Friday, October 10, 2014

HITTING THE RESET BUTTON

The Baja Ha-Ha (cruisers rally from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas) didn't go so well for the crew of Fool's Castle, last year.  Continuing mechanical troubles left our skipper grouchy and I spent most of the time I should have spent getting to know our fellow cruisers and exploring our ports of call madly trying to repair some system of the boat or another.  While the situation later improved, I was left feeling like I needed a do-over of the Ha-Ha.

I know most people are feeling like I just got home, but I have secured a berth on my friend Don's boat, Comet, for the 2014 Baja Ha-Ha and will be leaving in just a couple of weeks.  While I have been extremely busy trying to catch up on all the deferred maintenance items around the house, I still wake up every morning feeling at a loss for what to do because I am not traveling.  I think I am even more eager to go, this year, because I am going on a well-prepared boat with friends I know will keep their cool under the pressures of cruising.  Cruising is wonderful and exciting, but it can be stressful, especially for those who feel a need to be in control.  Someone once referred to cruising as herding a boat somewhere and that's kind of how it is.  You can try to make your boat go where you like, but sometimes it has a mind of it's own and you just have to chase after it.

After the Ha-Ha, I will be continuing south to La Cruz and hope to spend a few months there and make a visit to Fool's Castle in Chiapas.  My plans remain somewhat vague.  That is what traveling is all about ...

Monday, August 25, 2014

SAN AGUSTIN TO BOGOTA – EXTREMES OF CLIMATE

August 8, 2014

I left San Agustin somewhat reluctantly, despite the rain, because everyone had been so nice and helpful to me there.  People started up conversations with me as I walked down the street, even when they weren’t trying to sell me something, and the scenery really was gorgeous.  I called a taxi to take me to town (the same one who brought me to the hostel) and then rode 25 kilometers or so in another crew cab pickup truck to the bus terminal in Pitolito (6000 pesos.)  Pitolito wasn’t an attractive or memorable place, but it did have a nice bus terminal.  I easily found where to purchase a ticket to Neiva for 24,000 pesos (200 kilometers for about $13) and got a cheese bunuelo (looked like a roll, but was stuffed with cheese), potato empanada, and chicken filled arepa (corn cake) for a total of 2500 pesos (about $1.35.)  That was a satisfying breakfast.

From the mountains of San Agustin, we had descended some to Pitolito and continued descending, following the Rio Magdalena, to Neiva.  Mountains gave way to hills, forest to grassland, and the weather got warmer and warmer as we proceeded.  Fields planted with coffee and cane gave way to rice and cotton. Twice, the bus was stopped and all the male passengers searched.  According to a tourist policeman that I later befriended, that was done for the passengers’ own security, to be sure that no one was packing arms on the bus.  Everyone was very friendly about it and no one seemed concerned.  Sometimes the passengers were counted as we left the station and the doors sealed with a sticker, but then we would stop and pick up more passengers from the side of the road, so I never figured out what that was about.  It took us just under four hours to get to Neiva.  Once we reached the floor of the valley, the road was mostly very good.  It would suddenly decay into a bumpy dirt road for a few hundred meters, which happened randomly everywhere in Colombia. 


Neiva was a large, hot, dusty regional center with little to recommend it.  On a Friday afternoon, swarms of motorcycles were heading out of the city.  I saw one scooter with four people riding on it.  Often, I would see parents wearing helmets while children rode with bare heads.  The bus terminal in Neiva seemed small and crowded.  I had half an hour to kill before my van left for Villavieja, so I grabbed a quick lunch in a cafeteria.  For 7500 pesos (about $4), I got soup, a chicken quarter, rice, beans, plantain, juice and an arepa.  I barely managed to eat half of it.  I did get quick service for the first time since leaving home.  I guessed the secret was eating in the bus station where everyone was in a hurry.

From Neiva, I took a rickety minivan to Villavieja for another 6000 pesos.  We wound through arid grassland dotted with organ pipe cactus.  The scenery was reminiscent of southern Utah.  As we drew closer to the desert, strange rock formations hove into sight.  My driver made sure that he delivered me directly to a mototaxi driver who would take me directly to El Desierto de la Tatacoa.    Technically, the “desert” is actually an arid forest, but it looks like a desert for all intents and purposes.  While it wasn’t unbearably hot when I arrived, temperatures sometimes reached 50C.  The surrounding mountains wrung all the rain out of the clouds before they reached the area.  Average annual rainfall was 1,028 mm.  From the amount of erosion visible, it looked like all the rain came at once.



Desierto de la Tatacoa
My Tent
The mototaxi ride was very scenic.  We couldn’t go very fast on the bad dirt roads, so I got plenty of time to observe the colors and rock formations, although photographing them from the taxi was virtually impossible because of the constant bumping motion.  I had been told that all the places to stay were near the observatory and were close together.  “Close together,” turned out to be a relative term.  They were all within a half hour’s walk of each other, but if I had been let out at the observatory and left to find myself a place to stay, I might have expired before I staggered to some establishment with my pack.  Fortunately, the taxi driver made sure that he deposited me at an establishment where I could stay.  It wasn’t really what I was looking for (a private room), but the people were so nice that I finally agreed to sleep in a one person tent that they pitched for me and provided with a mattress and bedding.  Most of the accommodations in the area consisted of clusters of concrete dorms, sheds hung with hammocks, and campgrounds surrounding restaurants.  It was basic, but truly let you experience the environment.


La Tranquilidad
As soon as I changed into shorts and flip flops, I retired to the restaurant for a cold beer.  Suddenly, I heard someone calling, “United States.”  It was the Italian woman from the jeep tour in San Agustin.  I answered, “Italy!”  We hung out and talked while I drank my beer and then we had a long conversation with Mario, the friendly tourist policeman and the owner.  We were speaking Spanish, although I had to translate Marcia’s Italo-Spanish from time to time and we all had a good laugh at the result.  When it started to get dark, Marcia and I walked back to the observatory, but it was cloudy so we couldn’t see any stars.  We had a nice dinner when we got back and then I started passing out, even though it was barely 9:00.  I retired to my tent to write and try to go to sleep early.


August 9, 2014

Cusco Labyrinths
It rained during the night and someone in the tent next to me snored loudly.  I can’t say that I slept well.  I was glad to get up early, take a shower, and take some photographs in the early morning light.  My guide was supposed to come for me at 8:00, but arrived just as I was served breakfast at 7:30.  I ate quickly and we were off by 7:45.  Our first stop was the Cusco Labyrinths.  What was once a lake bed rich in iron, has now been eroded into fantastic shapes reminiscent of Bryce Canyon.  We left the mototaxi and wandered down into the bottom of the labyrinth.  The weather was perfect, but I was sure it could be an oven in there at times.  It wasn’t really a very large formation, but was just big enough to fill the horizon, which made it seem endless.  The red color of the iron contrasted with the cloudy morning sky.


Rino and His Mototaxi
Me at Las Ventanas
Path to Las Hoyas
                                                                                                                                                                                            After exploring the labyrinths for half an hour or so, we remounted the mototaxi and drove back past my camp to Las Ventanas (the windows), which was the highest point of the desert and offered clear views of the desert and mountains in all directions.  The ground in that part of the desert was grey.  After taking in the view for a few minutes and having my picture taken, we continued deeper into the desert to Las Hoyas, where someone had taken advantage of a natural spring to build a couple of swimming pools in the middle of an eroded canyon.  We took the long way to get there and wandered through canyons where a layer of volcanic bombs perched precariously atop softer sediment that was eroding out from under it.  The three locations were impressive, but all were easily reached from the road without a guide.  I felt that the 50,000 peso price of the tour was a bit excessive.  It would have been cheaper to rent a horse or bicycle.  I was back at the camp by 10:00 am.

Pool at Las Hoyas
 I did absolutely nothing for the rest of the day besides eat, read and sleep in a hammock in the shade.  About 4:00, it started to cool down and I got up and spent a couple of hours walking through the desert, taking photographs in the late afternoon light.  As the sun dipped lower, the scenery just got more and more incredible.  The sky was filled with dramatic cloud formations which, combined with the Andes, provided an amazing backdrop for the impressive desert view.  It was heart-breakingly beautiful and almost made me cry with happiness.  I wanted to paint it all, but had to settle for taking photographs that I could reproduce later, once I got home.

Moon Over Tatacoa
As it started to get dark, a full moon rose.  I headed out to the observatory, as there was enough clear sky to see some stars.  There was a big crowd waiting when I arrived.  At 7:00, I paid my 10,000 pesos and climbed to the roof.  An astronomer had directed four telescopes towards the sky.  Unfortunately, while he gave us an introduction to astronomy, more clouds began to gather.  There were probably 150 people up there and I only got a chance to look through two of the telescopes before the clouds closed in completely.  I got a look at Antares (still just a speck through the telescope) and Saturn, which was more impressive with its clearly visible rings.  I stayed for an hour or so, listening to the astronomer talk, and then slipped out when I saw the other people from our camp leaving, since I didn’t want our hosts to have to serve dinner more than once.  It was 9:00 by the time we got back to the camp.  We ate a dinner of rice, lentils and eggs and then I retired to my tent just as it began to sprinkle for the second night in a row.


August 10, 2014

I got up early to pack, eat and pay my bill before my per-petually early mototaxi driver arrived at 7:30.  The total bill for two nights lodging (in my silly tent), two dinners, two breakfasts and a lunch came to 79,000 pesos (about $43.)  Getting there and back was the most expensive part of the trip.  I was reluctant to leave the desert because it was so incredibly beautiful and the constantly changing light and clouds were fascinating.  One can, however, only take so many photographs.  While I could easily have whiled away several more days there, I had a plane to catch.  Heading for Bogota definitely felt more like starting the journey home than exploring another new city.

Church in Villavieja
We bounced the four kilometers through the desert to Villavieja and then I waited there for 45 minutes until we gathered the required 5 passengers to make the van trip to Neiva worthwhile.  It was Sunday morning and people were trickling into the church across the street from the bus stop.  The church was playing religious music over the loudspeaker from the top of the bell tower, which filled the park and surrounding area.  A few people drank coffee at cafes lining the plaza.  It was very quiet.  I had time to visit the ATM and get some cash for the final leg of my trip.  I could only withdraw about $150 worth of pesos at a time, which made frequent trips to the ATM necessary.  Most places charged a 5% surcharge for using a credit card, if they took credit cards at all.  I seldom used mine.

Collective Van
The trip to Neiva took an hour in the same rickety van that had brought me to the desert in the first place.  In Colombia, collective van drivers also act as couriers and often deliver packages for people, which can make for interesting detours.  I loved the collective van concept and tried to figure out how to make it work in the United States, but the cost of labor would make it unprofitable in competition with subsidized public transit.  In Neiva, I bought a ticket on a first class bus to Bogota.  The long distance buses actually left from a different terminal than the one served by local transit.  I had to schlep my belongings quite a distance, following the arrows painted on the pavement, until I arrived at the Centenario Terminal.

Fields Outside Neiva
Outside Bogota
The bus to Bogota was comfortable, although I didn’t get one with WiFi, which was a disappointment.  We left Neiva at 11:00, but didn’t arrive at the northern bus terminal in Bogota until nearly 7:00 pm due to terrible traffic.  It took us more than two hours just to cross the metropolitan area.  From Neiva, we drove through fields of rice and cotton, gradually climbing through hills where cattle grazed, until we reached the high plateau where Bogota is located.  Bogota sits at 8500 feet on a high plateau in the Cordillera Oriental of the Andes.  The metropolitan area is home to some 8.5 million people.  The southern part of the city was the usual Latin American sprawl of unattractive, low, red brick buildings.  Bogota featured more graffiti than other cities and some of it was quite impressive.  If I had been there on a Saturday or Thursday, I would have taken the graffiti tour, but I picked the wrong time to come.  The city became more attractive as we crawled northward.  The downtown area included many tall skyscrapers, one of which was covered with LED lights that changed colors and patterns and made an impressive spectacle.  

Graffiti Outside Bogota
Hostal Ole Mi  Casa
I took a taxi from the terminal to the hostel Ole Mi Casa.  I had chosen the number one rated hostel on TripAdvisor because it was located in a good                                                                                                                                        area and seemed like a large and professional operation from what I could see on the internet.  I knew it was on the second floor of a building and was expecting the sort of hostel that occupied a floor of a high rise like the ones where I had stayed in Spain.  Taxis in Bogota are quite regulated.  When you take a taxi from the bus terminal, you must first stand in a long line to see a clerk who enters your destination into her computer and then assigns you to a designated taxi and prints out a slip of paper to give to the driver.  I showed her the email I had received from Bookings.com, but addresses in Latin America don’t work like addresses in other parts of the world and they had omitted the crucial number of the building, although I did have the cross streets.  The clerk further confused things by typing Carrera 4 instead of Carrera 4a.  The result of all that was that we drove around in circles for 15 minutes before the driver looked the place up on the internet and we finally found the hostel.  Ole Mi Casa turned out to be a tiny place without a sign on the second floor of a small apartment building.  I was terrified that the taxi bill was going to be outrageous, because we had come a long way even before we got confused, but it only came to 20,000 pesos (about $11.)  I was so relieved that I gave the driver a tip, which is not normal in Colombia and pleased him greatly.

My Room at Ole Mi Casa
The hosts were very friendly and the room, while tiny and windowless, was well appointed.  Fortunately, there was a big, thick blanket because it was quite chilly.  I hadn’t eaten all day, so went to a Lebanese restaurant on the corner for dinner.  The food was excellent and I really appreciated tasting something different for a change, but the prices came as a shock.  I had taken 36,000 pesos with me, thinking I could splurge, but ended up having to forego having a glass of wine with dinner because I couldn’t afford it.  Just a glass of wine cost more than I had paid for dinner in the rest of Colombia and it wasn’t a fancy place.  Realizing that Bogota was going to be expensive, I paid with a credit card and conserved my cash.  I went back to my room, bought a bottle of Spanish wine (The owner was Spanish.) and crawled under my blanket to watch the latest Star Trek movie in Spanish until I fell asleep.




August 11, 2014

It was chilly when I woke up and I wasn’t eager to get out of bed.  I had ordered breakfast for 8:00, however, so had to make an effort.  At least the shower had nice hot water.  I really didn’t have the clothes for Bogota, so I dressed in my dive skin and the one pair of long pants I had that didn’t smell like horse.  The host had laid out a breakfast of cereal, fruit and coffee for me on what was once the back porch, which had been enclosed and made into a small breakfast room.  It was even chillier out there than in my room, which had at least been warmed by body heat.  After breakfast, I spent a couple of hours writing and sorting through my belongings, trying to determine what I could leave behind to make room for the gifts and hammocks I planned to buy.  By 10:00, I was ready to head out to explore  Bogota.

End of "Calle 27"
Carrera 7 in Bogota
I really wasn’t in the mood for sightseeing.  Once I left the desert, I felt I was on my way home and really just wanted to get it over with.  I walked down Calle 27 to Carrera 7, which is a main north to south artery in Bogota.  The last block or so of the “street” was actually a series of stairways leading down between high rise buildings.  Carrera 7 reminded me a lot of Market Street in San Francisco.  It was crowded with people and shops, but slightly seedy.  Shortly after I started down the street towards the historic center, I came across a mall of souvenir shops.  One of them was selling hammocks and I bought two of them: one in the yellow, red and blue of the Colombian flag and one in red with rainbow stripes.

Plaza Bolivar
Courtyard at the Botero Museum
Botero's Mona Lisa
                                                                                                                                           I continued down Carrera 7 until I reached the Plaza Bolivar, a large empty square surrounded by the Cathedral, Palace of Justice and some other governmental buildings.  It was Monday and many of the museums (and the cathedral) were closed.  I knew the Botero Museum on Calle 11 was open, so I headed up there.    Botero was the Colombian artist specializing in mis-proportioned figures whose work I had first encountered in Medellin.  The Botero museum featured not only the paintings and sculptures of Botero, but also his extensive collection of works by other famous artists.  I especially enjoyed the smaller, less monumental, sculptures in the museum.  Most were bronzes, all highly polished and some featuring an opaque green patina.  A few were carved from marble.  While I usually found his work interesting, but cartoonish, I found some of these glistening forms beautiful.  The collection of works by other artists was also impressive.  Most well-known impressionist artists were represented and there were many works by artists such as Miro and Picasso.  The knowledge that he was able to collect such valuable works gave me an insight into just how successful Botero had been.
Botero's Cat

The Botero Museum was only one museum in a bewildering group of museums clustered around an interior courtyard.  The Banco de la Republica displayed their collections of art and coin minting equipment in the Museo de Arte and Casa de Moneda (House of Coin) museums in this extensive complex.  The museums were all free.  The art museum displays modern Colombian and other South American paintings and some sculpture.  The coin museum has very detailed exhibits explaining the history of coining money, which I probably would have found interesting if it hadn’t been crowded with noisy groups.  As it was, I spent more time in the quiet halls of the art museum.

After working my way through three museums, I was ready for lunch.  A cluster of small restaurants serving typical Colombian far clustered in Calle 11 near the Plaza Bolivar.  I had a crock of delicious bean soup for lunch in one of them.  I was just the thing on a chilly day.  The cathedral was closed, but the baroque Capilla (Chapel) del Sagrario next door was open and I ducked in to see the six large Velasquez paintings in the nave.  When it stopped raining, I headed back up Carrera 7, shopping for gifts along the way.  Most of Carrera 7 was closed to vehicular traffic and the street filled with crowds as the afternoon progressed and people finished work and school and ventured out to do errands and socialize.  I walked back to Calle 27 and then continued north for a few blocks where the city quickly became more modern and less social.  High rise buildings were filled with offices and condominiums, but the street was open to cars at that point and there was little foot traffic.  I backtracked to the stairs leading up to Calle 27 and dragged my purchases up the hill to my hostel.
Cathedral and Chapel on Plaza Bolivar in Bogota

Modern Bogota
I spent the rest of the afternoon working on my blog and finishing my packing.  Just after dark, I ventured out to find dinner.  Many businesses had been closed on Sunday night when I arrived, but Carrera 4a was lined with restaurants, all of which were fairly pricey, but seemed to be doing a good business.  Bogota appeared prosperous, or at least to have a large prosperous element.  I elected to eat divine osso buco in a Spanish restaurant.  It was the best thing I had eaten in months.  Then I retired to my room to drink Spanish wine and try to go to sleep early because I needed to rise at 3:15 in order to catch my taxi to the airport at 4:00 am.


August 12, 2014

It is impossible to order a taxi ahead of time in Bogota, so my poor host had to get up to call the taxi for me.  When you call a taxi in Bogota, they give you a passcode that you have to give to the driver before he will let you into the cab.  There was no traffic at 4 am, so we sailed straight out to the airport.  Despite the instruction to be at the airport three hours ahead of time for an international flight, the check-in counter didn’t open until 5 am, so I waited in line for about 45 minutes.  There were many people in line ahead of me.  When I finally made it to the first employee at the entrance to the maze leading to the counter, he asked me for my name, leafed through a big sheaf of paper, and pulled out a printed sheet with my flight information on it.  He looked at the sheet and informed me that I needed to stand in line to get my passport stamped by the aviation taxing authorities.  It was the strangest thing.  I stood in line, got my stamp, and received a 70,000 peso refund of a tax that I am not at all sure I ever paid in the first place.  Once I got my stamp, I returned to the line and was finally allowed to check in and leave my luggage.  With an unexpected 70,000 Colombian pesos to spend, I spent some of the waiting time shopping for overpriced coffee and chocolate in the airport gift store.

My first flight was three and a half hours from Bogota to Miami.  I had a five hour layover in Miami, but much of it was consumed with waiting in line at passport control, claiming my luggage and passing through customs.  Despite having come from Colombia, I wasn’t hassled, although the whole process was maddeningly slow.  Once I rechecked my bag, I was free to eat lunch and wait for my flight to Houston.  The flight to Houston was half an hour late leaving, which concerned me because I only had an hour to connect to my flight to Los Angeles on the other end.  We made up most of the time enroute, however, and the departure gate was adjacent to my arrival one, so I had no difficulty in making it to the plane on time.  Unfortunately, the last three and a half hour leg of my trip was on a tiny American Eagle plane where everything seemed to be about ¾ sized.  I was wedged into a window seat with nowhere to put my feet because my day pack didn’t fit in the glove box sized overhead, so had to be stuffed where my feet should have gone.  It was the most uncomfortable flight of my life since smoking in flight was outlawed.  I had to keep reminding myself that, after the tax refund, the whole trip home had cost me only $60 and 17,500 miles.

I returned to Los Angeles to be greeted by dear friends and spent a week visiting people in the Marina del Rey, Long Beach and Orange County areas before taking the train to San Luis Obispo to visit more friends and catch a ride home with a friend heading that way on vacation.  It was definitely the long way home, but helped to ease the transition.  The sailing community was abuzz with preparations for the coming cruising season and I started to wonder if I could get all my mundane tasks done in time to start again.


Monday, August 11, 2014

CALI TO SAN AGUSTIN – TRAVELING BACK THROUGH TIME

August 3, 2014

Strapping the Luggage to the Roof
Elise and I were both keen to escape the noisy El Viajero.  We shared a taxi to the bus terminal with another couple of travelers which left no room for luggage and necessitated strapping all our bags to the roof.  We were concerned about the ability of the driver’s bungee cords to keep everything in place until he finally produced some proper rope, which made the stack much more secure.  We had no trouble locating the bus to Popoyan and even had enough time for me to use the ATM after loading my backpack into the luggage compartment of the bus.


Cane Fields on the Way to Popoyan
Park Life Hostel
It took us over a half an hour to clear the city limits of Cali because the streets were narrow and traffic heavy, even though at 10:30 am it was no longer rush hour.  Once we were finally free of the city congestion, we climbed over a range of hills and then descended through fields of cane.  The landscape was much drier than before and looked rather like California if you didn’t look too closely at the trees.  The cane fields were green in contrast with the brown hills and there were scattered coffee plantations that looked like they were struggling.  It took us about three hours to get to the Popoyan terimal and then we took a taxi to Hostel Park Life, which was located right on the main square, next door to the cathedral.  Hostel Park Life was a welcome slice of heaven after the raucous El Viajero.  It occupied the upper floor of a (probably) Victorian building overlooking the park.  My room had large, loft style windows that opened to let in air and the sound of pop music and occasional Peruvian flute players.  The common area was a former atrium which had been covered with a skylight to create a lofty, light filled space.  The management fostered an atmosphere of peace and quiet.  There was even a sunny attic reading room.

View from My Room at Park Life Hostel
Iglesia de San Francisco
I dropped off my belongings and headed out to find something to eat.  I ended up at a grill called La Cosecha (The Harvest.)  It was crowded with Colombians, so I figured it must be good.  I was hungry for some serious protein, so ordered the grilled liver.  It was delicious and came with a nice salad, rice, and fries.  I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to need dinner.  After lunch, I strolled around Popoyan.  The city was the original capital of southern Colombia, during colonial times, until it was surpassed by Cali.  It had many grand colonial buildings, all of which were painted white.  On a sunny day, it was rather blinding and quite warm.  I walked a few blocks to the Iglesia de San Francisco, but was unable to take a tour because it was Sunday and services were in process.  I then visited the early 18th century Puente Chiquita and its 19th century replacement, the Puente del Humilladero, which is still in use as a pedestrian bridge and looks quite solid, if a bit narrow for vehicular traffic.  Flowering trees were blooming beside the bridges and the scene resembled a Thomas Kincaid painting.


Puente Chiquita
I had been told that it was a bad idea to climb the Cerro del Morro by oneself but, when I looked up there and saw crowds of people, I decided that it would be fine to do so on a busy Sunday afternoon.  I walked across town and climbed up the zigzag path to the top.  Families were out enjoying the afternoon and the hilltop was swarming with ice cream vendors and children flying kites in the strong wind at the top of the hill.  The summit offered a nearly 360 degree view of Popoyan and the hills behind it.  I took a few photos and ate a popsicle before walking back to the hostel where I spent a quiet evening chatting with the other guests about languages.  After my big lunch, my dinner was a piece of leftover bread and a beer.
View from Cerro del Morro

August 4, 2014

Llama Rides in the Plaza
My original plan had been to go to the Parque National Purace to see the condors, but there had been an earthquake on Saturday night and the park was closed because they feared that the earthquake might signal an eruption of the volcano.  I later discovered that the park was always closed on Mondays, anyway.  Unfortunately, all the museums in Popoyan were also closed on Mondays.  I got up reasonably early, but lounged about the hostel, playing on the internet for a couple of hours, and then went out to the Juan Valdez Coffee Shop for a latte and a piece of carrot cake.  I went to the grocery store and bought food for lunch and dinner, as well as spare batteries for my camera and prunes and almonds to snack on later.  Colombia must produce almonds because they were available at a reasonable price, after having been impossible to find without paying a fortune since Mexico.



Cathedral in Popoyan
            I spent the afternoon at the very pleasant hostel, reading and trying to make a reservation for a place to stay in San Agustin.  Many of the other guests that I had met at the hostel were also going to San Agustin, so we resolved to go together.  At 4:00, I went running with one of the owners of the hostel and a couple of other guests.  I hadn’t really run in a few months, but managed to keep up for the first mile as we ran uphill to the university track.  I really noticed the altitude.  Popoyan sits at about 5500 feet.  Thinking I was going to have to run back and not wanting to be left behind, I alternated walking and running laps for the next 2.25 miles.  Then the rest of the group decided to walk back.  I should have just kept running instead of conserving my energy.  It was fun to run with others for the first time since Ixtapa.  I enjoyed a shower and a cold beer upon my return to the hostel.

I cooked myself a dinner of a pork chop, eggs, and carrots for a change.  I was just too tired of eating corn, rice, beans and bread.  Once again, I spent a quiet evening at the very pleasant and companionable hostel.  Unfortunately, none of the hostels in San Agustin seemed eager to answer my emails and the Hostel Park Life phone was out of minutes, so they couldn’t call ahead for us.  They suggested we use one of the many people offering phone calls in the park.  I couldn’t hear well enough to make a phone call in Spanish from a cell phone in a noisy place and no one else seemed inclined to do so.

August 5, 2014

Roadside Waterfall
None of the hostels answered my emails, so I set off on the 9:30 minibus to San Agustin having no idea where I was going to land, but hoping to find a place before my friends arrived late in the evening.  Everyone said that it was important to travel to San Agustin during the day because the road was so remote that if anything were to happen to the bus, it would be necessary to sleep in the bus overnight.  The road was, indeed, remote.  Most of it was rough dirt.  In many places, it passed through road cuts that were barely one lane wide.  It climbed up and over a range of mountains.  The top was covered in cloud forest and it was very cold and had started to rain.  My hands and feet were numb again, even though I had at least worn long pants this time.  We then wound our way back down the other side of the range and through some lower hills where coffee was being grown.  It took five hours to make the trip.  At one point, we passed a spectacular waterfall.  Finally, we stopped at a crossroads.  Because I was the only person actually going to San Agustin, the bus driver loaded me into a passing pickup truck that was going to San Agustin and headed off to the next town.  I rode the last 5 kilometers in a crew cab, which was at least warmer than the bus.

Our Yurt at Finca El Maco
The driver of the pickup didn’t really know what to do with me, so he dropped me at a travel agency.  That turned out to be a very good thing.  I had received a message from Anke, one of the women who was coming later, saying that there was room for us in the dorms at Finca El Maco and asking if she should make a reservation.  Unfortunately, I received the message randomly as I passed a public WiFi hot spot in the bus and was not able to answer her.  I asked the travel agent to call El Maco to see if we had a reservation.  We didn’t, but they still had room for us, so I made a reservation and then took a taxi up there.  Finca El Maco was one of the places I had tried to email to make a reservation.  Maybe Anke had tried, also.  They installed us in a colorful yurt with three young men.  The beds all had bright plaid bedspreads and mosquito nets.  There was only one bunk bed.  The rest were singles.  The roof was palm thatch and there was plenty of floor space, the lack of which was one of the reasons I usually hated dorms.  The situation was very strange, however.  There were several different yurts about the property and they could easily have rented us one of the others at a higher price.  They only seemed to be using the one, maybe because it was the low season.


Yurt Interior
After messaging the others to tell them where we were staying and determining that they weren’t interested in going horseback riding the following day, I walked back into town to arrange to go on my own.  At the travel agent’s, I ran into a French and Belgian couple that I knew from Popoyan and, since it took three people to make a group, we decided to go together.  I felt bad about not hiring the guide who worked for the hostel, but didn’t want to pay more to go alone.  I told him we would take a jeep tour with him the following day, but it didn’t work out that way.  I stopped at the grocery store to buy beer and some food for breakfasts and snacks.  The walk back to the hostel was about a kilometer straight up a steep, muddy, dirt road.  Once there, the only noises were mooing cows, squealing pigs, and barking dogs.  I ate a delicious yellow Thai curry for dinner and tried to spend the evening reading.  I ended up falling asleep by 8:30.  I had arranged for the others to be received after reception closed at 9:00, but they came in very late.

August 6, 2014

Having fallen asleep at 8:30 the night before, I woke up at 4:30 am.  It was pouring rain.  Not wanting to disturb the others, I stayed in bed until 8:00, but finally got up because I needed to be ready to go riding by 9:00.  No one else was stirring.  I got up, dressed, and ate breakfast.  I was sitting in reception, using the internet, when the travel agent called to say that the horseback tour was cancelled. The others had decided to switch to the jeep tour.  Since my friends were still asleep and I couldn’t consult them, I agreed to go along.  Kristyn had a meeting online and couldn’t go and Anke was still sleeping.  The jeep arrived a bit early, so I had to leave without getting a chance to invite her to come along.

We drove around San Agustin, picking up other passengers.  I got to see some of the other hostels.  We had to wait for two passengers at Casa de Nelly, so they gave us cups of strong, hot coffee while we waited.  It looked like a very nice place, but was full.  They hadn’t bothered to answer my query.  When we finally left, there were seven of us: Italian, French, Belgian, Israeli, Colombian, Malaysian and American.  We just laughed every time someone asked us where we were from.  Our driver, Marino, wasn’t an official guide, but had worked in tourism for 30+ years and was able to answer all our questions while navigating truly horrible roads running with water.

El Estrecho
Our first stop was “El Estrecho” (the straits) where the Rio Magdalena passes between volcanic cliffs.  Under different circumstances, it might have been fun to jump into the water, but it was a raging torrent when we were there. It had been raining hard for many hours.  We drove for quite some time to get there, but couldn’t see anything because the windows were all fogged up due to the rain.  From “El Estrecho,” we drove to Obando, a small town with a museum and some archaeological sites.  Little is known about the people who carved sculptures from the volcanic rocks surrounding San Agustin.  They had disappeared long before Europeans came to South America and were not related to the Incas, Mayas, or Aztecs.  They carved more than 500 statues in the San Agustin area.  Their burials consisted of covered stone alleyways, painted in red, yellow, black and white designs, leading to stone sarcophagi (sometimes carved) and guarded by stone figures.  Most of these tombs were raided before the archaeologists started to preserve them, but they never contained much in the way of riches.  The culture was not known for working gold.

Scenery on the Way to Alto de los Idolos
 From Obando, we traveled a long way through spectacular scenery to Alto de Los Idolos (Height of the Idols) where we ordered lunch and then climbed the hill to look at more tombs and sculptures while it was being prepared.  For some of us, the scenery was more interesting than the tombs.  Steep green mountains stretched away on all sides.  Unlike the mountains in the United States, where civilization tends to stick to the valleys, we could see roads and buildings lining the ridges.  Coffee, cane and plantains were planted
on the upper reaches of the mountains, where there was more sun, and the bottoms of the
Alto de los Idolos


valleys tended to be wild.  Crops were planted on slopes so steep that a person falling could roll a thousand meters or more to the bottom.  A hectare of land in such a place could be had for about 5,000,000 pesos (about $2700), whereas a hectare of reasonably flat land near San Agustin would cost 80,000,000 (about $43,000.)

Tombs at Alto de los Idolos
Sarcophagus at Alto de los Idolos

We ate a very nice lunch.  I had chicken with French fries, plantains, and salad.  The rain finally stopped.  Then we drove to Alto de Las Piedras (Height of the Stones) to look at more sculptures.  The most famous of these was the one often referred to as “Doble Yo” (Double me) because it has two faces on the front.  It actually had another two on the back, although they are harder to see.  
Doble Yo

Agregar leyenda
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The tombs were starting to seem repetitive and slogging through wet grass was getting old.  It was a relief to go to our next stop, a mirador (overlook) at Salto de Bordones, the second tallest waterfall in South America.  The falls were tall (450 meters), but we couldn’t see all the way to the bottom or get very close, so some of the effect was wasted.   With all the rain, there was plenty of water.  Our last stop was Salto Mortino, which was only about half as tall, but was spectacular because we were closer and could see the whole thing.  The owners of the overlook, who charged 1000 pesos (54 cents), had built a narrow walkway protruding about 10 feet over the cliff.  From there, we could see deep into the canyon.  There were beautiful orchids blooming along the edge.
Orchids at Salto Mortino

Salto Mortino

4-Wheel Drive Bus Used on Dirt Roads Known as a "Chiva"
The drive back to San Agustin was only half an hour.  The French and Belgian couple and I arranged to go horseback riding the following day if more didn’t rain.  I went in search of cash, but found the Bank of Agriculture ATM closed.  There was a rumor of another ATM in a supermarket further into town, but I was tired and it was get-ting dark, so I de-cided to try again the fol-low-ing day.  I dragged my tired self up the very steep hilll to the hostel.  Not knowing whether or not I would be able to obtain any cash before leaving San Agustin, I elected not to eat dinner in the restaurant.  I munched a hard-boiled egg, some crackers, and some fruit, washed down with a couple of beers.  I spent the evening in the reception area, using the internet until they closed at 9:00 and then retired to our yurt.  Anke and Kristyn were getting up early to go to the Archaeological Park and I was tired, so we all went to bed by 10:00.  We had no other company in our yurt.

August 7, 2014

Cacique (Chief)
It wasn’t raining when I woke up, which was a good sign.  I knew Anke and Kristyn wanted to get an early start, so I stayed in bed until they were done with the bathroom and then got up.  I had originally planned to go riding the first day and then launder my jeans on the second day so as to have them for the cold weather of Bogota, but that plan went out the window when my ride got rained out.  I turned my laundry in, but I would just have to do without clean jeans in the city.  Once again, my guide showed up half an hour early, throwing a wrench into my morning plans.  He picked me up on a motorcycle and drove me down to the campground where Francois and Funi (sp?) were staying and where the horses awaited us.  My horse was a small bay gelding named Cacique.  He was energetic and well behaved and had an amazingly comfortable trot.  It was actually easier to sit than his canter.  We got on well.

El Tablon
Our first stop was El Tablon where five statues were displayed under a covered structure.  The center image was the moon god.  To his right, were two warriors to protect him, and to his left were the image of a slave and his intermediary.  The people who carved these statues had no calendar or numerical system, so keeping track of the movement of the moon was difficult for them.  They would come to consult (probably the priests of) the moon god for advice on such things as when to plant crops or cut bamboo.  If you cut bamboo during a new moon, the sap has all gone out of the wood and it doesn’t last very long.

La Chaquira
Lookout at La Chaquira
It wasn’t very far from El Tablon to La Chaquira.  At La Chaquira, we climbed down nearly 300 steps to see figures carved into the stone overlooking the Rio Magdalena, Columbia’s most important river, which divides the Cordillera Central from the Cordillera Oriental.  The scenery was spectacular.  Waterfalls plummeted down the side of the canyon through nearly vertical coffee plantations.  There was a pleasant coffee stand and nice restrooms at La Chaquira and we stopped there for a coffee.
 
Vertical Coffee Plantation
La Pelota Statues
After La Chaquira, we took a fairly long ride to La Pelota.  We picked our way down rocky slopes and galloped back up again.  Everything was very muddy and we got spattered everywhere.  The roads were bad and I was glad to be traveling by horse.  At La Pelota, we stopped for coffee and fried pastries and then climbed an especially muddy hill to see a group of well-preserved statues.  We continued over the hill to avoid the worst of the mud, while our guide drove the horses around to meet us. 
El Purutal Female Figure

El Purutal  Male Figure
Another short ride brought us to El Purutal, where we saw male and female figures still adorned with their original coloring.  These figures guarded the tombs where imperfect children were sacrificed and then buried.  It appeared that the civilization believed that imperfect children would have difficult lives in this world and should just be sent along to the next one.  Each of the figures was depicted holding a baby.  The male figure was also holding what looked like a club, although our guide claimed it was a measuring stick to make sure that the child was symmetrical.  The female figure was holding a child superimposed on a cross, which symbolized perfection.  From El Purutal, we rode to the Parque Archaeologico, where our guide left us to enjoy the park in what was left of our afternoon.


Francois and Funi wanted lunch, but I knew that I had to get back to town in time to obtain cash, so I skipped eating and went directly into the park.  The park included four groupings of tombs and statues: Mesitas A,B,C & D.  Tombs from this civilization featured a carved figure standing in the “doorway,” a flat stone resting atop two pillars (hence the name “mesita” or little table.)  Behind the entrance were two fences of vertical stones creating a passage that led to a stone sarcophagus, often covered with a carved lid.  The term “mesita” also applied to the artificially leveled areas where tombs and dwellings were constructed.  Near the entrance to the park, there was even a raised walkway leading to the first of these areas that had been constructed in ancient times.


Mesita B Grouping
Mesita A had some nice sculptures, but Mesita B had the most extensive collection.  It also had the tallest of the sculptures.  Mesita C had some interesting sculptures that differed from the others in shape and size.  I somehow managed to miss Mesita D, probably because I also skipped the museum, being short on time.  I did, however, was to be sure that I didn’t miss Lavaplatos (dishwasher), an intricately carved set of channels, carvings and cascades that must have been used for ritual bathing or something.  A couple of thousand years of water flowing over the carvings had made them a little hard to make out, but the structure built over them was impressive.  A steel framework supported hundreds of plastic skylights.  At one end, a bridge made entirely of bamboo provided a viewing platform, as well as a way to cross the stream.


Lavaplatos

I was fascinated with the huge bamboo growing in Colombia.  Some of the trunks were as big around as my leg.  Our yurt was built with bamboo posts and rafters.  The structures covering the toll booths on the highways were even supported by bamboo.  Large bamboo was sometimes cut into lengths and crushed, which resulted in mats a foot or so wide that were used for walls and floors.  The bridge was a masterpiece of bamboo construction.  Suddenly, I felt like I ought to be in Asia.  The bamboo forests were also quite beautiful, with fluffy plumes of green bamboo waving in the breeze.
Bamboo Forest

From Lavaplatos, I climbed up a long steep hill to El Alto de Lavaplatos, where there were a few more sculptures, probably placed there to look over the view that probably would have been incredible if it hadn’t started to rain so hard that I could hardly see anything at all.  I didn’t spend much time up there, since the weather was so bad.  I headed back down, left the park and started the 3 kilometer walk back to town.  I got about half way there when my guide happened along on a motorcycle and gave me a ride to town.  The Lonely Planet Guide suggested
Bamboo Bridge at Lavaplatos
avoiding the “touts” who meet the buses, but they had been nothing but friendly and helpful to me and their tours were more economical that those offered by the hotel for a person traveling alone.  The company was Tour Macizo San Augustin.  I was helped by Christian Nunez, but everyone working there was very nice.

Trying to find cash in San Agustin was frustrating.  There were two banks across the street from the tour company, but both had Banco de Bogota ATMs and they rejected my ATM card because it had a magnetic strip instead of a chip.  The Agrarian Bank ATM had been closed for two days.  When I finally tracked down the grocery store with a BanColumbia branch in the back, that was closed, too.  I was starting to get desperate.  I went back to Banco de Bogota to see if their ATMs would take my credit card.  That didn’t work either.  In desperation, I tried my ATM card again because, although it had never worked in any city, the ATMs always said they were performing the transaction using the magnetic strip just before they rejected my card.  A miracle occurred.  I decided to pull my card out of the reader before it asked me to and it worked!  I got my cash and so was able to stomp back up the hill, reclaim my laundry and order dinner.  I would have enough pesos to leave San Agustin, after all.