Leaving Barichara, we head south back towards San Gil late where we stop for a tasty empanada and espresso coffee breakfast at a busy local café on the square.
It’s about a 20km drive out to the Juan Curi waterfall where we park up in the grassy field which has a number of huge scary turkey looking birds walking around to welcome us, then pay our entrance fees.
The hot hike takes us uphill over rocky steps through tropical jungle vegetation to a bridge over a stream and to the first waterfall. Climbing higher still, we finally down ascend via a rickety ladder to get to the river. To be able to reach the falls, we have to go over the slippery rocks with fast flowing water dropping into the rocky river, it’s lucky there’s a rope to hang onto overhead!
The waterfall is two parts a lower smaller fall and the upper fall dropping into a large plunge pool.
Once across, we scramble up the sides of the rocky hill over a series of wet and slippery ledges with the aid of a worn rope to get to the drop pool of the 180 metre waterfalls where we rest and take in the view.
Once back down again, we decide to drive on to Villa de Leyva, the route taking us along a very gravelly and bumpy deserted back country track. It starts to rain and the road conditions deteriorate further with huge pot holes and slow muddy sections. Stopping to ask some locals gets us even more confused, we can’t quite decipher what they are saying as one points one way up the road and the other, another! By this time the roads have become rivers of water with the continued rain, it’s starting to get late and dark, we decide to stay in San Gil for the night and try again in the morning after a good rest!
10th December VILLA DE LEYVA
The drive to Villa de Leyva in the Boyaca region from San Gil takes us via a very bumpy road although it seems we are on more of a main road than the abysmal one we had attempted yesterday. The journey takes around 3 and a half hours up over the mountains overtaking giant trucks through dust clouds on narrow roads, although the views are very pretty!
Arriving in town, we drive to a campsite which has decent facilities but it‘s quite a way out of the centre and it‘s also raining so we decide on a cosy room in town with breakfast instead with some very friendly owners (they even bring us coffee and biscuits on arrival!)
In the evening, we take a walk out looking for a restaurant and end up walking around virtually the whole town as places are either shut or are out of our budget! Eating options range from empanada stands to fine dining. Many of the cafes and restaurants are housed inside restored colonial whitewashed mansions. After around an hour of walking and deliberating, we eventually settle on one overlooking the main square getting a Santa Picada which is a mix of sausage, meat, potato and lasagne. Walking back to the guesthouse, we get a little lost navigating the dark unlit streets but our phone comes to the rescue and soon leads us in the right direction.
The charming colonial village of Villa de Leyva was declared a national monument in 1954 in order to preserve its architecture, with its picturesque cobblestoned streets, whitewashed buildings complete with balconies overflowing with bougainvilleas and geraniums all set against a mountain backdrop. It is ringed on all sides by old mansions and centred around a church with a bell tower.
All of the buildings are required, by law, to be whitewashed, one-story and have a terracotta tiled roof which is all in keeping with the colonial tone.
It‘s claim to fame is that it has one of the largest town squares in the Americas, the Plaza Mayor at 120m by 120m which is the centre of village life and is also a venue for a number of annual festivals. It definitely takes a while to walk over and manoeuvre the large uneven paving stones to get to the other side! Unlike other squares in Latin America, the only thing within it is a small fountain in the centre, providing water to village residents for over 4 centuries.
Villa de Leyva was founded in 1572 as a retreat for Spanish clerics and viceroys. It is also one of Colombia’s top tourism spots, we see mostly Colombian tourists wandering the colonial streets. It’s a popular weekend retreat for people from the capital, Bogota since it’s only around 3 hours away.
Located in a high altitude desert-like valley in the Andes, at 2144 metres, the temperature is great and perfect for walking around comfortably. The coolness of the air is a welcome relief from the heat further north.
It feels more established than sleepy Barichara, with more people around, restaurants, shops etc. and no steep streets to negotiate! Although it has the same feel of yesteryear and a leisurely atmosphere. The timeless quality has also attracted directors to film a variety of telenovas here, which in turn has increased its popularity.
It‘s a day of sight-seeing today and we are lucky to have sunshine as we drive out of town. Our first stop is the House of Clay, a strange orange sight in the middle of a field which looks like it’s come straight from the set of a Hobbit movie. The interior is made completely of clay as well as a fully functioning kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. It probably won‘t be long before they start renting it out!
We wander around and of course have to fly the enormous Colombian flag on the rooftop!
In the Cretaceous period, most of present-day Colombia was underwater and this area which was once a prehistoric lake is famous for an abundance of fossils. So naturally, our next stop is the CIP fossil museum but are disappointed to find there are no guides available today which would have probably made the visit better. Instead we wander around the exhibits by ourselves, but are offered a slight discount. There are a few huge complete fossils of sea dragons, pilosaurs, sharks, giant turtles and metres long piranha type fish. A laboratory on site enables us to see the technicians at work, meticulously gluing pieces of the fossils together.
We had read about a good hike just outside of town in Santa Sofia so take a drive out to the Paso del Angel or Angel‘s Step walk. The first part involves getting stuck in a lorry traffic jam for about 20 minutes and then along a narrow mud and dirt road. The only people we see are a family on a motorcycle, 2 adults and a baby! The road brings us up to a clearing where we are slightly shocked by the sight of an old man jumping out from behind the bushes brandishing a huge machete. He then proceeds to wave it above his head and we wonder if we should be getting out of there as fast as possible!
Luckily, he smiles and shows us where to park then says he will look after the car. He actually turns out to be a nice man and even poses for a photo! In Central America, we would definitely be asked for money for this! We grab him a drink from the fridge and set off.
Ducking under some wire, the old Muisca road walk takes us along a narrow path along the ridge of a mountain with stunning views and drops down to two rivers on either side. Suddenly the path virtually disappears where it has fallen away on either side and to get across would mean having to jump over this section. A slip of the foot on the other side or misjudging the jump would mean a sheer vertical drop down the side of the mountain! Not wanting to risk our lives to jump over, we turn around and head back, now we know why it‘s called the Angel‘s Step!
If this would have been Australia, we would have been prevented from walking any further a long way back and in New Zealand we would have at least been warned that it was dangerous!
Trying to get back into town, we have another half an hour wait at road works. Impatient honking bus drivers try to reason with the girl with the walkie talkie, explaining in frustrated tones that they are going to be late but it’s no use. The strange thing is there is not even any traffic coming in the opposite direction. When she finally lets us go, the crazy bus driver sits right on our tail, desperate to overtake.
The surrounding countryside of Villa de Leyva has arable land, with bright warm days and cool nights, which makes it ideal for growing grapes. Spotting the Marques de Villa winery on the side of the road, we stop for a quick visit trying a Sauvignon and their Grand Reserve which aren’t too bad before heading for home.
After breakfast at the guesthouse, we head out to the Monquira archaeological park or El Infiernito (Little Hell), an ancient Indian site with phallic rock structures dotting the large grassy area. Little Hell was the name given by the Spanish conquistadors as they regarded it as a place of pagan worship.
The shrine was used as a centre for religious ceremonies and also as an astronomical observatory by the Muisca culture. Although there are a couple of signs in Spanish only, some of the sandstone structures are enormous and probably used in fertility rituals, it was a major holy site for the Muisca from 1000 to 1550AD. We have the place to ourselves and enjoy wandering around the strange but compelling site.
Heading back into town, on a small street off the main square, we find a lovely busy little restaurant with a menu del dia of a huge soup starter, meat, rice and plantain then ice-cream accompanied by a guitarist playing Spanish styled versions of Frank Sinatra songs! At just $3 each for 3 courses, this is bound to become a permanent part of our daily routine. We also try Colombia’s most popular alcoholic drink, an anise liquor which is usually drunk neat, Aguardiente, derived from sugarcane and also very potent, with a 29% alcohol content!
As we are walking around, we stumble on the small Casa Museo de Antonio Narino, one of Colombia’s early independence heroes who also translated ‘Rights of Man’ into Spanish. There are exhibits on his life, historical objects and a pretty garden. Then we explore the cobblestoned streets, made for casual wandering, looking around the handicraft stores and pretty artisan shops stocking hats, gloves, woven sweaters and traditional ponchos. A casual eatery which looks to be filled with locals catches our eye, we pull up a seat on a long wooden picnic style table. There doesn’t seem to be a menu just a couple of options of a mixed grill or a slightly different mixed grill! It turns out to be one of the best meals we have had so far, a plate of lamb ribs, pork, beef, sausage and mixed vegetables.
We watch the staff cook the meal over an open fire spit roasting the meat and take a relaxing walk back past boutique hotels and restaurants within old courtyard mansions. Tomorrow we leave the tranquillity behind and hit the road again for the Colombian capital, Bogota!