"Don't worry, we're drug dealers not pick-pockets"

Trip Start Jun 12, 2011
Trip End Jun 16, 2012

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Where I stayed
ParkLife Hostel Popayan
Read my review - 4/5 stars

Flag of Colombia  ,
Saturday, April 21, 2012

When I arrived in Ecuador I had already made the choice to abandon plans for a visit to the Galapagos. It was a tough decision since I was so close, but I wanted that time on the mainland, and I figure that I will definitely be back at another stage anyway. Happily, this gave me another week that I would otherwise not have had. But what to do with the time?

I had met a few travellers who had been to Colombia, and they all had one thing in common: nothing but good things to say. And I was enjoying Ecuador because of it's adventurous feel, so surely Colombia would be similar. Decision made! I allowed myself six days for the return trip and hoped that I might be able to make it to one of the top recommendations in the south, St Agustin. The Colombian border was only six hours away and after that were two more towns before the jumping-off point for St Agustin, Popayan. The LP had warned about the dangers of travelling at night due to armed bandits, so I set my alarm early to give myself the most time.

I was up at 4:45am, and on the bus by 6am. Surely in the next 13hrs I could cover the 350km straight-line distance to Popayan? Our bus made good time, and was barely 2km from at the Ecuadorian frontier town of Tulcan when we ground to a halt. Apparently there was a cycling race on, so everyone just had to wait. After about 20 minutes of standing still our driver made a curious decision. He unloaded all passengers off our full bus onto two partially full buses in the queue behind us. Then he turned around and drove off empty back in the direction of Quito. I don't quite understand bus driver logic in this part of the world, and I have a feeling that it will be one of those mysteries that will remain unsolved! Ironically the traffic all started moving again about 10 minutes later and we crawled into Tulcan about 30 minutes behind schedule. This wasn't bad, so I grabbed a $3 set lunch and prepared for stage two.

Tulcan isn't quite on the border, so you need to catch a taxi or get someone to take you the rest of the way. Luckily I met a Colombian at the taxi stand, so he arranged for a taxi to take us both at the local price. Looks like Colombians really were as friendly as people were saying. I hadn't quite realised how far away the border was, though. By the time we arrived, signed out of Ecuador, changed money and signed into Colombia it was nearly 3pm. There was now no way that I would make it to Popayan before dark. Without any hold-ups the trip takes 8hrs, and I didn't like my chances of that. I had also met a girl who did the reverse trip barely a week before and had her bus shot at during the night, so I was taking the warnings seriously. I decided to pull up short in a town called Pasto, which was only two(ish) hours away.

Since I had a bit of daylight to burn I checked out the only real highlight of the area: The Santuario de las Lajas. Apparently in 1754 a local saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a cliffside. This is a most inconvenient place for an apparition, but that still didn't stop them from building a church there. I was fast approaching church-burnout, but this one was something special! It sits on a bridge that spans the gorge and must surely be one of the most amazing churches in South America!

It was about 5pm by the time I made it back to the bus station and predictably the next two hours in a bus dragged out to three. The road was absolutely stunning, though and was probably the most amazing roadside scenery that I'd seen since Ethiopia. Funnily, when we finally arrived in pasto, there were about 10 other gringos stranded in the bus station looking for a place to stay as well. This is the greatest concentration of foreigners that I'd seen outside of a hostel, so I guess that I wasn't not the only one reading the warnings. Typically, it didn't take long for us to get approached and funnelled off to nearby hotels. There was no reason to stay in Pasto, so most of us rendezvoused again in the morning for the 9am bus to Popayan. This road was not much smoother and by the time we negotiated the typical accident sites it also dragged out.
But Popayan and the Colombian people made the marathon journey totally worthwhile. Popayan is known as "la Ciudad Blanca" (the white city), and the old centre was absolutely stunning. I joined up with an Aussie couple, and their English friend, and we found a hostel right on the central square. Before settling down we decided to catch sunset from a church on the hill, and what a decision that turned out to be. The view of the sun poking around stormclouds, and setting over a snow-white city, was magnificent. But our timing turned out to be even better than we realised.

There were a lot of women winding their way up the stairs towards the church. As we descended we got the usual "Buenas Noches" (good evening), but then one lady greeted us in English. She was a teacher and it turns out that she just wanted to practise her English. Practising my Spanish in response I asked her where we could find somewhere to eat. Despite our pleas she then insisted on walking back down the hill into town and showing us all the places to eat. She also explained that we had unwittingly stumbled on an annual festival where all the women undertake a mini pilgrimage from that church to another in town. Ten days later all the men were to make the return journey. The seniora was really lovely and chatted for ages before we eventually convinced her to rejoin the festivities before she missed them. But my amazement at the Colombian friendliness didn't stop there. Every day, people would greet you in the street and welcome you to their town. I was also starting to feel like a minor celebrity as young people stopped me whereever I was and asked for photos. I suppose that giant blondes are somewhat of a rarity in these parts? It was now becoming apparent that a week in Colombia would be nowhere near enough, so it will definitely join the list for a return trip at a later stage.

I had been surprised of just how little English was spoken in South America, and this was also true of Colombia. But here, those that spoke English seemed to actively single you out for practise. On our final day in Popayan, two young locals pulled us up for a chat. Only one spoke English (and we barely spoke Spanish), but this didn't stop the other from joining in the conversations with very animated gestures. During the exchange they asked why more tourists didn't come to Colombia. We explained that people might still be worried about things like pick-pockets. They had never heard this word, so asked for an explanation. We obliged and they laughed, reassuring us, "don't worry, we're drug dealers not pick-pockets". We couldn't help but laugh in response. As a parting gift they gave us each bracelets woven from the Colombian colours. Yep, Colombia is definitely on the list of places to come back to!!

[312 days on the road]

My Review Of The Place I Stayed

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