Santander…Colonial life, Fossils, and Big Ass Edible Ants

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This post covers May 3rd – May 10th

From Bogota it was an easy 2.5 hour bus ride to a small colonial town called Villa de Leyva.  Silvia had planned to travel this leg of the trip with me but she got tied up with things in Bogota so made plans to meet me in San Gil.  So I arrived in Villa de Leyva solo just after dark and walked around the quiet little town till I found a little guesthouse to stay in.  I only spent one day and two nights in Vila de Leyva and the one day I was there the weather was not so nice so I don’t think I got the full experience but it was a nice time walking through the gigantic central plaza and down the small cobblestone streets past whitewashed colonial buildings.  From there it was 5 hours between two busses get to San Gil, a small city of about 50,000 in the mountains of Santander, a large province in Northeastern Colombia.

In San Gil I had contacted a couchsurfer who lived with her mom and roommate and were willing to host me and Silvia.  Basically I struck couchsurfing gold with Eliana who turned out to be an amazing host and an inspirational person.  We stayed up late talking about her plans to unite the San Gil community to embrace sustainable tourism, and literature, and poetry (she had won a scholarship to a poetry program in Austria).

So after months of trying to make it happen Silvia finally joined me on some of my Colombian travels!  She arrived early the next morning and we jumped into Eliana’s jeep along with her mother Luz Marina and drove past mudslides, waterfalls, and breathtaking views of a huge gaping valley until we found ourselves at Dona Patricia’s in the heart of Barichara.  Dona Patricia is an artist of the highest degree, her medium…cigars.  She’s a friend of Eliana’s and invited us into her house which doubles as a factory, restaurant, and cigar store.  We found her larger than life, propped in a chair with a cigarette in one hand and a handful of tobacco leaves in the other.  She welcomed us in and we had a nice chat over a cup of coffee about how to select the right leaves to make the best cigars.

Dona Patricia on the left, Eliana's mom Luz Marina on the right.
A grasshopper we found in Dona Patricia's garden
Near Barichara on our way to the top of a 400ft. (120 meter) waterfall
Standing above the waterfall



The next day Elaina was busy but recommended a hike to us.  We returned to Barichara by bus, spent some more time walking around the little town and then set off for a 3 hour hike to a tiny town called Cabrera that is WAY off the beaten path.  I had heard that if you looked hard, you could find fossils in the valley we were hiking through.  So when halfway through the hike we stopped next to a small river for lunch I started picking up rocks and looking for fossils and within the first two minutes had already found a rock with the slightest hint of some sort of fossilized shell in it and that was it…I officially had fossil

Me trying to smash open rocks on the the trail looking for fossils

fever.  My obsession for finding a clearly distinguishable fossil took over me like a crack addiction and while Silvia joined me in my frantic search she maintained a better grip on reality and a suspicious eye on me as if wondering when she would have to stage a intervention.  And so for the rest of the hike I walked with eyes glued to the ground picking up any rock that “seemed promising” and if I deemed it necessary, smashing these rocks against others to see what was inside.  Silvia thought I had lost my mind and I had.  I managed to pull myself away from my fossil hunt a couple of times to admire the amazing descent into Cabrera.  The last hour of the hike was along an ancient stone trail partially built by Indians and finished by the Spanish.  It was speckled with tiny waterfalls and views of the valley below and yes…fossils!

Silvia and me on the trail
A view of the town of Cabrera from the trail we hiked in on.

We arrived in Cabrera just in time to catch the last bus back to San Gil but decided to stick around and spend the night there.  Cabrera has a population of just a few hundred people and has pretty much zero tourism and of the few dozen tourists who make it there every year I think it’s safe to say almost none stay the night.  But we asked if there was a guesthouse in town and were pointed to a colorful unadorned door on a cobblestone street next to the church.  There was a woman there who rented out rooms and she welcomed us in with an almost excessive kindness and cordiality and showed us to a nice room with a bathroom and three beds that she let out to us at the rate of 15,000 pesos for both of us (about 8 dollars).  We cleaned up a bit and went out to the small plaza as the sun was setting and instantly made friends with a half dozen local kids who were interested in our apparent strangeness.

They served meals in the back of the small general store on the plaza and over dinner we got to chatting with a local military policeman in full uniform who was stationed in Cabrera.  He told us about a nearby waterfall and since he had the next day off he offered to take us there In the morning.  I slept well that night and dreamt of fossils and waterfalls.

We were up early at 6am and set off looking for our new friend and soon enough the three of us were trekking down a back road on our way to the waterfalls.  The policeman kept us entertained with story after story, probably none of them true, of all the major drug lords of Colombia that he had helped put behind bars with his fearless attitude and quick thinking.  After the first few I lost interest and my fiendish eyes fell to the ground where I kept up my search for fossils.  By the time the waterfalls were in sight it was too late to get up close to them because we had to catch the next bus back to San Gil but they were impressive even from a distance…and we later found out they were the same waterfalls that we had seen from the top the day before!  And so, with a backpack full of rocks we headed back to San Gil, grabbed lunch and jumped on the next bus to Parque Nacional Chicamocha, the “Grand Canyon” of South America

So this is the same watefall that I took the picture of from the top the day before

We made the big mistake of paying to enter the “Parque Nacional” to see the canyon instead of just seeing it from the road.  It was like “Wally’s World National Park”, the cheesy theme park atmosphere complete with rides did a good job of cheapening the actual experience of seeing some amazing natural wonder of the world.  But it was still cool  and definitely worth the trip.


The next day was the big event, El Primer Encuentro Internacional Caminantes SaiaVita. (The First Annual International Meeting of SaiaVita Hikers).  This was a community event that Eliana helped plan to get locals out onto the nearby trails to see the natural beauty

Hikers at our final destination

that San Gil has to offer and to promote sustainable tourism throughout the region.  They had a great turnout of a hundred people or so, young and old who did the 3 hour hike from San Gil, through the mountains, and ending at a nice river.  I was the “international” part of the the event so lots of people wanted to talk to me about where I came from and what I was doing there in San Gil and it was great to connect with so many locals out on the trail.

After the hike we had to jump on our bus back to Bogota but before we did we picked up some of the local culinary delicacies to try out.  They are called Hormigas Culonas or “Big Assed Ants”.  They are the queen ants of a local leaf cutter species.  They are cooked in a hot pan with little or no oil and eaten salted.  I thought they tasted like eating a pumpkin or sunflower seed with the shell on.  Not bad!  So we sat in our bus waiting to pull out of the station chomping on ants.  The bus ride turned out to be one of the worst I have been on…we were the back two seats right next to a stinky toilet and the bus was so bumpy that I thought my head was going to hit the ceiling, not to mention that it was supposed to take 5 hours and took 8 hours.  But we had some good laughs and all in all it was a fun bus ride. And so I was back in Bogota, the next day I would find myself on the Amazon River, and little did I know that ne next time I was in Bogota I would be with my hospitalized brother!

More on all that later.  To see more pictures from my time with Silvia in Santander, CLICK HERE. 

News update:  Scott Claassen, recent graduate of Yale Divinity School, part time rambler of the world, full time philosopher, and songwriter extraordinaire has embarked on a mystic and epic journey across the United States on bicycle to promote awareness of climate change.  Scott and I have conquered mountains together, explored continents, and emptied more than a few bottles of wine together in celebration of life.  Check out his blog…he started a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, California  and was last seen peddling past Mt. Shasta in Oregon.


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