And there we were. We were walking side by side on a wide gravel road, boots crunching rhythmically atop crushed stone the color of cinnamon. Vibrant green trees, weighed down by humidity and a recent shower leaned over us as if to inspect the tiny visitors to their land. Little haciendas hid behind fruit laden bushes and tall lush grasses above us. As another warm shower began speckling the red earth, we arrived at our destination, the intersection of two desolate roads that both led into the dense forested hills of Tierradentro. This to me was backpacking at its finest: arriving at an intersection in a half-wild land to wait for a bus with no guarantees it would ever come. At the intersection were a handful of wooden buildings, each with a generous covered veranda and the doors and windows shut tight. The air was full of birdsong and raindrops.
After sitting for a half an hour, members of our little party started getting antsy. Our intention was to get to San Agustin, a little town just south of Tierrdentro but accessible only by traversing a long half circle, first east, then south, then west. When a bus finally came the driver said he was going to the first of our transfer points, but had to make another stop before. We climbed in, having understood he needed to first go by his house. How far away could that be?
An hour later, in a gritty town far north of anywhere we wanted to be, we waited while the bus picked up more passengers. We’d followed a dirt road along the Magdalena River, over sketchy bridges that had FARC graffiti scrawled across them, and through roadside pueblos sheltered by banana leaves. Eventually we were on our way, retracing our steps through guerrilla country and half finished gravel roads.
At La Plata, we were surrounded by bus and taxi drivers hawking passage to Pitalito, a short ride from San Agustin. We finally settled on a kind looking taxista who promised we’d be leaving promptly for Pitalito, for slightly less than one of the later leaving buses. We agreed to his fare and along with another passenger, were soon underway. Throughout the trip we picked up as many passengers as could comfortably fit in his sedan, and then a few more. We started to overhear him making some troubling statements about where we was dropping people off, and sure enough, when we got to the town of Garzon, he insisted we get out and a take a bus the rest of the way. The bus fare he assured us, was on him. This was not the deal we’d made which we explained to him with increasing volume. Soon the driver of the bus joined in and they both expressively explained the logic of their arrangement at the same time, talking over one another harmonically like a pair of tenors. When we realized we had no choice in the matter, and the sooner we agreed the sooner we’d be on our way, we acquiesced – telling them we would never take a taxi like his again. The taxista apologetically shook our hands while we shook out heads. and drove home. Someday soon, Colombia is going to be the home of a booming tourism industry, but not before transportation becomes far less complicated.
The bus took forever to leave. By the time it had enough passengers to set off the sun was low in the sky – we had not wanted to be traveling at night. In Pitalito we changed to an old jeep with an extended cab and a covered bed, into which multiple passengers piled. We bounced up a river valley, the last beams of daylight illuminating waterfalls tumbling from the dense forest. We switched to a taxi once we reached San Agustin, which took us most of the way to the hostel Frank the Berliner had recommended. It was the fifth vehicle of the day, and could only make it halfway up the steep gravel hill that led to the hostel.
It was dark when we staggered onto a bustling patio filled with noisy guests. A bonfire roared outside on the lawn. Frank had told us Francois’ Hostel was a peaceful, quiet place, no need to make a reservation as it was never full. But it was full. The kind owner explained she only had one bed in a dorm room that we were welcome to stay in. We had no choice really, it had started to rain and the night was black. We were as tired as we’d ever been, the peaceful intersection of the morning long gone, the promise of the day’s adventures broken by a series of exhausting exchanges.
We slept in the dorm bed, in arguably the nicest dorm we’ve ever seen. But it was still a dorm and along with the consistent drum of rain on the corrugated roof were the noises of a dozen other travelers, respectfully quiet, but there none-the-less. Despite the fact that the sheets were unaccountably damp, we drifted off quickly despite it all, the long journey relegated to memory and and the blackness of a dreamless sleep.
In the morning we made out way through a steady drizzle towards breakfast. Like much of Colombian architecture, Hostel Francoise employed as few walls as possible in order to take in the pleasant air and lush surroundings. We had breakfast with a Norwegian couple who offered to take us along in their SUV for a tour of the area. It was a great stroke of luck and we were happy to join them.
We spent the day visiting the archeological parks of San Agustin, where dozens of tombs had been uncovered. Each tomb had one or more intricately carved stone statues watching over it, thought to represent the characteristics of the dead. Some carried fish, others weapons. All had the fangs of jaguars. Their squat stature lent the icons a happy, comical air, rather than the ferocity you might think a fanged humanoid would convey. One statue smiles broadly, as if to recall the cheerful nature of a lost friend. Each of the figures displays a stone cutter’s mastery unusually refined for such an ancient culture and one that had no metal chisels to employ. Some tombs are guarded by what a clearly crocodiles, though there are no, and have never been, crocodiles in the area. The lizards have human noses, recalling Albrecht Durer’s painting of a rhinoceros. He’d never seen one himself and had painted it from fanciful third-hand descriptions of the beast.
That evening we moved to a private room that shared a porch with our Norwegian friends who were in the room next door. Past a pair of hammocks was a view of rolling hills thick with banana trees and coffee plantations. A dark green carpet dappled with red tiled roofs. We shared a bottle of wine and they broke out some rum in order to watch the spectacle of a setting sun splashing a crimson light across low, dense clouds.
After two days in San Agustin we returned to Popayan, collected the gear we’d left in the hotel (the one that was not a hostel) and said goodbye to the whitewashed city that had welcomed us to Colombia with such warmth. Boarding yet another bus, we made our way North to the hill town of Salento.