31 March 2013

You eat ants?

Wow, it's Easter again, or Semana Santa (Holy Week) as they call it in Spanish-speaking countries. Last Semana Santa I traveled to the desert of La Guajira, northeast of Cartagena, and then a bit inland to Mompós, which is famous for it's Holy Week processions. I never thought I'd still be in Colombia a year later, but here I am, still with lots to do and see!
Cabrera town square
It was arranged so that we wouldn't have to teach classes during Semana Santa at the Centro Colombo Americano. While the school was open for a couple of days during the week, we "overtaught" by several minutes each class period in the three weeks coming up to Semana Santa so we could make up time and take the entire week off. Fine by me! I headed out last Saturday night with a friend on a 13 hour overnight bus trip south to Bucaramanga, capital of the Santander department. From there we connected to another bus for a 2.5 hour trip to San Gil, "adventure sports capital" of Colombia, and then continued on to our third bus for an hour's trip to Cabrera, a small colonial pueblo. I had planned a 3-4 day hiking trip from small town to small town outside of San Gil, culminating with a hike down--and then up--the Chicamocha Canyon. 

It not only takes a long time to get anyplace here, it's also hard to get information sometimes. So despite the fact that several guide books/online sites spoke about a 2-4 day hike between these small towns, information on the actual routes and accommodations in each spot was difficult to find -- for example, despite multiple inquiries to various tourist type places, I hadn't been able to find out if the pueblo of Cabrera had any kind of accommodations at all. However, upon hearing that we were looking for a place to stay, our friendly San Gil-to- Cabrera bus driver immediately called someone in the pueblo and had rooms for us booked at the one place in town. I needn't have worried!
Playing tejo

Cabrera was cute! The few kids who were playing around the main square practiced their English with us: "Hello!" "Hi!" "How are you?" We also got to see the only other thing happening in town that night: a "tejo" game, a national sport based on an indigenous game. In a way it's kind of like horseshoes (or for the younger crowd, cornhole) -- you have to throw a little metal disc into a box of clay. In the middle of the box of clay is gunpowder, and if you hit it right you set off a little explosion. Fun!! Add to this the fact that everyone drinks beer while playing, and you have a *really* fun time. Alcohol plus gunpowder--gotta love it!?!?
Camino Real

We started our trek the next day along the Camino Real, a trail originally used by the indigenous Guane people and then later by the Spanish. It was rebuilt in the late 1800s and still pretty well maintained. Our first 30 minutes or so of the trail was pretty much straight up -- great way to start the day! The plan was to hike ~2.5 hours to Barichara, known as "Colombia's prettiest town", but we ran into some locals partway along who gave us a ride half way to Barichara, and who were we to say no?

Melanie & the "chismosera"
Along with these locals, who owned an artisan shop in Barichara, we met another super nice couple who own a family vacation home in the town. They invited us in for a glass of wine and to see their fabulously renovated home, complete with "chismosera" (if I'm remembering the word correctly?? it comes from "gossip"), which is a built in little nook just below and inside the windows that allow you to easily see what's going on in the street--this way you can of course keep up with what your neighbors are up to!!

Unfortunately, not edible
One thing that Barichara is well-known for is their edible ANTS! As Mowgli said, "You eat ants?" Yes, ants: "hormigas culonas" or "big assed ants" (literally). I knew it was something that I *should* try but it wasn't really something that I *wanted* to try. And I was in Barichara for ant season. When it rains, they come out of hiding the next day, and then they're scooped up and toasted; supposedly they taste like popcorn. It rained heavily the night before we hiked to Barichara and stopped that morning...yikes, I was in "luck." But then I learned that they wouldn't emerge until the day following the big rain, and after that they'd need a day to toast them and get them to their delectable goodness. So no, I didn't eat ants; drat (?), a missed opportunity!

Leaving Barichara
After Barichara, we continued the next day to Guane, another town "lost in time", where my travel buddy Melanie decided to hitch a ride to the next destination. We had met up with a local guide there who was the support vehicle for 3 guys who were hiking from Cabrera that morning (where we had started 2 days prior). He offered to take Melanie to Villanueva, our destination that day, and suggested I wait for the 3 guys and hike from Guane to Villanueva with them. Fortunately, I decided not to wait for the 3 guys, thinking they'd likely catch up to me anyway on the trail. Turns out these three guys were part of an adventure racing team doing everything for time, so they would not have wanted me as their hiking companion! But in any event, these guys decided it was too hot & got a ride most of the way to Villanueva--hey, "no wimps", guys!! (After hiking 3 hours from Guane to Villanueva, I still arrived just before the adventure racers anyway!)

Planting seeds by hand
Melanie chose to bus it back to civilization from Villanueva, so I set off shortly after dawn on Wednesday to avoid as much of the heat as possible. This would be my last hiking day and I had 7-8 hours ahead of me, which included a descent into a canyon and then the climb out. Just on the edge of town I ran into a man carrying empty containers and asked him to make sure I was heading out the right way to Jordán, my next destination (a ghost town at the bottom of the Chicamocha Canyon). He said yes and we walked along about 10 minutes together. He heads out this way every morning "for exercise"....and to get water so that he has some at his home. I passed several people out in the fields, some even planting seeds by hand (beans and tobacco are the big crops in this area I was told). The previous day on the trail I had seen someone carrying a case of beer (essentials!!) on his back up the trail from Guane. It is amazing what the day to day is like for many people here, and even living here I am still constantly amazed.

After about an hour I sat down by the side of the road to have a little breakfast. As I was eating, a hiker (obviously a foreigner) walked by & asked if I was going to Jordán. "Yes! We'll see each other in Jordán or on the road!" I finished my breakfast & caught up with the guy a short ways later as he was asking directions of a local. Turns out Bert was a Swiss grad student, and while we started speaking in Spanish, I asked him if he wanted to speak Spanish, English or German. At first when he just heard Spanish or English, he chose Spanish; but then when he heard he had a 3rd choice, he said, "You speak German?" "Yes" "Why??" "Gute Frage!" :) So we spoke German. (While it is hard for me to switch from one language to another, in the past several months I've had more opportunities to speak German while living in Colombia, so it's getting easier. Still there are times when my brain knows it should speak "foreign" but pops out a German word instead of Spanish, or vice versa, and I get some funny looks. But it's getting better....!)

Checking out the descent...
At one point we were advised to get off the "road" (really a jeep track") and take the hiking trail down the canyon. You get directions from the locals which don't always make sense to you (given the language obstacle and unfamiliar territory) until you get to the place they may have described, and then you have to remember what they said about it. For example, one woman we asked was telling us what to do when we got to the "cabrera", which I only realized later meant "goat herd" (not a word I use a lot!), so I didn't even realize what she was talking about until I saw all the goats, and then I had to remember what she said to do once we got to the goats. But always a fun challenge, and from where we found the "cabrera", we had a great view of the canyon--what we were about to go down and the other side that we'd be going up.

The hike down was fine--not a lot of shade but some neat cactii, birds (vultures!) flying around, a snake even. Once at the bottom we passed a "caiman" farm; we chose not to enter but it also brought back up one of those "Oh, I thought someone *did* say something about caimans & I thought maybe I misheard." Nope, alligators. Presumably not native.

Jordán itself really was pretty much of a ghost town. We stopped at the one shop that was open & got cold drinks. Funnily enough, the display case in the shop was full of different kinds of what appeared to be freshly baked breads, rolls, etc, with racks of pans filled with balls of dough that were ready to be baked should the supply need to be replenished. I don't know who bought or ate all this bread, because 90% of the few buildings in town seemed to be abandoned or closed down and we didn't see more than a dozen people wandering around. We were directed to the one place we could get lunch: cross the bridge & stop at the house at the other side, the woman there will make you a meal. And she did.
On the bridge in Jordán

After our meal in Jordán, we headed up the trail that went up the other side of the canyon. We were going to go up some 3000 feet in I don't know how many miles; my written guide said it would be a 2 hour hike if fresh or a 3 hour hike if you'd started from Villanueva that morning (4.5 hiking hours ago). There were lots of switchbacks so in reality it wasn't that bad, but it was a constant ascent and I had my pack filled with my possessions for the week on my back. And I am not in Ironman shape!! I was dragging a bit and stopped after 30 minutes, telling Bert to go on, but he said he'd hang. After another half hour we stopped again & he offered to switch packs. I said ok, picked up his & he asked, "do you notice a difference?" while at the same time he picked up mine and said "oh, yeah, there is a difference." His was filled with helium; mine not quite. He carried mine the rest of the way which was great for me--we did end up reaching the top in 2 hours which I was pretty happy about, mainly because it meant we were DONE! :)

At the top was Los Santos, a small town. I had planned to overnight there and take the bus in to Bucaramanga the next morning. During the week I had heard rumors that some bus stations were closed from Thursday afternoon to Friday afternoon of Holy Week (Maundy Thursday to Good Friday) but kind of found that hard to believe since it was also touted as the most popular time to travel--how could they close the bus stations down during that time? In Los Santos I also saw a sign that announced the local buses would be running all day Thursday & Friday so I really thought the intra city buses would be too somehow. Ideally for me would be if I could check out Bucaramanga during the day on Thursday & take an overnight bus that night to Cartagena, arriving "home" on Friday morning.

Getting ready for Easter processions

However, all queries confirmed that there would be no bus back to Cartagena Thursday; the bus station would be closed from mid-day to mid-day Friday. Crazy that after a year and a half here, I was surprised by that. Ah well, just another something learned!! So I decided to explore Bucaramanga, "the city of parks", on Thursday. Well, turns out that because of Maundy Thursday, just about everything was closed in Bucaramanga, museums included. I was able to check out the parks as well as the churches, where everyone was getting their floats of Jesus, Mary, etc, ready for the evening processions--it is pretty incredible what they do. (See my post from Holy Week 2012.)

Girón's main square

The next day, needing to fill time until the first bus left later that evening, I headed to Girón, another picturesque colonial pueblo about 5 miles from Bucaramanga. Turns out a lot of people walk to Girón from Bucaramanga on Good Friday so I joined the crowd--and this crowd also meant that the picturesque little pueblo was jam packed. But it was cute!

Click here for complete photos of the week. 
Click here for a map showing you the different places mentioned in the trip.

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vijay said...
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