At the Parque Arqueologico, one of many statues on our hike
I made it! Yes, a year ago today I set foot on a plane with a one way ticket and a wad in the bank, partly wondering what the heck am I thinking, but on the other hand, overjoyed with the possibilities ahead. I wasn´t sure I´d make it a year. My sister and I joked that if I came back early she´d hide me in her basement and I would tap out blog entries from there, pretending to be abroad. Heck, maybe the stories I could´ve fabricated would´ve been more adventurous. I´m happy to report, though, that I didn´t update my blog from a dark, dusty basement, and once again, here I go again.
My travel companion and I made it to Popayán for a quick overnight stop.
The town was pretty, with lots of white-walled colonial buildings, but there wasn´t much to see and absolutely no nightlife to speak of, so we set out for San Agustin the next morning on what would be the bumpiest ride of my life. Once you get off of the Panamerican highway, the roads are unpredictable. We were heading to a small town southeast and towards the off-limits jungles, but still in safe areas. At one point we were stopped and had to get off for a weapons search by the military police. After six bone-rattling hours, we made it to San Agustin, a town home to stone statues and tombs that litter the surrounding countryside. The statuary is the draw, but once you reach the town, the tranquility keeps you there. We pulled up to the Casa Japones, a place recommended by other travelers, and both of us knew we would stay longer than the original one night we planned.
I don´t think the statues are where they were found, but many like these were littered about the hills.
We were the only guests in this hacienda-like guesthouse, with lots of hammocks and a view overlooking the small town. I know I´d spend at least a day reading on the porch. So day one, reading on the porch.
This one is very different in shape
The best way to get out in the country and see the statues is by horseback, and as I actually haven´t been on a horse this trip yet, I was anxious to saddle up and ride. The day we chose looked overcast, so I was out-voted as far as giving it a go that day. As it turned out, the day was beautiful and didn´t rain. Instead we went to the Parque Arqueologico, a park west of town that is home to about 130 statues and would also be a pleasant three hour hike.
During our walk, we ran into a couple from Seattle who have been traveling for about two years with no plans to return home. They sold everything and hit the road, although they are currently scouting property in Colombia with the idea of opening up a hostel here to start making money. My companion invited them to hang with us for the night, promising good weed and booze, and they ended up being a welcome addition to the group.
The early bird gets the worm
A few words about my travel buddy. He´s super nice, very friendly, extremely smart and knows a total of four languages, but he´s also a major alcoholic and on a Leaving Las Vegas bender. He wakes up, cracks a beer and is on a steady diet of booze and cigarettes all day. When we ran into the couple at the park, he was constantly pulling out a bottle of rum from his backpack and taking sips, even at the table during lunch.
I was a bit embarassed, but these two didn´t bat an eye at this, and as I would find out later, have wild streaks themselves. They were in about the first month of quitting smoking, which proved to be comical. In any event, it´s been a bit stressful traveling with him. He was a crutch for me as far as speaking Spanish and I had some experiences I would not have had without him, but at points it was unbearable being with someone like that who wreaked of booze and cigarettes. After one long journey sitting next to him, I had a massive headache. I didn´t want to adopt a ¨if you can´t beat him, join him¨attitude either, although after a night of being attacked by a cockroach the size of Montana while reading in my bed (Ok, it just climbed on me, but that was enough), I almost thought getting wasted every night would help me sleep. Instead I slept under a burning light bulb hoping the light would keep them at bay!
I liked the tree behind this one a lot
We did have fun, though.
The first night in town we hit up a local saloon and met some locals. By the way, San Agustin is definitely a place that makes you feel like you are on the frontier. Horses are not an uncommon sight on the streets and you just have this feel like you are on the set of a wild west movie. Anyway, we met some locals who invited us to a salsa club around the corner, so I tried that out again, with not much progress. One incident did put me off a little. Before we left an African-Colombian woman approached me and we chatted for a while. Our new friends were ready to leave but would have nothing to do with the woman I was speaking with. They insisted she was bad and gives people drugs, but I found her delightful. I felt horrible having to tell her she couldn´t join us at this club, but I know nothing of the local prejudices among the people here, which is what I chalked it up to.
A trio of statues
Otherwise, these locals were lots of fun and welcoming.
A very happy one
The couple we met in the park convinced me that I should try to get to the Galapagos Islands while I´m in this neck of the woods, so after our day with them, I woke up anxious to get on the horses and see the country before leaving. The weather continued to show signs of rain, but I insisted we get going regardless. So we set off out of town to see some more statues and a spot that overlooks the Rio Magdalena. I also saw up close some genuine coffee bean fields. Colombia is amazing. There is so much unspoiled jungle and the rolling hills and mountains and streams make it a feast for the eyes.
We rode the horses to a point overlooking the river, and while my guide and travel buddy smoked a joint, I took endless pictures of the beauty around us. Brooding clouds threatened our tranquility, so we got moving in a hurry, only to meet up with the inevitable rain. I think I mentioned it more than once that we should´ve gone the day I had planned, but it did us no good at that point. I threw on my rain jacket and off we went, plodding along on horseback in the rain. Once I surrended to the total drenching I could not avoid, I was so happy. Here I was, on a horse, in the rain, among the coffee bean plantations of Colombia, and I smiled and laughed. It was exhilorating. My horse Costello would take off for a quick run and I felt like a real cowgirl on the run from the law.
Colombian coffee bean plantation
We pulled up to the hill overlooking the town, and as rain dripped from my hat, I I felt like Pale Rider, coming into a new town after a long day´s ride, although it had been only about 30 minutes and part of the trail was paved. No matter. It was my fantasy and I was loving it. So I rode my horse into town, pulled up to the nearest saloon and ordered a stiff one to warm my soul. Ok, so maybe not. Instead, we got back to the guesthouse and I quickly dismounted and ran for cover from the rain. I changed into warm clothes and upon exiting the bathroom, slipping and fell on my ass. So much for the coolness of Pale Rider.
Our guide blowing on a shell while chilling with my travel buddy
The afternoon was spent in the hammock, reading the new book I traded with the Seattle couple and tried in vain to capture a picture of the hummingbird busy among the flowers around me.
The next morning I woke early. I was going to be on my own as my travel buddy was into the peace the place provided and he still had a bunch of weed to go through. I was nervous as it had been almost two weeks since I was solo, but I underesimate my ability to communicate with the locals. I found the colectivo to the next biggest town where I was to grab another bus to the next biggest town yet again. I ended up meeting this very nice fellow on the bus to Mocoa. He spoke a little English and with my horrible Spanish, we chatted for some hours waiting for the bus to fill so we could go. He was the second fella to compliment me on my eyes (a blue that is rare around these parts). He also hung around and had lunch with me once we reached Mocoa while I waited for my next bus to Pasto.
Mounting our horses
One thing I noticed during my journey yesterday • no one tried to screw me over because I was a tourist. I paid the same fare for the three legs of my journey as the locals, and cabbies don´t quote you ridiculous prices for short journeys. This place must be like what Thailand was years ago before it became the huge tourist destination of today. Places along the Carribean coast are a bit different and I do think you find some of that, but the last few weeks have been so refreshing.
Our guide discussing this carving in the rock
If you ever come to Colombia, well, go to San Agustin for sure, but make sure at least one route takes you on the Pasto to Mocoa road. Before I came to South America, I would picture in my mind traveling on a bus, on some dirt road, weaving along the edges of a mountain, with the threat of a shear drop right below you.
Well, that was me yesterday. The distance between Pasto and Mocoa doesn´t look very far on the map, but it took almost 8 hours to cover given the need to make our way up into the mountains and down again, reaching Pasto at about 2500 meters. It´s chilly here. The journey to get here was amazing though! I couldn´t stop taking pictures, but most of them didn´t capture the beauty I wanted to memorialize as they were blurry from all the bumps. The others took no interest in the scenery, but I took picture after picture, exclaiming to myself how astonishing the landscape is here in Colombia. We had to drive over waterfalls and turn corners that made me cry for my mother, but it was breathtaking.
My home, the hammock
At the highest point we´d reach, we had to get off and go through the search again by the military police. I wasn´t sure about taking pictures, but stole one before I got off the bus. As the day wore on, our lighting was disappearing, making me more anxious about the road ahead. We were in the clouds at some times and visibility was low, but we took it slow and steady, finally arriving in Pasto about 10 p.m. It´s a treat when the price you pay to get you some place also gets you admission through some of the most astounding places on Earth.
View of San Agustin from our guesthouse
So here I am in Pasto, on my one year anniversary since I left. I´m enjoying Colombia more and more with each day, but I am on my way out.
I have one more stop before I make my exit, and then but a few weeks to get to Lima where I meet my sister from home, so I want to see a bit of Ecuador, possibly the Galapagos, before then. The luxury of time is a thing of the past, but even though the need to hurry is a frustration, I shall relish each moment until I find myself home again.
When the trunk didn´t open, they picked up a rock and hit it