Thursday, July 18, 2019

Southern Colombia

There is only 1 usable border crossing between Ecuador and Colombia and some guides still recommend avoiding it because of safety issues in the region. As I researched Colombia I found a lot of contradictory information and unfortunately for Colombia its reputation as a dangerous place will linger long after the reality has changed. Governmental travel advisories still suggest avoiding most regions of the country entirely, while at the same time Colombia has become very popular on the South American tourist itinerary. We met lots of people that had spent considerable time in Colombia and loved it, and many more, like us, that were on their way there. I've found that current advice from other travelers is more reliable and the general consensus is that all the main travel spots are not only fine, but overland travel between all of them is currently easy and safe as well. We weren't going to do anything way off the beaten path so didn't really have much to worry about and simply forged ahead like we always do.
Having said all that, southern Colombia is more remote and less visited by tourists generally and we enjoyed the sense of adventure that comes from doing that little bit extra.
As a quick side note, visiting mainland Colombia completed the South American portion of our trip. The only country we didn't enter was Venezuela which should come as no surprise given the terrible situation there at the moment. I have been to Venezuela previously back in 2002. It is a beautiful country and it is a shame we were unable to visit. We have seen some of the spill over effects of the Venezuelan situation throughout the continent as we have traveled around, mostly in the form of Venezuelan beggars or small restaurants started up by refugees. Locals in countries from Colombia to Chile will generally tell you that crime is on the increase and blame it on the refugees as well. This is a common global theme that I won't get into here other than to say that the stats generally don't back up those claims but large numbers of refugees do have big impacts (many negative) on the host countries, especially initially. Of the estimated 4 million Venezuelans that have fled their country recently, nearly half are in Colombia and many of the others first started there and have slowly spread south. Crossing into Colombia was the first time we really came face to face with this reality as we saw long lines of refugees trying to get into Ecuador and UN aid tents and services set up between the immigration checkpoints as well.
Border towns are generally not the most pleasant and we wanted to get as far into Colombia before dark as we could but at the border town of Ipiales we had to make a short detour to see a very interesting and surprisingly not well known (yet) church, the Santuario Virgen de las Lajas. It is not very old, the current church is only 100, but its position on top of a bridge over a canyon is amazing. It is a popular local pilgrimage spot and the path down to the church is lined with shops selling the usual icons and crucifixes but to date it sees few foreign visitors. 

You don't see many churches like this.

Two days later, after overnight stops in Pasto and Popayan we finally made our way to San Agustin. San Agustin is a site of an archaeology park (we can't really call them ruins because there aren't many of those) with the remains of some sculptures from the San Agustin culture. Not a lot is known about the San Agustin culture but they were clearly very skilled artisans. The main attractions are the numerous statues on display, each one unique and displaying various human and animalistic features and symbols, the meaning of which archaeologists are still debating. I enjoyed them more than I'd expected but found the sites a little hard to grasp and connect with since they consist of scattered burial chambers all carefully fenced off and covered for protection with manicured lawn between them. There is little sign of any connecting life, villages, buildings or "ruins" suggesting a community or culture other than a few clay pots in the museum. The civilization really started to get going about 2000 years ago and went through several periods during the following centuries before finally disappearing not long before the Spaniards arrived. We also did a day tour around the area to see some more of the San Agustin statues and a couple of nearby waterfalls. It is interesting because the area is still very mountainous but low enough that it is warmer and with more vegetation than we'd been used to in much of the rest of the Andes. 

San Agustin archaeological park

Tombs with guardian statues

All shapes and sizes

What were they thinking?
Waterfall near San Agustin
The upper Magdalena river (Colombia's largest)

With a travel day in between we made it to Tierradentro next. This is another "archaeological park" by another poorly understood culture that also mysteriously disappeared before the Spanish arrival but instead of statues, these guys left behind some very impressive hypogea (tombs). Tierradentro is a little younger than San Agustin being only 1000-1500 years old and with some signs of influence from the former civilization. These tombs were carved down into the rock as much as 6 meters and then painted with a variety of symbols and some even have pillars with carved faces on them. It looked and felt more like something you'd find in one of the Mediterranean countries or the Middle East, not in the Andes. There are dozens more we couldn't access but we still saw a total of about 20 tombs spread out in a couple of clusters with short trails through rural hilly countryside to connect them. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful walk with excellent views and we saw maybe 4 or 5 other visitors while we were there. 

On our way to Tierredentro

Beautiful rural area around Tierradentro
The largest of the tomb clusters, Segovia
What does it mean?

Do you see the faces?

Climbing back out of a tomb
Traditional old church in the village above Tierradentro

This area is rough, rural and remote. The transport was a little tougher to find and in some cases the road was practically non-existent. Heavy rains means lots of landslides and we often found ourselves trying to not worry about the stability of the dirt we were bumping over or the distance to the river below as we wove between bulldozers and dump trucks still rebuilding the road we were on. Exciting stuff but slow and we were forced to backtrack and sleep in Popayan once again. Fortunately, Popayan is a nice enough city for a stop over with a historic core of white colonial buildings and a nice central square. Heavy police presence too. Something we were to get used to in all the bigger Colombian cities as we moved around. 

Popayan, the white city.

The central plaza, Popayan



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