Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Colombia – San Agustín Rocks, but not really

Stonehenge, Easter Island and now San Agustín...these are legacies of the "big rock" cultures. We haven't been to Easter Island to compare these stones carved into human likenesses, but there are a lot of them here.

Our trip from Popayán to San Agustín commences on yet another crappy dirt road. It used to take 8-10 hours but now is a “comfortable” 4-5 hours: thanks to the magic of Colombian road builders. We are so happy they've improved this stretch of competition level BMX track for us.
And since this area of Colombia was also infested by the FARC over the past decade or so, we see more soldiers than civilians along the road. We are still not sure if we should feel protected or threatened by the hordes of soldiers and their machine guns; although most of them look just like the friendly “boy next door” type.

Endless road repairs
We arrive late afternoon in San Agustín and Julane hunts down a guesthouse which takes a considerable effort. Most travelers stay in the outskirts of town, which is bordered by rather steep hills and nice expensive (often Western owned) ranches.
Julane looks at a few places in town… they are all dumps, unfit to stay in and not even that cheap. She is getting very frustrated with the options and wonders if it might be a big mistake to have come here when she finally comes across a new family run guesthouse called Diosa Lunar with a friendly owner. Whew! Persistence does pay off.

A babe in arms...
Now that we have a decent place to stay it’s time to explore the town. It’s a Thursday night and more and more people arrive to spend the weekend in this popular tourist town. On the weekends, Colombians far outnumber the Gringo tourists and the whole town turns into a party capital. This means that restaurants are packed full, overpriced and serve below average food. So far San Agustín fails to impress us.

Thanks to all the partying in town, we also have the pleasure to be frequently awoken by beer and testosterone overdosed teenagers that rev their motorbikes up and down the streets until the roosters take over the noise-making duty at sunrise.

Casa de Francois:
kitchen below, dorms above
The next day, we roam about and check out the neighboring ranches to see if we can find a nice secluded (quiet) spot to escape the ever growing number of week-enders that are arriving. We walk to all the Fincas that are recommended by Lonely Planet and the other traveler's bibles. But the highly rated "Casa Nelly" and "El Maco" fail to impress us, or charge way too much for a double room. They seem to cater to dorm dwellers.
The views are spectacular
Finally we discover Casa de Francois which is owned by a French artist, his artist mother and wife. It's a lovely garden filled with plants and flowers and the buildings are designed by him and filled with cozy hang out areas and his mosaic creations. It reminds Julane of Austria's Hundertwasser mosaic masterpieces. The best part about this place is the view, set on a hill some 100 meters above the town. It offers the best views in the region and hopefully also a sound barrier from the motorbike rowdies.

But we didn't fancy our room mate
We move to Casa de Francois for our last two nights to chill out and use the slow internet. Colombia is not as internet connected as we have grown accustomed to in the rest of Latin America. And we also have to share our room with another living being, a gigantic 8 legged one. We learn that life in San Agustín is not about finding a great place to stay or eat; but instead, it's more about which sub-par place is the most acceptable.

Okay, now let's move on the reason that we came here in the first place: the stone figures.
We are continuing our burial site theme again, but this time it's to view the watch guards of the tombs. Once again the anthropological history is missing for us to know exactly why the inhabitants chose to bury their dead with massive stones carved in the likeness of animals and humans. We think they seem like tomb guardians to protect the dead. The statues are scattered over huge area and we only explore the major sites within the Archaeological Park. There are many organized tour options to explore the greater regions by jeep, or the smaller vicinity by foot or horseback. We decide to walk the 2 kms to the Parque Arqueológico and back which including the 3 kms within the site was enough for us.

We will let the stones talk for themselves and tell their own story to you in pictorial form.

Butterfly heart
I might have a stone face,
but I'm flesh and bone

A long haul to get here, the great views seem to excite the "virile" stone watchman too.
The original smiley face

After 4 nights in San Agustín, we decide that this most popular tourist destination in southern Colombia is not making it to our top 10 of “must see places” in South America. So we head to Bogotá a day earlier than planned.

We opt to split up the journey that would normally take 10 hours into two days. This way we don't need to arrive in Bogota in the evening nor take a night bus and arrive in the wee hours of the morning. We decide to stop overnight in Neiva instead.

We leisurely leave our guesthouse, board a mini bus which seamlessly brings us directly to Neiva. We have researched where to stay In Neiva without any success. No one seems to stay there. So we arrive armed without any knowledge and proceed to ask around at the station. Julane questions our fellow bus passengers, the lady who sells us our bus ticket to Bogotá in the morning, but the best tip is from the guards outside who points in the direction of a nearby hotel. We want to be close by since we need to catch our bus at 7am. It ends up being perfect much better than we ever expected!

Dinner ends up being more of a challenge. It's a fast food kind of city. We end up at the grocery store and buy stuff for sandwiches after walking about 1 hour throughout Neiva. Not a city worth visiting, clearly. But arriving in Bogotá at a decent hour is our main concern for safety's sake: a little precaution is what has gotten us through our trip without any theft or mishap (and perhaps a pinch of luck too).

Tomorrow is our final bus trip in South America which we will share with you in the last blog of our America Latina Viaje.

Traveler's Travel Tips

- Popayán to San Agustín - COP 25,000 incl. free taxi transfer from junction to SA town.
- San Agustín to Neiva - COP 20,000

Diosa Luna Guesthouse (San Agustín) - COP 25,000 pesos ($13) (with a little bargaining for a double room) ensuite, with TV, balcony, plus use of the kitchen downstairs plus a great upstairs rooftop with hammocks. 
Casa de Francois (San Agustín) - COP 35,000 ($18) for a double with shared toilet. It is a great place to stay to meet people and the dorms seem nice but we weren't as pleased with the doubles as they are a bit damp. 
Hualia Real (Neiva) - COP 40,000. 10 min walk/50meters from main bus terminal (turn left outside terminal and walk to roundabout. It's just ahead at 2:00. Brand new place. Excellent choice w/free coffee, internet. TV. Highly recommended if you want to break up the journey to Bogotá.