We are waist deep in gushing water, trying not to bash the caving lamps against solid rock. Beaming our way through the impenetrable darkness, bats cover their furry faces with wings, unfazed by our entry into their dank and sinister universe.
Trying to replace fear with nervous laughter and chatter, the expedition 600-meters inside Cueva de la Vaca (The Cave of the Cow) should take an hour “give or take,” claims guide Juan Carlos Jaimes, depending on the water level, and the possibility of rainfall later in the evening.
Discovered by a farmer several decades ago, after a frantic search for a lost cow, the narrow cave entrance belittles the magnificence of five-domed chambers, each with unique rock formations such as razor-sharp stalactites and a petrified stalagmite shaped like an Elephant’s foot. After crawling our way over fine silt we reach the cave’s star attraction, La Pata del Elefante. The tunnels that meander their way for several kilometers beneath the town of Curití remain largely unexplored, and tourists can only enter during the day, accompanied by highly-trained guides. In a community of artisan weavers and cactus farmers, caving is one of many adventure-focus activities in the Gua- nentá region of Santander, a department that has carved a niche for high-adrenaline sports, from Bungee jumping over the Fonce River to rafting on its white crested waves.
The epicenter for getting soaked inside an 80-meter deep cave, or lunging oneself off a platform into a forest below with only an elastic cord strapped to one’s ankles is San Gil, a bustling small city that is the gateway to a territory of fossil-encrusted escarpments and rolling tobacco fields. At the heart of the region is historic Barichara, a town of sun-washed cobble streets, a perched on a windswept plateau. Considered one of the most picturesque destinations in all of Colombia, Barichara’s landmarks include the Cathedral, with its red stone towers, a central plaza with bakeries and nicely decorated cafés, as well as a look-out point facing the Suaréz River canyon.
For those who enjoy walking the countryside, an ancient footpath winds its way to the small town of Guane, several kilometers from Barichara, and named after the German industrialist Geo von Lengerke, who settled in the region during the late 19th century while looking for quinine. While harvesting an anti-malarial plant wasn’t profitable, the eccentric landowner did leave his legacy in the Guanentá, fathering some 500 children, which locals claim, account for the many blue-eyed, blond-haired merchants tendering the tienda or driving tourists around in their moto-taxis.
With its fractured topography and ochre-colored earth, Barichara developed as a town for stone-carvers and builders using the wattle and daub technique handed down through generations. Visitors interested in getting their hands – and feet – covered in clay are invited to spend a day volunteering with the non-profit Tierra Viva. Started by architect Santiago Rivero as a way to preserve and structurally reinforce homes of subsistence farmers using the mouldable earth from the region, Tierra Viva offers weekenders to Barichara a free lunch if they are interested in learning a building technique that is characteristic of the local architecture, and seismically resistant in a part of Colombia where the earth’s geological engine hasn’t stopped moving. One of the perks of squeezing clay into cracks, beside the crate of cold beers, is a rewarding smile on the face of a Campesina who, when your morning’s mission is completed, can enter her home, knowing that the wall one just repaired will stand the test of time.
After leaving your social footprint in a field near Barichara, enjoy the town’s liquid specialty, a shot of the custardy rum-based liqueur Sabajón, served by shopkeepers as a pousse-café. The Panadería Central is also popular for its assortment of artisanal bread and locally-grown coffee. For a candlelight dinner with night views of the illuminated Cathedral and central plaza, head to the second floor of the seafood restaurant Don Juan.
Barichara has remained mostly unchanged during its four-century-old existence. While international visitors admire the authenticity of its period architecture, the town is witnessing an influx of artists and entrepreneurs converting former colonial homes into studios, design stores, and boutique hotels. As a result, there is no shortage of places to stay, depending on one’s budget.
From staying in a former mansion with a swimming pool hemmed in by a courtyard at La Nube to views of the bucolic Guanentá hills from the flowering gardens of the Hicasua Convention Center, Barichara is all charm and plenty of earthy substance. For a soiree of jazz and wine, architect Riveros opens the doors of his foundation’s workshop so that visitors can learn about the Guane’s mysterious iconography while attempting to create one’s very own work of art using earth samples collected from different parts of this ancestral territory. An evening of engaging conversation results in a unique souvenir from a region that caters to the extreme and extremely relaxing.
San Gil Adventure
After a day in Barichara, lounging poolside or plastering walls, the road leads back to a busy San Gil and its main natural attraction, the Gallineral Park. Overlooking the Fonce river, the park is this city’s romantic setting, with views of towering, long-bearded trees and a waterway that originates in the high altitude wetlands of Santander. By the time the Fonce approaches San Gil, it is ready for white water rafters, and a fun activity to see local wildlife, from herons and iguanas on the riverbank, while doing category II and III level paddling.
If interested in trying white water rafting on the Fonce, contact the San Gil- based Aventura Total, where a team of outdoor professionals – many of whom speak English – will join you on the river, and record your every motion (and emotion) with high definition cameras.
Like most activities promoted in the “Adventure Capital of Colombia”, prepare to get drenched and pack accordingly. For those not afraid of heights, there is a zip-line in nearby Pinchote that serves as the entrance to Trekking, an extreme sports theme park where visitors can walk along a cliff’s edge and abseil into a waterfall. For the more yellow-bellied, the park offers hiking trails where one can birdwatch and photograph for ledges the human-wildlife as they attempt to lower themselves down a rope into a narrow gorge.
As San Gil thrives on adventure sports, an important source of revenue for the region, the small town of Pinchote, 20-minutes away, caters to a very different type of tourist – one interested in historical events. While for many visitors, this peaceful community is an ideal “get away from it all” destination, during the early 19th century, it was a hotbed of revolutionary ideas, when María Antonia Santos (1782 – 1819) defied Spanish rule. As one of the first heroines of the independence struggle that was sealed by Liberator Simón Bolívar, the house where Santos was born and lived until her execution still stands facing the central square. On weekends, visitors are entertained with a theatrical performance that recounts every major episode in the life of the 37-year martyr.
Santander grows some of Colombia’s finest coffee. Surrounding Pinchote are some of the oldest plantations in the country, where bushels grow in the shadow of trees, protecting the bean from the hot days and excessive sunlight. The Hacienda Santa Barbara is an estate at the heart of the region’s coffee-growing industry, and one of several that are looking to agro-tourism as a way to engage with outsiders, especially seniors who like to connect with animals while enjoying the activities of a working farm. Perched among verdant fields overlooking the Fonce valley and dwarfed by giant wax palms, the Hacienda Santa Barbara is ‘Gone with the Wind’ in the Andes, and whereupon your arrival, cast iron gates are hauled open by farm help. After a drink on the veranda surrounded by old leather saddles and photographs of the hacienda’s prized Holsteins, you’ll feel like a patriarch in your own Colombia movie.
But the Guanentá’s final credits don’t roll with watching coffee grow on a hacienda, but when we reach the Elephant’s Foot in Cueva de la Vaca. After three adventure-filled days, in which I transformed someone’s homestead, beat a river at its flow, and challenged fear in a cave in Curití, my guide in the underworld reminded me: “This is Santander for beginners.”
• If staying in San Gil, there are several reasonably-priced hotels, including Terrazas de la Candelaria (on the outskirts of town near the main Bucaramanga road), this 3-star hotel with cabins offers great views of the Fonce. Sean, an Australian entrepreneur, and adventure sports enthusiast, runs Macondo Hostel and is helpful to visiting foreigners. His cellphone: 311-8282905
• For the bungee jumpers, it’s Bungee Colombia with their 70-meter high platform. Visit their web page to see the latest videos and price list: www.bungee.com.co
• Aventura Total is the company that offers a wide portfolio of extreme sports with 20 certified guides. Freddy Merchán is the owner and an experienced guide.
• For cavers, head to Curití (15 minutes north of San Gil) and register for your tour with Guatí Aventura sin Limites. Juan Carlos Jaimes is the owner and his company is certified by international standards.