After some days in the White Colonial city of Popayan, it was time for us to move on, direction San Augustin, where we wanted to visit the famous National Park. – The one with all the statues. I’ll explain later in this blogpost, don’t worry – But first, I had to wake up a grumpy Mexican – The only thing he disliked about me (as he says) was how I woke up too early. And since he was sleeping with me in his arms, how I woke him up too early. – and we had to get ready to head to the bus station, after picking up our laundry. Luckily, as you might remember, Ale is also an excellent cook and I had to chance to enjoy some quesadillas for breakfast AND he made me some for lunch too. Having a packed lunch for a change made me look forward a little bit to the bus ride I had ahead of me. Only a little bit.
After saying goodbye to our hostel we headed towards the bus station, where I would figure out which bus to take while Ale cycled to the laundry store to pick up our clothes. Knowing South America a little bit, I knew I didn’t need to buy the ticket for the bus going in 30 minutes, instead I went for the one 1,5 hours later, calculating that Ale wouldn’t be arriving back so soon. Proved to be right, since half an hour passed and I hadn’t seen a sign of him. I did meet a nice police officer who asked me about my trip, decided to have a little chat with me while I was waiting and who bought me some sweet pastries before he went back to work. Right on time to have Ale arriving – the laundry wasn’t ready yet when he went to pick it up -, bike already in order and with my clothes clean, dry and ready to pack. Only a short stop to kiss me goodbye again, off to San Augustin, where he hoped to arrive the next day. – Hehe. This is the funny part. I always knew he was overestimating himself, I just needed to wait for the message he wouldn’t be in that evening and change my plans – So I waited for the bus, which left an hour later than expected and settled down for what would be the rest of my afternoon, watching the landscape pass by. Only to try and shout ‘Alleeeeee’ out of the bus window when I saw my Mexican two hours later, cycling very slowly up hill. – First time I was awake to see him cycling during the trip – Little did he know – or me – that the heaviest part was yet to come: more than 30 kilometers through the Puracé National Park, with literally nothing. No restaurants, no stops, not even space to park a car on the side of the road. The only thing you’d see was a road filled with potholes, heavy trucks speeding by and thick forest on both sides of the road. Ale wouldn’t ever be able to sleep or put up his tent during this part, there was literally nothing. NOTHING. Quite close to the middle of nowhere. Even closer when our bus driver suddenly stopped the bus, went to check the tires and took off without saying anything. Since he started driving again, I didn’t worry, only when we arrived back into the land of the living after crossing the Puracé Park borders, we stopped for real to get our tire replaced. I watched while eating my last quesadilla. At least I got some time to stretch my legs. The sun started to set and with a couple of hours delay I got dropped off at the side of the road, together with two German girls who also were headed to San Augustin. There we had a jeep waiting for us to drive us the last part up the hill into the city, chatting with the driver who wanted to know who we were and what our plans where. When hearing the story about my Mexican cyclist, he needed to tell me that there are two wild lions living in the National Park, after they managed to escape a travelling circus. Never to be found again, probably roaming in the woods of the Park. Being more scared of Ale being hit by the huge trucks passing by than being eaten by wild lions, I still wisely decided not to send him a message with the news. He probably didn’t have wifi anyway.
After a long day in a shaky bus and the last kilometers in jeep, I finally arrived in my hostel, where I had this double room all for myself. I discovered the hostel a bit, met some people, chatted and played ‘Shithead’ – needed to show off my skills, duh – and went to bed alone.
WALKING AROUND SAN AUGUSTIN
Waking up with free coffee in the hostel and a long chat over breakfast with Julia and Mitchell, a couple from the US travelling all around Central and South America. I particularly remember them because they were extremely excited to hear my story – apparently two people travelling together with two different ways of transportation is not quite common – and I continued to follow them on social media for the rest of their trip, returning to their favorite country Mexico and all the way home. Anyway, I spend a big part of the morning chatting with them and with Anna, a girl from Russia who decided to explore San Augustin with me. San Augustin is not such a big city, smack in the middle of the mountains and surrounded by plenty of walks, hikes, waterfalls and of course the famous Archeological National Park. Cobblestones dot the streets, a square next to the church and a range of shops is all there is to see in the city centre. An average South American city I would say, but because of all the things to do in the area, you do have quite some hostels here and the city has an overall nice vibe. It doesn’t feel dangerous, not even at night, there isn’t too much traffic, it’s actually quite perfect to relax a couple of days. Which I did the first day. Since Ale and me were planning to visit the Park together, I used the first day to figure out everything we could do: how to get to the park, what are the other things to do in the area, where’s the supermarket – I bought some milk and cookies for Ale, since he would be starving when he arrives and he adores milk and cookies apparently – , where do they sell the best batidas de guanabana… I managed all that and still had some time left to write in my journal, relax and discover that Danna and Brecht stayed also in San Augustin… so I paid them a visit in their hostel, catching up on travel stories while waiting for my Mexican to arrive…
Who did arrive the second day. As he told me. To my big surprise, I was already getting worried not having heared from him around 6 pm – the time he sends me a message to see if he would be making it or not – and it was already dark, so he wouldn’t be able to cycle anymore… Being a bit stressy about it, I left Danna and Brecht and returned to my hostel’s wifi, just in time to read he arrived in the city and was finding his way to the hostel. I ran outside, eagerly waiting for Ale to arrive, and when he rounded the corner he just looked exhausted. Sweaty. And very happy. We installed the bike in the hostel and headed outside to the pizza place three doors down, were we ordered take away pizza to eat on the hostel’s rooftop terrace. Very fancy indeed. That’s also where he told me he wouldn’t have made it at all that day, having just arrived at the Puracé National Park at 4 pm, he realized he had this whole way ahead of him without any place to stop, eat or sleep. He stopped a local bus passing by, where the busdriver confirmed his suspicions and, because it was that late in the day already, he never would’ve made it out of the park that same day. Spending a night on the side of the road would’ve been suicide, so he took the only option he had, buying a busticket and getting his bike on – lucky as he was – one of the last buses of the day passing through the park. Dropping him off just outside of town, so he still needed to cycle uphill, in the dark. I was relieved to see him, since I had been travelling on that road and I was worried about him passing the 30 km in Puracé, with all those monsterous trucks speeding by. But, he was there, I was there, we had milk, cookies, pizza and a plan for the next day. Even though he had to pay for the bus, we both were very happy to see each other safe and sound again.
VISITING ‘EL PARQUE ARQUELOGICO NACIONAL DE SAN AUGUSTIN E ISNOS’
Our plan for the next day was quite obvious and the reason why everybody visits San Augustin in the first place: the Archeological National Park. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park is a part of one of the biggest concentrations of megalithic pre-Columbian burial sites, funerary monuments, burial mounds and religious monuments in South America. It was deserted in the 14th century and discovered again in the 18th – 19th century. The most interesting part for Ale and me was of course the National Park, were a third of the known San Augustin statues is placed. There are plenty of other places around San Augustin and especially in neighbouring Isnos where you can find other ‘megalithic funerary monuments’, but the park is the easiest to reach from San Augustin.
So, after a nice night of sleep and cuddles, we woke up, took a shower and decided to dress up with hiking boots and shorts – well, shorts for me – to walk all the way to the National Park. On our way we had a little pit stop in a local restaurant were we ate a cheap breakfast containing rice, chicken and platanos. With coffee. Yes, it wasn’t the first time this would be my morning food because we were cheap asses that couldn’t afford a European breakfast – Ale wouldn’t even have wanted to eat a sweet breakfast I suppose…I was still travelling with a Mexican, remember? – and actually I do kind of like chicken and rice. Easy as it was, we took the one street leading out of San Augustin in the direction of the National Park, which should’ve been a nice, 30 minute walk if Ale didn’t decide to do something a little bit illegal and got caught by the police. Ha. Let’s say it wasn’t something very serious, but he ended up giving them all the money in his wallet in order not to go to the police station with them. After this short intermezzo, we continued our way to the National Park where I of course ended up paying for the two of us.
When you visit the Park, it’s advisable to visit the museum first before you go further to check out the different mounds and burial sites. Not because they know that much about the civilisation that made the statues and the sites, but rather because you’ll get an idea of what you will see, how to recognize the animals they used as inspiration for their statues and just to get an overall feel of what you’re about to see. You’ll get a little passport at the entrance of the park, with an overview of all the different sites you can visit and a small map of the park. Every time you pass one of the checkpoints you get a nice stamp in your Park-passport, which was kind of a bonus to head out and explore as much as you can. After the museum, it was about time to head to the park. With the sun coming out after the past rainy days in Popayan, it was the ideal day to have a walk outdoors. We kept the best for last and decided to head to the higher trails first, walking past different mounds and through the forrest, up some stairs and eventually all the way up a long staircase, until we reached the most magnificent view of the park. We were at the feet of the Andes and the landscape absolutely stunning, surrounding us with green hills and mountains. Those pre-Columbian civilisations really knew which spot to pick to get buried. We decided to rest a bit there, sheltering in the shadow against the heath of the sun. I don’t know if our game already started there, but I noticed that some of the faces where kind of naughty. Angry. Scary. Or just plain funny. So I challenged Ale to do his best to be as pretty on the pictures as those ancient statues. Always in for a challenge, Ale definitely did his everything he could to excel in the funny-faces competition, as you can see for yourself. After the highest point, we left to the spot that’s for me the most iconic of the park: El Bosque de las Estatuas. Far away from the sun, as in a magical little world of their own, many of the statues they’ve found got their ‘final resting place’. Plenty of funny faces and pretty pictures opportunities, where I took the best Polariod picture ever – accidently, of my own double chin – while saying ‘Ow, fuck’. Well, I made a better one later on. Without double chin this time.
Since the sky was getting cloudy and it seemed that it might be raining anytime soon, we decided to leave the park after 3 or 4 hours discovering it, ready to have lunch and a nice rest. We ate in the same spot as where we had breakfast – menu del dia, of course – and headed to the supermarket already thinking about our homemade diner. Made by Ale, I’m only the dishwasher on this trip. After lunch, supermarket and diner we met up with Danna and Brecht again, with a first time for the Mexican to meet another Belgian on this trip. – I met them in Cali and Salento, he’d never seen them before, besides a short ‘hello’ to Danna during the salsa night in Cali – We spent the evening chatting and drinking beers / juice – wine became too expensive and I don’t like beer, so no more alcohol for me – in Danna & Brecht’s hostel. Quite funny of all places you can choose, I met the same couple three times during the same trip in Colombia, a huge country, without even planning to head in that direction. But as always, it is nice to meet new friends and I definitely hope seeing them again, in Belgium or elsewhere. Anyway, after a day full of explorations, climbing and walking around, we were both exhausted and headed to our own bed.
HOW (NOT) TO FIND CASCADA EL CINCO
The next morning we woke up, ready for our final day in San Augustin. We already discussed the future of our trip together at that point, while initially I would continue to the Desierto de la Tatacoa alone, parting with Ale, and start travelling to the north again. Ale himself also felt like visiting the desert, since he had had to make a decision at the beginning of his trip: see the Cocora Valley and Salento and to continue to Cali or travel down to the Desierto, heading to Mocoa. Now he could do both. At the other side, I didn’t feel like having a hasty goodbye in the middle of the road of one of the bus stations, while we each split up our ways to next destinations. It didn’t felt good. I didn’t want it. So I adapted myself again and since I started without any fixed plans anyway, I let the road and my company decide for me. The plan ended up being: going to the desert together, returning to San Augustin to pick up our stuff – we would go on a bus together, the Mexican abandoning his bike for just three days – and continuing together: Ale ready for the 4-day journey to Mocoa, me on a bus direction Tierradentro and heading to Mocoa afterwards, with the intention to arrive the same day as him. After all that, going to Pasto together as a last Colombian stop, hopefully to celebrate Ale’s birthday there. Big decisions and big plans, but we were looking forward to it.
First, the same day, we wanted to visit one of the plenty of waterfalls in the region, preferably one were we could have a swim. Eliminating the ones were we needed hours on public transport – or a taxi drive – for, we opted for the Cinco waterfall, in our hostel described as a ‘waterfall were you can also swim, 45 minutes walk from the main Archeological Park’. Ideal. As we thought. This day is known as the day we discovered you ‘don’t just go and swim in a waterfall in Colombia’. This day we realized a bit of research and a guide come in handy. Well. We went our way and stopped at the breakfast place of the day before and, as usual, ate our chicken and rice before stopping one of the buses on the road to bring us to the National Park. Once there, we asked the bus driver if the direction was correct – ‘A little bit before the main entrance you will see a road that goes left. Take this road and continue straight’ – and started our walk to the waterfalls. The sun was out, it was getting hot, I had my bikini on and we were both excited of a day relaxing in nature. The surroundings were amazing and during our walk we had some nice views over the valley. Until we came to the split in the road. According to the instructions ‘When the road splits, always keep to your right until you see a sign that says Cascada‘, so we had to go right. Which we did, after asking some of the people living there, but the road ended somehow in the garden of somebody. A bit confused, we found a path going down, leading up to a river. We went to the river, but didn’t have any clue if we needed to follow, so back up to ask. One of the men living there decided to take as down, and gave us some vague instructions about crossing the river. Hmpf. That’s where it became a bit difficult. Vague instructions, no ‘cascada’ sign, and somewhere down at the river in the middle of nowhere. The old man muttered something about crossing the river, and we could hear faraway sounds of water falling down, but no sight of where this Cinco waterfall could be. Crossing a concrete beam, as a little bridge over the river, we went to the other side and decided to go up the mountain, to check if we could see something. We ended up at a farm with a lady telling us it was completely the opposite way, we had to return our steps. A bit sweaty and demotivated, we headed back down. Only to be chased by two of the lady’s dogs, barking and running after us after we left the property. In the beginning everything was okay, but they came close very fast and Ale prepared some stones and branches in case they would attack. He also let me go first – or rather, I was so scared a almost sprinted down the mountain -, keeping the dogs at a distance with his stick. I crossed the concrete beam again and was relieved to see Ale alive and well, without a dog having eaten a chunk out of his sexy pompis. He crossed and the dogs stayed at the other side. Which left us with nothing more than trying to ‘take the small trail that goes along the river until you reach the waterfall‘. We tried again, another side, until bushes closed in around us and we were somewhere on a field filled with banana trees. Bummer. Needless to say that after 3 hours of walking, searching and getting chased by dogs we decided to give up and head back to San Augustin.
We were also quite hungry at that point. The little handwritten signs at the houses selling homemade helado were too tempting for us and we decided to dig in, as a little treat after not finding the waterfall. Oh boy. They only had maracuya flavor – passionfruit – and with the 300 COP it cost, it was the cheapest and most delicious ice cream I have ever eaten in my life. Seriously. We regretted immediately that we didn’t take two. So we indulged on some yoghurt instead, buying it off one of the sellers speeding by on his motorbike. After all, the long sweaty walk was worth it, for the views, the adventure and the best ice cream in the whole world.
Once back at the Park, we took the bus to the centre, headed to the supermarket and bought some provisions for our days in the desert. And we had another ice cream. Because we could. We ended our day playing ‘Shithead’ – somehow, Ale started winning again -, cooking – the Mexican – and eating – me – a delicious pasta with a salad and we already packed our bags BEFORE leaving the next day. Improvements from the Mexican’s side. Well, he had to wake up early to catch the bus anyway…more about our trip to the desert in a next blogpost: ‘How to spend two days in the Desierto de la Tatacoa’!
HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?
Since it’s nice to know how much dinero you would need for a couple of days in San Augustin, I wrote down how much things cost while I was there. Both in Colombian pesos and euros.
Bus Popayan – San Augustin: one way – 34.000 COP / 9,64€
Bus to and from National Park: 2.400 COP / 0,69€
4 nights in Hostel Bambu, San Augustin: private room – 45.000 COP per night / 12,76€ per night – nice social hostel close to the city centre
Entrance fee Archeological National Park of San Augustin: 17.500 COP / 4,97€
Breakfast chicken and rice: 7.000 COP / 1,99€
Take Away Pizza in El Faro, next to Hostel Bambu: 14.000 COP / 3,97€
Best Ice Cream in the world, bought in a house along the road to the too hidden waterfall El Cinco: 300 COP / 0,09€ – still sad I didn’t buy two