Who Were Those People? Mysteries in San Agustín, Colombia

For a long time, I felt that there was no more mystery in the world. That everything that could ever be known was, well, known. And thanks to the internet, everything was just a few Google searches away.

San Agustín proved me wrong.

San Agustín is a little town in the south of Colombia. It’s not extrememly popular with backpackers but it does tempt some people. Basically, there are 2 types of travellers who go to San Agustín:

1) Those who are there to do the not-so-secret “special tour” which I’ll tell you about another time 

and

2) Those who are there to visit a UNESCO archaeological site.

We went for the archaeological site to see the mysterious monuments left behind by an even more mysterious group of people.

And it’s there that I was reminded that yes, there’s still plenty of mystery in this world!

in the museum
in the archaeological park

There are hundreds of these statues. And none of them are the same.

Get this: nobody knows who made these rock carvings! Despite having left behind a plethora of evidence of their existence, an entire group of people — an entire Andean culture that existed from the 1st to the 8th century — is completely unknown to the modern world. 

How cool is that?!

Personally, I think it’s incredible. How is it possible that nobody has a clue who these people were? It makes me feel giddy, almost childlike with wonder! 

  

The town itself is tiny, but we managed to keep ourselves busy, hanging out, horseback riding, and visiting the Parque Arqueologico with our new friends Steve and Laura from The World is a Playground. 

bottom left: Steve and Laura — Middle: random family that wanted a picture with us — Right: Matt and Cynthia

In the picture above, we’re hanging out on top of a children’s burial site. Typing that out loud makes me realize how morbid it is, but at the time, it was hilarious because…

…a random man came up to the 4 of us and said something about a picture. None of us understood what he was saying, but Matt thought the guy was asking if we wanted him to take a picture of us. Matt said no. We weren’t doing anything spectacularlay interesting that warranted a picture at that point in time. 

Then the guy said something else and held out his camera. All of the sudden, his big ol’ family appeared. 

It was then that I realized he wanted to take a picture of us with his family! Ha. I said sure because why not, eh?!

Though this seemed like a pretty normal thing for them, it was weird for us. I felt like a zoo animal, an attraction if you will. We all did. 

Then I flipped the tables and asked the man to take the same picture but with my phone. He looked at me like I was mental. LOL

We like to think that we’re framed and hanging on his wall. 

About San Agustín Archaeological Park

“The largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America stands in a wild, spectacular landscape. Gods and mythical animals are skilfully represented in styles ranging from abstract to realist. These works of art display the creativity and imagination of a northern Andean culture that flourished from the 1st to the 8th century.” – From UNESCO.org

So there you go, we went looking for mystery and found it in more ways than one! We’ll never know why that family wanted a picture with us — but maybe one day someone will figure out who the tribe was that left all those monuments. 

— Cyn

Get Off The Bus – They’ve Got Guns

A big man with an even bigger gun got on our bus. I didn’t know what to do so I pretended like he was just another snack vendor – I ignored him. 

Matt and I both removed our headphones and exchanged “wtf” glances with each other. But we didn’t say anything. Not a word. As if us talking would make us visible to the man with the gun. As if he didn’t already look directly at us.

As the man with the gun walked down the aisle, I caught a glimpse of what was written on his holster: U.S.

He calmly said something in Spanish to everyone on the bus. Something neither Matt nor I had any understanding of. We just looked at each other as male passengers started getting off the bus. Not everyone got off though so neither did we.

I didn’t want to leave the safety of my seat.

And then it happened. A guy who could speak English, a passenger just like us, reboarded the bus and walked up to us.

They want everyone to get off the bus. They’re looking for arms.

ARMS!!! Are you freaking kidding me?! ARMS!! As in guns and shit like that? 

Surely the only two gringos on the bus didn’t need to be searched or whatever was about to happen. I mean – LOOK AT US! Our Spanish is so bad and our budget so tight we couldn’t get ARMS if we tried (and we are NOT trying).

So we get off the bus. 

And there were even bigger guys with even bigger guns. They separated us into two groups: men and women. 

I resist the urge the freak the fuck out. Why did they separate the men from the women!? There are only men with guns so what does it matter if the female and male passengers are together? What are they about to do to us?

Whatever is about to happen, I can handle as long as I’m with Matt. But they separated us!

The big men with the big guns start searching everyone’s hand luggage. I’m losing my mind because I have a pink razor in my backpack (nicely organized in the pencil holder) and it’s glaring at the man with the giant gun. 

Does a pretty dull leg razor count as an arm? I wonder to myself. And the answer, if we were in the Unites States, would probably be yes because they’re mental like that. And I flash back to the big U.S. written on the first man with the gun’s holster. 

He doesn’t search my bag right away so I casually zip up the pocket with the razor. He never looks in it so I never find out if a dull razor counts as an arm in Ecuador too.

It’s clear that these men with the guns are military. Not that that makes me feel better.

As they search everyone’s bags, some of the men with really big guns are taking pictures.

Maybe they’re making a photo essay about military control. Or fear. Or shit people carry on buses.

When the guy finally looked in my bag, he said something to me in Spanish. Not only is my Spanish not good enough for most situations…it’s definitely not good enough for situations that involve big guns. Plus I couldn’t even hear the guy. 

We changed altitude and my ears hadn’t popped yet…I woke up that day basically deaf in my right ear for some reason…and I’d been listening to music cranked up in my headphones for hours on end to drown out the annoying sounds of the bus. Plus I was scared.

So I just said “Mi Español es no bueno.” Something to the effect of “My Spanish is no good.” What I really wanted to say was “I want my husband!”

To which he replied with a little smile (there is something SO unnerving about people with massive guns smiling. Like if you’re so nice why do you have a freaking huge gun? What are you planning behind your smile!?) and something to the effect of “it doesn’t matter.”

Oh great.

Meanwhile in Matt’s side of this ridiculous exercise, he was being made to remove our two big backpacks from the bus. He told the men with guns that the blue one was his and the green one was his wife’s.

They told him to open the green one. 

 

there’s no way I was supposed to take this picture. But I wanted you to know what this looks like.

I was watching the whole time, praying that my dirty clothes hadn’t been impossibly switched with a pile of guns. 

The man with the gun made Matt open my little black makeup case. Whatever they were looking for must be REALLY small if he thought it would fit in there.

Then the man with the gun spent a good 10 seconds inspecting my running shoes while they were still in the plastic bag. Whatever they were looking for must be really light if he thought it could be hiding in my Nikes.

After inspecting my packing cube full of soap, shampoo, and conditioner, the man with the gun must have realized that I’m the most normal person in the world — and not a freaking arms dealer/smuggler. Because he left Matt to pack up my bag and put it away.

We all got back on the bus – ladies first (such gentlemen the men with the guns were) and away we went. Like we didn’t all just have massive guns pointed at or near us.

Welcome to Ecuador, I guess. 

I’d just like to point out that nothing like this ever happened in Colombia – and that’s exactly where I’d expect it to happen.

– Cyn

How and How Much: Colombia to Ecuador Land Border Crossing

The hardest part of the land border crossing from Colombia to Ecuador is enduring some pretty windy roads. The border crossing itself was a breeze!

  
We wanted to avoid becoming the Colombia gurilleas’ next example so we did all of our bus travelling during the day. Given the gurilleas, the frighteningly fast Colombia drivers, and steep mountain cliffs, I would 100% recommend making this a day journey and not a night one!

The drive from Popayan to Ipiales is long(ish). We were told it’s about 8 hours by bus to the border. Then it would be another 5 hours from the border to Quito. I wasn’t up for that! I’m never up for sitting in buses — or anything –for that long. Plus, we wanted to see the most amazing gothic church that’s built into the side of a mountain!

So, we opted to break up the journey by spending a night in Pasto. 

Popayan to Pasto cost 25.000 COP each and took 5.5 hours (they say it takes 5). We took the bus at 10:30am and there was a stop for lunch at about 12. Lunch was extra and we didn’t eat it.

Pasto itself is nothing to write home about. It was, however, our first time this trip in noticeable altitude. The thin air made the pollution awful! I felt like I was sucking on a tail pipe the entire time we were there. 

In Pasto, we stayed in a little hotel 3 blocks away from the bus station. We wanted to be able to leave quickly in the morning. And leave quickly we did. 

From Pasto, you have to go to Ipiales to border cross. It cost 7.000 COP per person and took about 2 hours by bus. It was an easy peasy bus ride and the road was a little less scary than the first part of the trip. 

Once you’re at the bus terminal, you’ll take a collectivo to the border. It took 10ish minutes and cost so little that it was basically free (1.400 COP for both of us). And our driver nearly cried when we told him to keep the 600 COP change. I can still picture his deeply creased eyes when we told him it was for him to keep.

600 COP is 21 CENTS.

Pre-border crossing money tip: Ecuador uses the American dollar so change your pesos at the border. Give your small pesos to your taxi driver as a tip or spend them at the bus terminal. They’ll be worthless to you the second you stamp out of Colombia. Hold on to your peso notes though! There will be offical money changers (with rates so good — basically on par with xe.com — I have no idea how they make money to feed themselves) who will change your pesos to American dollars. Make sure you know the exchange rate, just in case. Feel free to haggle if you feel like you’re being low-balled.

Once your driver lets you out, and you change your pesos to dollars, it’s time to get your exit stamp. It costs nothing to leave Colombia.

Welcome to no man’s land!

It’s such a weird feeling being somewhere, but no where. Like, your feet are on the earth but you’re not in any country in particular! Okay, enough of that weirdness. 

Walk towards Ecuador.

  
Please, oh please do something that Matt and I didn’t do. Take a picture at 000km. The very freaking beginning of Ecuador! I deeply regret missing this opportunity because it’s obviously the ONLY place you can take the snap.

Entering Ecuador was a piece of cake. 

After we filed out our papers, we waited maybe 5 minutes in the shortest line ever.

The border agent who let me in even spoke great English. He asked me where I was coming from (to which I replied the wrong city, then corrected myself), how long I was staying in Ecuador (to which I told him 45 days since that’s what Matt and I agreed we’d say), and then he asked if I was travelling alone (I sort of get the feeling this wasn’t an offical question, but who knows).

Once we were welcomed to Ecuador with a big ol’ stamp in our passports, it was time to get a taxi to Tulcan, the nearest town so we could take a bus to Quito. The taxi cost us $3.50 and took about 20 minutes.

Upon arrival at the bus station in Tulcan, we were ushered onto a bus that was leaving immediately for Quito. It cost $6.00 USD each and took 5.5 hours.

After a run in with big men with bug guns, we finally made it to Quito – kind of! 

The bus takes you to the north bus station, which is years away from wherever your hostel/hotel is. 

You’ll probably have to take a taxi from here. It cost us $10 but will differ depending on where your hostel is. Ask the driver to use the meter, or negotiate a price. In our experience, all of our taxi drivers have quoted the non-meter price to be within about 50 cents of the meter rate. We never felt like anyone was trying to rip us off.

— Cyn

Colombia-Ecuador Land Border Crossing Review

Total for 2 people: $48.00 USD (65.400 COP + $25.50) and 14 hours (spread over 2 days). Way cheaper than flying, if you’ve got the time — or want to see the Las Lajas Sanctuary!

Popayan to Pasto – BUS: 25.000 COP and 5.5 hours

Pasto to Ipiales – BUS: 7.000 COP and 2 hours

Ipiales to Colombia border – COLLECTIVO: 1.400 COP and 10 minutes

Ecuador border to Tulcan – TAXI: $3.50 USD and 20 minutes

Tulcan to Quito – BUS: $6.00 USD and 5.5 hours

North bus terminal to centro historic(ish) – TAXI: $10 and about 30 minutes

How to Get To Salento From Medellín

I absolutely loved Salento and hope you do, too!! It’s a small town with a lot of personality. And it’s from here that you can hike the Cocora Valley and hug the giant wax palm trees!

 

look closely and you can see me hugging the tree!
 
Getting to Salento from Medellín is pretty easy, though we couldn’t find too much information about it. So, here you go!

Step 1: Go to the South bus terminal in Medellín.

Step 2: Buy a ticket to Armenia.

Step 3: Tell the bus driver and conductor that you’re going to Salento and not Armenia. 

Step 4: The bus driver should stop at a cross junction on the highway (in farm country) to let you off. This is about 15 minutes outside of Armenia, and will save you the time of going into the city. If the driver doesn’t stop, you can change buses in Armenia (this was our original plan). This takes about 5-6 hours (bring water with you, we didn’t have enough and I thought I was going to die).

Step 5: Walk across the street (look both ways, people will try to run you over) to the bus stop.

Step 6: Hail any and every bus/mini-bus with “Salento” on it. One of them will stop for you.

 

Matt waiting for a Salento bus to pick us up
 
If you’re heading to Salento on the weekend, be prepared to get stuck in traffic going up the mountain and into the town centre. Salento gets really busy (but it’s fun!) on weekends. It took us ages to get up there. It’s pretty windy…and I barfed in the bus and very nearly did so on a mother and daughter but they jumped out of the way just in time. It was terrible. 

Despite that little barf mishap, getting to Salento from Medellín was easy. Sure, it might seem a bit out of the way but it’s amazing there!!

I can’t remember how much it cost, unfortunately, but it was too expensive since transportation in Colombia is pretty reasonable. 

Enjoy Salento, and make sure you do the Cocora Valley hike. It makes the wax palms seem that much more magical!

– Cyn

Matt with Cats

It all started the week before we left on our year long Latin American adventure. 

Etobicoke, Canada

Matt loves tiny cats. And tiny cats love Matt. 

somewhere near Lost and Found in Panama

He even loves the angry, bite-y ones. And they love him back. 

 

Panama City, Panama
 
He even loves 3-legged jungle camp cats. And they’ll always find a way to get his pat.

1km away from the Lost City, Colombia
 
He especially loves cats that immediately fall asleep in his lap. 

San Agustin, Colombia
I’ll keep updating this as Matt hangs out with more cats.

It’s been a while since Matt has hung out with cats. But in Valparaíso, a cat just curled up on his lap. 

  

Even in the depths of Chile (at a random campsite outside of Río Tranquili, this cat had heard what a great snuggler Matt is. 

  
– Cyn