Adios Colombia! San Agustin and our border crawl
Our last planned stop in Colombia and the setting for my first birthday on the road: the town of San Agustin, surrounded by waterfalls and located in perhaps the most archaeologically-rich area of Colombia. Then what WAS supposed to have been a quick dash out of Colombia into Ecuador turned into an Orwellian, computer-says-no nightmare, where we were compelled to spend 3 nights in Ipiales; a town in which most travellers generally don’t want to – let alone ought NOT to – hang around.
For my (oft-repeated) 29th birthday, I did not want to subject myself to an all-day bus journey, thus we timed our travels so that we would spend that day (and a few others) in San Agustin, before enduring two days on the road to Otavalo, Ecuador. And it was a lovely, very relaxing few days indeed: We stayed at a fantastic hostel (Casa de Nelly) about a 20-minute walk up the road from town. It was so idyllic we hardly left. The hostel – which looked and felt more like a lovely home – was situated in an abundant, colorful garden that included a large patio, a hammock-festooned cabana, a huge aviary with two tortoises and two large talking parrots (both of whom repeated “quiere cacao?” – do you want chocolate? – more than anything else), and a viewing tower where one could sit on the floor and drink wine (or whatever) and chat with new-found friends under the open sky. Oh, and the hostel had a couple of cute dogs, four cats (one of whom absolutely HAD to sit in one guest or another’s lap at all times), and two professionally-trained chefs on hand to make fantastic 3-course evening meals. A perfect place for me to turn 29 (again)! I shared the night of my birthday with another guest from the UK. I was the first co-birthday person Pascoe had ever met and he seemed stunned and excited to have encountered me, and on our birthday no less. In our honour, all those dining in the hostel were treated to cream puffs, with Pascoe and myself getting double-decker versions. Any weight Toby and I may have lost during our travels was probably all put back on over the four nights we ate dinner in the hostel, but it was worth it.
San Agustin Jeep Tour & Archeological Parks
Despite the magnetic pull of the hostel, we ventured out a couple times to visit some of the local sights. The first was the archaeological park, which was only a 25-min walk up the road from the hostel. The archaeological park is on the UNESCO world heritage list because it features “the largest complex of pre-Columbian megalithic funerary monuments and statuary, burial mounds, terraces, funerary structures, stone statuary and…a religious monument carved in the stone bed of a stream”, all constructed between 1-900 CE (i.e., Common Era). Perhaps I am not appropriately serious when I visit such places, but I couldn’t help but relate the little statues to various media characters, e.g., one looked just like SpongeBob, another like Pingu, and a third looked exactly like ‘Chet‘, the nasty, older brother from the 80s film Weird Science (after Kelly LeBrock turns Chet into a farting, burping jabba-the-hut-type thing). Hm, maybe the pre-historic artists had the gift of foresight?
Another day we went on a Jeep tour which entailed visiting other parts of the archaeological park which were further afield: Alto de los Ãdolos and Alto de Las Piedras. More statues, more tombs. The tour also took us to visit the narrowest point in the River Magdalena (“El Estrecho“), where you could also find ancient seashells embedded in the rocks alongside the river. And we stopped to ooh and ahh at some amazing waterfalls, one of which had a tiny viewing platform that extended out over the canyon. It looked very unstable to me, so I didn’t venture out; Toby did of course.
Perhaps the coolest thing we did on the tour was to visit an extremely small-scale panela (sugar cane) factory. As we were criss-crossing the countryside in the jeep, we had seen horses carrying (dragging, really) stacks of cane to one-story, stone-built houses out of which large plumes of smoke rose. At our last stop of the tour, we pulled up to one of these houses and we all piled out to duck into a dark, hot room where the cane was turned into panela. The scents inside were “sweet” and “burnt”. It was fascinating to see how the cane was boiled and then reduced across a series of large, metal vats into an ever-thicker substance, that was eventually poured into the square shapes you find in stores all over Colombia. The guys doing the work were all fairly young (late teens, maybe) and it clearly involved some hard, physical labor. So after seeing how it is made, I feel quite confident in suggesting that each chunk of panela has a drop or two of someone’s sweat in it (though this is likely not listed as one of the official ingredients).
From San Agustin there are two different routes to Pasto: one via Popayan and the other via Mocoa. We had already been to Popayan and didn’t relish the bouncy, nausea-inducing journey back. On the other hand, one part of the road between Mocoa and Pasto is called the “trampoline of death“, owing to its narrow, curving, dirt road running alongside sheer cliffs which becomes even more harrowing following rain. As it had been raining and I wanted to live to see yet another celebration of my 29th, we decided to go to Pasto via Popayan. In any case, Pasto was to be merely an overnight stop on our way to the border to break up the bus journey and to heed the advice admonishing travelers to avoid being on buses at night in this part of Colombia. We arrived around 8pm and left around 12 hours later. We can’t say much about Pasto except that it was okay for this purpose (passing through).
After a quick exit from Pasto and a short-ish journey to the Colombian border of Rumichaca, we were feeling rather smug about how smoothly things were going and estimating that we should get to Otavalo, Ecuador, in good time for lunch. That is, until the agent at Ecuadorian immigration took ages looking through all the pages of Toby’s passport and at his computer screen; then back and forth, back and forth. [I had already been stamped into Ecuador without a hitch at this point.] He asked Toby how many times he had been to Ecuador previously, to which Toby responded “once, when we went to the Galapagos“. The agent then showed us his computer screen, which indicated that Toby had entered Ecuador a second time in 2008, but had never exited. Hhhmmm….no bueno. :/
We were ushered to a back office wherein we tried to use logic to persuade the immigration officials that the computer was in error: Look at all the other stamps since 2008 in Toby’s passport!! He has clearly NOT been in Ecuador this whole time (let alone the fact that he never made that second entry into Ecuador in the first place). Waa, waa, waa (sad trombone): computer says no! And we were told that, this being Saturday, they couldn’t do much until Monday and, perhaps, the issue could take as long as until Wednesday to investigate.
With our shoulders drooping and more than a little angry-annoyed-perplexed, we trudged back to the Colombian border to change our money back into COP and ask Colombia to let us in again. Since we were supposed to return to the immigration office on Monday to see if any progress in the investigation had been made, we decided to adopt a holding pattern over Ipiales rather than Pasto, as the former was much closer to the border. We were keenly aware, however, that the UK foreign office advises its citizens to refrain from loitering in any area between Pasto and the border region, so we were not happy about the prospect of spending 2+ nights in this town.
Since we didn’t have a place to stay for the night, we hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take us to the best hotel near the Ipiales bus station. As ever, however, “best” is a relative term. Our hotel was clean, but it was also a local love hotel. Apparently these are quite popular in Colombia, as people tend to live with their parents for a long time (until marriage) and couples need cheap places to go to…uhm….show their affection for one another. So the hotel was noisy (!). And it was incredibly cold as well; perhaps because the assumption is that people are in bed…cuddling (?). It was so cold, and not in a cuddling mood, I was doing jumping-jacks (star-jumps, in UK terminology) to build up body heat. The next morning we decided we HAD to find a different hotel. So with a quick search of Tripadvisor, and a willingness to pay whatever it took to have a more comfortable night, we ended up in a hotel on the other side of town by 10am. But now we had all day to kill in this supposedly dangerous town. So what to do? Get out!
We had heard about Santuario de Las Lajas, a nearby cathedral spanning a local river. So off we went by taxi. Given that it was a Sunday and the week prior to Easter, the Santuario was heaving. Religion isn’t our cup of tea, but we still find the rituals surrounding it and the buildings supporting it interesting. This cathedral was particularly beautiful: It reminded me of a cake with a great deal of frosting. And its setting was absolutely amazing. I don’t know why more churches don’t embed themselves in the earth this way; surely nothing is more majestic and awe-inspiring than nature. After wandering around the outside of the cathedral (it was too packed to explore its insides) and the little market stalls on its outskirts, we set upon finding a colectivo to return us to Ipiales. But, as it turns out, so had everyone else. So we stood there. In the rain. Wondering how the hell we were ever going to catch one of these colectivos because, as soon as one arrived, it was surrounded by a hive of people grabbing at its door handles and running alongside it so they could get ‘dibs’ on it. The one time I got to a colectivo before most others, I was unceremoniously pushed out of the way by a couple of local men. So much for chivalry. Eventually, two local men took pity on us and helped us catch a colectivo. We were so relieved and grateful. On the way back to Ipiales we passed through a town famous for cuy, i.e., spit-roasted guinea pig. It seemed that every other restaurant in this town had a BBQ out front with a dozen de-furred guinea pigs twirling around on sticks. And some of these restaurants had large, wooden, cute guinea pig characters standing outside advertising their wares. Yum? The men in our taxi thought it funny that I – vegetarian that I am – was feeling sorry for these little animals. They certainly aren’t pets (“mascotas”) here.
Monday finally arrived, so we packed our bags and checked out of the hotel in the hope that we’d get to the immigration office and they’d tell us that it was all an error and we could get on our way. But after waiting nearly 7 hours – and despite the further evidence Toby brought showing that he was, in fact, in Scotland around the dates they claimed he entered Ecuador – we were told there was still no resolution and to return again the following day. Toby had steam coming out of his ears at this point and was inclined to skip Ecuador altogether. But we decided to try one more time; otherwise, adios Ecuador. After yet another night in Ipiales (which we came to call “f@*&ing Ipiales”), we again packed our bags, checked out of the hotel, and presented ourselves to Ecuadorian immigration for the third time. This time we were greeted with smiles and the word we had been waiting to hear: “solution”. We don’t know what exactly they found to convince them that Toby was right and their computer was wrong, but we were finally allowed to enter Ecuador after receiving a rather formal apology from the immigration office’s manager.
So finally, adios Colombia! We had an amazing time and saw and did so many cool things, but it is now time to get to know another country: Ecuador. Let’s hope the effort to get into this darn country is worth it!