Monday, August 11, 2014


August 3, 2014

Strapping the Luggage to the Roof
Elise and I were both keen to escape the noisy El Viajero.  We shared a taxi to the bus terminal with another couple of travelers which left no room for luggage and necessitated strapping all our bags to the roof.  We were concerned about the ability of the driver’s bungee cords to keep everything in place until he finally produced some proper rope, which made the stack much more secure.  We had no trouble locating the bus to Popoyan and even had enough time for me to use the ATM after loading my backpack into the luggage compartment of the bus.

Cane Fields on the Way to Popoyan
Park Life Hostel
It took us over a half an hour to clear the city limits of Cali because the streets were narrow and traffic heavy, even though at 10:30 am it was no longer rush hour.  Once we were finally free of the city congestion, we climbed over a range of hills and then descended through fields of cane.  The landscape was much drier than before and looked rather like California if you didn’t look too closely at the trees.  The cane fields were green in contrast with the brown hills and there were scattered coffee plantations that looked like they were struggling.  It took us about three hours to get to the Popoyan terimal and then we took a taxi to Hostel Park Life, which was located right on the main square, next door to the cathedral.  Hostel Park Life was a welcome slice of heaven after the raucous El Viajero.  It occupied the upper floor of a (probably) Victorian building overlooking the park.  My room had large, loft style windows that opened to let in air and the sound of pop music and occasional Peruvian flute players.  The common area was a former atrium which had been covered with a skylight to create a lofty, light filled space.  The management fostered an atmosphere of peace and quiet.  There was even a sunny attic reading room.

View from My Room at Park Life Hostel
Iglesia de San Francisco
I dropped off my belongings and headed out to find something to eat.  I ended up at a grill called La Cosecha (The Harvest.)  It was crowded with Colombians, so I figured it must be good.  I was hungry for some serious protein, so ordered the grilled liver.  It was delicious and came with a nice salad, rice, and fries.  I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to need dinner.  After lunch, I strolled around Popoyan.  The city was the original capital of southern Colombia, during colonial times, until it was surpassed by Cali.  It had many grand colonial buildings, all of which were painted white.  On a sunny day, it was rather blinding and quite warm.  I walked a few blocks to the Iglesia de San Francisco, but was unable to take a tour because it was Sunday and services were in process.  I then visited the early 18th century Puente Chiquita and its 19th century replacement, the Puente del Humilladero, which is still in use as a pedestrian bridge and looks quite solid, if a bit narrow for vehicular traffic.  Flowering trees were blooming beside the bridges and the scene resembled a Thomas Kincaid painting.

Puente Chiquita
I had been told that it was a bad idea to climb the Cerro del Morro by oneself but, when I looked up there and saw crowds of people, I decided that it would be fine to do so on a busy Sunday afternoon.  I walked across town and climbed up the zigzag path to the top.  Families were out enjoying the afternoon and the hilltop was swarming with ice cream vendors and children flying kites in the strong wind at the top of the hill.  The summit offered a nearly 360 degree view of Popoyan and the hills behind it.  I took a few photos and ate a popsicle before walking back to the hostel where I spent a quiet evening chatting with the other guests about languages.  After my big lunch, my dinner was a piece of leftover bread and a beer.
View from Cerro del Morro

August 4, 2014

Llama Rides in the Plaza
My original plan had been to go to the Parque National Purace to see the condors, but there had been an earthquake on Saturday night and the park was closed because they feared that the earthquake might signal an eruption of the volcano.  I later discovered that the park was always closed on Mondays, anyway.  Unfortunately, all the museums in Popoyan were also closed on Mondays.  I got up reasonably early, but lounged about the hostel, playing on the internet for a couple of hours, and then went out to the Juan Valdez Coffee Shop for a latte and a piece of carrot cake.  I went to the grocery store and bought food for lunch and dinner, as well as spare batteries for my camera and prunes and almonds to snack on later.  Colombia must produce almonds because they were available at a reasonable price, after having been impossible to find without paying a fortune since Mexico.

Cathedral in Popoyan
            I spent the afternoon at the very pleasant hostel, reading and trying to make a reservation for a place to stay in San Agustin.  Many of the other guests that I had met at the hostel were also going to San Agustin, so we resolved to go together.  At 4:00, I went running with one of the owners of the hostel and a couple of other guests.  I hadn’t really run in a few months, but managed to keep up for the first mile as we ran uphill to the university track.  I really noticed the altitude.  Popoyan sits at about 5500 feet.  Thinking I was going to have to run back and not wanting to be left behind, I alternated walking and running laps for the next 2.25 miles.  Then the rest of the group decided to walk back.  I should have just kept running instead of conserving my energy.  It was fun to run with others for the first time since Ixtapa.  I enjoyed a shower and a cold beer upon my return to the hostel.

I cooked myself a dinner of a pork chop, eggs, and carrots for a change.  I was just too tired of eating corn, rice, beans and bread.  Once again, I spent a quiet evening at the very pleasant and companionable hostel.  Unfortunately, none of the hostels in San Agustin seemed eager to answer my emails and the Hostel Park Life phone was out of minutes, so they couldn’t call ahead for us.  They suggested we use one of the many people offering phone calls in the park.  I couldn’t hear well enough to make a phone call in Spanish from a cell phone in a noisy place and no one else seemed inclined to do so.

August 5, 2014

Roadside Waterfall
None of the hostels answered my emails, so I set off on the 9:30 minibus to San Agustin having no idea where I was going to land, but hoping to find a place before my friends arrived late in the evening.  Everyone said that it was important to travel to San Agustin during the day because the road was so remote that if anything were to happen to the bus, it would be necessary to sleep in the bus overnight.  The road was, indeed, remote.  Most of it was rough dirt.  In many places, it passed through road cuts that were barely one lane wide.  It climbed up and over a range of mountains.  The top was covered in cloud forest and it was very cold and had started to rain.  My hands and feet were numb again, even though I had at least worn long pants this time.  We then wound our way back down the other side of the range and through some lower hills where coffee was being grown.  It took five hours to make the trip.  At one point, we passed a spectacular waterfall.  Finally, we stopped at a crossroads.  Because I was the only person actually going to San Agustin, the bus driver loaded me into a passing pickup truck that was going to San Agustin and headed off to the next town.  I rode the last 5 kilometers in a crew cab, which was at least warmer than the bus.

Our Yurt at Finca El Maco
The driver of the pickup didn’t really know what to do with me, so he dropped me at a travel agency.  That turned out to be a very good thing.  I had received a message from Anke, one of the women who was coming later, saying that there was room for us in the dorms at Finca El Maco and asking if she should make a reservation.  Unfortunately, I received the message randomly as I passed a public WiFi hot spot in the bus and was not able to answer her.  I asked the travel agent to call El Maco to see if we had a reservation.  We didn’t, but they still had room for us, so I made a reservation and then took a taxi up there.  Finca El Maco was one of the places I had tried to email to make a reservation.  Maybe Anke had tried, also.  They installed us in a colorful yurt with three young men.  The beds all had bright plaid bedspreads and mosquito nets.  There was only one bunk bed.  The rest were singles.  The roof was palm thatch and there was plenty of floor space, the lack of which was one of the reasons I usually hated dorms.  The situation was very strange, however.  There were several different yurts about the property and they could easily have rented us one of the others at a higher price.  They only seemed to be using the one, maybe because it was the low season.

Yurt Interior
After messaging the others to tell them where we were staying and determining that they weren’t interested in going horseback riding the following day, I walked back into town to arrange to go on my own.  At the travel agent’s, I ran into a French and Belgian couple that I knew from Popoyan and, since it took three people to make a group, we decided to go together.  I felt bad about not hiring the guide who worked for the hostel, but didn’t want to pay more to go alone.  I told him we would take a jeep tour with him the following day, but it didn’t work out that way.  I stopped at the grocery store to buy beer and some food for breakfasts and snacks.  The walk back to the hostel was about a kilometer straight up a steep, muddy, dirt road.  Once there, the only noises were mooing cows, squealing pigs, and barking dogs.  I ate a delicious yellow Thai curry for dinner and tried to spend the evening reading.  I ended up falling asleep by 8:30.  I had arranged for the others to be received after reception closed at 9:00, but they came in very late.

August 6, 2014

Having fallen asleep at 8:30 the night before, I woke up at 4:30 am.  It was pouring rain.  Not wanting to disturb the others, I stayed in bed until 8:00, but finally got up because I needed to be ready to go riding by 9:00.  No one else was stirring.  I got up, dressed, and ate breakfast.  I was sitting in reception, using the internet, when the travel agent called to say that the horseback tour was cancelled. The others had decided to switch to the jeep tour.  Since my friends were still asleep and I couldn’t consult them, I agreed to go along.  Kristyn had a meeting online and couldn’t go and Anke was still sleeping.  The jeep arrived a bit early, so I had to leave without getting a chance to invite her to come along.

We drove around San Agustin, picking up other passengers.  I got to see some of the other hostels.  We had to wait for two passengers at Casa de Nelly, so they gave us cups of strong, hot coffee while we waited.  It looked like a very nice place, but was full.  They hadn’t bothered to answer my query.  When we finally left, there were seven of us: Italian, French, Belgian, Israeli, Colombian, Malaysian and American.  We just laughed every time someone asked us where we were from.  Our driver, Marino, wasn’t an official guide, but had worked in tourism for 30+ years and was able to answer all our questions while navigating truly horrible roads running with water.

El Estrecho
Our first stop was “El Estrecho” (the straits) where the Rio Magdalena passes between volcanic cliffs.  Under different circumstances, it might have been fun to jump into the water, but it was a raging torrent when we were there. It had been raining hard for many hours.  We drove for quite some time to get there, but couldn’t see anything because the windows were all fogged up due to the rain.  From “El Estrecho,” we drove to Obando, a small town with a museum and some archaeological sites.  Little is known about the people who carved sculptures from the volcanic rocks surrounding San Agustin.  They had disappeared long before Europeans came to South America and were not related to the Incas, Mayas, or Aztecs.  They carved more than 500 statues in the San Agustin area.  Their burials consisted of covered stone alleyways, painted in red, yellow, black and white designs, leading to stone sarcophagi (sometimes carved) and guarded by stone figures.  Most of these tombs were raided before the archaeologists started to preserve them, but they never contained much in the way of riches.  The culture was not known for working gold.

Scenery on the Way to Alto de los Idolos
 From Obando, we traveled a long way through spectacular scenery to Alto de Los Idolos (Height of the Idols) where we ordered lunch and then climbed the hill to look at more tombs and sculptures while it was being prepared.  For some of us, the scenery was more interesting than the tombs.  Steep green mountains stretched away on all sides.  Unlike the mountains in the United States, where civilization tends to stick to the valleys, we could see roads and buildings lining the ridges.  Coffee, cane and plantains were planted
on the upper reaches of the mountains, where there was more sun, and the bottoms of the
Alto de los Idolos

valleys tended to be wild.  Crops were planted on slopes so steep that a person falling could roll a thousand meters or more to the bottom.  A hectare of land in such a place could be had for about 5,000,000 pesos (about $2700), whereas a hectare of reasonably flat land near San Agustin would cost 80,000,000 (about $43,000.)

Tombs at Alto de los Idolos
Sarcophagus at Alto de los Idolos

We ate a very nice lunch.  I had chicken with French fries, plantains, and salad.  The rain finally stopped.  Then we drove to Alto de Las Piedras (Height of the Stones) to look at more sculptures.  The most famous of these was the one often referred to as “Doble Yo” (Double me) because it has two faces on the front.  It actually had another two on the back, although they are harder to see.  
Doble Yo

Agregar leyenda
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Orchids at Salto Mortino

Salto Mortino

4-Wheel Drive Bus Used on Dirt Roads Known as a "Chiva"
The drive back to San Agustin was only half an hour.  The French and Belgian couple and I arranged to go horseback riding the following day if more didn’t rain.  I went in search of cash, but found the Bank of Agriculture ATM closed.  There was a rumor of another ATM in a supermarket further into town, but I was tired and it was get-ting dark, so I de-cided to try again the fol-low-ing day.  I dragged my tired self up the very steep hilll to the hostel.  Not knowing whether or not I would be able to obtain any cash before leaving San Agustin, I elected not to eat dinner in the restaurant.  I munched a hard-boiled egg, some crackers, and some fruit, washed down with a couple of beers.  I spent the evening in the reception area, using the internet until they closed at 9:00 and then retired to our yurt.  Anke and Kristyn were getting up early to go to the Archaeological Park and I was tired, so we all went to bed by 10:00.  We had no other company in our yurt.

August 7, 2014

Cacique (Chief)
It wasn’t raining when I woke up, which was a good sign.  I knew Anke and Kristyn wanted to get an early start, so I stayed in bed until they were done with the bathroom and then got up.  I had originally planned to go riding the first day and then launder my jeans on the second day so as to have them for the cold weather of Bogota, but that plan went out the window when my ride got rained out.  I turned my laundry in, but I would just have to do without clean jeans in the city.  Once again, my guide showed up half an hour early, throwing a wrench into my morning plans.  He picked me up on a motorcycle and drove me down to the campground where Francois and Funi (sp?) were staying and where the horses awaited us.  My horse was a small bay gelding named Cacique.  He was energetic and well behaved and had an amazingly comfortable trot.  It was actually easier to sit than his canter.  We got on well.

El Tablon
Our first stop was El Tablon where five statues were displayed under a covered structure.  The center image was the moon god.  To his right, were two warriors to protect him, and to his left were the image of a slave and his intermediary.  The people who carved these statues had no calendar or numerical system, so keeping track of the movement of the moon was difficult for them.  They would come to consult (probably the priests of) the moon god for advice on such things as when to plant crops or cut bamboo.  If you cut bamboo during a new moon, the sap has all gone out of the wood and it doesn’t last very long.

La Chaquira
Lookout at La Chaquira
It wasn’t very far from El Tablon to La Chaquira.  At La Chaquira, we climbed down nearly 300 steps to see figures carved into the stone overlooking the Rio Magdalena, Columbia’s most important river, which divides the Cordillera Central from the Cordillera Oriental.  The scenery was spectacular.  Waterfalls plummeted down the side of the canyon through nearly vertical coffee plantations.  There was a pleasant coffee stand and nice restrooms at La Chaquira and we stopped there for a coffee.
Vertical Coffee Plantation
La Pelota Statues
After La Chaquira, we took a fairly long ride to La Pelota.  We picked our way down rocky slopes and galloped back up again.  Everything was very muddy and we got spattered everywhere.  The roads were bad and I was glad to be traveling by horse.  At La Pelota, we stopped for coffee and fried pastries and then climbed an especially muddy hill to see a group of well-preserved statues.  We continued over the hill to avoid the worst of the mud, while our guide drove the horses around to meet us. 
El Purutal Female Figure

El Purutal  Male Figure
Another short ride brought us to El Purutal, where we saw male and female figures still adorned with their original coloring.  These figures guarded the tombs where imperfect children were sacrificed and then buried.  It appeared that the civilization believed that imperfect children would have difficult lives in this world and should just be sent along to the next one.  Each of the figures was depicted holding a baby.  The male figure was also holding what looked like a club, although our guide claimed it was a measuring stick to make sure that the child was symmetrical.  The female figure was holding a child superimposed on a cross, which symbolized perfection.  From El Purutal, we rode to the Parque Archaeologico, where our guide left us to enjoy the park in what was left of our afternoon.

Francois and Funi wanted lunch, but I knew that I had to get back to town in time to obtain cash, so I skipped eating and went directly into the park.  The park included four groupings of tombs and statues: Mesitas A,B,C & D.  Tombs from this civilization featured a carved figure standing in the “doorway,” a flat stone resting atop two pillars (hence the name “mesita” or little table.)  Behind the entrance were two fences of vertical stones creating a passage that led to a stone sarcophagus, often covered with a carved lid.  The term “mesita” also applied to the artificially leveled areas where tombs and dwellings were constructed.  Near the entrance to the park, there was even a raised walkway leading to the first of these areas that had been constructed in ancient times.

Mesita B Grouping
Mesita A had some nice sculptures, but Mesita B had the most extensive collection.  It also had the tallest of the sculptures.  Mesita C had some interesting sculptures that differed from the others in shape and size.  I somehow managed to miss Mesita D, probably because I also skipped the museum, being short on time.  I did, however, was to be sure that I didn’t miss Lavaplatos (dishwasher), an intricately carved set of channels, carvings and cascades that must have been used for ritual bathing or something.  A couple of thousand years of water flowing over the carvings had made them a little hard to make out, but the structure built over them was impressive.  A steel framework supported hundreds of plastic skylights.  At one end, a bridge made entirely of bamboo provided a viewing platform, as well as a way to cross the stream.


I was fascinated with the huge bamboo growing in Colombia.  Some of the trunks were as big around as my leg.  Our yurt was built with bamboo posts and rafters.  The structures covering the toll booths on the highways were even supported by bamboo.  Large bamboo was sometimes cut into lengths and crushed, which resulted in mats a foot or so wide that were used for walls and floors.  The bridge was a masterpiece of bamboo construction.  Suddenly, I felt like I ought to be in Asia.  The bamboo forests were also quite beautiful, with fluffy plumes of green bamboo waving in the breeze.
Bamboo Forest

From Lavaplatos, I climbed up a long steep hill to El Alto de Lavaplatos, where there were a few more sculptures, probably placed there to look over the view that probably would have been incredible if it hadn’t started to rain so hard that I could hardly see anything at all.  I didn’t spend much time up there, since the weather was so bad.  I headed back down, left the park and started the 3 kilometer walk back to town.  I got about half way there when my guide happened along on a motorcycle and gave me a ride to town.  The Lonely Planet Guide suggested
Bamboo Bridge at Lavaplatos
avoiding the “touts” who meet the buses, but they had been nothing but friendly and helpful to me and their tours were more economical that those offered by the hotel for a person traveling alone.  The company was Tour Macizo San Augustin.  I was helped by Christian Nunez, but everyone working there was very nice.

Trying to find cash in San Agustin was frustrating.  There were two banks across the street from the tour company, but both had Banco de Bogota ATMs and they rejected my ATM card because it had a magnetic strip instead of a chip.  The Agrarian Bank ATM had been closed for two days.  When I finally tracked down the grocery store with a BanColumbia branch in the back, that was closed, too.  I was starting to get desperate.  I went back to Banco de Bogota to see if their ATMs would take my credit card.  That didn’t work either.  In desperation, I tried my ATM card again because, although it had never worked in any city, the ATMs always said they were performing the transaction using the magnetic strip just before they rejected my card.  A miracle occurred.  I decided to pull my card out of the reader before it asked me to and it worked!  I got my cash and so was able to stomp back up the hill, reclaim my laundry and order dinner.  I would have enough pesos to leave San Agustin, after all.

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