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Published: January 1st 2013
My last few days on this side of the Atlantic involved a trip up to Colombia thanks to the Ecuadorian government (who have tightened up visa requirements ridiculously) and my own inability to find a flight before my visa ran out.
While I have no issue with an impromtu road-trip, it is annoying having to travel 10 hours just for the sake of a stamp in my (increasing full) passport. Four stamps every time I have to make a border run is a) annoying for me as I'm going to have to get more pages, and b) ridiculous in any airport when the poor official has to spend forever searching through my passport for the latest entry/exit stamp.
Having finished work at 8pm, we did an overnight trip up to Tulcan (a particularly cold and depressing example of a border town.) It's one redeeming feature being the truly bizarre cemetery. This is advertised as a tourist attraction (the only one in Tulcan according to the majority of travel guides.) At three thousand metres above sea-level, the highest (and probably coldest) city in Ecuador needs something to make it stand out!
The reason behind this is one
man's somewhat unusual hobby of cemetery topiary. Personally I think cemeteries the world over could benefit from this example. There's nothing more cheering to a depressing place than bushes in the shape of baby elephants and llamas!
Especially considering the Latino idea of putting their dear departed in capsule-hotel style, high-rise tombs. Instead of the ground, your love one gets to moulder in a concrete slot in a wall of graves. Quito even has 'Necropolis' - a high- rise, earthquake-proof tower where the cremated remains can stay in a niche and you can visit them in a room filled with plush sofas and flower displays.
Every country's way of dealing with death probably seems strange to someone, but this idea has always put me off. (Not to mention it could be the best premise for a horror movie ever!)
But Tulcan at least has a sense of whimsy as the dead are watched over by elephants, llamas, pelicans and parrots. These rather unusual plants were created by Jose Franco, who began his life-long work in 1936. He is now buried in the cemetery with his epitaph reading, 'In Tulcan, a cemetery so beautiful that it
invites one to die.' Well I wouldn't go that far but it certainly is impressive.
The next day I crossed into Colombia - the rules of border hopping meaning that I had to spend 24 hours in Colombia to gain a new entrance stamp to Ecuador. However with the bridge an open border for Colombians and Ecuadorians, I actually crossed back into Tulcan for lunch before walking back across the bridge to journey to Sanctuario de Las Lajas near Ipiales in Colombia. No-one seemed very bothered!
The original shrine of Las Lajas was a wood and straw affair in 1754, built after a woman and her deaf-mute daughter were caught in a thunderstorm and sought refuge between the 'Lajas' (type of shale). The (mute) daughter supposedly cried out that 'the mestiza is calling me' and a dark-skinned apparition of the Virgin Mary was seen on the rocks. A shrine was built at the spot where you can still (apparently!) see the image. Maybe I need to be Catholic or partially sighted to see it as I saw nothing at all.
The modern (far more impressive shrine) was built in 1949 with a bridge spanning the
gorge and river below. Truly an impressive sight, complete with an orchestra of angels (including french horn and saxophone!)
Having stayed by requisite 24 hours, I hopped back into Ecuador (raised eyebrows but no issues with the Ecuadorian officials over how little time I had spent in Colombia.) I always worry short stays might cause them to think of drugs, but I think I managed to convince them I was devout enough to be constantly visiting the shrine!
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