Mysterious San Agustin

We left Popayan in a car driven by Rene, a friend of the helpful receptionist at our small historic hotel. Rene drove all the way from San Agustin to pick us up, which seemed like an awful lot of work — 130 kilometres but 5 1/2 hours, you can imagine the road — but after we liked him so much we hired him to drive us for the next three days, we understood why it was worth it to him. He was a great guide, he spoke Spanish slowly and was easy to understand.

  The lengthy drive took us over a high pass, through paramo (alpine tundra) with distinctive tussock grasses and the espeletia shrub which has spectacular blooms (according to Rene) only every seven years. Though it was cold and inhospitable after the warmth of Popayan, we soon descended to the relative warmth of the San Agustin area. This road was not safe to drive and often cut off completely by guerrilla activity for many years starting in the ’90’s. We crossed a bridge over the Rio Magdalena (which we first encountered later in its life at Mompox) which had been destroyed by bombing 8 times during this period leaving San Agustin cut off from the north. All calm now though, but heavy military presence along the way.

  About two thousand years ago this area was populated by an indigenous group who buried their dead in elaborate tombs marked by large stone statues with huge eyes, grinning fanged mouths, traditional clothing, often adorned with snakes and Eagles. Many golden artifacts were found in the tombs, some of which are in the Museo de Oro in Bogota, others were carried away by looters over many years. A great number of these statues are now protected in the Parque Arqueologico which was up the road from the Finca where we stayed.

  Our first day Rene picked us up early to start the day at the Parque. Since the Easter week holiday is just huge in Colombia, all the accommodation in town was booked solid with Colombians on holiday and most of them were headed for the sights. Rene was right to get us out there early! We really enjoyed walking the extensive grounds around the statue area, especially as we hired a wonderful guide Umberto, who provided entertaining commentary on all the oddities of the statues and local mythology, and even played two traditional instruments as we walked along the slippery stone paths between grave sites. By the end of 3 hours the Colombians were flooding the site and we were finished with the Parque.  

  After a hugely filling “almuerzo”, the traditional set midday meal, off we went in Rene’s 4 wheel drive to a variety of other sites scattered throughout the countryside. According to the Rough Guide, to properly do justice to all the sites, it is necessary to have 3 days: the first as we did starting with the Parque to become familiar with the mythology, and to start touring the nearer sites, the second in the 4 wheel drive to the farther flung sites, and the third on horseback to those areas with impassable roads. We drew the line at the horseback part, but some of the roads we did on the second day were pretty nearly impassable! Colombians are crazy about waterfalls, and though we are not so much we happily visited 3 since they were along the way. This area is not much visited by foreign tourists so usually there are only a few people at each site, with the Easter week holiday, all the areas were swarming. Colombia has a rapidly growing middle class and apparently they love to travel. Fun to observe Colombian families.

  Along the way we admired the brilliant green hillsides of coffee and the dizzy-making Rio Magdalena gorge, passing through small farms and larger plantations of sugar cane and papayas. The coffee from this region is judged to be the best in Colombia, despite the fact that the Zona Cafetera gets the name. The climate is just right and apparently coffee likes to grow on steep slopes. Many in this area are so steep that the pickers attach themselves with ropes at the top and rappel down the slope, picking as they go. Since coffee has to be picked every 5 days, it is a terrible job, both difficult and dangerous. As you gaze over the edge of the gorge and envision lowering yourself down to pick the ripe beans, you can see the farm house so far below it looks tiny, with a winding path down over which supplies have to be transported down and loads of coffee up. Seems impossible, but I guess it works, coffee is Colombia’s third most important export after oil and gold.

  As we wended our way along the bone shaking road we met a small procession of village people, carrying a table with religious figures and flowers on it, about the size of a small end table. They were all singing and waving palm and eucalyptus fronds, and stopped in front of us at a roadside stand marked XI for the Station of the Cross it represented. They all dropped to their knees and prayed, had another hymn, then moved on. Young people helped old ones with canes, others carried babies, and kids skipped along waving their fronds. A complete contrast to the pomp of Popayan, kind of both ends of the spectrum.

We thoroughly enjoyed the two days in the truck but were glad to miss the day on horseback though lots were willing to take us, and many of the Colombians we passed mounted looked pretty hopeless. Instead we had a good day walking to the small town and around the surrounding area. On the fourth day our plane was leaving at 5 so we had the morning to go into the town for the Easter Sunday Procession and Mass. Again it was a great contrast to Popayan. San Agustin is tiny, just a village around the usual central square, all the Colombian tourists had left to get back home, so it was just the townspeople and a handful of gringos assembled to watch the Procession. The tableaux from the various earlier days had been left in the Parque to be admired. For the Resurrection theme, the flowers were gold and white, and the depictions were rather less gruesome.

  Various groups assembled, a secondary school marching band, a troupe of female baton twirlers, a group of rather inexpert young dancers, and a large group of women in red suits wearing white lace mantillas among others. Out were brought three of the tableaux, San Juan (John), San Pedro (Peter) and Mary Magdalena. The carriers wore robes covered by hooded brown calf length tunics, and only 4 were required for each table compared to the 8 needed by the massive Popayan ones. The priest, a jaunty soul in sunglasses, announced the names of the 3 images and the crowd clapped for their favourites. They then rearranged themselves, and we assumed, they were going to allow the winner of the popularity contest to lead the progression. However, at a command from the priest, the bearers of the three tableaux bolted down the street and we realized that it was a foot race and the clapping was for the favourite to win! There may have been betting involved. They rounded the far corner and disappeared from view, the race was 4 square blocks, so the crowd all trained their eyes on the corner around which they would appear. First to round was San Pedro, to wild cheering, then Mary Magdalena and then…..a long pause during which everyone craned their necks, and I wondered if one of the more elderly carriers had had a heart attack. Then at a dispirited walk, around the corner came San Juan — the jostling was too much for the statue and it appeared to have broken in half. The crowd clapped anyway and the priest took it in good part, directing the bedraggled crew into the church for “reconstruction”. Then the parade progressed in an orderly fashion accompanied by all the townspeople singing hymns and waving their fronds. Seemed like a lot of fun, far less serious though less elaborate than Popayan.

  Back to the cute little garden house where we had stayed on the very good Finca el Maco to grab our bags and Rene came to drive us 45 minutes to the tiny airport at nearby Pitalito. We had to be there 2 hours early, Satena had sent us an email to insist on the time, and we soon saw why. Since there was no security machine, all the luggage had to be checked by hand, and each passenger too. Off we went in a tiny propeller driven plane for our last internal flight in Colombia.

  We so enjoyed our last three stops, as we wended our way south. We were close to the Ecuador border before we flew back to Bogota. What an amazingly varied lot of country we have seen. Back to Bogota to prepare to fly home, to the Arche Noah Hostal where we started.  
We have loved this country which is so eager to welcome visitors again after the many terrible years of conflict.  It really has something for everyone.  For us we avoided the more touristy spots on the Pacific Coast in favour of the smaller towns we so enjoy.  Accommodation is great and not expensive, travelling surprisingly easy.  And that cliche that is so hard to avoid — friendly and helpful people make the trip special.  Hard to leave, but looking forward to home too after three months away.  Hope spring has sprung!