Underground Tombs, Mudslides and Great Scenery

Trip Start Nov 24, 2007
Trip End May 15, 2008

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

After hearing some horror stories about bad buses, terrible roads, mudslides, bus robberies, wrecks and general bad experiences busing from San Agustin to Tierradentro from other travelers who lived to say "go another way", being alone I was beginning to rethink my original plan to save travel time and go the direct albeit more prone to unseen problems route. Not entirely excited about the prospect of backtracking to Popayan six hours just to go another five hours by bus in order to see the ancient main-made burial caves of Tierradentro when I could do it in six flat, I decided that, naive or not, IŽd take it as an 'experience' and see for myself how bad the road from San Agustin to Tierradentro really is. Stuffing my guidebook in the bottom of my pack, I hopped in the back of a 2WD 'camioneta' with Steef  and a slew of local passengers and for a small fee hastily cruised through the valley, arriving at the nearest town in record-breaking time. Between fist-clenching moments of sheer fear and the screeching sound of burning rubber that our tires made as we roared around blind corners on a road meant for 1.5 cars, I had little time to reflect on my short-lived life and the numerously wild bus/taxi/camioneta/van experiences that I have had. Quickly I came to a revelation; more often than not, when drivers in South America have the opportunity to take extranjeros around in their vehicles, they either do the best they can to scare the living shit out of them for fun or find it a great time to show off their incredibly dangerous driving skills and fast car to impress you. This particular driver was definitely trying to do the later. Regardless of his motive, upon arrival I jumped out as fast as I could just happy to still be alive and thanked the travel gods for helping me live that one through. Paying him as quickly as I could for his racecar-like maneuvers, I said farewell to Steef and left behind little Pitalito (a nicely named town) soon headed towards my destination of choice. 
In the past, this area and the region between it and San Agustin have definitely seen their share of guerrilla problems and bus robberies. Considered mostly safe now due to recent military occupation of the area, it still rocked my nerves a little as I was the only gringo in the area that I knew of and had just left Popayan a few days ago where I had the joy to hear the story about the hostel`s owner and how he was patted down and robbed of everything of value on him as well as every other passenger on the bus during a hold-up on a recent trip south to Ecuador. And this was only six months ago on the panamerican, two hours south of Popayan! Nonetheless, as reality of my situation set in, I figured I was in a poorer region of Southern Colombia and any bus robbers out and about probably wouldnŽt be eying this particular road to make a fortune. Gosh am I a thinker! 1/3 lack of sleep, 1/3 the hellish bumpy roads and 1/3 a way better driver, I soon relaxed and besides being uncomfortably stuffed in a mini-van for the next five hours in which we basically sat two to a seat (12 people - 8 seats - it's normal now), the trip was uneventful save for the passing scenery that lept out in beauty and the blaring horn of our van which the driver nailed at each blind corner to warn oncoming traffic of our ensuing collision. Because it was Sunday when normally everything shuts down and bus schedules are quite erratic in the area in general, I failed to make it to TD in one day and instead was held up in the warm and bustling town of La Plata, home to a towering and quite impressive 100+ year old Ceiba that dominates the main plaza. Might I add, the town is very peacful.

The following day, after another great trip passing by mountain waterfalls and overgrown forest landscapes while picking up troves of school kids, I arrived in San Andres de Pisimbala/TD and a few hours later was out exploring riverbanks, hiking the surrounding hills and checking out enigmatic burial caves deep below the surface of the ground. I think it took 7hrs total in travel time. Not only is the area quite mysterious, for like San Agustin, there is little known about the history of the ancient civilization and many tombs are still yet to be discovered, it is an absolutely fascinating place to explore and the people are very welcoming and good-natured (far more laid back than the touts and hectic atmosphere of small San Agustin where every 'naturalist' guide tries to sell you anything from opium and mushrooms to the infamous white powder they call cocaine. After seeing twelve or so different caves and being awed not only by the underground burial sites themselves but by the reason in which they constructed them, it all started to become a little repetitive. Before I felt like it got too monotonous I left the main site with good memories and spent the rest of the day by myself in the hills outside of town taking in splendid 360 panoramic views of the valleys below and quickly understanding why the elite of this ancient group were put to rest at such a peaceful and breathtaking spot on the mountain. I definitely recommend hiking up to the El Aguacate site for anyone headed in this direction. If only for the views. 

Arriving back at Ricabet, the nice little hosteria where I was staying, I was greeted with a fresh and free cup of blended blackberry juice from the nice older lady running the family pension and I spent the rest of the evening talking along with her husband. I also was fortunate to talk with a colorful old guy across the street about some unknown travel gems around Colombia. I definitely have added some new places to the must-see list for sure.

Just as I thought I was going to make it back to Popayan without any problems, on my way back via another little used road through the mountain range, as luck came begging, our 1960's school bus did not go off of a cliff during the constant downpour of rain which I thought would happen but instead was halted up by a gnarly mudslide that must have just recently occurred.  We were some of the first to arrive and nothing looked to have been done about it. Two hours later and much thanks to an ancient bulldozer near the end of its time and a crew of handy mudslide workers dressed in fashionable orange jumpsuits and the all to common rubber gumboot, we were finally free to pass the unsafe looking disaster. They road workers did amazing work, especially the dozer guy but the water from the ravine above the washout was still gushing down to the road and showed no signs of slowing. We luckily passed safely but IŽm sure it was only a matter of time before it was again impassable. In fact, it looked like it happened all to regularly. Heading into my second week of Colombia this is already number two as encounters go with such natural events. So while it looked quite nasty I guess I should just begin to take it as a common occurrence and figure mudslides in to my travel time itinerary. In the end, it always makes for good memories...and I'll take mudslides any day over bus robberies...
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