We decided to drive over the easterly mountain range to Cartagena. There are a few more interesting stops along the westerly mountain range. Leaving the mountainous area we were in, were slow. We were hanging behind slow moving trucks driving in first gear up the mountains to eventually 3200 m. The surrounding is beautiful but you could not really enjoy it if you forever had to downshift and watch out for overtaking trucks. Obviously the drive down to the Rio Magdalena at 500 m went a lot quicker. We did not make it all the way up to Bogota so we stayed on the parking lot of a roadside restaurant some 40 km before Bogota. At 2400 m it was nice and cool. The outskirts of the city started here, therefore we took a large detour around the city the next day. Some stretches were OK but others were being upgraded to function as a Bogota bypass and therefore resulted in several delays (roadworks).
The target was the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira some 40 km north of Bogota. The large caverns of the salt mine function as decor for the stations of the cross. Each station in principal is a cross where the (audio) narrator, with great imagination, indicated which station it was. The walk through the tunnels and caverns takes some 1 ½ hr and gives you different view of a “Cathedral”. At the end the large caverns are used for more touristy type activities like sound and light shows and selling merchandise.
We wanted to reach one of the two recommended colonial towns: Villa de Leyva. The drive north was over a lovely 2 lane road which winds up and down through the forested mountains. Progress is slow but that means you can enjoy the scenery. At 18:30 we were still some 20 km from town and it was getting dark. We stopped at a petrol station and following Jamaliah’s friendly conversation with the owners wife we could stay on the open lot next to the station. Rudy admired the large chunks of Panela (Sugar block from the sugarcane) which together with lime is used to make o.a. tea. Nathalie offered to make some for him so before closing down for the night we sat together with the locals in the small cafe next to the garage zipping tea. The next morning we filled the camper up with diesel out of respect for the offered hospitality and ready to go on our way. But instead, we were invited to stay for breakfast. The owner’s daughter and his father was also there so the 6 of us enjoyed the traditional Columbian breakfast, Changua. This is a bowl of hot, sweet water/milk with eggs and crusty bread in it. On the side you have a sweet maize/corn cake which was steamed in a maize leave. It was all very filling so there was no need for an additional lunch stop. Such a friendly family.
The colonial village of Villa de Leyva is pretty. The main plaza is very large and empty. It must have been some military parade area in the past. The streets with their cobble stones and whitewashed houses have not changed much over the past 400 years. Behind the simple facades are beautiful inner courtyards which are often converted into hotels and restaurants. It was Saturday, the day for the local market. Again we saw several fruits we did not recognise. Also at one point we saw a sausage stall selling black pudding and stuffed chicken necks.
After some 2 hrs strolling the colonial streets we drove on to the north. This time the colonial town of Barichara was our target. At 1240 m it was already a lot lower and therefore warmer than the previous town. The town however lies on a hill and the streets are very steep. We drove through the town to a campsite in the hills onto the other side of town. This campsite is run by Joep and Juul. They are a Dutch couple who already have lived in Columbia for some 10 years. Recently they opened up their 11 hectare farm for Overlanders. The place is very popular and there were some 4 other trucks/campers there. The atmosphere and surrounding is so relaxed that we stayed for 2 days and pottered a bit around (finalising the camper shipment, booked the return flight and reserved accommodation in Cartagena for 8 days). Late in the afternoon, we walked up over the cliff and descended into Barichara and had diner and some drinks on one of the terraces along the main plaza. We then took a motortaxi (tuk-tuk) back to the campsite.
On Monday we left late (after saying our farewell and exchanging info’s with the other travellers), and drove further north. The most interesting feature on this stretch is the wide and deep “Canion del Chicamocha” which you slowly drive down in to and out on the other side. Further up the road we stopped just before nightfall at a small recreation area along a small stream. The owner is very friendly and opened up the gate for us so we could stay on the grass near one of the many concrete picnic tables. At 600 m it was already warm and humid. This will only get worse the further down we go towards the Caribbean coast.