As I've touched on in posts before, there's an inherent masochism to travel. Heavy food, uncertain showers, bad night's sleep — who knows what we might encounter when we leave the familiar comforts of home? And then, if you're like me, there's the willingness to do things you know you won't find comfortable in part because you want to get to the final destination and also because you're curious to see the space in between the destinations, where the land changes from flat to mountainous, who travels the same route as you, what it looks like along the way.
I didn't do a ton of research before coming to Colombia, but the small amount I did pointed me to a walk you could do between the towns of Barichara and Guanes, in a region called Santander, on an old road built hundreds of years ago that was still maintained. Rad! But when a week ago I started plotting out how to get to Barichara from the north of Colombia, I saw that it wasn't going to be an easy feat. I did look into flying (being traumatized from some particularly long bus and train rides in SE Asia), but when I calculated the numbers of hours I'd spend changing planes and still riding a bus, it didn't seem worth it. So a bus it was, and a foray into my familiar masochistic travel mode it was going to have to be.
Adding another touch of masochism to my plans is that I don't have quite the abundance of time I'd like to have to see the country. While I'm grateful I studied Spanish for a week in Cartagena, two weeks to cram everything else in is not a lot of time, especially considering the distances and roads between cities. Of course, I want to see as much as possible, since I don't know exactly when I'll be returning to Colombia next — my bucket list of countries to grow (looking at you Ethiopia ... and Madagascar ... and Albania ... and ...). In Cartagena, Adele had told me she hoped to check out an ashram near Santa Marta after our time in Palomino, so I figured the best thing to do was to make the best of travelling solo, seize my independence, and just go for it in terms of banging out what I can in a relatively short period of days. I'd probably not be as insane if I was travelling with another person, but since I'm on my own I can go at my own pace (which, I know from my solo travels last year can be extremely efficient).
I bid adieu to Palomino on Monday afternoon to head to Santa Marta for the night, where I planned on catching an early 7 am bus the next day to Bucaramanga, a nine hour's journey south. The local bus to Santa Marta was fast and cheap (9,000 pesos) and at the edge of Santa Marta, I was told I needed to switch buses for another into the center of town (2,000 pesos). I walked a few blocks to my hotel, then went hunting for a BBVA, the only ATM so far that's accepted my chip-less debit card here in Colombia.
After that mini adventure, it was already dark, so I wandered around the plaza close to my hotel (Parque de los Novios) to find somewhere to eat and settled on a place called Radio Burger, which had the added bonus of 2-for-1 drinks during happy hour! I happily chowed down on a hamburger and enjoyed one-and-a-half mojitos before heading back to my hotel to repack and get to bed early.
The next morning was easy; a taxi arrived at the hotel in less than a minute, and about 15 minutes later I was at the bus station with a purchased ticket in hand. If I haven't said it before, let me reiterate that knowing some Spanish has been extremely helpful for navigating around the country. While studying for a week in Cartagena cut into the overall amount of time I have to travel around the country, between the week of classes, the two months preparing in San Francisco and the very modest foundation created from my two years living in Spain many moons ago, I feel like I know just enough to get by and feel confident speaking and understanding people. I could still know way more and work on my listening comprehension, but having a modest grasp of the language has been a real blessing.
We hit the road at 7am sharp and spend the next several hours driving down a two-lane road through an extremely dry, flat landscape scattered with trees, scrub and the occasional palm or fruit tree plantation, pausing at every village to go across speed bumps. After an hour of driving, the attendant put on what would be the first of three movies played at a volume that would be the envy of most movie theaters -- we started with "Dumb and Dumber To," then "Fast and Furious 7," and then a movie that I think was called "Let's Be Cops", which was just barely more intelligent than "Dumb and Dumber To." Finally, as the road began to wind up into the mountains towards Bucaramanga, the movies finally ceased and simple salsa blarred from the radio instead.
The last few hours of our trip were spent on a two-lane road twisting and turning through the mountains, mostly trying to leapfrog ahead of the numerous mack trucks making their way up the same steep grade, while not being hit by the trucks, motorcycles, and cars coming down the hill on the other side. This meant that for long durations, we'd be stuck behind up to ten large trucks chugging their way slowly up the road, at what felt like was close to 10 mph.
Finally, an hour after we were due to arrive in Bucaramanga, we arrived at the terminal. The attendant told me that another girl was travelling the same direction as me, and asked her to show me where the counter was to buy a ticket to San Gil. She told me that typically the journey is better to do at night, which I'd considered, but my Lonely Planet had a special note that the specific journey can be less-than-safe at night, and I had made non-cancellable reservations for Santa Marta and San Gil, unfortunately. (My two other big problems with night buses are a) it can be impossible to sleep if the attendant decides he wants to watch three movies at full volume, and b) even if you do sleep, it's not usually sufficient and you end up in your final destination groggy, cranky and in need of a nap ... Which can end up defeating the purpose of the night bus in the first place.)
Within a few minutes of arriving in Bucaramanga, we were in a small mini bus now making its way out of town. We stopped for a half hour on the outskirts of town somewhere for what seemed like the purpose of allowing several different people to come on the bus in the attempts of selling stuff. But finally we were back on the two-lane road clogged with traffic, "curvas peligrosas" signs guiding our way.
Although the light was getting dim, I could see we were making our way high along a beautiful canyon, and across the way at one point, I could see lights high up on a hill, so dim in the haze that they might be stars, which I considered for a moment they might be, until I determined that they were too long in the sky to be so bright and so close together. We drove and drove, our driver periodically pulling out from behind a large truck to accelerate past and swerve back into our lane before colliding with an oncoming auto, until soon I realized that we were eye level with the "stars," presumably houses high up the hill on the other side of the valley. And then, twenty minutes later, we were higher than the stars, and they disappeared into the valley below us as we rounded a corner and continued on.
At a certain point, the traffic thinned a bit, although occasionally we'd overtake three or four giant trucks slowly driving together. I'd read the journey to San Gil from Bucaramanga, but every time I pulled out my phone to see where we were on the map, we seemed to have travelled no distance at all. Finally, after 3 hours, we pulled into San Gil, and I hopped into a cab and made my way to hostel.
I'd debated staying two nights in San Gil, and when I got to my hostel, was glad I'd made the decision to only stay for one. Despite now being at 3,828 feet (1,167m), it was still warm outside, and the windows to the bedroom had been shut and covered in a pane of glass, presumably to block out the incessant traffic from the street outside. I knew there wouldn't be a/c, but when there's no fresh air, just a fan is a different story. Thankfully I was able to switch rooms to one with windows that opened (and thankfully I had earplugs to block out all the motorcycles grumbling outside!).
I walked a couple blocks to the center of town and found a restaurant with windows that opened looking out into the plaza below. San Gil has not yet succumbed to becoming a complete tourist destination just yet; it's known for having numerous outdoorsy activities nearby from waterfall rappelling to white water rafting, but the town itself seems aloof to any tourism presence. I was pleased to see this morning when heading out to find an empanada and a café con leche to see that the majority of shops facing into the plaza still contained businesses aimed locals, from eyewear to pharmacies to shoes (as opposed to tchotchkes and overpriced restaurants).
I had initially thought I'd try to go to a waterfall near San Gil before heading on to Barichara, but decided this morning when I woke up that I would skip it — while I'm sure it's beautiful, I'd spent 13 hours sitting the day before, and in order to get to the waterfall, I'd have to travel for 45 minutes in the opposite direction from Barichara, then return and travel another 45 minutes to get to Barichara, where I had a reservation for the night already.
The trip to Barichara was short and sweet; up and down little winding roads in a valley dotted with farms and Spanish-tiled, white washed houses as far as the eye could see. I've been known to go to many places and point out their similarities to California (and hey, when you come from a state as varied and beautiful as California, it's hard not to), but I can safely say this is one place that did not feel like California. The earth was the color of caramel, the trees foreign, the shapes of the undulating mountains and hills too round, and it was altogether too dry, too brown, and too hilly to call to mind any California destination. It was, however, very beautiful, with the white houses popping up against the dry, tan earth and the rust-colored tiled-roofs fading back into it, with just a thin blanket of dry, barely green trees, shrub, and grass laying over the ground.
Barichara is, thankfully, as lovely as I'd hoped — it's considered one of Colombia's most historic cities, a perfectly preserved piece of Spanish colonialism, row after row of one-story homes painted white and decked with tiled roofs, along cobble-stone roads, going up a hillside. There's one cathedral, two churches, and one chapel, which seems like more than enough for the small city's population.
Today, I had some lunch at a nearby restaurant filled with locals (I was the only gringo and there was no menu, just the waitress rattling off about ten different forms of carne, oveja, and pechuga), and then wandered the little town, trying to stay in the shade out of the relentless hot sun, stopping for a fresh squeezed lemonade at an outside café near the main Cathedral (the only one I saw in the entire town).
Tomorrow I will finally make my lone Colombia travel goal come true and make the 2 hour walk on the old Camino Real to the tiny town of Guane before coming back to Barichara for the night. And then Friday, it will be on to Villa de Leyva for a couple nights before making my way for Bogotá.
So, yes, it is all a little bit masochistic, this slightly breakneck pace, this tightly planned itinerary. But as I sit on the terrace of my serene little hostel listening to the breeze rustle the leaves of the mango tree hanging overhead, it definitely all seems worth it.
Bus from Santa Marta to Bucaramanga, 51,000; bus from Bucaramanga to San Gil, 9,000; bus from San Gil to Barichara, 4,600 pesos. It is possible to go all the way from Santa Marta to Barichara in one day, but you'd want to be on an early bus (7 am) and anticipate arriving in Barichara around 9pm. You can also take a night bus between Bucaramanga and San Gil and will then likely see the supposedly gorgeous Parque Nacional del Chicamocha in the early light of dawn.