About 40 minutes away from San Gil is the picturesque Barichara, the epitome of a sleepy village. With its whitewashed buildings, cobblestone roads, and orangey-red tiled roofs, it has similar features to those of Villa de Leyva. The two towns are continuously up against each other for the title of Colombia’s prettiest pueblo, but their characters are distinctly different. Barichara is smaller and moves more slowly than Villa de Leyva and tourism is more of an afterthought there.
After I decide to make San Gil my base in the Santander region, I know I want to take at least a day trip to Barichara. As I talk to fellow travelers, I find out that there is a unique way to explore the villages near San Gil and their surroundings by hiking from one pueblo to the next. Several villages are linked by a series of historic paths that date back to an era well before motorized vehicles and you could spend a few days backpacking there.
I do the hike that is most popular amongst day trippers, the Camino Real (Royal Road) from Barichara to Guane. The trail was originally created by the indigenous Guane people and then used by the Spanish. A solo traveler from Switzerland at my hostel also wants to hike, so we go together. We stop at the San Gil market for mango juice on our walk to the local bus terminal and get to the station just in time to get on a minibus bound for Barichara.
When we arrive in Barichara, it’s almost shockingly serene. Almost everything is closed and a few people hang out in the square moving slowly or doing nothing at all. Everyone seems content to sit and watch people and the clouds roll by.
We don’t see any signs giving directions to the Camino Real, so we ask trio of elderly relaxers where we can find it. Their faces instantly switch from tranquility to animation as they enthusiastically tell us how to get to the start of the trail.
Along the way to the Camino Real, we window shop in a store run by a man dressed in white linen who casually reads a book outside. He smiles and motions for us to go inside when he sees us, but doesn’t seem all that concerned about whether or not he has customers. This man’s style and demeanor are like Barichara in human form.
We’ve asked a couple more people for directions to make sure we’re on the right track, and the last person to help us approaches us first. “Are you looking for the Camino Real?” she asks us in English. When we say yes, her face lights up just like the trio in the square as she tells us we are just around the corner from it and assures us that it is “muy precioso!” People in Barichara seem so serene, but also so proud of what their area has to offer — and rightly so.
The 9 kilometer hike from Barichara to Guane is not a challenging one as it is mostly downhill or flat, but we have to be mindful of the worn cobblestones that cover the whole trail. A local jogger passes by us soon after we start our hike and after that, we see only two other hikers heading in the opposite direction. I’m sure there are many days on this trail when you’ll only encounter cow here and there and maybe some butterflies disguised as leaves.
We see Guane in the distance just as we are beginning to think, “Are we there yet?” It’s hard to believe that it’s possible, but Guane is even quieter than Barichara. It’s only a few people away from being deserted. It’s a tiny town, so we find the main square easily. I’m shocked when we get there and I hear someone calling my name. Guane is the not the kind of place where you expect to bump into anyone.
It turns out to be a couple from Chicago I’d met at the hostel who are in the midst of visiting a handful of villages on foot over the course of a few days. The four of us sit down for a meal at what appears to be the only restaurant in town. It’s funny that the restaurant announces on the front that it accepts reservations because it’s hard to imagine that Guane ever gets crowded.
Like many restaurants in Colombia, this places offers only set meals. We all have a huge lunch with soup, potatoes, veggies, and a choice of meat which takes up half of our large plates. The star of the meal turns out to be the juice of a fruit called lulo and it marks the beginning of my fascination with Colombia’s wondrous fruit bounty. After we’ve sufficiently canceled out our hike with our meals, we hop on a bus and return to San Gil.