Sometimes a location is added to your bucket list because of its beauty. For example, Glacier National Park, the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, and Cartagena, Colombia, are all places we’ve recently visited on my personal bucket list because their pictures left me breathless. And sometimes you stumble upon a location that brings you great joy and memories because the people add such beauty to your life. While Barichara was a bucket list location because of its timeless Spanish-colonial beauty, sleepy Guane wound up being even more memorable because of a local we befriended.
Timeless Barichara: A Spanish-Colonial Town in The Mountains of Colombia
From San Gil, the adventure sport-capital of Colombia, we rode a bus to Barichara. As soon as we were dropped off at the main square, I immediately sighed with relief. After ginormous Bogota and much smaller but still busy San Gil, the tranquility of Barichara was very welcome.
Nestled into the mountains, the white buildings and red-orange shingled roofs of 1700s Spanish architecture added a cohesive, simple aesthetic to the entire town. Many of the buildings looked exactly the same except for their bright shutters. The same simple doors were used for businesses and private residences, and even the signs along each building were a similar style, making it difficult to determine where you could shop or eat versus where a local lived.
As tranquil as Barichara felt, it was almost lonely, too. It was as if each long and mostly-nondescript white building was trying to shut the world out and hide the lives of its residents within. Without the colorful and open entryways you see in other Colombian towns, I felt as though we weren’t given a glimpse of everyday life as we strolled throughout the sleepy yet pristine town. Even after a few days of visiting there, the town still remained shrouded in mystery, and we left feeling as though we didn’t really discover anything about it at all.
Guane — First Impressions
From Barichara, you can either hike 4.5 miles along El Camino Real Trail or take a bus to the tiny, 12 square-block town of Guane. To extend your hike into a multi-day trek, this trail also leads you to Chicamocha — the grand canyon of Colombia — and was highly recommended by the owner of our San Gil hostel.
After a humid hike on a trail which was still slippery from rain the night before, we finally arrived in Guane, Colombia in search of a refreshing jugo naturales (natural juice). We couldn’t really find anything besides small shops selling pre-packaged juices, water, sodas, and beers. After searching and only finding so-so juice, we grew bored of the tiny town and started walking toward the hiking trail back to Barichara.
That’s when the stars aligned and we met Colombio. He was sitting in the tiny main square, wearing a flowy white cotton shirt, a Kippah partially covered by a bandana, his white side locks curled into payots, and a rosary around his neck. He was reading Walt Whitman.
“Hello, you guys!” he called out. “Yes, hello hello! Come over here! Where are you from?”
Jimmy and I looked at each other for a moment and smiled, shrugging our shoulders. I could tell we were thinking the same thing — we were two gringos visiting town and stood out from the locals. Was he honestly curious about us or was he going to try to sell us something?
Filled with curiosity, we walked over to him. I myself was really excited to hear him speak English — no one on Barichara did, and it was even more surprising to hear someone speaking it in tiny Guane. I also really loved the way he dressed in contradicting religious accessories. Holding his book, he looked like a thoughtful and worldly adventurer. Plus, since he knew English in a town and country that (for the most part) did not, I could tell he had been down roads outside of Guane and had an interesting story to tell. We started chatting and our first impressions of boredom in the sleepy town slowly started to vanish.
Exploring Guane with Colombio
After chatting with Colombio those first few minutes, he asked us how we liked his home. We agreed that it was very peaceful and pretty, but there wasn’t much to do so we were heading back to our place in Barichara. “Oh but you missed the very best part! You didn’t see the view of the river from the edge of town. Go that way a few blocks and see it! I will wait here for your return.”
Amused, we agreed. It was a very small town, and this would only set our hike back a maximum of five to ten minutes. So we checked out the pretty view, took a few pictures, and started to walk back into town. That’s when we saw Colombio walking toward us.
“Now you must see the cemetery. It is very, very old, and very beautiful.” By this point, I was thrilled. It was like we got a free tour from a local guide that absolutely loved his little town. His excitement for his home radiated from every step. He showed us the lovingly-maintained and beautifully-decorated cemetery and graves.
Colombio told us he had a small vegetarian restaurant and extra bedrooms which he rented out to travelers. He called his place Patagonia. He convinced us to come over for coffee and his favorite yellow cake with raspberries, which to be honest, didn’t take much convincing. On the way to his home, we passed a woman selling fossils from the river below.
If you know Jimmy at all, you know he completely nerds out when looking at cool rocks or shells. Give him the chance to buy a fossil for 10 mill COP (about $3 USD) at the very beginning of a 1.5-year backpacking trip, and he will most certainly buy it and carry it around that entire time. Thankfully, I convinced him to buy a small one and not one of the super amazing fossilized turtle shells that he was so desperately eyeing.
After that, Colombio prepared us coffee and cake in his restaurant — which wound up being his kitchen and dining room — and we decided that the food and company were too good to not come back. We excitedly made plans to join him for a hike to the river that next day, and to enjoy his cooking and accommodations that next night. We gave him a hug, hopped on the evening bus back to Barichara, and prepared ourselves for another adventure in Guane that next day.
A Hike to Remember & Our First Hitchhiking Experience in South America
That next morning, we took the bus to Guane. Colombio was waiting for us in the town square, and after chatting about Jimmy’s awesome travel guitar, we went back to his house for breakfast and then set out for our river hike.
The first half of the trail was very overgrown and required bushwacking with every step. It was very hot out, so I’d mistakenly worn my brand new and beloved hiking shorts instead of my normal hiking pants. I was distraught when they were quickly scratched up and absolutely covered in tiny, impossible to remove brambles.
Then, I was even more distraught when my allergy-prone self started breaking out in hives from the lush and pointy plants scratching at my unprotected legs with every step. Thank goodness for Benadryl tablets in our first aid kit, which slowed the swelling immediately and enabled me to keep going!
The heat grew more and more intense as we hiked down thousands of feet in elevation to the river. By the time we got there, we were sweaty and desperate to hop in. Even though the river was powerful and a muddy-looking brown, we gladly refreshed ourselves by soaking in a calm area near the bank.
During our long, peaceful break at the river, Jimmy found more fossils, including another fossilized turtle shell. The detail of the shell was incredible — you could even see the hole where its head used to be — so Colombio decided to trek home with it. Even though the hike up was going to difficult, he said it would remind him of the wonderful time we spent together. He too was a collector of rocks.
Finally, we hiked back up to Guane. We had just gone through the steepest segment, were about halfway back and a bit low on water, when we heard a vehicle coming. We waved down the man who had a couple of fisherman in the back of his truck and gladly hopped in to join them — after a round of celebratory high fives.
Colombio de las Estrellas and a Trip Written in the Stars
That night, we had one of our favorite meals in Colombia, and then sat outside with a couple of beers while Jimmy gave Colombio and me a private concert. Colombio was very moved when Jimmy started to play his version of “Besame Mucho.” It reminded Colombio of his family, and his mom and sister practicing this song as a child.
Colombio told us about his journey, and I could see how so much of it has shaped him into the wonderful, worldly, and soulful man that he is today. After struggling to find a decent job near original home in Medellin, he left Colombia for Patagonia with nothing but a small backpack. Because of the kindness of others, he was able to hitchhike his way through Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, and finally to Chile in only 11 days! He had no money, no job lined up, and no ties to Chile, so the border agents didn’t originally let him in. He wound up being able to cross the border when the strangers behind him said “He’s with us! Let him in with our family.”
The kindness of this family still gives me goosebumps to this day. Because of their willingness to step up and help him cross the border into their country, Colombio was able to move to Chile and find work. He’s also lived in the US — including in Greeley, CO! — which was how he was so fluent in English. Nowadays he’s living in tiny Guane, making friends and sharing his home, stories, and companionship with visitors to the tiny town.
The more we learned about each other, the more Colombio agreed that this was a wonderful chance meeting of kindred spirits. It really brought joy to each of us, and given his name is Colombio de las Estrellas, we felt as though this experience — though short — was written in the stars.
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