Colombia - The South

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July 1st 2009
Published: August 3rd 2009
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Well this is the final South American country that we are visiting on this trip (bar our small re-entry to Peru to get to Lima) and we were excited about it. On our travels up through the other countries we had mixed reports about Colombia.
- Some people said "don't go its dangerous.....what with Cocaine traffikers, FARC Guerrilla's and Colombian paramilitary!"
- Other people we met said, "Go! It is one of the most beautiful and safest countries in South America. Everyone is very friendly and it has hardly any tourists".
The first set of people were those who had not been to Colombia themselves and the latter were those who had!

The South of Colombia certainly rings true to the latter comments. Most of the tourists we met were Colombians on holiday themselves and the helpfulness of people from the start was surprising! It´s nice as a tourist when random people welcome you, unlike London where we're more likely to get frustrated at them clogging up the streets.

Pasto & Laguna de la Cocha

We started by making our way from the border to the town of Pasto, mainly as a final stop off for the day's
Wendy & Ann Trying to Stay WarmWendy & Ann Trying to Stay WarmWendy & Ann Trying to Stay Warm

For some reason we thought Colombia would be warm!
journey but also as the guidebook talked of a nice lake with a cloud forest Island to visit. We arrived in Pasto late and quite exhausted from our day´s travel. The first surpise of the day was the toilet in our private bathroom that lacked a seat! This we have found out since to be a common occurance in South Colombia. Second was the lack of hot water, not that it was advertised but since it was cold here and we weren´t in Bolivia we had hoped for more. Still the building was a lovely, airy old colonial building and the owner was very helpful, especially when we returned 15 minutes after popping out for a quick bite because we couldn´t actually find a restaurant where it was possible to get a vegetarian option (being with Wendy n all). He managed to point us in the direction of the only possible option which, despite looking like a tesco cafe and being rather expensive was quite tasty.

We set off for our outing the next day to the laguna de la Cocha and island. We were quite surpised with the look of the town, it almost had a swiss ski village feel to it (without the snow and mountains surrounding). As with all countries we found that the guidebook prices were out of date and the boat trip to the Cloud forest Island was double what we expected. Luckily a nice Colombian family, being weekend tourists came along and suggested sharing a boat and thus the cost. The boat ride was very nice (made all the more exciting by our boat running out of fuel and having to be rescued by another in the middle of the lake) and we made friends with the family and children, Ann giving a few English lessons to pass the time productively (dad videod it so hopefully Sophia has been practising it since!). The island was small and not particularly diverse in terms of the plant or animal species but we all agreed we had fun and it was a nice way to spend a day after the long bus travel the day before.

We were due to go on up to Popayan that night but on reviewing the guidebook Ann realised that one of the places she wanted to visit was in Ipiales, right on the border with Equador. So we changed plans and got a bus back down to Ipiales that night.

Ipiales and the El Sanctuario de Las Lajas

So this church was built on a site that legend tells of a miracle where a mute child began to speak following meeting Mary and baby Jesus in a cave. Whether or not you are religious and therefore interested in this legend the Church itself is enough to draw you here....built over a ravine, its engineering and architecture are truly impressive. Hence the photo in the guidebook was enough to convince everyone that it was worth a trip in the wrong direction and a day´s delay to visit it. See for yourselves (although Lonely Planet got a better angle!) This visit inside the church was quite bizarre. It was incredibly busy, not just with visitors but there was a christening going on on the side of the altar, people coming in for first communion, a big long line of people for confession (kneeling on the side next to all the busy people traffic - oh and the priest on the other side of the panel looking rather bored.) The church was not far from town and the visit only warranted an hour or so, therefore we were able to set off that day for our next destination for San Augustin.

San Agustin

The windy roads through the mountains of Colombia lost their tarmac about 2 hours into the journey. This explains why a journey of 106kms takes 8 hours! It was stunning scenery for a lot of the route but we struggled to appreciate it as we bounced around the bus, feeling rather sick....and cold! A number of times we asked ourselves why we were making the journey to San Augustin. It was out of the way and the only real attraction was the stone carvings for which the region is famous for.

We're pretty happy now that we did make the effort. We spent the first day in San Augustin on a hose riding tour of a number of special sites. The sites were impressive enough, though I think the most amount of fun was had in regards our horses......they basically had a mind of their own and tended to gallop (no kidding) up hills. Worse though as the fact that when one galloped they all galloped. I don't think any of us are going to be Melbourne Cup jockeys, but gee it was fun!

After the horse riding we got dropped off at the archaeological park. The park itself takes about 3 hours to walk around and involves number sites with the stone carvings and tombs. Some are pretty cool and very reminicent of similar pre-Incan carvings we saw in Peru. They are more ornate also that the ones on easter island. Our amateur anthropological theory is that a Pre-inca Colombian got lost and ended up in Easter Island and suggested that they carve big stone heads.....

Our second day was a little more relaxed as it involved a jeep tour to various sites. After looking at stone carvings the previous day they all started to get a little ho hum on day 2. They are much of a muchness, but at least the driving gave us an opportunity to take in the country side, something climging for life on the back of a horse never enabled us to do.

Cali - the Salsa Capital

Cali, Colombia's party and salsa capital. We really failed to make the most of Cali. We got a 7am bus from San Agustin (which meant we were up at 6am) and some 13 hours later we arrived in Cali. After a disagreement with a taxi driver on the Cali taxi rank and Gordon for not the first time wishing that our Spanish teacher had taught then a few expletives in Espanyol we eventually got to our hostel....the Iguana hostel. Now while 13 hours on a bus would mean that you would typically be dying to do something which involved movement (ie dancing), 13 hours on a bus which over half of it involves being thrown around because of the state of the roads and the parts on tarmac involved praying to whatever deity you believe in to make sure you get through the trip, is actually not so relaxing. Unsurprisingly we elected to have an early night, only however after asking the hostel guy whether salsa bars were open on Sunday nights as well....."of course" was the response. Well the salsa bars may be open on Sunday nights, but they certainly aren't open all hours like they are on a Saturday....we headed out at around 10:30 on the Sunday night to find that many of the bars and clubs were either closed or closing! much for Salsaing though Cali! We did though visit the Cali zoo....a very enjoyable way to spend half a day.....amazingly the sole kangaroo was a huge attraction.....even if it chose to lie in the grass far enough away to make viewing difficult!


Manizales proved to be the point at which Ann finally realised that Gordon doesn't really read the guidebook very well. More on that later because just getting from Cali to Manizales deserves a mention. If we make it our of Colombia alive we are investing a couple of t-shirts whcih state "I Survived a Colombian Road trip". The trip from Cali to Manizales is a perfect example of why this T-shirt would be deserved.

Most people have heard that drivers in South America are a little more erratic than Western Drivers. To be fair, we haven't thought them to be too bad. In the South of Colombia though its a deserved reputation. Double the speed limit, overtaking on blind corners, overtaking whilst another lorry is coming at you (making it by a whisker or deciding to abort whilst side on....this means slamming on the breaks and swerving back in with such force that everyone is thrown from their seat), not knowing the meaning of's either accelerate or break - Journey pattern example: accelerate, swerve, break, accelerate, break, swerve, accelerate, swerve back, break, accelerate.... I don´t think Cruise Control cars have ever taken off here.

We did arrive though and then had the pleasure of a Manizales Taxi driver......seriously a requirement should be that taxi drivers can actually easily follow a number know 1,2,3,4,5 etc because all Colombian streets are in that order! Ours actually managed to spend the better part of 45mins getting lost in Manizales and asking us for directions! We eventually made it though and quickly made arrangements to do the El Parque Nacional de los Nevados Hike the next day. The park is quite a famous area for mostly th wrong reasons.... in 1985 the Nevada del Ruiz volcano erupted, melting its glacial icepack and sending a torrent of mud and water which killed nearly 20,000 people....something to bear in mind!

This really is the bit though where Gordon's lack of reading a guide book becomes important. We got picked up the next day at around 8am. Gordon wandered downstairs and into the minibus wearing customary shorts and t-shirt (with hiking boots!). Ann wandered down in hiking pants, fleece and a jacket. Gordon really should have twigged at this point that he was under dressed but didn't. In fact Gordon really didn't twig until the mini bus stopped for petrol and our guide advised that we should take our warm clothing off so that when we stopped for breakfast we'd have something warm to put we drove for anoth hour and stopped for breakfast at about 3500m. It was a little chilly, but luckily breakfast was indoors out of the wind (which was cold) and consisted of some hot chocolate. It was at this point that Gordon twigged that the walk in the national park wasn't a walk in a forested national park, but one above the treeline and actually into the snowline at 5,100m. Maybe if there hadn't been a wind it would have been possible to climb from 4800m to 5100m....instead Gordon, wisely, opted to stay in the mini van and sleep for a couple of hours while Ann, and the rest of the team completed the climb.

The balance of the day was a little warmer and this time dress mattered less since it involved, what is fast becoming a favourite pass time, wallowing in thermal baths. Being at the foot of the Nevado del Ruiz the superheated mineral water makes bathing in frigid temperatures a delight and like ducks to water Ann and Gordon hopped in.....grateful to be warm and out of the cold.

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7th August 2009

Hello! Just wondering which guidebook you use, I hate it when prices are wrong.. /josefina
21st August 2009

Colombia the South guide book
We used the country guide of the lonely planet. Very out of date because a new one is due soon. You get a good idea for what prices should be by looking at hostel booking sites and then just what you actually pay in your first couple of restaurants.

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