“We are proud that people know that Pijao exists. Now the town is on the map,” says Flavio, the rosy-cheeked and smiley owner of the Bar Social, centre of the town’s coffee culture and billiards hall. In the background, old Colombianos are bent over their cues, and the bar’s yellow-painted doors open onto a typical town square scene. A soundtrack of gypsy swing mixed with Latino sounds lends a surreal feeling of being in a small-town Italian or French film.
Flavio’s pride in his town, and his evident pleasure in welcoming the slow trickle of visitors who are starting to visit, is more than just patriotism. Pijao is located on what was until recently a major drug trafficking route, and its roads and infrastructure were firmly in control of guerrilla groups. The principal road leading out of the town was impassable to townspeople past a certain bridge – any further and gangs would demand to know why and where they were going. For coffee farmers trying to export their beans, the route to the closest port, only two hours west on the Pacific coast, was too dangerous, and monopolised by the illegal trade, so often they would use the more expensive and much further route north, over 12 hours to the north coast port of Santa Marta.
Daily life was oppressed and controlled, with any movement or trade overshadowed by lawless drug gangs. But since 2016’s peace agreement between the government and the biggest guerrilla group FARC, which some fear may not last, Pijao has found a new confidence.
Coffee tourism is thriving across much of Colombia, centred around the nearby touristy but sweet town of Salento, and Pijao is a new addition to the circuit, thanks to a unique and immersive tour run by young entrepreneur Juan. Guests on the Wakecup Experiencia Cafetera are led around the town, with its brightly painted houses, where they meet to local businesspeople, coffee shop owners and co-operative members, before travelling out to meet the farmers and see the coffee production process.
It’s this influx of tourists and travellers who are interested in both Pijao’s past, and contribute to its future, that has given this small town a new sense of purpose. “It has given us back our self-esteem knowing that people want to visit,” explains Flavio.
And coffee is not the only local industry that has benefited, although it is grown extensively across the area and is historically the biggest employer. The fact that tourists are starting to visit the town provides an incentive for local people to preserve traditions that otherwise may have died out, explains Juan.
Nowadays, the town faces different pressures. Its citizens recently became some of the first in Colombia to officially vote down a proposal for open pit gold mining in the town’s beautiful surroundings, a plan that would have been as lucrative as it would destructive. Even the local schoolchildren had their say – unable to vote, they painted a huge colourful mural on their school wall, complete with wildlife and the slogan ‘Voto No’.
Back at Bar Social, the scene looks like it has remain unchanged for a hundred years. Even Flavio’s gleaming and steaming coffee machine, in pride of place next to the bar, was imported from Italy almost 80 years ago by his father and has remained in position ever since. A small town but full of stories, and with people who are happy to tell them to anyone who happens to pass by.