San Agustín: Colombia’s Quicksand

After almost two weeks in Cali, Colombia, I was antsy to leave the city and get back to countryside hikes and small town tranquility. Up until this point, everywhere I traveled had been with someone I had met. This time I was heading from Cali – Popayán – San Agustín…all on my own.

Downtown traffic in San Agustín
Downtown traffic in San Agustín

When you find yourself catching a long bus ride through South America, avoid the back if possible. The road is often rough and bumpy, particularly when passing through the Colombian mountainside. This journey from homestay to new hostel took a taxi, two buses, one jeep, a motorcycle and nine hours altogether.

The trip is broken up by a stop in Popayan, routine breaks for the bathroom and food, and the drivers regularly circling the main streets corralling anyone and everyone possible onto their bus before hitting the highway. Or crumbling dirt road. Whichever!

Jewelry for sale on the bus!
Jewelry for sale on the bus!

Hungry but don’t feel like getting off the bus? Forgot to pick your girlfriend up a present for her birthday? No problema! Venders are constantly hopping on and off the bus selling food, drinks, jewelry, CDs, and more. Sometimes they come on armed with a microphone to speak about their special item for as long as an hour. No matter how arbitrary the sale of a DVD collection may seem to you, they don’t appreciate anyone speaking during their oration. You’ll likely receive a silencing, dirty look until you catch on and stop talking. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything…

Music for love birds sold on the bus.
Music for love birds only…as sold on the bus.

Travelers and locals alike warn about taking any night bus through the southern mountains or across the border to Ecuador. Buses in the past have been robbed, windows broken, and worse. Scary words of warning aside, you don’t want to risk missing out on the views!

Numerous waterfalls of differing heights and widths break up the mountainsides between Cali and San Agustín. On the way from Cali, sit on the right side of the bus for the best view of one enormous waterfall that splashes across the road and onto passing cars. Sit on the left for better views of the valleys and sloping, green hills.

In addition to the cascadas, landslides are equally prevalent. Buses and trucks dance around one another in areas where half the road has been blanketed in fallen rocks and piled dirt, or others where it’s simply impossible for two vehicles to share the road.

When we finally came along a sign for San Agustín, the driver stopped the bus to drop me on the side of the road. I was pleasantly surprised to find he wasn’t abandoning me but directing me towards a waiting jeep. On the brief jeep ride, I met Christian who conveniently works for the hostel I was heading to.

Ranchers herding their cows through town
Ranchers herding their cows through town

When we pulled up in the town center, he offered me a ride to the hostel since it is slightly out of town. I thanked him saying yes, of course! And in classic Colombian fashion, we climbed out of the jeep and onto his motorcycle.

I was thankful for the ride considering my hostel, Hotel Casa de Nelly, was 15-20 minutes uphill of the town. Riding a motorcycle up that same hill with a 40+ lb bag on your back, however, is not as glamorous as it may sound. Somehow I never tilted backwards quite far enough to fall off the bike, and we safely arrived to one of the most beautiful hostels I have seen yet.

Archeological statues are a main tourist attraction to the area.
Archeological statues are a main tourist attraction. Representations can be found all throughout the town and surrounding area.

A big, flowery cage of lazy tortoises munching greens and parrots chatting incoherently about chocolate greet you as you walk through the garden. A back patio opens up into a yard with a bonfire, sitting area, and plenty of room to sunbathe or play with the hostel’s two friendly dogs.

The house itself is beautiful; colorful pillows and tablecloths brighten the downstairs and delicate dream

One of the kittens with its mother eating breakfast on my dorm room balcony.
One of the kittens with its mother eating breakfast on my dorm room balcony.

catchers swing gently from the rafters. If that picture doesn’t sound perfect enough, I opened a window in my dorm room to look out and see a family of kittens wrestling on the terracotta rooftop. There’s a reason myself and other travelers got stuck here. More than once I felt like I had walked into a storybook.

Before arriving to Casa de Nelly, I planned to spend two nights in San Agustín before finally crossing the border into Ecuador. Five nights later, I was starting to question if I was actually joking when I would say that I was never leaving Colombia.

Hiking down to La Chaquira lookout during the horseback riding.
Hiking down to La Chaquira lookout during the horseback riding.

The longer you allow yourself to stay somewhere that feels comfortable, the deeper your roots sink into a place, the better you learn it, and the harder it is to leave. Nelly was no longer just a name on the sign, Harry and Gustavo immediately felt like friends, not staff, and a serendipitously harmonious group of backpackers all arrived within a day of one another with similar plans to stay only a few days that unintentionally grew into several more.

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San Agustin is know for its archaeological statues and tombs. The best way to see them is horseback riding to the nearby sites one day, and traveling by jeep to further away sites the second. You may be told that it costs 90,000 COP (~$45 US) for the guided horse tour, but don’t agree to more than 40,000. The jeep tour is slightly less expensive and includes a visit to one of the tallest waterfalls on the continent; however, those who did it all agreed that it was too much time in a car and not entirely worth it. If nothing else, see the canyons at La Chaquira. Hike down to the lookout point to spot waterfalls deep inside the valley.

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The archaeological sites felt repetitive to me and the town is small, but the relaxed and welcoming hostel bring you in like quicksand. Most of the staff and long-staying travelers speak only Spanish so it was sink or swim in the conversation pool.

The lovely Elfie
The lovely Elfie

The first evening there were homemade mojitos, a bonfire and backgammon. The following morning I went for the half-day horseback ride with Elfie, an older traveler from Austria, and Marvin, a twenty-something from Germany who didn’t know many Spanish words other than, “Cajaro!” (Shit!).

Marvin! This kodak moment started a conversation about what it means to look like a "douche bag" in America.
Marvin! This kodak moment started a conversation about what it means to look like a “douche bag” in America.

The pair of horses Marvin and I ended up with ran most of the way up and down the narrow, dusty paths. More than once, one or both of us was sure we wouldn’t make it around a turn still on our horse’s back. The fact that neither of us managed to fall off – especially considering it was Marvin’s first time on a horse! – felt like a miracle every time we slowed them down, laughing loudly recalling every close call.

Not long after we returned to the hostel that evening, what started as a light rain grew into a storm. I curled up on a patio chair under an umbrella writing an email on my phone and huddling away from the rain soaking everything around me. It didn’t take long for the electricity to cut out, so I put my phone safely away in my rain jacket and watched the red, purple, and orange flower petals soak in the raindrops until I couldn’t avoid getting hit by them myself any longer.

Pulling the hood of my jacket over my head as far as it could reach, I made a run for the hostel door. Before my hand could reach the handle, it was opened for me by one of the smiling staff members. The room had been transformed in the darkness.

Candles standing in wax covered wine bottles or twisting iron candelabras cast dancing shadows along the walls. One man worked diligently snapping and pililng sticks on top of one another into a corner fireplace. His hands worked without any apparent conscious thought as the flames began to lick out of their stony home, inching a warm glow throughout the room. Jim Morrison and other classic rock tunes played softly through the speakers of a slowly dying cell phone. As quickly as I could remove my rain jacket, Gustavo, the sweet tempered cook, handed me a cup of steaming hot tea made with freshly cut and boiled fruit.

The closest I could come to capturing the room on camera.
The closest I could come to capturing the room on camera.

I’ve often thought about how technology has changed the face of backpacking. Not only do you know exactly where to go, how to get there and what to expect thanks to the internet, but with a WiFi connection it’s easier than ever to tune out the rest of a room without feeling rude doing so.

When everyone’s connections to the rest of the world outside Casa de Nelly dimmed with the lights, a unifying, comfortable yet solemn quiet settled over the house. Some read by candlelight while others chatted in a mixture of English, German and Spanish. Gustavo and Harry melted pure chocolate over the gas stove, handing out mugs of hot chocolate without asking or expecting anything more than a thank you.

Me, Jasmine and Melanie walking through San Agustín.
Me, Jasmine and Melanie walking through San Agustín.

The room seemed to naturally divide between those speaking English, and the other Spanish. When most of the English speakers had gone to sleep, the Spanish side brought out a bottle of rum and switched the music to salsa. I joined them around a small, square wooden table in the center of the kitchen. I can’t remember now what we talked about as we slowly drained the bottle of rum, dancing together to the sounds of salsa when the conversation quieted. It was my first time meeting the hostel’s namesake, Nelly, and I hope I can always remember how she looked as she spoke about starting this place. Set up over 30 years ago, it was the first hostel to exist in San Agustín.

Nelly’s brightly dyed red hair and colorful printed blouse couldn’t distract from her hawk-like gaze dramatized in the candlelight. Her skin darkly tanned from years in the sun, and thickly painted on makeup reminiscent of an aged Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame children’s Disney film.

Imagine being one of the first to open your home, life and private world to travelers. Originally not from South America but Europe, Nelly pronounces her “pero’s”, or ‘but’ in Spanish with the flare of a French accent. She asked me questions and answered mine, always with a cigarette burning between two lazy fingers. When the cigarettes were gone, glasses empty and candles burned low, we retreated to our beds to the sound of the pounding rain.

Jasmine playing guitar with a band member on the drums (back center) and very love drunk, drunk admirer on the maraca.
Jasmine playing guitar with a band member on the drums (back center) and very love drunk, drunk admirer on the maraca.
One night a small, local band came and entertained in the hostel. Listening, playing or singing along was forcefully, happily, encouraged!
One night a small, local band came and entertained in the hostel. Listening, playing or singing along was forcefully, happily, encouraged!

After semi-successfully convincing Gustavo to cook me a free breakfast the next morning, he asked if any of us wanted to go on a hike to a waterfall. With a little guidance from someone familiar with the area, there’s a beautiful waterfall roughly 45 minutes away on foot. This one, he said, was incomparably more stunning. He mentioned it being far and something about two hours that no one particularly listened to. A group of us quickly agreed, packed up and headed out from the hostel.

We stopped briefly in town to pick up simple food items for a picnic before hopping in the back of an open jeep. 40 minutes later of being bumped and tossed around the back (jeeps are my favorite second to motorcycles!), we were dropped off out front of someone’s home.

As per usual, no one had any clue what was going on beside our Colombian guide. While Gustavo caught up with whoever lived in the home, we bopped around the backyard like impatient children. Eventually he walked out the back without any explanation other than a, “Vamos!” and we quickly followed.

The ambitious, waterfall hiking group.
The ambitious, waterfall hiking group.

For two hours we hiked. We followed Gustavo through tall grass, cow pastures riddled with mysteriously invisible spiky vines that left our shins bleeding from lacerations. No path visible to the gringo eye existed as far as we could see making it impossible to find your way without someone who already knows it by heart. We soon realized the malicious vines were the easy part.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 12.48.16 AMOver, under, through and sometimes with the help of creatively designed human ladders, we crossed barbed wire and electric fences. When that half of the hike was complete, we headed into jungle. More of a problem than the tired muscles from scaling up and down giant tree roots was the mud. It was a slow process our line of hikers had to take turns with; hoping roots would hold our weight as we dug our heels into the mud before routinely winding up surfing our way down…usually on our backs. It was a quick acceptance that we weren’t getting out of there clean, and started to enjoy the absurdly treacherous hike. Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 12.51.55 AM

The waterfall was huge throwing icy cold water into a swimming hole only Gustavo and myself swam in until we couldn’t feel our hands. After some time relaxing by the water, we steeled ourselves for the return hike and headed back.

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We made it out of the jungle without any major injuries, and through the barbed wire apart from a compromising moment when one of the girls caught the crotch of her jean shorts and had to be held up while I did the personal untangling.

When most of the group had successfully rolled under the electrical fence, I went to follow before one of the group members stopped me and pointed, “Watch that wire there,” she said nodding towards a single part of the fence partially hidden in the grass where I was about to roll. “Thanks,” I said, exhausted. I bent down, picked up the wire and moved it out of the way.

The second the wire left my hand, she and I locked eyes with our jaws dropped over what I had just done. The potential fear of being shocked had us all nervous both times we passed this part of the hike, and here I had just played the part of group guinea pig to see if it was or wasn’t actually active. As the shock wore off, we doubled over laughing as thankful happiness took over that I had made it through such a stupid, tired, error unscathed.

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It wasn’t long after that our eclectic group of travelers decided without any discussion that it was past time to move on from San Agustín. Even though I knew it didn’t make sense to stay longer and the dynamic would never be as perfect once everyone had taken their turn waving goodbye, it was the hardest move I’ve had to make yet. My two Aussie roommates woke me up at the crack of dawn on that final day, jumping on my bed to hug me with promises to meet up again. I watched the rooftop kittens wrestle one more time, then left on a bus for the next place unlucky enough to fall in the shadow of somewhere I’ll always remember I felt like I was home.

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