I'm not the world's biggest pre-planner when it comes to travel. I tend wait until I'm on the flight before I crack into my guidebook and begin to plot out what I'll do once I've stepped foot on foreign soil. Somehow, until I'm on the plane, the trip never feels quite real. This can be slightly problematic (such as, uh, landing in Bangkok without a real idea of how I'll fill four months of solo travel time) but also open up whole itineraries that would never have crossed my mind otherwise. (The best example being the time my friend Catherine and I flew to Lisbon with nothing but a rental car reservation and wedding to attend a week later in A Coruña, Spain, and had the good fortune to be seated next to a friendly Portuguese man who rattled off a series of interesting places we should visit along the way.) In the case of Colombia, I bought my Lonely Planet a couple months before the trip but didn't really delve too far in. That's because basically the first page I turned to mentioned two old villages you could walk between and the very thought of doing this gripped my imagination. Two villages connected by an old, cobblestone trail? Say no more! I had one mission in Colombia and it involved ... an old road.
For whatever reason — perhaps because it was highlighted by Lonely Planet — I had some (very false) notion that walking this Camino Real would be hard or confusing. It turns out it's basically the easiest thing in the world. The beginning of the trail is well-marked and easy to find, and while the trail is an old, uneven collection of rocks, it would be nearly impossible to get lost or led astray. You cross the modern, paved road in a couple places, but there are large, spray-painted yellow arrows guiding you along the way. And while guidebooks and most sources say 2 hours, I made it to Guane in just over an hour and a half, just in time to take a guided tour of the tiny paleontology/archaeology museum and pop into a local restaurant for lunch. By the time I was on the local bus to Barichara (1,400 pesos), it was barely 1 pm.
So without further ado, here are a few tips for walking the Camino Real.
Tips for walking the Camino Real
1. Start early
It gets super hot in Santander, and between the strong sun and unsheltered trail, this is a route you'll want to walk earlier in the day. (I was fortunate to have an overcast morning, but could definitely imagine this might not be very fun with the hot sun beating down on you.)
2. Wear a hat, sunscreen, etc.
That sun is strong, yo!
3. Keep your eyes peeled for spray-painted yellow signs
This is not a confusing walk by any means, but you do need to pay attention because there are a couple forks in the road. You'll want to follow the yellow areas and letters "GN" (for Guane).
4. Visit the paleontology museum
Yes, it is teeny tiny but this place is packed with more fossils than I've ever seen. You aren't allowed to take pictures, but the tour takes all of 20 minutes and is an excellet opportunity to strengthen your Spanish comprehension skills (dork alert!). Plus, Guane seems like it has a population of about 30 people, so why not spread the wealth and give a few pesos to its lone museum?
5. Eat lunch — try the goat!
My hostel owner told me that goat is the speciality of Guane, and it was delicious! There are a handful of little restaurants in Guane, all serving the same food, so I'd just pick one that looks good and go for it. My menu del día cost 11,000 pesos and included a soup, fresh juice, and big hearty plate of rice, vegetables, plantain and hunk of goat.
6. Hop a bus back to Barichara
It's easy to get back to Barichara -- there are hourly buses that leave from the main square. (Again, this town has like 30 people, so it won't be hard to miss it.) You'll be back in a little over 30 minutes, just in time for a fresh jugo de limón (Barichara's speciality!) or a nice, cold gelato (check out the place on the southwest corner of the main plaza).
Walking the Camino Real as a Day Trip from San Gil
A trip to Barichara and Guane could be done as a pleasant day trip from nearby San Gil. You'd simply want to take an early 45-minute bus ride to Barichara, get off and immediately set off on the Camino Real, which should not be hard to find (it's on the Lonely Planet map, and presumably you could ask someone in town to point you in the direction of the start of the trail, which is also just a bit downhill from the Parque para Las Artes sculpture park). If you hit the trail by 9:30 am, you could arrive in Guane by 11:30 am, which leaves time for a leisurely lunch and visit to the paleontology museum; presumably you could be back in Barichara by 1:30 or 2pm. And then you'd have several hours to wander around admiring Barichara's colonial architecture and interesting old churches before catching a late afternoon bus back to San Gil (as of writing this, my understanding is the last buses leave around 6pm — I'd double check at the bus station before you set off to Guane).