The Santuario de las Lajas, 7 km southeast of Ipiales, is a neo-Gothic church built between 1926 and 1944 on a bridge over a spectacular river gorge. The church was constructed to commemorate the appearance of virgin Mary, who image, according to the legend, appeared on an enormous vertical rock 45 m above the river. The church is set up against the gorge cliff in such a way that the rock with the image forms its main altar.
Pilgrims come here from all over the world. Many leave thanksgiving plaques along the alley leading to the church. Note the number of miracles that are said to have occurred.
The video above shows you the church over the gorge.
Our first glimpses of the Gran Sabana in Venezuela were through the night bus window, shortly after a dawn army checkpoint woke us near Santa Elena de Uairén on the Brazilian border – the only town in the Gran Sabana. We woke up and gazed in awe at the rolling countryside, topped with the famous & striking ‘Tepuis’ (table mountains).
Some of you may have heard of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book, The Lost World (also made into a film) which described an expedition to a mysterious table top mountain in South America where dinosaurs & ape men still roamed. It is thought that The Lost World was based on the most famous of all Tepuis, Roraima – pictured above towards the right of the photo at the back.
As the tops of the Tepuis are more than two billion years old, and have been isolated from the surrounding savannah for much of this time, various flora and fauna have evolved independently upon their summits. There are more than 2000 plant species and various animals & insects unique to these specific mountains.
It is possible to organise a fairly strenuous 5-6 day trek to the top of Roraima, which is best arranged in Santa Elena de Uairén, although we have heard varying reports as to how worthwhile these are. It is not unheard of to climb the mountain, get rained on, and not see very much at all (thanks to the near permanent cloud cover). It’s also fairly common to get savaged by aggressive but almost invisible Puri Puri flies. You pay about $450 for this experience.
Suffice it to say that we decided to cruise around the Gran Sabana on a one day tour only. We went with a very knowledgeable and friendly local guide called Santiago, whom we organised through Roberto’s Mystic Tours (Roberto also specializes in local UFO sightings). We’d highly recommend Santiago, but the tour is in Spanish only. Oh, and we also go savaged by aggressive but almost invisible Puri Puri flies despite using ridiculous quantities of repellent.
We made this podcast on a 6 day boat trip upriver (East to West) from Manaus in the Amazonas region of Brazil, to Tabatinga, on the Peruvian / Brazilian border.
In the podcast we discuss how to find a boat in Manaus (Brazil), the costs of river boat travel, hammocks Vs. cabins, being a vegetarian on board (and general food options), and the risk of malaria and using anti-malarials like Larium. We also report live after our boat suffered a break down and started drifting helplessly back downstream!
Popayán is the capital of the Cauca region of Colombia. The Spanish founded it in 1536, and the early settlers used it as a kind of retreat from their hot & sticky sugar cane farms in the Cauca Valley. As Popayán lies at 1,760 metres, the climate is significantly more bearable than low-lying areas at this latitude.
I used Popayán as a stop-off point between Cali and the mysterious archaeological site of San Augustin, my final destination, and had a couple of hours wandering the charming Andalucian-style colonial streets before nightfall. The Spanish classic architecture was beautiful, and in places (such as the main Plaza), simply breathtaking.
Popayán felt much more like a sleepy university town than its estimated population of 225,000 would have you believe, and the following morning it became yet another Colombian destination I had to reluctantly drag myself away from!
Security around Popayán
Up until relatively recently (late 2005), there have been (to quote my guide book) "guerrilla problems" in the Cauca region of Colombia, however, as with the rest of Colombia, security has improved hugely in the last few years, and according to locals these areas are now completely safe. It will of course be a few years before the guide books, then the international governments give the all-clear, and the tourists flood in, but having spoken endlessly to various locals we can assure you Colombia is safe. What’s more, it’s probably the friendliest country in Latin America!
Sailing up the Rio Amazonas in Brazil was a dream come true. When you board in Manaus and head for Tabatinga (on the border with Peru) you are sailing up river and the trip is longer than vice-verse. We spent 7 days on the boat.
Make sure to see the boats in Tabatinga before you buy a ticket. There are big quality differences. I would highly recommend “Fenix” which is the boat we took. The food was good (if you eat meat…which I don’t) and the captain and crew very organised.
It is not that you see a lot of the Amazonas when you sail on the river, but the fact that you are on a slow boat and can do absolutely nothing except sleeping, reading, writing articles, making love (if you are a couple…which we were not) etc. makes it extremely relaxing to be on-board. And you also get an insight into life in the small towns along the river where the boat load and unload goods.
We paid to have a cabin for 7 days. This cost us 300$ for two – so 150$ each. The cabin was small, but cosy with wooden walls, air conditioner and bathroom inside (with brown river-water…but it was a bathroom :-))
To string up your hammock on the deck for 7 days would cost around 100$, so if you are two people it is well-worth your money to pay the extra 50$ each and have the luxury and security (for your things) of a cabin.
I absolutely loved the Rio Amazonas boat trip and highly recommend it.
The video above gives you an idea what a cargo boat trip on the Rio Amazonas entails.
Los Llanos in Venezuela is an immense plain savanna of 300,000 sq km south of the Venezuelan Andes. It’s one of the most ecologically diverse regions on earth and a popular area to go on wildlife safaris. You can listen to our podcast from Los Llanos by clicking on the play button at the top of this post.
Los Llanos, a region famous for its abundant Anacondas – one of the reasons for its many appearances on the Discovery Channel & other nature documentaries – is one of the best areas in the world to get up close to Cayman, Anacondas, Capybara, Pink River Dolphins , Piranha fish & many hundreds of species of birds.
We picked a 3 night, 4 day tour from Merida (details below), and had an amazing time. The first day of the tour was spent driving through the Venezuelan Andes with several stop offs in small mountain towns, hot springs & national parks. With heights of up to 5000 metres, the Venezuelan Andes are proper mountains, and we experienced some truly breathtaking views of the mountains and glaciers.
The first night was spent scoffing our faces in Arassari Trek’s purpose-built camp, from where we did the tubing the next morning. It was all very tranquil and relaxing until I came close to knocking myself out playing ‘silly buggers’ whilst going down a set of rapids head first.
On the second day we made our way to San Vicente, a small riverside town in Los Llanos. We packed up the boat, and headed up river and into the Los Llanos waterways. The second night was spent in hammocks at a camp beside the river, and it was from here that we headed out by night and found Cayman and Anacondas. We were also lucky enough to have several carnivorous Piranhas jumping into the boat with us, which in the dark was somewhat disconcerting.
On the third day, the morning was spent cruising the Los Llanos waterways, spotting pink river dolphin and more Anacondas, and in the afternoon we went on a ‘safari’ through the partially flooded fields, spotting the vast array of birdlife, and Cayman (small alligators).
On the fourth and last day we got up ridiculously early in an attempt to spot giant ant-eaters. Although we unfortunately didn’t manage to find any, we did spot some Capybara, which resemble giant Guinea Pigs. We rounded off our time in Los Llanos with a spot of Piranha fishing, before the tour began the long trip back to Merida at lunch time, and I jumped off in the middle of nowhere (Mantecal) to head further into the middle of nowhere (San Fernando de Apure – Puerto Ayacucho).
We picked the highly recommended Arassari Trek for our tour. Arassari Trek has camps in areas away from the majority of other tour companies in Merida. Our English-speaking tour guide was Alan Highton, a vastly experienced wildlife guide and photographer, and one of the pioneers of wildlife tours of Los Llanos. We would recommend him unreservedly for his knowledge and passion on the area, plus his fearless handling of Piranha, Cayman and Anacondas!
Our 3 night, 4 day tour cost $160 – which included all meals, accommodation, and transport for the duration of the tour.
Click on the play button above to listen to the Podcast we made from Cartagena in Colombia – our favourite city in Latin America so far. In this podcast we discuss finding accommodation in Cartagena, we record the sounds of the old town at night, and finish off with a discussion sitting on top of Castillo San Filipe – the largest Spanish fort built in the Americas.
Founded by the Spanish in 1533, Cartagena is Colombia’s and possibly Latin America’s finest Colonial city, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Shortly after it was founded it became the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast, and was used to store gold and other treasure plundered from the Indians before it was transported back to Spain.
Due to the riches stored within its walls, Cartagena quickly became a target, and was on the receiving end of countless pirate attacks and five full scale sieges in the 16th century alone. The most famous siege (although not the largest) was led by Sir Francis Drake in 1586.
After a while, fed up with all the attacks, the Spanish decided enough was enough, and made Cartagena virtually impregnable by building huge 12 km-long walls around the centre, and a series of forts & castles at strategic positions around the city.
Cartagena old town is a living museum of 16th and 17th century Spanish architecture, and it would easily be possible to spend a week or two here exploring the streets, admiring the beautiful colonial buildings, and soaking in the street life created by buskers, acrobats, dancers and artisans selling their wares. Not to mention the pristine Caribbean beaches, islands & national parks within a day’s reach of Cartagena.
Cartagena is easily my favourite city in 3 months’ travel through Central America, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone heading to South America. Forget the security worries associated with Colombia, ironically Colombia is the country I have felt safest so far on my travels through Spain, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
If you have any questions, please feel free to post them below as comments.