February 10th, 2018
The morning was to have involved getting up and seeing the sights at an early hour, but when I finally left my room it was just before 1 pm. How sad. And yet there is not much to explore in Barichara, never mind the fact that retail establishments seem to close for longer periods of time during the day, possibly opening later in the afternoon.
The noise from the trucks climbing past the house is utterly deafening. Maybe my skin is too thin, but there is no way I am going to let being next to a thoroughfare ruin another stay in Colombia. I would never have decided to stay here had I known that the room is placed next to a major road. It makes no sense, as the town is small, and the adjacent road leads to neither town exit.
I will take the room across the foyer as compromise, even though it is smaller. It has been committed to someone else? I grow stern with the owner. ‘I am paying you the same amount, I specifically requested a quiet room, and you did not accommodate me.’ He defers to his wife, who is OK with giving me the room in question.
So moving to another room is another activity that consumes time in the morning, retrieving all the things that I had unpacked, then reassembling them in a room with a different configuration, the bedroom itself slightly smaller, but the bathroom slightly larger and brighter.
The group of men I have heard carousing downstairs is hunched over tables filled with empties, or standing outside holding their bottles. They are there from the morning into the early afternoon, and when I come back again into the mid-afternoon. Well, I guess it is the weekend, and so enjoy it anyway you can. From walking around town, it seems the store downstairs is one of the few working class drinking establishments in town. In fact, that may apply to the lower portion of Calle 7 altogether.
In a large hall on Calle 7, men are tossing balls onto a set of erect sticks erected near the back wall in a very rudimentary setting, akin to throwing the bowling ball at bowling pins. Next door, the pool hall is empty, waiting for customers. I tell the young man seated on the stoop that the men have to get drunk enough before coming to play pool, but it elicits no reaction.
The police station on Calle 7 fills a grand building in front of which the typically green motorcycles are parked. Occasionally police officers enter or leave the building. The style of police presidiums is consistent through the country, but what stands out less here is the degree to which the police enjoy a far higher standard than any other business or service in the smaller towns.
I decide to climb all the way to the top of Calle 7, huffing and puffing past the few hospedajes and artisanry shops which are uniformly uninteresting. The shops are cute, but I would prefer to not even enter into a conversation with the owners or workers, as what they offer does not begin to be interesting or memorable. And the prices are high. And I rarely see people buying anything.
At the very top of the top is the Parque Para Las Artes, impressive in name, but largely a somewhat scruffy enclave featuring a plaza with some decorative features, a small church, and a treed area to the west culminating in views over the valley to the west. The only artistic quality to this park at present is the vendor selling a local specialty that may get mixed reviews with foreigners, namely edible ants. I would in theory be into trying them at some point – just not now.
A man with a hefty and very friendly mastiff greets me. He is a dairy farmer visiting Barichara from Villavicencio, which he confirms is in the Meta and provides a good introduction to the departamento. And no, you don’t want to be traveling into the Meta beyond Villavicencio due to security reasons.
I wax on philosophically about the improving realities of Colombia, be they economic, social or security-related, but when he refers to his town, his friendly mien hardens, unemotionally telling me in no uncertain terms that life is a lot more problematic there, and that you definitely have to be far more careful.
The police presence may be impressive in areas of the country that are safe, but they simply lack the professionalism to deal with the realities of the insecure regions of the country. Boyacá and Santander are not representative of the rest of the country in terms of safety and standard of living. Never mind Barichara …
I walk through the town, descending back to the plaza, then returng back up to the top of the town on the next block, and so on. Barichara is a relentless spectacle of apparently unadulterated colonial-era adobe structures with sloping terracotta roofs, door and window frames made of wood, with rudimentary or no adornments, simple painting, presumably consistent with an era to which the town traces its history. Everything is uneven, the topography of the town, the walls of the buildings, the roofs, sagging with the burden of time, the bougainvillea showering over random buildings in mock grief.
Barichara is rich in arts and crafts stores that seem to remain open for the better part of the day.
What makes the offering of artisanry here unique is the amount of crafts made with fique, a cactus-like plant whose fibre is used to weave the colourful bags, hats, purses, and small dolls.
Given the amount of things that are locally made, the onslaught of goods available in the tourist towns in Boyacá are not as evident, which is a relief, particularly knowing that the work is crafted locally, as much as I am not in the end interested in acquiring more things that would just be useless.
As usual, I am looking for a decent coffee shop, although it is evident that locals simply don’t cater to the coffee-drinking culture to the extent found to the south in Boyacá. There seems to be a single innocuous-looking bakery at the bottom of the Parque Principal Barichara as well as several restaurants, but nothing more.
Next to the Casa de la Cultura is a real estate agency, the women seated at the desk in the cavernous space telling me the town no longer has a tourist office. Really? For one of the biggest tourist traps in the country? Well, it’s not her problem …
She proceeds to show me a number of properties for sale online, including modern houses in town, one modest and the other much more spacious and luxurious in its appointments, run down properties in town that would require extensive remodeling, and fincas with extensive land just outside of town. Prices vary wildly, from the equivalent of CAD $50,000 to some $800,000.
Questions arise including what the purpose of the residence would be, the amount of work to be invested in the property, the extent to which it would be used, availability of financing, price growth potential, and so on. As beautiful as the town is, it is also largely moribund, and probably becomes very boring to live in very early on.
With respect to the incredible historic vehicles I see on a regular basis in Colombia, a woman tells me that people simply prefer vehicles that perform well, which is the case for trucks originating in the 1950s. But the effort to maintain these vehicles, never mind bring them to the funky state they are in currently is about much more than just practicality. Colombians must have an incredible love for these old vehicles, to the point that the country is reminiscent of Cuba for the antique jalopies that abound.
The more I walk through town, the more evident it becomes that the town is not overtaken by hotels, despite the line of establishments at the town entrance. This paucity of places could also help to keep prices high. Again, it is worth noting that the hostels and hospedajes may publicize their presence with no more than a small sign in front of their establishment.
In criss-crossing the town, I do find several accommodation options that are close to the central plaza that are huge on charm, and not too expensive. What is interesting that even the more apparently luxurious accommodation options are actually very rustic, only that the higher price reflects a location closer to the central square, the establishment is more spacious, and is also more historic, which by no means assures greater comfort. The town of Barichara has definitely gone to great lengths to assure authenticity.
The friendly attendant at the western mirador has an outgoing tropical mien, dark and effusive, befitting the people from coastal areas. Yet he is from the northern llanura, Barrancabermeja, paradoxically a town included in Santander province, which is almost exclusively mountainous and higher elevation. The oil town of Barrancabermeja lies in the expansive Magdalena valley whose axis traverses the country on a north-south basis. Barrancabermeja won’t win any prize for its beauty, but it is a real place, with real people, and probably very friendly with lots to discover in its vicinity. And much hotter than here …
The clouds shredded across the skyline look like they may make for an impressive display in the setting sun, but other than some vague momentary shading that I have missed by the time I reach the mirador, there is little to justify the presence of the families and young couples crowding into the mirador. Or on the other hand, maybe it just doesn’t make much difference, as it is such a beautiful spot. And what a great idea, anyway! The winds build to a crescendo, the constant buffeting lending a wild drama as I drink a craft beer from Bogotá, reminiscent of where our efforts in Canada lay some 20 years ago back home.
Next to the mirador is a community recreational area for local youth, including a full-sized playing field. A game is in full swing on the field between two young teams, with a small crowd of fans cheering in the stands when something important in the game happens. I am not incredibly interested in the game, but happy that young people have something more to look forward here than just trudge up and down the cobblestone streets, past expensive shops and restaurants.
On the other side of the street from the sports field is what looks like a posh restaurant, intimately lit, in a garden setting, with bright oil paintings adorning the plaster walls. The menu features mostly local items with somewhat of a twist, with far lower prices than restaurants usually charge, something I would not complain about.
Alcoholic drinks are as expensive as elsewhere, but I am not here to drink. Actually, I had come to the Igua Nauno to have a coffee, but it is just getting too late in the day. And best of all, on the sound system a continuous stream of classic Discos Fuentes salsa. I am one of the only guests at the outset, but then suddenly the restaurant is full, mostly with Colombian visitors. I am always struck by how well the families cohere and how well-behaved the children are. But the heavy winds blowing through the establishment don’t provide much comfort to the gathered …
And is the town every torpid. Virtually no people or cars are on the street, either because it is mid-afternoon, weekend, or just like that all the time. By the evening, many of the spaces that had been shuttered during the day are now open, alluring lighting and decor drawing visitors into the town’s more romantic restaurants and bars. I would love to be wiling away the hours here, spending even far more money, but it’s the witching hour for me, meaning that I need to get back to my hospedaje and get some writing done.
On the walk back towards the plaza and beyond to my hospedaje, I ponder what exciting things I can do to make my evening enjoyable, given that it is Saturday evening, the places I had been waiting for all afternoon to open suddenly are, the decor and lighting beckoning, but my motivation sapped for the day as I trudge by ambivalently. Well, I could buy some fruit, although with that endeavour alone I am torn between indulging in every tropical variety there is and the reality that I am only here for two more nights – and not going anywhere I would want be carrying too much to.
But Saturday night in Barichara isn’t bound to be a dramatic affair, not that I leave the hospedaje I am staying in at the bottom of town later to test the waters. The establishments on the plaza and in the surrounding blocks are largely geared towards older and moneyed tourists, so forget the bar scene.