Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Colombia : Villa de Leyva, San Gil, Barichara

I was really excited to hit the road and start exploring Colombia.  Since we flew into Bogotá, it seemed like a good idea to point it north heading for the coast of the Caribbean and then wrap around to the west and come down through Medellín on the way to Ecuador.  "Easy enough," I thought.

I planned to spend a couple weeks getting to Medellín and a couple more getting to Ecuador.  Plans are nice.  Breaking them, when the going is good, is even better.  I had convinced Sam of the route and soon we were off heading out of Bogotá.  Our route for the day was to blast out of the city on the highway and then head slightly west through the quaint town of Villa de Leyva.

Villa de Leyva was pretty.  Not much was happening though, so we zipped through the backcountry heading for the highway to San Gil.  It was a nice ride.  Small country roads wound around through the farmlands.  Once we hit Arcobuco, we joined the bigger highway heading west and then north to San Gil.  San Gil is adventure headquarters.  This town is the jumping off point for all sports adventurous.  Whether it be paragliding, whitewater rafting, canyoneering, rock climbing or mountain biking, you can find a tour here to set your heart content.  We were just happy to find a nice spot to rest.  Our initial search for a hostel with parking came up dry, but we eventually found an apartment to rent for the night, where we could park the bikes inside.  It was a tight squeeze through the front door, but we managed.  Once the bikes were in, it made for a funny scene as we needed to peek around the bikes to watch the t.v.  Good thing the plaza was more entertaining.


We took in the laid back vibe of San Gil hanging out drinking beers on the plaza and eating street meat straight from the grill.  Our plan for the next day was to make a quick side trip to Barichara and then point it into the mountains for the first of our serious off road adventuring.

Barichara was as beautiful as a town could be.  Many Colombian movies and telenovelas are set here in this historic town.  The streets were clean and the buildings restored perfectly.  The woodwork all had a fresh coat of finish and the white plaster walls were fresh and clean.  Terracotta tiles covered the rooftops and a lazy vibe mated perfectly with the ideal temperature.  We checked out the big church on the plaza scoping for a way up into the bell tower to get some photos over the town.

When we exited the church, we met a friendly member of the town admiring our motorcycles.  Henry Velasquez was his name and he was excited to give us an impromptu tour.  We asked about the bell tower.  Henry told us that normally he'd be happy to bring us up into the tower but the caretaker had misplaced the key during recent festivities.  Sam said he'd have to call the locksmith.  Henry corrected him saying that the lock was so old they needed to call a blacksmith.

Henry was soon off for a trip to Vancouver, British Columbia to visit a "green" water processing plant to investigate the possibility of instituting a similar plant here in Barichara.  He and Sam chatted about British Columbia while I wandered around snapping photos of the church.  Henry offered to take us by the oldest home in town.  He said it was right next door, putting our minds at ease.  We ambled out of the church and crossed the tiled street to the neighboring house.

It didn't look like much from the front, but once through the entry, I was thoroughly impressed.

It was cool to see a house this old.  I'm not sure on the exact age but I think Henry said it was around 300 years old.  Amazing.
We took a walk up to his house to see a modern take on housing design.  Henry was an engineer by trade but he dabbled in architecture and interior design as well.  He gave us some history on the main church as we walked up the road.

And pointed out the original chapel as we passed by.

Everywhere we went, the streets were perfectly cleaned.  It seemed as though we were walking through a living museum.  

Henry opened his doors to us and his wife Pilar brought us fresh made lemonade.  We sipped lemonade and listened to Henry tell us about the different design elements he incorporated into his home.  He explained that he tried to combine just enough old aesthetics with new to strike a fine balance here.  He wanted something contemporary but didn't want it to clash with the historical nature of the town.  From the outside it fit perfectly with the town.

But inside was a totally fresh approach.

Instead of a central courtyard, the courtyard wrapped along the living space, giving a fresh light air to the whole home.

Everything in the house had a story...  From the dining table that was originally from England and had been recovered from a dismantled sailing vessel to the paddles proudly displayed on the living room wall, that were the actual wooden paddles used to pack the concrete walls of the house to the old ceramic  pot in the corner that was found on the property when they excavated for the house.  Henry and Pilar's designs were exquisite.

But my favorite was this installation in one of the many open air courtyards.  The rock fossils decorated around the base of a stone water basin that was a geologic formation recovered from nearby.  The iron plating bolted together and mounted to the wall sat about four inches from the white plaster wall and was backlit at night to create a stunning decorative feature.

We bid farewell to Henry as we walked back down to the bikes.  He gave us some pointers for the journey ahead and told us we absolutely needed to stop by Panaderia Barichara for some tasty baked goods on our way out of town.

Though our journey into rural Colombia had only begun, we were constantly rewarded with friendly people everywhere.  Here Sam was given the twenty questions by a group of local Baricharans...

Our side trip to Barichara turned out to be a greater success than we could have ever imagined.  And the road from San Gil to Barichara was a joy to ride as well.  Climbing and curving above San Gil it gave us incredible views out to the Central Valley.  Thanks to Henry and Pilar Velasquez for the incredible hospitality.

Can't wait to come back to Barichara and spend a longer time soaking in the history.

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