We have felt safe the entire time we have been traveling in Colombia. Safer than we felt in Central America to be honest. The funny thing is we talked to a few Colombians who thought we were crazy for driving without an armed escort in some of the areas we have. But they have a different history with this country. I understand and respect why some Colombians feel that way. We are new to Colombia, and maybe we are naive, or just lucky, but Colombia has been a wonderful and safe place for us to travel in.
However, we have been warned seriously about taking precaution in southern Colombia where FARC activity is still happening. We have even heard of recent stories of other overlanders who have encountered the FARC in this area (with no real problems). So with precaution we moved south from Tatacoa to San Augustin.
The drive to San Augustin was beautiful, and one day when we finally look at the hundreds of hours of GoPro dash board videos we have taken you might see it. But until then, trust me when I say it was stunning. Huge, lush green valleys with rivers cutting through them and waterfalls cascading down the side of mountains. It was spectacular, and rainy. We left the dry desert and started driving into our first bad weather of Colombia.
We were headed to San Augustin, the most important archeological site in the country to learn a little more about the pre-hispanic culture in Colombia, because, to be honest, there is not much of it left. The sites have over 500 statues and burial grounds and are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We arrived in San Augustin to just miserable weather. It was cold, foggy and constantly raining, and for any traveler, crappy weather makes a place less fun. So if my impressions of these sites seem a little negative, well, we were literally ankle deep in mud. We found a “campground” (with ice cold showers) where we parked in grass (tires sank about 10 inches down into the mud), where the only other family camping there had plastic trash bags tied around their shoes to keep them dry. Also, I had to keep pushing a cow out of the way to get into the XP, but I digress…..
The night before we went into the first archeological site we went into town and got a pizza. Just for the record, we told the girl we wanted a pizza big enough for two people. Maybe I got the word for two and twelve mixed up. This is what she brought us! Two words: cheese bomb!
That night when we returned to our campground I woke up around 3am to loud gun fire echoing through the valley. I woke up Sam and told him something was going on and he said it was just fireworks and to go back to sleep. It was not fireworks. It was machine gun fire in the hills above our campground for over an hour. I laid there and listened to the loud pop of guns and realized that there might still be some problems in this neck of the woods. The weird thing is I was not scared at all, and when the gunfire stopped, I quickly fell back to sleep.
San Augustin has multiple archeological sites, and we went to two of them, camping at one in the mountains. We only took our GoPro into the site because of the rain, so the pictures are not great. I am sure if you visited these sites in sun you will have a much better experience.
Salto de Bordones
From our camp spot at Alto de los Idols, we headed out to visit the tallest waterfall in Colombia and supposedly the second tallest in South America, Salto de Bordones, off the long dirt road to Popayan. This road (we found out later) is one of the more dangerous roads in southern Colombia. We researched the safety of another road (called the trampoline of death by motorcyclist) and were going to take it until we heard it was washed out in some areas from the rain. So last minute we chose to drive the road through National Park Purace to Popayan which is known for FARC road blocks (again, found this out later….).
As we headed along the beautiful road to the waterfall we felt for the first time things were different. As we drove through the rural villages and waved, people just stared back at us. It felt a bit off. When we arrived at the trail head to the waterfall we were the only ones there, and as we started the hike down to see it we were passed by a man with a shot gun strapped over his shoulder. This was the first civilian I had seen in two months in the country with a gun, so it was a bit surprising. I flashed him a big smile and said good day and he looked at me and rolled his eyes. The look basically said “What the hell are you doing here you stupid gringos”. Sam and I finished the hike, took lots of pictures and saw no more people on the trail. But it was the first time in Colombia that I felt a bit on edge.
The drive to Popayan was uneventful (if not very long becuase the dirt road was torn up). The only other bizarre thing we saw on this road was a beheaded cow. There was literally a cow with its head cleanly cut off sitting on a rock next to its body. I have seen a lot of things on this trip as we drive, but that was the weirdest thing I have seen and it bothered me. I just did not understand why someone would do that. But at least we did not have any encounters with the FARC.
We met up with our travel amigos Toby and Chloe in Popayan (an UNESCO World Heritage City for gastronomy) which strangely has very few restaurants. Go figure….. We all decided to cross into Ecuador together in a few days and headed to our last stop in Colombia.
Las Lajas Sanctuary
Almost every overlander stops to visit this unique church before they cross over into Ecuador. I decided that if Cinderella was Catholic, this is the church she would want to go to. The church was finished in 1949, so it is a rather new building, and while impressive for its stunning location, it also has a bit of a Disney feel to it. Maybe the llamas dressed in pink tiaras and sequins at the entrance set the expectation bar. Anyway, I am glad we got to see it, and since it is on the way to the border, I think it is totally worth a visit.
We spent our last night in Colombia free camping in the over flow parking lot overlooking Las Lajas. The llamas that were dressed up near the church were brought up to graze around us without the tiaras. It was good to see them without all the bling.
On to new adventures in Ecuador!