Wednesday, April 14, 2010
San Agustin Colombia
Currency Peso - $1.00US = $1930.000 Pesos
Bus Popayan to San Agustin (same for return trip) - $28.000 - 6 hours (1/2 hour lunch stop) There are buses from Bogota and the coffee region that go to San Agustin as well
Moto Taxi from Central San Agustin to Hostel (1.5km) $1300.000
Entrance Fee to Archeology Parks (2) - $15.000 each or both for $25.000
Entrance Fee to additional Museum/2 tombs (on the jeep tour) - $2,000.00
Jeep tour of area and statues/tombs - $30.000 - 9am-4pm with 1 hour for lunch (not included in price)
Horseback tour of area and statues/tombs - $40.000 - 9am-1pm 1/2 hour stop for drinks
I headed to San Agustin from Popayan, I caught the 10 am bus, there is a bus leaving about every 2 hours that goes to San Agustin. I had been warned that the road was very bad, after all it is only about 155km but takes 6 hours to get there, I had also heard that the scenery was incredible. They were right on both counts, although the road was not as bad as I thought it would be. It is gravel, the bus pulls over when the pavement runs out and they deflate the tires a bit. It is bumpy and it is narrow, when you meet up with another vehicle 1 of them has to pull over and let the other by, if it is a big truck, some tricky maneuvering is required by both drivers. The scenery was awesome, hills, valleys, rivers and a waterfall right beside the road. There is a 1/2 hour lunch stop along the way, good thing, bumpy road, no bathroom on the bus as it is a little shuttle bus; a much needed stop.
Some of the buses do not actually go into San Agustin as it is off on it's own road, instead they drop you off at the cross road but they do organize a taxi or van to pick you up (bus company pays for it) to take you the 5km into town. I was picked up by a taxi that included a guy that was a tour operator, the town's main source of income is tourists so the operators (and there are many of them) can be a little aggressive. The taxi dropped me and the tour operator off at his office where I got the spiel on things to do in San Agustin. I told him I already had a place booked and thanked him for his time, he offered me a ride to El Maco on his motor bike, at first it was $3,000.000 but I didn't have it so he took the $1,300.000 that I did have. So with my big pack on the bike in front of him and me on the back we were off. In Colombia only the driver has to wear a helmet, I am not sure of the logic behind the law but when in Rome. I don't like motor bikes, I have had some bad luck with them, 1 incident when I was a kid involved getting my foot sucked into the back spokes due to a shoe lace getting caught. On this day I am wearing runners with pretty long laces. Must have looked pretty stupid with my feet sticking out that far from the bike but I was taking no chances. I was very glad I took the risk when I saw the hill I would have had to go up to get to the place I was staying. If I had been thinking I would have left my big pack in storage in Popayan and just taken my small pack with me, I was only going to be there for 3 days and had to go back to Popayan to get a bus to the border.
Finca El Maco a small farm just outside of town. They have a dorm cabin as well as separate cabana's so the prices vary, cost for a bunk in the dorm was $12.000 a night. There is an on-site restaurant that servers tasty organic food, including yogurt that they make on the farm and they sell beer, pop and water. There is a tour guide named Pacho who seems to be their official tour guide, he showed up after I had been there a few hours so I booked a jeep tour for 1 day and a horseback riding tour for another day with him. Turns out there were 4 people from the hostel in Popayan staying in the dorm as well. 2 Swedes, a Canadian from Toronto and a German. The Swedes were leaving the next morning but the Canadian & German were also doing the jeep tour the next day.
San Agustin is a UNESCO world heritage site, it is surrounded by the remains of pre-Colombian/pre Inca civilizations/archeology sites (6th century B.C to 12th A.D). The current town was founded in 1790, the first to discover the ruins were the Spanish in their search for gold. Actual excavation of the sites started in the 1930"s. There are over 500 statutes and tombs in a 500 square kilometer area, they think there may be more undiscovered relics in the area. The town itself is pretty small and a lot of the locals still use the horse and buggy method of transportation. There are lots of people living on the outskirts of town and in the surrounding area and there are many towns and villages within a 15km area.
All of the various tours cover different areas so by doing them both plus one on your own walking you can see pretty much all of the sites around town. If you are not into horses or don't want to spend the money you can hike the same paths, it takes about 6 hours on foot. The jeep tour, or as it turns out if under 6 people the car tour... There were only the 3 of us from the Finca going, on long weekends and holidays the place is packed with tourists but mid-week not so much which is kind of nice. We got picked up at 9ish, it was raining pretty bad which made me glad I wasn't doing the horse tour that day, unfortunately a group of Germans (10 of them) on an organized tour of Colombia who had taken over the farm were. Our 1st stop on the tour was a sugar cane processing plant and I use the term plant loosly, it is a covered place with vats and a grinder. I have never seen how the sugar cane becomes the brown blocks that I buy in stores. I use it in my coffee here, it comes in solid blocks so it is way easier to keep in a pack and travel with, I just chip off a piece when I need it, no spillage no mess and it is cheaper than sugar. It is technically called dulce, the sugar cane is put through a press and then the juice is boiled for a while then scooped up and put into molds. Once it has harden it is taken out of the molds and it is ready to ship. The stuff I buy for my coffee is a very small block, about 1/2 the size of a large chocolate bar and 4x'd s thick for $500.00 Peso's. Can you tell I still have not found chocolate yet? It's pretty much all I can think about anymore, I think i am an addict.
After the plant it was off to see some tombs. There is a small museum with a couple of tombs that we stopped at, it was kind of cool because these ones we could go into. The tombs are dug into the ground, some are deeper than others, there is a primary tomb where they go when they first die. Once they have decomposed they are dug up put into an urn and buried again. There is a lot of similarity between these people and the Egyptians, urns, pottery & jewelry are buried with them, it also seems that they were pretty advanced in medical science. A guide told me that they found evidence that some of them had had pieces of their skulls removed and put back while they were alive showing evidence of brain surgery. It cost us $2,000.000 to climb around in the holes and check out the pottery in the museum. We also took a walk down to the river Magdalena, it is a very important river in Colombia and runs all the way from Cartagena down.
Next up was one of the main parks and a whole lot of statues and tombs after that another park, more tombe's and statues. The guide told us which ones had held important people and which were just ordinary folks, most of them had color when they were first discovered however the oxygen has made the colors almost disappear but you can still see a bit of color here and there. Then off for lunch and then to a water fall. The waterfall Salto de Bordone , the highest in Colombia at 400 meters and 2nd highest in South America. A group of school kids were down at the path to the falls and they proudly gave us the history in very rapid Spanish. Then more statues and tombe's, another waterfall and back to the farm. The scenery was incredible, jungle, farm land I never knew there was that many shades of green in the color spectrum. All in all well worth the money and a good choice on a drizzly rainy day. Our German horseback riders did not fair so well (1/2 of them dropped out but 5 still went), muddy, dirty and cold they were huddled in front of the fireplace when we got back. There were wet cloths and shoes on every piece of the fireplace that was emitting heat.
The Canadian and German were leaving the next day but while we were on out jeep tour an Italian had checked into the dorm. He lives in Popayan and is on a 6 month volunteer program working with the UN on climate change in the area. A really nice guy and very smart, he was booked for the horseback riding trip the next day as well. We did both tell the guide that if it was raining we would not be going, the last thing I need is to get sick for any length of time.
No rain so off we went horseback riding. it has been a while since I have done it but somewhat like riding a bike it all came back. We spent the day visiting various sites, sometimes there would only be 1 or 2 statues at a place but it was very nice, again great scenery and a little bit of hiking was involved to get to some of the statues so good exercise.
We had a pit stop for a drink at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The Canadian guy had told me about a juice called Lulu that was really good and if I got the chance I had to try it. Turns out this place served it so I gave it a go. It was awesome, the actual fruit you can't eat it is too acidic, it looks like a little orange, but squish it and add some sugar and it is a tasty refreshing beverage.
Our guide took us to the main park by town and dropped us off, the horse part of the tour was done, we were free to roam about the park on our own (this park is not part of either tour). At this point the rain began so we sat at the restaurant and had a latte and waited it out, 20 minutes late we were on our way through the park at lightening speed in case the rain started again. 2 hours and countless statues and tombs and we were done.
There is a shuttle bus that you can catch back to town if you don't want to walk (it goes right be the farm) for $1,000.000, I wanted to go into town to wander and use the internet (there is a computer at the farm but the connection is pretty slow) and Italian dude wanted to get some pictures of the town so we parted ways and did our own thing. I ended up purchasing a Colombian bag (mochila), all of the locals have them it is a pouch bag with longish strap, very handy if you only need to carry a few things, it cost me $15.000, a pretty good deal. The lady who owns the shop told me that the Canadian Ambassador had come through town a few weeks ago and was very impressed by both the town and the archeological sites. So perhaps more Canadians will find their way here, although there was 2 of us during my stay, the park posts the number of tourists and their nationality's that have come through the park and Canada was way down the list at 81 visitors for the previous month. Considering there are about 1/2 a million of us in South America, and I am not exaggerating we are like locus down here we are everywhere, a pretty poor showing in this region. The place is a bit of a pain to get to but it is well worth the effort and completely safe. All over Colombia there is a very visible military and police presents, road checks are common and you will see heavily armed soldiers in groups on the sides of the roads. It looks scarier than it is, they are there to ensure that nothing happens to their citizens as well as the tourists and to deter anyone who may want to cause problems from doing so. I have never felt uneasy or unsafe while I have been in Colombia and no one I have met on the backpacker trail has either.
I did have a bit of a disappointment, after horseback riding I wanted to book a massage, so did Italian dude. Our guide called both masseuses (there are 2 in town) and no luck they were both unavailable. Really too bad the cost for an hour massage was only $25.000 and I was really looking forward to getting my butt rubbed after 4 hours of bouncing in a saddle.. Oh well, if it's something you may want to do book it a day before you want it to make sure 1 of them is available.
The next morning I headed to the bus depot to catch the 10am bus back to Popayan. I met a nice Aussie at the bus stop and we shared the back of a pickup truck for the 5km ride up to the junction were the bus stops and had a nice trip back to Popayan swapping stories about our travels so far. She ended up coming with me to Hostel Trail where she ran into 3 people she knew including the one form the Panama boat that I knew, they met in the coffee region. She had gone to the coffee region and then straight to San Agustin, she recommended the coffee region as well as the hostel she stayed at in San Agustin, La Casa De Francois. Funny how all the hostels and fincas in town are owned by foreigners, el Maco is owned by a Swill guy and according to our guide many of the others are expat owned as well.
So a stop in Popayan and off to Ecuador, my time in Colombia is done. It is an incredible county and I totally enjoyed my time here. I regret that it wasn't long enough and there is so much stuff that I didn't see. The people here are incredibly, they have survived so much turmoil and uncertainty and yet they are some of the happiest and most optimistic people I have ever met. They live in the moment and enjoy everything that life has to offer, we can all learn a great deal from them.