My first impression of Colombia was how different people look, as soon as one crosses the border from Ecuador. People have darker skin and are generally taller. One other difference is that everyone wants to know you and talk to you; they don’t bother whether one speaks Spanish or not, they just start chatting away. I find that very agreeable indeed!
After crossing the border, I went to Ipiales and bought a ticket for the night bus to Popayán. As I had a few hours to kill, I took a taxi to “Las Lajas”, a gothic cathedral that spans the bottom section of a gorge. A sight well worth the taxi ride! The night bus was uneventful, despite the warnings on some websites against doing the trip by night, as armed groups are still active in the area. Upon arrival at the terminal at about 4 a.m., I thought it a good idea to withdraw some cash, and punched in the wrong pin three times in a row, which resulted in my card being blocked. In my sleepiness, I didn’t realise any of this, I just wondered why I couldn’t get any cash. Somewhat mystified, I became frustrated, realising that the cash I had wouldn’t go very far (luckily I brought at least some dollars). I couldn’t think of a solution other than waiting for the next day and try again at a different ATM. So I bought a ticket to San Agustín. Which was my plan anyway, because I was very interested in seeing the archeological sites.
The bus ride to San Agustín was quite a bumpy one, as the road is not paved. It had started to drizzle, which made the roads somewhat slippery and the ride more exciting, with all the oncoming lorries on an already narrow road. The views were nice, as far as I could tell from my very narrow seat in the back of the bus. Sleeping didn’t quite work, as some of the bumps would have one hurled into the air and land on a strangers lap (slight exaggeration, but you get the idea), therefore forcing passengers to stay alert and keep a firm grip with at least one hand, on whatever was available (e.g. armrest, overhead luggage rack, ears or hair of the person in front). After about three hours of this, we made a stop for food and drink. I wasn’t hungry, but very much enjoyed the leg-stretch. Shortly after boarding our bus, we stopped at a military checkpoint and had our hand luggage inspected, while a dog sniffed through the empty bus. No explosives, guns or drugs were found! After a couple more hours, I found out that the bus does not stop in San Agustín, but at some intersection in the middle of nowhere. I was just told to get out and left to sort myself out. Upon pondering on how to tackle this situation, I was approached by a lady who ushered me into a taxi and said the ride to town wouldn’t cost me anything. I liked that. Obviously I was offered a tour, so I explained my situation, that I couldn’t withdraw any money and as a result couldn’t book any tours. She was very understanding and even called the airbnb place I had tried to book (I can use paypal, which would’ve been very convenient). Nobody answered though. I ended up staying at the lady’s San Luis Hostel (very reasonably priced) and, after carefully counting my cash, even booked a tour.
San Agustín is quite an interesting little town. It has a bit of a frontier town feel, with lots of horse carts on the streets and people on horse back sporting wide-brimmed cowboy hats. I got there on a weekend, and it was packed with people drinking and staggering from one bar to the next (and it was only about lunchtime!). Later, I learned that every week is like this: on Thursday people leave their farms to go to town in order to sell their coffee and “panela”. Their profit then usually gets them drinking through to Monday, when they go back to their farms. And the cycle starts over again. But I wasn’t there for any of that and walked the three km’s to the “Parque Arqueológico”, to check out some pre-columbian culture in Colombia. The statues, sarcophaguses, tombs, and dolmens on display date back to the time between the 1st and 9th centuries AD. Some of the statues on display, seem quite outlandish and I was very surprised to learn that here in Colombia, or in all of South America for that matter, ancient people also built dolmens (in my ignorance, I’d assumed they were a European exclusive). The following day, I went on said tour of the surrounding area to see a couple of waterfalls, and some more tombs and statues. I was nice being driven on dirt roads through some exceptionally beautiful countryside. Mountains with scenic gorges and rivers, flanked by coffee plantations, sugar cane, and banana trees. Now I only had enough cash to make it back to Cuenca. I tried the ATM again, without success. Sadly, I set my mind on going back, before even really starting my trip (I’d emailed my bank, but this being a weekend, nobody replied). So I got a bus back to Popayán. At the terminal I decided to try the ATM one last time, and miraculously, it spat out money! This changed things of course.
I decided to stay in Popayán for a night and then head north to Calí. Popayán is quite an agreeable town, with its white-washed colonial buildings. There is even a roman bridge, the “Puente Humilladero”!!! I enjoyed the sunset on the lookout, “El Morro del Tulcán”, which is actually an Indian pyramid that is, somewhat controversially, crowned by a large statue of the conquistador Sebastián Belalcazar. For the first time I felt that I’d arrived in Colombia proper. Next stop was Calí, further north.