Colombia: Ibague to Mocoa

After encountering the road block on the Panamerican highway, we hung out around the city of Cali, hoping the road would open.  There was some information on the internet about the conflict, but nothing about when the issue might be resolved. The protesting Indigenous group wanted a meeting with President Duque. He wanted them to open the road before agreeing to a meeting. We asked everyone we met, but people would just shrug. Consequently, we had no idea when we would be allowed through.

Other than waiting, there were two other options. We could take route 37,  a thin line of a road on the map, winding up into the mountains, and down again, joining the panamerican south of Popayan. This route was tempting as it was the least miles. But the best reports were that the road was “tough”.  And we would be going through indigenous land, the very people who were unhappy. We might not feel welcome.

We decided on the other route, going east over the mountain on highway 40 to Ibague. The road would be snarled with big truck traffic.  We started out early and soon caught up to the slow moving trucks.

Driving to Ibague, Colombia

As we climbed there were many switch backs. Trucks had to swing wide into the oncoming lane in order to make the turn. So all other vehicles traveling in both directions were forced to stop and wait. Young guys stood on the road at the curve, signaling when safe to proceed, then held out their cap for coins.

A town on the way to Ibague, Highway 40, Colombia

Like the tortoise, it was slow but steady. We made the 120 km trip in 3 hours, a very good time.

From Ibague we headed south on 45. Near the town of Nivea, we turned off toward a small desert.

Tatacoa Desert, Huila Department, Colombia

For the next two nights we camped right on the rim of the Tatacoa Desert, looking over startling red earth dunes with peculiar shaped formations.

Tatacoa Desert, Huila Department, Colombia

The next day we hiked down in, and meandered for hours following dry stream beds passed cactus, hoodoos, and caves and puzzling over curious stone patterns. Supposedly this area gets just over 1 mm of rain per year. So we were surprised when it rained on us. It was a kind of mist, with a few droplets.

Tatacoa Desert, Huila Department, Colombia
Tatacoa Desert, Huila Department, Colombia
Tatacoa Desert, Huila Department, Colombia
Tatacoa Desert, Huila Department, Colombia

In the evening we went to the Observatorio. Sitting outdoors on white plastic chairs, we listened to a lively presentation about the stars and constellations. There were about a dozen people there, and we took turns looking through a large telescope at Orion’s M42, and at the brightest star Sirius. Interestingly the North Star here sits just above the horizon whereas at home it is quite high in the sky. Also at home we see the crescent moon as a banana shape, but here it is a smile. Funny eh?

Coke delivery Tatacoa Desert, Colombia

We drove further south down 45, on smooth pavement with good signage. Trees line both sides of the road, at times branching over like a canopy, making a lovely drive. This area is dairy cow country and cheese was sold at roadside in many forms. From the van window we bought what looked like little burritos. The hombre assured me they were a local treat and were very delicious. But they were actually pieces of  freshly made mozzarella folded around a chunk of strawberry jam. We both ate one, but the others are in the fridge awaiting a decision. Eat or toss.

Scarlet Tanager, Colombia

At Pitalito, we turned west to the nearby archaeological park of San Agustin. On our way through town,  a local man chased us down on his motorcycle. He promised to take us to a nice campsite, which he did. Then showing us a hand drawn map, he convinced us to take a tour with him, on horseback, even though he only spoke Spanish. He said he would speak slowly.  What were we thinking?

Tour on horseback, San Agustin, Colombia

The next morning, Uriel arrived at our camp at 8 AM, with 3 horses. Two young people fit us to the saddles and provided us with the blue helmets, which tourists are required to wear.  We set off and first, like any respectable Colombian, we rode through town. A young Colombian couple soon joined us and for the next 4 hours, the 5 of us rode happily up and down dirt roads and along mud trails.

Horseback riding tour in San Agustin, Colombia

It was idyllic, with rolling hills, houses, small farms, fields of beans or coffee, and of course chickens and cows. The horses here are small and easy to ride. We rode freely, ambling leisurely, or trotting uncomfortably. Sometimes racing to get in front of each other, or galloping up hills. It was really fun.

San Agustin Archeological Park, Colombia

Along the way, we stopped at 4 different rural sites, the locations where statues had been discovered. Each site was very small, with just a few statues out in the pasture, covered with a roof structure to protect them from erosion.

One of only a few colored statues, San Agustin Archeological Park, Colombia
Visiting statues at original farm site, San Agustin Archaeological Park, Colombia

At one site a guy carved miniature réplicas out of volcanic rock, at another a woman sold juice. Taking a break, our group ordered a pitcher of Lulo fruit and orange juice. Tart and tasty.

Cooking on the wood stove, small restaurant near San Agustin, Colombia

Back of the restaurant, she used a brick stove, with a wood fire. A large pot was steaming up with vegetable soup for the day.

Just after noon, we rode into the San Agustin Archeological Park, ending our very enjoyable horse tour. With sore butts, we slouched along the pathways at the park, through the museum and then along marked routes to where more statues were displayed. In the 1800’s and 1900’s these statues had been robbed from their original sites, but now returned for public display. Unlike Mayan or Inca sites, there are no walls, sundials, or residential areas. The gems are the statues which were carved about 2000 years ago.

Statues, San Agustin Archeological Park, Colombia

Hundreds of statues have been discovered in this part of Colombia. The most interesting thing is that, like snowflakes, every statue is different. The eyes, the hair, the nose and the hands all stand out. Some seem to be part animal and part human. Some hold a snake, some hold a child. Yet no one knows who made them or for what purpose.

Statue, San Agustin Archeological Park, Colombia

The following day’s drive took us further south to the town of Mocoa. Here we could head east and return to Pasto, the southern end of the Panamerican. It would require driving on a highway called the Trampoline of Death. The name made the choice intriguing.

But we have just learned that the disruptions on the Panamerican continue, and that gasoline is being rationed. Luckily there is a secondary route into Ecuador from Mocoa. Straight south is a little used border crossing. Five hours from Mocoa gets us into Ecuador. As usual I am excited, but anxious.

The Plan the only plan is to get in to Ecuador. 

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