Colombia 5 – Reserva Rio Claro, Zipaquira and the Catedral de Sal, Villa de Leyva and the Caribbean coast.

25th November – It’s a long journey back east to Zipaquira from Medellin, so we plan to make an overnight stop at the Reserva Rio Claro, reached by a turning off the main highway between Medellin and Bogota.

Recent heavy rain prevents us camping down by the river and so we park higher up on dry ground behind the restaurant. Toilets and showers in the camping area at the far end of a field, are extremely basic and from where we are parked, we don’t fancy scrambling down a muddy bank and crossing the very wet field in the dark.  I am sure they will not mind if we use the loos in the restaurant.

The Rio Claro Reserve is located along the southeastern slopes of the Central Cordillera.  It is an area of tropical, humid forest, where over millions of years, the river has carved its way through the high hills of limestone and marble, to form a steep canyon.

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The water of the Rio Claro is said to be crystalline and transparent but today after the rain, the fast flowing water is a muddy brown.  It is an interesting walk however but steep and slippery in parts and very hot and humid…..climbing over rocks and big tree roots, splashing through puddles and ducking under rock overhangs and into caves behind a curtain of water.

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26th November – Our early morning breakfast in the restaurant, of scrambled eggs, flat yucca bread and cheese, gives us a good start to head for Zipaquira with its underground salt cathedral.  Before we leave however, a guy comes over to our table to talk about our travels and then insists that we accept a map and a ‘Movistar Guide Book of Routes for Colombia’ that he has fetched from his car.  His kindness is very typical of Colombian people and we know they will be useful.

We cross the bridge over the huge Rio Magdelena and our journey continues through a lush and green landscape that we have seen so often in this country.

At Honda, we are informed that the shorter, eastern route via Guaduas that we want to take to reach Zipaquira, is closed due to a landslide following heavy rain.  This means that the only other route, will be to go west to Mariquita, turning south and then east toward Bogota (the capital city), before heading north for Zipaquira, a much longer route and a very slow one we discover.

We crawl behind lorries and many other vehicles, all having to take the same route over the mountains, which we finally clear at 3000m.  This puts us really behind and when we reach Mosquera, we have to make a quick decision……to try and make Zipaquira  which is still another 50km to the north, or head east for Bogota which is a shorter distance.  As it is now late afternoon, we decide on the latter but it is a terrible choice and one of our worst journeys yet.  When we finally reach the outskirts of the city, the streets are completely congested and as we near the centre, it is dark and everyone is leaving work. Torrential rain pours down the hills, quickly creating floods.  We find ourselves in the crowded downtown area, where everyone is trying to shut down stalls, dragging carts across the narrow roads, dodging in between vehicles and wrapping themselves in sheets of  plastic.  The grid road system is a nightmare when you are not used to it, as there are so many one way systems and no left or right turns just when you need one. The battery on our iPad is down to 5% but we know that there is an Ibis Hotel somewhere near that we hope will come to our rescue with a room and parking, when we eventually find it!

They have a room but we are unable to use their underground car park with a headroom of only 2.1m.  The manager doesn’t want us parking at the front where there is a night guard but fortunately there is a Parquederio just over the road, where we can leave Moby in a secure yard behind locked gates for 20,000 pesos. We have really had enough for today, after almost 10 hours of driving, a very early breakfast and bananas on the move.  After experiencing the excellent buffet meals at the Ibis in Medellin, we are expecting the same here.  Sadly however, not only is the menu choice very limited, but the food is awful.

Sorry Colombia, but we are not impressed with Bogota, except for the Xmas decorations in the city centre which are quite spectacular.  In all fairness, we have not got out and about to explore and we have been told that there are some great art galleries here, but so far this city has not got the appeal for us.  At 2600m it is also very cold as well as wet and we are back in winter jackets.

27th November – A sunny but cold morning.  Our window overlooks the long queue of traffic in the main street  which we will shortly have to join.

We take the road for Zipaquira, approx. 50km north of Bogota and discover it to be a lovely town with a very relaxed atmosphere.  The huge, Main Square is dominated by the Diocesan Cathedral and other beautifully, renovated buildings, many painted white with contrasting, brilliant blue and red woodwork.

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It is too late to visit the salt cathedral today, so we call in at the tourist office where a guy shows us on his computer how to reach the nearby Parque Embalse Nuesa, where we would be able to camp.  He is very nervous about practising his English, but he doesn’t need to be….it is very good.  Before we leave, we find a little cafe in the square that does fresh fruit juices and mousses…..delicious!

Dark clouds are collecting over the hills and looking decidedly ominous.  A dirt road climbs up to Park Neusa at 3100m and once again it is raining and very cold.  However, the lake is very large and in a beautiful setting, surrounded by hills and mountains.

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A group of 5 lovely dogs arrive from the direction of the lake and settle next to us, sheltering from the rain under the overhanging roof of the shower and toilet block.  They fortunately all look well fed and looked after, except for one black female who looks as if she may have had puppies recently.

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They all of course, get handfuls of dry dog food from my bag.  I think they are sleeping under our vehicle during the night……probably hoping for some breakfast!  We are the only people here, toilets are basic and showers are cold.  We hope the morning will bring better weather, as it really could be lovely here on a nice day.

28th November –  Yes, the dogs are all here to greet us when we get up and so they all get breakfast too.  We try to arrange it so that the black one gets more food, but because she is more cautious and there is always one, (the fattest) that knows every trick in the book to get to the food first…..it is difficult.

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The lake looks like glass in the early morning sun, mist and cloud draping distant mountains, and hills reflected in the water.

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However, by the time we are ready to leave, storm clouds are gathering and the first drops of rain arrive and it is sad to say goodbye to the dogs.

We return to Zipaquira to visit the Catedral de Sal.  This cathedral carved out of salt, lies completely underground.   Local Indians used to mine the salt here, even before the first Spaniards arrived.  Walking slowly down into the mine (approx.180m), we pass a sad reminder of the miners who have lost their lives attempting such dangerous work.

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The present cathedral was inaugurated in 1995, replacing an earlier one that was closed because of collapse.  Before arriving at the main part of the cathedral we pass 14 chapels, also built entirely of salt and glowing with soft coloured lights.

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The main nave is quite spectacular with a high, vaulted ceiling, a huge cross carved out of the wall and enormous pillars.  Soft lights continually change the colour of the carvings….it is all an amazing work of art.

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Leaving Zipaquira, we take the road for Ubate and then Chiquinquira.  This huge valley is full of dairy farms, I have never seen such green grass….the cows must produce wonderful milk.

Arriving at Villa de Leyva, we head for Hostal Renacer, a family-owned finca with rooms and a camping area.  The friendly staff make us feel very welcome and we have a nice quiet garden in which to park.

29th – 30th November – Villa de Leyva is rich in indigenous and colonial history, its buildings immaculately preserved, its streets and plazas paved with large cobblestones.

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The enormous and very impressive Plaza Mayor is one of the largest in Colombia and the cathedral that dominates this square is just as impressive.

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It’s an attractive and perfectly preserved town, full of flower-filled balconies, restaurants, cafes, tour operators and artisan shops.  It’s located at the base of high mountains, so is also a good place for trekking.  It’s a good hike down into town from Hotel Renacer, we walked down in the sun and returned in the rain, water flowing down the cobblestone streets in rivers.

1st – 3rd December – From Villa de Leyva, we take the road to San Gill where we camp overnight at El Candado.  Popular with the locals at the weekend because of the swimming pools but by the time we arrive they are leaving, taking their loud music with them.

Soon after San Gill on the road to Bucaramanga, is the enormous Chichamocha Canyon with the Rio Chichamocha winding its way along the valley floor.  Its sudden appearance from the road is surprising and quite breathtaking.

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We make a stop in Bucaramanga for a supermarket but realise too late that the headroom for parking is too low.  We have a line of traffic behind us all of which are hooting their horns…..as they do at the least hold up.  I have to ask everyone to back up for us which is a bit embarrassing, the taxi drivers being the least cooperative. Bucaramanga is another hectic city of so many people and so much traffic jamming the streets.  We get out as soon as we can and continue north.  Our goal is Aguachica but our journey is once again slow through this part of the Andes.  The many large lorries on this route never cease to amaze us with the risks when overtaking on these hills and blind bends!  As we head for Valledupar we fortunately lose them, as they are obviously continuing for Santa Marta and other big cities along the coast….the straight road ahead of us is now almost deserted!

Arriving in Valledupar it must be market day…it is hectic, noisy, colourful and crowded.  Once again we are having to look for a hotel as there is no camping that we know of.  We stop at the first hotel that we come to, Hotel Tativan and they have a room but once again we are too high for their parking area.  If we take off the extra fuel can from the roof,  the hotel staff are sure that we can make it under the covered area by the front entrance.  They bring out measuring sticks and assure us that it is 2.5m. We just manage to squeeze under to the interest of all the surrounding people in the street.  Everyone has been incredibly kind and helpful including lovely Carolina who was waiting to check in when we arrived on the scene and helped us with her excellent English, having spent a year in London as an au-pair.  The manager at reception assures us that he will pay special attention to our vehicle to make sure that it is safe, although we are not sure how he will have time to do this personally as there is a constant flow of people through the hotel lobby, including a number of very attractive girls with the longest legs that I have ever seen, made to look even longer by 6″ high heels and the tightest and most minuscule shorts ever!  They are turning heads wherever they go and we later discover that they are all models, who will be taking part in an interview tomorrow for a beer advert!  And so we are settled in a lovely room and Moby is given a security guard at the front entrance.

4th December – Heading for Riohacha today, through tunnels of green, leafy trees and fields each side resembling acres of English parkland. Colourful fruit stalls line the roads.

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It becomes drier however, the further north we travel and there is a definite African influence here, with women wearing long, loose, colourful dresses and scarves and carrying things on their heads.  But sadly, there is also a lot of rubbish at intervals through the countryside and more so in the towns.

We arrive at Riohacha, capital of the Guajira Peninsula, an arid piece of land that juts into the Caribbean, forming the northern tip of South America. Another big, colourful and noisy town but this one is different, as we have arrived on the coast with a beach that stretches way into the distance and a waterfront with tall palm trees and women selling beautiful and very colourful, woven bags.

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We drive further along the coast to the Flora & Fauna Sanctuary Los Flamencos where we camp on the beach for the night under tall, swaying palms.  There is a lovely breeze after this hot and humid day and although lightning is later illuminating the sky and sea in front of us, we only have enough rain to dampen the sand.

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Tomorrow we hope to visit the very beautiful Nacional Parque Tayrona, one of Colombia’s most unspoilt stretches of beach.

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