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Published: September 26th 2015
Between Cali and the Ecuadorian border we happened to stop at two very different but equally interesting places: Caldono and Ipiales.
Caldono is a pueblito midway between Cali and Popayán, about an hour into the mountains and away from the main highway, along a dirt road that was in the process of being tarmaced for the first time when we arrived. After jumping off the minivan at the turning to Caldono, we got into the back of a truck carrying locals to and from the numerous little towns, villages, and farmsteads dotting the mountains. It took an hour to travel the 15km to Caldono. The town itself is comprised of a number of residential streets shooting from the central square as well as a few small shops, restaurants, and market stalls - as well as absolutely no travellers.
How did we end up here? Whilst searching for Couchsurfing hosts in Ipiales a man named Andrés showed up in the results and his profile portrayed an interesting personality in an interesting locale. A chief nurse for rural communities by profession, he is a big-time black metaller by passion, as well as a speaker of no less than three languages fluently
and another three at a decent level. Although Caldono is too far from Popayán to have been a base to explore that town, it seemed worthwhile staying with Andrés for a couple of days to get away from the string of big cities we had been experiencing.
During our stay we learned of Andrés' work as a nurse with farmers and campesinos as well as his history with black metal, something that bore something of a resemblance to my own growth into extreme music. Turns out Popayán, his hometown, has something of a small but vibrant black metal scene. The places that extreme metal and hardcore punk turn up never cease to amaze me. One evening we had the opportunity to stand up near the radio tower overlooking the city and watch the sun descend through the clouds and mountains, taking photos that eventually drew the attention of soldiers fearing guerilla scouts. We also discovered that, because the majority of Colombia still operates a cash society, Caldono's singular bank received its money by airlift, with a helicopter regularly arriving at the town to deliver fat wads of cash to the bank.
The climate in the town was cool
- a welcome relief from the heat and humidity of Cali - and our two nights there enabled us to remember what it is like to not sweat all day every day. It is also likely the first place we have been to on our trip where there were absolutely no travellers, tourists, "expats", or other non-locals.
We left Caldono with Andrés to head to Popayán, a colonial town famous for its downtown area comprised almost uniformly of white buildings. Upon arrival we checked into the Park Life hostel overlooking the central square then went out into the square, at the time host to an international food festival, for what will probably be my final elote/mazorca (roasted maize) before retiring to our chambers for the evening. Honestly the couple of days we spent here were fairly uneventful, pretty much just having a look around a bit and having a ridiculously large three course meal for about £3 at a vegetarian cafe. On our second night there was a bit of impromptu Caribbean drumming in the square outside our hostel so we watched people dancing away in a manner that almost definitely would not happen in the UK. We're a
pretty uptight people, really.
Ipiales is the last town before the Ecuadorian border, famous not really for anything at all except for a church (Sanctuario de Las Lajas) that stands about 20 minutes outside of the town itself. We took an overnight bus from Popayán and arrived into Ipiales at about 5 in the morning, ready for a bed and maybe a coffee. Until this point it had been our experience that turning up in a city with a couple of hostal names would be enough to guarantee a room (except that time in Lucknow, India, but that's a different story). Not this time. Asking at every hotel and guest house along the half hour walk between the bus station and the town centre, it turned out that all of them were fully booked. Why? Who knows. Other border towns haven't been that busy and it seemed quite a few other tourists were also taken aback.
Tired and unhoused, we resolved our acceptance of the fact that we'd have to continue across the border that same day- possibly having to make the full 6 hour journey to Ecuador's capital, Quito. Our main reason for wanting to stop in
Ipiales in the first place was to check out Las Lajas so we caught a bus to the site with the intention of checking it out and heading onward to the border later that morning. The bus dropped us off far from the actual entrance to the church, giving us the opportunity to take a two or three mile walk down the mountainside to Las Lajas.
The reason this church is famous is because it is a beautifully rendered gothic architecture construction built across a river in the cleft between two mountainsides. Its impressive nature could be seen from both afar as we made our way toward the entrance as well as close up, where it actually turned out to be a whole lot smaller than it first appeared. Rather than the Norwich Cathedral it seemed on photos and from the road down, think one of those churches down St Benedict's Street. The place was busy when we arrived, despite it only being about half 7 in the morning, but we were able to have a look around before leaving. At first we went the wrong way, meaning a wasted trudge half way up a mountainside and down again
- especially tiring considering we'd had little sleep, E still had a dodgy ankle, and I was carrying both our bags - but eventually settling down for a quick breakfast in one of the small cafes that lined the commercial alleyway out of the site. (Insert from E: I thought the cathedral was well worth the hassle. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, being wrapped in a blanket, the stunning green moutainous surroundings, or a combination of all; I thought the area had a magical appearance. The inside of the cathedral wasn't quite as majestic though, as Glen wrote).
It was in this alleyway that we lucked out. Next to the carpark from which colectivos back to Ipiales left was a line fo four hotels. Expecting them to be rammed as in Ipiales, we chanced it nonetheless and such was our luck that the first place we asked at had a double room available in the basement beneath their restaurant. To say we were relieved would be a massive understatement. We jumped on the opportunity and, despite several noisy guests turning up later that day and keeping us awake longer than we really wanted, had a great night's
rest that enabled us to handle the border crossing and trip to Quito, Ecuador, the next day.
The Colombian/Ecuadorian border crossing is pretty straightforward. Like every other land border we have encountered so far, it was quick and painless and necessitated little more than handing over our passports at both the Colombia and Ecuadorian sides of the bridge. We had a few Colombian Pesos left over, with which we bought a blanket after E left another of our blankets in the colectivo that dropped us off at the border and jumped on a minivan heading to the bus terminal in the Ecuadorian border town of Tacuna. After getting off the minivan we had approximately five minutes before the next bus to Quito was leaving, meaning enough time to buy tickets but little else. We settled into the five hour trip towards Ecuador's capital city, enjoying the beautiful and immediately different landscape along the way.
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