Traversing Through Southern Colombia

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January 20th 2016
Published: February 18th 2016
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Santuario Las LajasSantuario Las LajasSantuario Las Lajas

Spectacularly located church just near the border of Colombia and Ecuador.
I was meant to spend more time in Ecuador than I did. First of all I was supposed to do a trip to the Amazon which I then decided to can; and second, I was meant to spend at least one night in Otavalo, just north of Quito, to check out the town’s famous market. However with no accommodation available the night before the weekly Saturday market – I should have perhaps been a bit more organised and clued-up about it, and should have anticipated this – I had to reconsider my plan. I could chance it and just go there anyway, hoping to find something once I am there, but I wasn’t keen on the possibility of walking all over town trying to find something and then having to pay top dollar for the only thing available. I then thought about what I was actually going there for – a market. I’m not even into markets. I never buy souvenirs. I’ve even been to big markets before and I wasn’t keen on them; see Marrakech. People at the hostel and other travellers I had met who had visited it said it was overhyped.
Which was the total opposite of what
Happy Statue, San AgustinHappy Statue, San AgustinHappy Statue, San Agustin

All of these statues inside the Parque Arqueologico were created by a mysterious civilisation that lived in the area between the 6th and 14th centuries.
people have been saying about Colombia – I haven’t heard a single bad word about it. Therefore I wanted to get a move on if I wanted to spend more time there and in Central America and the Caribbean.
And last but not least, the quicker I could get to Bogota, the quicker I could get a new phone.
So the decision was made – rather than going to Otavalo as planned, I was going straight to Colombia the next day.

It meant that I now had a border crossing to get through and I didn’t feel completely ready for it. Peru-Ecuador and Ecuador-Colombia were the borders that I had heard and read were dodgy, so I was a little nervous about it. Good thing I had the Swede Willy with me then – I met him at the hostel literally the previous night. It turned out that he also knew another Swede that I had met in Iguazu, and having to talked to Willy about him, it seems that this guy is now world-famous on the gringo trail, considering how many people have asked Willy this exact question; “do you know a Swedish guy called Jens Lundquist?”
Streets Of Popayan #1Streets Of Popayan #1Streets Of Popayan #1

Known as the "Ciudad Blanca" because almost all of its buildings are white.
bus ride was decent for just US$6, although in saying that, I’m not sure I would like to have been in that seat any longer than the five hours I was in it for.
Also on that bus were two American girls, Hannah and Ashley, and us gringoes decided to stick together, so that we could look out for each other as we crossed this shady border.
Which really wasn’t shady at all. Sharing a taxi from the Ecuadorian border town of Tulcan to the border, we then went through Ecuadorian immigration before walking across a small bridge and going through Colombian immigration. The fact that there was four of us then helped us to fill up a four-seat colectivo without having to share with any strangers from the border to the Colombian border town of Ipiales. We then did the same from Ipiales to the Santuario Las Lajas – one of the more spectacularly located churches you will see. So as well as sharing taxis, the border crossing and colectivos, the four of us were also to share seeing this site together.
A neo-gothic church built into a cliff where a local man claimed to have seen the Virgin
Funerary Arrangement, San AgustinFunerary Arrangement, San AgustinFunerary Arrangement, San Agustin

Arrangements such as these were created over tombs to honour the dead. Inside the Parque Arqueologico.
Mary in 1754, with a bridge of angels crossing the river below, the church is now a site of pilgrimage and tourism – and well worth the short trip from Ipiales, even if you are short of time.
Which was exactly the case with Willy and the American girls, which led to our rather abrupt non-farewell at the bus terminal in Ipiales. While still withdrawing Colombian pesos (£1 = 4,500COP approx.) the three of them had to catch the next bus to Pasto which was leaving immediately. When I looked up after collecting my cash, they were gone. I never saw them again.

I didn’t need to go to Pasto – I was on my way to Popayan, but the road between Ipiales and Popayan is notoriously dangerous at night so an overnight bus is not recommended.
Which meant that I had to spend the night in Ipiales. I instructed the cab driver to take me to Hotel Belmonte, the only hotel I knew about from the Lonely Planet and Dominic from Quito. The place only had cold showers and looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in ages – but for a private room + ensuite for just 20,000
Sax-Playing AngelSax-Playing AngelSax-Playing Angel

On the bridge of angels connecting the Santuario La Lajas to the other side of the gorge.
a night, I guess you couldn’t really complain.
As for Ipiales itself, the place is an absolute shithole. Poorly lit streets, dirt roads and crusty concrete buildings bereft of any style – I couldn’t even find a shop selling a decently-sized bottle of water. There weren’t even any restaurants in the local vicinity, so had to buy chicken, sausage and chips for dinner from a random street stall. All for just 3,000COP though, so super-cheap!
The whole experience felt rather intrepid, but in truth I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Which is what I did the next morning.
Steep mountains (a spectacular landscape, admittedly), winding roads and a crazy bus driver however, made for a journey where I had mild concerns over my safety. We made excellent time however, and as I was hoping, we managed to arrive in Popayan before dark.

The next day, I had a walk around “La Ciudad Blanca”, named as such because almost every building in the old town is painted white. There aren’t too many sights to see and I was done in two hours – the city itself is the main site to see. It is however, almost a
Iglesia de San FranciscoIglesia de San FranciscoIglesia de San Francisco

The largest church in Popayan.
carbon copy of Sucre, except maybe a little prettier. So if you want to come and see a White City here in South America, you can go to either and you’ll pretty much see the same thing.
Guillermo Valencia was a famous poet who hailed from Popayan and his son went on to become the President of Colombia in the 1960s; his former house here was fairly interesting and I got a free tour through it – all in Spanish, of course.
But then again, it wasn’t much of a problem at all.
I’ve noticed that there isn’t much English here at all so far – from Ipiales to Popayan, from the hostels to the streets, I found that I have pretty much been speaking Spanish the whole time, which is refreshing. I definitely feel that my Spanish has improved, although not as much as I had hoped. I’ve been meeting too many English-speaking gringoes I think…

On my last night in Popayan, I got to have something I’ve been looking forward to having for a while – arepas! I first had these at a food fair back in London and thought they were delicious – and these ones
Puente del HumilladeroPuente del HumilladeroPuente del Humilladero

Landmark bridge in Popayan that was buit in the 19th century.
were even better. An arepa is basically a grilled corn/rice cake that can be optionally filled with meat, cheese or both. I went for the beef and cheese – it was amazing. I love them. This will hopefully be the first of many here in Colombia!

Popayan in itself wasn’t really a place I wanted to visit – in fact, I’d never even heard of the place until a few days ago – but was merely a means to an end…with the end being San Agustin.
For the journey there, I had managed to nab myself the front seat which was probably the best seat in the whole van/minibus, and just as well. Snaking its way along a mountain ridge that afforded some more spectacular views, it was another winding road although this time I wasn’t as concerned about having a non-functioning seatbelt; this time, the road was almost all dirt and gravel so it could only be traversed very slowly. It was almost too much for the bus itself – we had to make an actual pit stop at a wooden-shack roadside mechanic to help get a wheel change. It was too much for some of the other
Teatro Guillermo ValenciaTeatro Guillermo ValenciaTeatro Guillermo Valencia

Colourful theatre named after the famous poet who hails from here in Popayan.
passengers who called the driver for bolsas to collect their vomit.
The bus doesn’t stop in San Agustin, rather it stops at a junction where the bus driver then pays a taxi to take you the rest of the way. Me and an Australian girl happened to be going to the same hostel so we paid a little extra for the taxi driver to take us to Hostel Bambu, which was pretty much what it says on the tin, though not quite to the extent of Un Lugar Surf Camp in Huanchaco. Like Un Lugar however, I still admired the character of the place – any place made of bamboo instantly puts you in a beach/relaxing mood.

The main reason people come to San Agustin, is to visit the Parque Arqueologico, where there are hundreds of statues that were created by a pre-Columbian civilisation between the 6th and 14th centuries. Archaeologists are still not sure why they were all built – most of the theories offered in the park’s museum are exactly that; theories.
To be honest however, it was all rather disappointing. Having already seen intricate statues in Angkor, these really didn’t compare and once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all –
Colombian Coloured FlowersColombian Coloured FlowersColombian Coloured Flowers

Red, yellow and blue flowers inside the Parque Arqueologico just outside San Agustin.
so after a while, the park gets pretty boring. They were also all covered by small shelters to protect them from the rain and the elements, which is fair enough, but it meant that you couldn’t really take awesome photos of them.

What also probably didn’t help my enjoyment of the archaeological park was the fact that in San Agustin, I managed to pick up food poisoning again or the third time in a month. After reaching the highest point of the park, looking over a beautiful mountain-scape, I really had to go and the toilet was a ten-minute walk away. I was holding on for dear life. There were several moments where I had to stop and clench my arse cheeks together while holding on for grim death. Every step onto the ground almost set me off. I finally managed to make it to the toilet and thankfully no-one was inside – I think I would have just gone to the ladies if I had to. I only just made it. I should not have had my guanabana juice the previous night with leche. Never again.

Other than the archaeological park, there isn’t really anything else to
View Over San AgustinView Over San AgustinView Over San Agustin

From the top floor of my hostel.
do in San Agustin, but with horse and cart still employed to transport cargo here, I will refrain from calling the place a shithole as it still has a sense of small-town charm.

Some other first impressions of Colombia so far;
- Colombianos have been really friendly so far, although their accents and fast talking has been really difficult for me to decipher.
- One thing for sure about colombianos is that they don’t care about the environment. Plastic bottles get thrown out of the windows of passing vehicles and there is trash everywhere.
- I’m still trying to gauge what prices are like here. I could have street food for less than a pound but then find the same thing somewhere else costing three times as much.
- I’m forever trying to break bills. Why do ATMS give out 50,000COP notes when no-one will take them? I sometimes even find it hard to break a 20,000COP bill.

To be completely honest, I haven’t really enjoyed my trip so much since I left Lima. Shorn of my travelling partners, shorn of my phone, I’ve been sick three times and there hasn’t really been too much to do, Quito
Mountain View, San AgustinMountain View, San AgustinMountain View, San Agustin

Inside the Parque Arqueologico, which has some pretty stunning surroundings.
excepted. The whole period has felt more like passing through just to get to the next place – which this time is Bogota. I hope I will get a new lease of life when I get there – and I am actually quite excited about getting there.

Hasta luego,

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


Inside Santuario Las LajasInside Santuario Las Lajas
Inside Santuario Las Lajas

At the back of the wall is the actual face of the cliff where the Virgin Mary was apparently witnessed.
Tribute PlaquesTribute Plaques
Tribute Plaques

Pilgrims and other worshippers have left thanks and tributes to the Virgin Mary on the cliff-face leading up to the Santuario Las Lajas, where an apparition of the virgin was seen in 1754.

Popayan's cathedral is located on its main square of Parque Caldas.
Streets Of Popayan #2Streets Of Popayan #2
Streets Of Popayan #2

In many ways, Popayan resembles Bolivia's "ciudad blanca" of Sucre.
Parque ArqueologicoParque Arqueologico
Parque Arqueologico

Park just outside of San Agustin where hundreds of these pre-Columbian statues are on display.
River Carvings, San AgustinRiver Carvings, San Agustin
River Carvings, San Agustin

Inside the Parque Arqueologico, there are even carvings in the river which reminded me of the river carvings I saw in Angkor, Cambodia.
Frog Statue, San AgustinFrog Statue, San Agustin
Frog Statue, San Agustin

Inside the Parque Arqueologico, what many of the statues actually meant or represented is still subject to speculation and theory.
Hostel BambuHostel Bambu
Hostel Bambu

Mostly built from bamboo, the hostel I stayed at in San Agustin certainly had character.
View From El MorroView From El Morro
View From El Morro

View over Popayan from the hill of El Morro de Tulcan.
Panteon de los ProceresPanteon de los Proceres
Panteon de los Proceres

Popayan's pantheon houses the remains of the city's most revered historical figures.
Parque CaldasParque Caldas
Parque Caldas

Popayan's main square.
Tomb, San AgustinTomb, San Agustin
Tomb, San Agustin

Statues were used to mark graves and tombs. Inside the Parque Arqueologico.
Sarcophagus, San AgustinSarcophagus, San Agustin
Sarcophagus, San Agustin

One of a number of sarcophagi inside the Parque Arqueologico.
Shelter, San AgustinShelter, San Agustin
Shelter, San Agustin

All the statues and carvings in the Parque Arqueologico had roofs over the top of them to protect them from the elements.

24th February 2016
Iglesia de San Francisco

You are in a part of the world that offers amazing architecture.

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