Charalá to Barichara: The Independence Trail, Colombia

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Charalá to Barichara: The Independence Trail

Riding holiday Colombia: 10 days; 5 days riding.

Independence in Colombia was a stop-start affair. The American Declaration of Independence (1776) started the dominos falling; the French Revolution (1789) was next. And when Napoleon placed his brother on the throne in Spain, to the consternation of the Spanish, Colombia grasped their opportunity to spread their wings and embark on the long, and bloody, road to freedom. Colombia was the first country in South America to gain independence (1810) briskly followed by its neighbours.

The Andes Mountains run north-to-south along the South American continent but in Colombia they divide into three parallel ranges which are steep, shrouded in forest, lush (just a whisker north of the Equator) with rivers in the valleys that are broad and brisk.

Modern day Colombia has an incredibly strong ‘horse culture’; that’s probably true of all South American countries, but in Colombia it’s even more pronounced. There are horses everywhere and mules are still a significant part of working life on farms where they carry coffee beans, sugar cane and a host of other crops. All this creates a remarkable network of mule trails, ancient tracks designed for horses and quiet backroads; perfect trail riding country.

What are Charalá and Barichara?

They are two delightful colonial towns; beautifully preserved cobbled streets and three-hundred year old homes make them a photographer’s playground. They also have a couple of excellent restaurants and (would you believe) Barichara has an altar in the main church covered in gold leaf. They were both pivotal places during the struggle for independence and Barichara glories in the sobriquet of “most beautiful town in Colombia”.

Oiba, Colombia

Stopping for a quick coffee in Oiba, Day 1 of the ride

Riding holiday Colombia

Day 1:

Bogotá is the international gateway and the brand new airport is busy and efficient. We’ll meet you upon arrival and drive you to your hotel in the city. Dinner with your fellow riders and host.

Overnight at the hotel (meals not included on this day).

Day 2:

Set off north, twisting and turning, following the line of the mountains to the charming rural town of Oiba. Stop for lunch at a restaurant at a suitably high vantage point with 3,000 foot views into the valley below and far horizons of the Andes’s Cordillera Oriental. The driving time is around 5 hours and you can’t hurry on these roads which demand respect, but give stunning views in return. Overnight in a small hotel (with pool) and it’s here that you’ll meet the horses.

Criollo Colombia

The horses respond well to your leg and weight shift.

Day 3:

The horses will be saddled and waiting for you outside the hotel, after breakfast. It’s always an exciting moment when you first swing your leg over a new horse; these are well-mannered and sensible; fit for what lies ahead and straight forward to ride. The trail leads away from the hotel descending into a shallow valley, crossing pastureland. Stop for a breather in a forester’s lodge and ride deeper into the Andes. Along the way you may stop at an old school, community shop or local basket-weaver’s house to see how life is lived in this part of the world.

By mid-afternoon you arrive in Charalá, the town in the title of this ride: it’s taken a day to reach this off-the-beaten-track gem. The hotel is outside town, built on a grassy hillock overlooking paddocks and the river. Very rider-friendly and you’ll be able to watch the horses from your bedroom window.

At sunset we head back in to town (in 4×4’s) and meet the town guide who will tell the tale of the brutal early years of revolution and how this town has produced not one, but two leaders. It’s a moving story. Tonight we dine within the shadow of the huge church at a charming local restaurant.

Riding time: 5 to 6 hours

Day 4:

This morning’s trail ‘handrails’ the River Fonce which always seems to be flowing nineteen to the dozen; during the morning other rivers join and before long you’ll be riding next to a decent sized stream. Sugarcane, coffee and cocoa grow all around in this high, lush, fertile ground. They say that if you leave your spade in the ground overnight it’ll sprout leaves and grow. Underfoot it’s sandy-clay for much of the time, so the cadence of the hooves picks up and we can make decent progress.

By midday we’ll reach Juan Curi Falls where the river tips over a cliff and falls 60m to a perfect pool. The horses quietly graze and while lunch is prepared in the adjacent restaurant, there’s time for a yomp up to the natural pool and a refreshing dip. After lunch we ride to the top of Curi Falls up an unbelievably steep mule track. At the top, believe it or not, is a real “farmers’ pub” – earth floor, hitching rail and cold beer! It also has “Tejo” – probably the best pub game in the world! The afternoon ride may require riding after sunset, but the trails are sound and the going is easy. Tonight’s hotel lies within a coffee and sugarcane plantation where excellent home-cooked meals are produced.

Riding time: 8 ½ hours.

Mules Colombia

Mules are used to carry tobacco, sugar cane and other cash crops from field to farm. And then home again free rein!

Day 5:

Yesterday we rode through occasional coffee plantations: today we’re in to the heart of coffee country before emerging into a wilder, more mountainous zone. We ride through the town of Socorro which is a real blast: we literally stop the traffic (with the assistance of the local Old Bill). The town contains stunning colonial-period architecture and exquisite homes. On the far side we join the bank of the River Suarez which is famous for its Grade IV and V rapids, a favourite among rafting enthusiasts. Further downstream are the Canyons of Chicamocha which are 3,000 feet deep and which we’ll see in a day or two.

Our destination this evening is El Palmar and a beautiful hacienda on the outskirts of town. The centre of town is dominated by a massive Ceiba tree, 10m around its trunk. The Ceiba is one of the Kapok family (the ‘cotton’ around its seedpods used to be used to stuff mattresses in Victorian times) and this specimen is an established part of local life.

Riding time: 7 ½ hours

Day 6:

Today is the last day of the progressive trail, but not the last day riding. We follow the River Suárez to the beautiful village of Cabrera which is like a living museum. Pick up the horse trails (bridleways) that were regularly used during the independence struggle and descend onto a plateau. This area is famous for its stone masons, and the work they produce is outstanding (shame we can’t bring some home – but it’s granite!) And so across the Royal Bridge to enter picture-postcard Barichara; hoof-clop bounces off the cobbles and echoes along the streets making us sound like an invading army! Watch your head on the gable ends because the houses are petite and some of the corners tight.

The horses are corralled on the edge of town and we use 4×4’s to reach the gorgeous little hotel just across town. No two rooms are the same and they’re all delightful: more like a country house than a hotel.

Riding time: 6 hours.

Tejo, Colombia

Jejo – small pink triangles of gunpowder brought to life! The ultimate pub game.

Day 7:

Today’s ride is circular: earlier we mentioned the grand canyon called Chicamocha; today we ride to the rim. It’s not too far across the plateau and the pace can be quite brisk. This is tobacco country and the broad-leaved plants are on every side. By mid-day we’ll reach a home that overlooks the canyon and while lunch is prepared you can practice you’re photographic skills and try to do the place justice. It’s the scale that is so magnificent: the peaks in the distance are over 5,000m and the valley floor is 1,000 m below you. Huge! This is Santander Province at its best.

Return to the same Barichara hotel for overnight, and this is where you say goodbye to your horse.

Riding time: 6 hours.

Day 8:

A non-riding free day in what Lonely Planet calls “the prettiest town in Colombia” so it must be true! Whitewashed houses with red-tiled roofs, surrounded by quiet cobbled streets, generous town parks and shady trees make this a difficult place to leave. Café life is thriving and there are artisan shops, quite bars and excellent local restaurants to explore; a day is not enough.

Return to the same Barichara hotel for overnight.

Day 9:

Today is a travelling day as we drive back to the capital.

Overnight in Bogotá hotel. (Lunch and dinner not included).

Driving time: 6 hours.

Day 10:

Transfer to the airport for the flight home; or onward travel plans.

Criollo saddle horse, Colombia

Criollo saddle horse, Colombia

Details

Min 2 riders
Max 12 riders

Rider ability: this is not a ride for ‘passengers’; you need to help your horse over the steep (up and down) mule trails. It suits a confident intermediate or advanced rider. The days are quite long, though perfectly manageable if you ride regularly once or twice a week. Above all you need that spirit of adventure, because you really do feel like a pioneer.

When you arrive at each hotel the horses are the first priority and you are welcome to untack and hose down your horse, before attending to your own needs. There’s always eager help on hand to assist you.

Included in the price

Airport transfers
Accommodation (twin/double rooms) as detailed
Meals as described with soft drinks
Saddle horse, tack and twin saddle bags.
Guide and wranglers (first aider)
Support vehicle

Not included

International flights
Travel insurance
Alcoholic drinks

Single room supplement: £28 per night, payable if you are unwilling to share a twin room with another single traveller of the same gender. * Single rooms can be limited, so please check with us at the time of booking.

Paso Fino stallion, Colombia

Paso Fino stallion, Colombia

Accommodation note

The thing that struck me during my recce ride in Dec 2017 was just how welcoming and genuinely hospitable Colombian landlords are. All the inns, haciendas and country houses we use during this ride are owner-managed, and they all take great pride in their properties and cuisine.

We can of course cater for vegetarians, but if you enjoy fish you will love the local river fish “Mojarra” and trout. Beef and pork are of course Colombian institutions! And the real surprise is the fresh fruit: we can guarantee that you will encounter table-tops of fruit, the majority of which you won’t recognise, but all of them juicy and delicious.

Coffee is of course ever-present and surprisingly flavoursome and mild. Tea is less widespread but there are heaps of infusion teas. The local beer (lager-type) is good and there are plenty of opportunities to stop for a sharpener or two during the afternoons. You will also have the opportunity to meet the local fire water “Aguadiente” which is similar to a mild version of Ricard.

Staying on

The big thing missing from this ride is the coast! But you can’t do it all! If you can spare an extra two or three nights then head to the Caribbean coast, which is “mellow” personified.