June 1 to 6, 2010
They wore gang colours. In broad daylight, a dozen of them had us surrounded in the main park of Isnos, Colombia. I gulped with fear. Their ring leader, a feisty ten-year-old girl, flashed a devilish smile before she thrust something into my gut. I was too slow to react and before I knew it I was staring down at something in my hands – something that chilled me to the bone. Homework. English class grammar problems to be exact. Ugh! Why couldn’t I get mugged like everyone else? The rest of her posse, ranging in age from 9 to 14, wore the gang colours of Isnos Secondary School, a nasty group of rapscallions if ever there was one. With eager smiles, they waited to see if the gullible gringos would help them out. I gave a dramatic belaboured sigh and began to read the questions aloud. Some of the kids elbowed each other with excitement like they had just found the mother lode. The problems were tough, but with Roz’s help, we got through them. Ten minutes later they released us from their devious clutches and with maniacal laughter (and a big thanks), ran off in search of their next victims. Gosh, travelling in Colombia is dangerous.
Even though I joke, I knew there were areas of Colombia that were dangerous to travel. The road that had taken us to Isnos, on our way to San Agustin from the hot springs of Coconuco, was one such area. FARC guerrillas had launched attacks in the region a month earlier, prompting the government to clamp down with an increased military presence. Now that the army had rolled in and the elections were over, the road to San Agustin was supposed to be safe. We started the day in the small mountain village of Coconuco where, after our customary three cups of coffee, our first order of the day was to find gas. There weren’t any gas stations, but we found a small “tienda” (store) that dispensed fuel in one gallon plastic jugs. While Yuki, our Suzuki Samurai, sipped her low-octane java through a siphon hose, a dozen local guys gathered and took great interest in our little 4×4. They took even greater interest in the fact that Roz and I didn’t have or want children. After some thought, the 30ish spokesperson for the group asked us who would get our truck when we died. Laughing, I admitted that I didn’t know. He then pointed to one of the teenagers in the crowd and suggested that we make him our son – then he could get the truck when we passed on. Everyone erupted into laughter except the poor teenager who, for a moment, looked so hopeful. We laughed too as we drove off with the horn honking and everyone in the street waving good-bye to us. We headed south, into guerrilla alley.
The 100-kilometer dirt road was as beautiful as it was deserted. Occasionally, an armoured car would roll by, reminding us that Colombia was still a country at war with itself and that this was indeed a “hot spot”. We saw more military presence in this area than we had for all of Colombia. Minutes after our encounter with the students of Isnos, we were stopped at an army roadblock. The young officer said something to me that I didn’t understand. I replied with my standard stupid-gringo line, “Disculpe, perro mi espanol es muy malo.” (Excuse me, but my Spanish is very bad). He held up his hand to stop me. “Tranquillo”, he said with a warm smile. Relax, it’s all good. And it was. He asked us where we had been and where we were going. I told him we were going to San Agustin and asked him if it was safe. “Si, si, seguro” (yes, yes, it’s secure), he said, and then wished us well on our journey.
(ROZ: At the heart of Colombia’s 40-year civil war is – surprise! – cocaine. Specifically, land to grow the coca plants on. FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia / Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) proclaim they are Marxist-Leninists fighting for “peasants’ rights”. The government retaliates with “law and order”, but the truth is, FARC controls a large part of the cocaine trade and the Colombian government doesn’t like that (nor does the US, which is why they’ve spent more than 3 billion dollars in “aid” to Colombia, including Plan Colombia, part of the Colombian government’s military campaign against FARC’s drug-smuggling and left-wing insurgency.) Jorge, the owner of Monteroca, supported President Uribe’s tough stand against the rebels. Jorge may have had an artistic temperament, but he was also a business owner. He saw FARC as a disruptive, selfish group of hypocrites who were getting rich while people like him did the real work in Colombia. On the other hand, Cristobal, the Colombian-born Canadian we met at the San Vicente hot springs, had nothing good to say about Uribe and felt that FARC was the only defense the peasants had against the wealthy who wanted their land. He said that rich plantation owners were hiring paramilitary groups to force peasants off land they had cultivated for generations. The men of the peasant families would be killed, and once the women and children fled, the plantation owner was free to take over the unoccupied land. Since the conflict began in 1964, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions have been displaced. Saddest of all, after more than 40 years of fighting, one thing hasn’t changed – the underlying cause of the war – poverty and inequality.)
We continued past Isnos, driving through lush, rolling green landscape and arrived in the small town of San Agustin with enough time to check out a few camp spots. We chose Camping San Agustin for its large clean property (perfect for our tent) and the multitude of horses, chickens and dogs (perfect for Roz). The weather was rainy with occasional sunny periods, so besides the tent, I also put up our Kelty shelter, which is essentially a fancy tarp with lots of grommets. It created a spacious covered area where we ate and watched movies on the laptop. The next day, we put on our rain gear and, armed with our Olympus waterproof camera, went head hunting in the nearby Parque Arqueologico. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site (we seem to visit a lot of these), the sprawling park was scattered with monolithic stones, carved with striking images of of men, animals and gods. I don’t know what those dudes were smoking when they carved this shit, but I want some. Many of the statues were left standing as they were found, usually next to a burial chamber. The absence of any large rocks in the area begged the questions: “Where did those huge rocks come from? Who moved them here? How did they move rock slabs around 3,000 years ago? And what the hell do those carvings mean?” After our “rockin’” walk, Roz and I enjoyed a delicious late lunch at a hostel up the hill from our campground, called Finca El Maco The pizza was soooo good.
Satisfied with our rocksplorations, we left San Agustin the next day to return to Popayan, stopping briefly on the way at Alto de Los Idolos, home to the region’s tallest statue, measuring seven metres high. Roz and I were a bit rocked out by then so we quickly checked out the dozen statues in the park and were back on the road to Popayan before noon. We were making good time along the rough, potholed road, until we came upon a line of stopped cars. A soldier directed us to stop too. Past the soldier, we could see a mudslide that covered the road. A bus had tried to get through the mud and was now stuck solid in the muck. As a tractor worked to clear the debris off the road and from around the bus, I struck up a conversation with the soldier. His name was Eduardo, a sergeant in his mid-30s, and he was posted to the nearby town. He had been called out to maintain order shortly after the road was blocked. At one point during our our conversation, it began to rain. We offered Eduardo one of our umbrellas, but he declined, saying that the rain didn’t bother him. But once the rain turned into a heavy downpour, he took us up on our umbrella offer. It was pretty funny to see this guy in army fatigues holding our small red umbrella above his head. I had to restrain myself from taking a picture. Eventually, the rain let up and the road was cleared. We said good-bye to Eduardo and thanked the highway workers as we drove off to Popayan. Because of the delay, we arrived in Popayan in the dark, but since we’d already been here, we knew exactly where we were going – the Hotel Colonial, where we had a great night’s sleep after a long day.
(ROZ: Eduardo’s easygoing manner and big smile made it hard not to like the guy. That kinda messed with my mind. He’s in the army. I’m not supposed to like people “dressed in uniforms of brutality”. But I gotta admit, all the soldiers we met in Colombia were calm and helpful, sometimes even a little bit curious about our trip. They certainly weren’t the scary baby-killers I imagined them to be. I never worried about being stopped by soldiers in Colombia – unlike the cops, who could hassle us for a bribe, and were to be avoided like the plague.)
The next morning we drove south and enjoyed one of the nicest days of driving yet. We were trying to leave Colombia, but its breathtaking landscapes kept taunting us to stay at every corner. Our last night in Colombia was spent in a roadside cabin near the border town of Ipiales. The next day, we took a slight detour on our way to the Ecuadorian border and visited the wildest church we’ve seen yet. The Las Lajas Sanctuary was built inside a canyon where an apparition of the Virgin Mary was`seen by a young girl in the 1700s. It was a popular place on the Sunday we visited. Some families walked the narrow pathways that led to the majestic church, while others set up picnics on nearby grassy knolls. It was a beautiful way to spend our final hours in Colombia. As much as we wanted to delay our border crossing, it was time to go so we left the church and turned south towards Ecuador.
We had met many people in the past month who saw a future in Colombia – people like Victor, Jorge, and Tony & Kim. They were building hostels and campgrounds with the expectation that Colombia will be the next travel hot spot. I think they’re on to something. Aside from the odd schoolyard thug hitting you up for homework help, Colombia rocks!
END OF PART 23