Bucamaranga

It was almost as difficult to exit Mompox as it was to get there. Bought a ticket to Bucamaranga the day prior to leaving. Early the following morning a hostel staff member told me that the lady who sold me the bus ticket was downstairs and needed to speak with me. Was informed that the bus that I was expecting to be on would not be arriving in El Banco because protesters had blocked the route. Was further informed that there was another bus service in El Banco that could take me to Bucamaranga. The hostel staff in Mompox kindly offered to go the other company and get a ticket, exchanging the one I had… with the other company. Apparently there is an arrangement like this in place, leading me to suspect that delays/breakdowns/changes are normal here.

The truck ride from Mompox to El Banco is over the same kind rutted, dry sand and gravel road as the road in. It is a two hour ride to El Banco. The new bus ticket indicated a departure time of 1PM. The truck/taxi departed Mompox at 11:30AM… even though I was told to be ready at 10:30. So… upon arrival at El Banco the 1PM departure turned into a 3PM departure.

The bus actually departed El Banco around 3:20… not bad.  The road to Bucamaranga from El Banco improves about 45 minutes into the trip. Surprisingly, the road from then on is excellent. It is being converted into a 4 lane highway… two lanes in each direction with a median strip. The traffic is heavy with tractor trailers and other trucks, buses and cars. Terrain is gently rolling hills with mountain vistas in the background.

Arrived Bucamaranga about 9PM. Where the bus first stopped was not a city bus terminal, but rather on the outskirts of the city. There were several taxis waiting. I showed the address of the hostel to the taxi driver and the bus driver and he consulted with one another… both agreeing that this would be the best place for me to get the taxi, rather than the city bus terminal. It was a 15 minute taxi ride. I felt I was being treated fairly and with care.

The hostel I selected was featured in a Colombian hostel guide book I was given in Valledupar. The name of the Buca hostel is Kasa Guane. Guane is the name of an indigenous tribal group that went extinct about one hundred years after the Spanish arrived. There are many excellent examples of pottery and descriptions of their way of life and dress recorded by Spanish witnesses.

 My arrival was on a Saturday night. There was a huge crowd of twenty something people who were partying on the terrace/café which is part of the hostel. I stashed my gear in my room, cleaned up a bit and joined the young people on the terrace. Many women in Colombia look like fashion models naturally and on weekends they go out of their way to enhance their looks.

Being older in an environment that is the domain of younger people is sometimes odd. It depends on the group itself. There is such a phenomenon as a ‘group dynamic’.  This particular crowd appeared to be Colombian university students who were friends mixed in with eight or so mostly European hostel dwellers.

No one approached me for a chat. There were ‘cliques’ evident. Friends sat with one another at different tables where lively conversations took place. This terrace/café is where they began their night’s activities. The terrace/bar/café is only open on Thurs/Fri/Sat nights and stops serving around 11:30 PM. The young crowd moved on to other night hot spots around the city and the terrace was empty except for the hostel staff cleaning up and a few hostel residents. I returned to my six bunk dorm room and thankfully went to sleep.

I knew nothing of Bucamaranga prior to looking at the guide book. After Valledupar,Barranquilla and Mompox I chose this route simply to take in some more of Colombia’s astonishing geography and people and to make my way to Medellin where I have a booked flight back to the states.

Bucamaranga is surprisingly beautiful, clean, and quietly bustling. The streets are lined with trees. The owners of the tiny café/restaurant where I got my morning ‘tinto’ (black coffee) and an empanada would hang their pet birds (cages) in the trees outside near the sidewalk. The man obviously wished to offer his birds a taste of their Natural environment. I observed many, many people walking their very healthy pet dogs in the neighborhood. I saw veterinary/pet shops on the main streets. Within a five minute walk of the hostel I saw two laser (dermatology) treatment centers, three orthodontic centers featuring invisible braces and implants, etc.,twenty small sidewalk café restaurants, two bakeries, three banks, a tattoo place, two drug stores and an assortment of small (under 8 stories) office and apartment buildings.

Bucamaranga is well a well groomed city. Population is reported at just over half a million. There are 10 universities offering different specialty fields so the place is crowded with smart young folks. The main street is Caraterra 33. Along twenty or thirty blocks of it are small, very clean, sidewalk storefronts. At least one of those storefront was the office of a place offering cosmetic surgery, liposuction, and physical enhancement ‘treatments’ of all descriptions. There are well over 40 parks in the city, very well kept. There are large sculptures to  be seen everywhere. There is an obvious sense of respect and appreciation for the arts. Public transportation is inexpensive and readily available to anywhere in the city and outskirts.

Wandered about the neighborhood and rested up on Sunday. On Monday morning I had wanted to see Chicamocha National Park but the hostel staff  told me it was only open Wed-Sun. The suggested an alternative. I was given a single sheet copy of a rudimentary map of Bucamaranga, Floridablanca, and La Mesa de Los Santos where the national park is located.

On the map just outside of Floridablanca is shown a winding road that leads to ‘Montifiori’. I was told it would be a three hour uphill hike that would give me a 180 degree view of the city. Negotiate my way on the bus system to Floridablanca. From there, I had to ask several people it they knew where the roadway that led to Montifiori was.

As is normal everywhere in the world… most people know only a little about their own surroundings. Had to ask five or six people before I was pointed in the right direction. Along the way, I had lunch at a small spot before continuing. It was about 1PM and I figured that if I hiked up, I might not make it back before dark so I flagged a taxi driver. I showed him the map. He had never been there before but agreed to take me to Montifiori.

The driver had to ask people along the way before we found the correct route. In any town environment where there is an adjacent hillside/mountain there are several road that look like they might lead uphill but they turn out to be dead ends. Finally, we saw a sign with the name Montifiori… 8kms.  The taxi had a small digital meter below the dashboard so I could keep my eye on the fare as we proceeded. 

The road was steep. We saw another sign that veered off to the left… 6km to Montifiori. From this spot the road became rutted gravel. From then on we were only able to go 8 to 10 mph. The road got more dicey as we continued. We began to see scenes of Bucamaranga below and in the distance. We passed tiny farms. Barbed wire on both sides of the road. Bananas and cattle mostly. Another sign… 3.6 km to Montifiori. 

We passed a few small rivulets running over concreted spillways. More gravel. More ruts. Bare patches of exposed bedrock in parts of the road. I could tell the driver was expecting the road to be this bad.  At a sign that said 2kms the digital meter stopped working. More ruts. We came to a spot where it appeared we might ‘bottom out’. I told the driver I could walk the rest of the way. We negotiated a fair price.

An hour later I arrived at Montifiori… I had no idea that it would be a hostel.

The place is a private environmental reserve at the end of the road. It is a two or three story handbuilt tiny ‘castle’. Pottery sculptures of frogs and lizards and other animals are everywhere. It is a dreamworld artists heaven.  Workers were working on the roof and near the tiny pool. There are plantings to enhance the pottery work and the vistas are amazing! Departed shortly after arriving because I knew I had a long hike down and wanted to be back in Buca before dark if possible. A three and a half hour hike later, I was in Floridablanca . Located the right bus back to Buca and my hostel. Slept very well that night.

Saw more of the city on Tuesday. Visited the Casa de Bolivar (he is everywhere) and the Casa de Cultura which shares space with some lawyers offices. Then went to the local Mercado central.  This being a modern city environment I had seen the normal supermarkets and smaller grocery stores. I am pleased to report that in Bucamaranga there exists an ‘old style’ Mercado central that is loaded with locally grown produce of all descriptions. It is housed in a four story building an take up half a city block. Taxis are on the upper deck waiting to take people home with their purchases.  I love it that even in the city environment there still exists the traditional central market ubiquitious in all small towns/villages throughout Central and South America. Hooray for you, Bucamaranga!

On Wednesday, I went to Chicamocha national park. Made a lot of mistakes in my travels there… that in the end… provided me with a view of the two routes to it. The park extends across two spines of mountains. There is a cable car that goes down into a canyon, crosses a river and then goes back up the mountain on the other side. So… there are actually two entrances to the park. By unintentionally making a ‘mistake’ in reading the rudimentary map I experienced both entrances.

There is bus service from Piedecuesta to the main entrance. That route continues onward to Bogota. I was the only person exiting the bus to go to the park. That entrance is also where the main viewing and recreation areas are. There is a Guane museum there. There are several restaruants, a zip line, and ostrich park, and an ‘extreme swing’ where you can swing out over the mountainside.

There is a restaurant at the extreme end of the uphill ramps and steps where there is a 360 degree vista of two different canyons. The canyon that the cable car decends into and reascends on the other side is reported to be the second ‘largest’ canyon in the world. How the definition of ‘canyon’ is arrived I do not know. How the definition of ‘largest’ is determined I do not know. I have experienced the Grand Canyon from the Northern Arizona side. Chicamocha is nearly as spectacular a view… but walking/hiking trails down into the canyon do not exist here. I am sure you could do such a thing, but it is not part of the ‘park experience’. 

What I was not prepared for was the absolutely incredible work of art that exists just below the 360 degree vista area.  I am not exaggerating when I say that the sculpture…………………..may well be the most moving and beautiful sculptural art piece I have ever experienced. Walking amongst the 35 individual larger than life sized pieces of bronze stuns a person who allows being attuned to the art itself.  The intended message it is meant to memorialize, the symbolism of the base, combined with the location… in the sky with the clouds forever in the background of the piece is mindboggling.

The entrance fee to the park includes fare for two rides on the cable car. It is a half an hour ride from point to point. Two tickets are included because most people will probably want to exit the park from the same place they entered. This did not include me. I learned that the bus ride back to Piedecuesta is shorter and less expensive from the other entrance on the Mesa de Los Santos side. As it happened there was only one bus which departed at 5:30PM. Did not arrive in Piedecuesta until 7:15PM. From there had to locate the correct bus back to Bucamaranga.  Was lucky to spot a bus whose route included passing directly past the neighborhood of my hostel.  Arrived back in Buca around 9PM.

Thursday morning, I got a taxi to the Bucamaranga main bus station… the one I never saw upon arriving from Mompox.  The Bucamaranga bus station is modern, clean, and has a park like atmosphere. Wanted to go to Medellin but the buses were all booked that day. It was suggested that I get a bus to Puerto Berrio which is midway between Bucamaranga an Medellin. I got to sit in the front seat next to the driver of a brand new Mercedes Benz 16 passenger van.