We’ve fallen behind with the blog, or at least I have since we left Popayan almost three weeks ago with a hop, skip and jump to Ecuador. In between we stopped at San Agustin for a few days to see the stone statues of its UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mocoa for the amazing road both in and out, Pasto just because we had to go through and Ipiales for the Los Lajas sanctuary. I’d still like to head back to the Mocoa region to see the Colombian rainforest and take the alternate, more adventurous border crossing into Ecuador.
Where most travelers take the more direct route from Popayan to Pasto and on into Ecuador we decided to take the longer indirect route, mostly as it involved taking the Trampoline of Death road from Mocoa to Sibundoy, and also because it meant not having to retrace the route back from San Agustin to Popayan – I love the adventure of riding in the back of a small truck with death defying drop-offs for almost three hours!
We stayed at Parklife Hostel right next door to the cathedral, overlooking Popayan’s central plaza – we both agreed this was the best located hostel in South America. It also had a great common kitchen to boot! Popayan was the next logical place south from Cali en route to Ecuador, but we discovered they had a volcano to climb, some natural thermal pools and condor watching. I also wanted to stay until Tuesday so I could check out the famous indigenous market in Silvia.
We arrived in Popayan, a famous UNESCO city of gastronomy on Friday afternoon and had time for a quick self-guided city tour. There really isn’t that much to see, but we hit all the churches and found a great place to have the famous mini Empanadas de Pipián – yum! Don’t miss these when in Popayan, we haven’t seen them any place else in South America.
Saturday we decided to climb the 4.700m Volcan Puracé in the Puracé National Natural Park. Once we arrived and paid the entry fee, we met some Americans who were headed to watch the condors and we really wanted to see them too! We debated and debated, but decided to ignore the crappy weather conditions and still attempt the volcano, although about five minutes into the hike we changed our minds and bolted for the condor site. What a great decision. We climbed to the feeding viewpoint and saw many vultures, but with neither of us having seen a condor before we were both looking at each like “this is it, I thought condors were more spectacular than this.” Haha, little did we know when this massive condor came sweeping in to our view. It was mesmerizing and one of the most beautiful creatures I have ever seen while flying, although ugly as hell whilst feeding. It was so effortless and totally made our day. We didn’t have time to go back to the volcano so we did an uneventful 15km hike in the rain to the thermals pools. Tired and wet, with probably less than a kilometer to go, a passing bus got the better of us and we headed back to Popayan around 3pm.
Sunday we went to the highly advertised Coconuco thermal baths, I’m not even going to write about that because I wouldn’t go again. It was stinky and gross. We got in the lukewarm water for 15 minutes before we called it a day – we should have climbed the volcano instead.
I finally achieved the summit of the volcano on Monday without Andrea and I’m so glad she didn’t go, she would have complained the entire time about the bitter cold. I went with a couple from Switzerland and they ended up turning back prior to the summit due to the windy conditions. The visibility was also terrible, hence I didn’t get any views of anything, in fact it was a little sketchy even trying to follow the trail. I’m still glad I did it because I need the training for my climbing expedition to Bolivia in May.
Tuesday was market day in Silvia, which meant another early morning – I had just enough time to get there and back before our 2pm bus to San Agustin. If you’ve been to indigenous markets in Guatemala or Bolivia, then you won’t find this one so interesting. There were Indians dressed in traditional clothing, but there were there mostly to gather and gossip with each other – not a lot else going on.
We had a difficult time deciding on a place to stay in San Agustin (close to town or close to the many archeological sites). We eventually decided on Casa de Nelly, complete with chain-smoking French owner, and again it was a great decision which was half way between town and the sites. Our gorgeous two bedroom/private bathroom cabana shaped like an igloo was lacking WiFi, but luckily we had great 3G service on the phone. The hotel had two of the coolest parrots in the world – we couldn’t get enough of them saying “Quiero Cacao” which translates to “I want chocolate” – Andrea can relate to that!! The only thing strange about the hotel were some of the clients – mostly American recovering alcoholics and drug addicts there to participate in Shaman led soul cleansing Ayahuasca ceremonies, which essentially meant they were going out every night to hallucinate and trip. We weren’t so sure about paying the $130 for this as they came back in the mornings with the strangest stories about puking and gnomes coming out of their heads. Sounds like fun to me…not! But, we did enjoy the stories.
The San Agustin Archeological Park is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and combined with other sites in the vicinity, consists of around 500 stone figures. Little is known of the sculptures other than being related to burials and funerals, and that according to research they were abandoned between 1300-1400 AD – the rest, for now is mostly a mystery.
Over two extended lunchtimes, with Andrea playing hooky from work, we walked the thirty minutes from the hotel to the park to explore the ruins. It was much smaller than we expected (a good thing for Andrea), but the stone sculptures and burial sites were pretty impressive. Now we need to see Easter Island as a comparison!
Mocoa and the Trampoline of Death Road
Not sure why but I always feel the need to experience travel on these crazy roads built through the toughest and deepest canyons and precarious mountainsides, especially when they have names like Trampoline of Death. For some reason Andrea doesn’t share this desire! We could have easily traveled back to Popayan from San Agustin on the same road we came in on, but a flying visit to Mocoa at the edge of the Colombian Amazon, and on to Pasto from there was far more appealing.
Getting to Mocoa was no big deal other than getting searched by heavily armed police, with Andrea paying a small premium to sit inside the cab and me choosing to sit on the loosely covered bed of the Toyota pickup. I loved this way of travel, looking back along the road with dust and gasoline fumes coming in through the canopy! We only spent a night in Mocoa and planned on departing mid-morning the following day to ensure we had enough time to get to Ipiales.
Now for the exciting part of the journey, somewhat dependent on what mode of transportation we decided to chose – most people advised us to skip the bigger buses with less room for error, and as I was dragging Andrea along for my adventure I thought it only fair to go for something smaller. After some negotiation we paid the $20 fare and both decided to sit on the makeshift seats in the bed of the pickup, where fortunately we were the only passengers. This ended up being perfect as we never got to see what was around the next corner and we had loads of room for spreading out. The first three hours were the worst part of the drive where the dirt road wound up and up, before topping out and meandering down the other side to Sibundoy.
Neither of us felt like the road was very bad. The Colombian government has spent a lot of money installing security barriers along the majority of the route. We’re still not sure why the worst sections had pretty yellow and black tape instead of sturdy metal crash barriers though! With another death road survived I’ll now be on the lookout for what Ecuador has to offer in their high mountain routes.
The main border crossing into Ecuador and our final night in Colombia were both low key affairs. Our only plan was to visit the unique Los Lajas sanctuary prior to heading down to Quito. A short cab drive to the center with a quick stop to withdraw some last minute Pesos, we arrived at Hotel Belmonte, cheap and convenient but once again missing a toilet seat! An early morning was on the cards to try and beat the masses who pay homage at the sanctuary every Sunday.
Not sure we left early enough as the inside of the sanctuary was rammed by 8am, seemingly with both Colombians and Ecuadorians. Yes, this place is definitely popular with Ecuadorians too, especially as it is only around 10km from the border.
We had seen many amazing photos of the shrine on the Internet and it still managed to impress us, being a true work of art and very photogenic. Built between 1916-1949 inside the gorge of the Guáitara River, it rises 100 meters from the canyon floor, and was inspired by a couple of eighteenth century miracles.
The border crossing was very straightforward with no exit or entry fees, or Visas involved – simply check out of Colombia, walk across the bridge and check in to Ecuador, taking us well under an hour. It was nice to now be in a country that uses the US Dollar and is hopefully going to be substantially cheaper than Colombia.
Goodbye Colombia and hello again Ecuador – it’s been seventeen years and I’m excited to visit family and see what you have to offer this time around…
February 7th – February 16th 2014