San Gil, the adventure capital of Colombia, and Barichara, the home to Hormigas Culonas roughly translated to Big Ass ants, were to be the next destinations on our journey through Colombia. San Gil offers a slew of activities like white water rafting, downhill mountain biking and paragliding. We weren’t too fussed about the rafting as we had recently experienced some great rapids in Costa Rica, but mountain biking and paragliding were on the to-do list, with the latter also being on our bucket list.
San Gil, located only a few hours south of Bucaramanga and a beautiful drive through the impressive Chicamocha Canyon, was our first stop for five nights – we chose to stay at Hostal La Papillon, once again taking the number one spot on Tripadvisor, but this time not living up to our expectations. The hostel was owned by a Swiss and Colombia couple, and was full of French tourists! Sorry to our French friends, but why don’t the French like to speak to us? They speak perfect English, but won’t even say good morning! The biggest downside to the place was only having access to the kitchen from 8am until 10pm – this drove us crazy. Everyone was up and about well before 8am and we couldn’t even prepare a cup of coffee! It did have good points in that it was certainly not a party hostel, the owners were very helpful and it was cheap so we decided to stay for the full five nights.
I made sure we’d be busy over the weekend with a full day of mountain biking on the Saturday, heading an hour from town to the top of a nearby hill for some fun downhill and cross country biking. The American owner of Colombian Bike Junkies had created a great outfit, and being the only biking company we could find in San Gil made for a pretty full schedule. We even thought about purchasing the company for a mere $75k, including Landrover, twenty newish bikes, tools, and the name! The day lasted a full twelve hours, and with good staff, food, and a fun route we had a blast.
Sunday came far too soon after a very long Saturday, although all we had to do was to hang on to an instructor for thirty minutes so we expected a shorter day. We booked our paragliding adventure with Parapenting through our hostel and were whisked off to their office for a short video describing the day, before heading out to the Chicamocha Canyon. Paragliding over the canyon was the more expensive option of the two trips offered in San Gil, but would save us having to pay entry and cable car costs on a separate park visit. We arrived at the take-off area situated on a grassy hillside with spectacular views of the canyon, where sat and waited our turn.
Apparently today was a difficult day to be flying, something to do with the thermals that the gliders depend on to stay airborne. As long as they don’t just fold up and drop from the sky when the conditions are not right then we were happy! Andrea’s name was suddenly called and on went her harness, instantly triggering nerves – she was glad her pilot had twenty years of experience and was very calming, although not even that prevented them from having to land on the canyon floor. The idea was to land in the same place that they take off from. Now she had a lengthy walk with some of the pilot’s gear, followed by a cable car ride and eventually a minibus to get back to where I had already taken off and fortunately landed.
I was pretty much the last but one to go for the day and my pilot, the owner of the company, had said it was a very tough day for flying, of course making me feel great about my self preservation. The take-off was far less thrilling than the Rio hang gliding launch, but still involved running down a grassy bank before the wind took hold of the paraglider taking us skyward. This part was easy and fun, and to slowly gain elevation whilst watching the launch area reduce in size felt strange, being perched on the edge of a harness with feet dangling in thin air.
The landing was the hairy piece, involving having to make fast circular turns to reduce altitude, bringing the contents of my stomach very close to my throat. He kept asking if all was good, with me replying I was OK, not good, just stop the fast turns and you won’t be wearing this morning’s egg breakfast! The landing seemed textbook but standing after was not so easy – this was something which we would highly recommend but for us only once. My pilot often takes 15 flights a day, something I couldn’t even imagine.
Known for being the prettiest village in Colombia, with its mild climate, and stone built houses and churches, Barichara was declared a National Monument in 1978 due to its architectural heritage dating back to the Spanish conquest. We only had two nights here in a 200 year old converted colonial house, totally restored by its Spanish owner. The towns four churches and cemetery were the main attractions, with the two hour hike to Guane being the best way to spend an early morning – we had more than enough time to accomplish it all.
Following the Camino Real a Guane, a winding trail along the canyon side, it eventually reaches the pretty pueblo of Guane.This was a great three hour round trip hike to do before the sun became too intense, a prefect way to build up a big breakfast appetite. Andrea and I ran on one morning, or at least two thirds of it, or was it more of a walk! I speed walked it another as part of my new fitness routine. Guane is full of white-washed houses, walls draped in the most colorful pink and red flowers, and a perfectly maintained central plaza – another one of those plazas to just sit and people watch the hours away.
It wasn’t only the picturesque town that appealed to us but the local cuisine, with a particular type of ant being the star attraction. Hormigas Culonas, or Big Ass ants, due to their large rear end emerge from the ground to mate in the air. The females are beheaded, de-winged, fried in their own secretion and eaten. I had them in a sauce on top of one of the best steaks outside of Argentina, and enjoyed them so much that I bought a tub full from a local Barichara store – bon appetite!
January 10th – January 17th 2014