January 26th, 2018
I wake up from my deep slumber in my new room, replete with a sense of warmth and comfort, although not highly motivated to take on the day. The day promises to be fairly uneventful, simply because there is very little to do in Chiquinquirá. I am not sure why I booked four whole days in this town, as it doesn’t really merit more than a few. The only towns worthwhile staging visits to from Chiquinquirá would be Ráquira and Sutamarchán, which I have already visited in the last few days. So I may as well just wander aimlessly around town.
I spend the morning editing photos, the radiant sunshine streaming through the windows. But by the time I leave, it is overcast and the temperature has cooled …
Breakfast at the Restaurante Cafe y Sabor around the corner, humble with solid and inexpensive food, the kindly owner accompanied by his very pretty assistants. Next door, the more pretentious but hardly memorable Cafe Gourmet for coffee. And then the search for the gyms that I found on the Google map of Chiquinquirá …
I trek all the way southwest toward the bus station along Carrera 10, through the diminishing retail establishments and increasingly run-down workshops. At the bus station, I am told at first that there is no direct service to Villa de Leyva, but then it turns out the Reina company doesn’t offer direct service. Another bus company does offer service, but only in the camionetas that I have been taking to the neighboring towns.
There is a gym upstairs, across the street – but shuttered. The staff in the shop downstairs assures me there is a gym, if I just continue back to town on this street, just past the market. I continue to the market, find nothing, continue back down Carrera 9, towards the bus station again, then down 9a, but nothing. What an utter waste of time.
Returning from another broad arc around town, it occurs to me that I am staying on the nicest street in town, Calle 18. It runs from one side of the Plaza Bolivar eastward through town, right down to the Hotel El Dorado I am lodged in.
One of my goals today is to visit the park by the riverside, which is reachable by descending Calle 17, crossing the pedestrian bridge, and continuing down the wide and almost deserted avenue. The single story, slightly run-down Spanish-style structures set alongside the wide road are somehow atmospheric, what with the deep green hills rising to the back.
Flowering trees rich in colour are situated at random intervals. An older man wearing a jacket and sombrero and his younger, weatherworn cohort watch me as I take photos. He owns the tiny adjacent shoe repair shop and wants me to take some photos of him in the shop. The older man speaks to me, beaming broadly, but I can’t follow what he is saying.
At the gate to the Juan Pablo II park is a panel with admission prices, foreigners apparently intended to pay some 10,000 pesos. It would seem somewhat unusual to have to pay so much, considering that there does not appear to be much to the park. In any case, no one is at the gate to collect money.
Gravel paths circuit around the grassy space interspersed with small trees, benches, children’s play accessories. A cross-section of people loll around the park, mostly either just lounging on benches, or families playing with their young children. Several young adults are much more serious in their efforts, running laps around the immediate park area, a young man jumping over the benches set at even distances around the edges of the grass surface.
To the side is a structure that appears to be some sort of sports facility, but is shuttered. At the back of the park, immediately below the verdant forest that soars upward, a semi-circular, stadium-like seating area, looking out over a pool. Several workers are busy at end of the pool, apparently looking for fish.
One of the young workers tells me they are inspecting the fish in the pond to determine whether the water in the pool could be fed with supplementary water from the treatment plant above. And yes, there are paths weaving through the forest above us, and yes, you are pretty much assured to get robbed if you go alone into the forest carrying things of value.
He points out that there is another facility behind the building that appears abandoned. I circuit around the entire field, then return to the building, and indeed behind it are further facilities, including a small skateboard park, two full sized basketball courts on which groups of young men are being trained, and a reception. The path weaves through the copses of trees to a parking area in the back, then branches off to return to the grass field by the entrance.
At the entrance, I am met by the young woman who is training the runners I saw doing laps around the field earlier on. She speaks to me excitedly, her female student beaming happily, but her male cohort appearing reluctant and somewhat disconsolate, not a sense I would get after running five kilometres or more. They are training for athletics, although it is not clear exactly what kind of sports they are training for. Engaging in sports is always positive, as it maintains not just physical, but mental and emotional health, never mind assisting with the discipline necessary to carry through with difficult studies.
The trainer laments that young people have limited opportunities in the country due to the fact that Colombia has been flooded by desperate Venezuelans willing to work for a pittance. They love Colombia, but they have little chance of advancing if they stay in the country. Hopefully they could leave the country with an advanced education under their belt, forge productive careers abroad, then return to the country with solid savings.
I am repeatedly asked as to how long I will be in town. Well, I did spend four days here, and will be departing tomorrow! As to what the best way of learning English is? I am no English teacher, but have observed many Colombians in Bogota speaking very good English, so the means for learning the language well are definitely available locally.
At the gate, a security guard is preventing a dog-walker from entering the park. In the small riding stable leading outside of the entrance, a group of men watches a younger man trot back and forth on a horse. The rider seems very relaxed but the trot appears perfect, at least to my very unknowing eyes …
The Plaza Julio Flores is already packed this late Friday afternoon with families, young people, lovers, groups of men, ambulatory snack vendors, all while the businesses that ring the square attempt to continue with their day’s affairs. A large crowd of people swathed in black is flowing out from the Pozo De La Virgen, presumably for a funeral.
At the far end of the Plaza lies the two-level colonial-style Hotel Sarabita, which I would have taken to be an expensive hotel, but I am assured that single rooms are only COP $40,000. I am paying some COP $75,000 a night for a room that is probably the same size, albeit in a renovated and modern setting, while the Sarabita is more rudimentary.
The arcaded hallways facing an inner courtyard and the carved wooden furniture and cabinet panelling lend the simple rooms a substantial amount of character. The operative issue is that the Sarabita does not have much of a web presence. And as it goes, the moment a hotel is listed and bookable using any of the web-based travel services, the cost goes up, and potentially substantially.
The Sarabita is listed on Tripadvisor with no price, and is not listed on Booking.com at all. The perils of attempting to organize a trip from afar. And the hotel wouldn’t gain much from listing on the web, as it probably caters largely to local travelers.
I had meant to visit the museums in town, although whatever such facilities may be in theory present are probably closed, attached to the church, abandoned, or I may already have unwittingly visited at the Casa de Cultura yesterday.
A knock on my door, and I am greeted by one of the women working at the hotel bearing a piece of cake and coffee, intended as compensation for the difficulties I have suffered in the hotel. What difficulties? She mentions the construction noise, for one. Frankly, I am impressed that they cut the construction work the moment I complained, and have otherwise been extremely professional and attentive in their behavior. I give the staff in this hotel top marks!
I set out again in the early evening, looking for the gym using the instructions of the young trainer at Juan Pablo II park. Where I would expect the streets to be packed, Julio Flores plaza is now completely empty. But there is actually a gym on the second floor on the Carrera 8, a block and a half from Plaza Julio Flores. Despite having walked by several times during the day, the only sign is at the back of a narrow parking space inset at some distance from the street. In the darkness of the early evening, the facility is more visible, as the upper floor is illuminated, and the exercise machines are visible through the window.
The equipment is crammed into a small space, and in even worse shape than had appeared in the outset. The plates wobble on the bars, the cables are loose on the machines, the plates are not secure on the free weights, the benches are rickety, the weights on machines are heavily worn, and so on. But the owner is very helpful, and the state of the equipment hardly is a disincentive for the solid contingent of quite buff attendees.
The gym may be open late, but that also means that when I finally leave, most eating establishments are closed, including Donatella’s. And then I only have 9,000 pesos in my pocket, which resigns me to eat several slices of pizza at Pizzeria Pizza Rica. The pizza slices are huge, the pizza looks great, the pizza smells great, and the pizza … tastes of nothing. I have no idea how they actually managed to achieve something so flavourless as this.
Comic entertainment is provided by a young girl, who leans over to gawk at me eating, asking me seriously as to why I am eating the pizza with knife and fork. That is a question I really can’t answer at the moment …