Two beautiful old colonial towns in the Santander region of Colombia, Barichara and Villa de Leyva are places lost in time, where there’s little to do but amble around the streets, admiring their particular breed of Colombian charm. Saying that, the towns did boast some interesting local oddities, such as eating fried ants and holding one of the most significant fossil collections in the world!
First, to Barichara. We visited this little town as a day trip from San Gil, and it was so utterly stunning, I kept my camera poised the entire time we walked the flawless streets of white buildings, replete with tidy dark green trimming. The Lonely Planet describes it as looking like a period film set, and (for once!) they weren’t wrong.
Perfectly preserved streets, houses with overflowing flower-filled window boxes, a mountain panorama to die for, a cute town square, tiny wooden chapels, a colourful cemetery overflowing with grandiose graves and bright artificial flowers…. the list goes on.
So when we arrived in such a beautiful place, we did what any self-respecting backpacker would do, and searched for some local specialities to eat. In particular, ‘hormigas’, or ‘big-assed ants’! Famous throughout the Santander region, these critters are so omnipresent that if the locals didn’t choose to eat them, they may well GET EATEN by them! They’re so large in number, they would otherwise take over crops and have been known to eat through tough material! Once we heard about them, we (by which I mean Sam) just had to try them. We soon found a plastic pot of the little guys being sold in a corner store, and we eagerly found a park bench on which to munch them.
Caught up in the moment, I somehow ended up eating one too! They’re pretty gross-looking as they’re so huge, and you can really see they’re an ant with a massive arse – from the head, the arms, to the rear itself. They kinda tasted a bit yeasty (does that make them ‘umami’?!) and very crunchy. I could take or leave them, but Sam was a big fan.
Excitement over, we found some (non-weird) food to eat in the form of a delicious menu del dia served in a beautiful period building with balconies that looked over the town. For 2 quid each, we dined on fresh trout in pesto sauce, barbecued meat, delicious spinach and garlic soup, orange cake and fresh guanabana juice, whilst listening to an epic 80s soundtrack including Queen and Blondie. Did I mention Colombia is awesome?!
After lunch we walked the ‘Camino Real’ – an ancient cobbled trail that winds through the countryside to meet up with another teeny weeny town called Guane. The trail was just an hour and a half long, but offers some pretty views, and is also dotted with fossils in the ground (though me and Sam struggled to identify them!)
On entering Guane, we found the whole town to be a town square, a farm, and a church, so we took the advise of a local farmer and checked out a scenic mirador nearby, then plopped ourselves down on the main square with some tasty ice-creams a lady was selling out of her home (they cost about 10p each and one was tutti frutti with REAL fruit and the other was coconut rice with real chunks of coconut! Divine…Then we caught the bus back to San Gil…. )
Villa de Leyva was a trip in itself, and we spent a couple of chilled out days here before heading to the capital. After the excitement of San Gil, we found ourselves in a slow-motion kind of mood, and nicely surprised by the cooler climate, we found ourselves staying in a sweet old guesthouse with beams in the ceiling and thick rugs on the bed, and it all got quite snuggly and relaxing! On our first night we had one of our ‘bed picnics’ (lazy snacky dinner in bed) with ‘cider’ (fizzy apple wine in champagne bottles!) and watched ‘The Hand that Rocked the Cradle’. What a film!
But during the warmer day times, we did manage a few activities. Firstly, a look around town itself – which has one of the biggest town squares in South America and a backdrop of beautiful mountains; also a few pretty old colonial buildings, but to be honest, felt a bit too touristy to us as there were TONS of gringo restaurants / coffee shops everywhere.
So we took a brief trek out of town to give our ankles a break from hobbling ungraciously on giant cobbles, and in search of something more scenic. The walk itself was pretty, but the end point even more so. We visited ‘Pozo Azules’ – a collection of privately owned bright-blue lakes, where you just pay some money then are free to explore / picnic at your will. We took some sarnies and fruit there and had a lovely leisurely lunch before hitting up a nearby museum (we’re pretty gangster!)
You might think that a fossil museum is gonna be boring, but this one was actually really cool. Honestly. So basically Villa de Leyva used to be all underwater (as was all of Colombia at one point) and during the prehistoric age, it was home to underwater ‘sea monsters’, or SEA DINOSAURS. Look up a Plethasaurus and tell me it’s not cool. So at the Centro de Investigacion Prehistorico (CIP) they actually have all of the fossils of these amazing dinosaurs, which basically make up the dinosaur skeletons!
They have a few huge ones – swimming monsters with four fins and long necks and huge heads full of sharp teeth; and bizarre fossils of ancient breeds of sea turtles that look like aliens; along with ammonites, old plant fossils, and insects preserved in amber. As part of the entry price, you get a tour in English from one of the enthusiastic student volunteers at the museum, and they even show you how they unearth and clear the fossils in their on-site lab.
Ok, so we totally geeked out at this museum (and might have even spent quite a lot of time reading all the graphs of species and evolution on the walls) but it truly was fascinating to come face-to-face with such an ancient, amazing part of history.
On a less culturally significant note, we spent evenings drinking cheap beerskis on the huge pretty square, and eating at our fave cheap pizza restaurant where you could get a family sized huge pizza for about 4 quid, with all the toppings! And the waiter was the campest 14 year old that has ever lived, which I also enjoyed immensely.