San Gil and Villa de Leyva
28.03.2011 - 01.04.2011
We finally said goodbye to the Carribean coast for the last time and headed 15/16 hours south to the town of San Gil in the region of Santander. We took the night bus from Santa Marta to Bucaramanga then changed buses for the final 4/5 hours to San Gil. The final leg was slow as we came to a standstill twice, firstly due to an accident and then because they were resurfacing the road. The scenery more than made up for it though as the road meandered along the Chicamocha canyon. Lining the road were cacti and cliff faces of jagged rocks and down below the great valley offered some spectacular views. Someone had managed to scale one of the cliffs and carve a family into the rock about 20 feet up. I have no idea how they got up there.
San Gil is a pretty town in the hills by the Rio Fonce with lots of activities on offer. Chris and I decided to go white water rafting in a dingy-kayak. Our instructor, Nestor, and others from his company form the Colombian rafting team so we knew we were in safe hands. We nearly turned over on the first set of rapids but managed to stay upright, just. Although some later ones got the better of us and we were all thrown out. Nestor got back to the boat first, got in and helped me back in but Chris was way ahead of us riding the rapids solo. We were paddling hard to catch him up when I heard Nestor shouting, glimpsed round and saw I was the only one in the raft! By the time Nestor had got back in and we finally caught Chris up, all we could do was watch from a distance as the last huge wave swallowed him up and spat him out the other side, then the water calmed down!
Chris and I had swapped places during the fall out so for the rest of the rapids I was at the front. I realised why Nestor had put us the other way around to begin with as with every wave the weight of the other two at the back sent me flying up in the air, so much so that sometimes I couldn't even reach the water with my paddle! You also get smacked in the face by the waves a lot more at the front.
Nestor pointed out a few trees and the odd iguana here and there on the calmer sections. I was thinking yeah yeah, iguana, we've seen so many of those by now. Then one came speedily swimming in front of the kayak! I've never seen them swim before, at least not up close, so that was new. I didn't realise how fast they were.
We finished up on the river by the town, happy that we'd only fallen out the once. Chris and I packed up and had a drink in town then got a bus to Tunja that afternoon. Not before realising we'd left our wet clothes on the hostel roof terrace though and had to go back in a mad rush before the bus left without us! If we'd missed that bus we wouldn't have made it on to Villa de Leyva otherwise.
Arriving in Villa de Leyva in the dark added to the atmosphere I think. It's a colonial town that's been really well-preserved, protected since the 1950s. We've been to a lot of colonial towns up to this point and to be honest I wasn't expecting to be that wowed but I was actually shocked at how well-preserved and how pretty it was. Every house is painted white with a tiled roof, and dark wood and green accents. The streets are cobbled and lit up with lamps at night - the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe style. OK so there are a handful of tourist shops and bars with modern music blaring at night but they try to keep cars out of the main plaza (the largest in Colombia) and the surrounding blocks, and everyone has to drive at 10mph max. in that area. It's quaint.
We stayed with a lovely lady who owns a house a couple of blocks from the main plaza. It was interesting to see inside one of the buildings. The house was centred around a courtyard with a garden at the back. Our room was an outhouse off the garden. The kitchen was interesting with tiles everywhere and an old fashioned range (along with a new(er) cooker). Her garden was full of fruit trees and vegetable plants and we had home-made smoothies for breakfast from some freshly picked small green fruits.
The following day we walked up a hill from the town to get a birds eye view. The elevation wasn't great but it gave an idea of the surrounding area. We were surprised that is wasn't just the centre but the whole town is in keeping with the colonial era. When we came to leave, even the bus station which is obviously a new build (relatively) has been done in good taste.