The central Colombian Highlands were settled by indigenous peoples engaged in agriculture and mining activities long before the Spanish arrived. In early contacts with the conquistadors, local stories of gold and emeralds raised the invaders’ hopes that here would be found the fabled El Dorado.
In fact, not much mineral wealth was found, but searches meant the area became one of the first to be settled by the Spanish. The legacy of those times is a number of well preserved colonial towns.
We stayed first in San Gil, which isn’t one of the colonial towns, but useful as a base to visit Barichara and Guane, and a centre for a lot of outdoor activities such as hiking. The afternoon we arrived, we experienced true cross-cultural fusion. In the church on the square, a choir which must have included just about every child in the district was practising The Little Drummer Boy in Spanish accompanied by an electric guitar and a drum set that included traditional Mayan drums and modern ones.
Barichara, population 7,000, is a brilliantly preserved 300 year old town of cobbled streets, whitewashed buildings and red tiled roofs. It’s so authentic, it is often used as a set for Spanish-language films and telenovellas.
The entire town was declared a national monument in 1978. Compared to many historic towns which have a preserved centre and modern outskirts, Barichara maintains its colonial style throughout the whole town.
From a lookout on the edge of town there are panoramic views over the surrounding countryside.
Barichara is small, and you can see most of it in an hour or so walking around. It is also the starting point for a very scenic hike along the Camino Real, which was our primary interest in coming here.
El Camino Real
This 10km path between Barichara and the even smaller village of Guane was built many hundreds of years ago by the indigenous Guane people as part of a longer route which may have extended across most of the central highlands. Spanish settlers made use of this section to move between towns and farms, and gave the path its modern name, which means the Royal Road.
In 1886, German-born engineer Geo von Lengerke who had lived in the area for decades, oversaw a project to widen and pave sections of the path with stone blocks to make horse and mule transport easier.
Accepted wisdom is that its best to walk from Barichara to Guane because in that direction, the path is generally downhill. That sounded good to these two lazy walkers.
Starting high, there are plenty of scenic views down over the valleys, then lower down the path winds through small farms and rural homes.
All through the region it’s possible to see barbas de viejo (old man’s beard), a fine moss which hangs in tendrils from the trees.
The trail ends in the tiny pueblito of Guane.
Literally, you could walk every street in the town in about 30 minutes.
It’s surprising it doesn’t get more visitors as there’s something special in the goat’s milk – at least if this sign is to be believed. It translates ‘don’t take Viagra, take goat’s milk’!
From Guane there’s a bus back to Barichara and on to San Gil where we had been staying.
Villa de Leyva
Next day, we caught a couple of local buses to get to Villa de Leyva, where we stayed another couple of days.
The town was founded in 1572 as a retreat for colonial nobility and military officers. However the surrounding steep, semi-arid terrain is not especially good for farming and there’s not much mineral wealth, so the town never expanded into a major centre. This lack of development pressure meant its architecture changed little over the next 350 years. As one of the few remaining intact colonial towns, it was declared a national monument in 1954.
Despite the small size of the town, at 120 metres x 120 metres, it’s central Plaza Mayor is one of the largest town squares in the Americas.
The church on the square, Iglesia Parroquial, is quite plain but looks stunning against the background of the surrounding hills.
More recently Villa de Leyva has become a favoured weekend destination for wealthy Bogotans even though it’s a three and a half hour drive away. So, in contrast to Barichara, it’s very touristy. The entire town is architecturally frozen in time, but most of the central area has been given over to restaurants, cafes, shops and hotels.
We were lucky to be there on a Saturday, when a totally authentic weekly market sets up in a dusty square on the edge of town. There’s no tourist tat here, just primary produce and everyday household items.
Like farmers’ markets everywhere, it’s an opportunity to get together to discuss serious business, aka gossip.
And there were lots of local food stands to accommodate those coming from the countryside.
Fritanga is a Colombian dish comprising chunks of grilled meat, chicken and either plantain or tubers, served with toothpicks. This market version was two kinds of sausage, black pudding, deep fried pork skin and whole baby potatoes. Yum!
Julie insisted on also trying the stuffed chicken neck which came complete with head. We still are not sure of the contents, but this is a culture in which every part of the chicken is used. The legs, wings and body were being sold as pieces. Considering the taste, we are fairly sure the neck stuffing was a mix of chicken liver, other innards, chicken blood and rice. It wasn’t unpleasant, but let’s just say we understand why this hasn’t become a popular snack all around the world like, say, chicken wings.
The market was good, but the coolest thing about Villa de Leyva is the fossils. This area is now over 2,000 metres above sea level, but millions of years ago it was the bottom of a vast sea.
In 1977, a peasant farmer was tilling a field and hit a massive rock which careful excavation revealed to be the fossilised skeleton of a baby Kronosaurus, a Cretaceous-era marine-dwelling relative of the crocodile. Almost seven metres from nose to tail, and between 110 and 115 million years old, the specimen was missing only one flipper and the end of his tail. It is hypothesised that those parts were eaten by even bigger creatures after the enormous dinosaur swam too close to shore and became trapped in mud. In a country rich in prehistoric fossils, El Fossil, as it is known, is considered one of the best preserved fossils ever found.
What’s most remarkable is that local people preserved the fossil by building a structure around it, rather than allowing it to be dug up and taken to a museum somewhere else. It’s one of the world’s largest dinosaur fossils to be preserved in its original location.
Nearby is the Centro de Investigaciones Paleontologicas. It contains a research facility where fossils are examined and preserved. Visitors can observe the palaeontologists through a glass wall as they work on the fossils, and there’s a museum with lots of specimens, including a complete plesiosaur – an ancient sea dragon – and the oldest known turtle fossil in the world.
Ok, it’s geeky, but it was pretty interesting.