Learning of a hostel with a brewery (or a brewery with a hostel?), the Holy Water Ale Cafe in Buga made a worthwhile pitstop for a day or two away from the intensely populated ‘gringo trail’. Only due to Matt’s inquisitive nature did we happen to stumble upon the brew hostel in a town otherwise completely bypassed by the tourist herd.
Heading back north for an hour from Cali, we passed numerous military personnel doing thumbs up checks at the traffic driving past, collected our swelling backpacks at the terminal and whilst looking for the best way into town conversed with a local gentleman whom had lived for the past 15 years in Florida (many people you meet here have spent some amount of time abroad). Happy to find some people to help brush up on his English with, the guy leads us to a taxi driver who’ll give us the ride we need at the fair price we want. Ascending the stairs to hostel nirvana the lady behind the bar is overjoyed to have some tourists at this time of the year.
Checked into the massive eight bed dorm, with a hostel worker our only roommate, Sarah takes to the vertical position to let gravity do its thing while Matt, keen to explore, heads out to find the holiness himself, Black Jesus. Founded in 1555 Guadalajara de Buga is one of Colombia’s oldest town, and has always been a popular pilgrimage site. With the weather closing in and arriving to the doors of the Basilica Señor de los Milagros (Church of Miracles) to find it closed for the afternoon sermon, there’s barely time to flick off a few shots of the impending storm looming over the delicate pink façade before the inevitable downpour reigns.
Hasta manana Black Jesus.
Dodging from shop front to shop front, the stream from the heavens become too much before a respite in an office lobby is required. Entertained once again by a friendly local Matt passes the time talking about his other life in Sweden and how at this time of year it’s a freezing, wet and unhappy place to be compared with Buga, present weather excluded.
Chilling out for the night at the hostel bar sampling a few of the beers on tap is as adventurous as it gets. There’s a half decent IPA, the Negra is quite typical and an interesting soiree into the realms of a Ginger Honey gets your tastebuds dancing. Unfortunately the Hefeweizen had run out only a few days back. Combine this with a killer pizza menu and live music on the weekends you can imagine this is a popular hangout, as we noticed when a handful of young locals arrive later in the evening.
Moving up to the roof terrace to enjoy the lights and the cool, calming breeze carrying the smell of freshly sprinkled rain from the pavement, a distant lightning storm captivates the attention as it illuminates the far off hills surrounding this welcoming town. The hostel also has a bright kitchen at the rear where we happily avoided another breakfast of bread and jam by cooking up a feast.
Making a second attempt the next day we found the doors to the Basilica open. Displaying an icon of miracles referred to as Cristo Negro, or Black Christ, the place draws tourists and the faithful and infirm from all over Colombia. Stashed away in a room above the altar, we patiently waited in line for the chance to meet Black Jesus. Our turn arrives and we mount the staircase into the room.
Black Jesus looks like all the other Jesus’s hung on a cross in a church, only this time he’s black! Gives them hope we suppose. Being pretty much the novelty tourists in town, we’d figured that finding a cheap menu del dia would be relatively easy. Wrong. We had touts left, right and center, crawling out of drains, down trees, everywhere, thrusting flyers for their restaurant into our faces. Avoiding them we ventured into some others that wanted upwards of USD10 for a set lunch! Escaping the touts we wandered down a back street and found a little family run place called Restaurant Lucy for a proper priced meal with the locals that was delicious to boot.
Buga has more to offer than just the brewery and the site of (supposed) miracles, you could easily lose a few days exploring the region. Laguna Sonso is known for bird watching, Finca Los Pailones for waterfalls and swimming holes or for those in need of a little more excitement there’s various companies offering kite boarding.
The day done here we wanted to head as far as possible to the border town of Ipales, only with no direct bus it was going to be another unknown wait in Cali. Jumping in the bus at 2pm with a seven to eight hour journey ahead of us, arriving at a border town in the middle of the night seemed less than desirable. Lucky for us we needn’t have worried about arriving at midnight. Instead it was 2:30am in the morning!!!! Even the crazy bus driver couldn’t stick to the schedule which included a traffic jam in Cali for over an hour. Oh and if you’ve forgotten your mobile phone, never fear! Every bus station has small shops advertising ‘minutos’ where you can chat your day away on their mobile phones attached to the store by a thick metal chain.
In need of a hotel in the freezing cold border town at a god awful hour we took out the Lonely Planet for ease, only to find the place completely closed up. Sending our taxi back to a hotel by the station with it’s welcoming ‘abierto’ (open) LED flashing out the front, we paid a wasted taxi fee and were soon greeted by the friendly chap who had us up on the third floor of La Frontanar and asleep in minutes. A passable hotel that’s located within spitting distance of the bus station it only cost us £8 with a good shower and passable WiFi.
Awake after only a few hours, there’s a place for simple breakfast just to the left of the hotel, and before long we in a taxi, shared with another couple (4200 COP each one way), down to the only attraction for miles, Las Lajas Sanctuary. The inspiration for the basilicas creation was a miraculous event in 1754 when an apparition of the Virgin Mary instigated popular pilgrimages to the site, with occasional reports of miraculous healing. The image of the apparition is apparently still visible on the stone today.
Dropped off at the tourist tack shops interspersed by tourist restaurants, it’s a short walk downhill to one of the most randomly placed churches in South America. The present incarnation was built from 1916 to 1946 in the Gothic Revival style, and the angels lining the bridge and adorning the doorways make for a grandiose moment like ascending to the gods.
Make sure to walk across the bridge and up the hill opposite for the best views. Back up the hill, bags collected we jumped in a collectivo to the border (COP 1700 each) and on to Ecuador, though not without a thorough check of all pockets first.
For more photos of Buga, Ipiales and Colombia – Check this out.