Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me begin.
Sparrowfart Saturday morning “Terminal de Transporte de Bogota, Salitre”
Travel by bus in Colombia is easy they said, seats better than first class sections of aircraft, very soft recliners with ample leg room and a direct journey of 5 hours. We booked a luxury coach and stood by our sumptuous ride. Possibly our lack of Spanish or maybe a random sin not covered by the plenary indulgence I had bought at the Cathedral yesterday, who knows. The luxury coach left and we were shoved onto the chicken bus next to it (I wondered why it was so cheap), thankfully it did have a toilet of sorts, (note to self buy more hand sanitiser) so Sally’s bladder, that had gone into contracted spasms relaxed enough for her to board. Another random adventure, let’s go with it and see how this one turns out.
The upside to the more stops than Megabus, picking up and dropping off friends, family and anyone else who flagged us was seeing the country for real. Some of those Andean towns were pretty basic bordering mediaeval on the outskirts, in contrast to the centre where each had a sumptuous square and opulent Cathedral. Overall rather sketchy worrying us slightly about what we were going into.
Arriving in San Gil with a sore arse and hyper sensitive coccyx our fears were allayed as we walked into a wonderful welcome at an authentic homestay “Mi Casa Su Casa”.
Colombians really are the most genuine friendly people. Leaving our bags we went for a quick explore to shake off the journey. Now, after 9 hours of Andean shanty towns, Gauchos and subsistence living what we did not expect to find was a full on modern shopping Mall with £120 spangly trainers and all the other associated Western nonsense. Still slightly shocked we crossed the bridge into the main square finding crowded bars, coffee shops and a bustling hustle of happy smiling faces indulging in a huge exuberant party for no apparent reason.
Not a word of English spoken as the curious locals started staring at these two gringos and for some bizarre reason they all wanted to touch me. Feeling like we had dropped in from outer space, I was for a moment Matt Lucas “The only gay in the Village” (Foreign Nationals will have to reference ‘Little Britain’ for that one).
San Gil is actually a charming little Andean town of 50,000 founded in 1689 but it’s history goes back to pre-Colombian times, when it was inhabited by native indigenous people called the Guanes. Originally 100,000 strong, those proud people would rather die than be subjugated by the Spanish conquistadors, who in their own caring and compassionate way duly obliged leaving a mere 10,000 after the Colonial period. The town now relies on agriculture, coffee, tobacco and sugarcane and as of two years ago opened up to adventure sports tourism and why we came.
The position the town sits, in relation to the valley, make the surrounding Andean mountains act like a giant SAD’s box, allowing the light from the sunrise to increase slowly as it graduates up, over and through the peaks enabling you to wake up naturally without feeling tired. Once awake sitting on the balcony consuming a large mug of Colombian coffee (grown at the owners farm), listening to the songbirds while watching the Condors catching some early thermals, breathing clean fresh mountain air, it is a cracking day already and we had not even had breakfast.
Onwards with paragliding. A stunning take off point looking over the Rio Chicamocha Canyon and in seconds we were soaring with Condors in the huge thermals enjoying the most epic of views. What not to do at this stage is goad the pilot saying “is that all you have got” after his first set of acrobatic flying. Enrico nearly had my breakfast up before I conceded leaving me pale and wobbly for the journey back. Much to Sally’s amusement who gave me no sympathy because I am a knobber!!!
The Rio Chicamocha Canyon is the second largest in the world and in two days gave us over 100k of superb mountain biking trails, single track and downhill riding. Taking in the town of Jordan, the once staging post, now virtually a ghost town with a smattering of tobacco farms and locals living a life so raw that it was still bleeding.
Overdoing it slightly we scheduled some rest days and a quick exploration around Barichara town declared in 1975 to be the prettiest in Colombia. It was indeed with its cobbled streets and colonial architecture. As usual the centre is a square with this time the ‘Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción’ featuring a gold-leaf altar. Although a little too sleepy as everything seemed shut, we ate some big ass ants a supposed delicacy that tasted like fresh horse shit!
Our minds were manyana already thinking about the Rio Fonce White water rafting.
At 0500 a huge explosion saw me leap out of bed taking cover on the balcony, up observing targets I saw a full on marching band strike up complete with fireworks, several more explosions, car horns and general merriment. This signalled the start of the yearly ‘Festival San Gil’ where the whole town shuts down for a party ( including the rafting) so we extended for the weekend to take it in.
The centrepiece was a parade of horses. People lined the street 5 deep watching a procession of gauchos and local bourgeois showing off their considerable riding skills, the better the trotty dance thing the bigger the cheer. Parading round and round the square getting more and more drunk, of course everything went pear shaped South American style. People were getting stood on, horses veering off into the crowd, at one point a group of the animals started fighting. This was quickly followed by screaming Gauchos to huge cheers from the crowd, who just continued in an atmosphere of total chaos and utter carnage that only the crazy, mad, Latinos seem to be able to create.
Now with shot knees and full of Ibuprofen a luxury bus to Santa Marta awaits (let’s hope it is this time). Let us see what the Caribbean Coast has to offer. Three weeks in and I leave you with a quote that sums up Colombia so far.
“To travel is to discover that everybody is wrong about other countries”. Aldous Huxley