San Gil & Barichara – the great outdoors never tasted so good

11 Apr

San Gil is a destination on the rise and considered to be the number 1 place in Colombia for extreme sports. It’s not unusual to see groups of wet-suit clad rafters charging towards the river, graceful para-gliders soaring like birds in the sky, or cavers checking and double checking the batteries powering their helmet lights. Known as ‘La Tierra de Aventura’ or Land of Adventure, the possibilities for raising your pulse rate in the great outdoors are endless. For those who aren’t so keep on high adrenalin activities preferring to save their sanity, the list of options for days trips is also huge. Just a stone’s throw from San Gil old colonial villages, waterfalls and pristine wilderness are all waiting to be explored. Many people count on spending a couple of days here but end up extending their stay by a week or more as they enjoy it so much.

San Gil doesn’t have the eye-catching beauty of the white city of Popayan, nor does it have the cultural heritage of Bogota or Medellin, but it does have heart. The 300 year old town square is the focal point for Colombian families and tourists alike. On warm weekend evenings everyone congregates on Plaza La Liberdad to sip cool beers and eat freshly grilled kebabs from sizzling open air grills, creating an infectious party like atmosphere.

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San Gil isn’t renowned for its gourmet delights but there are plenty of family run cafes serving traditional Colombian fare and a couple of American style diners regularly putting smiles on the faces of home sick backpackers. What San Gil does excel at is a growing number of good posadas and backpacker hostals, of which, Hostal Papillon, a Colombian and French owned joint, was one of the best. The laid back and quiet hostal is probably best suited to couples and singles who like the idea of getting a decent nights sleep, cooking in a well equipped kitchen, swinging on hammocks in the garden and watching a movie in the cosy lounge. The friendly owners arrange a number of tours around the area and regularly make fresh bread for the guests to help themselves to over breakfast.

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Just a short bus ride from the town, there is even a water park. Now, this isn’t your regular all singing, all dancing Disney-style park, instead its a completely natural area that mother earth has endowed with a lazy river (tubes can be hired from canny locals), water slides and bubbling jacuzzis. Pescaderito, near to the village of Curiti is a favourite with locals but sees relatively few tourists.

At the entrance to the water park families gather, stretched out on the warm grass watching the kids splashing in the shallows. Tantalising smells pour from portable BBQ’s, cool boxes filled with ice serve up frost covered cervezas and salsa music is played loudly. Natural rock slides have been worn smooth with the constant pounding of water and make a tempting attraction for young kids in rubber rings and teenagers showing off to their friends.

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Small tracks lead upstream beside the river and the further you walk the more peaceful it becomes.

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In places, large boulders line the side of the river and tanned, muscle-bound young boys take leaps of faith as they throw themselves from the top and plummet effortlessly into deep plunge pools below. It’s also easy to find a swimming hole all to yourself. Position yourself under the waterfall for an instant neck and back message or let tiny fishes in the shallows nibble the dead skin from your feet and try not to squeal too much!

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If you can’t get enough of Colombia’s rural life, a perfect day trip can be made to the nearby town of Barichara, often cited as the most beautiful spot in all of Colombia. Buses depart from the local bus terminal roughly every hour and take around 45 minutes to reach Barichara.

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Upon arrival in the town we were bowled over by just how pretty it was. Even the most jaded traveller can’t help but be charmed by the town’s historic buildings, its calm plazas filled with palm trees and tropical plants and laid back bohemian life style.

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Barichara is like the show home of colonial towns and it’s so well-preserved thanks to extensive works carried out in 1978 when it was declared a national monument, it’s really easy to forget the town is over 300 years old.

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Barichara is often compared to Villa de Leyva for its beauty, however, Barichara sees fewer tourists and is more high-end with many boutique hotels, spas and fine dining options. Despite the moneyed feel, a friendly and traditional vibe prevails in the town.

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There are several noteworthy churches to see and a park filled with sculptures and stunning views into the neighbouring valley but the best way to enjoy what Barichara has to offer is to get lost aimlessly wandering the cobbles. Thoughts turn to what it would be like to live in one of these picture postcard homes with whitewashed walls, tiled roofs, red brick borders, brightly painted shutters and doors, inner courtyards and furnishings with designer flair.

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One such a meander, led us to a corner shop selling the regions most famous delicacy – Hormigas Culonas, literally and terrifyingly translated as FAT BOTTOM ANTS!

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The coffee-coloured critters are deep fried whole and sprinkled with salt.

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We’d hoped they’d be a tasty and healthy snack with a beer but instead they were like chewing a mouthful of earth, with a bitter aftertaste. As with many South American specialities, there had been no attempt to disguise the ants and we had to stare each poor little fella in the antenna before devouring him!

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This culinary delight stretches back over 500 years when they were a staple part of the Guane people’s diet. Back then they were convinced of the ant’s medicinal and aphrodisiac properties, however, in future, we’ll be sticking to a bag of crisps and a packet of peanuts for our nibbles!

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If you ever get bored of wandering around Barichara (highly unlikely), it’s well worth making the effort to walk El Camino Real, through beautiful rural scenery to the tiny village of Guane.

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The 9 kilometre (6 mile) hike from Barichara is an easy, predominately down hill walk, along a historic stone path which has been re-built regularly over hundreds of years and was fully restored in 1864 by the German George von Lenguerke. On sections of the path it’s possible to see unusual fossils preserved in the stone slabs.

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The route takes roughly two hours and along the way it’s more likely you’ll encounter chickens and goats rather than other people. The route descends from the valley rim and deep into the Chicamocha Canyon, past twisted trees and fields sectioned off with dry stone walls. Several of the trees were covered in thin silver sheets of moss comically described as ‘barbas de viejo’ or ‘old man’s beard’. The moss resembled stretched skin – almost transparent but covered with grooves and ridges on the surface. The effect of the sunlight pouring through the trees was kaleidoscopic and we felt like we’d entered a fantasy world.

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Painted signs on the gates of small farms offered temping refreshments but in the expanse of green fields it was hard to know exactly where to find the owners.

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Guane is a real gem. It’s less polished than Barichara and therein lies the beauty. Cracked paint peels from wooden doorways and tumbledown walls lie in heaps where they fell. Large cobbles stick out at angles or are missing completely and require enormous amounts of concentration to navigate.

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The houses and shops have high pitched ceilings with original wooden beams but unlike Barichara, where they’ve been treated and restored, in Guane it was possible to see the passage of time with cracked and rotten beams precariously supporting roofs and in some spots, small birds nested in the rafters.

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The locals lead a simple and healthy existence, with many families still surviving by farming the surrounding land. Some are now also benefiting from growing tourism in the region. A small shop sold local produce such as jams, fruit juices and cheese. We couldn’t help but smile at the sign on their wall with a mantra for long and happy partnerships – “Don’t take Viagra, take goats cheese!”

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From the central main square we could almost see the whole village. Locals sat in their doorways watching the world go by and smiling at the Gringos in town! Lazy dogs meandered around looking for a scratch behind the ears. Guane’s native meaning is ‘A good place to rest’ and we could definitely see why!

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A small museum located on the square offers an insight into the lives of the original settlers, the Guane Indians. The Indians shaped their heads using pressure from bandages, and their deformed cone-shaped skulls still remain. There is also a staggering collection of over 10,000 fossils and a 700 year old mummy.

On the edge of Guane (just two streets from the main plaza) we watched the start of a beautiful sunset over another jaw dropping valley before catching the bus back to Barichara.

As the tree covered mountains turned a dozen shades of blue we felt very excited about the possibilities for tourism and adventure developing across this heartland region and we knew we’d wax lyrical about the treasure trove of delights waiting to be unlocked. We’d even brag about those fat bottom ants – well, if we had to go through it, then so should everyone else!

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