When is a town sleepy, and when is it dead?

Trip Start Sep 05, 2010
Trip End Sep 27, 2011

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Where I stayed
Samīs VIP Hostel, San Gil
Tinto Hostel, Barichara

Flag of Colombia  , Santander,
Sunday, August 28, 2011

[Blog by Curt]

Every time I wonder why Iīm still carrying a winter jacket in a place as warm as Colombia (and soon into boiling Venezuela), I only have to think ... night buses. Why every single one of them is more like a freezer truck than a means of transportation, I have no idea. Maybe, they want to make absolutely sure you arrive in perfectly preserved condition if you should suffer a fatal heart attack. Or maybe the frigid air is meant to keep bandits out, much like those curtains of cold air that form a barrier for snakes in a zoo. Whatever the reason may be, our night bus from Santa Marta was once again of the full-blown cryogenic variety.

At the painfully early time of 5:15am, our mobile freezer reached the city of Bucaramanga, which was only going to be a stop over on the way to San Gil, a sleepy little town about 3 hours away. Per usual, we were able to find a connecting bus leaving within a few minutes, a comfortable 40-seater without excessive cooling. The road to San Gil was gorgeous, following lush green valleys under a clear blue sky. Twenty minutes from our sleepy town, however, our progress came to a screeching halt. At first we feared a flat tire, but it turned out the road had been closed for a bicycle race passing through. After a bit over an hour (luckily at a place that sold some food, such as pound cake) and having seen the peloton pass by, we once again started on our way and quickly reached San Gil.

San Gil was a lovely, quiet place and had a very relaxed feel with plenty of modern day conveniences. One of those conveniences was our amazing hostel, equipped with two kitchens, a private floor for the double rooms (we splurged a bit), great common areas and even a tiny pool. It was actually a good thing our hostel was so nice, since we ended up spending quite a bit of the day there. Exploring San Gil really didnīt take long. Sightseeing is not why people come here. The major draws of the place are, on the one hand, its proximity to other, even more sleepy, colonial towns, and, on the other hand, its reputation as the adventure capital of Colombia. We were interested in both these facets of San Gil, and started planning our days ahead. The colonial towns were easy enough to reach by public transportation. For adrenaline junkies, local companies offered excursions ranging from rafting and paragliding, to caving, abseiling (rappelling down a waterfall) and more. While wandering around town, we compared the prices of tours offered by other hostels, but found them similar to those at our own place. This still didnīt help solve the question of what activity to book, since we didnīt have enough funds (or time) for all of them.

In the end, we decided to sleep on it, and then sleep on it some more, since first off, we would visit one of the colonial towns the following day. We were in no particular rush - originally we had pondered the idea of getting up early and trying to do abseiling in the morning. But, when the alarm went off,  we decided to sleep in (since we did not have a comfortable sleep the night before in the freezer bus) and save the adventurous stuff for another day. After a morning of relaxing and some internet, we grabbed a light lunch in town, and then jumped on a local bus to nearby Barichara.

If San Gil is sleepy, Barichara is comatose. The town is home to some 8000 inhabitants, but if you told us only 100 people lived there, we would have believed you. Maybe it was because it was a Sunday, but there was virtually no one on the streets. Those same streets were also mercilessly devoid of traffic of any kind, somewhat giving the impression of an immaculately clean, whitewashed colonial ghost town. It was as if we were transported back a few hundred years, to a cute settlers town, right after a devastating zombie attack (save for the power lines).Our nice little hostel was located in a little enclave of cobble stone streets within coble stone streets.

Barichara is a place with literally nothing to do - and this is itīs charm. To emphasize this point, our little improvised walking tour criss-crossed the entire town, back and forth, and even with us trying, we could hardly make it last two hours. Soon enough, we settled on a city bench in the central park and did as the locals do - absolutely nothing. We did get up once or twice, walked around the block, tried a taste of Sabajon (local liqueur ala Baileys) and to buy a bag of ants, only to return back to the bench a few minutes later.

Oh yes, you read that right, a bag of ants. The Hormiga Culona, or Fatbottomed Ant (who ever doubted English was the more graphic language) is a local delicacy. It is exactly what the name suggests, an ant with an oversized booty, which is fried in its entirety and eaten like a peanut with beer. Of course, after having had spiders, silkworms and crickets, we had to try these ants. So we got ourselves a bag of these formicidic beer nuts for later, and (once we had waited long enough for dinner time), started searching for a local restaurant famous for its steak with ant sauce. Sadly, this restaurant was closed for the evening, so we had to settle for a cute little Italian place. At least we still had our bag of ants, which served as our munchies while enjoying a movie and beer later at the hostel. They are actually not as bad as you would expect, but also not as good as you would hope. Basically, they are mainly crunchy due to the deep frying, with a bit of an aftertaste, easily washed down with a swig of beer (for those needing an excuse to drink beer, washing down an ant is as good as any, I guess).

The following morning, we got up early to embark on one of the main activities in happening Barichara: walk, via the Camino Real, to the town of Guane. This Camino Real follows an historic stone trail dating from the time of the conquistadors, and meanders into a lush green valley surrounded by imposing hills, finally reaching Guane, described as īa land that time forgotī. It was a beautiful walk, with the stone path often overgrown in places, uneven and weathered in others. A relaxing 1 hour and 40 minutes later, we strolled into the cobble stone streets of Guane. Now if San Gil is sleepy, and Barichara is comatose, then Guane is positively dead and cremated. Despite it being around 9:30 in the morning on a Monday, there was virtually nobody on the street, and most places (other than the three souvenir stores) were closed. Living in Guane must be like having vegetating as a career option. If that were your profession, this village must be heaven, being only maybe 10 square blocks, consisting entirely of gorgeous white buildings and cobble stone streets. As you can imagine, there was not much to do in this metropolis. When even the places that sell Sabajon, the local specialty of Guane, proved to be closed, we simply waited the half hour for one of the four daily buses back to Barichara.

Once in Barichara, (which had not woken up from its coma - even on a weekday), we quickly hopped off the bus to buy a small bottle of Sabajon, and then just as quickly hopped back on to continue our 45 minute trip back to San Gil. After our Barichara and Guane visits, sleepy San Gil was suddently an overload to our senses.

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