To get to San Agustin from Popoyan, you have to cross over the Colombian Massif on a sketchy road that switched from asphalt to gravel to dirt as we went along. We'd been warned at our hostel that the road was very rough and that if it was raining it was better to wait in Popoyan than risk getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. However, the weather seemed clear and the bus was running on schedule so we were soon on our way. Annie took a precautionary Dromamine and was soon asleep while I enjoyed the scenery whizzing by outside. The Colombian Massif is an upswelling of mountains in the Andes of southern Colombia and it is the source of 70% of Colombia's drinking water - which means it is wet. The road took us across a rolling green paramo landscape with picturesque rivers meandering lazily down from the mountains. Then our route went up into a dripping cloudforest where (predictably) it started to rain. Besides from being a little slow and a little rough, especially one spot where the road had washed out, we made it to San Agustin safe and sound.
San Agustin is a small town tucked into the forested foothills of the Andes in southern Colombia. Its more temperate than tropical due to it's elevation but still verdant and 'jungley'. The town itself is only a few blocks but the surrounding area is cultivated by coffee growers and their plantations are scattered throughout. We stayed about a kilometer outside of town at Hotel Casa de Nelly where we had a private cabana set amidst a gorgeous tropical garden with our own balcony overlooking the town. Not bad for $25 a night. If you arrange in advance, Casa de Nelly will also arrange dinner for you, which saves you a bumpy and expensive taxi ride into town. The food was fantastic, fresh, and included large portions. This was one of our favorite hotels in all of our travels.
The statues of San Agustin are something of a mystery. People have lived and flourished in this region for thousands of years; taking advantage of the lush landscape The earliest evidence of human habitation in the San Agustin region dates back to 3300 BCE. However the statues were made by a civilization the existed in the upper Magdelana river valley for almost a thousand years from 100 BCE to 900 CE. These people were skilled farmers and constructed massive earthworks - ramparts and burial mounds - as well as master stone carvers. These suggest an advanced civilization with a developed system of social heirarchy, however little is know about these people as the jungle has since devoured other evidence of their lives. Their artisans, possibly influenced by the shamanic visions brought on by psychotropic jungle plants like ayahuasca, carved massive stone idols - part animal, part man that stood guard over the tombs of elite individuals. These statues have threatening, smiling, or somber faces: some appear to be divine guards, armed with clubs, rounded eyes, and jaguar teeth; some depict serenity and wisdom; others fear and darkness. No one knows their true significance, but they are undeniably striking and well worth the diversion off the beaten path for history nerds such as ourselves.
There are hundreds of statues scattered throughout the hills surrounding San Agustin. Almost a hundred are concentrated at the San Agustin Archeological Park. We were able to walk there from Casa de Nelly and so we ambled through coffee fincas and forest for 2 km or so enjoying the views and admiring the flowers along the way. At Archeological Park we paid our entrance fee and got sweet visitors' 'passports' to record our experience. The park has a wonderful and informative Museum in Spanish which we tried to get the most out of. By the time we made it through the exhibits it had started raining. However, we'd come prepared with our raingear - 'los impermeables' in Spanish - and walked out into the downpour to check out some creepy statues.
On our second day in San Agustin I took my second ever ride on a horse as we saddled up to see some of the more far-flung statues located in the hills above town. Just getting to the horses proved to be an adventure as we were picked up by moto-taxi. This, to be clear, was a first for both of us, and so we nervously clung to the back of dirt bike as our drivers whisked us back to town to meet our horses - Annie hugged her driver unashamedly while I tried my best to retain my manly cool by hanging on to the seat (with limited success).
From town, we rode our horses along country roads to 3 more burial sites. Some of these statues still had remains of color which made them even neater. As we went along we were able to see the lives of the local people - farmers out in their fields, children on their way to school - as well as enjoy the unbelievable green landscape. Our guide even picked a few exotic fruits for us to try including a giant peapod-like fruit called 'guama' which was full of sweet white pith. After a full afternoon we caught an overnight bus to Bogotá.
Crossing the border into Colombia proved to be a fairly painless if mind-numbing process. We flagged a bus heading north out of Otavalo towards the Ecuadorian border town of Tulcan and from there we had to take a taxi to the border. It was a fairly quick process to get our exit stamps on the Ecuadorian side but the Colombian side had a long line and there only seemed to be one person stamping passports. After almost 2 hours we made it to the front of the line where we our passports were scanned and summarily glanced at before we were sent on our way. Then it was another taxi ride to the town of Ipiales where we stopped to take in the true highlight of our day: the Sanctuario De Las Lajas.
This gothic cathedral spans a narrow gorge outside the town of Ipiales in Colombia. Built on the site of a supposed miracle, the church is literally built into the side of the canyon where a vision of the Virgin Mary was said to have healed a young girl. The church is an active pilgrimage site and countless people visit each year a blessing from this holy place.
After checking out the cathedral for a few minutes it was back to the highway for a few more hours of travelling before we reached the Colombian town of Pasto. We had been warned by multiple people not to travel overnight in southern Colombian and we tried to heed this advice (yet we met many people who traveled and night and took roads not recommended by the guidebook and they had no problems so . . .). But with the twists and turns of the road we did not arrive until after dark. However, we easily found our hotel - a beautiful Spanish Colonial home converted into a lovely hospedaje. The owners were absolutely charming and offered us tea when we arrived.
After we had checked in we asked the dueño if he could recommend somewhere for dinner and although he seemed a tad concerned for us should we go out he recommended one of the best dinner options nearby which was Cream Mister Pollo. We thanked him, checked TripAdvisor and headed out. However, as luck or fate would have it everywhere we went within walking distance was either closed or closing and so at last we were guided by our now very real hunger into what seemed to be the only option available: Cream Mister Pollo. Imagine a poor South American translation of a 1950's diner-meets-Mcdonalds and you will approach the vibe of CMP. I ordered a hamburger, Annie had fried chicken and a real Coke and it was all delicious. Interestingly, and much to Annie's horror, Colombians will eat fried chicken while wearing gloves-which to me seems an ingenious and practical solution to a very real problem (I was prevented from trying it myself due to my wife's aforementioned disgust at the very idea).
In the morning we set out early once again, this time bound for the town of Popoyan. This was an uneventful day devoted to travel. However it was made memorable by the sheer size of the landscape - I am constantly in awe at the magnitude of the Andes - and by an incredibly fierce rainstorm that pounded us during a roadside stop. The roadside cafe had a tin roof and the sound of the rainfall was so loud that if made conversation impossible. To entertain ourselves, Annie and I watched mudslides build on the cliffside above the road and facing the cafe. These would start as tiny trickles and build until stones - some quite large - began to give way and fall onto the road. No worries.
The road to Popoyan dropped briefly into the lowlands and we got a taste of the intense heat and crazy fast Spanish of the Cali region of Colombia. However, the road quickly regained its lost elevation and we arrived in the colonial town of Popoyan. Arriving in the evening, we discovered that all of the restaurants were closed except for the fried chicken place. So we ate there and found out, to our disappointment, that it was not as good as Cream Mister Pollo.
As you head north on the Pan-American highway from Quito towards the Ecuador-Colombia border, you pass through the town of Otavalo. This pleasant highland town is famous for its Thursday market (which we missed), but the center square is full of indigenous vendors almost every day. We arrived in town on the eve of Inti Raymi - a combination Catholic Corpus Cristi and Inca Solstice celebration marked by singing, dancing, and ritual purification that is celebrated throughout the Andean highlands of South America. (In fact, Annie and I enjoyed Inti Raymi celebrations when we were in Cusco, Peru in 2014) While searching for a place to grab lunch at 2:00 we we're treated to an impromptu parade featuring women wearing tradition dresses and men dressed in strange two faced masks.
We camped at a hostel outside of town and on our first day in town, we made our way to a 'suburb' village called Peguche which since Pre-Incan times been known for their skill as weavers. Since the Spanish Conquest they were held in a state of quasi-legal servitude and it was only in the 1960's that they totally freed themselves from the vestiges of the encomienda system! Today they manufacture a variety of textiles for themeselves and the entire village echoes with the 'k-chunk, k-chunk' of countless shuttles passing back in forth in community owned textile mills. We, however, were interested in their traditional handmade weavings. After admiring countless tapestries in a variety of styles we selected two - a long geometric wall hanging and a M.C. Escher-esque bird design. The birds were originally intended as a rug, but once we made our desire to hang it on the wall clear, the shop owner quickly whipped together handmade tassels and wove a dowel into the top so we could hang it from the wall.
We spent most of our time in Otavalo exploring the surrounding countryside - high rolling, unbelievable verdant mountains dotted with distant volcanos peeking between omnipresent clouds. We took a taxi to Laguna Cuicocha aka the 'Guinea Pig' Lake. Similar to Quilotoa, the lake occupies an ancient collapsed caldera. However, in Laguna Cuicocha a period of later volcanic activity produced two islands in the center of the lake. From the visitor's center we took a caldera rim trail which slowly brought us around the lake while affording gorgeous views of the lake and surrounding countryside. Truthfully, this was one of our favorite hikes, and days, in Ecuador.
On our way back to town after our hike, we stopped at the community of Cotacatchi. This is a village devoted entirely to leather working. After a little encouragement from Annie, I found an awesome leather jacket. (I am impatiently waiting for the weather to turn so that I have an excuse to wear it). When we got back to our hostel, Inti Raymi was in full swing and all night we were woken several times in the night by firecrackers and revelers singing and dancing in freewheeling circles.
"As part of the celebrations, lively music accompanies dancers who are led by the Aya Uma – a mythological character believed to be the spirit of the mountain. A respected member of the community will play the part of the Aya Uma, by wearing a mask with two faces (representing day and night), and with twelve horns (representing the twelve months of the year). Stamping their feet to encourage Mother Earth to be rejuvenated for the new agricultural cycle, the dancers go around in circles which represents the two equinoxes and two solstices that take place annually. Musicians in the center of the circling dancers play music which represents the life-giving power of the sun, while the fruit carried by performers is an offering made to Mother Earth in gratitude for the harvest. " (ecuador.com).
And that is very much what we witnessed :)