More than half of the country is not covered in the Lonely Planet guide for Colombia because of security issues. The guide says the security situation is unstable in those areas, and in many places tourist infrastructure simply does not exist. Violence has plagued this country for five decades, one of the word’s longest-running insurgencies.
The reasons for the fighting are complicated. The guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, claim to be fighting for the rights of the poor in Colombia to protect them from government violence and to provide social justice. The Colombian government claims to be fighting for order and stability, seeking to protect the rights and interests of its citizens. The right wing paramilitary groups claim to be reacting to perceived threats by guerrilla movements. After the Colombian Government dismantled many of the drug cartels in the 1980s, both the left-wing guerrilla groups and right wing paramilitary organizations resumed drug-trafficking activities, and used extortion and kidnapping for financing.
The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced millions, cost the state many billions of dollars, fractured the nation and destabilized the entire region. More than seven million people have registered with the government's Victim's Unit.
Then, in 2012, controversial peace negotiations began in Havana, Cuba. The sides have reached tentative agreements and set a March 23, 2016 deadline for a final deal. The deal will be put to the people of Colombia in a referendum, and it is likely to pass.
We have only spoken to a few people about the peace process, but we see and meet many Colombian tourists traveling over highways that not too long ago were off limits to them because of the violence. And we feel remarkably safe, due in large part to our interactions with the people. At every turn, they are smiling, curious and helpful. Without fail, if we are stopped looking at the map to check our next turn, a car will stop to make sure we aren’t lost. They will ask to see the “google” and tell us where we need to go, often with an offer to lead us in the right direction. Once after a stop along the road to take a photo, a father and his daughter pulled in behind us and asked to take their picture with us. Our last such encounter had the father out of his car, his son interpreting, and grandmother and mother in the back smiling and waving furiously. We frequently get encouraging honks from motorbikes and smiling thumbs up from truckers. For a nation that has undergone such suffering, we are surprised by its people’s warm and generous spirit.
Once we were back on the road again, we had a marathon couple of days to get down to our next region and the villages of Barichara and Villa de Leyva.
Most of the drive was unremarkable but we did drop into and out of several canyons, including the spectacular canyon of Rio Chicamocha, (the Colombians call it their Grand Canyon). We shared the windy, cliff hugging road with huge trucks (that take up BOTH lanes and pass in 3’s) and traveled all the way down to the river and back up again. We had lunch on the top with sweeping views of the canyon and then made our way down to the colonial villages of San Gil and Barichara.
Exhausted, we camped in the middle of the two villages of San Gil and Barichara, at a little farm/hostel called La Pacha. The little towns in these hills are Spanish colonial, and saturated with quaintness. Cobblestone streets and whitewashed buildings with red-tiled roofs that look almost as new as the day they were created around 400 years ago. Many Spanish-language films and telenovelas are shot here and the stars live in beautiful hacienda homes in the hillsides. We spent a few days here, exploring both villages by bus. These towns are 'muy tranquillo y lindo', and it is hard for me to believe there has been so much violence in these mountains. The streets feel European (which I guess they technically are since they were built by the Spanish) and life seems peaceful and copacetic.
La Pacha Camping.
Foxy was the resident pooch. She was by the truck every evening and every morning. We wanted to dognap her.
Waiting for the bus into town
We had to scoot past the resident goats to leave the property...not as friendly as one would think - John is rethinking the goat farm.
Views coming into town
Dinner the first night was in this restaurant on the balcony by the church. Lovely little square.
Every town has people selling coffee in the street like this in little shot cups. They take their coffee seriously here.
taxi ride back to the camper...content and relaxed
We also did a big, full day group down hill bike ride, descending 25km to the base of the majestic Suarez Canyon, complete with the required body armor for crashes. We rode back up and around, through colonial villages all identical with white walls and green trim, each with a rust colored church on the same corner.
We rode from the top of the canyon all the way down to the river in the background.
Riding down the ancient El Camino
"I don't need much, only all of this" Words to live by.John came across this graffiti sign as he was taking photos on our ride. Enjoying the river and the views. It sums up so much of how we feel on this trip and the change we see in ourselves.
Strange fruit for snacks and body armor. All new to us
Lunch stop with the locals...
Well deserved post ride beer at the local road side joint
From Barichara we headed to Villa de Leyva. Another lovely colonial village. We camped at one of the best hostels of the trip, called Hostal Renacer. We could walk into town, had nice dinners and explored the local market. We met many other travelers and few other overlanders. Lukas and Melanie from Switzerland, and Anneke and Jan from the Netherlands.
Hostal Renacer Camping
REAL French Bakery. We can find them no matter where they are...
Jan & Anneke uit De Bilt - hope to see you again!
Lukas and Melanie from Zurich
Market day in the village.
We did another long bike ride through the countryside here too. This time on our own with a map from a local shop. We rode all along the dusty back roads to a fossil museum and a winery. Wine making is not common in Colombia and the wine is as you would expect - kind of so so.
Stop at the fossil museum. We called this our Dino Vino bike ride.
We wanted to taste the Rose...only sold by the bottle.
Then I remembered it was uphill most of the way back. What a bummer.
Not a sign you would see wine tasting in the States. Translation: "Use with moderation". Puleeez!
As I was reading the history of the winery, I saw that the wine maker had studied at UC Davis in California. It hit me then, that just up the road from our home in Mill Valley is wine country. And we rarely took the time to go on bike rides through some of the most beautiful wine country in the world with some of the best wines. I had some regret at that moment, of not enjoying what we had in our own back yard all those years. Yet surrounded by such beauty here, I know how fortunate we are that we can have this and visit the places close to home as well. Wine country bike rides will definitely be part of our future…but by then we’ll probably just camp in the vineyards in the rig.