Life in Aldana, the coldest town in Colombia
In Aldana, located in Colombia’s southern Nariño municipality, the sky is gray, the streets lack traffic and people are always inside. The air is so cold that every breath burns in the lungs. If the sun comes out, a rare occasion, one only needs to retreat to the shadows to feel cold again. With a lack of hot water in most homes, people even hesitate to bathe on a regular basis.
“And every time you do shower, you always end up with purple hands, a shaky body or a freezing sensation in your face, legs, and arms”, said Nancy Mora, a business owner in the town.
For its inhabitants, big kitchens and wood powered stoves are compulsory and are present in every house of the municipality. The stoves are the main source of heat for the houses.
Sometimes, when you go outside, “it’s as if we weren’t wearing any clothes”, Yandún Pantoja, the town’s priest, said.
According to the Apto San Luis weather station, a local meteorological institution, Aldana sits at 3,013 meters above sea level and its average temperature is 5.8 degrees centigrade (42 degrees fahrenheit), even colder in rural areas.
Jesús Villota, an educator from the Nuestra Señora del Pilar school, said that he lets his students, more than a thousand, wear a jacket while in class.
“From July to September, the cold is the strongest. In November and December, we have heavy rains with thunder storms. (…) Hail has also fallen on several occasions as well”, Villota said.
Curiously, the low temperatures do not stop its inhabitants from enjoying ice cream. In the main park, at a store named “La Heladería” (the ice cream shop), Paola Rosero, an employee of the shop, said that ice cream sales are plentiful. Beverages are not refrigerated in the town, as it is never needed.
“The weather helps us to keep all liquids cold. They are always freezing cold.”, Paola said. Only freezers are used, in order to keep meats.
Don Justo, another business owner, said that the cold allows his meat to be conserved up to two days even without a freezer.
“The cold is always strongest in the mornings. A dense layer of fog covers our fields. Sometimes not even the cattle can eat!”, he added.
Aldana has 13 rural zones, where most of the inhabitants live (4,990), and only 1,790 inhabitants in the town. The cold is felt most in the rural zones, forcing field workers to use several layers of clothing. Potato and milk are the most produced items in Aldana. Field workers are ready to work at 4:00 am and end at 6:00 pm. At night the sky is filled with stars, as light pollution is scarce.
In the urban area, which occupies only 0.15% of Aldana’s territory, the main square has a park area and the town’s church. On any given day it is filled with retired, elderly citizens. They wear a “ruana”, a traditional piece of clothing that keeps them warm. The town is notable for its life expectancy. Some of the older town residents in the city square are well into their 80’s.
Andrés Mauricio Valenzuela, a medical doctor from the town, said that the cold seems to be a factor in extending the lives of townspeople.
Unlike other parts of Colombia, where most eat frijoles and rice and drink wine, the people of Aldana eat bread. Vladimir Chingal claims to make the best bread in Aldana in his “La Confianza” (The Confidence) bakery. His said that his secret is keeping the bread fresh.
“We put a large amount of butter in the batter so that the bread never hardens”, he said.
Nancy Mora also revealed that the most that her customers consume is coffee and heated wine to combat the cold. By 7pm, everyone is home due to the cold.
On weekends, the dynamics change. There are soccer and “chaza” tournaments, a local sport similar to tennis and racquetball. Some go to the Blanco river swim in its cold waters. A short distance away one can find the thermal waters of Tulcán, near the border with Ecuador.
There are also night clubs and bars, but the schedule is very limited, open only from 3:00 pm to 10:00 pm. Even when drinking liquor, the cold becomes too much.
“The cold won’t let them concentrate on the music, on dancing or on drinking”, said Adriana Ramírez, owner of “Los Tejados”, one of the two night clubs in the town.
Police officers are the only ones who can’t go home, because they remain on duty well into the night. Some of them have experienced sub zero temperatures.
However, Aldana has not escaped from climate change. In the decades prior, the town would have several months of snow. However the snow no longer falls in Aldana.
Noris Herrera, born in Cartagena in Colombia’s tropical coast, has lived in Aldana for two years, working as a bacteriologist. She says that the sun reminds her of her sunny beach days on the coast, but without the heat. She said that she needs layers of wool blankets to sleep at night.
In Aldana, not even the merciless sun can conquer the cold. It never leaves, it just hides itself and hides, waiting to come back.