Then came white settlers and cut many Yopos to build their houses, furniture, tools and barns. Grateful for the location’s treasures they named it after its strongest and most common tree ‘Yopo’: “Yopal”
While Yopal is not entirely dotted with Yopos anymore – although there still are many Yopos – it is still very much an oasis, a tropical mix of palms, fresh green, Colombian homes, fincas and rivers. Not quite as wide and roaring anymore – hat tip to industry and global warming here – big rivers still pass Yopal and nurture the llanos that stretch out behind the city to as far as Central Venezuela.
Los Llanos and Yopal are often seen as a vast flat territory that gets extremely dry during the summer months (dry season between December and April). And it does. But then visitors that arrive to Yopal also regularly shout out “wow, it’s so green here!” There hardly isn’t a street that isn’t lined with trees, even palm trees. Scooters honk their way around, grandparents mind children in the shady patios, old men play cards in the shades of the Central Park and the juice vendor jokes with the fruit vendor on the corner of Central Park and Ramon Onato Park (because why not have a park join another park at the corner?). Sounds idyllic?
It is and it isn’t. Yopal’s population easily has tripled in the last twenty years. 150,000 habitants from all over the country go after their daily routine in Casanare’s small but busy capital city. While the town now has all the benefits of a big town (too many supermarkets/cinemas/bars/restaurants/… to choose from, a shiny modern shopping mall (Unicentro), enhanced infrastructure etc.) it also has the troubles of a big town (increased crime, higher rents and a shady red light district). However, it still very much is a small town with a safe and comfortable feel overall. As my friend recently pointed out while we were walking the streets of Yopal at night: “I feel so safe. In Bogotá I’d be picking up pace now to get to my destination quickly. But here… I just enjoy the walk, walk slowly, look up into the stars, stop, look around, take detours to enjoy the mild air – and all this with a handbag over my shoulder.”
Almost every Saturday morning that friend and I meet in Ramon Onato park for a tinto and fresh mango juice. We read, chat and watch the world go by. The world on a Saturday morning in Yopal that is mainly men with hats, ponchos slung around their necks like towels and big grins on their faces as they tell the latest chistes and gossip, shake hands, clap shoulders and hug. My friend and I are rebellious. Women in cafés with books, talking literature, society and politics, we are. The hat wearing llaneros’ wives are surely scrubbing patios, cooking lunches and minding children right then. The llaneras have their duties. At five they make the men tinto, then they look after the animals, clean, cultivate vegetables, maintain flowers on the patio and have the lunch ready for the men that return from the cattle in the fields. It’s been like this for centuries and only slowly the face of the llanero culture changes, as does their way to make an income, their way to dress, behave and think.
With international companies having conquered the llanos, slowly society is changing here, too. Developing one may say. Yopal has turned into an exciting campo-urban mix of llaneros and mall shoppers, business people and campesinos. Very much as have others cities in Colombia, too. Some grasp for everything that smells of ‘gringo’, modern and European, others treasure their culture, habits and traditions, ignore change like the elephant in the room. It’s the latter that make a trip to Yopal so unforgettable. It’s the mix of modern and traditional that makes life in Yopal so ‘agradable‘ for a European like me. It has the cozy village feel, the cultural distinction, the habits and vegetables as in grandma’s times and it also has all amenities when needed.
The Andean foothills form the city’s backdrop and give an impressive panorama. Within minutes one has escaped the city and can immerse into both the llanos’ prairies and the Andean mountains’ forest – or literally into a big river such as the Cravo Sur that passes Yopal.
The airport is next to the city and a plane gets me to Bogotá, Colombia’s buzzing capital, within as little as 30 minutes. Returning from Bogotá, flying over the Andes and landing just where these have lost their breath and give way to the vast llanos territories with their spectacular nature, I always feel like arriving to a magic secret place. The airport is so tiny that you see your suitcase being carried from plane to belt (and that belt is around 8 meters in length). When exiting the plane one immediately smells the llanos, the warm humid air of the tropics.
And it’s so green and dotted with trees, with Yopos, that one forgets to be in a capital city but feels like in a village of 50,000, where the street vendours know your name after you had your first jugo and some llaneros walk barefoot, with their trouser legs rolled up and their hats pulled deep into their faces, shading their eyes from the sunlight, their ponchos swung around their necks to elegantly swipe away their sweat and to protect their necks from sunburn. Perhaps they are decreasing in numbers, those ol’ llaneros, but strong and stubborn they remain – just like the Yopo trees.