So, monsoon descended as a way of reminding me to get my arse out of Mocoa, the slightly dodgy little jungle town with some ace surroundings. Next stop was San Augustin to check out possibly the most ancient and certainly most extensive collection of statues dating from between 3300-700BC, carved by an ancient civilisation of which little is truly known.
First it was back on one of the ubiquitous minivans. Naturally there was plenty of choice at the Mocoa station, despite one company trying to bump up the fixed price of 20,000COP. Err, nope. In hindsight I think there may have been direct buses to San Augustin however I got one destined to Pitalito in the first instance, intending to change there.
Actually it wasn’t quite as intense a journey as I imagined, up a pretty decent road with a fairly sensible driver. This must be something of a first in Colombia. Two and a half hours later, we landed in Pitalito’s thoroughly decent bus station. And first order of business was lunch- A thoroughly decent Menu Corriente for 6000COP including a big slab of barbecued meat. Perfecto.
Not even a 1000COP fee to use the toilets could dull my joy, since they were spotless and the lady guarding the entrance at least had the good grace to cheerfully admit it was expensive. She didn’t get any punishment coins.
I was somewhat intrigued about the road ahead… When the local buses look like this, it’s bound to be a challenge. Suitably refreshed, I hooked up the services of a similar car and climbed in for the 30 minute, COP5000 ride to San Augustin’s village centre. A calm ride on a surprisingly good road!
Uncharitable commentators might dub San Augustin’s village centre as ‘deeply unlovely’ but really it’s just a standard small Colombian country town. Fine during the day but a slight edge at night for sure. Lonely Planet subtly encourages people to choose one of the out-of-town options for this very reason I suspect!
Luckily I was on top negotiating form so I managed to persuade my buseta driver to take me out to my chosen Finca for a few bucks extra. Result, and saved tangling with rural taxi drivers, who do tend to operate in cartels and also not be the most receptive to fair pricing.
Finca El Maco is run by a Swiss guy. Having discussed this with other travellers, it seems that the Swiss run all of the best hostels/restaurants/assorted other enterprises in this area, it must be an efficiency thing. But yeah, Finca El Maco is great. Just outside the hustle and bustle of the town, with a great view across the valley. Super-comfy dorm room as well, which I had to myself.
So, after an afternoon relaxing on the farm basically by myself I decided to try one of their curries, highly recommended by Lonely Planet. I don’t use guidebooks as my bible, rather a starter for 10, but in this case they were spot on.
Excellent, fresh yellow Thai curry with local veggies, washed down by a bottle of Club Colombia and topped off with chocolate banana crepes. Properly chocolatey banana-y delights. Definitely a good meal. Only about 25000COP all in which is less than a tenner. Much less. Winning.
The next morning I was up bright and (relatively) early, ready to hit the trails and to see some of the archaeology for which San Augustin is famous. This area of the country is still heavily agricultural and the ways don’t change fast, hence being able to see more than a few horse and cart combos earning their keep.
The archaeological park is a couple of KM out of town but easy enough to find, once you’re on the correct road that is. Still, in I went. 20,000COP entrance which lasts for 48hrs and with which you can also visit the other outlying sites. I didn’t bother with a guide, since wandering and discovering is in my submission far more fun.
The first group of statues are in the museum itself. From there you can take a circular walk around the woods. Unfortunately this aroused the inner Rain Man in me and I had to take a picture of every single statue because, well, it wouldn’t be complete otherwise. There are a LOT, and I’ll try to pick the most entertaining ones…
That was a very brief selection in any case. Most of the statues in the Bosque were rescued from elsewhere- You can see pictures within the museum. Since they were essentially left scattered around the Colombian countryside then several ended up being cemented into town squares, on pavements etc. And knowing local kids, probably being leapfrogged off/carved into etc.
There are a series of further statue walks, all designed in a handy circular format. Some are statues brought from elsewhere, but most interesting are the giant funereal mounds within the complex.
And then, undercover, is a vast complex which I can only assume used to be a laundry of some sorts. The signs are fairly light on explanations, I think mainly because so little is known about this ancient civilisation and to be fair, I would rather try to work it out myself than being subjected to third-party guesswork!
I then headed up to the highest part of the site to see the viewpoint and the last few statues, with a couple of interesting meetings on the way up- The first a genial Colombian guy from Neiva, now living in the US, and clearly doing well out of it, with the kind of cool, collected South American coffee don vibe that I’d love to emulate one day. El Gringo.
And then these guys…
It was definitely payback time. Having subjected many tourists on Santa Cruz to the halting enquiries and questionnaires of my students it was my time. I was first approached by their teacher, who looked about 15, but was lovely. Of course I can answer some questions! From there it was straight back into English teacher mode, grading my language and helping them out with answers. Every child was so sweet, and their pronunciation and accuracy was incredible. Even the 8 year old youngest lad. Genuinely impressed, I’ve heard about a Colombian Government programme to make the country bilingual and I suppose these must have been some of the first products. Thumbs up!
I’d decided to visit the archaeological park in the morning and then to do a 4 hour horse tour with Francisco “Pacho” Munoz in the afternoon. He’s Finca El Maco’s “resident” horse guide and comes very well recommended. The tour was 70,000 COP for me, relatively pricey in the world of Colombia however if there are more than one of you on the tour the price drops significantly.
As I walked down from the park intending to get lunch in town a guy on a motorbike pulled up and offered me a lift… It was Pacho! I suppose I’m pretty easy to spot. My first meeting with a truly lovely, gentle Colombian guy with a wealth of knowledge and a calm, easy persona. He dropped me at a place in town, and we then met up an hour later, back at the archaeological park , in order to start the trek.
Pacho’s horses were an extension of his personality really, and I got the impression he cared deeply about them. Domino whom I was on was a lovely calm horse, albeit he did like to canter. A lot. But hey, I am now an experienced horseman (snigger). Pacho’s about the first Colombian that I have found genuinely easy to understand linguistically, and the tales came thick and fast. Fascinating stuff- He’s been a horseman for 30+ years and regularly gets hired to do seriously ambitious treks.
He told me about last year when he took 2 New Zealanders all the way from South Colombia to Ecuador through the jungle route on horseback, buying the horses here and taking over 3 weeks to get there. Pacho speaks, it’s fair to say, absolutely sod all English, and apparently the same was true of the New Zealanders’ Spanish, however by the end they both were fully conversational. “Crash course: Jungle Horseback Spanish in 3 weeks”.
Suitably emboldened, I quite fancied trying to get to the next set of archaeological sites by horse rather than the long road route. I imagined it to be a good day’s trek. “Oh, that place? Yes, 4 days from here”. Erm, nope. Cross that one off.
As well as chatting and laughing about huevos revueltos as a side effect of horse riding, we did find some historic stuff too. The first group of statues was on top of a hill near the San Augustin Park. Pacho explained the symbolism of the figures, which was fascinating. The Águila (Eagle) is a constant leitmotif, representing strength. In addition, the other side is the ferocity of the jaguar. You can see this represented by the stylised fangs. Pacho believed the final figure to either represent a medic or a shaman conducting a sacrifice.
Interestingly, whilst the colours look fake, all of the dyes are freely growing in the clump of trees behind the site- One tree when cut produces thick red sap, another a deep purple. Fascinating to join the dots and reconnect history like this.
On our way to the next site I discussed the current peace, and how the war with FARC had affected San Augustin. Pacho was sanguine, saying essentially that SA had never really been on the radar. They’d never been coca growers there, nor was it a transit route, so in effect little would change, it would be places such as Mocoa who would feel the backlash from a return to drug war the most.
Our final site of the day was the spellbinding La Chaquira, a sacred spot overlooking a stunning verdant river valley. Vertiginous fields of coffee lined the slopes and tiny settlements could be seen far across the valley. An incredible place to end a really informative afternoon. By this point the heavens had opened so ponchos were deployed for the walk back to town. English teacher mode back on to teach Pacho a few tourist-friendly phrases.
Let’s go Tejo
By the time we were back at the farm I was pretty friendly with Pacho. I decided to press the advantage, it was now or never. “Pacho, is there a Tejo club in town? I’d really like to see a game”. The answer was yes all round. And he was going there with some friends later if I wanted to join. Absolutely YUP.
Tejo is probably Colombia’s second national sport. It’s a game thought to have its origins around 500 years ago, whereby players take turns to throw a lead puck towards a frame filled with clay. So far so boring, right? No! The clay has two targets on it made of paper filled with gunpowder. So hit it right and there’s one hell of a bang. And sometimes a bit of clay shrapnel!
The club reminded me of an English skittle alley, with a similar clientele. Very, very male. At the one in San Augustin there were four ‘pitches’- Two for Tejo Lejos, a longer range game with bigger targets, and two for Tejo Pequeño, the one we were playing. Constant flowing Poker beer was obligatory.
My new friends invited me to join in, which was great. Well, not really, as it’s a lot harder than it looks and I can’t throw for toffee. However, it provided them all with great amusement anyway. To be fair though, the pisstaking was constant throughout the evening for any sort of Tejo misdemeanour or quite often, just because.
Sadly, there was a great big fly in this lovely ointment. Yep, for the first time in about 9 months my guts were disintegrating before my eyes. I think it was a guayaba I’d picked from a tree on our ride and stupidly failed to peel before eating, or possibly brushing my teeth in river water, or indeed any one of the stupid bacteriological things I’d done that day but yeah, things were bad. And predictably, the toilet at the Tejo club was not only very obvious to visit, but also bore more than a passing resemblance to the one in Trainspotting. Yeah, that one. You can actually see the small cupboard in the above picture beside the bar. Every time I came back, a small cheer from the team. Thanks guys.
Therefore, before long I absolutely had to call it quits. Beer absolutely wasn’t helping matters, and I needed a lie down. Dammit. Still, at least before I left I was able to get a round in.
I can honestly say that, during my sadly pretty short evening at the Tejo club I felt the most included that I have ever been during the year I’ve lived in South America. More so than at any point during my 6 months living in Ecuador. A really nice, genuine bunch of guys who without question accepted a dumb gringo in their group despite Tejo being quite a serious business, and who went out of their way to make me feel welcome and have a good evening.
A bit of a revelation really for wherever I end up emigrating in the future. The kind of casual night at the pub with your mates, good company, mutual pisstaking and a bit of low-exertion pub sport to liven up the evening. It’s not difficult!
Why this was so hard to find on Santa Cruz I don’t know but for sure, a night at the Tejo club in the hills beats the pants off yet another weekend in the island nightclub. It’s funny how the places you live force you into boxes. Skittles and beer, that’s my scene.
So, after a day of enforced bed rest at the farm it was time to move on. Next episode- Colonial Popayan for another complete change of scene!