Prehistoric Stone to Passionate Salsa

Desert Rains

The day after our hike through the Tierradentro Archaeological Park, we were stood by the side of the road with our backpacks, waiting for the midday taxi service to pass. We didn’t realise that it was up to the whim of the driver whether he decided to pass through the rather remote village, and after a while some friendly locals informed us that they had received word that the taxi had shortcut past the village. No problem, these things happen when travelling. The locals kindly rang ahead to make sure the next one would come, and we passed the time with lunch then some cold Colombian beers, then clambered aboard the next one when it turned up several hours later. After a few hours and couple of change overs, we had arrived in the city of Neiva. It was just a stop-over for the night, so we scouted out a hotel opposite the terminal, the cheapness of the lovely room explained by the thumping soundtrack from several bars nearby and the view of the billiards hall next door with a very exuberant live singer. We also discovered that beneath our mattress, our bed was simply a block of concrete.

The following morning, we caught a minibus out of the city, heading for the Tatacoa Desert. When we left the roads behind us and began bumping along a dirt track, we were surprised by the views surrounding us. The muddy road wove through a disconcertingly green plain. It was raining. Both facts were somewhat incongruous when compared to our no doubt stereotypical expectations of a desert, so I wasn’t surprised when I later found out that it is technically classed as a semi-arid dry tropical forest. We came to a small, brightly painted building, with hammocks strung up under the covered area out front and a small kitchen to one side; our accommodation for the night. The afternoon was spent reading in the hammocks, and in the evening the family who owned it left to go back to their house, so along with a couple of other people staying there, we had the place all to ourselves.

The next morning, we climbed into the owner’s rattling old car and he took us on a tour of the area. We began in the ‘grey part’, imaginatively named for the colour of its cliffs, canyons, and beautiful formations sculpted by the wind and rain. Various formations we passed had been dubbed in accordance with their shape, such as the tortoise gentling drifting through the rocky landscape, followed closely by the crocodile. We walked along the cliffs of a canyon, admiring the mottled grey layers of the ridges and peaks stretching out around us peppered with green bushes and lots of cacti, then slid down into the gorge and leapt along trying to avoid the worse of the muddy patches. We followed the canyon until we came to a swimming pool created by a natural spring. After splashing about in the pool for a while, we continued on to the ‘red part’ of the non-desert, where we walked through the Cusco Labyrinths, a vast maze of runkled-up rock formations in layers of red and orange, again dotted with greenery.

In the afternoon, we retraced our way back to Neiva and continued on to San Agustín. When we arrived, our hostel was along a bumpy dirt track a short way out of the small town, and had a beautiful tropical garden complete with a large aviary for three tiny birds, various cats and dogs snuffling around the place including a very playful kitten who was popular amongst the guests, and a wooden gazebo in the middle of the lawn providing a perfect spot for morning writing sessions.

 

Human Creations

Several thousand years ago, two pre-Hispanic cultures inhabited the valleys surrounding where the town of San Agustín is now. Their remaining legacy makes the area one of the most important archaeological sites on the continent: many funerary mounds have been discovered as well as more than five hundred statues carved out of grey volcanic rock. On our first day, we wandered around the main Archaeological Park. We began in the museum, where a number of statues were beautifully displayed amid information boards detailing the archaeological excavations. We then followed the pathway through the Forest of Statues, where a collection of statues which were found scattered around the area, probably from looted or destroyed funerary mounds, had been placed along a trail among the trees and greenery. The statues were stunning, symmetrical and precisely proportioned combinations of human traits mixed with animal characteristics, with representations of fish, reptiles, amphibians, felines, monkeys, and rodents, adorned with jewellery, or headdresses, sometimes carrying tools or eating animals. Exactly what they are meant to represent is guesswork, but suggestions range from deities, to shamans, to the supernatural, and the interweaving of human and animal is thought to link to the world of nature. They were unlike anything I have ever seen before. Though the statues were carved by sculptors centuries ago and depicted surreal anthropomorphic monster-like creations, they somehow made sense, perhaps understood by the faintest trace of a human instinct which links us to the natural world and which has been almost severed by our modern way of living.

After the forest, we followed a path between several small sites. The funerary mounds contained stone sarcophagi, walls made of slabs of rock, sometimes decorated with the faintest traces of black, red and yellow paint, and were guarded by statues. We also visited the Lavapatas Fountain, where a section of the rocky river bed had been carved into a series of channels and terraced pools, engraved with more images of animals and human figures.

The next day we did a jeep tour around the area. We stopped by a couple of waterfalls, in both cases the position of our viewpoints meaning that we couldn’t see the entire span of the falling water. We also watched a roadside panela production operation, where long sticks of sugar cane were chewed up by a motor, the juice then ferociously boiled until it formed a bubbling gloopy brown liquid of caramelised sugar, which was then shaped into two kilogram brown bricks and packaged up to be sold. We zoomed between a number of archaeological sites, with more funerary mounds, statues and views of the area. At one site we saw the intriguing Doble Yo, Double Self statue, a feline-like animal curved over the back of a human figure, two beings merging into one.

 

A Special Bus Tour

We had intended to move on the next morning, but our pile of washing, which had been returned to the hostel, was accidentally sent off to be washed a second time, so whilst we waited for our clothes to dry we spent a lazy day writing, reading and drawing in the garden and chatting to other travellers at the hostel. When we left the following morning, fifty kilometres of the road turned out to be an extremely bumpy track which flung all the passengers out of their seats at regular intervals. The several beers which had accompanied Sam’s activities the previous day made for a stomach sloshing experience. We did eventually reach a tarmacked road, much to Sam’s relief, and by the evening we had arrived in Cali, the second largest city in the country, known as the ‘Capital of Salsa’. After drinks at our hostel, a group of ten of us headed out and spent the night in various salsa clubs. Though we heard a few mainstream club songs, frenzied, vibrant, Afro-Caribbean salsa music dominated the night and the dance floors at each bar or club were filled with wild, spinning, constantly moving dancers. Sam and I had a go, and it was great fun, though there were some giggles when Sam’s little fingers began twirling, held out ‘for balance’ he claims.

Though Cali isn’t the most exciting of cities during the day, we visited a section of the river on the outskirts. We wandered along the banks, chatted for quite a while to a Canadian couple with ties to the area, then boarded the bus which friends at our hostel had told us was the way back into the city, and told the driver where we needed to get off. Colombian cities are arranged in an ostensibly simple grid system, so when we entered the city on Street 16 rather than Street 5, we knew that something had gone wrong. We spent the next two hours trying to read road signs and asking fellow passengers where we were, as we drove along huge highways, over a wide bridge, and darkness fell. The bus filled up to bursting point with rush hour passengers, then emptied. Eventually we arrived at the city’s main bus terminal, the only two passengers left on the bus, and as we knew it was a safe area we decide to get off and take a taxi back to our hostel. An inadvertent bus tour of the second largest city in Colombia, all for the price of 60p.

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