Zapatoca is the quintessential Columbian mountain pueblo; historic, picturesque, and tranquil. The heart of every centro (center of the city) is a church surrounded by historic places, businesses. Zapatoca’s centro did not disappoint.
It was in the central square that Leah and I met Thomas, a French cyclist. He was leaning over his handlebars with a huge smile on his face. He had begun his bicycle journey two days before we met him, and he was excited about life; it was showing all over his face and in his words. Thomas has been traveling for years, first via car and then hitchhiking, working on and off. Now he is trying out cycling through the world. It seemed to suit him well. Thomas’ Spanish is amazing, and it always made me smile to hear the strong French accent to accompany the fluent Spanish.
We found Sonya and Armando via warm-showers, a website for cyclist to find willing hosts all around the world. Their house was on the edge of town, and was a sight to behold. High-ceilings, a mixture of coziness, elegance, open air, and art. The attached guest house had a bathroom fit for royalty; there were walls made of wine bottles, stone floors and walls, open views to the courtyard, and a giant sink. We enjoyed amazing food and endless conversation with these hosts.
My Spanish is still very limited; I quickly get lost in group conversations where multiple people are talking and the topics quickly shift. We talked about the future of the world, and just when I mentally formulated the Spanish version of my world view condensed into a broken sentence or two, I realized that we had now moved to talking about old cars. I sat and smiled and enjoyed the wine. The Spanish language has been a joy to learn, but I have a long, long way to go, and I constantly face many communication barriers.
In Zapatoca we met the bat crew, Raul and Diana, for another adventure. They were staying with Reynaldo, an incredibly kind man with a huge smile. Reynaldo also has a beautiful dog, Monty, and one interesting thing after another in his house. For example, Reynaldo created an entire scene of ancient Rome (I believe) in his house with thousands of hand painted human figures, animals, houses, plants, water wheels, and many moving mechanical parts. The room was complete with a night and day light cycle and accompanying music. We stared for 20 minutes and were transported to another world before returning to the see rest of Reynaldo’s house. Here we played music on hand made instruments made from bones and drank sweet coffee (tinto). I knew that Reynaldo had so much more to teach me, but for now we were heading out with bat crew to explore a cave.
We tried to go to the “secret-caves” named Alsalcia Caves, but unfortunately strong rain the night before had flooded the caves. We were forced to go to the “touristy” Nitro Caves. I was disappointed a bit, but with good company, I went with a smile. It turns out that touristy means something different in Colombia and the states. There were no people, no lights, no paths, nothing; we were alone in a deep, dark cavern for hours. Crawling, hopping, and laughing from room to room and chamber to chamber. After the cave, we hitchhiked back to the city in the back of a natural gas truck.
The next day we headed to Armando and Sonya’s secluded mountain reserve. The little home on the reserve was cozy; we passed the day reading, meditating, and hiking. That night we shared a bottle of Mezcal, a few cans of tuna fish, and bread. We told stories for hours before finally sleeping side by side on comfy mattresses in the houses little loft. Another cyclists who was staying with Armando, Anna Sofia, arrived in Armando’s little Renault to the reserve the following day.
Armando told us he would be taking us to Reynaldo’s reserve, La Montaña Magica (The Magic Mountain). Five of us packed into the little Renault and headed to Reynaldo’s reserve. Reynaldo was waiting at the entrance to his reserve with a huge smile on his face. He held the barbed-wire fence for us until we all got through the gate. We began spiraling down the side of the mountain towards his house. Within a couple of minutes he stopped us to tell us a story of the land, its origin, and its probable future.
After we set down our stuff, Reynaldo showed us around. A family with ten children used to live in the small three room house where we would be sleeping. The large central room had been converted into a place for spiritual ceremonies. The two rooms attached to the primary room were the bedrooms, each with two beds of straw. Straw may sound soft and cozy; it’s not (I still slept like a baby).
Outside, Reynaldo walked us around the farm, pointing out the unique plants and telling us their uses. He disappeared into a storage room for a minute or so and came out with a beautiful multi-colored flag. We were told that the flag was the flag for all humanity; no borders, no nationalities, no colors, no politics. The flag was a banner for love, acceptance, and kindness. I was given the honor of raising the flag on the huge, hand-made flagpole. I took this task seriously, and searched my memory banks for the proper protocols for raising a flag from my days in Boyscouts. The flag was raised without incident; we all stared at the flag flapping in the breeze for some time.
Reynaldo handed each of us a walking stick and asked us to follow him. We arrived at a gate, where he stopped us and read a message on the gate (loose translations) “Don’t be concerned about what others think of you; it’s not important”. He then let us through the gate. We walked close to a river, stopped to pick blackberries (Mora), and then we arrived at a second gate. “Don’t take things personally”; we reflected for a bit and walked through this gate. We then started climbing up the mountain; the next gate instructed us to “Learn as much as you can”. I smiled. The fourth gate was at the beginning to a dark part of the forest; “Always give yourself completely to the things you do”.
At dark we headed into the dark of the mountain forest. The air changed from dry to damp in seconds and the canopy closed in over our heads. Reynaldo stopped us here and asked us to each state our intentions aloud and to ask the forest the questions that we wanted answered. We entered a clearing where Reynaldo had candles stored under a rock; he lit the candles, and we sat in silence breathing in the damp air. I was sitting above everyone else on a stone seat set on a larger stone; Reynaldo explained that when people sat here, they spoke to the forest, so I started speaking. When I was through the others took their turns as well.
We brought wood from the forest to start a fire. Reynaldo handed us each candles and began speaking about the elements of the earth and told us the importance of each. He finished by demonstrating fire’s role in constantly transforming the elements of the earth, and explained that in a similar way our lives our constantly being transformed. We each lit our candles and started a small section of the fire while we verbalized changes that we would like to see in our lives.
We planned to leave in the morning, but the beauty and magic of the place were too much to escape from. We spent the next two days working in the yard (stripping bamboo of it’s sheathing using machetes and pulling weeds from between the rocky path), exploring the Montaña Magica, and enjoying food and conversation.
(Pictures 1,4, and 5-9 courtesy of Thomas Lewjin)
The next morning we walked 5 km down the valley to a road, through cow fields and over streams. Armando was waiting for us with the little Renault. We drove to the highest point overlooking Zapatoca, and we waited there in the wind and cold until dark. The lights from a dozen small towns shined at us from all different directions.
In the late morning, we said our goodbyes and headed off towards Barrichara. We left too late in the day and had some bike troubles on the road, so by dark we still hadn’t come close to Barrichara. We decided to take a ride with some truck drivers that we met at a local tienda. Their trucks were filled with some sort of natural pesticide. Before we set off on our way though, the drivers insisted on buying us beers and guarapo (a local alcohol fermented from sugar cane and honey). The drivers didn’t hesitate to join in the festivities. After an hour and a half or so, we were able to convince them it was time to go. This did not keep them from stopping every 15 minutes or so for another round or two of beers. Finally we arrived in Baricharra, unscathed.
In Baricharra we stayed with a family we had met on the road earlier in the day. Barichara is another destination for Colombian and international tourists; this is a tranquil and picturesque destination worth seeing.