As you turn the corner onto the Parque principal, your ears are met by the Vallenato music blaring from the local bars. Men are slouched in shaded spots, guzzling beers and joking with each other — their deep belly laughs are heard long before you can see them. They are likely to be here all afternoon as the sun hangs lazily over San Carlos. The market stalls are awake and energetic, with scents of fresh arepas and empanadas wafting into the square. A noisy group of exuberant children are playing and eating ice cream beneath the mango tree; and paradoxically amongst the chaos, everything feels calm. This is what a typical weekend looks like in the quaint and charming town of San Carlos.
This is what I loved the most about this town; small moments such as these were so filled with life. This can be considered a great feat of San Carlos, given its harrowing past. By no means will this be a comprehensive summary of the violence that took place in this town, nor will my descriptions do justice to the topic, but to provide context.
About 20 years ago, left-wing Guerrilla forces (FARC) and right-wing paramilitaries fought for control. Terror reigned over San Carlos as relentless techniques of torture, rape, kidnapping and murder were employed. 70 % of the population fled to neighbouring cities, leaving San Carlos a ghost town of only 3,000 inhabitants.
My friend Shirly was a member of one of the few families that decided to stay. She saw my eyes widen as she described scenes from her childhood, that to me seemed so far removed from my reality in London. With a nonchalant shrug, she explained to me that death was customary during these times and that she would fall asleep to the sounds of guns blazing in the distance. I was told that almost every inhabitant of the town had lost someone to the violence and through many heart-rending conversations with friends who had lived through it, I realized this to be true.
It was hard for me to believe that this was such recent history, given the energy that radiated from this small town. On every corner, the most beautiful murals adorned the walls. Taking a closer look, it was clear to me that many of these pieces of art conveyed messages of strength, durability and struggle. Along these cobbled streets, people laughed and lived together in harmony. San Carlos remains a perfect symbol of hope, peace and resilience against hostility.
The surrounding rolling hills that were once home to these violent groups are now inhabited by grazing cattle and people searching for adventure. Secret pockets of pristine water (charcos, as they are called by the locals) litter the thick carpets of green. Drowsy rivers run through these hills and are interrupted by crashing waterfalls where the people frolic. Painfully early morning hikes were rewarded with the most breathtaking views of hazy sunrises, and clouds painted amber and lilac. There is a magic in San Carlos unlike anywhere I have visited before.
Above all of this however, it was the people of San Carlos that left an indelible impression on me, as cliché as it may sound. Some were gentle and caring, others fiery and passionate. Some were sweet-talking and smooth dancing, others were innocently hilarious. Many were bright and hungry for things bigger than this town, and some were simply beautiful souls. All were kind and patient, and deserved awards for enduring painful conversations when my Spanish was not up to par. Even the hard faces of strangers would twist into the warmest smiles once a ‘Buenas’ was uttered. The people of San Carlos were what made this place feel like home.
Gracias, San Carlos.