San Agustin, what a pleasure this destination proved! This town which is located in the department of Huila, Colombia, is well-known for its pre-Columbian archeological sites (or so the inter web claims). In truth, I am shocked by how little we knew about this destination in advance of our visit. My education of South and Central American ancient cultures has focused on the Incans, Mayans and Aztecs, completely passing over the contributions of lesser studied people like the Augustine master carvers of the 8th to 1st century BC. Not much is known about this civilization, other than what can be interpreted by their monolithic stone sculptures, ceremonial and burial grounds, ceramics, goldsmithing and agricultural sites. Myths abound about the variety of images carved into volcanic rock, which consist of animals or humans, with smiling or serious and scary, fanged faces, holding warrior implements or babies (little people?), and often featuring anthropomorphic animal features, like jaguar eyes. The lush, green mountains and valleys are a literal treasure trove of buried ruins, with about 600 known large sculptures and 40 burial mounds in the Alto Magdalena Region. Almost half of these impressive works can be visited in one go, at the San Agustin Archeological Park.
While exploring the 80 hectare park certainly was impressive and gave me many moments to ponder a long ago life and its lingering spirituality, it was the greater exploration of our immediate river valley, with its farmlands, mountain views, river gorges, quaint town center, and friendly locals that made me wistful for a life connected to the land. One day, we went on a jeep tour that took us further afield to more burial mounds and geographic points of interest.
We also stopped to watch the production of panela (unrefined whole cane sugar), that involves the boiling down and evaporation of sugar cane juice, into a thick, caramelly paste, which is then poured into wooden frames where the molded squares cool and dry into hardened sugar bricks. The final product is a more flavorful, pure and “clean” product than the white, bleached sugar we tend to use in western society.
If I were to pinpoint what truly made our stay in San Agustin so very special, it would be the place we stayed at, gorgeously rustic, La Casa de Francois, and the wonderful Parisian family that we met there. Like us, they had been traveling around the world for almost a year, with a daughter and son, the same age as Stella and Gabriel. Their travel plans had also been percolating ever since their own year+ abroad as a couple, back in the early 2000’s. We obviously had a lot in common with our mutual love for adventure and global passions. The kids hit it off immediately, despite a limited shared language, and were busy building forts in the gardens, while us parents shared stories over a welcome bottle of South American red wine. I was greatly inspired by the tales of their trip, which are beautifully documented (in French) on their website: safarsogood.
It was hard to leave the comfort of our own Colibri Cabana and hammocks at La Casa de Francois, but we were beginning to become anxious for a new country. How we were going to travel south involved much discussion and a little nail-biting. The brutal bus ride of days before was not a journey that we wanted to repeat, BUT it was considered a little safer than the alternative we were considering. Never being the types who like to duplicate our route, and ever-willing to step out for a new adventure, we decided to take the less traveled leg to Mocoa, at the edge the Amazon rainforest, and onward to the border town of Pasto via the “Trampolin de la Muerte” (Colombia’s death road)!
Mocoa was supposed to be our opportunity to explore the denser jungles of Southern Colombia, and go on hikes to several layering waterfalls, but torrential rain kept us damp and indoors for much of our stay. I’d call the overall stop a bust, and don’t really have much to say about it. My memories are of dank, mildew smells, the kids fighting about homework and with one another, and watching too much t.v. in the common room, and our uninspired ramblings within the small town center, in search of food and cheap new shoes for Gabriel.
The morning of our planned ALL day bus trip on the fated highway was typically wet and foggy. This meant that we were spared the majority of visions of heart-stopping, deep, steep cliff-sides, plunging down into far away abysses, mere feet from our buses’ wheels, but it also meant that we missed out on some of the most spectacular scenery of the mountainous and dense, Colombian jungle. However, any South American bus ride is not without its stories, as I reread my impression of the journey: Winding bus ride in a narrow road, carved along cliff sides following the circuitous route of deep canyon rivers. Hours of bumpy, gravel roads, crossing the stepping path of waterfalls, shaking every drop of urine into a full and aching bladder. We count the seconds, minutes and painful hours until a bathroom break. Fellow passengers suffer their own desperate battles with motion sickness, puking into plastic baggies. Roosters crow from the depths of the cargo bins, competing with the cumbia, salsa and bad South American pop.
Our one night’s sleep in Pasto was followed with our last day and Sunday morning in Colombia. We taxied to the colorful bus station, where we stored our luggage, to take a mini-van side trip to Las Lajas Sanctuary. Our French friends had reported being underwhelmed by the experience, perhaps comparing its Gothic Revival architecture, built recently between 1916-49, to some of the truly old and ornate cathedrals of Paris. With our expectations lowered, we had a much better impression of the Basilica church of Las Lajas and its location within a scenic canyon (a rightful architectural feat!). I do believe that our visit was greatly enhanced by coming on a Sunday, with crowds of Colombians and foreigners, dressed in their best attire, on a religious pilgrimage. We watched groups of young children experiencing first communion, believers buying religious trinkets and filling up jugs with holy water, poor and handicapped begging for alms and praying for miracles, and participated in the general festival atmosphere with a hearty, potato and corn soup and sweet tamales. Our excitement to finally cross the border and get new stamps in our passports, compelled an early departure. We returned to the bus station to gather our belongings and board the next micro bus to the edge of Colombia. Here we come Ecuador!