When I first imagined traveling in South America I pictured us smashed into two over-small seats on a mechanically challenged bus, winding our way along muddy roads that clung tenuously to the side of jungle covered hillsides. I imagined there would be para-military involved though honestly I didn’t know exactly what para-military was. After more than six months of travel and not a single scene that met that description, I had started to wonder where the stereotype had been created. I now believe it must have been in Colombia.
Our bus ride to Popayan had been on windy roads through misty jungles, but the roads had been decent enough. But as we left the Pan-American highway and the pavement stopped, we braced ourselves for what had been described as a very long, short-distance trip. Sure enough what might have taken two hours on a paved road ended up taking five hours, over washed out segments, past pleasant villages, through construction zones where they appeared to be in the process of building the very path on which we were traveling. At one point in the late afternoon, the bus slowed and I looked past the driver to see a line of men in camouflage uniforms blocking the road, machine-guns pointed down but at the ready. There was no panic when they boarded the bus, and everyone followed their instructions very carefully. The men were told to disembark, in Spanish naturally, so I didn’t know if I understood. When the soldier got to our seat, I smiled up at him like I didn’t understand – easy since I didn’t. Magda translated as he said, you aren’t Colombian, you can stay on the bus. For some reason I couldn’t stop grinning, which made the soldier grin. He was wearing braces. We had no way of knowing who they were.
We finally pulled into the hill town of San Andreas, tired and sore from the hours sitting in the cramped seat. As we staggered to the surface of the dirt road, a round Colombian with an enormous mustache greeted us. He was the owner of the hotel we were looking for, the only one in town. We signed in on a large open air deck, surrounded by banana leaves and views of lush green hills. When he showed us to our room we passed the open door of the only other guest: a Fellow gringo, relaxing on his bed amidst a pile of electronics and guide books. He turned out to be a German named Frank who was born and raised in East Berlin. In the evening, we invited him to join us for dinner.
Sitting around the table on the deck, under bare light bulbs orbited by bugs the size of planets, Frank, Magda and I chatted with the owner about our journeys in broken Spanish and Frank’s rusty English. An indigenous looking man sitting at the next table listened in. At some point he asked if we were French, in French, and Magda and I tried in vain to switch over from one Romance language to another to communicate with him as well. Languages becoming muddled, we all switched to Spanish to listen to the man’s long story of having visited Cannes for a movie he was in, of his French wife, of his house in Bogota, and of the guerrillas that had shot a hole through his hat. He told us he was the chief of a nearby village, and invited us to visit. As he talked he repeatedly asked the owner of the hotel for one last beer, ‘la ultima cerveza!’ He kept saying.
As it got later and darker, we excused ourselves, having already been on the receiving end of many drunken lectures in half-understood tongues. Frank stayed, watching the Chief drink one ‘ultima cerveza’ after another, late into the evening.
In the morning, Frank joined us for a hike to the see the attractions of the area: hundreds of underground tombs, some elaborately painted and carved by an early Andean civilization that nobody fully understands. Like most Andean cultures, the tombs were placed in areas of startling natural beauty. Though they were below the earth, the bodies of their people were laid to rest in the neighborhoods with the best views. With two dogs from the hotel as guides, we hiked up through coffee plantations and down gullies carved by gurgling streams. The dogs ran out of their way to harass livestock, leaving us with the impression that they were less guides than opportunistic cow bullies. Several of the sites are covered with a lonesome guard stationed to make sure the tombs aren’t plundered more than they already have been. Others, stripped bare of anything of value sit open to the elements, resembling large badger holes dug out of the earth. We spelunked into several of them finding nothing but empty caves and the memories of the dead.
During our climb to the second series of tombs the two dogs surrounded two cows on a path, snarling and barking, just for fun. The cows formed a little circle and tried to head-butt their tormentors, but the dogs were quick and practiced. The commotion blocked the path, forcing Magda and I to walk through the bushes around it. One of the cows was actually a young bull, and lunged at us as we scraped by. We were so upset at our companions that after pleading and yelling at them to heel, we left them, no longer caring if they were butted off of a cliff.
At the top of the hill, standing amongst the ancient burial sites, the three of us took in the scenery of rolling greenery, rivers and farmland, pueblos nestled into hillsides. From the nearby valley of the Magdalena River, a blanket of dark looking clouds dragged a veil of mist beneath it, directly towards us. We started our descent. We’d started on the most difficult half of the Tierradentro loop, so by the time we reached the road, and the museum complex at the heart of the archeological park, we had relatively little more to see. But the tombs near the museum were the best preserved and most complex. Each tomb had a vertical stairwell leading down into it. Whether the stairs were made by the ancients or by the park service, we never did figure out for sure, but whoever built them made them steep, each step incredibly tall. They leaned, without handrails, over the deep black charnel pits. I asked if anyone had ever fallen in, but the guard said no. Another unsatisfactory answer. With Frank’s generous help, we climbed in and out of each tomb, hauling the extended tripod with us, cameras banging dangerously on the ungainly steps.
When we finally started making our way back to the hotel, up a long twisting road, we ran into the owner of our hotel. He asked if we’d seen his dogs. We told him they had abandoned us, and we hoped it was true, but he didn’t seem very concerned. Later we learned they had met a pair of hikers headed the other direction, and led them back to town.