Colombia Part One here
Today we visited the Las Lajas Sanctuary near the town of Ipiales which is situated right on the border with Ecuador. The sanctuary is impressive to see more so for its location than anything else. The story goes that an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared in the cliff faceto some people when they were sheltering from a thunder storm about 300 years ago. The area was worshiped as a shrine for years until the sanctuary was finally erected over the space of about 30 years ending in 1949 or there abouts, so although it looks old it’s not really old at all but still impressive and worth the visit as it’s so close to Ipiales and most people travelling south go through Ipiales anyway to cross into Ecuador.
After Bogota we headed west towards the region known for coffee growing. The GPS said six hours but we have learned not to trust it so we were prepared to stay somewhere along the way if going was slow. As it turned out it was an extremely scenic drive through valleys and over mountain passes the road frequently reached 3000m and… the GPS ended up being right for once. We arrived in Armenia and searched for accommodation, we never book accommodation beforehand we have learned to begin searching after we arrive at our destination and always find something reasonable definitely more reasonable than the prices online. But this time it was taking longer, everything seemed to be full or oddly overpriced. It then dawned on us that Semana Santa was just beginning. Semana Santa is the long Easter weekend and a big holiday in Colombia. We were now competing with the whole population of Colombia which had mobilised to get away from the big cities to spend the long weekend with family. Eventually with some help from locals we found a cheap place with a car park for the bike. Our crash course in Semana Santa started the next day when we noticed a lot of shops were not opening or had limited hours plus the streets seemed to have 50% less people on them than usual. Our plan was to visit Salento next which is a small town in the mountains about 20 minutes from Armenia so we packed up and set off. We reached Salento pretty quickly but were disappointed to find out that it was completely swamped by long weekend travelers attending Salento’s Easter weekend festival which is one of the biggest events of the year in Salento as we found out. We were unable to find accommodation, the only offer came from a local woman offering a corner in her house to sleep for 70,000 Colombian Paseos a night, aside from the screaming children running laps around her we declined mainly due to the price. Up to now we have always found a pretty decent hotel room for 30,000 Paseos so she was chancing her arm a bit. We elected to ride out of town and stay somewhere else for a couple of days until the Easter madness had calmed down and then return to Salento. The town is a dead end there is one main road leading in and the same one must be used to leave. It winds down around some steep hills and when we were riding down it there was a good 5km of traffic standing still on the road trying to get up to Salento for the festival.
We rode north and onwards to Pereira and Manizales, one night in Pereira and two in Manizales. In Pereira we witnessed some of the Easter processions through the streets where people carried statues of Jesus and other Biblical characters. They were accompanied by a military band which played Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence over and over again.
In Manizales we stayed at a small hotel situated on the side of a mountain with great views over the valley below. Franziska couldn’t believe her luck with the amount of different types of birds that frequently stopped by. When Sunday finally arrived we made our way back to Salento where things had died down a lot. We cruised into town and found accommodation immediately, most of the stalls and attractions were still up for the festival so we got to see some of it after all. The main reason for visiting Salento was to take a day trip into the Cocora Valley national park a huge picturesque natural area high in the mountains only 10 minutes from Salento. The next day we hooked up with the Belgians Matthijis and Gerlinde again and hiked for 10 kilometres through the park. It was tough because of the altitude but worth it. We were already at 2000m at the beginning of the trail which raised up to 2800m by the end so we felt the strain on the lungs at times. Great scenery and well worth it, we spent another couple of days in Salento then made our way south towards Cali which we had always heard is a cool place so we were looking forward to it.
There is a huge military presence on the roads in Colombia, every 50km or so and in some areas much more frequently we would ride past a unit of armed soldiers standing on each side of the road facing the traffic. When you ride by they give you a thumbs up and I usually do it back. I’ve learned that this is a campaign running in the country to show the people that the military are friendly and on their side. Now and then you see posters on walls with a picture of a soldier giving the thumbs up and in Spanish is written something along the lines of “show your support”. A couple of days ago I saw another giant poster of a scene with soldiers in uniform helping a woman deliver a baby but I didn’t catch the text of that one. Anyway the reason the military came to mind was because as we headed south we saw more and more of them. I found it interesting today when we were riding up to the Las Layas Sanctuary we stopped at a red light and next to us was a military barracks which had a giant poster of mug shots of the FARC and ELN commanders still at large with some of the mug shots crossed out with a red line and the word captured beneath them. Back in San Gil when I was talking to the two policemen I took the opportunity to ask them if it is safe to drive everywhere, they told me it is now and not to worry that the only dangerous areas are far off in the mountains to the east and south east. They also recommended that we don’t drive on mountain passes late at night which we never planned to do anyway.
Back to Cali, even though it has an elevation of 1000m it was scorching hot the day we arrived. We had a little trouble finding a hostel at first, we checked a few but they didn’t have suitable parking. We were all sitting on the curb thinking (the Belgians were there too) when a guy walked up to us and asked us if we needed a hostel. It transpired that he was out promoting a new hostel handing out flyers at the bus station but the Police stopped him from doing it, put him in the back of their car and drove him away from the bus station. Lucky for us they dropped him off at the end of the road where we were sitting so he walked right by us. He led us to this brand new hostel which isn’t even online yet with its own car park and brand new modern facilities. We began to explore Cali the next day and tried to find out why people think it is so cool. Eventually we found out, it boils down to alcohol and salsa dancing. Cali considers itself the salsa capital of Colombia so you can either take lessons, watch a salsa show or just go to a salsa bar and enjoy the atmosphere. So if you don’t like dancing or going out drinking the coolness of Cali may go over your head.
Our next stop was Popayan, which presently surprised us, it is much smaller than Cali and has a definitive centre around a square. It is also a university town with most of the buildings in the old town painted white and looking colonial. On our second day there we were interviewed by two students as we exited the tourist information centre. They are studying tourism and wanted to ask us some questions about our visit to Popayan. It was in Spanish so it moved along in a jerky fashion until they came to the question why did we choose to visit Popayan? For some reason I’m not sure why, I blurted out PARTY! and made a drinking a beer motion with my arm over and over again while smiling at them. Of course we were not there to PARTY we just dropped in by chance but I think I just thought at that moment that they are sure to understand the word party and then all of a sudden I had over done it. The two students looked a little disappointed I think they were hoping for an answer relating to the culture of Popayan. Without the appropriate Spanish skills to undo my mistake I walked away from that interview feeling pretty guilty.
After a few days in Popayan we rode into the mountains to visit a native village which also had some hot springs. We had a hilarious experience at the hot springs but I’ll use my better judgement and not go into detail about it here. I’ll keep that one for the pub some time.
Onwards towards Ecuador we passed through Pasto where we stayed one night and now we’re in Ipiales. Colombia has been a great experience, I liked the scenery, the small towns and the people’s openness the most and I liked the smog the least. Although everyone seems to have a mobile phone and modern shopping malls selling stylish clothes are everywhere nobody seems to have done anything in regards to emissions standards. There are a lot of old vehicles on the road blurting out black smoke as they accelerate and you don’t want to get stuck behind one on a curvy mountain roan where you don’t have a chance to pass for a while. Any day we have made a journey at the end of the day when I wash and put a towel up to my face to dry it the white towel turns black from the exhaust particles which collected on me. Aside from that everyone should visit Colombia its so diverse. We actually clocked up 2500km since arriving in Cartagena, that’s like riding from Guatemala City through El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama to Panama City. Colombia is deceptively large.