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The Final Days in Colombia


October 29th, 2017

This post is bittersweet; we have LOVED our time in Colombia and would come back if the road leads us back in this direction.  We have rarely met such a lovely group of people; so friendly, helpful and curious about their visitors.  Colombia, you hold a special place in our hearts and memories! ♥

So we departed Ecoparque Rayos del Sol outside Popayán in the morning, stopped for gas, water and groceries (at the wonderful Jumbo supermarket that has everything!) and made our way about 60km to the camping spot at the trailhead for the hike up Volcan Puracé. Doug wanted to attempt this hike to see how both he and his foot fare before attempting some of the higher volcanoes in Ecuador.

Where we were camped in Popayán was at 1860m/6100‘, this campsite is at 3466m/11350‘ and the top of the hike is at 4760m/15600‘ so the plan was to arrive today, spend all day tomorrow here acclimatizing and then Doug hike up on Wednesday, so we would stay here three nights in total.

When we got here, we were told we could park in front of the building, use the bathrooms/showers, there was no power and the hikes up with the mandatory guide were offered at 6am and 9am. We did not have pay the park entry fee unless we actually did the hike.

It was raining when we arrived and it was cold up here! We hung around inside Tigger till late afternoon when it stopped and went for a walk to stretch our legs. Doug had taken some Diamox, to help with the altitude for his hike. On our walk we saw a few birds, including a pair of king vultures and lots of cows.

After dinner, we bundled up inside as it was even colder and watched some stuff on our laptops until bed. It did not rain much overnight but we were glad for warm jammies and blankets.

When we awoke Tuesday, it was cloudy but not raining and we just laid in for a while enjoying the warmth of our beds. We finally got up around 8:30 and just before ten, Doug decided to go for a walk up the road to help with the altitude for tomorrow. As an afterthought, he went into the office to arrange for a guide for the next day, only to be told, there was now a government strike on and there would be no guides for a few days! He was pretty disappointed. But at least we didn’t’ stay another day here where there is not much to see or do in the cold and damp.

So now we drove back down the Highway 20 to meet back up with Highway 24 and make our way southeast to San Agustin – it’s about 140km/86m – shouldn’t take long right? WRONG! We had read on iOverlander that there was bad stretch of about 40km/25m and we did hit that and it was so hardpacked and rocky with potholes so we rarely were able to go more than 20kmh! So the whole drive was nearly six hours (with only short stops). Ridiculous but hey, this is Colombia. The sun came out midafternoon and the scenery looked so much better. It really is a nice drive through the Puracé National Park but the roughness of the road and the on and off rain had made it less than it should have been. We came across another large field of frailjones and there were lots of signs advising this was an area of tapirs but, they were obviously not up to getting their photos taken today as none appears.  Doug was pretty frustrated with the road; it was amazing how much stuff fell out place, off the bed etc. This road was worse than the road to Caño Cristales for its roughness. At least that one was mostly mud, so much smoother and not hardpacked.

One thing that was pretty interesting was the enormous variety of plant life; moss, trees, ferns, shrubs, flowers, grasses and palm trees of varying types. It was thick and close to the road so didn’t make for many great lookouts but if you were a plant person, you’d be in heaven.

Once we reached the main highway going north/south on this side of the mountains, we crossed the Rio Magdelena again – we must have crossed this large river at least a half a dozen times during our time in Colombia and it’s much shallower and more narrow here so we must be near the headwaters. We have now learned that this river is 1560km/970m long.

We arrived in San Agustin, and both our Garmin and our wanted us to take a route through the town and then through the archeological park to get to our camping spot, a hostel called Casa de Nelly. We did drive that way but the park was closed so it was not possible to pass through. After some finagling, we found our way, managed to fit under the hanging sign in the archway over the entry and parked in front. Harri welcomed us, advised us where to park (it’s pretty small and we are about the max length you could be here) and we set up. We’re at about 1800m/5900’ in altitude here so quite comfortable; warm during the day, sun can be quite hot and then it cools down at night.

Doug was doing some repair work on our outside cubby AGAIN and also discovered that some of the bolts he’d had the mechanic shop tighten/replace back in Popayán were now missing and one of our sway bars was hanging down! He strapped it up with a bungee cord. No wonder the truck was pitching side to side so much yesterday. We’ll have to get this taken care in the next city as San Agustin appears too small to have a decent sized garage.

Doug went for a walk before dinner and saw this:

After walking around the town on Tuesday, we booked a horse riding tour to four archeological sites outside the national park which will end at the actual park where we can walk around ourselves afterwards. The town is small and has a few small squares. We wanted to find a Xmas ornament for our collection but despite walking into at least a dozen shops, nothing caught our fancy. We returned to the hostel and chilled for the afternoon.

Wednesday morning Enrique arrived with our “rides”: two horses named Lupé and Catalina.

We got on and made our way back a ways into town then north into the hills. After about a half hour, we stopped at El Tablon where we saw four statues, one of which had a faint jaguar outlined on it, one was a mask, one an unknown god and one was the god of the moon. He said these were 5000 years old!

Afterwards we sat in the little café for coffee and fresh lulo juice and found a Christmas ornament to our liking in the little shop.

Then it was the La Chaquira site after another half hour or so of riding; here there was a long walk down hill to a long set of stairs (224!) overlooking the Rio Magdelena Valley – this river has its headwaters nearby to where we are located now and runs north into the Caribbean Sea. Here the main rocks depict the gods of the sun, water and rocks.

The final stop was after a much longer ride was at El Purutol and La Pelota where there are coloured statues and a tomb that was only excavated back in 1984. The two statues which are painted are well preserved and Enrique showed us the two types of trees where the artists got the red and yellow dyes and the seeds which created the blue paint – btw these are the three colours of the Colombian flag!

It began to rain when we arrived here but didn’t last long – maybe a half hour; we’d brought plastic dollar store ponchos along and they got put to good use but afterwards the sun made its way out for most of the rest of the afternoon.

Then after a longer ride we ended up at the UNESCO World Site archeological park and here we spent maybe 90 minutes touring the well maintained park contains which contains a large collection of monuments distributed amongst a museum, a forest of statues (with 39 of them here) and five sites with burial chambers and statutes guarding them – we only visited two of the latter. The statues were first described by a Spanish missionary, in 1756 and most were excavated in the 20th century and this project is ongoing. There are over 500 statues that have been uncovered to date. The dates of the statues are uncertain, but they are believed to have been carved between 1 and 900 A.D. The origin of the carvers remains a mystery and no writings have been discovered yet. The statues vary in height, the tallest being 23 feet/7m tall. They are suspected to be funereal statuary.

We walked back to our hostel – maybe 25 minutes, enjoyed hot showers and relaxed.

Thursday morning we awoke to partly cloudy skies and decided it was time to move on. The parking lot here is quite small and we feel like we are in the way.

We had a leisurely breakfast, did some downloading and left before ten. We had 150km to drive today which doesn’t sound like a lot but took more than four hours even though it was all paved “highway” – too many potholes in one section then topes (speedbumps) and lots of windy road.

We arrived in Mocoa and first order of business was to get that sway bar replaced. We had seen a suspension place on iOverlander that looked promising but upon arriving, it was closed – on a Thursday afternoon…..go figure. So we drove to another that Doug had seen coming into the town and they sent us down the road a block and a half to a place that works on larger vehicles. Marcus did not have the part BUT he could make one! Less than an hour later and $20, we were out of there!

Now our next piece of road to tackle in Colombia is the “trampoline of death” road – which we understand takes about 4-6 hours so it was too late to begin that drive today. We found a cheap hotel with AC (we are down to 600m/1800’ so it’s hot again and there’s no place to camp with power). For about $13 we found a room with AC and internet next to a gas station with the cheapest gas we’ve seen in a while, so after filling up we checked in.

After a crappy night’s sleep we were up by six and hit the road in about a half hour (saving breakfast to have later on the road). We drove about ten kilometers to the turn off to the trampoline of death road and upon hitting dirt road, we stopped to air down.

The sun was shining and it was a great day for scenic, thrilling drive. As soon as we took off we hit pavement again for about five kms.

So now are on the Trampoline of Death Road and we have about 60kms of up and down, winding right, winding left, super narrow at times, no guard rail at times and we climbed from 600m/1900’ to 3200m/10,000’ then down some and back up before hitting pavement again at the town of San Francisco.

There were many sections where we or another vehicle had to back up to winder sections in order to pass by each, three water crossings, lots waterfalls on the side of the road and some breathtaking views. We were fortunate that it was dry and sunny as we’re sure that rain would make that drive more treacherous.   It has a surprisingly high volume of traffic with lots of buses and trucks (and we came upon five ambulances!). It’s actually the only highway between Mocoa and Pasto so it’s well used and in reality, other than its narrowness, is well maintained. We actually encountered a few roadwork crews, some with machinery working on it. We stopped at a pullout for breakfast after almost an hour and other than that, drove straight through.

Below are three videos of some of our ride:


Our destination for the day was Laguna de la Cocha where there is a restaurant run by a little elderly woman named Ana Julia and she cooks up a mean garlic trout dinner. If you eat at the restaurant, you camp for free. So the 155km took us about 6.5 hours including stops totaling close to two hours.

We aired up in San Francisco by the side of the road (thank goodness again for our air compressor as we’d asked in town and found no place that could air us up) and continued climbing again to the lake where we arrived about one pm.

Ana Julia welcomed us for lunch and for $5 each (yes five) we got a three course meal that included soup, a small salad, a plate of garlic trout with fries and rice, a freshly squeezed juice of our choice and, yes there’s more: dessert! It was all delicious and so filling. The weather turned cool and it began to rain on and off so we spent the late afternoon and the night in Tigger.

After brekkie in the rig, we left Saturday morning and drove the short distance to the city of Pasto. Here we had a number of items we wanted to get done before crossing the border with Ecuador (things seem cheaper here in Colombia except gas).

There were a few places on iOverlander noted that we thought could help us out so the first stop was to see a man named Carlos at a hose store (yep, hoses) and he helped us find a place to see about getting that darn back window looked at once again for its leak. He took us to a place that specializes in vehicle glass and there they removed all the tape and caulking and resealed the window with something new. We also bought a tube of the sealant that they used, just in case……

We also both want to have our cholesterol retested as it’s been a few months and we hope to see some progress and as it happens, Carolos’ sister is a doctor! Being Saturday, labs are only open till eleven and we’d eaten breakfast already so were unable to get bloodwork done but Dr. Claudia came by with her daughter, Stephanie (age 7) and her mother Rosita and she wrote us a requisition so we can have this done here in Pasto or in the next city, Ipiales (Monday is a holiday here so if we don’t want to hang around we can wait till we get there which is only 80 kms/50m away and just before the border).

Dr. Claudia, Rosita, Stefanie and us

Next we wanted the air conditioner looked at mostly for maintenance as we’ve never had it looked and someone had posted on iOverlander a place that specializes in appliances including AC where they’d had a fridge in their rig fixed. Carlos had also told us he could help with this problem but by the time we were done the window, he was no longer around so we went to the one as planned.

Edgar’s shop was closed but it had a sign on it saying they’d moved so we asked a cabbie if he could drive there and we’d follow (Amazing Race style!). As he was unsure of the address that was noted on the sign himself, he called the number on the sign and Edgar came to us! Doug explained what we wanted and he had us follow him to his new location, where we drove inside and he cleaned and inspected the unit and also while he was up on the roof, cleaned our solar panels! When he was done we asked if he knew a parking place we could spend the night nearby and he insisted we stay in his shop safe and secure. It ain’t fancy but there’s power and a bathroom to use. This area of Pasto is a little “sketchy” so we feel better locked inside. We did go for a walk before dinner after the work was done and it didn’t feel all that comfortable.

Dog guarding the house next to the garage

It wasn’t the quietest night ever (too many neighbourhood watchdogs and a rooster!) but was warmer than we expected; being inside the electrician’s shop meant no wind so it never felt cold. The plan was to leave and follow Edgar the next morning out to a job he was going to as we wanted to go to the same town so Doug could get a guide to climb a nearby volcano. We were up early and Edgar and his partner were getting ready to go when Doug asked him if he could look at our fluorescent light in the kitchen; one bulb never seems to want to come on anymore and we’d replaced them when we got back from Canada two months ago.

They said at first the ballast needed replacing and that they could get us one the next day; then his partner fiddled with it and said no there is no ballast so it was the bulbs.  He said he didn’t have any 12” ones but could “make” us one from a larger one (?). He showed us the LED tube he was going to use and said if we came back this evening when they got back from their job, he’d take care of it for us in the morning.  Well it was better than waiting till our Christmas trip home to get a new light (we’re not confident this is going to work….) so we said “sure, we’d delay our trip till tomorrow”. They let us get out of the garage (we had to leave otherwise we’d be locked in all day!) and we went to a more upscale part of town to park for the day and planned to return before dark (even though they may not be back until eightish – we have a rule about not driving after dark).

We found a place on iOverlander where another overlander had actually spent the night beside a church in a very nice part of town and went there. Enroute we saw a few grocery stores and malls with cinemas so we thought we’d check out the nearby ones as well as walk some to get out daily steps and do some Spanish lessons.

Upon arriving we saw many police motorcycles (some comfort) and a few people going to mass. After speaking to a few people, it seemed safe so we went for a walk; went to one supermarket and walked back with most of what we needed and then walked over to the nearest cinemas; nothing was interesting but there was another supermarket in that mall so we got most of the other things we needed there. We returned to Tigger, put away groceries and when we decided to go out an walk, a man told us we could only park here until one o’clock but we couldn’t really understand why….. We decided it was time for our daily Spanish lessons, so we each went a different direction and met back up in an hour.

Some of the things we saw:

serving Guinea pig
they put up Christmas trees early here too!
Church on Pasto square
horses in a field right in the city
El Centro, Pasto

Upon returning from our separate walks, Doug spoke to a police officer and he said there was no problem with parking here for the rest of the day. When the man who had told us was leaving he came by and said “don’t leave the car unattended” so we then thought perhaps that he was saying that after one o’clock when all the masses were over, there would be fewer people around (including him) to keep an “eye on our truck” so it wouldn’t be so safe.

We did stay with the rig for the afternoon, reading and relaxing. We drove back to Edgar’s place before dark and parked down the street where it was flat as his shop is on a hill. He told us he’d be back around 8. He returned after nine and we got parked safely inside for the night.

Sidebar: in the past couple of weeks there have been a lot of protests by the indigenous peoples of the department (state) of Cauca – this is the department Popayán is located in and the main route north south in the country. For the most part it’s the PanAm highway which is of course the trucking and main route from the port of Cartagena to Ecuador (passes through Medellin). At the end of our stay in Popayán, we’d heard the road south to here, Pasto, had been blockaded and when we were in San Agustin, we heard the road here was being blocked at the Popayán end so we were fortunate to get through. We have a friend who took four days to get from Cali (north of Popayán) to the Pasto. During our time in Colombia we have hardly driven the actual PanAm and had no plan to visit Cali or the west coast. We are now in the department of Narino here in Pasto and although the traffic is flowing you can see the effects of the road blocks: gas tankers are not getting through and there are long lines at the pumps. We should have enough gas us to the border town of Ipiales where we hope it is not so affected as the government of Colombia is talking of ways around the blockades for gasoline; ie bringing in from Ecuador etc. Fingers crossed because we understand that for the first 90km in Ecuador, only domestic plated cars can purchase gasoline (this stops Colombians from crossing to get the much cheaper gas in Ecuador).

Here in Pasto, despite the lineups at the gas stations, the price for gasoline is much lower than central Colombia – similar to the prices we experienced up by the Venezuela board in June. The regular price in most of Colombia is almost $3 a gallon but down here it’s just over $2. We are looking forward to Ecuador where we’re told, it will be half that!

So Monday is a holiday (again!) here in Colombia and Edgar’s partner did not come into the shop until well after nine. Doug went for a walk to see if any hardware stores were open and it didn’t seem like a holiday as everyone seemed to be working, including here in the shop. He actually managed to find the few things we need for some minor repairs/adjustments and we waited until our new light tubes were created and working before leaving.

We have a few things more we’d like to get taken care of here in Colombia and have to be sure we use all our Colombian pesos. We are low on cash right now and would prefer not to withdraw too much more so we have to plan this carefully.

Two of the things we need soon are an oil change and a tire rotation. Enroute to Ipiales we spotted a roadside tire place and the young man there was able to do a five tire rotation (under Doug’s supervision) for about $8 – he had pneumatic tools which made the job go so much faster than we could have done ourselves (we’ve actually done a tire rotation ourselves back in the US in a shopping mall parking lot no less!).

Gorge right behind the little workshop
Grandfathers beard moss across the road on the cliff

We arrived in the city at a hotel recommended on iOverlander that had a parking lot that could fit bigger rigs. We had the gate unlocked and barely got inside and it was not big enough to turn around it so tomorrow morning could be a challenge backing out onto a narrow one way street.

We decided to go for a walk and be sure we knew where the laboratory was for our blood work in the morning before breakfast and good thing we did as it was not where we guessed or even where the front desk thought it was. We then decided a dinner of hamburgers was in our cards and found a nice place to go to later on. After a couple of hours on the internet and hot showers, we went for dinner complete with fries and Corona not far from the hotel in the main square.

Tuesday morning we were up before 6:30, dressed and walked the few blocks to the lab to get our bloodwork done. Clinic opens at 7 but you can get in and wait in the front room. There were two types of numbers to take for service and we were told to take a blue one. Before seven they began calling pink numbers so we were confused but by 7:20 they called a blue one and we were the next ones in. The blood test cost $17 each and result will be ready to pick up tomorrow afternoon.   We went back to the hotel, had brekkie in Tigger, used the internet for a while (Doug went for a run) and then we left before noon.

Enroute to Las Lajas we looked for and found a place not only to do an oil change but also to wash the truck – cost us less than $20 (we had the oil and filter).

Then we drove the final two kilometres to our next camp spot: the cable car parking lot that takes you down to the sanctuary at Las Lajas.We parked, did a few things and then before dinner a land cruiser showed up with a French couple who were travelling north and had just crossed into Colombia today. We enjoyed a chat and a beer with Pierre and Catherine and called it a day. The parking lot is huge and flat. There is access to bathrooms and free slow wifi at the building.

So Wednesday morning we did some chores and then walked down to mirador to see the Sanctuary of Las Lajas. It’s quite an engineering feat.

Note: Las Lajas Sanctuary is a Roman Catholic basilica church built inside the canyon of the Guaitara River. The name Laja comes from the name of a type of flat sedimentary rock similar to shale.

The inspiration for the church’s creation was a miraculous event in 1754, when Amerindian woman, Maria Mueces and her deaf-mute daughter Rosa were caught in a very strong storm. The two sought refuge between the gigantic Lajas, when, to Maria’s surprise, her daughter Rosa exclaimed “the Virgin is calling me” and pointed to the lightning illuminated silhouette over the laja. This apparition of the Virgin Mary instigated popular pilgrimage to the site and occasional reports of cases of miraculous healing. The image on the stone is still visible today.

The existence of a shrine in this location was recorded between 1756 and 1764. The first church was built here in the middle of 18th century from straw and wood. It was replaced with a new, larger building in 1802, which in turn was extended and connected to the opposite side of canyon with a bridge. The present church was built in between 1916 and 1949.

waaay down in the gorge you can see the basilica

So we decided that rather than waiting till the afternoon, we’d walk the rest of the way down, visit it and take the teleferico (cable car) back up to the parking lot where we’re camped. It was about a further twenty minute walk almost all down a steep hill. There is a little village just before the church where you walk the gauntlet of souvenir shops, but no one hassled us. The Sanctuary is free (but you pay to use the bathrooms) and we wandered around for about an hour or so. We walked the pathways, went inside the church, down in to the chapel where confessions are held and up to a viewpoint on the other side of the canyon. It was a nice end to our time in Colombia.

enroute we saw our first llama in South America

On the cable car ride we met a couple of Cali and then showed them and their friends our “casa rodante” before they left. After lunch Doug walked down to the main road, caught a bus into town and got our blood work results – not great but we’ll work on it.

After it got dark, we walked back down to the Mirador as we’d read that the basilica is lit up at night and we were lucky enough to see it in various colours.  We made it back to Tigger right before it rained but it was a short shower.

We spent a second quiet night at the parking lot.

We have 74,000 Colombina pesos remaining so we are going to put that into the gas tank so we don’t get ripped off on the exchange rate with the money changers at the border. There are not many gas stations between here and the border and the road construction made it difficult to get us to the one we were headed to so after a big detour we found another one and it was lucky we wanted gas not diesel as they were out!

Ecuador here we come!

Some fun facts we’ve learned about Colombia:

  • Colombia has the most endemic species in the world and is the second most biodiverse country in the world, after only Brazil which is 10 times its size.
  • When you use a credit card, you are asked “cuanta cuota” which means how many months do you want to pay this over – really only applicable to Colombian credit cards but we often get asked at the till so we just say one as we pay our credit cards in full each month
  • Colombia is now very safe; there is definitely a police and military presence here but they are always giving us smiles and thumbs up as we are waved through most check points and if we are stopped, they rarely ask for ID or paperwork, they want to say “hola” and find out where we’re from and where we’re going.
  • Colombia has almost 1900 species of birds – the most of any country in the world.
  • Famous Colombians: Shakira (and she’s part Lebonese) and Sofia Vergara, (discovered on a local beach as a teenager), of course, but also Gabrial Garcia Marquez, a Nobel Laureate and the author of “Love in the Time of Cholera” (the most sold Spanish novel of all time), actor John Leguizamo, journalist & reality TV actress, Nina Garcia and Lucho, a Tour de France leg winner in 1984.
  • The 1000th Starbucks store was opened in Medellin!
  • Columbia is the world leader in emeralds
  • More Colombians speak Spanish per capita than Spaniards in Spain!
  • Colombia’s national bird is the Andean Condor.