From the North coast and then Medellin the third stage of our Colombian trip takes us into coffee country in the heart of the Cordillera Central. We then drive South for five hours to reach Popayan, "the white city" where we spend the night before taking an adventurous road over the mountains to San Agustin.
San Agustin is famous for ancient stone carvings which we explore on foot and horseback before leaving the luscious countryside (see header above) and heading into the Tatacoa desert in the rain shadow of the surrounding mountains.
The area between Pereira and Armenia is the Zona Cafeteria - with altitudes between 1200 and 1600m ideal for growing coffee. We arrive on a Sunday and as we drive slowly past coffee farms on the rough roads from the airport folk are relaxing by the river or chatting in bars. Finca Villa Nora where we are staying is a very pretty farm in the small town of Quimbaya on a farm which has been in the same family for 130 years. Donna Nora welcomes us and shows us our rooms. The house is decorated as it must have been 50 years ago with wood panelled kitchen, cabinets of crystal glass and period furniture. The garden is full of birds that start to sing at 3.30 in the morning and in a palm tree above the swimming pool buff-necked Ibises are rearing their chicks.
80 minutes drive from Quimbaya is the Cocora Valley next to the rather touristy town of Salento. Here we come to walk and see the famous wax palms, the national tree of Colombia (above top). Despite the rather touristy set up - lots of jeeps ferry visitors here from Salento - we have a pretty walk climbing past view points in a 2.5km circuit. There are orchids, ferns and tree ferns, and an imposing peak towering above us. As we rest at the second viewpoint we spot a much larger bird soaring with the vultures. This is the valley's only condor, recognisable by the white on top of its wings and the broadly splayed primary wing feathers. We stop off in Salento on the way back and walk through its colourful streets. According to our guide, Thomas, the houses were painted many different colours to conceal whether their residents were conservative or liberal during la Violenzia in the 1940s-50s.
We had planned to explore some of the Zona Cafeteria's small towns the next day but hear about the botanic gardens at Calarca, just over the river from Armenia. Surprisingly located next door to the town prison this is a sizeable area of tropical forest with a collection of ferns and palms from all over the country. There is also a bird hide where we watch hummingbirds, tanagers and euphonia, and an excellent butterfly house full of very colourful butterflies together with a few tortoises.
We still get a chance to visit Filandia (meaning son of the Andes) which is a pretty and much less touristy version of Salento (above). As we drive around the area our guide, tells us about the treasure of Casqué Caraca. A local chief apparently buried a lot of treasure in the mountains above Armenia where of course many Spaniards searched in vain for many years.
The drive from Quimbaya to Papayan proves to be quite exciting. We are in a smaller vehicle on a fast dual carriageway running between hills and flat plains. Huge truck trains loaded with sugar cane are interesting to overtake. Suddenly we come across a massive traffic jam. Our driver cheekily passes about 5km of trucks before we reach the front of the queue and realise it is the army rather than an accident who have blocked the road. Once they let us go we pass through a village swarming with heavily armed soldiers. A raid perhaps?
Papayan is known as the white city but we don't see much of this as we drive in through a big modern city with terrible traffic. Eventually we do reach the old town (above). This was badly damaged by a huge earthquake in 1983 but has since been restored. The town is very local. Street vendors sell food, old-fashioned shops are full of this and that. Big queues of people sit patiently in banks filling out forms. Students go in and out of university buildings and the main square is full of pigeons. We check out two charming museums - one the house of a famous president and the other (the most interesting) commemorating a soldier and poet. A super enthusiastic guide takes us round speaking Spanish very slowly so that we can understand!?
The drive from Popayan to San Agustin takes us right over the Central Cordillera. To start with we follow a decent road winding up through the mountains but after an hour the black top gives way to dirt roads. We drive through indian villages and see farmers picking potatos and tending their herds of cows. As we approach 3000m the landscape gets more open (above middle) and higher still we enter the mist and drive for 1.5hrs through the forests of the Purace National park on a muddy road with huge cattle trucks threatening to push us into the ditch. At last the road improves and we descend into the Magdelena valley (above right). The huge river that we crossed on the Caribbean coast at Barranquilla is now a small mountain stream running through steep gorges.
San Agustin is a colonial town with white and green houses (top) on the side of the hill. Casa de Francois is a charming hotel/hostel above the town with lovely cabins set in a pretty garden. This area is famous for its archaeology and in particular the stone sculptures of humans and animals that were found around the Magdelena valley dating from over 3000BC to 900AD.
At La Pelota we see some extraordinary carvings found in the front of burial mounds and still bearing colouring (top left). Very little is known about the people who created these ancient statues although the references to animals and dress resemble the gold ornaments found at some sites and the dress of some Colombian and other South American tribes. At La Chaquira carved female figures (top right) look out over the amazing landscape of the Magdelena gorge.
The Archaeological Park has five sites with amazing finds as well as a museum with beautifully presented carvings from other sites. The warrior and his guards (above) is typical of the carvings found in front of burial sites. Here you can see symbols of power, a face or mask with animal references including jaguar teeth and armed guards with animal headdresses full of symbolism of the living and the dead.
From San Agustin we head down into the Madelena Valley and then drive north for four hours to reach the busy city of Nieva. After checking in to our hotel we head north again to Villavieja where we meet tuktuk driver "Juan Tatacoa". He will be our (no English) guide to the Tatacoa desert, an arid plain to the East. As we drive up the hill the landscape gets much drier. Goats and Brahmin cattle are picking at scraps of grass and tall cacti and acacia trees replace the general bush. This is not a real desert but rather an arid plain in the rainshadow of the Central Cordillera to the West and Eastern Cordillera to the East. Wind and the occasional rain has sculpted the soft sandstone into rocky towers and canyons. We have a short, hot walk among the canyons (above) and then visit more lookouts for some fabulous views. There are few tourists here, mostly young backpackers, but quite a few locals in cars or motorbikes. You can visit an impressive observatory here for clear views of the stars but we head back to busy Nieva and a deserted hotel!
Photos from our whole Colombia tour are in the photo gallery here.
Many thanks to Nathalie at Aventure Colombia for doing a great job planning and organising this stage of our World tour.
After 112 days of travelling it is time for us to return to the UK for full exposure to Coronavirus hysteria. If they will let us on the flight and into the coutry that is!
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