urrao’s agricultural output. And what is big in Urrao? Cheese and sweet cheese, the latter being a hard dry good similar to arequipe. To wit, the local delicacy in Urrao consists of two arepas filled with a tasty elastic combination of cheese and sweet cheese, something like a Colombian quesadilla. It is fittingly called a “bungee jumpee”.
With a conservative older generation comes a rebellious younger generation, quickly adopting the trends and attitudes of the outside world. Take for example flyers seen around the city center promoting local hip-hop and heavy metal bands. The Urrao Music School in fact took home awards in the 2009 “Antioquia Vive la Musica” competition, a project designed to show off the diversity of music and rhythms within the department.
For a pueblo surrounded in all directions by hours of daunting mountain travel, the vibe in Urrao is anything but small and simple. Its inhabitants can surely see outside the valley, but the town somehow retains the harmony of a wonderful pastoral getaway. Rural meets modern, and like most urban enclaves of the world, Urrao even has a small vegetarian restaurant.
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