Eastern Colombia

Barichara (11-30-17)

The town where everyday feels like Sunday. Barichara is an indigenous word which means “a place to rest”. The cobble stone streets are sandwiched by white buildings with colorfully painted doors. It looks like a Pinterest photo, perfectly decorated with cacti, clay pots, and blooming flowers.

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Barichara sits on the edge of the Suarez Canyon. The river below is brown and consistently full. The hills are steep and of course, green. (Colombia is one of the most water rich countries in the world.) Everyday the clouds build on the high peaks. They are gorgeous. Starting off small and translucent, eventually building to look like big macaroons.

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Suarez Canyon

We spent nearly a week enjoying this town. I’d go for long runs on the canyons edge catching the morning coolness. After, we’d sip on fresh fruit smoothies enjoying the hostel’s lush courtyard. We spent the days playing cards in the plaza, going for hikes, and taking naps. It was the most we have just chilled and it was fantastic.

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One of the local churches.

Thanksgiving was during this week. Feeling bummed that we weren’t gorging ourselves with family and friends, we decided we’d treat ourselves to a dinner out. A small international restaurant, named Shanti, was in need of an English menu and we jumped at the opportunity to translate it. In exchange, Carolina, the owner cooked us an amazing meal. A vegetable wok and an Italian vegetable and rice dish, accompanied by exotic smoothies, all made with fresh ingredients. Figuring out ways to save money such as this is actually pretty fun. We will definitely be doing more of these exchanges in the future. To top the night off we substituted pumpkin pie for ice cream sundaes with melted chocolate and bananas.

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Some art in the park at the top of town.

By the end of the week we were feeling rested and overly relaxed, which ended up being good preparation for the busy city life that lay ahead. We’ll be writing about our time in Medellin shortly, but first we have to get out and explore this incredible city!

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Chicamocha Canyon (11-22-17)

Currently being considered as one of the wonders of the world, Chicamocha’s Canyon walls rise high and powerful. The rich green foliage seen all over Colombia clashes with beautiful shades of red and orange clay on every part of the 900 meter walls.

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The hike to Chicamocha Canyon is called the Camino Real. It encompasses a one or two night backpacking trip through five different colonial towns in the Santander department of Colombia. Starting in Cabrera, the path goes through Barichara, then Guane, Villanueva, Jordanand finally Los SantosThe historical trek was originally used by the indigenous of Guane, followed by the Spanish to transport goods and finally restored by a German settler.

Barichara to Guane – 

We originally learned about the hike in San Gil while flipping through the hostel booklet of activities, so thats where we began. Stashing our stuff at the hostel, we left from San Gil with camping gear and loaded packs around 11am. The late start caused us to miss the first bus to Cabrera so we decided to skip the first part and begin from Barichara. We hopped off the bus and quickly found the beginning of the path at the edge of Barichara.

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Automatically we realized how epic the hike was going to be. Barichara lies at the edge of the Suarez Canyon. On the opposite side are the incredible mountains of Nautral Serranía De Los Yariguíes National Park. It’s a breathtaking view and a perfect way to start the journey. The first part of the hike was on a wide stone path with semi-flat rocks. It winds through lush farmland with friendly farmers and happy goats.

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After a couple of hours descending towards the canyon floor we arrived at Guane. A tiny town with a soccer court in the main plaza. A couple of shuttered houses and restaurants surround the square with the church as the centerpiece (as always). It’s a quaint town with friendly Colombians. It was a perfect spot to enjoy a packed lunch before getting back on the road to see whats next.

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The little town of Guane.

Guane to Villanueva – 

After a while the stone path dies out and the path turns into a dirt road weaving between small tobacco farms. It’s easy to get lost on the hike, we relied heavily on locals to tell us the way. Yellow markers line the trail but it’s not always clear. The locals see hikers pass through occasionally and were quick to tell us where to go before we could even ask.

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The hike to Villanueva is a steady uphill that eventually leads to a beautiful lookout point. We reached a vista and got a full view of the mountains bordering Rio Suarez.  It was a clear enough day to see Bucaramanga nested in the mountains off in the distance.

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A final burst of climbing uphill brought us to the top of the ridge where a vast expanse of colorful farmland lay below. Villanueva was hidden just behind a hill but we knew we were on the right path.

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The descent to Villanueva brings you through a completely different environment. Red, orange, and brown clay is covered with dry brush. It looked like prime snake habitat and our guess was right. A friendly serpent was lying right on the path in front of us and we finally got to see one of the beautiful snakes of Colombia.

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Circumventing the snake we descended into Villanueva just as evening was setting in. The plaza was filled with old men relaxing on benches and young kids running around. We sat and enjoyed the scene for a second before finding the only hotel to ask where we could camp.

The hotel owner told us that we could pitch a tent in the plaza. The center plaza. He said it casually like it was no big deal putting a tent up in the middle of town with a ton of people around. We quickly asked if there was another place to camp and he told us about an empty soccer field on the outskirts of town. We got the impression camping spots are pretty laid back in this part of Colombia.

After setting up camp we fell asleep exhausted and woke up to voices. It turns out the soccer field is a bit of a late night hangout spot. Realizing sleep was going to be minimal and feeling slightly uncomfortable, we barely got to the hotel in time to snag a room (about USD $8) for the night.

We woke up around 5am the next day to get a head start on the long hike. Villanueva wakes up early (even on Sundays) so we had plenty of people to ask for directions.

Villanueva to Jordan – 

Winding through beautiful Colombian countryside and watching the sunrise made for a great start to the day. Flatbed trucks with 20 people in the back would pass us heading into town to go to church or the market (most likely the local “bus”). Eventually, we crested a hill giving us the first peek of the canyon below.

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Following rusted signs and local guidance, we meandered through some cows and farms to a small shop resting on the edge of the canyon. Folks were drinking beer and enjoying their day off, we laughed because it was 9am. They pointed us to a gate and we found the trail cutting into the side of the canyon.

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Gravel and large rocks clutter the trail and the downhill is steep. As we rounded different bends we got better and better views of the vastness Chicamocha encompasses. Huge walls and falling waterfalls make it look like a location where Jurassic Park might’ve been shot.

As we descended we became aware of the extreme humidity and heat of the canyon. The packs should’ve felt heavier but the views kept us captivated and distracted.

Jordan lies along the Umpala River at the bottom of the canyon. It’s a small ghost town nearly abandoned with incredible views of the massive walls all around.

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We followed the road into town. Abandoned buildings and empty roads made up the two main streets. A few workers were building the plaza (not sure why) and almost every shop was closed. We had read that on the other side of the bridge you could maybe find a house that served food.

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Nothing like a homemade meal.

Turned out to be a farm owners house with a dirt floor kitchen. They served us two massive plates of food and a couple coffees for (USD $3). The food was delicious and after hiking on not much of a breakfast, it really hit the spot. We left pretty soon after eating to try and beat the afternoon heat.

Jordan to Los Santos

The uphill climb out of the canyon is a consistent calf burner. In the midday sun it became apparent how brutal it was going to be. Nearly 3,000ft of path ahead and we were already dripping with sweat.fullsizeoutput_56c.jpeg

Our water ran out halfway up and we began periodically stopping in the shade to rest.  Eventually the stops turned into lying down on the path in the shade and dreaming of the cold water and ice cream at the top.

Los Santos rests on the edge of the canyon and is the final stop on the Camino Real. The climate changes abruptly when you get to the top. The sweat soaking our shirts and bodies was quickly dried by the consistent breeze and cool shade. We sat down at a small shop and chugged ice cold water.

Meandering into the plaza we found a clutter of stands selling pineapple, mango, and of course, ice cream. All the treats that make up a perfect reward after a tough hike.

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Town center church in Los Santos.

Looking back on the hike we might’ve done a two-nighter and done the entire trek. Camping somewhere between Guane and Villanueva for the first night, and Jordan for the second would’ve allowed us to avoid the heat on the final climb up. Regardless, we didn’t regret a minute of it. Seeing such incredible landscapes is always inspiring and humbling. It’s exactly what we look for when we travel.

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Mongui (11-16-17)

After navigating a few bus rides from Villa de Leyva we made it to Monguí. A small colonial town of about 5,000 inhabitants. Most of the houses are congregated around the dominating church at the center of town. It’s got a large beautiful, cobble stone square similar to Villa de Leyva’s with a few different touches. One being all the soccer ball shops. The hand made soccer balls are well-known throughout Colombia and they hang in almost every store.

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We got into town late in the evening and almost everything seemed to be closed. Apparently arriving in the middle of the week in small towns such as this means going from hotel to hotel if no reservation was made. We asked the tourist info desk what the cheapest hotel would be and they pointed us in the direction of Terrazas hospedaje. We walked two blocks and arrived at a building with darkened windows. All of a sudden a guy comes running up the street saying this is his place and we can stay for the night. We quickly learned Monguí is not a tourist hub.

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Regardless, we walked around with a beer, ate some fantastic pizza and enjoyed the light rain and warm light pouring out of the few stores still open.

The next day we got a better idea of why Monguí is considered to be a ‘classic’ colonial town. Similar to Villa, all the walls are white but the only other colors you see on the buildings are green and red. It feels a bit like Christmas anywhere you go. I mowed down some coffee, eggs and rice for about two dollars and we set off for a hike.

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Heading out of town towards a beautiful stone bridge we hooked a left and followed the river to a more modern (less striking) bridge. We went left before crossing, thinking we were following the directions correctly and started walking up a path. Almost to the top of the first hill we found out abruptly we were heading into private property. Four dogs came pounding over the crest of the hill barking like mad. They immediately began biting Alaina (no punctures) and I got one swift kick in before the owner came running.

 

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The hike goes along the right side of the river.

She told us that obviously we follow the right side of the river for the hike. We turned around, adrenaline pumping and found our way up the river to until we connected with the road again. Often with hikes in Colombia, you figure it out as you go.

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Making our way to the top of the hill was slippery and tough. We passed a few sheep and their herder. With a brief break in the rain we caught some good views and our breath at the top. In every direction there were green hills spotted with small garden plots and rustic homes. In the distance looking up the mountain you could see Paramo Soto, and down below lay Monguí.

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Alaina admiring the view.

After descending, we took an alternate route back through farmland to town. Although its beautiful, we decided to move on after checkout. On the way out of town we got lucky and sat next to Ms. Maruja, an indigenous guide that takes people on amazing guides to the Paramo. She’s focused on taking smaller groups so she can educate them on the importance of paramos in the world ecosystem. Wish we would’ve had time to go with her on the trek. Next destination; San Gil, adventure capital of Colombia.

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You can see the paramo way in the distance.

 

Hayal and Hondal: Waterfall Exploration (11-9-17)

Nitzan and Silvia (our hosts) are one of a kind. If there is one thing to be said about our last two weeks in Villa de Leyva, it’s that we have become apart of a family. Nitzan and Silvia have welcomed us with positive energy and a space to share.

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Nitzan and Juan Sol
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Juan Sol with Silvia and the puppies.

Nitzan greeted us in the morning with coffee, fresh cut fruit, and a plan to make shakshouka. Taylor chopped veggies and prepared the table while I made arepas with Juan Sol. I placed the small dough balls on the masher and with all his force he turned them into tortilla like corn cakes.

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We all chowed on the typical Israeli dish, laughed over the ridiculousness of the plump puppies roaming at our feet, and reared with excitement about the day ahead.

We all piled into the car. Juan Sol on my lap, Lia standing head out the window, Nitzan and Silvia singing to the tunes. We wound through the hills, the valleys, and eventually onto the ridge that you can see from their backyard.

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Alaina and Lia.

The car came to a stop and we arrived at a waterfall the family had been to once before and had been searching for ever since. The roads are dirt and all look the same so you can imagine why it would be difficult to retrace your path.

From the moment we stepped out of the car we could hear the water roar. Along the ridge, the layers of rocks bowled around a 200ft waterfall named Cascada del Hayal. The grass was green and the path was steep. The kids went running. Every turn offered a new view. Looking up the canyon were green fields, puffy clouds, and cows.

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Waterfall Hayal.

Our decent brought us deep into the canyon, almost cave like. The waterfall above us poured water. A small pool at the bottom led into a small river. We parked ourselves on the large rocks and explored the area. Standing behind the waterfall was epic. Watching gallons of water pour over the edge of a cliff is powerful. Soaking ourselves with mist was refreshing and chilling, the sun didn’t reach the depths of the pool.

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The walk back up from waterfall Hayal.

After getting our fill of cool water and stunning views we made our way back up the trail. The kids were champs racing each other to the top. Piling back in the car, kids tired, adults energized, we sang and gasped at the views. Stopping nearly every 5 minutes to get out of the car and take in our surroundings.

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A view from one of the many roads winding throughout the area.

We arrived at the next waterfall, Cascada Honda, and Juan Sol was passed out, Lia tired and wanting to stay behind. Taylor and I traded off staying in the car with the kids so Nitzan and Silvia could enjoy a little peace and quiet. 

 

Hungry and tired we all took part in cooking a late lunch while sipping cold beers. We sat in the backyard enjoying the sunset and the adorable puppies. Nitzan and Silvia jumped at our offer to babysit the kids and headed out for a date night.

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“Take another one!”

With the kids we made banana bread, built forts, sat by the fire and read books, and of course Juan Sol’s favorite game, chase. It was one of those days while traveling that you think to yourself several times “is this really happening?”. As we zombie walked to our cabana we discussed how a day so perfect, such as this, could feel so normal. It’s a testament to living in the moment with Nitzan, Silvia, and the kids. We can’t thank them enough for our time together.

Paramo Iguaque (11-7-17)

Our morning began at 6am with a cup of coffee and uncertainty of how we would arrive at Paramo Iguaque. We gathered our necessary layers, packed a lunch, and minutes later Nitzan woke up and so kindly offered to take us to the trailhead. Before the kids and us piled into the car, Nitzan gave us Coca leaves (the most sacred plant in the Andes) to chew on and as an offering to the Laguna at the end of the trail. On the drive we passed by horses congregating, fresh milk kegs being delivered, and farms that have no end.

Iguaque is considered one of the most sacred places in Colombia. The Muisca (indigenous tribe) believed Iguaque lake was where mankind began. The legend goes like this; goddess Bachue rose from the lake with a boy in her arms. He grew and they married and populated the Earth with their children. The goddess Bachue and her husband disappeared into the depths of the lake in the shape of snakes. This legend has attracted thousands (mostly indigenous) to bring an offering to the birthplace.

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We started in dense forest, where succulent looking plants grow on the sides of birch shaped trees. The trail was wet and slippery. Mud caked our boots and legs within minutes. We were some of the first people to enter the park that morning, so our hike was quiet and peaceful. The sun shone bright through the thick canopy of varying shaped leaves.

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At just about half way you cross a line, leaving trees and entering jumbled rocks and small shrubs. The shrubs are high desert like. Some spiny and others soft with coat like fur. We climbed at a 45 degree angle for nearly an hour. Every minute stopping to gasp for air and gawk at the incredible views in every direction. We looked over ridge lines and valleys full of green fields boasting their fresh fruits.

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We scrambled, sometimes on all fours, to count markers notifying us we were getting closer to the top. As we rounded the last bend, we could see just the corner of the lagoon. Peaks bowled around the water and the clouds rolled over us. Our stride became quicker with excitement as we neared the lagoon. Dropping down, reaching lake level, and taking in the view, we smiled like never before. What is this place? How is this real? We had never seen anything like it before. Peaks that were speckled with odd plant life, clouds puffy but allowing the sun to shine strong, water clear and fresh to drink. This place is sacred.

We offered our coca leaves to the lagoon, gave our thanks to the power out there that creates places like this, and warmed our sweaty bodies in the powerful sun.

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The way down was slippery. We slipped and slid our way down, showing off our ice skating moves and laughing the whole way. We felt rejuvenated, energized, and inspired. As we made our descent the clouds built, the thunder roared, and just as we reached the park entrance the rain poured.

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Our plan was to catch a bus back home but of course we didn’t plan and that didn’t work out so well. So we walked home, approximately 3 hours later we arrived, soaked and cold. “Vale la pena”, worth it. One of the most incredible places we have ever been. We feel energized and incredibly lucky to be living the life we’re living. We are lucky individuals that have been given the most incredible opportunities. This is just one of many. 

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Villa de Leyva (11-3-17)

From Guatape we decided to head east. We’d heard about a small colonial town from some friends and headed into the unknown. Bus routes in Colombia are random and often nonsensical.

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The view on the farm when we first arrived.

From Guatape we took a 10hr bus ride south to Bogota followed by a 3 hour bus ride north to Tunja, lastly a 1 hour bus north west to Villa de Leyva.

We’ve set up shop with a wonderful family in the countryside. Volunteering has been a great way to spend time with amazing people meanwhile exploring new areas.

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Juan Sol – Son of the owners of the farm, Nitzan and Silvia.

Volunteering is an exchange of 4 to 5 hours of work for food and accommodation. Here we are spoiled. The food is ridiculously good, all fresh from their garden or the local farmers market. Across the street we purchase fresh milk for approximately USD$1 a gallon.

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Veggie salad fresh from the market.

The town, Villa de Leyva, is an hours walk away. It’s a picturesque cobble stone colonial town. All the buildings are white, with wood trim, and red tile roofs. The streets are filled with local goods; from pottery, to wool sweaters, to chocolate. Men and women park themselves on benches along the outside of the plaza and watch the passerby’s whilst sipping a Poker (Colombian beer).

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Casual cell phone talk.

The day we arrived to town, a large rectangle of sandbags was being laid in the middle of the plaza. We later found out it was the setup for the Festival de Caballos (Horse Festival). Villa de Leyva hosts the festival every year, in which different horses (owned in Colombia) from around the world are showcased.

We bought two tickets for USD $4 and anxiously awaited the start. The festival consisted of typical Colombian dancing and horses showing off their own moves (trotting sideways, bowing, jumping, etc). Villa de Leyva was full of Colombians from all over snapping pictures and videos.

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A delicate balance between rider and dancer.

Every Saturday there is a massive market with fresh produce, artisanal creations, clothes, and second hand items. We strolled the stalls for hours gawking at the colors of the fruits and veggies. Get this, we bought 5 huge avocados for USD$1.50!

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A little amazed at the going on’s in town.

Then, we scored again when we found a vendor that sold the most amazing olive, oat, wheat, nutty bread. The bread in Colombia is usually white and bland. We ate a loaf of bread accompanied by an avocado and were happy Californians.

The people of Villa de Leyva offer smiling faces and generosity. Most live a “tranquilo” life in the “campesino” (rural area with a lot of agriculture) and seem very relaxed and at ease. It’s truly an incredible place.