Right now I’m in the middle of a ten-day vacation thanks to Holy Week. My friend Monica and I wanted to travel somewhere, so in true Colombian fashion we met at the bus terminal on Tuesday afternoon with no destination in mind and about $50 in our pockets. Her friend Juan Diego came along as well and the three of us hopped a bus for San Gil.
San Gil is a small city about 2.5 hours away which we thought would be a good place to scout out an unknown pueblo to visit. San Gil is super popular on the backpackers’ loop because of its extreme sports like rafting and mountain biking. I, however, have never much cared for San Gil. (Unless I’m holed up in an enchanting 100+ year old house.) My dislike can probably be summed up in the fact that it’s been crowned “Santander’s Tourism Capital” which for me reads: BORING. We obviously didn’t spend much time there, just enough to delight in one of Colombia’s specialties – a massive fruit salad! A few locals recommended a quiet pueblo named El Valle de San Jose that was 15 minutes up the road and away we went. After a few hours in the hustle and bustle of San Gil we were happy to step off the bus into the predictably tranquil pueblo of El Valle.
On Wednesday morning we caught a bus to Charalá, once again going off the good word of a helpful Colombian we had met the night before. We were all surprised at how big Charalá was, it’s almost a little city as opposed to a sleepy pueblo.
We spent awhile in a tourism office watching an interesting video about the history of Charalá. The town holds its title as “The Cradle of Liberty” because of the Battle of Pienta on August 4, 1819 during the war for independence. Lots of Spanish troops were injured, as well as a large number of rebel forces – there were 300 deaths. It is said that this battle sufficiently weakened the Spanish troops to allow Simon Bolívar to conquer them three days later in the Battle of Boyacá. The Battle of Boyacá occured on August 7, 1819 and secured the independence of New Granada – the area that today consists of Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador. While we enjoyed a great history lesson, the tourism office had no actual advice on how to get ourselves into a cool, refreshing body of water without paying them a ton of money for one of their tours. Our next stop was the cultural museum as we pondered our next move.
The museum had a beautiful statue in tribute to the women of Charalá who fought in the war for independence. The women of all of Santander played a large role in Colombia’s fight, but one of the most famous was Antonia Santos. Antonia came from Socorro – a pueblo not far from Charalá. She was the first in Socorro to organize rebels against the Spanish invasion. On July 12, 1819 she was taken prisoner by the Spanish troops and after declaring that she would rather die than denounce the cause of independence she was hung at the gallows a few weeks later. Because of the protests of women like Antonia, a stereotype still holds that women from Santander are particularly fierce and angry.
We were also lucky enough to find out from the owner of the museum just what we needed to know – how to get to a nearby swimming hole with a short taxi ride. We pursued this hot tip and after a ten-minute hike we found ourselves in the middle of paradise: supremely beautiful views all around and ice cold water to assuage the heat of the afternoon sun.