Colombia 1 – The Southwest – Ipiales, Las Lajas, Popayan, Parque Nacional Purace, San Agustin and the Desierto Tatacoa.

 

COLOMBIA

Capital – Bogota                Currency – Colombian peso (C$ or COP)          Language – Spanish plus indigenous languages

   

31st October – At the border crossing into Colombia we are issued with a visa for 90 days.  Although it takes a while to complete all the formalities everyone is very helpful and once we have our vehicle papers, we are given an address in the town of Ipiales (about 2km from the border), where we will be able to get the necessary vehicle insurance.  We change some money and now have notes in Cops worth many thousand…….a new monetary system to get our heads around!                                                                                                                                                                                                              We pass colourful local buses being loaded, as we leave the border for Ipiales.

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The insurance place (a tiny room inside a shoe shop), could only give insurance for 1 year but a lady kindly went to the trouble of phoning round to find another office in a different area of Ipiales that would give us 1-3 months.  By the time we leave the shoe shop we have 3 people out on the pavement with us trying to make sure that we find Seguros de Estado on the junction with Calle 10 and Carrera 5 and vaguely waving arms in the direction that we have to go.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       We have a very colourful introduction to this next area of Ipiales.  It is a long weekend holiday here, starting today with Halloween.  Many streets are closed to traffic and instead are crowded with families in an assortment of colourful costumes, brightly coloured wigs and face paint, children clutching containers to collect sweets from shop owners, many also in fancy dress.  We pass 3 very attractive girls in a shop doorway wearing flaming orange, red and blue wigs….they look fantastic and love having their photo taken!

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We pull in at the side of a busy street, pretending we don’t notice a ‘No Parking’ sign, whilst I jump out and go inside yet another shoe shop to ask for directions to Seguros del Estado. This very helpful lady in charge summons one of her assistants (an elderly lady with a limp) to take me to the office.  This lady might have a limp but she is very sprightly.  We duck under some yellow tape closing off a side street to traffic and then fight our way through the Halloween partygoers, asking directions twice and finally arriving at Seguros del Estado.  This delightful  little lady (who has been chattering away to me in Spanish the whole time), then leaves me, whilst I try and put a mental picture together of all the roads that we have come along so that I can get back to Bill and Moby, who by now have probably got a parking ticket!  Our insurance is finally issued for 2 months for 122,000 peso, after we have to rush back into the busy main street to find an ATM for more cash to pay for it.  We are now legal on the road, although we do know of people who don’t take out insurance at all.

This has all taken much longer than we imagined and it is now nearly 5pm.  Before we take the road for Pasto (capital of the Narino department), we don’t want to miss the short detour from Ipiales to Las Lajas to see the imposing cathedral Santuario de las Lajas, that has been spectacularly built between the walls of the Guaitara Canyon. It has been a destination for pilgrims as far back as the 18th century.

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I haven’t got long, so race down the many steps, which are not going to be fun on the struggle back up.  This amazing cathedral however, is certainly in a stunning location and worth all the effort!

But we are now doing what we said we wouldn’t do in Colombia, and that is driving in the dark.  Pasto is approx. 80km away and we are soon on a very busy and winding road with many warnings of blind bends.  We learn very quickly that motorists find it impossible to stay for long behind the many, slower moving lorries and take huge risks overtaking in dangerous places, even at night.

We arrive safely in Pasto but in the pouring rain and with many bedraggled looking Halloweeners on the main street.  We are lucky in finding Hotel Chambu, an OK hotel and where we just manage to slide under the concrete into their secure parking area, taking care to avoid the light bulbs which are hanging lower than the 2.6m.  It’s cold and wet and we don’t feel like walking far to find something to eat, so it’s nearby  Mr Pollo (Chicken) packed full of halloween party people, so that we feel like the odd ones out as we sit next to Dracula and his wife and son!  It has been a long day but interesting!

1st November – We fight our way out of Pasto mainly because so many roads are closed off, causing huge traffic jams.  We take the road north to Popayan, 280km away.  Many enormous lorries once again on the road, where houses are perched on forested hillsides amongst banana trees.  We know today to be very much aware of the impatient car drivers overtaking on hazardous bends.  Clouds of white butterflies flutter by the roadsides, perhaps they have hatched after the rain last night.                                                                                                                                            Crossing over the Dos Rios de Uribe brings us into a very Afro-Colombian area, where we feel we have been transported back into Africa. There’s a smell of woodsmoke as people sit under the shade of huge mango trees, brightly coloured washing hanging over the fences and stalls at the side of the road selling cheeses, melons, mangoes and huge bunches of green bananas. Beautiful trees aflame with brilliant, orange flowers make splashes of colour amongst the many shades of green…..pale green, feathery fronds of bamboo, huge tree ferns and chocolate coloured rivers rushing down from the hills.  But the bends up and down and round this landscape continue, along with the heavy traffic and constant roadworks.  Although the scenery has been fantastic, the intensity of this journey has not.  It has taken us 8 hours to cover the 280km and once again it is dark by the time we arrive in Popayan.

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Popayan was founded in 1537 by Sebastian de Belalcazar but its historic centre was in ruins in 1983 following a disastrous earthquake. The residents however, banded together to rebuild and today, its many whitewashed buildings make it one of the most attractive cities in Colombia.  It’s raining again as we enter the narrow streets of the historic centre and take the first hotel that we see with parking……Hotel Achalay.

2nd November – We head east toward San Augustin, only 143km from Popayan but another long journey of 7 hours to cross the Andes from one side to the other again. Roadworks again hold us up, followed by anoher wait by a waterfall at 3000m, whilst a digger clears a path through a massive landslide of rocks and mud.

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We now have a long stretch of mud and water-filled pot holes ahead of us, which continues through the edge of Parque Nacional Natural Purace.  This high altitude park includes volcanoes, snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, canyons, lagoons and the paramo, where once again many Frailejones are growing.  It’s wonderful to see these plants again after our visit to the El Angel Reserve in the north of Ecuador and many are still in flower here.

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The hills are completely and densely forested, the variety of trees and plants in this wonderful park is staggering, the views when we get them between gaps in the trees, just spectacular.

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The hills and mountains continue to the horizon, fading to a haze of blue.  We stop for our lunch by a narrow gorge.

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Leaving Purace behind, everywhere continues to be lush and green and  we see our first coffee plantations.

Arriving in San Agustin we find Camping Gamcelat at the end of a long drive and where there is camping in a large field with many trees,

3rd November – We drive a few km west of San Agustin to the Parque Arqueologico site which contains over a hundred stone statues, comparable it is said, to the Moai statues found on Chile’s Easter Island.  The park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.  These statues were sculptured by masons who were living in this area some 3000 years ago.  Much mystery still surrounds this civilisation who had disappeared before the Spanish arrived….perhaps at the hands of the Inca, whose empire at that time, stretched into southern Colombia.  The statues however, were not discovered until the 18th century and there are many more across the landscape on either side of the Rio Magdalena that can be reached via hiking trails or on horseback.

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In the car park we meet Tom from Germany, going south and travelling in a vehicle that he bought in Canada.  Also Laura and Nicolas from Colombia who both love travelling and are keen to tell us more about places to visit in their home country.  We spend a lovely evening with them in a cozy bar in town as the rain pours down outside.  Many thanks both of you for all your information and we hope that you make many journeys yourselves in the future.  It would be lovely to meet up again in Bogota if we travel that way.

4th November – It rains all night and the camping field is flooded.  By noon it eases and we leave for the city of Neiva, just over 200km away.  The rivers that we cross are brown and flowing fast.  Dark, brooding mountains float above layers of thick, white cloud beginning to settle in the valley.  We are not aware of any camping in Neiva, so take a room at Hotel Plaza with parking.

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5th November – Today we leave for the Desierto Tatacoa, approx. 38km northeast of Neiva.  The landscape becomes drier as we near the small and very tranquil town of Villavieja where the square is full of ancient trees, old buildings and a blue and white church.

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A dirt road takes us from Villavieja into the Desierto Tatacoa situated in the Huila department.

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Measuring only 300 square km, Tatacoa is covered in many different types of cacti, orange and grey cracked soil and unusual, red rock formations.  We take a drive into the desert where the red soil changes to grey  before returning to camp at Estadero Dona Lilia for the night, close to the Observatorio Astronomico de La Tatacoa.  Many of the cattle farms in this remote area provide accommodation and camping areas for visitors.  At Dona Lilia we have very welcoming and hospitable owners, plus dogs, cats, goats with their young, cows and horses.  We ask the two senoras in the kitchen if we may eat in the restaurant  and they serve us up a great meal.  Lightning towards the distant hills lights up the sky which is full of stars.  Tatacoa has zero light pollution, so it makes for great star gazing.

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6th November – We have great views from our camping place and once the rain has stopped we take a walk into the desert to explore.

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The Tatacoa Desert or ‘Sadness Valley’ is the second largest arid area in Colombia after the Guajira Peninsula.  The strange, lunar-like scenery is quite spectacular in this silent landscape, both animal and plant life having adapted to the high temperatures here and where the desert’s cacti can reach up to many metres.

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7th November – 3 a.m. and there is lightning, loud claps of thunder and torrential rain.  We return to Villavieja and take another dirt road that skirts the edge of the desert, eventually joining up with with the main Nacional highway.  It’s a remote landscape where the river has flooded its banks and fields and parts of the track are under water.  We are wondering how this narrow dirt road is going to cross the enormous Rio Magdelena on our right but as we leave a tunnel cut through the hills, a long metal bridge is spanning this fast flowing river.

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Once back on tarmac we turn west for Imbargue……palms, bamboo, banana and mango trees, grassy meadows and emerald green rice fields.    We are making good time to reach Salento, where we have been told there is very nice camping at La Serrena.                                                  Unfortunately the road from Imbargue to Armenia, takes us high amongst forested mountains and around one slow bend after another, following a trail of massive lorries, with more thundering by in the opposite direction.  It’s a slow, scary and deafening journey as we crawl up these mountain sides amongst the clouds.  Not sure how the houses cling to the hillsides that plummet far below.  Roadworks hold everyone up for long periods of time, first one side of the road and then the other.  It takes us 2 hours to do 20km.  And so once again the congested road over the mountains  means we are driving in the dark but also in a mist at 3285m.  Now that we are finally over the top of the mountains, it’s a slow downward crawl.  The majority of lorries have enormous loads, so their journey downhill is just as slow as going up.  Many have to stop to allow their brakes to cool and we have to do the same when we can find somewhere to pull in, as there is no extra hard shoulder for this purpose.  We learn later that this route over the Andes, is known as ‘La Linea’  (‘The Line’ ) and it is the only route for lorries leaving the port on the west coast and travelling east to Bogota.

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