Cute llama, right? Read on to learn about his hometown and what led me there.
In addition to llamas and other animals, I like craft beer. On my recent trip to Appalachia, I camped at one micro-brewery (Camping at a Maryland Farm Brewery) and hosteled at another (The Elkins Brewstel). I admit that neither of these was my first experience at a Bed & Brews. That happened four years ago in Buga, Colombia.
After two weeks of following the well-worn Pinterest tourist paths of Colombia, I was ready to go somewhere unknown. At the beginning of the trip, I had created a wish list of cool remote places, including many of the national parks. But my hopes were dashed when I discovered those places required hired guides and/or private charter flights, neither of which I could afford. So my second choice was to go on a quest for a nice cold, high-quality craft beer.
A couple local bartenders recommended Buga: a small town in Central Colombia with virtually no international tourism. It is best known for its Black Jesus statue, which attracts one million Colombians annually as a site of religious pilgrimage. It’s also the home of Colombia’s best brewery, Holy Water Ale. And that’s a special characteristic, since good beer is hard to come by in this country.
There’s only one hostel in the town: Buga Hostel, which is actually just a couple rooms in the back of the brewery. Having no idea what to expect, I booked a room for myself and my travel companion Brandon, and we hopped on a bus headed out there.
My first impression: Buga is even more adorable than its name would suggest. Brick roads lined with tropical plants beckon you to take a relaxed stroll, to gaze upon the colonial architecture and flowery vines adorning the terracotta roofs. Residents walked the streets with donkeys and llamas, while a trickling stream of motorbikes casually passed them by. This was an incredibly charming little town.
Brandon and I ordered some of Buga Hostel’s famous Holy Water Ale and pizza, and enjoyed it from the rooftop which overlooked the town. The hostel had a tropical mural painted on the wall and swings for seats. Every beer was mouth-watering, but the best was their mango beer… I just couldn’t get enough of it!
Another patron walked onto the rooftop and I greeted him in Spanish. He responded fluently, and we conversed for a few minutes. His name was Dylan and he had an afro. He was working and living at the brewery short-term while he did some kind of research in the area. Eventually I asked him where he was from.
“Los estados unidos,” he responded.
He was American?! We’d been speaking Spanish this whole time.
Switching to English I said, “Oh, we’re American too! I feel silly we’ve been speaking Spanish!”
He laughed. “I had no idea! Your Spanish is really good!”
“Thanks, so is yours!”
We traded stories about how we learned Spanish, then he mentioned growing up in Northern Colorado… just like me! It was such a strange coincidence; I can’t recall a single time I’ve met a Coloradoan outside of the state, not to mention in a small town in South America.
The bartenders gave us a couple ideas for fun activities, one of which was to hike up a nearby hill to a lookout point. Brandon and I left a couple hours before sunset, to give ourselves ample time to explore the town on the way up. While walking through the town park, a group of young adults approached us to ask me about my dreadlocks. One of them said he’d always wanted dreadlocks, and so I offered to do a demonstration for him.
We quickly made friends with the group and soon somebody started passing around a joint. I declined, preferring instead to use Brandon’s vape which had some delicious girly flavored juice in it. Vaping was pretty new back then, so (a) I didn’t know it was unhealthy, and (b) a lot of people didn’t even know what it was. This included the local cops, who saw a billow of vape cloud in the air and marched over to find out what we were doing.
Brandon, who barely spoke any Spanish, stepped up to confront the cops. Motioning at his vape, he said, “nicotina!” very loudly. He waved the vape around some more, repeating “es nicotina!” no matter what they asked him. He even handed it to the cops, offering to let them try it. Me and the others hovered silently in the background, holding our breath. Surprisingly, Brandon’s strategy worked. The cops lost patience with his inability to speak Spanish and walked off. A very lucky moment!
The next day we rented bicycles from the brewery/hostel and headed to Alaska, Colombia. Alaska is a tiny town on the edge of a beautiful waterfall. It sits along the same road as Buga, at the top of a mountain. It was recommended to us to take a bus out there so we wouldn’t have to ride the bikes uphill (lazy, but efficient).
“What do we do with the bicycles once we get there?” I asked. The trail to the waterfall was steep and rocky and I didn’t think the bikes could come with us.
“Um… Just tell the lady who lives on the corner, and she’ll watch them for you,” answered the hostel worker.
I’m not sure what I expected, but when the bus dropped us off there was no lady sitting on the corner waiting.
“I guess we have to knock then…” I shrugged and hesitantly walked up to the door of the corner house. I could see there was a woman sitting on a folding chair in a small living room watching, television. Other than the chair and television, the room was totally empty. She got up to answer the door.
“Um… would you be able to watch our bikes while we hike to the waterfall?” I asked her.
She nodded and motioned to us to wheel them into the middle of the room. Then, without another word, she sat back down and continued watching her show.
The hike didn’t take very long and was well-worth the trip. We enjoyed the gorgeous waterfall and and butterflies along the way.
Upon returning to the house for our bikes, the woman barely seemed to notice us and remained seated, staring at the TV. No one said anything about money, but I handed her a tip anyway.
Then we rode the bikes down a long down-hill slope back to Buga, fast as the wind and free as a bird. It was a majorly fun ride! Actually, I can’t believe I haven’t attempted more downhill rides since then… I’ll have to add this to my bucket list.
I had a fabulous & unforgettable time in Buga, especially considering I’d only come for the beer. The little town was so much more than I expected. The hostel folks tipped me off on my next destination which was absolutely extraordinary… but that story will have to wait until next time.