As hard as it was to leave Villa de Leyva I was excited to go to Barichara, dubbed the most beautiful colonial town in Colombia. I would be going from one sleepy town to the next. According to incoming backpackers on the reverse route, I would find a quiet village with nothing to do after 20:00. Perfectly fine with me, I thought, more time to relax, read, and write. Since all of my new friends had already left a couple of days ago, I was to take the three-leg bus journey on my own.
There is no direct bus from Villa de Leyva to Barichara, so one must first take a local minivan to the closest big town Tunja (about 45 min) and from there a bus to San Gil (around 4 hours) followed by another half-hour local bus to Barichara. I was a bit nervous for my first intercity public transportation experience. Bus stations, I was told by all experienced South American travelers, are one of the most dangerous places with pickpockets and thieves lurking to take advantage of sleepy tourists. So you can imagine my fright when upon arriving at Tunja a lady who stuck her head into the minivan grabbed my bag and started darting off to what I assumed (and hoped!) was the bus to San Gil. “Wait! I need to pee,” I exclaimed as she threw my bag into the bus and tried to herd me inside.
My journey couldn’t have been smoother. I didn’t sleep even one bit because I was just mesmerized looking out the window to the ever changing scenery with cows grazing on green pastures, waterfalls and rivers flowing through wide trees, and mountains as far as the eye could see. The San Gil bus which apparently continues on to the next town dropped me off a the side of road of this city known as the adventure capital of Colombia with activities from river rafting to canyoning to paragliding. As I expected San Gil at first glance was nothing but an eyesore of a town and I was happy to have made the decision not to stay in San Gil unlike most backpackers keen on getting some adrenaline before moving forward on their speed-race through the backpacking trail.
“You have to go to the other bus station to take the bus to Barichara,” said the driver as I stood on the sidewalk with my bags.
Before I had the chance to get confused about where exactly this bus was, a Colombian with pretty blue eyes approached me and said, “I’m also going there, come and we can split a cab.” Once in the cab he tried to assure a wary me that we are indeed going the right way. Finally he said, “soy de Barichara.” At that point I was convinced.
My neurotic ways aside, it seems my concerns were not completely unwarranted—when I arrived at Tinto Hostel and stuck my head through its doors to see my Villa de Leyvan friends lounging on hammocks, they were surprised to see me arrive so early. Apparently one of them got lost trying to find the right bus station in San Gil.
Barichara is one of those towns where everyone knows everyone, and ladies carrying grocery bags smile at you and say hi. The streets are quiet and empty on all hours of the day. On my first morning I was up at 6:00, so by 7:00 I was already walking about this hill-top town. As I walked among the steep, stone-paved streets, taking pictures, and generally feeling blissful, a lady dressed in all pink greeted me with a “buenas dias.” So early in the morning not many Baricharans were on the move and the only action was by the mercado, with trucks bringing in fruits and vegetables and sellers arranging their merchandise on the stands. On the way back to the hostel with the papaya and granadillas (super sweet passionfruit-like deliciousness) I bought from the market, I saw the pink-lady again carrying plastic bags of groceries. A couple of hours later, when Pralay and I sat at Panaderia Real by the main square, the same lady walked in licking an ice-cream cone, seemingly rewarding herself for finishing up her Saturday morning shopping errands.
People in Barichara aren’t rushing anywhere and men sitting on the pavement, watching passers by is a common sight. There is no bar in town and the restaurants seem to alternate opening nights so that no more than one or two are open each night. At least that was the impression we got. On my first night in town, we went to a small tienda on the corner near our hostel and had beer with the a bunch of big-bellied local men lounging on plastic chairs listening to loud Colombian Vallenato. The beer cost 1,500 pesos each and the men invited us for the second round.
Founded in the eighteenth century, this well-preserved colonial town was declared a Colombian heritage site a few decades ago. Considering its small size Barichara actually boasts quite a few attractions in its own right and located so close to San Gil, I was surprised that it wasn’t overflowing with tourist. Perhaps one can say this about Colombia in general. The bus drops you off in the town square across the Church of the Immaculate Conception, one of the few buildings of interest in town. The first president of Colombia, Aquileo Parra (1825-1900) was born in Barichara and in his former residence is a small museum which I stumbled upon by chance on one my walks through the cobble-stoned streets of Barichara. I walked through the open door of the small museum staffed by no one. Lonely Planet says that most of the building houses elderly weavers but as far as I could tell, I was the only soul there. There is little to see in the Casa de Aqueleo Parra but I found this little installation (see picture on the right) that I presume is meant to teach kids about time quite amusing.
I wasn’t aware of it then but it was in Barichara where I ate the most delicious food in Colombia. My mouth waters thinking about the pan de yucca at Panaderia Real, the ice-cream sticks by the ATM machine, the goat lunch at La Casona, and the arepa burger at Igua Nauno. Weeks later, as I complained of being offered yet another fried fish with rice, I would long for the food in this strange little town. I even tested the quality of the mercado’s fresh produce and cooked a chicken soup with yucca and chayote in Tinto’s kitchen-with-a-view. I am not sure whether it tasted so good because of my superb cooking skills or because of the magic of Barichara.
With its pleasant views and cozy kitchen, Tinto Hostel had already felt like home by day two. Pralay had gone off to San Gil to mountain bike through the canyon and I took the day off to discover Barichara’s nooks and crannies. And one huge discovery I did make: Barichara may have the reputation as a tranquil, quiet town but go to the Yaja Sala de Bella and you will experience some serious traffic. I waited close to an hour for my turn to get my legs waxed with chocolate flavored wax, which smelled so good that I left there craving a big chocolate volcano cake. The lady that owns the place seemed very tough at first, plucking eyebrows, and dying and cutting hair with a stern face and a fast hand that makes you think she got her training at a factory-line. Once it was my turn and we went to the back room for the waxing, she slowly softened up and shared that she is a single mother of two girls, one still in high school and the other studying at a university at a near-by town. Overall, the conclusion the ladies and I arrived to at the salon after our two-hour chitchat was universal: “Es dificil ser mujer,” – “It’s difficult to be a woman.”
One of the main attractions in town is the hike to the neighboring village Guane through the Camino Real, a historic 9 km stone-paved path linking the two towns, which was restored in 1864 by George von Lenguerke, a German engineer who settled in Santander in the nineteenth century. Embracing the Baricharan sleepy life-style, by the time we out of our hammocks to begin the journey to Guane, it was already 17:00. To beat the sunset, we took the bus with the intention of walking the 9 km back to Barichara on Camino Real in the dark. “Es seguro?” I asked the locals on the bus and they smiled and mumbled, “Si seguro, pero…” clearly thinking gringos.. strange ways they have.
Guane is a smaller version of Barichara. That means it consists of more or less eight streets. And like all Colombian towns, it has a main plaza with a church in the middle of it. I would have liked to stay longer and taste goat milk which Guane is apparently famous for but I was keen on getting the Camino Real hike back to Barichara started before sunset.
I was a bit apprehensive about walking through the mountains in the dark but Pralay was eager to use his headlamp, which he had recently bought in Bolivia. We managed to start the hike about fifteen minutes before sunset so we mostly hiked the Camino Real in the dark. I used my iPhone as a flashlight, which proved to be not much worse than Pralay’s Bolivian headlamp. The hike is beautiful, and not difficult although it would have been smarter for us to hike to Guane and take the bus back since the way back is more uphill. Even in the dark, Camino Real beautiful with flickering lights emanating from what I presumed were little farms scattered along the horizon. Despite my apprehension, doing the walk at night did not pose any problems except for a little scare when we spotted two shining eyes staring at us. Then a little dog sauntered past us two panicky wilderness rookies. I was a bit disappointed to have missed seeing these views in daylight but that might just mean I have to come back to this small town one day.