Climate, Culture, and the Cauca River in Santa Fe, Colombia

Those of you carrying around an image of Colombia as a lush tropical haven are not far off when it comes to many parts of the country, I’m sure. But in a country with so many mountains, you’re bound to have a rain shadow somewhere. That would be where you would find the pueblo of Santa Fe. Resting in a topographic pocket between two cordilleras of the Andes, this place sees little rain. Surrounded by wilted vegetation and crispy golden grasses, I could almost imagine I was in California.

Santa Fe's landmark church in the Central Plaza.

Santa Fe’s landmark church in the Central Plaza.

On the last day of the conference I attended in Medellín, we were packed into tour vehicles and bused up and down some very windy roads to the pueblo of Santa Fe, about 45 miles to the northwest of the city. Our destination: The Cauca River.

The Cauca River

The Cauca River divides two Andean cordilleras. Those who study Colombian paleoclimate are very excited about laminated sediment cores they’ve pulled from the Cauca because they provide climate information going back perhaps as far as 4000 years. This is one of the few areas of the country where they’ve been able to recover climate info from sediments – too many areas of the country have been unsafe for geologic exploration in the past few decades.

The variations in sediments through the core (as you go from the oldest to the youngest) show that this region has been getting wetter over time (as hard as it was to believe on the day of our visit!). This might have some big implications for tropical atmospheric circulation patterns over the past few thousand years.

Conference participants examine cores from the Cauca River.

Conference participants examine cores from the Cauca River.

We made a couple of stops by the river so that our Colombian hosts could help orient us to the geography and give us some of the scientific background. The first stop was along a very busy 2-lane highway, where big trucks and cars of every sort trundled past as we tried to listen to our speakers. More distracting than the big trucks were the Colombians who slowed down while passing by so that they could take photos of our group. I suppose we were a rather unusual sight in rural Colombia!

While we took photos of the river, passing Colombians took photos of us.

While we took photos of the river, passing Colombians took photos of us.

At our second stop, we had the option of hiking to the outcrop where they pulled up the sediment cores, or walking along the river to an old suspension bridge – one of the first, and the longest, suspension bridges in northern South America. I’m normally up for a hike of any sort. BUT. The Cauca River, and the pueblo of Santa Fe, sit at an elevation of ~1000 ft – much lower than the city of Medellín. Some simple thermodynamics will tell you it’s going to be much hotter. I’ve been to the desert before. I lived in the Central Valley of California. I know what HOT means. And temps on this day were right up there over 100F.

So I chose the suspension bridge and a walk over the water instead of a sweaty hike through dry tropical forest. What can I say? I’m a meteorologist at heart – more interested in water than rock. The bridge had it’s own thrills. And I could buy ice cream on the other side.

Suspension bridge across the Cauca River, near Santa Fe, Colombia.

Suspension bridge across the Cauca River, near Santa Fe, Colombia.

The Pueblo

After exploring the river a bit, we were treated to a traditional meal in a quaint little restaurant in the pueblo of Santa Fe. The pueblo definitely had its charms – lots of brightly painted colonial buildings, some adorned in bright purple bougainvillea, churches in every corner of town connected by cobblestone streets.

The pueblo of Santa Fe has been touted as one of the big tourist destinations in Colombia. If you find yourself in Colombia, someone will probably recommend that you go there. That reputation alone led me to expect to get hassled by vendors in the streets. I was expecting to find keychains and T-shirts made in China, with the name ‘Santa Fe’ featured prominantly. I was expecting rows of people selling handicrafts. But I hadn’t considered that Colombia is not really a big international tourist destination. It seems to be a bit off the beaten track for anyone but young European backpackers.

In the Central Plaza, Santa Fe.  The local buses (pictured here) are all this colorful.

In the Central Plaza, Santa Fe. The local buses (pictured here) are all this colorful.

However, Santa Fe is a tourist destination for Colombian tourists.The vendors lining the central plaza were selling a mix of merchandise you might expect to find at any flea market in the US. There was a line of fruit vendors along one side of the plaza, but the others were selling clothes, sunglasses, tote bags – anything you might have forgotten and realized you needed on your long, relaxing weekend in Santa Fe. It was refreshing to find a place lacking the same tourist kitsch you find everywhere else in the world. I don’t expect it will remain that way, and I felt privileged to view it in a more natural state.

The Food

I can’t move on before making a note about the meal we were served at that quaint restaurant. Most Latin American countries have their own plato de comida tipica (‘typical food’) and in Santa Fe, we were treated to the tradition meal of the region, entitled ‘bandeja paisa.’ This mountain of food includes ground meat and sausage, black pudding (um…this would be the pudding you might associate with an English breakfast – not the ‘Jello’ brand), beans and pork, eggs, rice, plantains, and arepas (Colombian version of a tortilla). If you’re lucky, you’ll get a piece of avocado with it, and that will have to satisfy your craving for anything green.

If you’re vegetarian, don’t worry, you can probably fill up on fresh-squeezed juices alone. I eat meat, but I tend to be a grazer, and have a tough time with big meals – even on a cold winter’s day in Colorado. When it gets above about 90F, I only want salads. But I made a point of sampling nearly everything (minus the pudding).

The Climate

Have I mentioned yet how HOT it was on the day of our visit? I think what struck me the most about this place was that, given our proximity to the Equator, this region experiences very little in the way of a seasonal cycle. There is a ‘wetter’ season, but it’s generally hot year-round. Without A/C, most buildings are designed to catch  any breeze that might pick up.

It’s difficult to find weather data online for many places outside of the large cities in South America. Here in North America – as well as Europe – we take our long and nearly-trustworthy weather record for granted. When we talk about our 100+ year instrumental temperature record, it’s easy to fall into thinking that this is a global record. But we’re still missing lots of data. This is why paleo-records from remote areas are so important. This is also why new instruments in these more remote locations mean so much to us. We are confident in our understanding of what has happened on a global scale over the past few hundred years. But, to better prepare for the future, we need to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. So I definitely share that excitement the Colombian scientists have for new paleoclimate data. Every bit helps.



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