Monthly Archives: May 2013

Colombia!

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Colombia. We’d reached Colombia. This was a place with a reputation. For much of the last few decades this was a country that was seen as a no-go area; for most people, this was still a country that was pretty much a no-go area. However this was also a country that had turned itself around. We’d met so many people who’d loved the place, and declared it one of their favourite countries. They’d loved the stunning scenery, but more than that they’d loved the people. We hadn’t originally planned to visit it, and indeed were now travelling in the wrong direction, but given all the recommendations we had to see it for ourselves.

After the topiary of Tulcan we got a taxi to the border. Formalities were fairly straightforward; it had taken our friends many hours to get through in the other direction, though they had had the misfortune to be crossing during a holiday – thankfully it was very quiet when we were there, and we were through in about half an hour. As we walked over the bridge that marked the national boundary we passed a man; his face was etched with character, the kind that builds up over a lifetime of stories – he greeted us with a cheery (and slightly intoxicated) “Welcome to Colombia!” and we felt we’d arrived.

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We got another taxi to the nearest town of Ipiales and booked into a hotel. The town had a bit of a rough-and-ready feel to it, but as we walked into the centre it was quite clear we were in a different country. There was an air of brash confidence in the streets, the teenage boys sported elaborate hair-dos (though you wouldn’t have wanted to get too close with a naked flame, given the amount of hair product in evidence), and even the pooches were dressed up to the nines (or should that be canines?)

In the main square there was an inflatable slide, so the girls quickly paid their 1,500 Pesos and we stood to one side to watch. Now, often the girls attract a certain amount of attention, and we really have lost track of the number of times we’ve been asked if they’re twins. So, when someone approached and asked if they could have a photo we weren’t altogether surprised – that is, until it became apparent they wanted a picture with us, rather than the girls. Again, we were clearly in a country in an altered state of reality.

The next day brought another highlight. We could try and describe the Basilica de las Lajas, how it’s a church built in the Gothic revival style, how it’s constructed to form a bridge across a canyon, but to fully appreciate how staggeringly bonkers and brilliant it is you really have to see it, so here goes…

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P1030250P1030251On the way down to the church we took the opportunity to get some cheesy photos of the girls on llamas. Later on, some more Colombians asked if they could have a photo with us; we’d got used to old ladies coo-ing over the girls and often we’d see their faces break into a huge smile as they exclaimed “Que Lindas”, or ‘how pretty’ as we walked down a street or through a market: now however, we’d had the rather baffling situation of having our photos taken twice in two days, and this time it was at the request of two teenage girls!

Moving on from Ipiales we then had two long days of travelling to get through, in order to reach the pleasant colonial city of Popayan. We broke the journey in the town of Pasto, which was nothing special but did have a friendly hostel with huge rooms set around a courtyard in a rambling, crumbling old building; the girls had plenty of space to get out their toys and built a vast Lego village. Perhaps we sometimes forget to allow enough time and space for a bit of normal, everyday play, but this was a great place to relax after a long journey.

The scenery in this part of the world is something special – seemingly endless green hills, with sharp valleys and deep folds, and winding roads picking out a route through the crinkles and creases. The only thing interrupting this unspoilt view is the hundreds of polytunnels that are dotted around, often clinging to the hillsides at precarious angles, looking like giant plastic bags that have somehow got snagged on the landscape.

Another noticeable thing about the journey was an added ‘feature’ of Colombian buses. Now, throughout much of Latin America (and the developing world) you can be sure that whenever a bus stops an army of people will rush on to cater for any culinary or travel needs the passengers may have. In the couple of minutes that you may be stationary, a steady procession of drink sellers, fruit sellers, crisp sellers and other assorted snack sellers will squeeze up and down the bus, thrusting their wares under your nose. In Colombia you certainly get the full range of salespeople, but with an added bonus. Shortly after leaving the bus station (and as you inexplicably stop to pick more people up, often right outside the gates – why can’t these people make it into the station itself!?) someone will stand up at the front and make an announcement. They will then proceed to give a sales-pitch – depending on what they’re selling and how accomplished a performer they are, this can either be fairly funny, mildly entertaining, or awkwardly embarrassing! We were given the opportunity to purchase rare miracle cures, unusual snacks (that were somehow worthy of a lengthy lecture), and various self-help books and CDs. The usual form is that the person will go through the whole bus handing out their particular ‘must-have’ item, then talk about it for ten minutes, and then parade back through the bus collecting money, or more often, retrieving the said items. However the most noteworthy performances were of the musical variety – one singer in particular still makes us shudder at the memory, and even typing this brings on a slight cringe! After they’ve collected whatever money they can, and as you reach the outskirts of town, they get off the bus, doubtless to go through the whole rigmarole again on the next bus.

Sometimes you realise that some people have to work really hard to make a living.

After two days, we reached Popayan and stayed at another fantastic hostel, this one run by a Scottish couple. A friendly welcome, a map and a bit of information, and some good communal space really does make all the difference when it comes to accommodation. Popayan is a bit like a lot of the other colonial cities we’ve been to, but is almost all painted white, making it quite dazzling in the sunshine. We also ventured out of town to the hot springs nearby, which provided both relaxation (in the thermal pools) and adventure, in the form of a giant water slide. After we’d gone down for the umpteenth time and were recovering in the splash pool at the bottom, a rather large middle-aged man came crashing down after us, hitting the water with an almighty splash and then emerging smiling, excitedly saying “Velocidad extrema!” over and over again.
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P1010284The next day we moved on, this time to the small town of San Augustin. Again, the ride took us through some more amazing scenery, though this journey was more memorable for what happened as we got off the bus. We had to transfer to a pick-up truck for the final few kilometres and had just climbed into the back when another bus arrived behind us – however the driver totally misjudged the distance and crashed into the back of us. Fortunately he was travelling quite slowly and no-one was hurt, though two men had to jump out of the way as they were waiting to get in our vehicle. It could have been quite nasty, but luckily we were on our way a few minutes later, minus a rear light and a few shredded nerves.

P1030286P1030290When we’d looked at coming to Colombia, we’d worked out that we could just reach San Augustin before we had to return to Ecuador. Hence this was to be our main destination in Colombia, a nice little town surrounded by mysterious statues. There’s hundreds of stone figures dotted around the surrounding countryside, with the oldest dating to about 3,300 BC. No-one seems quite sure who made them, or what they represent, but most seem to be beside tombs or ceremonial sites. Some statues are of animals, some of people, some quite cartoon-ish, and they’re all set in beautiful rolling countryside.

Strange statues abound around San Augustin

Strange statues abound around San Augustin

We spent a thoroughly enjoyable day wandering around, seeing quite a few of the funny little fellas. That evening then provided another of the things we’ll most remember Colombia for. We’d gone out for dinner and Rach had ordered whilst Pete went to the cash machine for some money, as we were down to our last bits of change. Finding it out of order, he went to the one other ATM in town – predictably, this too was not dispensing any money. Returning to the restaurant in something of a fluster, we explained our situation, and how we had no Pesos to pay, so could we pay by card, or in Dollars. The friendly owner told us not to worry, and that we could come back the next day and pay when the machine was working again. As we were leaving first thing in the morning we paid in Dollars instead, but he insisted on showing us the exchange rate in the newspaper, to make sure we got the proper rate – this was a better rate than the money-changers in town gave us the next morning when we had to change more Dollars to pay for our hotel. Sometimes people are just genuinely helpful and it can be easy to forget that in a cynical world.

During our stay in San Augustin we encountered other examples of the kindness of strangers: firstly, the girls had been given a free horse and cart ride by some people we met at the playground, and secondly, the owners of a camp-site had been really helpful when we’d turned up and asked to use their wi-fi as it seemed to be the only place in town with a working connection. When the other travellers we’d met along the way had told us about Colombia they had sung the praises of the Colombian people, and how friendly they were – we were very happy to have experienced the same level of hospitality.

And then, after an all too brief stay, it was time to retrace our steps, all the way back to Ecuador. Given the remoteness of San Augustin and the mountainous terrain, we had no option but to go back via the same route, so it was back over the hills to Popayan and an overnight stay in the Scottish hostel; then back over more hills to Pasto, and an overnight stay in the rambling, crumbling old building; then back past the polytunnels to the border. In truth it was a bit of an arduous trek to see some funny statues in the middle of nowhere – but we wouldn’t have missed it for the world…

Here’s a few more photos…

Sanctuary of the Virgin of Las Lajas, Ipiales, Colombia

Sanctuary of the Virgin of Las Lajas, Ipiales, Colombia

Playing in the hostel, San Augustin

Playing in the hostel, San Augustin

School bus, Colombian style

School bus, Colombian style

One of the hundreds of strange statues near San Augustin

One of the hundreds of strange statues near San Augustin

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Ecuador part three: teleferiQo, trains and topiary…

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After our quick trip to Mindo we found ourselves back in Quito, so we decided to go up the TeleferiQo cable car. This is highly expensive, has a bit of a daft name, but takes you up to over 4,000m for an impressive view of the city.
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We had a wander around at the top but the girls were feeling the altitude a little and soon wanted to go back down. We’re sure this had nothing to do with the fact that there was a theme park waiting at the bottom of the cable car. This was quite strange: almost deserted and still at some absurd altitude, but you can’t beat rolling around in an inflatable ball at 3,000m.
Back in town we popped into a travel agency, just to enquire about the outside possibility of maybe doing a Galapagos trip – this was to prove an influential moment in our trip, as we quickly went from “We can never afford that” to “Ooh, maybe we could manage it” to “Oh, hang the expense, let’s go on a luxury cruise!”
The trip was due to set off in a couple of weeks so we had a few more decisions to make: all through our journey we’d met people who’d loved Colombia and we really wanted to go, so we had to work out how to fit in a quick trip there. We also had to figure out how to pay for the cruise – if we elected to pay by Credit Card it would add an extra 10% to the bill, but our bank wasn’t making it easy to transfer the money directly; on the other hand we didn’t want to keep taking out lots of money and then have to carry it as we went to Colombia. In the end we decided to worry about it later, and set off to Ibarra, on the way to the Colombian border.

To get there, first we had to get a taxi to the far-flung bus station – this was miles out, way past the airport on seemingly never-ending dual-carriageways, and the taxi cost almost as much as the bus tickets. Once in Ibarra we booked into Fran’s Hostal and then went out for pizza. The owner of the pizzeria seemed a little surprised to see us and asked how we’d heard about the place – he was even more surprised when we showed him our guide book with his restaurant listed. Unfortunately the food wasn’t so good, or we might have done a Trip Advisor review for him.

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Ecuador used to have a spectacular rail network and travelling by train would be one of the most enjoyable ways to see the country. Unfortunately, most of the tracks have fallen into disuse or been destroyed by the relentless effects of the weather, and at the moment it’s not possible to get very far by train. Tren Ecuador have, however, restored a few sections, and now run tourist ‘excursions’ at vastly inflated prices – they do have some dancers at the destination station though, so that’s ok. However, we really wanted to see at least a bit of the countryside from the comfort of a carriage so we bit the bullet and paid through the nose, mixing our metaphors as we went.

The journey was something a little different right from the start: the train sets off through the town’s crowded streets with security men on motorbikes racing ahead to stop the traffic and clear the way. It then rattles its way down a valley and the views get more scenic and the engineering more impressive, as it negotiates iron bridges and dark tunnels. After an hour or so, we screeched our way into Salinas station, where the aforementioned dancers were limbering up to herald our arrival – we’re not sure we’ve ever felt more like tourists!
After a walk round the small town, and a look at the even smaller salt museum, we had some lunch and then got the train back. It was all a little odd, but pleasant enough, and we met a family with a little boy called Darwin, so the girls had lots of fun on the return journey.

P1030214Whilst in Ibarra we’d seen adverts for the Ecuadorian National Ballet Company, who were playing the next night – obviously this was too good a chance to pass up, so we decided to stay for another day. This also gave us the chance to visit the small animal rescue centre on the top of the hill overlooking town. This was very low-key, and we met a couple of the young volunteers who were helping out. They’d obviously got quite attached to some of the animals – quite literally in the case of the monkeys who clung to them and wouldn’t let go!

The night of the ballet finally came and it must have been the most middle-class thing happening in Ecuador that particular evening. The great and the good of Ibarra were out in their finery, along with the trendy twenty-somethings and a slightly shabby backpacker family of four. The theme seemed to be experimental dance, but this was preceded by almost endless speeches, punctuated by occasional applause and barely concealed boredom. When the dance got under way it was, how shall we put it, a little on the dark side. There was no narrative to speak of, but lots of anguished movements and moody lighting. All in all, it was quite an experience.

Next stop on our northwards trajectory was Tulcan, just before the Colombian border. We’d read that this otherwise nondescript little town had one must-see attraction – its cemetery. Sometimes you read about a place and think it sounds interesting: sometimes it turns out not to be; sometimes it turns out to be worth a small detour; and sometimes it turns out to be quite amazing, and provides an unexpected highlight.

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Tulcan cemetery very much fell into this last category. Sometime back in the 1930s the gardener, with an eye for art and a nifty way with hedge-cutters, decided to start doing some topiary around the place. It seems like a hobby developed into an obsession, and then into a family tradition, as he and his sons created hundreds of living sculptures in a place reserved for honouring the dead.
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Cemeteries in this part of the world consist of long buildings with hundreds of coffin-sized niches built into them, like long walls of windows, or holes for the souls. Between these buildings are gardens, and here in Tulcan, these gardens are galleries, containing the most amazing topiary you could imagine. Figures both real and imagined, from nature and history, myth and cartoon; geometric shapes, three-dimensional shapes, and reliefs carved into hedges. It was all quite spell-binding, and we wandered around in awe, sharing the moment with lots of Ecuadorian sightseers, some people paying their respects, and hardly another backpacker in sight.

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Perhaps we got a bit carried away with the place, (we certainly took enough photos), but it seemed like a great way to round off this first visit to Ecuador – next stop, Colombia…

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