80. COLOMBIA – From Zipaquirá and Villa de Leyva to the Cúcuta (border to Venezuela)

We left Bogotá first thing Monday. Trickled our way through the Monday morning traffic and headed north.

By this point we have been in Colombia for over three weeks. We probably made a bit of a mess of our planning but saw some cool things though missed out others. However the drive isn’t entirely enjoyable, from the point of view of the extremely slow heavy-duty-truck traffic and constant road works throughout this part of the country. We decided that this will be our last stretch of drive from Bogotá to the Venezuelan border, so what we can squeeze in for this route we will visit but we won’t take detour.

Our first destination from Bogotá was Zipaquirá and its famous Salt Cathedral. An only 50 km stop-over on our way to Villa de Leyva, where we planned to get to by the end of the day. We thought we could stop to visit the cathedral for a couple of hours then have plenty of time to reach our next spot which was well visited by other travellers before so it was a good bet and we didn’t have to worry so much about timing.

We got to Zipaquirá in the late morning hours, parked up at the entrance of the town, at a shopping mall and walked up the hill to the entrance of the “funfair complex”. The town itself looked quite nice and inviting, even though it was Monday morning so it was worth parking a bit outside and see the town too on foot. The whole hill area, where the cathedral is built for a whole day-out for weekend visitors, manly from Bogotá.

The thing about the cathedral for us was that isn’t only built entirely of salt but it is carved and built underground topped by a hill. This was, and actually still is a salt mine that the local Indians mined (Salt was a very high valued currency around here ) before the Spanish arrived. Now the unused old mine is a tourist attraction that is worth a visit.

Once we bought the tickets we had to wait for 40 odd minutes for an English speaking guide (there’s no other way to go in, only with a guide) We thought, might as well wait a bit and we can get a bit of understanding of the history with an English speaking guy. So had a terrible coffee -one of our favourites’ profound thing in Colombia, then we had our guide.

We entered and walked through a 180 meters long corridor in to the earth where the exhibition just started. We walked pass 14 “mini” chapels with displays of a cross in each of them that was inspired by a scene in the Bible and made by different Colombian artists. The guide was mainly talking about the scenes and the artists so we were drifting a bit but eventually we arrived to the big finale which was the cathedral itself and its one of a kind 18 m high cross. It is very impressive as the cathedral is also very cave-like though the colour-changing lights and the salt carvings give a modern engineering feel to the whole place. Then there’s another corridor lined up with craft shops, a cafe, a screening room (showing 30 mins film of salt history) and a room where they display an LED show. You could even visit the working mine and chip away salt for an additional fee. It was actually good fun and we spent more than 3 hours wondering around in the underground maze.

After our visit here we had a quick snack for lunch and headed north to Villa de Leyva.

Villa de Leyva is apparently the most beautiful town’s in Colombia. It has a certain peaceful ambiance with smiley, friendly locals and -one for me, the happiest, healthiest looking, most playful stray dogs in Central-South America. (Two things for me, that gives away the locals’ mentality: their front garden and the stay dogs) The town’s lovely, 400 years old main plaza is the biggest in South America and you can sit for ages just to watch the people walking by or children playing with random dogs. It has also cool temperature as it sits at 1200 meters. Not too high but the almost daily rain keeps the air fresh and cool. The town and the area also has plenty to offer from hikes, fossil hunting, horseback riding to cycling, visiting waterfalls and lakes and so on. There are also all sorts of odd things to see like a Gaudi-style clay house, a desert(!), a field of large rock penises that one of our guide books describes as “Colombia’s answer to Stonehenge” (and I don’t think they were joking)

We knew a place, a hostel where they welcome overland vehicle travellers so we aimed at this place. A little outside of town but still 10-15 minutes to the main plaza. It was dark when we arrived and were welcomed by the two very friendly girls who run the hostel. There are all sorts of facilities here such as bathrooms, kitchen, open dining/ chilling area with hammocks, another snug room with fireplace, free coffee and tea and free wifi and a gorgeous tree-filled garden. The girls also hand out and talk through a map of the town and the area with all the interests, cafes, restaurants and bars.

We stayed here for a week. It was the perfect place to relax, recharge our batteries and get ready for the next step. John polished up a couple of things on Burt, changed a couple of bolts, cleaned the fuel filters, changed the water filter and such. We went for a few walks, small hikes and visited one of the best bakeries in Central-South America every day for a treat. Made friends with a few local stray dogs. Actually they decided to stick with us for walks. One evening as we were walking home from town 5 very happy strays decided to walk us home and with a naughty fashion tease all the locked in dogs. They made a right riot! Once we were back they were just happily sniffing around, and as I found out the next morning they decided to nest under Burt for the night. Later we met more people (travellers) who had similar experiences with these dogs who decided to walk with them for a little affectionate patting as a return.

Here, in our hostel we also met a few very good value people; a couple from Switzerland, also overland travelling in South America in a similar vehicle as ours, an English couple visiting Colombia for a few weeks, and a delightful Polish couple also touring around in the country for a few weeks. We had late night chats with a few beers with these guys and it was real hard to say goodbye to them on our last day (which we kept moving day by day from our original leaving date)

As much as we wanted to stay longer, it was time to move on and plan our border crossing to Venezuela in the next couple of days.

As for small hop, we first aimed another lovely small town on our way, Barichara but only for a night. Again, we had a waypoint for a camp spot here, minutes’ walk to the centre plaza. We arrived at sunset and had just enough time to walk around in this tiny, very charming town that had a hint of Tuscany feeling. We took a few photos, had an early dinner and an early bedtime.

Tomorrow is one of our last days in Colombia and we needed to sort out a few things and do a big shopping as researches show that it can be problematic to find essentials in Venezuela. (milk, flour or in some places toilet paper or any alternatives)

The following day we had possibly the worst driving day in our travels. About 100km (paved road) took about 5 hours and we were only in Bucaramanga, a big city. It took this long because of the endless road works and the slow 30 ton trucks on the dangerously twisty mountain roads. (Golly! one thing I won’t miss about Colombia) So we needed to sort out our shopping in the city, fix my broken phone and move on, back up to the mountain, more trucks, more twisty roads and this time in the dark. We pushed on behind the slow trucks as far as we could until about 8.00-8.30 when we eventually decided to stop and call it a day.

The next day we were heading up as close as possible to the border town, Cúcuta. This was Thursday and we were risking the border crossing being on Friday. Colombia-Venezuela border crossing considered, by overland travellers with vehicles the most complicated, certainly the most time consuming crossing of the Americas. One of the reports we read was that a couple with their vehicle couldn’t complete the border-crossing procedure in one day. We knew that certain offices are closed at the weekend and we definitely didn’t want to stuck in no-man’s-land for two days so we will have to turn up at the border on Friday as early as possible.

But before that we had a friend to visit. A friend from England, backpacking in South America (he would be our first friend from home to see for a year and a half!) and amazingly, he is in a tiny, mountain town, Pamplona right on our way to Cúcuta. It would be a shame not to see each other. So we arranged time, place and managed to find each other in the town. It was nice and strange to catch up with someone who we knew before. But we could stay longer and had to say goodbye after just a couple of hours. We needed to find a place to fill up with water and make sure we stop somewhere close (but not too close to the border) for tomorrow.

Next a short summary on this particular border crossing Colombia-Venezuela…

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