Sunday, May 20, 2012

Less Than an Hour Outside of Bogota...

Now that our time in Colombia has a much-sooner-than-expected end date, Tim and I are trying to cram in as many trips to our wish list destinations in our final months as we can. Colombia, the so-called "Land of Contrasts" has so much variety to offer visitors, it's hard to choose where to start. Should it be Leticia, in our little corner of the Amazon? The "Zona Cafetera" and the heart of the coffee-producing country? Perhaps Medellin, a city of parks, colorful birds darting about, a proper Metro system (which we aren't allowed to use) and great museums. Maybe El Cucuy National Park, an easy 11-hour drive from Bogota (sarcasm noted?) which I've heard described as the secret Andean gem of South America. Or there's the tropical island paradises of San Andres and Providencia

Unfortunately, each of our wish list spots involves an airplane and an overnight stay. And our movements are restricted by topography and security concerns. The Andes surround us, making driving more than a few hours outside of Bogota difficult at best. In fact, due to the infrastructural-challenges, shall we say, I've been told that it costs less for a cargo shipment to come from China to the west coast of Colombia, than for that very same shipment to get from that port to Bogota. 

Lest we forget that this is still a danger post, as there was a terrorist attack just 10 minutes south of our apartment last week that took the lives of the driver and bodyguard of a former Minister while his armored vehicle was stopped at a red light. The blast left dozens injured in a bus that was stopped alongside the motorcade. It was the first attack of this type in central Bogota for quite a while and was a rude reminder that there is still a very active and dangerous insurgency in the fringe Departments that occasionally spills over into our Big Brick City. 

So... after my lengthy preamble, I will say that we chose to head to the mountains above Bogota, to the area around the lovely town of Guasca. Despite the light rain that set in as we headed up La Calera to the mountain plateau above Bogota, and the steady overcast and 63 degrees that accompanied us throughout the day - it was just perfect. With a free map given to us by a friendly tourist-agency woman at her roadside booth, we decided to head off the paved road to find a nature preserve, a little cafe for lunch and then a historic chapel in the middle of the hills before ending our tour in the town of Guasca. We'd visited there before and were enchanted by the quiet and welcoming feel of the hillside town. 

Let me now give props to our Ford Ranger for carrying us up the rutted, pot-holed, slippery clay Andean dirt roads. And let me apologize to my liver and kidneys... it was quite a rough ride that infrequently let us hit second gear. But traveling at 6 mph let us see just how lovely this country is. 

The nature preserve folks turned out to be busy taking a group through their property, so we only stopped long enough to learn this. Next we headed across the hills to look for the cafe noted on the map. After getting "red barn" directions from a farmer alongside the road, ("He said we should look for the waterfall and then curve right." "Waterfall? I thought he said we'd come to a crossroads and go straight!" "The map doesn't show this road coming to a T-intersection! Now where?" "Are you sure this isn't someone's driveway? I think this looks like a driveway!"), we finally found the entrance to Cafe Huerta.  Created by a so-called "eccentric gringo" from Texas 20+ years ago, the cafe, bar, restaurant and inn was an amazing find! It felt as if we'd just stepped into a 19th century Irish cottage, with low-timbered ceilings, a coal-burning fire, fresh roses at every table and small-paned windows offering views into the central courtyard garden. We knew it was a good sign when we pulled into the driveway to see a chef buying fresh leeks and other vegetables from the back of a farmer's truck. I was figuring that lunch would be a quick soup or sandwich, but instead we had what amounted to an anniversary-or-special-occasion full lunch. It started with a small skillet of warm cornbread and a shared bowl of garden salad with homemade buttermilk dressing. After that I moved to a fillet of beef wrapped in bacon and soaking in a cream and blue cheese sauce (please don't tell my coronary system...). Mmm hmmm... As we left, we noticed the framed excerpt from "333 Places To Visit In Colombia Before You Die." 

Preparing to be stuffed!

Cafe Huerta Grounds

Dining Room - Cafe Huerta
Inside the Capilla
Capilla de Siecha
With full bellies, we headed back to the roads to look for the Capilla de Siecha. We found it standing in a manicured pasture overlooking the valley just below. Seconds after pulling the truck into the adjacent field, the caretaker appeared to greet us and request the $1 admission fee (for both of us). He told us the chapel dated to the 1600s and walked us through the perfectly white-washed interior and upstairs to a little balcony. His sheep were responsible for the tidiness of the pasture, and were still grazing with their lambs on the grounds. Next to the chapel were the ruins of another building of the same vintage. He said (something) about them taking off the roof and letting the place fall to ruin, but I didn't fully understand what he was telling us. And you reach a point where asking someone to explain it again in other words just gets tiring for the poor narrator.
The friendly caretaker and guide
Resident among the ruins
Finally we turned up towards Guasca, encountering a young boy and a very broken bicycle on the road. We offered him a ride home and tossed his bike in the back of the truck. We drove him (Andres) into the town and dropped him off where we figured he'd either get a walloping for accepting a ride from strangers, or nobody would believe him that the gringos with the blue license plates picked him up in their weird American camioneta and drove him home. 

After that it was time to head back to Bogota...

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