Our final stop in Colombia is the region surrounding the small town of San Agustin, in the departamento
of Huila in the far southwest of the country and only a few hours away from Ecuador. Located in the mountains of the Macizo Colombiano
where the spine of the Andes divides into the three Colombian cordilleras, San Agustin itself is not much to look at but is surrounded by some of the most splendid scenery in Colombia.
The hills and valleys surrounding the modern town of San Agustin were home, some five thousand years ago, to a highly developed pre-columbian civilisation also known by the name of San Agustin. While much about the San Agustin people remains shrouded in mystery, the countryside for miles around is scattered with dozens of tombs and distinctive funerary statues which have made the area famous. While the stone sculptures may lack the artistic sophistication of others found elsewhere in South and Central America, their location - sited as they are amid stunningly verdant scenery - is San Agustin's real drawcard. One of the most popular ways to visit the various archaeological sites dotted around the town is on horseback.
François, the French owner of our
wonderful little hilltop hostel in San Agustin arranges for us to spend a half day riding around the hills just north of town, which are sprinkled with half a dozen tombs and stone statues. A couple of hours into the trip our guide Abay tells us about a five-day expedition he runs to the source of the Río Magdalena, a lagoon high up on the páramo
, the high-altitude boggy tundra beyond the cloud forest. We've been positively itching to embark on a longer riding trip and Abay's descriptions have us immediately hooked. It is one of the great delights of being on a largely unplanned, open-ended journey that we can take up such tempting last-minute offers without hesitation. And my goodness, what a good thing we did...
A morning start just outside the town centre of San Agustin sees us meet the horses which will be carrying us on this 150 kilometres, 2000 metres up, 2000 metres down expedition to the birthplace of Colombia's longest and mightiest river, the Magdalena. Asabache and Gavilán are two beautiful Paso Fino
horses, famous for their smooth and unique eponymous gait. Abay also introduces us to Arsenio, our guide for the next five
Estrechos del Magdalena
Here, Colombia's longest river is squeezed through a gap less than two metres wide.
days. According to Abay, the black Asabache is no less than a Mercedes of a horse - he will be Alex's steed. But skewbald Gavilán in no Nissan Micra, that's for sure. Asabache and Gavilán, as well as Arsenio's mount Rosilla, are young and strong - only fit horses can cope with the journey ahead, we are told. What have we let ourselves in for?
Looking natty in our brand new wellies purchased specially for the ride, we set off out of San Agustin at a wonderfully comfortable paso fino which our bottoms, a few days from now, will surely be grateful for. In no time we have climbed into the gorgeous emerald hills northwest of San Agustin, a stunning patchwork of a hundred different greens. The slopes are dedicated to the cultivation of sugar cane, coffee, plantain and lulo
fruit (quite unique to Colombia). As we begin our ride along what Arsenio describes as a camino vehicular
but which looks like a rough, rocky track to us, we pass numerous small sugar mills. The trapiches,
as they are called here, are a vital cottage industry in Huila: hundreds of these tiny family-run mills produce, day-in, day-out, one of
the most important foodstuffs in Colombia: panela
is a type of unrefined brown cane sugar, produced in heavy slabs and consumed in vast quantities nationwide. Not only is panela
the basic sweetener used in cooking and baking here, it is also the basis for aguapanela
, a sweet concoction of panela
dissolved in water, often with aromatic herbs added to the mix, and the prime contender for Colombian national drink - even ahead of coffee. Panela
seems not to be produced industrially at all - all of it comes from these tiny trapiches
. We watch in fascination as raw sugar cane is pressed in petrol-driven mangle-like contraptions, before the cane juice is cooked to produce the instantly recognisable blocks of solid panela
no Colombian housewife could do without. The process is a model of efficiency: the bagasse is burned to provide the heat to cook the cane juice, while the molasses - locally called cachaza
- are cooked down and fed to poultry and livestock. In the foothils surrounding San Agustin the air is heavy with the sweet, sickly smell of panela
being made. Amazing.
It isn't long before we find ourselves high above the Río Magdalena, roaring in
the valley below. After some four hours' easy riding - with a few lovely gallops to liven things up - we arrive at our first overnight stop, a small farmhouse perched on a hillside overlooking the river beneath. There we are welcomed by a lovely couple who farm their small plot of land, which happened to belong to Arsenio's family until a few years ago. We install ourselves on their comfortable veranda, watching a veritable menagerie of dogs, chickens, ducks and geese go about their business while we sip on a mug of sweet tinto
Colombian coffee. Arsenio takes the horses down to a paddock to graze, ready for tomorrow's "more exciting" ride. A simple but hearty dinner completes a most satisfying first day. It's dark before seven and everyone is safely tucked up in bed by eight o'clock!
By the time we wake up the next morning Arsenio has already fetched Asabache, Gavilán and Rosilla from their paddock and has saddled them up, ready to go. Our host prepares a lovely and very filling breakfast of beans, rice, griddled maize cakes called arepas
and scrambled eggs. No chance of us running out of energy today, that's for sure.
A few kilometres along the trail from the farm, past the tiny village of Quinchana, the "road" abruptly disappears, giving way to the rough horse track which will take us all the way to the lagoon. The going rapidly gets very steep, very muddy and very, very rough. Almost without realising it we are out of the rolling, cultivated hills and climbing fast through cloud forest. The next five hours of riding are nothing short of hair-raising as our horses bravely tackle vertiginous gradients of loose rock, slippery mossy rock and deep, sticky mud. Our previous rides have always been over relatively sedate, flat terrain and it comes as something of a shock to feel our horses trip, stumble - and more than once very nearly fall over - under us as they negotiate the treacherous path. In a classic understatement, Arsenio had warned us that el camino está un poco complicado
. Bloody complicado, rather! It is mentally - and physically, even though we're not the ones being ridden - exhausting. We are rewarded, however, with awe-inspiring views of the cloud-shrouded mountains above us and the thickly forested gorge below. Narrow bridges take us across the Magdalena several times as
we zig-zag our way up its valley towards its source. A few particularly hairy stretches even see us dismount and struggle up the slippery rocks on foot with the horses ahead of us.
By the time we arrive at the second tiny farm which will be our home for the next two nights, we are both exhilarated and exhausted. The farm, like the last, is perched above the river on a steep hillside. It is not permanently inhabited, but following a call from Arsenio a couple of days ago the lady who runs it has ridden up from Quinchana with her daughter and sister to be our hosts. We're a long way from San Agustin - there's no gas, no electricity, no running water and no telephone signal here. Being the city mice that we are, we jump at the opportunity to catch (well, help catch) some trout in the river for dinner. Our hosts are evidently amused at our excitement - "I'd like to see them deal with an Excel spreadsheet", remarks Alex.
On our first evening at the farm we are offered the opportunity to have curry for dinner. Curry?
Wow, it's been a long time
since we've had curry. Why not? "Would you like to come and see the curry before you eat it?", asks Arsenio. He takes us to a small stable-like enclosure next to the kitchen, where a pair of alarmingly large guinea-pigs are running in rapid circles. Ah. Cuy
, not curry...Guinea-pig for dinner? Well...why not. Thankfully, the guinea-pigs are despatched out of sight but we watch, fascinated, as our hosts deftly remove their fur with scalding water before gutting them and spread-eagling them ready for grilling. And very, very tasty they were too, tasting not unlike rabbit, with a couple of crispy grilled river trout on the side and a lovely bowl of hot aguapanela
. Definitely not the last time we'll be having cuy
, I think. Again, by the time dinner is over it's not even seven o'clock and, after a gaze at a spectacularly starry night sky we are ready for bed at barely seven thirty. And we haven't even been doing any of the work!
We're up early the next morning for the eight-hour ride up to Laguna Magdalena on the páramo. The path beyond the farm is even wilder, almost completely overgrown and steeply uphill. Within a couple
of hours of leaving the farm we are fully in the cloud and the temperature has dropped significantly. The constant mist and drizzle at these heights - we're well beyond 3000 metres - makes the rock we are riding over incredibly slippery, and once again we can feel our horses' legs scrabbling for purchase at we continue to rise towards the páramo. Quite suddenly we find ourselves beyond the tree line and on the flat, wet, cold, boggy páramo, surrounded by eerie swirling mist. Bizarre frailejón
plants appear through the cloud. It is quite otherworldly. We dismount and tie up the horses before squelching through the waterlogged, mossy ground towards the mist-shrouded Laguna Magdalena. A tiny, reed-banked stream leads away from the lagoon: you'd scarcely believe it, but this is the Río Magdalena, which will flow over 1500 kilometres through Colombia before meeting the Atlantic in Barranquilla, between Santa Marta and Cartagena. Incredible!
After an energising snack of panela chunks - for us and for the horses - we remount and head back towards the farm, slipping and tripping even more than on the way up. The requirement for strong horses is clearer than ever. Back at the farm,
once again, there is time only for dinner before we collapse into bed and sleep for nearly twelve hours straight. The following morning, we give our hosts and Arsenio some light entertainment as we attempt to help them milk the farm's small herd of half a dozen cows. Our sterling efforts - after many, many attempts - are finally rewarded with tiny, threadlike streams of milk. The farm owner's eight year-old daughter promptly puts us to shame by effortless coaxing great rivers of milk out of the very same cows we valiantly extracted our teaspoonsful just seconds before. I think we'll add "cow-milking" to our skills list nonetheless.
Two further days' riding later and we are back in San Agustin, having covered nearly 150 kilometres in the past five days. A real mini adventure. Asabache and Gavilán have earned themselves a whole week off, and we've earned ourselves a brace of Aguila
beers. And a couple of ibuprofen each.
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