Back to the Future

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Sunday, November 5, 2006

Sometimes it feels as if we've been travelling a world away in time, as well as distance. Girón, a small town with a lively cultural, historic and religious spirit, was our first introduction to Colombia's colonial heritage. Wandering the cobblestoned streets, we couldn't help but notice the sharp contrast to Tiradentes and Ouro Prêto - the old colonial cities of Brazil. Granted, the brown-trimmed whitewashed buildings here still gleamed in the sun, but they lacked the dazzling trims of showy rainbow hues that had so impressed us in Brazil. After our initial disappointment, the simplicity of Colombia's colonial heritage gradually grew on us, and by the time we had explored the historical centres of Barichara, Guane, and San Gil, we were totally immersed in the past.

Even the countryside south of Girón would appear to belong to another era - if only one could block out the noise and pollution of the heavy trucks grinding their way up the steep slopes. Eagles soared through the magnificent Cañón de Chicamocha with layer upon layer of hillside fading away into the distance. It's not surprising that a tourist attraction is currently being constructed right on top of the highest peak with a superb 360 degree vista. Sadly though, the construction already underway clearly indicated the negative environmental impact that was likely to accompany any future increase in tourism.

We had yet to find an official campsite in Colombia, so were encouraged to hear that one did indeed exist just a few km from Barichara - reputed to be one of the most beautiful colonial towns in Colombia. After using several litres of gas going back and forth in search of this elusive campsite, we were hailed by the local gas station attendant who heartily invited us to camp in a field next to his parents house. What more could we ask for - a plug-in for the fridge, the use of a shower and toilet, and a gorgeous view of the surrounding valleys and hillsides. However, being so close to the road, everybody who passed by slowed down to peer at this strange apparition with its top popped. It was not surprising then that we received a visit the next morning from two local army personnel. In Peru, Bolivia or even Ecuador, our immediate reaction would have been to utter "oh no, here comes trouble!" Colombia is markedly different though, and true to expectation these friendly officers simply came to welcome us and offer whatever services might be required, and stayed to chat for quite a while about our trip.

Stone masons abound in and around Barichara, just as they must have some three hundred years ago when they created the town's four impressive churches, including a monumental sandstone cathedral. Even the streets are constructed in stone - not just the small cobblestones evident in many other historic cities, but massive square slabs that definitely add to the striking beauty of the locale, now deemed a national monument. But whereas Girón's colonial buildings are trimmed in dark brown, the whitewashed architecture in Barichara is adorned with either green or blue - a town that Hollywood could only dream of! On hearing that the original name for Barichara means "a good place for a rest" in the Guane Indian language, we felt compelled to continue on another 9 km to observe the rustic charm of Guane itself. Oh yes, the stone masons were active building churches and roads here too, but Guane's present-day specialty appeared to be the making of "sabajon". Curious, we sampled several types of this sweet non-alcoholic drink that tasted surprisingly like Bailey's Irish Cream, and couldn't resist purchasing a bottle of each!

Descending only about 800 ft to San Gil, we could almost immediately feel the warmer temperatures surrounding us. Although also boasting a quaint historic centre, San Gil is better known as the tourist capital of Santander Department, and offers much more than just "a walk through the past". Although, as if in keeping with the historic surroundings, almost all of the 1,867 trees in San Gil's Parque El Gallineral are covered in the long, silvery wisps of old man's beard. The exquisite location of this triangular shaped park (between the Rio Fonce and one of its tributaries), also gives the feeling of insulation from the surrounding tobacco, dairy and mixed cropping economies.

Unlike Michael J. Fox who needed a time machine to rid himself of the past, we simply decided to change gears and do something a bit more energetic.....although interesting, all this emphasis on history was making us feel our age!! San Gil abounds in eco-adventure tour agencies, and Patricia at 'Aventura Total' effortlessly sold us on the idea of a 11 km white-water rafting expedition down the Class 3 rapids of the Río Fonce. Together with a family of five from Bogotá, we donned life jackets and helmets, and listened attentively as our guide Mario explained the finer points of white-water rafting survival etiquette. Accompanied by two single "dagger" kayaks, we made the to speak.

The first of the rapids came within seconds of embarking on our river adventure, and although we were all smiles as we emerged, thoughts of "game over" definitely made themselves heard in the middle of it all. This little adrenalin rush was meant to bring us back to the present......but we hadn't figured on being dashed straight into the future! One of the experienced kayakers actually had the worst experience, as he got caught in the whirlpool undertow of a tumultuous cascade. Loss of face was probably the worst of his suffering, although he also hit the rocks, lost his paddle and had to withdraw from the adventure. What a spectacular afternoon - our only regret was that we hadn't signed up for the three-day excursion down the Río Chicamocha!
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