Pasto – Colombia’s ‘Surprise City’

Pasto, the southernmost major city in Colombia, sits high in the Andes. It’s a six hour bus ride from Popayan on a road offering a look at some of the most dramatic mountain landscapes Colombia has to offer. Founded by the Spanish in 1537, the city’s name, Pasto, refers to the indigenous people, the Pastos, who inhabited the region at the time. It is one of Colombia’s oldest cities. Capital of the Narino province, it is called Colombia’s surprise city.

Since Pasto is halfway between Quito and Cali, most people just breeze through, stopping in Pasto for a transitory one night stop on their way to Ecuador or Colombian destinations north. Even guide books dismiss the city in a paragraph or two. This makes the locals feel short changed and ignored. There is so much to see and do here, they insist. You must stay longer. For the people who enjoy traveling off the beaten path, the locals are right. Pasto and its surroundings offers plenty of activities.

The historic center has some beautiful buildings and impressive colonial architecture. There are some handsome plazas in the center. Centrally located, Plaza Constitucion is the largest. But equally impressive is Plaza Narino and Plaza Carnaval. Pasto seems to have a church on every street corner. Our Lady of Mercy and the Temple Cristo Rey are the most impressive. There’s also a gold museum Museo del Oro Narino, a carnival museum, the Casa Taminango art museum and numerous parks. Plaza Bombona has a nice indoor artisans market featuring Narinese handicrafts: wood carvings, embossed leather, stone sculptures and hand-made wool clothing.

A medium size city of 500,000, Pasto sits at an altitude of 8,290 feet (2,897 meters) which is almost at high as Bogota. The city has a cool, median temperature of 55 degrees F. (13 centigrade). Tourists from the warm weather climates walk around all bundled up. The elevation causes visitors to come up a bit winded. Unless previously acclimated to the altitude in Popayan or Quito, it’s normal to be out of breath the first couple days in Pasto. Visitors who suffer acute altitude sickness may experience extreme headaches, swelling, aches, pains and nausea. The cure is to drink some of the local fruit teas like Chapil di Lulu to help ease the ill effects.

One can see most of the city sights in a day or two but don’t leave just yet. Pasto offers a good base from which to visit memorable nearby natural attractions like Volcano Galeras, Lake La Cocha and Las Lajas – the most beautiful church in Colombia.

The Volcanoes

Volcano Galeras

Pasto is in the foothills at the base of the Volcano Galeras. At 14,029 feet (4,276 meters) it can be seen on a clear day towering above the town. The locals call the volcano ‘the sleeping giant’. It is Colombia’s most active volcano and has erupted in 1934, 1989 and 2006. The crater is currently off-limits after 9 people, 6 of whom were British geologist studying the volacano, perished in the crater back in 1992. But one can still explore the base of the volcano where there are numerous ravines, rivers, lagoons and a trail leading to the Galeras Flora and Fauna Sanctuary.

But if hiking up steep volcanoes in a low oxygen environment remains high on your list, there are a couple of volcanoes nearby where where scaling the crater is allowed. The Azufral Volcano has a beautiful, green hued, crescent shaped lake, aptly named Laguna Verde, on the northwest side of the crater. And on a good day, the distant Pacific ocean can be seen from the summit of Cumbal Volcano.

Lake La Cocha

One can also take a trip to Lake La Cocha. It is the largest lake in South Colombia, which sits in the crater of an extinguished volcano just 25 km. (a 1.5 hour bus ride) from Pasto – a pleasant day trip. The village has been called Colombia’s Venice, due to the numerous canals running through the town. It’s also called Colombia’s ‘ Little Switzerland‘ due to the affluence of Swiss styles chalets in lakeside town of Puerto El Encanto.

Boats will ferry you to Corota Island in the middle of the lake where there is a floral sanctuary to explore. The port town El Encanto is touristy. Nearly all the homes on main street function as restaurants. Their specialty is fresh lake trout, either caught in the lagoon or raised in neighboring trout farms. It is prepared fried or grilled but the best version is trucha ahumada (smoked trout). Best to visit during weekdays as this is a popular, local destination fills up on the weekends.

For more see the article: Lake La Cocha

Las Lajas Church

Las Lajas Sanctuary, a catholic church located about seven miles from the Ecuadorian border, is considered the most beautiful church in Colombia. It was voted the most beautiful church in the world by the English newspaper ‘The Telegraph’ in 2015.

The church of Las Lajas

It’s a day trip from the southern Colombian city of Pasto to the Colombian border town of Ipiales. Though only 80 kilometers from Pasto, it may take up to 4 hours to travel each way due to current construction on the Pan-American Highway.

Some may find it a bit excessive for a day trip. But if you’re en route to Ecuador then the church is just a ten-minute taxi ride from the bus station in Ipiales. A visit to Las Lajas can be completed in couple hours. To continue onto Ecuador return to the bus station in Ipiales, a grab another taxi to the border (the crossing takes 2-3 hours). Coming from Ecuador, catch a bus at the terminal north-bound to Pasto.

For more see article on Las Lajas

Black and White Carnival January 2-7

If you’re in Colombia during the month of January one must see the Black and White Carnival called Carneval de Negros y Blancos. It takes place every year from Jan 2 – 7 when this mountain city comes to party. The six-day celebration draws tourists from Colombia and around the world. People take to the street in droves. Parades of floats and holiday revelers wind through the city. Everyone is dressed in colorful costumes, paint themselves with vivid creams and shower each other with white foam, flour and talcum powder.

The carnival is over 100 years old and it’s the largest carnival in southern Colombia; a fun and noisy way to bring in the new year. The day of January 5th is the black’s day and the people color their face and bodies with black cream parading through the streets shouting: ‘ Viva los negros’ or long live the blacks. January 6th is the white’s day and everyone is dusted white powder. The idea is to make all classes and ethnic groups the same for at least a day.

Local delicacies

There are unique local specialties to savor. Cuy, or guinea pig, is served fried. Or try it flattened and impaled on a spit and put on a rotisserie till golden brown. Tastes like chicken and a bit like rabbit. Also try their smoked trout, sweet baked goods, ice creams and hervidos – fresh fruit juices boiled with sugar and anise flavored liquor guaranteed to warm one up.

Access to the Pacific Coast

Pasto is also connected via paved road 250 kilometers to the coastal town of Tumaco.  Tumaco is a poor town and is also one of the  world’s rainiest areas.  There are beaches north of town where swimming is safe.  The area is one huge mangrove swamp and boatmen offer tours to a myriad of villages and settlements located within the mangroves.  The beautiful island-tourist resort of Boca Grande is just off shore. To get there take a boat from Tumaco for $6.

See article on the road from Pasto to Macoa – the most dangerous road in Colombia – called ‘the trampoline of death’

See also the article on Travel in Southern Colombia – Cali-Popayan-Pasto

Former Coca Leaf Farmers Turn to Tourism and Crop Substitution

Flying down a dirt path in the jungle on a motor cross bike through the mountains of southern Colombia near the town of San Jose del Guaviare, we pull up to a 50 acre farm called ‘El Chontaduro‘. We are greeted by the farm’s owners – Edilson Pinto and his wife, Yolima. They invite us in for a breakfast of scrambled eggs, arepas and fruit – all made with foods produced on their farm. The open air kitchen sits on the edge of the jungle in the middle of their farm. As we eat and talk at the table, chickens and dogs saunter in and out. Domesticated parrots and macaws fly in for a visit as a tapir slinks around looking for fallen table scraps on the dirt floor.

For more than a decade, Edilson had been a coca leaf grower. He began farming as a younger man raising cows and pigs and traditional farm crops like tropical fruits, coffee, bananas, pineapples and beans. But due to low profit margins and erratic markets, he started concentrating more on growing coca plants – Colombia’s most lucrative cash crop.

Edilson Pinto on his finca near San Jose del Guaviare in Meta

In the ongoing war on illegal drugs, the Colombian government has been working with the coca growers to obliterate the production of coca – the main element in the production of cocaine. Since 2017 they have been paying farmers to voluntarily uproot their coca fields and assisting them with crop substitutions – a long term solution in the termination of coca cultivation. So far 124,000 farmers have participated in the program which has seen limited success.

With the help of government grants, Edilson and Yolima have been converting their farm back to the way it used to be – a more traditional farm. As it was before they began growing coca plants, before they had to become illegal chemists producing coca base, before the drug pickups in the middle of the night and and before the routine raids by police.

Though the couple are glad to no longer be participants in the illicit drug trade, they are not sure about the future of farming traditional Colombian crops. While the government promotes crop substitution, there’s no guarantee of markets for their crops.

Traditional crops have had slim profit margins and will never be as lucrative as coca farming.

International farming subsidies in other countries keep the price of traditional products like cocoa, bananas and coffee, very low. But the Colombian government has no such subsidy programs for their farmers. As a result, farmers often have trouble trying to eek out living from the land.

coca plants planted amongs bananas and other crops

Agricultural Tourism to Supplement Farming

To further supplement their farming activities, Edilson and Yolima have started working with the tourist offices in San Jose del Guaviare. We were introduced through the tour guide agency – Geotours del Guaviare. The jungle area of the Meta province around San Jose de Guaviare has been slowly building a tourist trade ever since 2016 when the government made a peace treaty with the FARC guerrillas. Before the peace treaty tourists had been leery of visiting the guerrilla occupied area.

But since the treaty, Colombian and foreign tourists have been steadily arriving to explore the Amazon, traveling up the rivers, visiting Cano Cristales and the the ancient rock paintings in the Cerro Azul.

(see: San Jose del Guviare – Exploring the Amazon from the Outside In)

The Colombian couple have started working with the local tourist guides and agencies who feature them as an educational stop on their tour junkets. The couple have been opening their house, serving meals to arriving guests and teaching visitors about the plant and animal life in these mountains.

But more than a straight-forward, ecological presentation, they also tell the visitors about life in the jungle. What it’s like to be a coca farmer. How coca base is made. How toxic it is. How the drugs are moved about the jungle. And how dangerous it can be.

Sra. Yolima making breakfast

After breakfast Edilson takes us for a tour of his finca showing us the tropical fruit trees like borojo, mangoes, cocoa and bananas. The parrots follow us flying tree to tree talking in scratchy, sassy Spanish.

Edilson talks about the cattle and pigs and other animals on their farm. They live amidst a small ecological zoo. They have a domestic relationship with parrots, monkeys and tapirs and a slew of other animals who live in the wild but stop by daily for a visit and a bite to eat.

“When the parrots are no longer babies they are abandoned by their mothers. So if you start feeding them they stay around the farm and don’t fly away.” Edilson said.

Coca Leaf Farming

Edilson showed us his coffee bushes and some crops of hot peppers and yucca. Over by the edge of the jungle he had a couple rows of coca plants – tiny buses with bright green leaves. On his 50 acre farm he once had a lot of coca bushes planted. The money was good and all the farmers were doing it.

In Peru and Bolivia, coca leaves are still chewed as a source of energy. And the coke extracted from the leaves used to serve as an anesthetic in World War I. It was also a primary ingredient in the original formula of the world famous soda Coca-Cola, which saw its beginnings as a temperance drink and medicine.

Coca leaves or hojas de coca have been grown in this ancestral Andean region for centuries. It takes one ton of coca leaves to make one kilo of cocaine. A ton of coca leaves can bring a farmer $400 – $500. A kilo of cocaine can bring in $150,000, But the fruits of those profit margins are reserved for the distribution organizations higher up on the food chain.

Base Production

Edilson described the job of the coca leaf farmer. He would harvest his coca leaves 4 times a year. They would bring them down the mountain to a outbuilding on the farm with a tarp roof and a dirt floor. They would spread the leaves over the dirt floor and chop up the coca leaves with a weed whacker. Then they would sprinkle the leaves with a dusting of construction cement and load them into oil drums.

Extraction

Extraction requires a more complex and toxic recipe. They they would marinate the leaves in a mixture of gasoline, sulfuric acid, battery acid, kerosene, and other chemicals for 20 minutes. This would start the extraction process. The coke would drain from the leaves into the stringent solution which was then filtered and poured into a pan where they would boil the water reducing the liquid to a white paste.

A piece of coke base extracted from coca leaves

This was coke base, basuco, or basura – which means garbage in Spanish. And the farmers would treat base production just like that – like garbage. It was extremely toxic and clandestine work.

Drug use is rare amongst the growers

If mixed with tobacco or cannabis base can be smoked. The high lasts for two minutes and continued use is very toxic and very addictive – even more addictive than crack. Edilson and the other coca growers in the area had seen men become addicted and die. They know better and have never smoked it. They also know how many harmful chemicals are used in the production of base and how toxic it is.

“I want to talk to the tourists about the cultivation of coca and the production of base to be able to show our visitors how many toxic chemicals we put in the paste. “

Distribution

Base is as good as cash in the jungle and is often used in its place. And selling base was as easy as it was lucrative. A man would come to the farm on a motor cross bike late in the night. At the farm he would weigh the paste, pay them and leave – often without lights so as not to be stopped by the police.

The base cocaine would make its way to jungle labs where it would be transformed into powdered cocaine. Later, it was transported from the jungle and flown or shipped to lucrative markets where it is sold for hard cash.

The Background of Cocaine Production in Colombia

Today, Colombia is the major cocaine producer in the world. A 2018 report said there were 422,250 acres of coca plants in Colombia. But before the 1990s, harvesting coca leaves in Colombian was a small business. Peru and Bolivia were much larger coca producers. But then, Peru was hit with a fungus wiping out their coca production.

The drug cartels started large scale purchases of land in the jungles. Jungles were cleared and coca was planted resulting in a significant increase Colombian cocaine production. By 2004, Colombia was responsible for 80% of the word’s coca production. Colombia became the #1 producer – the USA was the #1 consumer.

Government Eradication of Coca Fields

The Colombian government responded by stepping up it’s efforts to control drug production. The rural regions had become specialized in producing coca leaves. The government focused on eradicating the coca fields instead of cracking down on the laboratories, drug traffickers, contraband boats and aircraft, cartels, paramilitaries, revolutionaries and other trafficking groups. It was a strategy with its short comings.

Starting in 2000, the Colombians cooperated with the USA in a militarized eradication of the coca fields in the country. They began widespread aerial spraying of the herbicide ‘glyphosate’. The program was called ‘The Colombian Plan’ and over $10 billion was spent over the next two decades spraying 4.4 million acres of Colombian territory (1.7 million hectares) to eradicate coca fields. Colombia was the only country that allowed aerial spraying of glyphosate for counter-drug purposes.

Health, Pollution and Ecological Issues

The program had its success and failures. Between 1990 and 2010 coca production was reduced by more than 30%. But the crop dusting planes would often miss their targets and spray fields of food crops, fish ponds and houses. This would result in killing the crops, the fish in the ponds and often small children playing out in the open. This enraged the already frustrated farmers. Soon the citizens all began reporting wide spread health complaints mostly of respiratory problems. And with their coca fields and crops destroyed the farmers often faced displacement.

But the coca leaf growing by the farmers, cartels and revolutionaries also caused large ecological problems. There was deforestation and soil erosion from extensive clear cutting of forests to expand coca production. Chemicals used in extraction were poured off into rivers and on the forest floors causing widespread chemical pollution.

Colombia suffered the worst impact of international drug war in South America. For decades now, drugs have been produced in remote parts of the country where the state has long lacked control. Many areas of Colombia have become lawless regions. The drug wars have been a threat to the national security and internal stability. Fighting drugs has cost the country and it’s people great efforts and resources.

(For more on drugs in Colombia, see the article: Yage – Colombia’s Hallucinogenic Jungle Juice

Popayan – A Colonial City in Southern Colombia – More than just a White City

Popayan – (pronounced Popa-jan) is the capital of the department of Cauca. It is called ‘the white city’ or Ciudad Blanca due to the color of the colonial buildings and churches in its historical center.

It’s a very relaxed, attractive city with a great climate in southern Colombia. But few foreign tourists visit Popayan. When they do it’s usually just for a one-night layover on their way to Ecuador or the Colombian archaeological site of San Agustin.

This small city merits more attention than it gets. And while it may look quiet, provincial and unmemorable it’s actually charmingly refreshing. As its promotion slogan goes, ‘Popayan – more than just a white city’.

A street in Popayan

A History

This colonial city was founded by the Spanish in 1537. While there are no records of its pre-Hispanic history, it is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Colombia. During the colonial period, Popayan was an important town due to its logistical location between Lima, Quito and Cartagena. Here there were significant mines, manned for the most part with slaves from Africa, extracting gold and silver,

Great Climate

Located in southwestern Colombia, between the western and central Andean mountain ranges, Popayan has a population of 258,650. It sits at an altitude of 5,775 feet (1760 meters) above sea level, and has an average temperature of 64 degrees F. (18 °C).

Due to its altitude, the city has a very nice climate year around – warm during the day and cool at night, with a short rain shower late in the afternoon. The early settlers established sugar estates down in the hot, humid Cauca valley but went back up into the mountain town of Popayan to live and raise their families.

College Town

It’s a quiet, relaxed town that’s easy to explore.  A well-known university town, Popayan is home to 8 different state and private universities. Students are everywhere in the center and the city feels like a college town.

There are many small, family run hotels in the center, but few restaurants. Visitors complain the center is dead, lacking a vibrancy and essential services – especially in the evenings and on Sundays when it is often hard to find anything open.  But like many modern cities, the historic center houses mostly government and business offices and university buildings. 

Popayan has a sizable residential area just beyond the city’s center teaming with shopping centers and restaurants. A short taxi ride up Carrrera 9 imparts a more modern Popayan with plenty of dining and shopping options.

Earthquakes

The town of Popayan has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the years after major earthquakes. The last one was on a Sunday morning of March 31, 1983. Mass was being held in the Cathedral Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion on the town’s main square of Plaza Mayor. The earthquake only lasted 18 seconds but it destroyed the cathedral killing many people – a total of 267 died in the city’s earthquake. The entire town was in shambles and much of the city’s original splendor was destroyed.

Reconstruction took more than 10 years. The cathedral was rebuilt. While the city still has some ruins and empty lots, it’s hard to see any signs of the quake today. As a result of this event, the first earthquake-seismic-design-code was established in Colombia.

Popayan’s historic downtown is rich with colonial architecture which has been preserved for more than four centuries. The cobblestone streets were almost all paved over in 1937 but current projects seek to recover the old city’s original look

It’s fun to stroll along the streets of the historic center soaking up the city’s architectural charms. 

Plenty to see and do

Puente Humilladero is a beautiful bridge 785 feet (240 meters) long made up of 11 arches. The bridge crosses a fault line between the city center and the Bolivar neighborhood connecting the central and northern zones of the city. Built in 1873, the designs were prepared by the Italian friar and a German engineer. Its well-planned design and strong construction have allowed the bridge to remain intact through many earthquakes. A park by the bridge is a gathering point for students.

Santo Domingo Church, Popayan

There are numerous churches and museums to visit in the center: the church of San Francisco, Santo Domingo, La Ermita and La Basilica with its famous Torre de Reloj, or the watchtower, which was built in the 1600s. There are many museums worth visiting like the museum of religious art and the museum of natural history.

Cerro de Moro hilltop overlooking the skyline of Popayan

The Morro de Tucan, or Cerro de Morro, is large hill overlooking the city. Where an ancient pre-Columbian pyramid structure once existed, today it is home to the large statue of the founder of the city. The hill offers a great lookout of the city below.  It’s a short climb to the top, but the stunning panoramas and sunset views make it a must-visit spot in downtown Popayan.

But some of the best things to see and do here lie just outside of the city.  After a day or two visit of the city, Popayan can then serve as a handy base to see the many interesting sites nearby.

Around Popayan

Thermal baths – Aguas Hirviendas at Coconuco

About 15 miles (25 km.) from Popayan, on the road to San Agustin, is Coconuco a beautiful spot surrounded by green hills and waterfalls. In the mountains over the town, the magical site of Termales Aquas Hirviendas (Thermal Baths of Boiling Waters) is found. Coconuco is only an hour bus ride outside Popayan. For $3 you can soak in the thermal pools.  Boiling pools of sulfur water are mixed with cold mountain spring water and channeled into the surrounding pools. Each pool has a different temp.

The spa ritual is: 15 minutes in the hot pool, get our, stand under a waterfall of ice-cold, mountain spring water, scream, jump back in a hot pool and repeat. There are a lot of locals here on the weekends but hardly anyone visits during the week. The locals bring boom boxes and sip Bacardi rum with Poker beer chasers pool side. There is also a volcanic spring fountain where you can drink sulfur water, they call aqua soda or soda water, which is very diuretic.

The Market of Silvia

Another big draw is the indigenous market in the village of Silvia on Tuesdays when the Guambiano tribe come to market from their four villages of Pueblito, La Campana, Guambia and Caciques. There are only 12,000 people remaining in the tribe. They speak their own language and dress in their colorful, traditional garb. At the market they sell their arts and crafts, vegetables and fruit and then buy supplies like rice beans, potatoes and farm equipment to take back to their villages.

They come and go in picturesque, exhaust spewing chiva buses and congregate around the main square of Silvia. They don’t like cameras believing photos rob them of their soul. But if you buy something from them, they will indulge you and pose for a shot. From the main square in Silvia walk uphill to the church for a great view of the village below.

Parque Natural De Purace (Purace National Park)

The tundra, or paramo, of Park Purace

Purace park is 534 square miles (860 square km) of volcanoes, snow-capped mountains, natural springs, waterfalls, lagoons and grasslands.  A volcanic zone in the Andes, it is S.E. of Popayan, on the road to San Agustin. It’s high-tundra (paramo) terrain. Purace, in the indigenous Quechan language, appropriately means ‘fire mountain.

The park contains many springs like the Termales de San Juan which are immersed in virgin, Andean beauty.  There are 200 types of orchids that grow here, 30 lakes and waterfalls like the Los Guachanos Cave Park Bondon waterfalls. Major Colombian rivers like the Magdalena and Cauca originate here. It is also home to a vast array of wildlife like the spectacled bear, otters, sloths, pumas, deer, eagles and Andean condors.

With the help of an indigenous guide and a day to spare, one can hike to the crater summit of the active Purace volcano 15,000 feet (4,646 meters). It’s a four-hour, 7 km. climb to the top and takes around 3-hours to descend. Technically, it’s not a particularly hard climb but the altitude makes it harder than it should be.

Semana Santa (Holy Week of Easter)

Since the 16th century, Popayan has been famous for its religious processions during the holy week proceeding Easter. The processions depict the passion and death of Jesus Christ. There are festivities all week long but the processions take place between Good Friday and Holy Saturday before Easter. Thousands of people from all around Colombia come to take part in the event.

Getting There

There is an airport in Popayan and one can fly in from any major Colombian airport. Or come by bus from the cities of Cali to the north or Pasto to the south – both relatively short trips.

A southern Colombian itinerary would require at least 10-12 days: 3-4 days taking in the sights in and around Popayan; 3 days to cross the paramo of Park Purace and to visit the archeological sites of San Agustin (a 6-hour bus trip from Popayan); 2-3 days to venture north to visit to tombs of Tierradento (a 6-hour bus trip). After Tierradentro, there’s a road from heading back to Popayan (a 4- hour bus trip). One could also visit Cali from Popayan (a 3-hour bus trip) or Pasto (a 6-hour bus trip from Popayan).

For more on see: travel in Southern Colombia

Cali – the City of Eternal Summer and Salsa

Mostly what you read and hear about the city of Cali goes something like this: Cali is hot. The people like to dance. But the town is short on sights and things to do so it’s o.k. to skip. The city rarely makes the list of ‘top destination in the country’. And while most travelers don’t even bother with the southern part of the country, the tourists who do visit Cali are usually passing through in route to other sites in Southern Colombia, or to Ecuador. But if you’re touring Colombia and don’t visit Cali you’re missing out on a great Colombian city.  

A hot, gritty city with a real zest for life it’s called “the city of eternal summer and salsa”. Cali is one of the oldest city’s in South America. It was founded by the Spanish in 1536 – though inhabited by the indigenous peoples thousands of years prior.

City Statistics

At an altitude of 3,340 feet (1,081 meters), the city sprawls out over a valley floor of Cordillera Occidental mountains. It spans 216 square miles (560 meters) (216 sq. mi) with an urban area of 46 square miles (121 km). Cali is the second-largest city in the country. With a population of 2.5 million people, Cali is the third most populous city in Colombia after Bogota and Medellin. An economic powerhouse, Cali has one of the fastest-growing economies. It’s the seat of 150 multinational companies and boasts all the conveniences of modern living with numerous shopping malls and two soccer stadiums.

Producing 20% of Colombia’s G.D.P. Cali is the capital of Val de Cauca, a department producing sugar, rice, cotton, coffee and cattle. Cali is the only major Colombian city with access to the Pacific coast with major highways cutting through 75 miles of mountains to the port city of Buenaventura.   

Cathedral La Ermita

What to See and Do

Cali is not expensive. There are lots of modestly priced hotels and restaurants. I stayed on Sixth Avenue or ‘La Sexta’ – which, according the guide books, is the place to be.  It’s an avenue smack dab in the city center full of clubs and restaurants and shops, well patrolled and safe to walk even late at night.

Cali is a city that can be easily be explored on foot. Walk under the shade trees along the riverbank in the historic center, admire the architecture of churches and visit the city’s many museums.

Sixth Avenue starts at Bolivar Park in the south. Cross over Puente Ortiz and you’re in the historic center. Stroll along the river on Carrera 1 which follows the Cali River winding through town.  The river walk is decorated by feline statues called ‘cats on the river’ made by the artist Hernando Tejada.

There are plenty of sights to see along the way: the Ortiz bridge, the white neo-Gothic Cathedral of La Ermita, The La Merced Chapel, the Archeological Museum, the Gold Museum, Municipal theater, the Tertulia museum and many more.

The west end of the river walk ends at San Antonio park. The surrounding neighborhood has a bohemian identity with boutique hotels, upscale restaurants, vegetarian fare, cafes, hostels and alternative offerings. A lot of travelers are stay in this area.  

Cali has a large central food market in the southern end of the historical center. The city has some of the best stocked wine and liquor stores I’ve found in all Colombia. And just a short taxi ride from the center the best zoo in Colombia, Zoologico de Cali, can be found. Parque del Perro is a dining district west of Cali – famous for its large statue of a dog in the square. And, of course, there’s Cali’s nightlife.

Cali’s Nightlife and Salsa Fever

Cali is famous for its steamy salsa dancing and a nightlife second to none. Self-proclaimed the ‘Salsa Capital of the World’, salsa became popular in Cali in the 1940s and 50s with the popularity of Cuban and Argentinian music. Then in the 1970s and 80s, with the Cali cartels and lots of drug money in circulation, hundreds of bars and nightclubs sprung up around the city. There are many international festivals in the city celebrating its salsa tradition, but it’s the poorest neighborhoods that keep the salsa fever alive.

There are many ‘zonas rosas’ or entertainment districts around the city filled with dance clubs and bars.  After La Sexta, in the center, there’s the Barrio Granada and Juanchito. These areas are famous for their night life, lively streets, dance clubs and bars. The northern part of city is an industrial area full of working factories during the day and dance clubs and love motels at night.

The people of Cali love dancing. You can see it’s in their blood. If the music is playing in the distance somewhere and they’re moving to it. All someone has to do is turn on a radio and people start busting a moveIn the plazas, in the evenings, they have free public dance exercise – crank up boom box and the salsa dancing begins. And it looks like anything but exercise.

Things to see outside of the city  

Calima Lake is a beautiful lake in the mountains above Cali,

Cerro de la Tres Cruzes is a hilltop just outside of the city with 3 crosses. People like to hike the hill to the top.

Cristo Rey is another religious destination – a park above the city with a 75 foot tall statue of Christ similar to the one found in Rio de Janeiro and in Bucaramanga.

Cool things off by taking a trip up in the nearby mountains. Go find a country restaurant in the mountains or pack a picnic.

Cali is an interesting city with an electrifying atmosphere.  The city’s slogan is: ‘fall in love with Cali’ ‘Enamorarte de Cali’. Fall in love, see the sights, visit the clubs, learn to salsa dance. The city will draw you in and stay with you long after you leave town.

Mocoa – The End of the World – A Gateway to the Amazon

Mocoa is called a gateway to the Amazon. Located in the department of Putumayo in southern Colombia, the town is a remote gem on the fringe of Colombia’s Amazon jungle. Located in a tropical rain forest, the area is filled with turbulent rivers that feed the Amazon river.  

The city of Mocoa on the Mocoa River

The Mudslide

A small, agricultural town, dedicated mostly to the production of sugar cane and cattle, Mocoa itself does not seem all that interesting. But then one learns the ordeals the town has been through.  On April 2, 2017, before dawn, on a Saturday morning, the rivers Sangoyaco, Mulato and Mocoa, all which run through and around the town, flooded, overflowed and slammed through the village burying the town in an avalanche of mud, boulders and debris. The early morning disaster left 254 dead and hundreds of homes destroyed.

Today, though still rebuilding, the town is open for business. Mocoa merits a visit for a night.  The main boulevard through town, Avenida Colombia, or Carrera 9, offers plenty of restaurants, bars and shops and the main square, where the cathedral of San Miguel de Macoa is located, has all the banks and government offices.

The Jungle

People visit Mocoa, not for the town, but for its surrounding areas. Mocoa offers access to the Amazon jungle. It’s more accessible, easier to get to and cheaper than flying 500 miles – from Bogota to the city of Leticia which is the standard ‘go to’ Amazonic destination; located deep in the jungle, it’s the place most people visit when ‘doing’ the Amazon. The area around Mocoa is a natural wonderland of turbulent rivers, waterfalls, swimming holes, dripping wet jungles teaming with wildlife, red dirt and park protected nature with well-maintained trails.

Fin del Mondo Park

Fin del Mondo is a waterfall and a park near Mocoa. To get to the park take a taxi from town, down the Mocoa-Villagarzon highway to entrance of the park Fin del Mondo or ‘end of the world’. Pay a $8 park fee at the little house at the entrance of the park and then hike the trail to the waterfalls. The park is open every day but Tuesday. One could do the hike in a day. Get there first thing in the a.m. and return to Mocoa. But the park closes at 4 p.m. and the stay of a night or two in the park makes it all a lot easier.

There are basic hostels and guest houses along the way. But only one, called Fin del Mondo, has fixed restaurant and sometimes internet service. It’s $15 a night for a room and the meals are $3 each. There are mosquito nets over the beds, but on my visit, there were no flies or mosquitoes.

The next morning it’s a 4-mile hike, a climb of 1,800 feet, up the mountain, to see three magnificent waterfalls. Inlaid tree trunks and stones make a good trail for most of the way but trudging through mud is inevitable and the red jungle mud affectionately sticks to your shoes. There are six main swimming holes along the way.

The first waterfall is called Pozzo Negro or  ‘black hole’ is a great swimming hole 15 feet deep with cool water and jumping rocks 20 feet high. After climbing through steaming jungles it’s like finding paradise lost.

The second waterfall is called Puente a Piedra or ‘stone bridge’. It’s a massive stone shelf serving as a bridge over the river. Miraculously, there’s a restaurant here in the mouth of a shallow cave.

The third waterfall is the namesake prize. Fin del Mondo is a waterfall that plunges 250 feet, over a sheer cliff, plunging to the Mocoa valley below. Park attendants are on hand to harness you up and let you climb to the edge of the cliff to sit and look out at the waterfall and the vast expanse of jungle below. On a clear day the village of Mocoa can be seen in the distance.

There are other waterfalls to hike to in the area just outside of the park. The Ornoyaco Waterfall is a hike off the Mocoa-Villagarzon highway just past the suspension bridge. Take the path by the bridge. It’s a 1.5 – 2-hour hike that leads to a waterfall and remote swimming hole in the middle of the jungle – a site few people ever visit.

Another waterfall in near the Fin del Mondo park is Ojo de Dios or ‘the eye of God’. This trip requires a guide.  One can usually be obtained around the entrance to the park.  A walk through the jungle leads to a creek gushing through a hole in the roof of an open cave – yet another swimming hole to enjoy.  

Wildlife Reserves within walking distance of Fin del Mondo

CEA – Centro Esperimental Amazonica is a well run government facility that rescues and protects injured, poached and abused animals from the area. It restores them to health and, when possible, releases them back to the jungle. There’s a good guided tour leaving the entrance every hour or so. Here one can observe the many different animals from the area kept in zoo like conditions.

Another reserve, this one privately owned, is Paway.  There’s a path by the bridge, just up the highway from the CEA. It’s a 15-20-minute hike up the path, most of it uphill to a gate.  Ring the bell by the gate.  Some German Shepherds will come and meet you followed by their owners. For a small entrance fee, they will all give you a tour of the butterfly house and the grounds where parrots and monkeys roam freely.  They have accommodations here as well as a bar where you can have a drink while visiting with the monkeys and parrots.

In Macoa, everyone puts out banana tables to lure the monkeys out of the jungle. Squirrel monkeys and saddle black tamarins are always hanging about on rooftops and in the gardens.

For those interested in birding expeditions there’s Harold, an English expat in town who takes people out on informative guided bird watching tours.

Yage – the hallucinogenic jungle juice

An indigenous woman at Fin del Mondo park shows the plants used to make the Yage drink.

This area of the Putamayo jungle is also well known as a place to procure and consume Yage (pronounced yah-jay). It’s a vine that grows in these areas and when combined with two other local plants – chancruna and changropanga – produces a drink that causes hallucinations.

The indigenous in the area of Macoa belong to the Pastos or Inga tribes and they have an ancient relationship with Yage (or Ayahusca as it called in Peru).  They have used the plant for centuries to cure emotional disorders and for spiritual guidance. Here one can find shaman, called a Taita, who will prepare you, supply you with the drink and guide you through the experience.

For more on this visit my post:  Yage – Mocoa’s hallucinogenic jungle juice. http://colombiatravelreporter.com/colombia-travel/yage-colombias-hallucinogenic-jungle-juice/

The Amazon Jungle

Beyond Mocoa the roads come to a stop but there are rivers going into the jungle.  Trips can be arranged to towns up the Caquetá River like Puerto Limon by contacting boat operators.

Deforestation of the Amazon – a World Problem

The area is remote and up until recently had been controlled by the revolutionary group FARC.  They oversaw the farmers in the area allowing them to only clear 20 acres of land per family – 10 for crops, 10 for cattle pasture. 

But the environmental awareness of the guerrillas was forgotten when coca cultivation come into play. With the advent of drug cartels in the area, coca leaf production soared. A lucrative cash crop, the farmers cleared more land to grow more leaves to make coca paste to sell back the cartels.

Fin del Mondo guest house

But now the FARC and the cartels are gone. The area is returning to agriculture, often with exploitative rather than sustainable practices. More people are arriving, armed with chain saws, and are clearing more jungle to raise more cattle.

Companies, many foreign owned, are cutting down the trees for lumber and clearing the land, turning forest into pasture for extensive cattle ranching.  Some of these groups and families have cleared 200 – 2,000 acres of land each.

Colombia had been so preoccupied with the war that no one thought of the forests.

In the past 25 years it has been reported that the farmers have cleared and fenced off 130 million acres of Amazon forest in just Colombia alone. Ranching isn’t illegal and there’s nothing being done to stop the farmers and ranchers.

 At this rate of expansion, the Amazon forest in Colombia may just disappear in the next 70 years.

The soils of the Amazon are extremely fragile. If the trees are cut, alternative crops can not be generated. Grass grows and the flora and fauna disappear. The humid Amazon grass turns into a mirror that reflects the temperature of the sun increasing the greenhouse effect and global warming.

Deforestation of the Amazon will have devastating implications for changing the planet’s climate.

Exploring the Archaeological Sites of San Agustin on Horseback

I’ve been to San Agustin several times before and seen most of the archaeological statues. I’d hiked around the park above town – Bosque de las Estatuas and did the jeep tour of the sites: Alto de los Idolos, Alto de los Piedras and El Tablon. But there were some painted statues at the sites of La Pelota and La Chaquira I’d been wanting to see for a long time both of them located in the mountains above the town of San Agustin.

The draw back was the only way to get there was an 10-12-hour hike through the mountains or a 6-hour trip on horseback. Having been raised on a farm, I had plenty of experience horseback riding. But I hadn’t been on a horse in over 20 years. The cost of hiring a horse and a local guide was only $20 per person. Not feeling the hike, I figured why walk when you can ride. A simple decision, I thought, like hiring a taxi instead of walking 10 blocks to the center.

The trip was organized by my hotel in San Agustin. The guide, a local, elderly man, who lived in the village, came to the hotel in the morning wearing a cowboy hat and boots. We walked a few blocks to his house where the horses were tied up and waiting. He fed them water and sugar cane juice as he saddled them up. Then we went trotting out of the village and into the mountains.

San Agustin

Colombia’s finest archaeological patrimony is emerged in some of its most beautiful rural landscape. People have been inhabiting this steep terrain for 6,000 years. And these tombs and statues were created around 3,300 B.C. – about the time they were building the pyramids in Egypt; well before the Incas, whose civilization arose in the 13th century, and was thriving when Columbus discovered the Americas.

The statues at La Pelota were unique because they were the only painted statues still surviving in San Agustin. They had been dyed 3,000 years ago with colored sap from trees. Remarkably, the color was still vivid. The statues depicted a ritual of human sacrifice practiced by the people who once lived here. They would sacrifice children to the gods by clubbing them to death. It was considered and honor to be asked to offer up your newborn. Young boys were preferred.

All the statues in San Agustin are of god heads, devilish images, men in trances and man/animal figures. They believed these were creatures bridging the world of man and animals. The animal traits can be seen in the eyes, the canine teeth, and the hands.

After stopping at a local house to enjoy a cup of Colombian coffee, we rode on to see more statues carved in stone at La Chaquira. These statues sit atop a beautiful valley where the indigenous had come to pray to the Gods – an impressively scenic spot overlooking the Magdalena River roaring far below.

The ride through the mountains was beautiful and much better than walking. It was a good getting back in the saddle though little harder getting on and off than I remembered. The horses were well behaved trail horses. Not exactly barn-stormers but methodical animals that walked the same trails often. They trotted and cantered at will a little anxious to hurry things along. Towards the end of the day, it started to feel like I’d been riding a chiva bus over back-country dirt roads for the last 3 days. And when it was all said and done, I was just as happy as the horse to part ways.

For more on San Agustin – see post: http://colombiatravelreporter.com/colombia-travel/san-agustin-archeology-stone-sculptures/ 

The Pacific Beaches around Buenaventura

Colombia is the only country in South America with access to both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. While Colombia’s Atlantic coast is taunted for all its beauty, history and culture – the Pacific coastline remains a guarded secret – like a family embarrassment they don’t want you to bring up and definitely don’t want you to visit.

There are only three access points to Colombia’s 865-mile-long Pacific coastline. Last June I visited Bahia Solano and Nuqui west of Medellin in the Choco region. A coastline only reached by boat or plane, and was impressed by its wild and remote natural beauty and pristine beaches.

See post – the Pacific beaches of Bahia Solano: colombiatravelreporter.com/colombias-north-pacific-coast

This year, against the advice of everyone I talked to, I decided to visit the beaches around the port city of Buenaventura in southern Colombia a 3-hour bus ride west of Cali. Being a port city and the only major Colombian city on the coast, there’s a modern highway going to the port offering the easiest access to the Pacific coast. A six lane highway tunnels through the mountains filled with trucks transporting containers to and from the port.

The city of Buenaventura

Overcoming Buenaventura’s Dicey Reputation

Colombians don’t encourage tourists to visit the beaches in this area due to the infamy of Buenaventura. A port city of 400,000, 60% of Colombia’s sea imports and exports pass through this town. The city is a gold mine for some but most of the city’s residents are poor. Meanwhile, the port city has also been a major transit hub for the country’s illegal drugs. In 2007 the cocaine wars made Buenaventura Colombia’s deadliest city.

Today, while the city is still rife with unemployment, gangs and violence, the murder rate is below the national average and the city is making a move to attract tourists. There is a tourism association of 120 businesses and they argue that Buenaventura is the best-kept tourism secret in Colombia today and promises a future for the town’s work force.

Boys playing soccer on the beach

The culture of the Colombian Pacific is African inflected where an overwhelming Afro-Colombian population lives largely in small, scattered communities. Most are descended from slaves brought in by the Spaniards to work in gold mines. They have preserved their ancestral heritage of music and cuisine and it has been combined with a significant indigenous influence

Buenaventura is a busy, congested city, poor with rusted tin roofs and plaster sliding off the graffiti painted walls. The center of town, running along Calle 1, is packed with hotels serving port visitors and sailors with restaurants and bars blasting salsa music.

Heading Straight for the Beaches

Most tourists arrive at the bus station and head straight to the port to catch a boat to the nearby beaches without stopping in the city. “We heard the city was too dangerous,” one tourist said.

The beaches can only be reached by boats that leave from a dock in the port. At the train station there are booths selling tickets to the beaches outside of town. A ticket costs from $15 – $20 round trip depending on the beach one is heading to. There are boats going all the way up the coast to the landlocked, Pacific coastal town of Nuqui, a $45 fare from Buenaventura, which is half the cost of an airline ticket from Medellin.

The Muelle Turistico or Tourists’ Port in Buenaventura

It’s a short taxi ride to a dock called the ‘Muelle Turistico’ or tourist dock. Tickets can be bought here, too. After fighting through swarms of street hawkers you wait for your boat to be readied and full of passengers. The speed boat leaves the port at full throttle heading to beaches miles north of the city.

I got off at the beach of Pianguita. The boat pulls up short of the beach making the passenger’s jump out in waist deep water wading into shore holding their bags over their heads to keep them dry. A cluster of modest hotels, bars and restaurants line the beach front at the jungle’s edge.

Accommodations are rustic with plenty of places to stay for cheap. I stayed in a hotel with a private bath which included 3 square meals a day for $20 a day. The weekdays are quiet but it picks up on the weekends.

Not Many Visitors from Outside of Buenaventura

Most of the visitors are families from Buenaventura. Very few people were from the nearby city of Cali or from any other part of Colombia for that matter.  Colombians traditionally choose to go to beaches on the country’s Caribbean coast or to the islands – like San Andres.  These destinations are farther and more expensive, especially for the Colombian’s living in the south.

The hotels and restaurants serve meat and chicken or fish. Fish is the obvious fresh option and comes fried or in a stew with rice, fried plantains and lemonade. There is also an abundance of shrimp here which they serve up grilled, fried, in soups and with fried rice.

The silty brown sand beach stretches along a cove. It’s a nice beach that completely disappears at high tide in the early evening. At low tide the beach is scattered with plastic left by the withdrawing tide. Being so close to a port city, floating refuse is a problem, but not more so than it is around Cartagena or any other port city in the world.

The speed boats will ferry visitors up and down the coast stopping at the neighboring beaches of La Bocana, Maguipi, Juanchaco, La Barra, and Ladrilleros. They’ll pull up at waterfalls for dip.

The water is warm and the people spend hours just standing in the shallow water talking as the pelicans dive bomb for fish. Beach vendors will crack open a coconut for a buck. At low tide one can walk to neighboring beaches La Bocana to the south and Juanacho to the north. Just be sure to get back before high tide around 4 p.m. or risk crawling through the jungle to get home. Pressed for time? It’s best to hire a motorcycle for an expedited ride back to your hotel.

At night there’s not much to do. Pianguita is a safe laid-back pueblo. The tide comes up to the break wall in front on the restaurants. Join the crowd, grab a beer or an ice cream and watch the bats swoop. A few watch a soccer game on t.v. But most watch the fishermen standing waist deep in water under the restaurant lights. Every time one of them hooks a fish the crowd applauds and cheers.

Lake Cocha – Colombia’s Little Venice

In southern Colombia the town of Pasto lies 250 miles north of the equator, high in the Andes at an altitude of 7,000 feet above sea level. Just 12 miles outside of town is Lake Cocha or Laguna de la Cocha. It is one of Colombia’s largest and most beautiful lakes. It is also one of the Andean water reserves and a birthplace of the Amazon river.

The port town is popular with Colombian tourists who come to enjoy the enchanting wooden chalets, narrow canals, rickety bridges and brightly painted boats. The village, El Puerto, sits on wetlands at the mouth of the river Rio Encano in the Andean rainforest.

Located on the eastern side of the Andes mountain range, the lake receives its water from several streams and rivers coming from glaciers located higher up. The water from the lake does not flow to the nearby Pacific Ocean, but travels through the Guamez and Putamayo rivers into the Amazon. La Cocha has been declared a Wetland of International Importance.

Small buses leave Pasto, 13 miles away, taking people to the port on the lake where small motor boats ferry visitors to the island ‘El Encano’ which is a national park. And according to ancient beliefs Lake La Cocha is also a holy site.

The village has been called Colombia’s Venice, due to the canals in town and also ‘ Little Switzerland‘ due to the affluence of Swiss styles chalets in El Puerto.

The painted wooden chalets have a unique history. According to the locals, 80 years ago the houses didn’t look like they do now. Then in the 1940s a Swiss expat by the name of Walter Sulzer arrived in town.

He was a Swiss was a cook who arrived in Colombia escaping the Second World War. Hired by a local hotel to build some cabins, he used local materials to construct typical Swiss guesthouses. It was a style that was later copied by everyone in town earning it the nickname, “Little Switzerland”.

The town is touristy with almost every home along main street serving up lake trout either caught in the lagoon or raised in neighboring trout farms. The trout is either fried or grilled but the best version is trucha ahumada (smoked trout).

The Most Dangerous Road in Colombia The Trampoline of Death Pasto to Mocoa

Highway 37 – the road stretches from the Andean city of Pasto over the mountains and down to the jungle town of Mocoa a gateway to the Amazon. Though it’s only 121 miles between the two cities the trip takes 5-7 hours depending on how many rock and mudslides one encounters on the way.

This is the most infamous road in Colombia. It has been rated the most dangerous in Colombia and one of the worst on the continent earning the nickname ‘trampoline della muerte‘ or trampoline of death.

Small buses are used on the road Pasto-Macoa

You know you’re in for a rough ride when the bus leaves the terminal and the passengers cross themselves and mouth small prayers asking for safe passage. Shrines and crosses litter the roadside – testament to the dangers of this one-and-a-half-lane-dirt-road zig zaging through the mountains.

This is the most jerking, bone shattering, punishing, pot-hole-filled, hair-pin-turn, cliff lined roads I’ve ever been on. I gave up counting how many times I was bounced up out of my seat and hit my head on the roof of the bus.

The only passenger buses making the trip are micro buses seating 7-8 people. The drivers are damn good. They have to be. And they work the gear shift like a slide trombone. A car and a bus can barely pass on this road.

But there are also trucks. And when one approaches head on the bus has to stop and back up to a wider shoulder. The truck squeezes past with his tires hugging the edge of the road – a sheer drop into jungle growth below.

But this is also one of the most beautiful roads in the country going through jungles, cloud forests 6,000 feet high, past waterfalls and shallow rivers tumbling across the road.

There are other ways to get to Macoa but they entail losing a day backtracking from southern Colombia north to Popayan and another day crossing the Andes.

Mocoa is definitely worth the arduous journey and the trip through the mountains on highway 37 is definitely one hell of a ride.

Las Lajas – Colombia’s Most Beautiful Church

Las Lajas Sanctuary, a catholic church located in southern Colombia about seven miles from the Ecuadorian border, is considered the most beautiful church in Colombia. It was voted the most beautiful church in the world by the English newspaper ‘The Telegraph’ in 2015.

Located outside of the town of the Colombian town of Ipiales the church is 130 feet tall and bridges the Guaitara River 300 feet below. Colombia, being a Catholic country, once ruled by Spain, has lots of stunning churches. But Las Lajas combines impressive Gothic architecture, a unique location, incredible design and a great story.

The spire of Las Lajas

An Amerindian and her deaf-mute daughter were caught in a storm here in 1754. Midst the bolts of lightning the girl saw an image of the Virgin Mary who guided them to the safety of a nearby cave. After the storm the girl was healed and could hear and speak. Since then tourists and pilgrims have been coming to this site. Many pray for miracles and numerous cases of miraculous healing have been reported over the years.

The bridge connecting both sides of the canyon

The Spaniards built a shrine here in 1756, a larger one in 1802 and a bridge connecting both sides of the canyon in 1882. The church was built with funding by local parishioners between 1916 and 1949.

Many people put this church in the top ten things to see in Colombia. If one is keen on religious tourism that could be true. It only takes a couple hours to tour the site, But the church is just far away from Pasto to merit the promotion it gets.

A statue near the bus terminal of Ipiales

It’s a day trip from the southern Colombian city of Pasto – a 4 hour bus trip each way due to ongoing construction work on the Pan-American highway. But if one is en route to Ecuador then it’s just a ten-minute bus ride from the border town of Ipiales to the church. It’s a more convenient stop before or after making the Colombia-Ecuador border crossing.

Las Lajas