We were all in a jubilant mood as we left Cartagena at last. We didn’t get to our destination for the night, a beautiful white sandy Caribbean beach just outside Tyrona National Park, until early evening. Unfortunately every man and his dog had got there before us, it was absolutely heaving! Santa Semana (Easter week) is a huge holiday in Colombia, many people travel to see family or just to relax. The other campers and everyone we met were super friendly and the whole vibe, especially considering how closely packed everyone was, was very cordial. It was a hot sweaty night in the overflow car park back from the beach, it wasn’t quite how I envisioned my 40th birthday but we were just so pleased to have the truck back it didn’t matter.
The unanimous decision early the following morning was to head south in the direction of the mountains. After almost 3 continuous weeks in cities we were ready for a cooler temperature and less people. Alisha has even started fantasising about sleeping under her duvet. It turned into mammoth drive that day, our longest ever yet, the 660km took 12 hours. There is not much to see between the Caribbean coast and the mountains. Steve was pleased to be back behind the wheel and the kids had a whole load of new audiobooks on their iPods, so everyone was happy. The great thing about driving on Good Friday was the lack of traffic, especially lorries. The few we saw were so slow winding up the hills, it would have added hours to our journey on a normal day. We’d heard about a car park belonging to a National Park in the foot hills with a fabulous view down a long valley. Dark came earlier than we expected and we broke our usual rule about only driving in the light. There were quite a few cars and motorbikes at that point coming down, when we got to the top we were surprised to see the whole hill swarming with vehicles and bathed in lights. A chatty policeman explained to us, as we checked in with him, that they’d had more than 5000 people that day. It has a cable car, toboggan run and truly strange huge statue with a pope, lots of horses and what looks like a fondue set all lit up. However they were happy for us to stay the night and suggested we might want to make an early exit before being jammed in. After a quick walk around to check out the views we were back on the road by 7.30 the next morning.
Barichara is supposed to be one of the prettiest little towns in Colombia. With our recent Santa Semana experiences in mind, we came up with various back up plans as we wound our ways through the pretty hills for the two hours it took to get there. However, Barichara was ready for the hordes and we were early. There were students posted on all the corners to direct traffic through the tiny cobbled streets with overhanging eaves (one of our personal nemeses). They summoned a friend on motorbike to take us to the widest street in town to park. He said it was no problem to stay overnight and just come and find someone when we were ready to leave, so they could help us out. He exited with a wave and a smile. We are beginning to really like Colombians.
Barichara lived up to the hype. It is full of attractive sandstone churches and all the houses are white washed with green and blue painted shutters with terracotta tile roofs. Even though it was busy with families strolling through the sandstone paved streets, it never felt overcrowded or frenetic. That afternoon I took the girls to a dance festival laid on in a local park for Santa Semana. Steve had done something horrible to his knee during the long drive the day before, hobbling round the streets that morning had done him no favours and he was put on enforced rest for the next 36 hours. Missing the dance festival was no heartbreak for him but the following day he was itching to explore instead of been laid up in bed. The girls however loved the dancing, a mixture of Colombian folk dances with a samba group thrown in to spice it up a bit. We had a lovely girly time discussing steps, music and of course the costumes.
That night we slept well on the “Widest street in Barichara”, it was our first time just sleeping on a town’s streets. Well we did until the disco started at 10……
Barichara was slow to wake on Easter Sunday. After strict instructions in two different notes from Alisha and Lucy the Easter Bunny had managed to deliver the goods via the open sunroof. There had been much concern the night before that if he left them outside on the street what might happen to them. It gave me a chance to wander around the peaceful town by myself and sit quietly in the church for a while. Being Easter the churches had their statues mounted on platforms so they could be carried through town in processions.
Later that morning, the girls and I joined the faithful as they joyfully paraded through town with the statue of the Risen Christ, Mary and the disciples. The old men at the back setting off loud rockets periodically seemed to be enjoying their job of heralding the resurrection of our Lord or perhaps just waking up any dawdling congregation.
The cathedral was heaving at the end point of the procession, with plastic chairs filling any spare space between the pews. We didn’t stay for the whole service, standing for a whole service in Spanish didn’t appeal to the girls once the hymns had finished but it was lovely to join for a while.
The town seemed to spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing, some of the local children overcame their shyness to chat for a while. The girls and I wandered some more and Steve’s knee started to improve with all the rest. Thankfully it was very quiet on the street that night.
Easter Monday saw everyone returning to work, so there was no chance of a escort out of town. We couldn’t squeeze out the way we came in due to a car parked in an awkward position. A man repairing his eaves obviously damaged over the weekend by another high vehicle (thankfully not us!) tried to explain the complicated route that we’d have to take through town to get out. Seeing that he was testing our Spanish to its limits, he offered to pop in the cab and direct us through. We are really loving Colombians! We found the town, like many others we are finding, although built on a grid system there is a known route through for buses and larger vehicles. This isn’t signposted as most drivers are local. In Barichara this involved reversing back 2 blocks, taking a right, a left, crossing back over the road we’d started on but further on, going half round the town square, a further right then a left…phew. You can see why it taxed our Spanish. He left us with a wave and our sincere gratitude about 400m from where we met him.
After restocking in the next town of San Gil, the girls and I holed up in the truck in a car park for school. Steve limped off with the washing to find a lavanderia. He returned with the local speciality, famed throughout Colombia: hormigas culonas or fried fat bottomed ants. We’d seen a whole tourist industry built around these surprising large insects with statues, models, earrings and even live ones in case you wanted to fry the little suckers fresh at home. However it hadn’t been on my hit list when I asked if Steve could find something for lunch when he was out. Being an adventurous gourmet he crunched several of them up, Alisha and I were reluctant but Lucy munched one up readily followed by a chocolate egg chaser. Not too bad, was her verdict.
We were heading for the mountains in El Cocuy National Park next to get our first glimpse of the Andes on this trip. Like all routes through the foothills, the way in wound round hills and valleys. The road in from San Gil was also on a minor small road. The tar lasted for a while but soon gave way to a narrow gravel track, it was however in good shape, especially welcome as this was our first encounter with the wet season in Central Colombia. As the rain started to lash down we found our camp for the night on the first patch of flat land we came to two hours into the drive, next to wayside shrine to the Virgin Mary. It was a quiet spot with just a local family visiting the shrine and two boys waiting for the school bus the following morning.