February 9th, 2018
I wake up early and promptly begin writing. As always, the words never flow that easily, even if early mornings have revealed a new-found productivity. A mid-morning break to enjoy my quinoa cereal and papaya (not much of a fan of papaya, although I am convinced of its health benefits), then back to my room.
No, no more writing, as packing now seems to be a time-consuming affair, for whatever reason. And when I am finally ready to check out of the room, it is already 11:30 am. So much for the idea of getting up early, touring some town in the vicinity, and then being back in San Gil prior to checkout time.
The coffee at the Cafe La Polita is exquisite as before.
I had quickly glanced at some of the sunglasses on display at optical shops, but I am not motivated to pay $50 or much more for vaguely formal sunglasses, effectively paying for a brand name of no value to me. On the other hand, an overweight woman seated next to a rack of fake sunglasses on the parque is all-too happy to sell her wares to me, effusive in her courtesies, in the end selling me a pair of generic plastic-framed glasses for 15,000 pesos with UV protection. What the heck, they’re probably better than nothing. And if it put some extra change in her pocket, so much the better.
Prior to leaving town, I would like to see the Parque Gallineral botanical gardens, since it is one of the few attractions inside the town of San Gil. In an absolute sense, the scope of the gardens may not be enormous, but for a botanical garden situated close to the centre of a smaller town, it is quite impressive in terms of its size, how it is laid out, and its diversity. And even better, the park features one of the outlets of the Cafe Loma Verde, which means you have no excuse for wandering through the park in a tepid state of mind.
The parks features typical plants of the region, the local environment naturally supporting a far more tropical sort of vegetation than would be found at higher elevations in Boyacá or Bogotá.
Hence no enclosed, climate-controlled structure is required to house the array of exotic bushes and trees. Furthermore, much of the vegetation displayed in the park is familiar from my travels in particularly the warmer climes of the country, and yet also very welcome in the context of a cohesive and protected urban space.
Visible among the green are clusters of wild ginger, spiked heliconiacaea, various species of acanthaceae, and the ubiquitous vines intermingled with dominant trees, to the point of overgrowing and consuming the host species.
Leaf structures are in evidence ranging from the innocuous to the enormous, the largest with segmented exemplars akin to the philodendron. On some, broad leaves with pointed ends are attached by means of long stalks to a central vine crawling up a slender tree. Elsewhere, narrow leaves emanating from slender branches, culminating in clusters of bright flowers, longer leaves emitting from the base of the plant or at even intervals from a single branch, with parallel venation, delicate bushes offset by majestic trees. Cactii are visible as well, but probably don’t thrive in this wet climate.
Some birds grace the park, typically too nervous to make good photographic material, but I nonetheless manage to capture images of the flighty subject matter prior to vanishing, including what I take to be white-lored euphonias (who comes up with these names, anyway?) and Santa Marta mountain tanagers.
Monarch-like orange butterflies as well as black and white ones flutter about manically, remaining no more than a few moments in each position before floating erratically to the next destination.
Paved trails penetrate the depths or arc around the periphery of the small paradise, each trajectory introducing the visitor to a uniue spectrum of botanical possibilities. Trees with heavy buttress roots contribute to the visual drama of the vegetation. Other walkways curve across the terrain, covered in a canopy comprising the interlaced branches of the spindly shrubs growing alongside.
The park abuts the rio Fonce, and to dramatic effect, the town of San Gil rising through the foliage on either side, trails wending through the dense forest suddenly broaching narrow rapids, the intense light – and heat – bathing the watery space before me.
A soaring structure houses turtles and assorted vegetation. The turtles entertainingly seem to be intent on attempting to mate or at least showing off their prowess to that effect to visitors.
Whenever I pass the small turtle enclave in the structure, one turtle seems to be chasing another, then relents when I walk away. In slow motion, of course. I would never have thought turtles capable of exhibitionism, but then you learn something new every day.
There are few guests who wander down these bucolic paths. The looming tree canopy providing sorely-needed shade in the growing heat of the day. Some visitors congregate at the rocky beach overlooking the broad rapids of the rio Fonce, a reminder that the town is a centre for outdoor recreation in the country.
Narrow wood-timbered and adobe bridges traverse creeks branching off of the rio Fonce, giving access to unique microenvironments near the sprawling terraces of the tipico restaurant, and offering new views of the fecund vegetation that inhabits the park. The presence of the water gurgling along the rocky channel does little to diminish the pleasure of the park, every path or bridge offering a new vista in this urban gem of nature.
The restaurant itself could be appealing in terms of its location, except that it effectively offers the same relatively uninteresting fare as elsewhere, but at elevated prices.
Hilariously, a parrot launches itself from branch to branch over the visitor passing below, jabbering loudly in comprehensible Spanish before returning to its original roost.
Back at the local bus terminal, I wait for the bus to Barichara. The ice cream vendor is in her element, shouting at the drivers and taxi drivers, using very familiar argot that seems to reflect a coastal sensibility, given the intimacy implied in the likes of ‘muñeca’, especially when referring a middle aged woman and her mother.
‘Am I not good enough for you to sell me an ice cream?’ I ask her, to which she grins. The maracuja popsicle tides me over until the bus departs. The driver and his aid try and determine where my hotel is located so they can drop me off in the best spot, a small thing, but a good example of Colombian helpfulness.
The bus is magically full upon departure, pulling out of the controlled chaos of San Gil, then easing its way onto a country road that climbs through the valley, the pleasant greens eventually dissipating and little visible but the sky as the road climbs higher and higher. Not long into the 25 kilometre-odd journey, it becomes apparent that Barichara will be unlike the other highland towns in that it is in fact very high elevation.
The Hospedaje Don de Lorenzo in Barichara is nothing more than a set of rooms in a modern structure at the bottom of town, probably one of the least sought after locations in town, especially considering that the town is effectively mounted on a steep pitch, and the greater the distance from the plaza, the less desirable the site.
The room is not large, and contains a queen-sized bed with a reasonably firm mattress, French windows without glass panes, such that the windows need to be kept closed at night to keep out the mosquitos, a wall cabinet, tiled floor, large-screen TV (of no value to me), and small but functional bathroom. All furnishings are made in burnished, solid wood, and the cleanliness is impeccable.
As much as I may not be initially taken by the place, there may be some redeeming aspects, such as a spacious if characterless common area, a kitchen (high marks for that one!), high ceilings (probably a common factor in the typically older buildings), privacy (ie. not having a manager or owner breathing down the guest’s neck), and a location far enough from the central plaza that it is actually quiet, and you don’t have to listen – and smell – the usual offenders motoring by.
There is a sense of serenity and beauty to Barichara unlike any of its brethren in the country at lower elevations. In fact, the town isn’t that high in terms of absolute elevation, only that it is located high above the valleys below, and is continually swept by a cooling breeze.
The streets are composed of either paving stones or cobblestones, are quite wide, and seem to be characterized by an innate quietness. While the town is evidently completely dedicated to tourism, at the same time it seems otherworldly, entirely unpreoccupied by quotidian concerns.
The route climbing up to town may be lined with hotels, but in town, even after walking up and down many of the streets, there seems to be little in the line of accommodation. Or rather, it is necessary to read the modest lettering on plaques posted next to the stone doorways to discern as to what the purpose of a residence is.
Modest-seeming hospedajes and hostales crop up, but no ostentatious hotels. And yet those apparently modest accommodations may be very historically consistent, supporting the city’s economy, and yet not undermining the character of the town.
This aloof, serene and wind-swept Shangri-La wakens to its nocturnal duties modestly, lighting shining from the windows of the single story adobe structures, a rare shop, bakery, cafe or restaurant illuminated through the doorway. Even the posher restaurants closer to the plaza reveal no more than an illuminated doorway to the public, even if inside the circumstances are well-appointed – and the menu reflecting the according prices.
On the crest of the hill at the top of the town, facing west into the darkening valley, tendrils of clouds trace their course overhead, the green outlines of trees framed against the blue-grey hillsides. Four young locals effusively take pictures of each other, self-conscious bursting out laughing at the smallest thing. They call to me to take photos of them, to which I happily comply.
They pose for me individually, in pairs, as a whole group, standing, jumping, the girl with glasses consistently squealing about how terrible her photos are. But the same edict applies to them as to everyone else: eventually some fantastic photos will come out in the wash, and you just have to keep shooting for those photos to reveal themselves.
It’s important to encourage people to smile, or at least make some impromptu remark that will get them to smile, but nothing is guaranteed. They can keep whatever photos they want to, but in the end, how many good photos of themselves with their friends will they have to their name?
Once the photo session has finished, I wander back downhill into town, sure the possibility of a colourful sunset occurring being marginal. And yet, closer to the plaza, I turn around and witness the orange tinges on the bottoms of the clouds, and decide to hurry back up the hill along the road exiting town from the west side, but by the time I reach the crest, the colourful shading is gone.