Murillo, Colombia: Life in the Mist

Photographs and text by Michael Evans

Author’s Note: This story first appeared in the June 2013 edition of The City Paper.

When you drive into Murillo, its shuttered windows and empty streets might make you think you’ve stumbled onto the site of a mass alien abduction. Nestled high in the mountains of the Tolima Department, about 10 miles east of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, Murillo is the last community you’ll see on the way to Los Nevados National Park.

Founded in 1872, this village still has a handful of rustic Republic-era buildings, all brightly painted in shades of orange, yellow, green, and blue. It’s a place where the walls of a general store hold decades of coarse history and creaky wooden floors intone folk songs. Murillo boasts around 100 businesses, but you won’t find chain stores or strip malls, and the surrounding area is devoted to cultivating potatoes and tree tomatoes, and raising cattle, chicken, and pigs.

If you’d ventured to Murillo during the 1990s or early 2000s, you would’ve found a community wearied by tensions between government troops and National Liberation Army guerrilleros. In 2001, rebels captured two police officers, including a lieutenant, and held them captive for weeks.

As recent as 2012, Murillo’s police station looked like a frontline battleground position, with layers of sandbags standing two meters tall and a machine gunner at the ready. But today, the sandbags are gone — replaced with a new, fortified police station — and townspeople seem undisturbed by the past.

You’ll find all kinds of animals wandering Murillo’s streets, but it might take a while to spot a two-legged resident. The people are there, just indoors, trying to escape the chill of the frequent fog. But on weekends, the town comes alive — sort of — as farmers converge to restock supplies and gather in hole-in-the-wall bars for a little social life.

In a country filled with unique towns and villages, Murillo emerges particularly distinct, seemingly untouched by modernity. You’ll see electric lights, cell phones, a few cars and motorcycles, and the occasional computer, but overall, Murillo exists as it has for generations. Locals wander out wearing heavy woolen ruanas and straw sombreros, dairy farmers make home deliveries, and mules carry crops to market.

Murillo’s nippy air and ghostly feeling might give you the shivers, but the townsfolk will bid you welcome and warm your spirit with their stoic pride. It’s a town where 800 pesos will buy you a cup of coffee and a freshly baked pastry, and curious residents will chat you up and invite you to lunch.

Outsiders pass through Murillo daily en route to the national park, but few take the time to stop and look around. Savoring Murillo takes a bit of time. You’ll always find picturesque landscapes of rolling hills and pastures, and scenes from times gone by, but if you stick around a while, you’ll also fall in love with Murillo’s inimitable innocence and quirky charm.

I’m pleased to announce my new photobook, My Colombia: The First Seven Years. Preview and purchase the book at my website.

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