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[For an audio/vlog version of this story, click here.]

When travelling in Colombia, one is best not to put too much faith in expected journey times, particularly those sourced from the likes of Google Maps and with Bogotá as the origin.

‘Oh look, that town is only 100 kilometres away and Google Maps says it takes about two hours to get there. Great!’

Eh, good luck with that.

San Juan de Rioseco: Only its river runs (almost!) dry

The bullfighting ring is easy to see, but can you spot the main church?

About the only way such an arrival time could be realised is if you use private transport i.e. your own vehicle or contract a driver, and leave in the early hours of the morning.

Failing that, you face tumultuous traffic whilst traipsing topsy-turvy roads on buses that appear programmed to stop every couple of kilometres or so. These stop-happy buses are usually at their worst on journeys over shorter distances, but even on longer trips the compulsion to occasionally stall presents itself. (On those lengthier trips, it can go from sluggishly slow to fear-inducing fast, as I explained in Colombia’s plebeian transport: A riveting ride.)

Having spent the majority of my adult life in Colombia and having travelled here fairly extensively, I should be accustomed to all this. However, one’s formative years leave a mark.

Thus, when I see that a place is around 100 km from my base, my Irish mind tells me that the trip should take no more than two hours. Accounting for the Andes’ bendy declines and inclines, I add a generous hour to that. Yet, even with that, I’m often still left frustrated at how long the journey ends up lasting.

Río Seco’s feet fish
So it was for my recent trip to San Juan de Rioseco, about 60 km west of Bogotá as the crow flies — around 100 km on the road — and a daytime journey that Google Maps calculates at 2 hours 45 minutes.

Yet it took a painstaking hour and 45 minutes just to get to Facatativá, a town less than 40 km from the capital’s main bus station, Terminal Salitre. Add to that the hour it took me to get from my Bogotá accommodation to the bus terminal and the total time on the road was over five hours. A mediocre 20 km per hour. (Leaving San Juan de Rioseco at 10 am on a Sunday proved more efficient. It took just three hours to get to Terminal Salitre.)

With all that in mind, one-night escapes from Bogotá are more hassle than they are worth.

As it was, I had three nights in San Juan de Rioseco. While I liked the place and its people, such a stint was enough when one has little reason to be there only to check it out. I’m particularly budget-conscious these days, too, so that played a factor in my more limited stay.

‘Bullfighting trumps God from this outlook.’

San Juan’s closest watercourse, the not-entirely-accurately-named Río Seco, River Dry — some water flows through it, enough for small, feet-nibbling fish to thrive — and after which the town is named, is insufficient for a refreshing dip.

In the likes of the smaller San Luis de Gaceno, one can waste away a few hours, cost-free, enjoying the nearby river. The lack of such a natural attraction in San Juan de Rioseco only increases the temptation for a few daily cooling-off beers. That’s not great when one is trying to reduce one’s overall beer consumption.

There is a swimming pool open to the public but in such warm lands I prefer a natural river or suchlike in which to bathe. Two advantages of the natural option are that it’s free and, normally, one can seek out a quiet spot away from any splashing and screaming children. And adults.

Mentioning rivers, on a clear day the majestic Magdalena can be seen from certain points in the town. In fact, I was told that in the same direction the snowcapped Nevado del Ruiz also presents itself. Alas, the view was hazy throughout my stay. A faint glimpse of the Magdalena was as good as it got for me.

Coffee highs
There was no such visual impairment of San Juan de Rioseco itself. The most impressive view is from a perch just off the principal road into the town where the bullring grabs the greatest attention, outdoing the church on the main square. Bullfighting trumps God from this particular outlook.

By taking the La Balsa route up to the Cambao-Vianí road, you get a more panoramic vista of the town and countryside at Mirador el alto del ángel, the High Angel Viewpoint, or something like that. There, the angels and God put the bullring in its place.

Had I been more adventurous I could have at least walked to Vianí, 16 km east of San Juan on the road back to Bogotá. From the glimpses I got of it whilst passing through, it looked like a respectable enough town.

A walk to Cambao is more of a stretch, sitting 36 km to the west on the banks of the Magdalena as it is. These are places to visit in their own right on another occasion. Walks in and around San Juan de Rioseco satisfied my wanderlust this time.

That many establishments in the town know how to brew quality coffee makes it easier to hang about. As I’ve oft-mentioned, not every Colombian pueblo has mastered the art of preparing decent, unsweetened coffee.

The somewhat bohemian craft coffee shop, Buáni Café on the main square, which cultivates its own beans, is the standard-bearer. Yet, even some of the plebeian panaderías make acceptable brews. Considering two of them occupy spaces in a building called Casa del Café, House of Coffee, it’s only right that they do serve out a cuppa that doesn’t seem like a chore to drink.

August Agosto
Now, not that I was in search of one, but it seems that San Juan has no tourist information centre. As it turned out, a chance encounter with affable Agosto within minutes of my arrival resulted in my getting sufficient info to meet my modest needs.

After initially and curiously asking me if I wanted to buy a Renault Laguna — I don’t think I had the appearance of somebody on the lookout for a car — he pointed me in the direction of one of the more affordable hotels in the town, Hotel Central. (25,000 pesos for a basic room with private bathroom and, just as important these days, a good internet connection. Plus, the owner, Alcira, was very hospitable.)

Subsequent serendipitous meetings with Agosto saw him tell me about the La Balsa walk and the best route down to the river. On my second day in the town, he even suggested that I could stay in his spare room. I gave that a miss, though. Hotel Central was more than adequate, fairly quaint and far from extortionate.

More than adequate, fairly quaint and far from extortionate: This works as a motto for San Juan de Rioseco itself. It’s just best not to do it as a mere day trip from Bogotá.
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La vida en Colombia desde la perspectiva de un periodista y locutor irlandés, quien ha vivido en el país desde 2011. El blog explora temas sociales y culturales, interacción con los nativos, viajes, actualidades y mucho más. Escucha su podcast acá: https://anchor.fm/brendan-corrigan.

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