We left Bogotá early on Saturday 20th and headed south. Our destination was San Agustín and its pre-historic Archeological site and its stone statutes.
To better explain our next ten days, a explanation about Colombian topography is required. The northern area of Colombia is generally comprised of low flat coastal plains. Approximately halfway south through the country, the Andes form three fingers of mountain ranges (Eastern, Central and Western) roughly running north to south with the elevations increasing the further south you drive. (Please ignore for this post, the vast Amazonia basin that covers most of eastern Colombia.) In between the three fingers are two broad agricultural river valleys also generally running north to south. The Rio Magdalena drains the eastern valley down to the Caribbean and the Rio Cauca drains out of the western valley. Bogotá lies on the edge of the eastern valley and Medellin, Jardín, Cali and Ipiales (the border town between Colombia and Ecuador) lie in the western valley. But the valleys are not flat either with serious elevation changes but nothing like the Andes.
When we crossed over the Andes the first time from Jardín to Bogotá, the road led through Manizales; it was paved and generally in good shape.
To continue our story, as mentioned in the first paragraph, we wanted to visit the Archeological site at San Agustín after leaving Bogotá. And although only approximately 300 miles, road conditions don’t allow for quick driving so we decided to take two days to drive. That was a good decision because it took over an hour to get out of Bogotá due to traffic even if it was an early Saturday morning without the normal work commutes. We stopped midway at a city called Neiva and took a room in a new hotel on the outskirts. The following day we arrived at our destination in the foothills of San Agustín and stayed at Gamcelat Campground within walking distance of the town limits.
We spent the next three days exploring the town and the Archeological site. We were expecting the statutes to be on the scale of Easter Island. While there were a number of them, they were only 3′-4′ high. Somewhat disappointing.
Our next planned stop was Popayan which is west of the Andes in the western valley. The problem was that this far south we had two options to drive to get back to west valley. We knew we didn’t want to take the furtherest south road in Colombia since infamously known among Overlanders and locals as Trampolín de la Muerte (Devil’s Trampoline). But there was another option just north of San Agustín. We asked around and knew it wasn’t paved for most of its 60 miles but we set out to try it. Otherwise it meant backtracking north almost to Bogotá and crossing the Andes at Ibagué.
Within 1 & 1/2 miles after leaving the pavement onto the dirt road, we stopped and turned around. The road was generally wide and dry enough, but riddled with potholes. And although we were creeping along, the road conditions were rattling the truck and camper so badly, we didn’t want to do major damage. We did not want to drive another 60 miles under those road conditions. So we turned around.
Final result: we spent the next four days backtracking and crossing the Andes at Ibagué to Armenia. Although paved, traveling the two-laned highway crossing the pass at over 12,000′ along with hundreds of semi trucks was not a fun drive.
We pulled into Popayan around 2 and the parking lot we were aiming for was full so we parked on the street. The Lonely Planet guide had hyped this town as being a beautiful mountain town with a Hispanic historical center. We walked to the Central Area and while true that almost all the buildings were white-washed and preserved, the Central Area was crowded and noisy with vehicles and people. The three churches we wanted to check out were all closed. We did have an nice lunch but decided to press on south towards the border.
We boondocked in a ‘real’ mountain town called Rosas, right on the town square and was subjected to many locals stares but it was quiet and peaceful overnight.
After leaving Rosas the next morning, we bypassed Calí and drove through tens of miles of sugarcane fields dodging the ‘tren cáñamos’ – a single semi pulling 4-5 trailers of harvested sugarcane.
That day’s destination was the small town of Las Lajas and we had been informed in our iOverlander app, that we could park overnight at the new teleférico cable line down to the Sanctuary of Las Lajas. So that’s what we did. In fact, we stayed there three nights and took the teleférico down to the Basilica twice. Sunday the Sanctuary was packed but Monday it was calm. The teleférico ride was slow; it took about 25-30 minutes to travel approximately 1 & 1/2 miles.
This Basilica is built in a river gorge and is spectacular. It is at least 7 stories high, not counting the spires.
On Tuesday morning May 30th we departed early from Las Lajas and drove the 4.8 miles to the border town of Ipailes. Clearing out of both Colombian Customs and Immigration took only about 15 minutes. Ecuadorian Immigration took much longer – approximately 45 minutes because of long lines and only two Immigration Officials when we first arrived. At Customs, to get our truck into Ecuador, it took about 30 minutes although we were only the second one in line. (Once we arrived at the campsite that night, we were informed by another set of Travelers, it took them 5 hours to clear Customs because it was a Sunday and Ecuadorians were returning from shopping for their tv’s and stereos from Colombia – so I now consider our 30 minutes speedy.)
So Adiós COLOMBIA. We drove approximately 2,300 miles in Colombia and it is one of the most beautiful and spectacular countries of our journey so far.
We arrived at a campsite outside of Ibarra Ecuador mid-day and have settled in. The campground is on a beautiful lake; the temperature ranges from 60-80; the campground has relatively few bugs, has hot showers, laundry room, small kitchen and small cafe onsite. We’re taking it easy for a few days before we press on with the next leg of our journey.