The Road to San Agustín
COLOMBIA | Monday, 16 January 2012 | Views  | Comments 
It took six days to get from Vilcabamba, Ecuador, to San Agustín, Colombia. I had planned to get to Bogotá and then Caracas by bus as quickly as possible, but I realised that I needed a few rest stops and really wanted to visit San Agustín, to experience the amazing archaeological site of the Valley of the Statues. After I left Vilcabamba, the first place I stayed at was Tulcan, on the Ecuadorian side of the border. It is a friendly town although I found some of the people a bit difficult to understand. I met a lovely mother and daughter when I was buying Oreos in their minimart. The mother was excited that I spoke English because her seven year old daughter Estefita was learning English at school. After some encouragement Estefita presented her English exercise book and read a few sentences to me. I offered to write to her so that she could practise her English. Estefita seemed pleased and Mum was very excited. The next morning I crossed the border to Columbia. When I got to the frontier I was amazed at the amount of people waiting to go through migration. I had assumed it would be quick but I couldn’t have been more wrong. There were at least 170 people in front of me, with the line leading well into the street and curling around the plaza. When I eventually got close enough to see, I noticed there was a guard at the door of the office, controlling the flow of people inside. Once in the office, we had to sit and wait until there was room in the one line for migration. The actual time with the official was only a minute or so, just a stamp, where are you going, and that was it. I don’t understand why it was so slow. There were about 6 desks working. All up, it took over 2 ½ hours to get through. I was not looking forward to a repeat performance at the Colombian side. I walked over the bridge to immigration and incredibly there were only two people in front of me! I cannot believe the difference between the two offices. I was through Columbian customs in literally less than five minutes. The nearest town to the border is Ipiales, and I had planned to pass through to Popayàn, but I couldn’t get a bus that day. My taxi driver/self-appointed guardian/ tour guide (for a price) was pleased about that; it gave him the chance to show me the Sanctuary of the Virgin in the small near-by village of Las Lajas. The Sanctuary is a popular destination for pilgrims. My driver waited while I went down the path, past stalls selling handicrafts or offering photos with alpacas dressed up in regal or traditional attire. It was a nice little village and I wish I had stayed there that night rather than in Ipiales. Not that there was anything wrong with Ipiales, but it was a bigger place, and its only old-world charm were occasional horse-drawn carts, pulled up at the traffic lights like all of the other vehicles. I came to realise that horse-drawn carts are nothing unusual in Columbia, at least the parts I visited. The next night I arrived in Popayàn, and although I was only going there as a means to get to San Agustin, I decided to spend a day there before I moved on, because it really seemed like a nice place. The old city is in colonial style, with adobe buildings featuring cool internal courtyards. The plaza, Parque Caldas, is lit up at night with coloured lights (possibly still from Christmas, nobody seems in a rush to take down their decorations) and has a relaxed mood with people wandering around or buying food from the mobile stalls on every corner of the park. I liked Popayàn so much, it was hard to believe that this is considered a dangerous area and that the Australian Government advises to reconsider the need for travel. In bed the night before I left for San Agustín and on the bus on my way there, I started to think about fairly recent events in Colombia and began to imagine kidnapping and bombing scenarios. Too much time on your hands can be a dangerous thing. In actual fact I think the most imminent danger was the dodgy road but that was nothing unusual in South America. Aside from the risk of going over the side of the cliff, the only other hazard I had to endure was vomit from the child in the seat behind me. I am ashamed to say that whiIe I was busy getting my backpack off the floor in case it was covered in the offending vomit, the guy next to me thought to ask the driver for a sick bag. In my defence, that guy already had his bag on his seat, so he didn’t have the same issue as me. I arrived vomit-free in San Agustín at 8.30 that night, with a room at the lovely Hacienda Anacona waiting for me. I had only been in Colombia a few days, but that time had reinforced my previous opinion of Colombians – friendly and helpful, if somewhat hard to understand. So many people went out of their way to help me find the right bus, the right bus stop, or a hotel, it was really very nice. And now I looked forward to exploring the Valley of the Statues and other amazing local places.
Tags: colombia, ecuador, on the road, south america, travel