Our escape from the oppressive heat of the Caribbean coast began with our first bus ride in South America, a 13-hour overnight trip. It started at the Santa Marta bus station, which was surprisingly nice, big, and had a lot of really good empanada stands. We had a couple hours to wait, and our bus company provided an air-conditioned waiting room with a TV showing The Voice (latin american kids edition), which was a great place to pass the time and eat a lot of empanadas.
Our bus ride was very comfortable, and to our disbelief, even had on-board, albeit slow and spotty, wifi. The first several hours took us through dimly lit towns and countryside in a large banana farming region, and then into winding mountain roads with lightning storms and periodic rain. We slept for a few hours in our reclining seats, then looked out the window for most of the early morning as we rode through impressive canyons deeper into the mountains before reaching San Gil around noon.
San Gil is a small city that sits in a canyon along a twisty river. It is famous for outdoor adventure activities like rafting, mountain biking, rappelling, etc, of which we did approximately none. We did, however, spend some time walking around the town, which isn’t too fancy but has a really nice central plaza, a couple of beautiful churches, and a lot of hostels and restaurants to cater to the large amount of tourists who are more adventurous than us. But our reason for staying in San Gil was its proximity to the perfectly preserved colonial town of Barichara, and its little sister, the nearby village of Guane.
We woke up early the day after arriving in San Gil and took a small bus about 30 minutes into the countryside to visit Barichara and hike from there to Guane.
Barichara sits on the rim of a wide, steep-walled valley. Apparently, it’s a popular film and tv location, thanks to the whitewashed buildings with red roofs, flat stone streets, 500 year-old churches, and a tree-filled plaza. It’s a town that is easy to get lost in, in a good way. All of the buildings and streets look very similar, but luckily we could spot the top of the enormous main church from pretty much everywhere we walked, guiding us back to the center of town.
The church towers over the plaza, with red-hued stone walls and a big bell tower. The inside was cavernous and decorated with statues and paintings on every wall. Only a few blocks away, we visited the first church built in Barichara, considerably smaller, with stone walls, a rudimentary wooden roof, and a fantastically intricate wooden reredos (which we recently learned is the name for the decorative artwork and walls behind a church altar – thanks wikipedia!). Next door is a cemetery with a wide variety of interesting gravestones. Ranging from very old and fairly new, some were carved with religious symbols, while others had more personal ties. One grave we saw was in the shape of a tree with a cowboy hat hanging from one of the branches. Another was in the shape of a soccer ball. The graves were very close together, making it hard to find an appropriate path to walk through. Outside the cemetery walls, a couple horses were tied to a tree, waiting for their owners. It couldn’t have been more charming.
Eventually, we found our way to a small restaurant where we had some delicious veggie burgers on fresh baked buns, alongside potato chips, some tiny carrot and celery sticks with mango sauce, and freshly-made blackberry and strawberry juice. The entire meal was just a few dollars each.
After lunch, we started our hike to Guane, the small village a few miles down in the valley below Barichara. The towns are connected by a stone “road” called the Camino Real. It was built in the 1700s to facilitate travel on foot and move livestock from the small farms down in the valley up to Barichara. It begins as a narrow, rocky trail descending down the steep valley walls below Barichara before leveling and widening out, with piled stone walls on either side. The scenery along the trail was breathtaking, with views across the entire valley, passing small farms with cows, goats, and chickens wandering all over. The entire hike, we didn’t run into any other people – the Camino Real was all ours, for a little while anyway.
A couple hours later, we arrived in Guane, a tiny village of only a few streets, a very old church and plaza, and buildings similar to the architecture in Barichara. Oddly, the town was packed, and it quickly became obvious that we had arrived in the middle of a political rally. We had been noticing billboards and posters throughout Colombia for candidates, but didn’t expect to get such an up-close look at one. With the tiny streets crowded by enthusiastic supporters waving flags and wearing campaign tee-shirts, a big motorcade suddenly rolled into town. It began with flatbed trucks carrying as many people as could fit on the back, blasting music and honking horns. Then, a fleet of supporters on motorcycles. Last, a police escort rolled into the plaza, surrounding a silver SUV. People ran alongside it, waving and tapping on the pitch-black tinted windows. It stopped at a corner where we lost sight of it, but everyone went into a large building so we assume the candidate got out there to deliver a speech.
With the commotion over, we figured it was a good time to head home. Just as we were trying to figure out how to go about that, a small bus pulled up. We jumped on, paid about a dollar each, and rode out of the valley, making a quick stop in Barichara to pick up more passengers, and then back to San Gil. We got a pizza that night and headed out the next morning for Villa de Leyva, another colonial mountain town about 5 hours south.