Finally a getaway from the heat of the Caribbean. With one overnight stay in Aguachica we finally arrived in San Gil, a mid-sized town near Bucaramanga in the department of Santander. It is at 1100m elevation build into the highlands and therefore has many steep uphill roads within the city. We found a hostel right at the 300 year old main plaza and stayed for several days.
Again we met a lot of international travelers and backpackers, from the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland… First day we explored the town a bit, went to Parque el Galineral with several 200-300 years old Ceiba trees and lots of other tropical plants and trees. Next day we took the bus to Barichara, a town about 20km northwest of San Gil high above the Rio Suarez,that was founded in 1705. It’s a Spanish colonial town of striking beauty with whitewashed buildings and stone streets looking almost as new as they were created some 300 years ago. From there we walked for 2 hours by an old Spanish trail to a small, sleepy town called Guane. There were barely any tourists, just the town folks.
We had a beer at a little corner store and before we knew it, some local guys came in, sat down and joined us with a beer. The views around town were spectacular and the handsome main plaza had an old rural church. We took the local bus back to San Gil and stayed for one more day and relaxed. Yesterday we packed up and rode to Villa de Leyva, another old colonial town at 2140m elevation. Declared a national monument in 1954 the town has been preserved in its entirety and virtually no modern architecture exists, a place where the streets are still cobbled and the walls are still whitewashed with beautiful bougainvillea’s, which makes it look even more stunning.
The town boasts a nearly 120m by 120m plaza mayor, apparently the largest square in Colombia. The square has a pretty bare look though because there is not a single tree or flowerbed, just a fountain in the centre. This town is also a weekend getaway for the residents of Bogota, so hopefully tomorrow, on Monday it will be a bit less crowded. We found a beautiful Hostel at the edge of town, that is really an oasis, with a gorgeous view of the mountains on the other side and peacefully quiet. For the first time in a while we are tenting again with permission to use all the facilities. The nights are comfortably cool and the days are not too hot…exactly what we like!!
We met a couple from Switzerland (Martin and Claudia), that are traveling in an old 1990 VW Bus, who were parked here as well. They had been on the road for 2 ½ years and had lots to share. We had supper and a couple of beers together at a local restaurant in town and really enjoyed each other. Unfortunately they left this morning to Medellin. I think we will have a hard time leaving this place because it is so nice here!!
Monday we went for another hike up to a lookout over Villa de Leyva and strolled through town again and all the weekend tourists were gone. As a tip from Martin and Claudia we visited a unique house at the outskirts of town. 65-year-old architect Octavio Mendoza literally baked the house. He calls the 5,400 square foot house ‘the biggest piece of pottery in the world’. Casa Terracotta, or Casa Barro in Spanish, was built exclusively by hand using clay and baked in the sun. It is also known to locals as the ‘Casa de Flintstone’ or Flintstone House. From the outside, Casa Terracotta looks like a huge mound of clay, loosely fashioned to resemble a cottage. It is surrounded by lush green farmland, set against a breathtaking backdrop of the mountains. Inside, the rooms curve and flow into each other, as though the entire house was cast in a single mold. Rustic as it seems, the clay cottage does offer a few modern conveniences – solar panels for hot water, toilets and sinks covered in colorful mosaic tiles, two floors with lounge and sleeping areas, and a fully functional kitchen. Of course, the kitchen table and all the utensils are all fashioned out of the same material – clay. The beer mugs that adorn the kitchen are made of recycled glass and the lighting fixtures from scrap metal. Mendoza, who spent most of his career designing homes, commercial buildings and churches, calls the clay house his ‘project for life’. He started to work on it over 15 years ago – his goal was to demonstrate how soil can be transformed into habitable architecture by simply using the natural resources at hand. So Casa Terracotta doesn’t contain an ounce of cement or steel. Mendoza, who is also an environmental activist, said: “Think of it this way. In desert places (which exist all across the planet), soil is perfect for this type of architecture. This means that for all those regions, a system like this could bring housing to millions of families.” “Casa Terracotta is a unique space, destined not only to embody and promote my philosophy but also to spark off architectural and artistic experimentation,” said Mendoza. “This means that we are always encouraging the creation of alternative proposals for the use and decoration of its spaces – all with the help of those same four elements of nature. For this we are in constant contact with artisans, artists, architects, designers and other craftsmen who are interested in helping us take the project even further.”