Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Beautiful Columbia

After arriving from Venezuela, we decided to stop in Bucaramanga, which is partway along our journey to San Gil, so that we could see the stretch of road during the daylight (we were told that it was dramatic and not to be missed). To our surprise, the following morning I (Mark) woke up with serious nausea and vertigo. The whole room was spinning and I couldn't make any one single item stop. I wasn't sure if I had just been dreaming about being on a bus, or what had caused it. Being the great nurse that she is, Michelle took good care of me and handled the running of errands that morning. We stayed in the room until it was time to check out or stay, and we decided to go for it. Even though things were still spinning, I didn't want to waste a day of travelling.

Slowly the nausea went away as the sights of the drive became more and more dramatic. We followed a river into what became
a huge canyon with towering hills on either side, and then proceeded to climb up to one of the ridges on the South side. At the top, Michelle and I got off the bus to check out the gondola that went from the top of one ridge, all the way down to the Chichamocha River, and then straight back up the other side of the canyon to the top. The views from this lookout were spectacular and well worth the stop. There is a picture of this on our previous blog post. It took us a little longer than usual to catch our next bus onward, but eventually it came, and we were off again for San Gil.

Later that day we arrived in San Gil, and we've basically been in and around this area for the past 3 weeks.....it's been a great experience. The people are extremely warm and welcoming, the climate is ideal, there are rivers in abundance, and overall it's just a great place to improve our Spanish. Our Hotel, named the Hotel Viajero ("Traveller") is a true miracle. There is a lovely terrace area that overlooks the river, and the owner has a green thumb, so she has beautiful plants filled with birds all around the property. The Hotel is an excellent place to spend time studying and a bargain at only $12.50 per night.

Lately we've been studying in the mornings and taking the afternoons to see the local attractions, like this beautiful cluster of waterfalls called "Juan Curi". This amazing series of waterfalls is about 30 min by bus from San Gil. We spent the afternoon here one day exploring it's many levels of falls. There is also a guide company which will help you repel down the highest of these falls, but this day we just decided to enjoy the beauty and refreshing water. There were so many different levels of falls that it turns out we could have spent the entire day here. What an amazing natural wonder! The first five photos in this blog post are all from Juan Curi Falls. We also ran into some really friendly cows on the trail....you can see Michelle in action here to the left--she loves petting cows, especially these which she calls ''Bunny Cows'' because of their long ears.

On our way back, we met some cute kids that we ended up entertaining for 20 minutes or so. It was a lot of fun. Michelle put on a show, and I filmed it. Possibly some up and coming stars here at the farm.

Another afternoon, we went on a river rafting trip on our very own Rio Fonce, which travels right by our hotel. We went in the equivalent of a 2 man inflatable Kayak (only it was smaller than the 2 man kayaks you can rent on the Trinity River near Redding) and we had a guide in the back making us 3. The boat sat a little lower in the water because of the extra weight. Not expecting much in the way of rapids we headed out. The river was rated a class III, so we expected a few bumps, but nothing too crazy. Our first rapid we almost lost Michelle. She ended up half in the boat and half out, we managed to pull her back in the boat though. Our next series of rapids had large waves where the boat actually seemed to catch air off the lips of the waves and fold the boat in two in the holes....these were pretty exciting, especially for the front of the boat which held Michelle. She was tossed completely free of the boat in another crazy rapid and we ended up picking her up and pulling her back in on the calmer waters below. Now it was getting good! Our next big rapid, we dropped into a hole that completely engulfed the boat and flipped it upside down. I don't think the boat had enough bouyancy to push its way back up the wave on the other side of the hole, and we were all swallowed up at the bottom as if we had been swallowed up by a Black Hole in space. This river was obviously more than we had bargained for. The first thing Michelle said to me as we surfaced, and were still being pushed rapidly downstream was...."I need to switch places with you......you take the front". I said "no problem, but let's not worry about that now, we need to get back in the boat first!". The rest of the journey saw some good rapids, but nothing like we had experienced in the first few kilometers. We don't have any photos of this because our new camera, unlike our old super duper one, is not waterproof! Sacrifices, sacrifices.......

Another afternoon, we took a hike to a swimming hole called Pozo Azul. The entrance was free, and we enjoyed the afternoon, taking in the sun's rays, and talking to a few locals while we were there. This area was within walking distance from town, so it was nice to be able to get there by just walking from our hotel. The picture of this is to the right.

Another afternoon, we took a brisk walk up to the "Virgin", one of two larger than life shrines at opposite ends of the town overlooking the pueblo. This one is lit up at night, meaning that even at night the "Virgin" sees your actions. The views from the top were incredible and because it is a bit of a struggle to reach the shrine, the builders added the stations of the cross along the trail (signifying the stages of Christ's persecution). As you are suffering along the trail, you can see that Christ suffered also in his ordeal. All of the rocks to the side of the trail are painted white (for the road to perfection is hard), and there are 2 gates, almost seeming to ask the question before you enter, "are you prepared to make the commitment, and sacrifices to be received by the Lord". Whether we made the approprate commitments to be received or not, we definitely worked up an appetite for our evening meal at the local Vegetarian Restaurant.

Our next big trip was to the historical towns of Cabrera, Barichara, and Guane. This visit was definitely a highlight of our time here in the region of Santander. Each of these villages are just a short hour drive from San Gil, which is our home base right now. As they say here.....this trip was "Vale la Pena", well worth the effort! Each town supports and maintains its colonial heritage with pride. The beautiful wandering thick adobe walls are probably whitewashed twice a year, giving the entire city a fresh look. The cobblestone roads are maintained well, and over time, the beautiful Spanish tiled roofs have taken on an almost meandering and flowing look. Being here, we figured out why the roofs on the older Spanish styled homes rise and fall in that beautiful rustic look that only time can grant. They didn't use 2 x 4's! They used a system of thicker, yet uneven branches or tree trunks as 2 x 4's.... and then across, where we today would use USB board, they used very thin branches of what must be bamboo, very tightly woven together. On top of the bamboo went the beautifully rustic and weighty Spanish tiles. Over time the bamboo gives and sags, giving the roofs a lovely antiquated look. Combine that with some whitewashed adobe walls, some bouganvilla vine, some wrought iron light fixtures, and a courtyard with plants and you have yourself a beautiful traditional Spanish villa! I just love that style. (Above photo, Michelle is taking in the tranquility of Cabrera.)

After meandering down a dirt road on the local bus for an hour, we ended up at the historical town of Cabrera. When we arrived, we realized that we had wandered into a town that not many tourists make it to. It almost felt like we had stumbled into either a secret or some kind of lost world. The birds were chirping, the few people in the square were talking in tranquil tones, and there was hardly a soul to be found. We strolled to the church first, as it is usually the prize of most squares and always a good place to start. The architecture was clearly Spanish, simple, yet stunning. Back outside, we made our way to the cultural center and found a museum. A young man showed us around their sparsely filled two rooms WITH GUSTO, only to tell us later that we were the very first visitors to their museum! (Michelle to the right in front of a very old adobe building at the base of our upcoming hike.)

Back across the square at the panadaría, two emissaries approached to inform us that they would be honored if we would join them in their classroom. These two very brave 7 year olds went back to report that we would be right there, as soon as Michelle had fed a hungry dog some bread that we had just picked up in the store. We joined this classroom of probably 40 eager, eager, and very excited school children who looked like they rarely got the experience to see "extranjeros", or foreigners. The teacher gave us the floor, and we introduced ourselves and told them where we were from, and then proceeded to practice English with them. Questions like....what color is that, how many brothers do you have, etc. It was a wonderful experience, and one which we won't forget. I'm pretty sure that on the way out the door, the teacher asked if we would come more often to practice English with the kids. One thing we have learned here is that people are learning English from locals who are unable pronounce words correctly, making the language even more difficult. English, as a language, lacks the structure that Spanish has in terms of pronunciation. Spanish is very specific on sounds and stress, and when there is an exception to a rule on stress, (when a word breaks the rules of Spanish pronunciation), a tildá (the stress) is placed above that letter, thus making it very simple.

One amazing difference between children of Latin America and the normal kid from the USA is this... When Michelle asked the kids if they knew about the centuries old trail between their village and the next they all enthusiastically replied, ''Si!'' We then asked if it was very far to Barichara (the next pueblo) and they all immediately began shaking their heads and saying, ''No, no!'' While one girl offered that it was ''only about two hours.'' These kids thought nothing of a steep ascent and a two hour hike to the next pueblo. Incredible!

We said goodbye to the children, and began what would be an incredible hike to Barichara along the historic "Camino Real" trail, a trail which Simón Bolívar supposedly used when in this area. We found the trail after asking a few extremely friendly farmers along the way, and began our climb up a 500' cliff. Something they love to do here is add the stations of the cross to difficult climbs, so we were able to pass all 15 (I think) stations, on our ascent. These were nice because they almost served as mile markers, telling us how close we were to the top. The views on this climb were spectacular. The valley dropped drastically in the other direction, far below Cabrera, to the huge Rio Suarez, and then abruptly rose again to a mountain range that was much higher than that on our side. The mountains on the other side seemed almost like something from Kauai. Very green and very steep.

Once at the top, we were treated to 3 splits in the trail. After some deductive reasoning, we chose all the way left, and it served us well, although the trail did turn into a dirt road after a bit. This didn't matter however because as we followed the ridge of this cliff all the way along to Barichara, we were given incredible views. What a great hike!

The trail that we climbed was built probably 500 years ago. It was formed out of rough cobblestones and quite steep at times. A picture of this is to the right.

Another photo of the wonderful trek between Cabrera and Barichara.

Further down the road. The gate to this finca looked inviting.

Later that afternoon, we made it to Barichara. What a treat, not only to have such a great hike, but to arrive in such a special Colonial town. It's a nice feeling to roll into a new town on foot as opposed to arriving by bus. There's a certain sense of earning the passage, and a calmness in deciding where to stay and what to do. Usually getting off a bus, the immediate feeling is, "gotta find a place to stay", but here, travelling light, we just strolled the streets and became familiar before settling in. Why rush things when you just walked all the way from the neighboring village, right?

A typical street in Barichara. You can see the cobblestones not only in the street, but on the sidewalks.

The church in Barichara, a magnificent structure, captured here during the golden hour. Doesn't the sky seem extra blue to you? It was the same in person.

Michelle here, always has a shawl handy to show respect in churches. She absolutely refuses to enter these ancient churches in shorts, so sometimes when we happen upon a church and she doesn't have her shawl, she can only peer in from outside. Way to cover up those legs girl!

Inside this remarkable structure.

And the gates to the iglesia, wide open for those who choose to enter.

A nice piece of art in parque central.

And a nice shot of Barichara at the end of a glorious day!

And another one......

The next day, after exploring many of the sights in Barichara, we left in the afternoon, hiking further along the "Camino Real" to the next town of Guane.

Our next stretch of the "Camino Real".

Along the way, Michelle sported a little "Barba Vieja" of her own. Many of the trees here grow a type of moss translated as "old beard". The tree in the background has this.

We arrived in Guane, and something about the town did not appeal to us. We tried to spend some time in the parque central, but for whatever reason it didn't feel right to stay. The people were very friendly, and there was a reasonable place to sleep, but something about it turned us off. In the end, we decided to head out. We're still not exactly sure what the problem was here.

It was getting on in the afternoon, probably 3:30 when we left. We decided to hike to the next town along the route called Villa Nueva. By all the info we had, this town was 3-4 hours away, but we are generally pretty fast hikers and we guessed that by walking rapidly, we could make it in 2. This was a bit of a risky move, and we both knew it. Knowing that we had to rush, we hit the trail at top speed. We were both close to max heart rate for the first 30 min or so.

What we didn't realize was that the route was uphill, almost all of it, making it difficult to make up the extra time that we needed to arrive before dark.

The climbing seemed to go on forever...... but it was crazy beautiful!

We were both pushing a pretty hard pace because as you can see, the sun was getting low. We still had what looked like a huge ridge to make it up and over.

Along the way, we saw lots of tobacco plants. This is a tobacco plant to the right.......

and this is how all the farmers dried the tobacco leaves, before taking them to the local cooperative to sell.

When it began to look like there was no way we would make it even to the top of the ridge before dark, a big red truck came by on the road and gave us a lift up and over the ridge, and then back down the other side. Talk about luck! This was the only vehicle that we saw on the road the entire time. It was difficult to take pictures while the huge truck bounced around on the dirt road, but we managed to fire off a few.

We were both pretty excited about this as you can see!

Dancing around some freshly cut wood in the back.

We thanked these two nice men for the ride, and continued on down the road. We still were not in Villa Nueva, but we could see the lights glowing in the distance. A nice young man directed us OFF the main road and back onto a piece of single track because it was a more direct route to the city. This trail was beautiful in the twilight.

It took us through a field of head high grasses. Michelle took this photo. It was getting pretty dark at this point and this is not the first time we've been caught out in the dark on a trail (you'd think we would learn).......but it is so beautiful at twilight.

After getting a little lost, cutting across a field and hopping a barbed wire fence (for animals) to make it to a road, we eventually made it to town in the complete darkness. Many thanks to those guys in the truck otherwise it would have been much later. Villa Nueva ended up being just that, new. The next morning we headed out.

Having enjoyed Barichara so much the previous day, and with the lift that we had received the day before, we felt spry enough to walk back to Barichara (a more direct route though).

We spent another night there, and were treated to a show in parque central by the local elementary school. It felt like the whole town was there sitting on the church steps (as the bleachers), and we were the only extranjeros (foreigners)! It felt great to be there with the people, and Barichara is certainly a town that we will not forget!

If you made it to this part of our blog, you are a true die hard Mark and Michelle blog reader. Thanks for reading so much and keeping up with our travels!

This final treat is a video of our new favorite Columbian fruit. We hope you enjoy and we look forward to seeing you all soon! Love, Mark & Michelle


  1. ¿Cuándo regresarán a los estados unidos? Soy un poco celoso que han tenido estas experiencias. Colombia parece un país muy lindo. Uds. deben quedarse para la navidad. Es una fiesta muy interesante para los extranjeros que son acostumbrados a las noches de paz y silencio. La navidad en Argentina era una noche de guerra. Todas las personas están en las calles tirando fuegos artificiales. Creo que les gustarían esta experiencia.

    También, si yo fuera ustedes, visitaría Machu Pichu en Peru antes que regresaría a los estados unidos. Es un sueño que tengo para visitar estas ruinas.

    Les extraño muchísimo y espero su vuelta.

    Les quiero mucho.


  2. Great video, guys! You should do more of those. :-) It's such a treat to see your photos and live vicariously through your adventures.
    Con amor,

  3. Mark!
    You look emaciated. Come home. It is only more of the same.
    Your room is waiting for you both,in sunny Southern California.

  4. Heather heather light as a featherDecember 13, 2009 at 5:39 PM

    I really like how that video features your short finger!

  5. I believe the technical term we have been using for this is "Nub"..... Glad you liked it Heather (I knew you would)!