People were perplexed about our choice of Colombia for our summer break. Why were we going somewhere so dangerous? I knew deep down though that we had made a good choice. A bio-diverse country with wonderfully warm people, picturesque colonial cities, deliciously smooth coffee and fascinating pre-Colombian statues awaited us. And we did feel safe.
One of the highlights was the few days we spent in Huila province, in the south west of the country. We enjoyed walking through the Tatacoa semi-desert area admiring the intense red coloured rock, heavy with iron-ore, the landscape peppered with the imposing cardones (candelabra cacti). I am not surprised that some indigenous communities in South America consider these cacti as their ancestors. To me, they are the equivalent of a wise old oak.
We journeyed through rice fields, tobacco, coffee, plantain and passion fruit plantations. Time to visit those pre-Colombian stone statues in the archaeological parks near San Agustin, scattered across the rolling green-clad mountain landscape of the Upper Magdalena river. The parks were designated as UNESCO heritage sites in 1995. These impressive ceremonial funereal statues, many anthropomorphic, included some animal features of jaguars and eagles, representing power and strength or monkeys to represent sexual prowess. The tallest was about 6 metres high and amazingly some were preserved with traces of their original painted colour intact. Prominent women in these pre-Colombian communities were not excluded from representation after their deaths. There were some more feminine statues bedecked with carved jewellery and clutching small babies.
Frequent coffee breaks are derigueur. I am a hardened tea fan but it did not take long for me to acquire a taste for small cups of the mild, smooth cafe tinto (black coffee). In between statue gazing, we visited the Bordones waterfall. At 400m it is Colombia’s highest. We shared our view with groups of happy school children who completely mobbed us with their cameras. Not only were they unused to seeing Europeans but we came from the city hosting that little sporting event! They clambered on to their brightly coloured buses with state of the art speakers booming out that infectious, rhythmical Colombian music. This was motivation enough to go to school I thought!
We were in tropical fruit heaven! We sampled succulent mangos, pineapples, passion fruit and blackberries to name but a few. We were also introduced to Cholupa and Lula, both similar to passion fruit. I was offered all sorts of herbal remedies for the cough I had acquired, including hot coca tea. I abandoned the idea of buying coca tea bags to take home, in case I raised alarm bells in customs.
It was time to leave San Agustin and drive to the colonial city of Popayan about 136 kilometres away. The road is largely unpaved. It is a great talking point amongst the locals as the directors of the company contracted to pave it ran off with the contract money and are now in jail. We set off along the dusty bone shaking road. Periodically, we drove along a paved section and had to pay a toll. There seemed no logic to the construction plans. We squeezed past lorries chugging up the bumpy road in the other direction and the way was peppered with road works. Orange cones marked the worksites with a workman or local young local lady holding the ubiquitous “stop/go” sign to direct the traffic. Regular police checkpoints reminded us that this had been guerrilla country about five years ago.
We wound up through the mountains of the Cordillera Central and dense cloud forest at about 6,000 feet. The cloud forest gave way to the even higher, desolate and boggy paramos of the Altiplano. A strong wind swept across these scrubby plains, backed by foreboding volcanoes. We had a couple of welcome stops at tiny roadside shacks selling coffee and snacks. I could not help but sway to the lovely music playing in the background.
Once through the Altiplano, we started our long descent in to Popayan. The landscape suddenly gave way to rolling green mountains with cattle farms and plantations of tobacco and fruit. The temperature climbed and we were glad to feel heat again.
Much of the city of Popayan was destroyed or damaged in an earthquake in 1983. The picturesque low rise buildings in the historic centre have been well-restored and there is little evidence of damage.
A saint wobbled past the front door of the hotel as we stepped out the next morning. It was deftly held aloft by a small group of smartly dressed young men. We fell in with this confirmation procession and followed it as it snaked through the streets of the historic centre to the Church of Santo Domingo, accompanied by a lively brass band. This set us off very well for our sightseeing through the old city. The city is tranquil and has a stately feel. We enjoyed our leisurely day wandering the picturesque streets.
Our batteries recharged, we were ready for a trip out of town the next day to Purace National Park about an hour and a half’s drive from Popayan. The Park partly extends over the reservations and ancestral lands of the Kokonuco and Yanacona peoples. With an area of approximately 83,000 hectares this wilderness is probably the largest national park in Colombia. Tourism, which has replaced cocaine production, is in its infancy and so facilities are limited at the moment. We therefore arranged for a local guide to take us as getting around the park is difficult without a car.
The bright sunny day afforded us fantastic views of the volcanoes in the park, including the distant snow-capped Pan de Azucar, As we drove around the park, we crossed from Huila to Cauca province. We walked through pristine vegetation to look at a large lake set in the altiplano landscape we had seen on the way from San Agustin to Popayan. Our slight breathlessness reminded us that we were about 3,500 metres above sea level.
Condors, indigenous to this area, were wiped out by man many years ago. The local indigenous communities have reintroduced them. They have created a refuge around a rocky outcrop where they circulate, tempted by the meat provided by the locals. A rather large birdfeeder! There are one male and two females. We stopped at the refuge and did not have to wait long before the male swooped across the valley to the rocky promontory, determined to fight off the smaller opportunistic vultures from the meat. He was later joined by one of the females. How skilful these massive birds look, barely seeming to move as they swoop noiselessly across the valley. We were delighted to have been able to see them. The car we were in had seen better days and refused to start. Fortunately, a twiddling in the engine got us on our way again.
We stopped to have a close look at the indigenous Espeletia (commonly known as Frailejón), a hallmark of the paramos landscape. These plants with their thick, pineapple plant like stems have extremely soft, thick, light yellow leaves. The leaves act as insulators and the early indigenous people used them to conserve ice transported from the mountains.
We headed to the nearby short San Juan trail, which was very worthwhile. We walked through the rainforest stopping to admire the red fronds on the many bromillaides and tiny, delicate magenta and yellow orchids. The trail ended at some wonderful bubbling hot springs, aware that we had arrived by the strong smell of sulphur that pervaded the air. For me, watching bubbling pools is as mesmerizing and soothing as watching a crackling fire or waves gently crashing on the shore. We walked around the area stopping to admire the milky blue bottoms of the clearwater pools. These, a striking contrast to the intense almost luminous greens of the surrounding plant life. This was a fitting end to a wonderful day in the park and indeed to our memorable time in this area.