We’ve been in San Agustín, a little town 140km south from Popayán down possibly the worst road we’ve been on in Colombia so far, for the past four days. We left Popayàn, me slightly grumpy from an unhelpful bus driver and a pushy woman, ready for a long journey. We’d had strong black coffee and hot arepas for breakfast in the station and watched smiling images of the Pope driving into Plaza Bolivar in Bogota. The hype around his visit has been increasing during our time here, with bus stop posters advertising his arrival and memorabilia tshirts in the shops. It felt mad looking at pictures of Bogota knowing that we were there only 6 weeks ago; it feels like forever since we began our travels.
The journey, as expected, was pretty bumpy and included a pretty intense police checkpoint where we and our belongings got searched. We drove through the green of a national park and the purples and browns of mountain landscape before arriving into this small and friendly town, glad to get off the bus at last.
Our hostel for our first two nights was on built on lots of floors up a hillside and had murals on the walls and an amazing rooftop terrace. Gerard, the friendly guy from Barcelona who owned the hostel, loved my surname (“Skeleton” he hooted) almost as much as he loved playing 90s hits on YouTube. There was the smell of woodsmoke from the house next door, we drank coffee on the roof in the mornings and there was a laid back feeling at the hostel. There was also the weird vibes which Al has labelled as “hostelity”: when you arrive at a new hostel and feel a bit unsure, you’re sussing people out and they are doing the same to you. It’s a natural part of arriving somewhere new and normally quickly goes with a smile and a chat but it took me a bit longer than normal to relax here, though I did after a while.
One of the reasons I felt a bit on edge, was that a couple of travellers had decided to do a “special coffee tour”, ie. a tour of a coke farm. We’d heard about this and I expected we’d meet people who had gone on the tour; I don’t want to judge and people are entitled to do what they want, especially when travelling is about opening yourself to new experiences, but it struck me as blind thing to do in a country that has been so damaged by the cocaine industry.
The real and main draw in this part of the country are the archaeological remains of a lost civilisation. Over 3000 years ago, masons carved huge sculptures out of rock which can now be found dotted around the countryside. We visited the park where most of the ancient statues and tombs can be found; most of the statues are half human, half animal hybrids, snakes, jaguars, birds and frogs that depict transformation and ritual. It’s amazing that they were made so long ago, that many still exist in perfect form and that we know little about who made them and why. My favourite parts of the park was the beautiful riverbed that had been carved with snakes, fish, spirals and terraced pools for ritual cleanings and the far hilltop where a couple of lonely statues sat looking out over the hill and where we ate our packed lunch with a friendly dog.
The next day, we had a relaxed day, hanging out with people in the hostel before heading into town and bumping into Cleo, our friend from Solento, who joined us for a coffee and bunuelos, deep fried dough balls that are cheap and delicious. We got some groceries from the small shops lining the streets and then headed out of town to a finca where we’ve been spending the past few nights. As well as being a working farm, it’s a really relaxed place with old friendly dogs a bit wobbly on their legs and, as I write this, beautiful views of the hills and layers of birdsong.
Last night we headed out into town with some people here for drinks: a fun night, a rock bar, cheap wine and a walk home in the dark. We woke to the sound of cockerels and a cow shuffling in the long grass right outside our hut, and bought yoghurt, eggs and fresh bread from the farm this morning.
Today, we’re tired after a very fun five hours on horseback, trekking around the woods to see more of the ancient statues and faces carved into the rocks high above the Magdalena River. Moz, Cleo and I were led by twenty-one year old Alejandro, shy and with a silver chain inscribed with JESUS around his neck, and it was so fun to be on a horse again, getting used to riding sloppy Colombian style with long stirrups and bumping along merrily. Phil’s horse, Estrella, was the naughtiest, stopping to tear off chunks of ferns and then determined to push to the front. My horse, Luna, had honey on its nose, which made us laugh: “luna de miel” = honeymoon!
Tonight we went for beers in the square and the bar owner plonked some paper and a pen in front of us with MUSIC written across the top. We had a lush time drinking tinnies and listening to Van Morrison, Otis Redding and Paul Simon who I’m not sure have ever been played in San Agustín.
Tomorrow we head back to Popayán to pick up our big bags before we begin the journey towards Ecuador!