The children slept brilliantly through their first overnight bus ride, a 13 hour journey from Santa Marta to San Gil in the department of Santander, Colombia. We had almost avoided this city, due to our guidebook’s description of a place that was popular for extreme sports and lacking in “prettiness”. I didn’t find this analysis of the city’s appearance to be fair, and was immediately charmed by its stone cathedral, the gracious trees and garden in the main plaza (Parque la Libertad), the hilly, cobblestoned streets overlooked by wooden balconies, and overall lush locale. What we most enjoyed about San Gil is that it felt like a real city not dependent on the commerce of tourists.
One day, after breakfasting on empanadas, freshly squeezed orange juice and bowls of sweet fruit salad in the mercado’s stalls, we took a bus to nearby Barichara, a serene and beautifully preserved, white-washed Spanish Colonial town with clay-tiled roofs. In the plaza, we recognized a young Dutch/German couple and their daughter who we had seen in Tayrona National Park. Together, we decided to walk the Camino Real from quaint Barichara to the even quieter town of Guane. Although this region was hot, the drier climate provided much-needed relief from the humidity of the coast. The green sierras are absolutely stunning above the Suarez River Canyon, and the winding roads hug the steep hills, revealing farmland, forests and the chocolate-brown river below. Many trees are draped in silvery Spanish moss, hanging and blowing in the breeze like Gandolf’s grey beard. We ended our excursion with ice-cream for the children, and a bitter sampling of hormigas (fat-bottomed ants) for the adults, then bused our way back to Barichara for a more substantial almuerzo.
The following day, we did the best we could do with partaking in “extreme” sports, and went on a hike to the Las Cascadas de Juan Curi (waterfalls), which required the use of ropes to clamber over wet rocks and along narrow precipices. We were joined again by father/daughter duo, Johan and 4-year old fearless Lillie, spying peacocks, caterpillars, beetles and toads larger than double fists.
With our interest in heritage/colonial towns of Colombia piqued, our next destination of Villa de Leyva was certain. Founded in 1572 in the department of Boyaca, this charming town has seen little exterior modernization, and is a well-preserved example of colonial architecture and cobble-stoned paving, including one of the largest central plazas in the country. Our time was spent aimlessly wandering down a multitude of lanes, sampling chocolate and coffee, admiring arts and crafts, peeking into simple churches with soaring wooden rafters and matching pews, and visiting the old homes and now museums of some famed Colombians, like the artist, Luis Alberto Acuna, or the Captain martyr, Antonio Ricaurte.
I most enjoyed our morning spent at a weekly farmer’s market, purveying the local commerce of flowers, shoes, exotic fruits, many types of potatoes and organic produce and potions. We ate bowls of hearty soup and sausage like the rest of the visiting caballeros.
On our last morning, I had time for myself to visit the convent and its museum annex of valued religious artifacts. Although I am not a believer, history moves me, passion moves me, blind faith both terrifies and attracts me. Intense religious belief and quest for spiritual understanding are fascinating at both an intellectual and visceral level. I love the way churches, temples and holy places for prayer make me feel, as if short for breath and extra sensitive to sounds, sights and smells. In Villa de Leyva, I was able to spend a quiet, wordless hour on my own, contemplating big ideas of man and god, and feeling appreciative of our travels.