The southern part of Columbia

Invigorated by all the coffee, we drove one long day towards the Tatacoa Desert. Due to the lack of a bridge and stern reminders at the tollgate not to drive at night in this area, we ended up spending the night on the parking lot for the local fire department, much to the children’s delight. They were allowed to operate the flashing blue light and the siren to their heart’s content, and the firemen were good company for us. Die Tatacoa Desert surprised us with its very high temperatures, a pool in the middle of a dried up valley, and the pleasure of meeting up with Bernd and Viola in their Landcruiser. Together, we found a great place to spend the night on a crest with a view out over the surreal landscape.

We left the desert in proper, authentic style on a hardly ever driven upon track, made a stop to swim in the thermal water at Riviera, and followed the course of the Rio Magdalena to famous San Augustin the next day. Countless steles (pillars) and grave chambers of an extinct culture whose exact history is still unknown have been found here. When the Spaniards immigrated here in the 16th century, this culture had already disappeared completely, and only the overgrown figures remain as indications of a civilization which has disappeared. There are numerous theories regarding the demise, from climate change to illness and on to aliens, but no specific details are known. This makes the stone figures which have a partially charming, partially martial appearance and are located in rugged terrain in the middle of the mountain forest, all the more interesting. Due to the uniqueness of these findings, whose importance, incidentally, was recognized by a German archeologist in the 1930s, San Augustin is considered to be one of the most significant archeological sites on the entire South American continent. Before the discovery of their relevance, the locals had used the figures as decorations for their houses and for the village square in San Augustin. A tour on horseback to more, smaller sites with findings far above the gorge of the Magdalena River gave a lovely impression of the wild countryside, and we saw a lot of small fincas on which especially coffee, bananas, and sugarcane are cultivated.

Along a notorious street, we then continued on through the paramo and damp cloud forest to Popayan, but not without the obligatory stop for a swim at Coconucos, where the hot springs have been converted into an adventure water park. It was hot fun for the entire family. The street through the mountains leads through remote mountain terrain, and this region was firmly in the hands of guerillas up to just a few years ago. Meanwhile, the area is controlled by the military and police and can be traveled through without any problem – a good example of the Columbian state’s successful fight against the violence and lack of peace in the country. This was also the only time we saw police tanks and heavily armed checkpoints on the streets; from time to time, the security forces still have to grapple with individual FARC groups, especially in the mountains at the northern part of the Cauca River, where guerilla and paramilitary forces swagger around. This is where you have to be especially careful when you are traveling. As a tourist, however, you do not belong to the target group and are able to move around safely after consultation with the local authorities.

In Popayan, we settled down on a parking area which just happened to be two houses away from where Jens and Aura live, who are soon moving to Germany. Jens was traveling along the Panamericana on bike and met Aura in Columbia. Now they are moving to Jens’ old home country to start a family there. They showed us Popayan, and we had a lot of fun together, so we stayed there longer than we had thought we would. Then we set off over high mountains and through deep valleys towards the south and the border to Ecuador. The Panamericana negotiates enormous differences in altitude along this stretch. It was like driving over all the Alpine passes within only a few miles, and we were surprised how inaccessible and rough the terrain is along this main thoroughfare. Our last stop in Columbia was Las Lajas, the most important pilgrimage site for Catholics in South America. This is where a picture of Mary suddenly appeared on a rock and bigger and bigger chapels were built throughout the years until the present basilica took on its form. Thousands of plaques expressing thanks for the wonders performed and an improvement in life are attached to the rocks around the church.

Now we are in Ecuador and thinking back on the wonderful time we had in Columbia. We got to know the Columbians as open, cordial, and very helpful people. Terrific landscapes and the good infrastructure made Columbia a great country for us to travel in and a highlight on our trip so far.


Private pictures of the last weeks can be found here.

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