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Central Colombia and Amazonas

COLOMBIA | Friday, 13 July 2012 | Views [741]

Around San Gil

From the coast we headed down to San Gil in Central Colombia. It was a holiday weekend in Colombia, and in the evening the plaza was filled with people drinking and socialising. They don't really have bars here, there are shops that sell beer and booze, with a few plastic chairs outside, so you take your beer bottle to the nearest park bench and return it when it's empty. From San Gil we went up to the colonial towns of Barrichara and Guane in the nearby hills. Barichara is at the top of a canyon, Guane on a ledge half way down, with the canyon bottom out of sight a long way below. They are joined by an old track, made of stone (age not specified anywhere!). Most people walk down from Barrichara to Guane, but then you are stuck in the tiny hamlet of Guane, waiting for the transport back, which only runs every few hours. Instead we walked up the hill, in time to get to Barrichara for lunch. There we went to a restaurant that served the local speciality: Ants! Luckily the restaurant wanted to stay in business, so it served a pleasant plate full, with an ant sauce! The ants were more palatable than expected - more of just a crunchy/cripsy texture than a flavour.

Villa de Leyva

Next we went to another of Colombia's 'unmissable' colonial gems, Ville de Leyva. Apparently it has the biggest plaza in South America. Most South American plazas are like gardens, but this one was just a big stone open market place, with a token fountain in the middle. This town was clearly a long holiday weekend favourite for people from Bogota, with lots of gift shops, cafes and restaurants all nestled in beautifully restored colonial courtyards. It also had an English themed restaurant (run by an English gentleman and his Colombian wife) though the only English things on the menu were fish and chips and a Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding (they only did the Sunday roast at a weekend, but unfortunately we were there in the week).

We hired bicycles from Villa de Leyva and went to a couple of the historic sites around town. 'El Fosil' is a 7 metre long fossilised Kronosaurus, like a cross between a crocodile and a dolphin. The teeth were huge, the head itself was probably just 2 metres long. He should be 12 metres long but the tail didn't survive. Instead of moving the fossil they just built the museum around him. Another few kilometres down the road was a series of monoliths that the indigenous people, the Musica, used to tell the changing of the seasons. On the same site there were also approximately 30 giant stone penises! Apparently the Christian Spanish colonists were very offended by this site, and used some of the stone penises in the construction of the nearby convent.

From Villa de Leyva we did a day walk up in the nearby "Santuario de Fauna y Flora Iguaque". Given that we had only been at sea level a few days before, it was hard work to walk up to 3,600m altitude. The highlight of the walk was the freaky plants that grow high up on the paramo, called Frailejon, with furry yellow leaves and flowers. It was really cold up there. With the wind chill it was probably only a few degrees C - definitely not into double figures. It is also famous for its sacred lake, the Laguna Iguaque, where the indigenous people believe mankind originated, and from here populated the whole earth. Unfortunately, when we were there it was very cloudy, so we only caught brief glimpses of the lake when the swirling cloud cleared for a few seconds.


Bogota was grey and dreary, and some of the buildings in the centre looked like the run down bits of any major city. The old centre is not as pretty or as well preserved as some we´ve been too. However, what we found really disconcerting was the security. We went to a restaurant in the evening and the door was locked. They let us in and then locked it again behind us. It didn't seem particularly rough, though Colombians in general do seem a little paranoid, which I guess is understandable after so many years of trouble. The Colombia that we've seen so far seems very friendly and safe.

Bogota's big tourist drawcard is the Gold Museum. After visiting this I now understand why all the churches are completely covered in gold - there was just that much of it lying around. It was used for jewellery, for everyday wear, and ceremonies, by all communities all over the country.

Into the Amazon

We wanted to do more one more trip into the Amazon, but deeper into the rainforest this time, as we've previously just been to where the jungle begins at the foot of the Andes. So we flew to Leticia, down in the extreme south-east corner of Colombia. It is on the Rio Amazonas, on the borders of Brazil and Peru. We opted for a tour to the 'flooded forest', as we thought this would be the most different to the areas of jungle we'd seen before. We visited Zacambu Lodge, which was actually in Peru. To get there, we took a taxi from our hotel, in Colombia, to the river port in the next town, Tabatinga, which is actually in Brazil. From there the boat went up-river and into Peru. The border crossings are very relaxed here - Phil didn't even notice when we drove across into Brazil from Colombia. No passports required.

In this area of the Amazon, the water level varies by 15 metres over the year, between the dry season and the wet season. The water was at its highest this year on June 10th, and is now slowly going down. It has currently fallen about 7 metres, with another 7 still to go. We were still able to explore some of the bigger channels by boat, and the smaller channels by canoe, although the guide did have to use his machete frequently to clear the way.

Now that the water level has dropped, we could explore large parts of the rainforest on foot. In this area, there was very little undergrowth, because for 3 months of the year the ground is a few meters underwater, and all the animals live high up in the canopy. The rainforest floor was very wet under foot, and there were plenty of muddy puddles hidden under a thick layer of rotting leaf debris. Luckily the lodge provided wellies! This is meant to be the 'best' time of year for mosquitoes (i.e. there's less of them, but still plenty!) and it was unseasonably cool while we were there (mid twenties) which was good for us.

We were also able to camp out overnight in the jungle. They have a number of 'campsites' that they regularly use on rotation, so when we got there there was a frame setup for the tarp roof, and a bench, all made out of macheted branches from the nearby trees. The rest we took with us, although we didn't need any rope. Everything was tied up using a natural yarn from the forest. For beds we had very nice hammocks, with integrated mosquito nets, that also included a sealed groundsheet, to prevent nighttime invaders from the forest floor. We did a night walk to look for tarantula, and saw very little. Just a couple of frogs and a mouse. Sods Law ensured that the biggest spider we saw was less than 5 metres from camp.

We also did a canopy/zip wire course in a small reserve near Leticia. We knew it was 35 metres high, but hadn't really given much thought to how we would be getting up/down. I think we thought there would be steps or ladders like on the 'Go Ape' equivalent in the UK, but I guess they are rarely more than 8 metres off the ground, rather than 35. We were attached to the rope with a pulley and harness system, and had to monkey ourselves up. On this day it was a bit warmer and more humid, and we were both dripping by the top. It was such hard work that we hadn't really taken in our surroundings yet at all. Luckily there was a bit more time on the platforms at the top. Just don't look down! I thought we would slowly zip wire all the way down, but after a few intermediary zip wires, high up in the canopy, it was just a vertical rope all the way back down to the bottom!

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