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Canyons and Colonial Towns, COL


July 8th

Our destination on this Saturday afternoon, was a campsite overlooking a canyon and just past the entrance to the national park Chicomochi, so we stopped at the park first to check it out first. There was a fee to park (and parking was made difficult by non-thinking staff who sent us down the wrong aisle!) and then we paid the entrance fee which included a trip on the teleferico (gondola). First you walk through the very touristy entry area that offers restaurants, shops, and options of many things to do other than the teleferico (a cable ride – like a zipline, a swing that goes out over the edge of the cannon, buggy rides and more). There was even a water park across the road! Despite this being a national park with fabulous views, a commercial enterprise has come in and made it super touristy in this section. There was a large monument as well to the freedom from the Spanish which had an audio recording both in Spanish and English that was pretty impressive.

You can walk to different levels to get better views and we had hoped to get to the uppermost one and have lunch where they advertised 360 views but upon arriving up there, although the views were awesome, there was only a café on top. We ordered fruit smoothies and pastries for lunch while admiring the scenery.

The clouds had begun to come in so we headed to the gondola and it turned out it not only went to the bottom of the canyon without stopping but took you across the river and up the other side to the other rim. That side is not very commercialized – just a parking lot and a restaurant. We had met a nice Colombian family on the ride here and then after disembarking, turned around and went back with another family. The ride was more than 25 minutes each way certainly giving you your money’s worth.

We drove the 5km to our camping spot for the next couple of days and Ruedi and Elvira were there already – they had not stopped at the park. Sergio greeted us and helped us get set up and also said he could arrange for a paraglide for the next day for Fran.

We are now at 1500 metres high (4900′) and it’s still pretty warm during the day  but cooled down fairly well at night – at least it’s not humid and we don’t need air con.

Sunday morning, we were picked up by Paravolvar Paragliding around 10:30 and driven (less than a 1km!) to the jump off/landing spot. There were about a dozen others there and after filling in the paperwork we waited close to an hour before it was Fran’s turn. Jorman, her pilot, had landed his previous rider in the bushes not on the landing spot (gulp!)so she had to make her way down a few metres to him and after a few false starts, they got out of the brush and took off – not too impressed but he apparently has 20 years experience…. The ride is supposed to be 20 minutes, but she was up there for about 25 and they are supposed to take 10 photos as part of the package we bought, but she got 20! Must have helped telling them it was her birthday (or maybe he was trying to make up for the bad take off spot?).

You get strapped into your gear and your only instruction is run and don’t sit until you are airborne and even that went out the window the way they took off. She was told to sit almost immediately and away they went.

It was a thrilling experience – the jump off point is around 1500m and she flew up to 2300m (7500′) and went quite a distance from the beginning. The scenery of the Chicomochi canyon was spectacular/fabulous/awesome and it was a great experience.


Doug took photos but even with our 60x zoom it was hard to catch sight of Fran once they were up.

We spent the afternoon at the campsite and another Swiss couple arrived in a black Land Rover! They had shipped to Cartagena and only begun their journey south about three weeks ago. Martin and Caroline are a young couple with a pretty niftily rigged out Rover. They spent a few weeks before their rig arrived taking Spanish lessons.

Sidebar: We have met SO many Swiss overlanders; half the population must be outside the country!   We probably see Germans the second most.

Monday morning both Swiss couples left with the plan of going to the Park first to ride the gondola but half an hour later, Martin & Caroline were back; they were having starter issues and it turns out the park is closed on Mondays. Sergio let them park again and Martin hoped that the spare parts he brought will be sufficient and he’s going to talk with his Mechanic back home on the phone to walk him through the repair. Unfortunately for Martin, that didn’t pan out but his luck turned and a man visiting the owner here had worked on starters for four years and began helping him out. By the time darkness came, it was still not repaired but the same man offered to take him into Bucaramanga tomorrow to get it worked on so we have neighbours again tonight.

The views here are so grand and it’s so peaceful we decided to stay another two nights; internet’s not bad either.

Lucky Martin got his starter fixed today and took the bus back to the campsite. They were beyond happy!

We all had happy hour that evening and the next day departed on our separate ways. As we are all headed the same direction, chances are out paths will cross again.

We headed south then northwest to the little pueblo of Barichara; what a charming town! We found a boondocking/wild camping site on iOverlander. It’s right on the west side of the town up high overlooking the canyon; a million dollar view for zilch!

We parked before heading out on a 5km hike called the Camino Real to the next village of Guane on a trail built in the 18th century by a German settler and restored by the Colombian government back in 1996.

It was a pleasant hike on a stone path (for the most part) past farmers’ fields, some homes and crossed the highway to Guane twice. It appears this trail is used also for Good Friday processions during Holy Week as there were waypoints with a cross and a roman numeral painted on large rocks.

About half way we met a Belgian couple here on holiday, Carolina and Louis, and chatted with them a bit before meeting them again near the end. There were so many different kinds of butterflies on this hike and as well as several birds.

Upon entering the much smaller village of Guane it began to rain

and after checking out the town square, the four of us went into a “typico” restaurant for lunch and to stay dry. We ordered lunch, chatted and were entertained by the resident parrot who spoke fast Spanish!

Carolina ordered a specialty drink from this region called “chicha” and we all tried it but no one was fond of it; it’s made from goat’s milk and corn and was nonalcoholic.

As we were finishing lunch we asked what time the bus back to Barichara was (it was pouring out and the bus only runs six times a day) and she said the next one was in 8 minutes! So we paid the bill and went to catch the bus. We picked up a few groceries after disembarking the bus and took a tuk-tuk back to Tigger. Now where we parked was on red clay so it was a mess getting out of the tuk-tuk and into our house. In continued to rain for several hours so we spent the rest of the day indoors. A few times, some locals came out of curiosity to see this strange vehicle parked on the edge of town overlooking the canyon but we otherwise had a quiet night.

Thursday morning we awoke to clear skies after breakfast, we wandered in the village for about an hour. As mentioned above this town is charming; all buildings have been kept up and it seems like you’ve gone back in time 200 years – it is a national historic site and also a UNESCO World Heritage site and many movies have been filmed here including a Zorro film. The buildings are all whitewashed with red tiled roofs and there is no obtrusive signage spoiling the views down the quaint yellow stoned streets. There are two large churches, a pretty little cemetery and a few plazas. The town has a sleepy feel and there is no hustle and bustle.

We then drove to San Gil about 20 kms away to a camping spot recommended by many. However, we needed to stop in town for supplies and after hitting the market, a small grocery store and finally, a larger one we decided to see about topping upon our propane tank.

If you recall, it was quite a challenge getting our tank filled upon arriving in Colombia and we told ourselves we’d fill up when possible. We had been advised by a fellow overlander, that there was a great place near San Gil that can fill foreign tanks so we stopped here but as we were only down a quarter tank, it would not fill! Oh well we tried and we’ll keep an eye on it.

So we proceed to get to Camping Fogatas and settled in. Sadly, Ruedi, Elivira, Martin and Caroline had all been here last night but had just left ten minutes earlier. There was one young hippy from Chile here and later five people arrived in a slide in camper with California plates. The ground was pretty soggy from last night’s rain and we didn’t really see the big draw here so we’ll probably only stay one night. The campsite is pretty as it’s beside the Rio Fonce but the advertised pool is closed and there is no place to go for a walk – we are a 40 minute walk away from the town.

We remembered an episode of the Amazing Race where the contestants came to Colombia and one of their challenges was to play the game of Tejo. We read in our guide book that San Gil was a good place to learn about this game. The campground owner said her husband could show us when he returned later in the afternoon.

We spent some time on the internet, did some housekeeping stuff and when Felipe returned he brought out the tejos (the rock discs that you throw), set up the game and showed us how to play – there are pretty much no rules! The idea is to throw the small pyramid shaped disc and try and hit this piece of porcelain in the target zone to make it explode. It’s similar to horseshoes in that you keep switching ends but there are no points awarded. As we began to play the five people from the other camper came over to watch as well as the Chilean man, and all seven us played. Juan Pablo, the Chilean had played before as had Gabriel, the young Swiss man and his Brazilian girlfriend, Tais. Lotty and her father, Lan (from England) had not but we all tried and although many of us got close, no one exploded the target.

Later in the afternoon, the clouds returned and it rained on and off the rest of the day into the night but never really heavily but this made the ground even soggier.

Friday morning Doug offered pancakes to the other campers (who didn’t partake as much as he expected) and we packed up and headed a bit further down the road to the Juan Curi Waterfalls that are said to be 180m high! They are located on private land and you pay a small entry fee and walk about 15-20 minutes along a stoned path. From the parking lot itself you can look up and see the top which consists of three drops

and when you are walking the falls peek through the branches of the trees but unfortunately you never get to a point where you see the entire falls. At the end of the trail, you are at a point where holding a rope you can cross the “river” and then climb up some more rocks to get to a natural pool that you could swim in but it’s been raining for a few days and water did not look super inviting – kinda muddy brown in places where it wasn’t moving so quickly. The bottom jump of the falls was high itself and we enjoyed the views.

We decided to return to the same campsite that we were at last night as the camping here at the falls offered less services. We took a taxi into town to wander around and got some lunch at a nice bakery. That evening yet another Land Rover drove up and another Swiss citizen – they are everywhere! Yvonne, was travelling northward on her own and was at least ten years old that we are!

So Saturday we did leave and made our way only 160km but it took four hours as the road was super windy, up and down hill and there were of course, some large trucks that slow things down a great deal. The last 18 km was pretty much dirt road as well.

Sidebar: When you stop to get gas in Colombia, as per most of Latin America, gas stations are full service but here they offer you a cup of coffee while you fill up. Doug has taken a liking to the Colombia “tinto” coffee and enjoys the small cups they hand out.

We arrived at Hostel Renacer in Villa de Leyva in the early afternoon to find the two Swiss couples we’d camped with last weekend were here as well as another Swiss couple in a Land Rover! Uelie and Myrta are also travelling south and have a very cool Land Rover set up.

It was raining and it took us a while to get parked as the camping area is small and it was a bit difficult to maneuver and reach the power outlet. Once we parked, we walked into town hoping to catch the Farmer’s Market before it closed. This town is another colonial one and here the buildings are whitewashed with red tiles roofs again but the majority of the doors, window frames and balconies are painted hunter green. The streets are made of large river rocks and when they get wet, they are slippery.

We saw Martin and Carolina returning from town and they told us of a cheese shop and bakery near the supermarket so we made a stop there and the owner spoke English and helped us pick a nice “queso” called Tilsto and we also purchased some deli smoked ham.

It began raining once again and we took a cab back to the hostel. We spent Sunday through Tuesday here, doing our usual walking, Spanish lessons, and meeting other people. Sunday we did walk to the other side of the town to go see an attraction: La Casa Terracotta – the terracotta house. It was quite cool and fun to wander through.

Today is a big festival day here in Villa de Leyva – Virgen del Carmen is celebrated actually over several days and when we tried to walk past the church today, it took us ten minutes to push through two blocks of wall to wall people!

There are several attractions around here so you could stay a while if you wanted to do them all but we spoke to people who’d done the ones we were thinking of, and most said they were “underwhelming”.

To get to town from our hostel, you walk down a dirt alley to a dirt road that takes you right to town. On this alley there are a few homes with lots of dogs. There is one in particular who is quite mean and barks and runs at you if its owners are not around so we have been carrying small stones when we pass by it to throw near it to make it back off. On Monday afternoon, Fran was coming back by herself and the stones didn’t work and the dog jumped up and nipped at her thigh. Then at the next house three small dogs came out barking and growling at her and as she turned to “threaten” them she slipped on the rocks and one bit at her shoe! And to boot, the owner was standing right there watching and did nothing!  Other than a sore hip and hand the worse damage was a “L” shaped tear in her capris.

The camping here at this hostel is quite nice; great bathrooms with HOT water, a nice kitchen area, a couple of areas to sit and chill, one in and one outdoors and they offer food, have a beer fridge and small snack stall. On Monday night we gave them a bag of laundry to do and so when we leave on Wednesday, we’ll be all caught up.

The days here at 2200M/ 7200′ are pretty warm and the nights are cool. It reaches maybe 26/78F during the day and down to about 12-15C/53-59F at night; quite comfy for sleeping and a bit chilly first thing in the morning! It rains a bit almost every day but so far we’ve had not completely sunless days.

We met yet another young Swiss man here, a young Austrian woman, a young Canadian man from Calgary and a French family. This hostel is pretty busy and Tuesday a lot of backpackers checked in. Myrta and Uelie left on Tuesday so right now us and Ruedi & Elivra are the only overlanders left. Actually, they will be flying home in about a week for their son’s wedding and leaving their rig here. They will take a bus to the Bogota airport.

Tuesday, we did yet another walk into town hoping to see the town square without all the stalls and people and although maybe half the stuff was gone, it was by no means empty. We did meet a woman from Victoria in the square who was here as part of a tour of Colombia before heading further south.

That night we actually ordered pizza from town delivered direct to us inside Tigger. After dinner arrived there was a tap on the window and the man in the reception area of the hostel came by to tell us that we could get a free breakfast tomorrow morning in the hostel restaurant – apparently they offer this if you stay four or more nights.

So Wednesday morning we had breakfast with Ruedi and Elivra in the common room before leaving Villa de Leyva. Fran wanted to check out a nearby town that looked quite cute online and at first when we drove into Raquira, we were not too impressed but after we parked and walked to the town square we were very happy we’d made the detour in this direction. All the buildings were colourful, lots of shops selling pottery (which they are known for) and many buildings had murals covering the bottom metre or so of wall space that continued between doors and buildings. The square itself had a little fountain and a number of sculptures and was nicely designed. Not a big town, but a nice little stop.


For more pics (as there are lots more!) remember to check out the galleries.