Under New Management

In With the New

I love travelling slowly. Mixing huge cities with tiny villages, popular gringo spots with stop-offs where we see no other tourists. I count myself incredibly privileged to be able to travel, let alone for so long. This snail’s pace, however, eventually came back to bite me in the arse. When we left Peru and crossed into Ecuador I was informed that the free ninety day visa for British nationals runs per year from when you enter, not per annual year as I thought, and seeing as I used it up last year I had only an eight day grace period to get myself out of the country. This initially felt like a spanner in the works, but there are always silver linings. A whistle stop tour through the highlands of Ecuador meant more time in other countries.

Once the eight days were up, we crossed into Colombia. Instead of a neatly packaged bus ride, like our crossing from Peru into Ecuador, this was more of a classic border crossing: bus to Ecuador’s border town, taxi to the border, stamp out of Ecuador (noting the Ebola warnings for all those people who leave Liberia or Sierra Leone and head straight for a remote border town in northern Ecuador), walk across a bridge enjoying the sensation of legally being nowhere, stamp into Colombia, minibus to a nearby terminal, bus ride to the nearby city of Pasto.

In Pasto, we checked into a hostel of three creaky wooden floors centred around a courtyard and began getting acquainted with the new currency, the Colombian Peso. The current exchange rate being roughly $3600 to the English Pound (or $2400 per US dollar for our more international readers), it took some getting used to when bottles of water cost in the thousands and accommodation per night was in the tens of thousands. The Colombian peso also uses the same symbol as the dollar, so it was normal to withdraw $300,000 from a cash machine. This is the first completely new country I have entered since I first crossed into Ecuador more than six months ago, so some initial differences were immediately evident. We both really like the accent, with a pleasant softness to it, and have been met with a lot of friendliness and, in some cases, bemusement (such as a waiter’s confused glances when I bought a bread roll and portion of chips and naturally made a chip butty). I must have slowly adapted my Spanish accent to the previous countries we have travelled through without realising, as it takes people a bit longer to understand me here, and there is a whole new vocabulary to be learnt when it comes to certain fruit, drinks, and methods of cooking eggs and potatoes (think of it as the difference between ‘chips’ in the UK and ‘fries’ in the States).

Another difference came from within. For the next three weeks, Sam has taken charge of the planning so completely that I’m not even allowed to read the guidebook and am only begrudgingly allowed to look at the front cover. We decided on this for several reasons. When Sam joined me, I had been on the road for more than seven months, and though decisions were joint he moulded more to my way of travelling. It also began to feel ordinary to me and sometimes aspects would become plain irritating (the incessant beeping of car horns as we walk along a street, for example, as taxi drivers reckon gringos always need a ride), and I want to go on appreciating the journey. It will also allow Sam to practice his Spanish more, the rule being that I will only step in to help if he asks me to. Not knowing what was coming up whatsoever definitely made things more exiting, especially when coupled with exploring a new country.

 

A Room with a View

Our first Colombian adventure began the next day. A taxi drove us out of the city and along winding roads through the mountains and thick cloud, until we descended out of the vapour to be greeted with the view of a large lake reflecting the white sky so brightly that it seemed like a sheet of light held up by the mountains. We drove for a while longer until we came to a headland where a large red and black chalet building moulded itself to the slight undulation of the promontory. By the time we were shown to our suite (yes, suite) I was jumping around like an excitable kid. Without a doubt, we had the best-positioned room in the hotel. Being right at the end, we had three walls of windows across our bedroom, sitting room and bathroom all offering views across the lake and surrounding green, cloud-capped foothills and the small forested island close to the headland.

That afternoon we relaxed, enjoying the open fire, the views, and the hot water bottles delivered by a member of staff to slide between the sheets of one of the most comfortable beds I have slept in on this trip. The next morning, after waking up to near utter silence, we took a small boat to the island. Isla Corota is the smallest national park in the country, a lump of less than eleven acres of evergreen, cloud forest with a half a kilometre boardwalk running through. We walked among mossy trees with ferns growing in bunches along their trunks and nestled in hollows, until we came to a viewpoint facing across the rest of the silver-bright lake.

The boat taxi took us back to the mainland, dropping us slightly upstream along a narrow river. The river was fringed with wooden chalets decorated with countless pots of colourful geraniums, and the whole place had more than a strong resemblance to the Norfolk Broads. We took a shared taxi back to Pasto.

That night, after more than three months of travelling, inevitability caught up with Sam and he was hit by a nasty bout of food poisoning. For the next couple of days, we stayed put and, as Pasto has very little to offer by way of sightseeing beyond its two main squares, we mostly rested in the hostel.

 

Underground Secrets

Once the illness had passed and Sam was eating again, we caught a bus to the colonial town of Popayán. The rows of chalky-white houses with swirly wrought-iron balconies were pretty and we had fun cycling around on bikes, trying to look suave as we negotiated cobbled sections, but especially considering it is heralded as Colombia’s second most impressive colonial settlement (according to the guidebook), we were somewhat underwhelmed. Roadworks outside our room which continued until midnight and started at 6 a.m. didn’t help enamour the place to us. A fabulous pizzeria where we ate a three cheese pizza did help though — gorgonzola is like cheese gold to me after this long away from good cheese.

We caught a rickety bus which bounced along the roads as we travelled deeper into the mountains. Aside from the substitution of mountains rather than hills, the countryside looked distinctly English; very green, with many fields and grazing cattle. We disembarked when we came to a certain cluster of buildings along the road and trudged a short way up the hill to find accommodation. Seeing as I knew nothing of our plans, our visit to a small museum began to give me more of an idea. Rows of large earthen urns, fragments of pottery and geometric statues of standing figures were on display. The signs discussed a series of about one hundred underground tombs more than twelve centuries old and the only of their kind in the Americas, inside of which the urns had been found holding what is believed to be the remains of tribal elders, from an indigenous group in the area. I gathered that we were in the Tierradentro Archaeological Park.

The next morning we set off up a steep track, the green mountains seeming to rise with us as we gained height and the view across the valley began to unfold. Shortly, we came to the first archaeological site. Above ground, it looked like a collection of corrugated roofs over patches of concrete ground amid a large, rolling lawn. An official led us under the first roof, unlocked a padlock and lifted a wooden hatch set into the concrete ground to reveal large stone steps leading down into the darkness. We carefully climbed down several metres until we came to a doorway and peered in. Electric lights flicked on to reveal an underground chamber which had been scooped out of the soft volcanic rock, its domed ceiling and curving walls supported by two pillars, and its walls decorated with red and black geometric patterns.

The guard led us from hatch to hatch. For the first few tombs, I couldn’t help but gasp each time the lights flicked on to reveal the large faces carved into the pillars, the patterns on the walls and, in one, a jumble of large urns. The nine tombs we climbed into, out of the twenty-five at that site, ranged both in size and depth, from small chambers only two metres in diameter to large caverns around seven metres big, with some chambers close to the surface whilst others were up to nine metres deep. In some, the pillars were crumbling and the decoration hadn’t been preserved, but several were incredibly beautiful, the colours strong and the carvings striking.

We then followed a path higher into the mountains. Over the course of the day we hiked a fourteen kilometre loop between five different sites. One site had a collection of several statues found in the tombs, whilst the other four sites were clusters of tombs. After the first site, none of the tombs had electric lights, so we would borrow a hefty torch from the official on duty, and after the precarious climb down the steps, the beam of light would slowly reveal the details of each tomb.

To reach the final site, we climbed for ninety minutes up a steep path, until we came to a ridge with incredible views across the valley on either side, which made up for the fact that the final tombs were more like grey hollows, their insides destroyed by tomb raiders. We sat on a bench, picking out the previous sites across the valley and tracking our day’s route amid the contours of the green mountains, until it was time to leave the company of the ancient chambers and begin the steep descent back towards modern civilisation below us.

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