I guess there’s a first time for everything, but when the bus driver handed out plastic bags for the passengers to throw up in before starting up the mountain, I got nervous. Halfway up the mountain, a little girl in the seat in front of me began to get sick, so her mother balanced her over her shoulder, meaning the increasingly green child was now facing me. I spent the rest of the ride clutching the armrest, staring at the horizon. Half to control my own motion sickness, and half to stop myself from thinking what I would do if the kid in front of me went all Exorcist on the next hairpin turn.
I should point out that the view on the bus ride to San Gil, Colombia’s adventure sports capital, is stunning. And you shouldn’t be deterred by the threat of falling apart on the bus ride. In fact, I recommend coming here precisely because it’s not the easiest place to get to. When you’re on an extended journey, the mental health benefits of sitting still are often forgotten. Sitting still in Barichara isn’t just an option, it’s mandatory.
Stone street in Barichara.
Just a 45 minute bus ride from San Gil sits Barichara. In 1975, the Colombian government went so far as to declare the former tobacco town the nation’s most beautiful pueblo. With its quiet streets and endless green doors, it’s hard to dispute the idea, but that’s why people often come to places like this. There’s a slick market around finding the places stuck in time, whether or not being stuck is actually good for the town in question. Barichara, however, seems to have fallen naturally into this easy objectification. It’s still very much a community, and like a lot of well-adjusted tourist towns, it’s friendly without effort. The church in the main square does its mass, and afterward the people walk out and into the same little restaurants the tourists come to. Kids play in the streets. Couples make out on the backs of motorcycles. This town is doing its thing and could really care less how charming you find it.
If you hike up the streets to the northern edge of town, you’ll find two truly wonderful features of the town. The first is a high lookout over a canyon, perfect for watching sunsets. The second is an ancient stone path called the Camino Real, which extends a rocky three miles down into the canyon, and over to the nearby town of Guane. The way to Guane is almost entirely downhill, and the ancient path can get quite rough, but it’s worth the hike, especially when you come strolling into a tiny town on foot like you’re Gary Cooper in an old western.
The stone road from Barichara to Guane.
Guane has managed to become a destination largely thanks to this path. The place is like a smaller version of Barichara, and it runs its tourist trade around being at the far end of the Camino Real, and from selling an eggnog-like drink called sabajón. This is a mix of egg yolks, cream and some form of alcohol (wine and aguardiente are both popular mixers). The stuff is delicious, fattening as hell, delicious, probably not the best thing to drink on a hot day, and delicious.
If you don’t want to do the hike back to Barichara from Guane, you’re covered. Busses run back to Barichara every hour, and only cost 2,000 COP (about 67 cents, US). I took the bus, as the return trip would have been going uphill, which is something I generally try to avoid.
Looking over the canyon from Barichara.
South of Barichara and San Gil, in the neighboring department of Boyaca, sits another lovely town: Villa de Leyva. Much like Barichara, Villa de Leyva’s status as a tourist attraction centers around how little it has changed in the last few centuries. The tourist trade is alive and well here, as the town sits just three hours from Bogota, and has become a top weekend destination for folks in the capital who need a break from the hectic pace of the big city.
The jewel in the center of Villa de Leyva is the massive Plaza Mayor, a 14,000 square foot cobblestone space that is one of the largest plazas in South America. The plaza has the additional function of providing a big space for festivals throughout the year. This, combined with the proximity to the capital, has contributed to the town’s status as one of Colombia’s arts centers.
Villa de Leyva’s central plaza.
Many of the residents of the town are transplants from Bogota, or other large cities. They came here to raise their families, or to do something different in a place with more breathing room. The place is lined with the sort of businesses you expect to see in a getaway town: hostels, bars and restaurants, many of them centering around pizza, which people in the region seem to have an almost absurd love for. You can hear live music all over the town, especially on the weekends, when the crowds from the city make their way in.
Boca Cafe and Bar, located right on the Plaza Mayor, is a good example of the influx of new energy. Run by an artist from Cali, it’s a tiny place serving fresh juice, coffee, alcoholic beverages and hot chocolate to a mix of tourists and locals. There’s a nice selection of music playing on the inside, where the decor manages to feel like a throwback to the 50’s and completely contemporary at the same time. It simultaneously has the feel of an art space and the sort esquina bars common throughout Latin America. And it can get away with being small, since its front patio is a 14,000 square foot plaza.
Inside Boca Cafe and Bar.
In total, my friends and I stretched our time in the mountains out for five nights. There were plenty of things we wanted to do in Bogota and Medellin, but sometimes you need a stopping point. A quiet town (or two) where the greatest attraction is to sit under a tree and read a book, or walk through a plaza where locals drink around one guy strumming a guitar, or simply look at a sunset from the top of a cliff.
There’s a magic to stopping in small towns on a trip, because if you stay long enough, you become something of a regular in the places you frequent. It’s easier to feel like you’ve made a home there. And there’s often the sense that the people who live there are being generous enough to help you feel that way.