Camino Real

“Cuidado! Careful! – La vaca va a comer su mano! The cow is going to eat your hand!”

So slurred the local lounging at the corner of the road, enjoying watching us tourists wonder if the braying bull was going to make a dash for us, horns lowered. Vagrant cows, however, seemed to pose the greatest peril in Guane, a sleepy town at one end of the Camino Real. An ancient path, created by the indigenous people and used by the Spaniards, its orangey-brown, higgledy-piggledy stone route climbs at the other end to Barichara, ‘the most beautiful town in Colombia’. Almost as ‘tranquilo’ as Guane, Barichara’s preserved flagstone streets, flanked by white houses topped with terracotta roofs, seem to drop off into the distant mountains across the valley, giving the impression that the town is floating. It was declared a National Monument in 1978, helping to keep it in pristine condition.

Earlier that day, wading our way through pot plants and ferns to get to our room at our hostel Los Tiernecitos, Señora Rosa was glad that we had arrived before one, at which time she would be closing up shop – as she’d eagerly and repeatedly told me on the phone that morning – to pop off to a party. With tight, curled grey hair, couched on a stool and bent over a flower pot, Rosa seemed the Colombian version of my grandma Pam.

Equally friendly and talkative was the owner of Guayani, a restaurant on the corner of the Guane ‘parque principal’, or town square. Our typical 8,000 peso (£2.50) lunch of the day had been tastier than any other so far, and well-advertised by a similarly pleased customer who left as we arrived, happily mumbling “que rico, que rico”, “how tasty, how tasty”, as she departed. Touched by us asking for more ají (a spicy salsa South Americans eat with more or less everything, but which seems to be a somewhat hidden secret from tourists), the patroness doled us out some extra grilled plantain to accompany our chicken, yucca, rice and salad.

“Fue lo mejor almuerzo que hemos comido en Colombia – this was the best lunch we’ve eaten in Colombia”, ventured Tom, having practised the phrase with me a few moments before. “Gracias, que se sientas en casa – thank you, I hope that you feel at home”, beamed the owner. And I certainly did. 

Falling into conversation, I discovered that the reason Colombians are so surprised that Tom and I are travelling so soon after finishing university is that here, young people can only get a job once they’ve graduated from university – typically a five year course, costing 3 million pesos (£1000) – and so can’t start saving until then. “Parents look after their children until they graduate, and then they get jobs and pay for themselves”, explained the lady. “But some parents can’t afford to send all, or even any, of their children to university.” Her daughter was one who stayed behind, working instead in one of the many artesanías (handcraft shops) lining the streets. For those who went, the nearest university is Bucaramanga – about four or five hours away. Some students even live at home to cut down the fees, catching the first buseta (minivan) at 4.30am to Barichara, then catching another to arrive at university at 8.30am. Only to take another home again at 4pm.

Trudging back up the camino, our sloth-like pace was put to shame recalling the señora’s claim that the route takes the locals only 45 minutes. “You tourists stop to take so many photos”, she smiled. And so we had. Rolling, vibrant green hills surrounded us, covered by sparse trees, and flecked with red earth. Dotted terracotta roofs, the occasional horse or cow and, far away, clouds clinging to the tops of the mountains on the other side of the valley. Tiny, pastel coloured butterflies flew up at my feet from time to time, and grasshoppers chirruped in the shrub. “Un paisaje hermoso – a beautiful landscape” indeed.