San Augustin to Popayan: Back into civilisation!

The ironies of Ayahuasca

Now, a few things happened in Mocoa. I met a great German girl, and also in turn met some other people around the hostel who suddenly announced they were going to San Augustin the next day to do a ceremony with a shaman. Sure, said I, sounds fun. However I quickly realised that it was going to be an Ayahuasca psychedelic explosively shit yourself all night ceremony so I wholeheartedly declared myself out. Firstly, because drugs are bad m’kay, but also secondly because if I was going to do such a thing I definitely wouldn’t entrust my mind and body to a couple of sketchy hippies who had just wandered into the hostel.

So, I politely bid them farewell and made my way to San Augustin where, not less than 24hours later I ended up completing my very own involuntary purging. It all goes in cycles, you see.

Express sketchy Highway One

Anyway, I digress. After 24hrs in bed feeling extremely sorry for myself and managing only to consume water, Coke and crackers I was good to go the morning after. I’m going to make a subtle hint here, so please don’t miss it.

If you go from San Augustin to Popayan, take the bus that picks you up.

If you go from San Augustin to Popayan, take the bus that picks you up.

If you go from San Augustin to Popayan, take the bus that picks you up.

Due to my faffing about being ill I didn’t book it in time, so I had to go on the normal service. In every possible metric this is a worse service than the other option. For only about 3000COP ‘more’ you get picked up from the Finca. Direct! There are even some services which take you door to door both ends, run by Colombia on the Road. These are GREAT services. Rather than…

Paying 7,000COP for a taxi into town. Waiting for ages. Getting stuffed into a camioneta for the first 5km then, yep… Waiting for bloody ages for the ‘main’ bus outside town. And obviously it’s more money this way. In fairness the 6hr quoted journey time was absolutely spot on, as indeed have all buses been. I think they build in at least an hour of faffing time for each journey so you’re never late.

Make no bones about it, the journey to Popayan is INTENSE. At least half the journey is on an unmade mountain road through the Parque Nacional Purace and when I say unmade, I mean boulders and rocks everywhere. So it’s a case of wedging yourself in strategically and hoping for the best. 6hrs, 30000COP so a decent money/time ratio.

High ‘ole road

A brief pause for breath past the army checkpoint

By any measure this is a sketchy road. The army certainly think so with numerous armed checkpoints and soldiers along the route hiding and doing soldier-y stuff beside the road. The advice not to travel at night is probably un-necessary but well heeded.

Hello, Popayan!

Arriving at Popayan with ears ringing, I had at least decided on a hostel, winging it from the Lonely Planet to Hostel Caracol, which actually turned out a great option. A few travellers to chat with as well, which made a change from the enforced hermitage of the Finca. The first of these was a slightly odd American man in his late 50’s. There’s definitely a certain type of perpetual traveller who seems to have no fixed reason for travelling, just being in one place for inordinate lengths of time.

I headed out for a wander in the late afternoon and was slightly bewildered to find everything barred and shuttered. Popayan on first impressions seemed a deeply dull town. However I later found out that this was due to the random public holiday that Monday. Back at the hostel I confirmed this fact to a couple of new Aussie arrivals to save their inevitable disappointment.

The next day it was time for sightseeing. Time to see what the White City had to offer. Quite a lot, in fact.

Puente del Humiladero

Rooves of the old city, looking up towards the viewpoint

I borrowed one of the hostel’s bikes for free (!) and creaked off around the city. First stop was the bus station to get my ticket sorted for the next day, and then the historic Puente del Humiladero, followed by a creak upto the viewpoint and the statue of Bolivar with a clear but somewhat uninspiring view over the city. The statue and the cerro surrounding it had the feel of a place only safe by virtue of loads of bored cops hanging around the park.

The next stop was the well-regarded Natural History Museum, housed in the University of Cauca building near to the viewpoint. I paid my entrance fee and expected to be able to wander uninhindered, but was loosely chaperoned by the lovely student staffing the desk. I’m not 100% sure why, whether it’s a normal thing, or my carrying a rucksack caused concern or whatever, but she frequently appeared and ushered me in the direction of the next room. There’s a definite route you have to follow, you can’t just hop from the insect to the mammal room as I did. Nooo sirree.

This is definitely the largest collection of stuffed things I’ve seen. Including some terrifying insects.

NOPE bug, thumb for scale

Amongst our awkward bad Spanish conversations I did remark to my assigned student that it was a ‘different time’ when we were merrily executing and stuffing the wildlife in the name of science and she agreed, commenting that all of the exhibits were ‘very old’. I suppose we can’t really talk in the UK, as I read the recent news with dismay about a 15inch earthworm being executed in the name of preservation.

Onwards, and back to some amazing architecture. The sun had donned his hat which made for some great photo conditions. 

Popayan is ranked in terms of colonial architecture as only second to world-renowned Cartagena, and it shows. Around every corner a surprise, or another beautiful building. Inside every archway a different sight to discover. After a break for lunch at the hostel, I set back out to explore one of my earlier archway finds- The museum of modern art. Well worth the very small entrance fee.


Alongside the ‘usual supect’ abstract-type sculptures and pictures there was a fascinating exposition using clothing and objects to react to the Colombian troubles. Quite educational too. Bonus. To be fair I’m not the kind of person who properly interprets modern art- I just see stuff and occasionally like the form, or the fact it’s shiny.

A few final streets of wandering on my way back to the hostel for the evening.

Plaza Principal

Military funeral

Back at the hostel, I met up with the Aussie couple, who had also been travelling for a pretty substantial length of time. As a result we enjoyed a good old MOAN about the occasional difficulties of life in Latin America. And indeed the hugely annoying woman who was in our dorm and who didn’t seem to get dormitory life. Or consideration for others, etc etc…

We enjoyed pizza and beers before turning in for the night. Brady very kindly donated me a book he had just finished reading. I say kindly, but actually I think there was somewhat of a wry grin on his face as he did so. Remember the Top Gear Vietnam special when they ended up carting round galleons and the like? Yeah, the book was an absolute epic, with a page count to rival Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Not the ideal travelling companion, however it’s a great book. And I’ll never say no to a gift!

Shantaram, 2003, 936 pages to be precise. Give it a go!

Next stop: Northwards to coffee country.


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