Vallenato Vibes and Legends
Text: Sebastián Vélez | fotos: Proexport; Alamy-Otherimages
To fully experience the charms, origins and wonder of the vallenato – the purest expression of Colombian music – you must go to its birthplace: Valledupar.
The 2010 King of Vallenato, Luis Daza Maestre.
What can I do for you, Valledupar?
Tenderness of love, word made song
What can I do for you?
What a joy it is to be here with you.
A fragment from the song “Por ti Valledupar,”
by Iván Villazón (our translation)
It all started in the early 19th century, or so they say in Valledupar, capital of the Department of Cesar. A ship was on its way from Germany to Australia when it ended up docking in the Colombian Caribbean. It was carrying a shipment of accordions from the famed German brand Hohner. No one knows how, but one of these instruments – previously unknown in the region – found a home in Valledupar.
A traditional vallenato group plays during a celebration.
And thus, a small town of dusty streets became the cradle of vallenato, a musical style that represents Colombia worldwide, with its own category at the prestigious Grammy Awards.
Today, this city of 423,000 people lives, breathes and rejoices to the rhythm of vallenato. In every home, at least one person sings vallenato or plays it on the accordion, and you can hear the exuberant sound everywhere you go. It’s with good reason that Valledupar is home to the Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata (Festival of the Vallenato Legend), which every April welcomes some 50,000 visitors who come to appreciate the greatest practitioners of this national folk music.
It’s just a simple fact: if you have heard the vallenatos of Carlos Vives, Diomedez Díaz or Iván Villazón, and you’re in search of an authentic vallenato experience, you have to visit Valledupar. “The tourists come for the ambiance and the warm welcome of the vallenato, its artists and the very essence of the songs,” says Juan Rincón, spokesman for the festival. “In Valledupar, people sing vallenato as they work, and visitors come here inspired by our music,” adds Victor Ricaurte, a local tour operator who has designed three tours based around the culture of vallenato: a city tour, the Rafael Escalona route (in tribute to the genre’s greatest master) and a journey to the enigmatic Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
Local folk art includes backpacks made by the Wayúu people and the famed vueltiao hats.
The first tour starts with a stroll through the old quarter, which boasts beautiful colonial architecture, marked by the white of the manor house façades. The tour passes Plaza Alfonso López, the Cathedral and the narrow streets of Purututú, Mahoma and Pedro Antonio.
Next, it’s time for a bit of shopping at a downtown plaza full of vendors selling folk art. You can find the famous vueltiao hats, as well as Arhuaca backpacks, made by natives from the region, and all for very good prices.»
Along the way, you may come across a group of youngsters with accordions slung over their shoulders. They are students from the Rafael Escalona music school. The 200 students from this institution are the famous “Niños del Vallenato” (Vallenato Kids), who have performed at the Vatican and the White House. “Visitors can watch the children practice, and if they want, they can even take an intensive accordion class,” says Ricuarte.
A German ship brought the accordion to the region, and this instrument became a part of the local folklore traditions.
The next stop? Parque de la Leyenda Vallenata, the 57-acre complex that hosts the festival of the same name. The park includes a museum that pays homage to vallenato royalty and showcases several artifacts that embody the city’s musical heritage.
Although there is a very diverse offering of food in the park – complemented by live vallenato performances – the best place to have lunch is El Faro del Mar Adentro, which specializes in traditional fare from the region. The main attraction is the sancocho trifásico: a soup made with chicken, pork and beef, accompanied by crunchy patacones (fried plantains).
Every April, more than 50,000 people attend the Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata in Valledupar.
Running through the heart of the downtown area, the Río Guatapurí is the city’s most important tourist site. The crystalline river flows calmly and peacefully, its fresh waters providing gusts of cool breeze that counter the city’s heat. On the riverbank, next to the giant, silver monument of a mermaid, it’s not uncommon to find vallenato groups practicing or simply having a party for locals and visitors alike. It’s impossible to resist going for a dip, but keep this legend in mind: whoever swims in the Guatapurí is destined to return to Valledupar one day.
A sample of the region’s colonial architecture.
Another great spot for a refreshing swim is on the Río Badillo, just a few minutes outside Valledupar. This is also a good place to enjoy traditional cuisine prepared in wood-burning ovens.
Before you leave Valledupar, be sure to take in the sculpture dedicated to vallenato on Avenida Simón Bolívar. It depicts the three members of a traditional vallenato band, playing accordion, cajón and guachara. And, at the city’s entrance, on the road that leads to Barranquilla, you’ll encounter a 100-foot-tall obelisk that pays tribute to life, which closely resembles its counterpart in Buenos Aires.
Members of the Arhuaco indigenous community are often seen in Valledupar; this ethnic group makes its home in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, just a few hours from the city.
Exploring the Sierra nevada
On the streets of Valledupar, it’s not unusual to see Kogui and Arhuaco peoples, natives of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, dressed in their traditional attire. After all, Valledupar is the point of entry to the fascinating landscapes of the sierra.
Groups of European and U.S. backpackers head out in Jeeps to experience mystical adventures in the archeological ruins and towns of the sierra. One of the most popular sites is the Nabusímaque reserve. In the Arhuaca language, “nabusímaque” means “land where the sun is born.”
A silent, sacred place three hours from Valledupar, Nabusímaque is a small town of straw-roofed huts, where the native mamos (teachers) explain that they are here to protect Mother Nature. The green mountain brims with fascinating forests and streams, perfect for getting away from the modern world or simply relaxing and breathing the fresh air.
The Rafael Escalona music school has about 200 students, the “Niños del Vallenato,” who have sung at the Vatican and the White House.
If you’re eager for some vallenato legends, what could be better than hearing them from the kings of vallenato themselves. Simply by asking, you can visit the homes of some of the masters, who warmly tell you about the pride of vallenato and will sometimes even sing a song. In the district of Patillal, just 20 minutes from downtown Valledupar, you can visit the former home of Rafael Escalona, where you’ll find a shrine to the greatest songwriter and performer of the genre.
When evening falls and you are ready to party, it’s time for a parranda vallenata. At the bar Alicia, you can hear the most traditional vallenatos and take impromptu dance classes from the locals. To dance vallenato, all you need to do is close your eyes, feel the music and let yourself by softly taken away by the sound of the accordion. In
Where to Stay
$$ Hotel Sonesta Valledupar
Diagonal 10 No. 6N - 15
Where to EAT
El Faro del Mar Adentro
Cra. 11 No 13 – 03, Barrio Obrero
Búfalo Grill Varadero
Calle 12 No. 9 at the corner
Official Website for the city:
Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata:
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