San Agustin: Six thousand years of history meet downhill biking

The trip over from Popayan to San Agustin started with advertising, just like in cinema. A guy was standing next to the sliding door and argued the case for buying one of his magic cleaning creams, as demonstrated by removing some brown liquid from a white handkerchief. He did actually sell one or two before getting off at the first police check point with bag search for two of the male passengers. Pretty standard.

I tried to read meanwhile though it was difficult, to say the least, by the time we crossed Purace park on pretty poor roads and with limited light while in the dense forest. We were late as usual and as if this wasn’t enough we also had to replace a busted tyre.

After hopping on to a jeep (while the bus continued to Pitalito), I made to San Agustin by 3.30pm. Literally minutes before arriving i booked myself into hostal ‘musica y arte’ on booking.com … you gotta love this modern technology. the receptiuon in the hostel was warm and as the fella couldn’t locate the key for the shared room he gave me an upgrade to a single. the rooms were nothing special, but clean and the hostel had some good views over San Agustin from its two balconies. anyway, relaxed athosphere.

before heading out I had a quick chat with a german girl from munich. she finished her logistics studies and is now on her last half year of freedom. impressive travel CV she had to show with literally all of asia covered. she gave me a few insights into the north of the country, which especially around cartagena is very touristic. might have to revisit my 4day stay to learn kite surfing and find another spot. lets see.

after short city tour and improvised dinner at the hostel I was about to pass out. however, the host insisted we all head for the music and art festival to enjoy some traditional music and dance. i have to say here that the people in this region look very indigenous and akin to the people you imagin when you think of peru or ecudador (which arent far away) and the music too (pan flute etc). despite being tired i had a great time and got to sample the national drink too – aguardiente (literally firewater). its an anis based liqueur with c30% vol. the locals of the village put on some great performances in beautifully designed outfits. wonderful to maintain such traditions with good involvement of the young (different to many european countries).

next day started early for i had some 50km biking ahead of me to see the two main archeological sites and one of the waterfalls in the area. I got my bike from a barista cafe called bicicafe for COP35,000/day. You’ll really need to do the biking for the fun of it, as it wont be cheaper than taking a jeep (COP30,000 for a daytour).

Off I went to Parque Arqueologico about 3km (uphill) from the village. ther you can take a 1.5-2h round tour of the excavations and see the uncovered statues of the burtial site before closing the tour at the museum for a few more insights. (COP 25,000 for the pass that also gets you into Alto de los Idoles, COP10,000 for students). that was the easy bit and certainly interesting to see leftoverts from ancient civilations in the region.

Next up was a 20km+ journey to Alto de los Idoles. Once you pass the village the opposite end you are going some 5km steep downhill into the magdalena river valley. stunning views, really amazing. unfortunately, from there its 13km more or less uphill (or a bit more if you take a wrong turn as i did for an extra 5km or thereabout). the sun was pounding by now and as of the time of writing i still nurse the resulting sunburn on my back. imagine dark red ;o). half way, you get to a waterfall. i enjoyed a break with fresh, cold water and a beer. another hour or so later and i reached the second archeological site after a brief stop to talk with alex (poor fella twisted his ankle at school). less statues & no museum, but overall prettier i think with a fountain and a hill with some great views.

back home was gruelling. at first its really pleasant as you descent 13km back into the valley past coffee and sugar cane plantations and again stunning views. the steep climb back to san agustin was tough in the afternoon heat, but what doesnt kill you makes you stronger. i got back right on time at 4pm.

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now i needed to get out of here and towards neiva if i wanted to make the tatacoa dessert before heading to medellin. our hostel host kept saying that the route to neiva was blocked too by indigenous folks and his checks with friends (a protest whatsapp group) confirmed as much. the bus company claimed the opposite and i went with their view. at least i’d get closer to neiva. in the end all was fine and i got to neiva by mid-night. feels a bit like a dodgy place, but that didnt matter to me once i settled into my hostel for the night. long day, tired as hell … but the sunburn made for uneasy sleeping still …

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Panamericana Road block (… with a view)

I didn’t quite manage to leave Cali as early as planned and scored myself an unexpected adventure doing so. As i had located one of the many buses to Popayan (COP27,000, Velotax is the best service) and already found an english speaking travelpartner, we were asked to relocate into an ordinary car. Why i asked? Roadblock on the Panamericana … need to go now.

As I been told by the american longterm Colombian expat i shared the journey with, there are often roadblocks organised by protesters. These are indigenous people that are demanding the Colombian honours agreements struck a long time ago (still unclear as to the nature of the promises, but mining/energy policy & environmental concerns feature heavily). Sounds like a familiar pattern (just ask some Nigerian villagers what they make of the oil business). They use the important trade route Panamericana as leverage.

‘On the road there are explosions, shots, tear gas and several injuries.’

(Caracol.com.co, 2 Nov)

In such scenarios the police closes the check/toll points either side of the conflict area for most traffic. Motorbikes could get through and, as our bus company understood, also passenger cars (hence the relocation from the bus earlier). As it turns out, only motorbikes. So we were stuck.

So close to the checkpoint …

A bit annoying in particular since i tried all yesterday to get a motorbike rental for a week. First journey would have been to Popayan … unfortunate. Also unfortunate since we missed to slip through only by minutes. Well, happens.

“Vehiculo Extra Largo” … no shit!

Once stuck under blazing sunshine we waited. Our driver constantly on the phone to other drivers. We hoped for a short closure especially once riot police went in. But nothing happened. After 90minutes, Cathrin and Daniel stopped before making their way through the checkpoint (who saw nothing but police on the way who said locals had set a lorry on fire). Today the late, not the early, bird got the fish i guess. We waited another 90min before trying an alternative route.

Dried / fried bananas. Less than 1$ a pack. My american fellow traveller recommended. 

The time went by pretty quickly though. I read (‘born to run’) in shade of one of the stuck lorries in front of us and talked to the american woman (whose name i let slip). She works for CIAT (center for tropical agriculture) and has lived in Colombia for 4y on and off. The rest of the time i watched a little micro-business cosmos around the traffic jam developing. Ice cream, cold soft drinks and beer, dried fruit (platanas as they call bananas in spanish) and even a mobile juice mixer.

Our second route would try to get to Popayan via Santander de Quilichao. Again with no success. Now (and not sure why only now) the driver suggested a route through the mountains for an evening extra COP10,000 via Suarez & Morales. We all agreed.

What a ride it was. The car was hopelessly overloaded and/or suspension needs replacement. At each speed bump (and believe me when i say they love them here) some part of the undercarriage left another bit of metal on the road. By now my concerns of the roadblock had been replaced by a breakdown!

However, the scenery of the Cauca valley was stunning as we moved past lush green valleys, rivers, reservoirs, nice and not so pretty villages and many army posts and armed forces on watch. Made up for a lot! I arrived 4h late at 6pm … so almost nothing had happened considering we are Colombia.

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To my surprise, my fellow travellers were sleeping when i arrived. Well, i prepared my hiking gear for the next day and sorted food & drink. After a quick dinner together and a lengthy entertainment from a massive thunderstorm over the city, I slept. My bus to Purace national park will leave 4.30am.

Puracé National Park: Up the volcano

Given my late arrival in Popayan i cut short on the sightseeing, mainly a few colonial buildings. In any case it was not the city i was here for, but the nearby national park with its 4,650m Puracé volcano (not 4,750m as often misquoted).

The journey to the park is pretty straightforward. For a day trip you need to grab an early bus from terminal (4.30am / 5am) and asked to be dropped off at Cruce de la Mina. Takes 1h15 or so (and busses hardly leave on time. I paid COP20,000.

 

Once there just head uphill to the park office at 3500m (takes 35min) where you can acquire a park permit (COP40,000 weekdays, COP50,000 weekends) and get a guide that is supposedly mandatory by now. There is also a cafe with food & drink.

Are you fit enough for this? The ascent is pretty rapid. Most like you arrive unacclimatised from Cali at 900m, stayed a night in Popayan (1,800m) and are about to climb to 4,650m. Invites headaches at the minimum and risks altitude sickness. Consider at staying the night before near the park office (tent or cabin).

I arrived too early for any ranger to be on site and went up by myself. Cost me a little extra walking as i went off trail pretty early on and ended up fighting my way through a jungle of trees back to the path. You should plan for 5h hike up, but keep in mind that weather is often wet in the park and the trail can be very muddy, as was the case for me.

The views of the park are breathtaking as is the vegetation. Happy cows & calves grase all the way up to 4,200m. The often foggy weather only adds mystery.

Half way through the hike and well past the tree line is a weather station (c4,050m) and some shelter in case of need. Weather can get reasonably nasty up there with strong winds, low temperature and snowfall.

From there its another 350m up until you reach the final ascent up to the crater. While walking up, smoke rising from the volcano reminds us you what you are hiking up. The crater is pretty large be it unspectacular if you are looking for red glowing lava. What was spectacular was two extremely loud bangs akin to the thunderstorm last night … just this time i was on 4,600m altitude. Well, it remain two bangs.

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Anyway, I didn’t hang about too much. It was 1pm and the last bus from my drop-off leaves 4.30pm. Downhill was fun be it tricky. It had started to rain (well, snow further up) and made for a slippery trail. Very glad i brought both hiking poles.

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Past the ranger station a indigenous man gave me a life on his moped. I told him i need to get to popayan and so he took me with him well past my drop off point. I figured there must be some grand plan behind it only to be dropped off somewhere on the road back home. I walked 2-3km until a cab driver offered a ride to Popayan (COP12,000). I gladly accepted. We picked up a woman & child on the way (they got away with COP5,000) and off we went.

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Sadly he didn’t take me back to terminal nor my hostel, so i walked with the woman until i had some idea where i was. Mobile was dead. Took another 30min, but was no problem. Back home i was pretty exhausted. No going out for me. Time to sleep. Its been a long and beautiful day out.

Cali es Cali!

My first stop in Colombia was Cali, the largest city in southern Colombia. Its full name is actually Santiago de Cali, but noone really bothers. I spent two days here and think one can easily misunderstand Cali as short-term visitor given it doesn’t really present itself very well – a view a 3w Cali visitor from Ireland and an american woman (lived here for a year) confirmed when raised the topic. Speaking spanish and meeting some locals would help i guess. Anyway, welcome to Colombia. May the adventure begin.

Cali es Cali y lo demás es loma.(Cali is Cali, and the rest [of Colombia] is just hills)

Long, but trouble-free journey

Admittedly i arrived a little tired after a sleepless 10h flight from london (3.20am!), 7h stopover in Bogota and another 1h flight domestically. I think only madrid offers direct flights to cali from europe. On the other hand, neither immigration or airport transfers (COP 6,500 from cali airport to bus terminal) were any trouble and rather a pleasant experience. Even got my local SIM in a matter of minutes and met cathrin & co minutes after getting to the hostel myself.

A few first basics for newbies

  • Confusing cash: there are newer and older versions of banknotes and even coins in circulation. So don’t get alarmed about fake money too quickly. Each EUR gets you ~COP3,500 at this stage.
  • Easy, but not cheap to go mobile: I picked ‘claro’ as my provider with presumably the best coverage. A prepaid SIM is COP5000 and another COP40000 for 1GB and call minutes. Whatsapp, facebook and twitter are free for 30days.
  • Love for fried stuff: You’ll often see bakeries on the street corners equipped with little ovens to bake fresh stuff. Tasty though not without a good amount of calories. Same goes for a lot of the meat you get in local lunch places. Cost of two course lunch (soup & rice, chicken, beans) with a beer is about COP9,000.

  • Cafe tinto por favour: Tinto in this case doesn’t stand for red (as is the case for wine aka viño tinto), but for “ink”. Colombians basically export all their good coffee and drink the lower grade beans. And they seem to love it.
  • Poor beer, expensive wine: I don’t want to judge too quickly, but the local beer (Poker et al) is’t great and wine surprisingly expensive. Must be high import duties.

Cali city tour

We took a free tour (http://www.freetourcali.co/) more or less straight after settling into our hostel (hostel havana, recommended). Tours start every other day at 4pm from the Eremit church. The guide was average and my attention span somewhat limited after my journey. So I only participated to about half way and wandered off wkth Cathrin. In return I now have some friendshiop bracelet a weird local guy gave/sold us.

  • Calima: The name Cali comes from calima, a pre-Colombian culture. The city is located on 900m altitude and thus considerably lower than Bogota’s 2,500.
  • Sugar cane: Spanish brought sugar cane to Colombia. 70% of domestic sugar production is now produced here in the vast fields surrounding the city. If you wanna get a little taste, just get one of the sugar cane juices sold all over and made with antique presses and a lot of love.

  • Eremit church: One of three churches on the tour is a rather young one that is only 80y old after it has been reconstructed in German gothic style.

  • No3 city in Colombia: There are five cities with 1m+ inhabitants. Cali is at c2.5m.
  • Scribes at Plaza Caicedo: Fascinating to see old men sitting there under umbrellas with old school typewriter. They help fellow Colombians with paperwork for official business eg in the nearby city-hall.

  • Chontaduro: It grows on palms and needs 3-5h cooking before its edible. It contains huge amounts on vitamin A (15x your daily need), but when it comes to taste it seems like the marmite of Cali. Its pretty dry and you eat it with salt and honey. From memory, i was one of the very few that didn’t deem it disgusting. If you wanna try, they sell it everywhere for COP2,000.

  • Many homeless: you see homeless people lying everywhere. On busy pavements, in front of shops … you name it. They sleep in little more than bare clothes.

  • Loads of graffiti: you will find many places upgraded with graffiti in cali. Just take a stroll around.

A few more shots on our tour

Cerro de las Tres Cruces: While Cali might not look all that nice close-up, there is a few spots on the surrounding hills that offer some good panoramic views. The three crosses are one of them. My initial idea to hike up the c600m from Cali center wasn’t met with any enthusiasm by Cathrin or Daniel. So we jumped in a cab (COP40,000 return for 30-40min trip one way) to get up there. Probably also the safer option, as the route appearantly takes you through some more dangerous neighborhoods. Once arrived, we felt fine given a nice policemen guarded the place (different to the info of our guide the day before). Great views from there indeed. Makes you understand how little of Cali we had actually covered. If you feel like, you can also do a bit of fitness in the outdoor gym right up there.

Hanging out with Cathrin & her companions: Need to learn Salsa!

Cathrin had been travelling for a few weeks with her childhood buddy Dennis and Sheela, who she met on previous travels I believe and is touring South America until mid December. On top, there was Daniel. He is originally Colombian though now lives in Alaska and works as cargo pilot. He is doing the panamerica on bike … I might just have a few questions for him once I get my bike license.

On Monday night, we hit some American burger place that had tasty (be it not cheap) burgers. Downside, we were pretty much alone and it didn’t feel a bit like Colombia to me. Afterwards, we hit La Topa Tolondra salsa club (COP5000 cover) given Cali’s huge Salsa reputation. Busy place and very colombian for a change. Yet, not much fun for us stiff Westerners. We all felt pretty misplaced here given none of us can dance salsa. I am glad my language school offers free courses – consider me signed up. So we admired the locals for a while before we called it a night. Next morning it was already time for some good byes – Hasta Luego Dennis & Sheela!

Tuesday was halloween! After our tour up the three crosses we hit the bar/restaurant area of Granada. Most places and many people halloween themes. We opted for a thai / japanese place we came across (good food, be it i left the place still a bit hungry). Again, niot very colombian. We tried another roof top bar nearby for a drink before returning to the hostel. Cathrin & Daniel retired while I had spotted some pretty lifely bars on the way and figured it was time to dive into Cali nightlife by myself.

Turned out to be really good fun. I was the only tourist around, but met three locals pretty quickly. One, a cab driver, spoke english and with the other two it was a mix of my rudimentary Spanish and their bits in English. It worked enough to keep a conversation going. Its remarkable how quickly you become part of the scenery once you hang out with locals. Noone bothers you or tries to rip you off anymore. Just feels real suddenly though arguable warrants caution and a good measure of street smartness.

Welcome to Colombia Amigo!

Loads of fun, but had to call it a night some stage given our travel plans to Popayan next day. Adios Cali. I think there is more to you than meets the eye.

Hola Colombia!

HOLA COLOMBIA!

November has never been a favourite period for me in London. Thats the one time when the city truly lives up to its wet and foggy image. Instead I’ll be headed to the southern hemisphere where summer is approaching and spend my next seven weeks in Colombia – a country I only heard good things about despite its violent past.

See and believe, and in order not to make a mistake, touch.

(Colombian proverb)

Planning a trip in Colombia isn’t straightforward chiefly due to transportation (no trains, just bus/plane, road conditions?) and language barriers as well as residual security concerns in some areas. Not to forget some slack your plans want to have for hot tips you pick up from travellers you meet in Colombia.

1) South Colombia: i’ll be meeting up with Cathrin – the german girl from cologne who i briefly studied Spanish with in london and who has been travelling in central & south america for a few weeks now. Lets see what Cali holds, Popayan, Tierradentro and Neiva. Transport down here is really not great.

2) Medellin: Three weeks of language course are waiting … so back to school for me. I have also located a close-by Muay Thai gym (lets see if I get a few more classes done than in Russia) as well as a cool outdoor tour provider. The language school itself offers loads of trips in and around Medellin. So it won’t get boring in the city of Pablo Escobar.

3) Northern Colombia: Plenty to do here. I plan to visit the lost city near Santa Marta, the Guajira Peninsula near Venezuela and beautiful Cartagena & its Caribbean beaches. Kite surfing sounds interesting too! Let’s see.

4) East Colombia / Andes: One of the most scenic national parks in Colombia is El Cocuy with several 5000m peaks. Sounds great to me! Afterwards I should also have a little time to see Bogota – the capital.

Most likely I will skip the West coast, chiefly due to its isolation. The time spent to get there I prefer to keep for other things. But who knows, maybe someone changes my mind.