A year ago today I boarded a plane in London for Madrid, and began a journey that has taken me through fourteen countries in 12 months, culminating back in Spain where I am now. Along the way I have had some amazing high points, and also without doubt some of the most challenging times of my life. The countries I have travelled through are, in this order:
12 months later I am speaking Spanish fairly well (albeit with multi-country accents & vocabulary), I’ve finally learnt some yoga, and I’m in the process of setting up an online English teaching business with an old friend here in Barcelona. You’ll be hearing more about this sooner rather than later as it should be ‘going live’ within the next couple of weeks.
Finally, I just wanted to say a big thank you to all the people I have met along the way. The trip wouldn’t have been the same without you. Special thank-yous to: All at the Cooperative School in San Pedro, Sushi, Francisco, my mother, Paul, Serena, Jameson & Laney, Pete & Heidi, Svayam, Carlos & the Reina Madre crew in Buenos Aires, Rachel, Ben & Marina, Rory/James & Marcela in Spain, and Ana-Maria.
The train ride down the Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s nose) is a tourist trap. Honestly – only tourist will pay 10 $ for a 45 min tourist train ride from Alausi to the Devil’s nose. And then having to pay an extra 2 $ to sit on the roof.
The so-called devil’s nose looks nothing like a nose. It’s just a mountain and not a big one. All the tourists on the train were disappointed. The view that you see from the train i beautiful – but nothing in comparison to the views you see when taking a regular bus in the South of Colombia.
The five hour train ride to Sibamba starts in Riobamba and stops in Alausi just before passing down the Nariz del Diablo. From Sibamba, the train immediately makes a return trip to Riobamba, stopping again in Alausi. Most people get on and off in Alausi.
The train departs on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 7am from Riobamba. The tickets can be bought the day before – but as I said – I don’t recommend anyone doing this ride unless they have huge amounts of time and money and nothing better to do.
Following Colombia, we head to the famous indigeous artisans and livestock markets at Otavalo in the Ecuadorian Andes, listen to some indigenous bands, and finish the podcast off in Quito, the old colonial capital of Ecuador.
Venezuela may be considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world today, but it is also one of the most beautiful countries in the world and a very worthwhile place to visit. Despite its shady reputation we didn’t have any problems in Venezuela and drove all the way through the country in three weeks. On the contrary we saw some of the most amazing landscapes in South America – most notably the Gran Sabana. This video shows you the glory and beauty of the Gran Sabana.
The Gran Sabana (Great Savanna) is an immense, empty region which lies within the boundaries of Parque Nacional Canaima. The Savanna’s rolling grasslands are broken up by the unique and spectacular tepuis. Tepuis are table mountains. More than 100 of these plateau mountains can be found from the Colombian border in the west to Guyana and Brazil in the East, but most of them are found in the Gran Sabana. The most famous tepui, Roraima, extends into Brazilian and Guyanese territory. Many tour companies arrange hikes to the top of Roraima in which you can experience a lost world of unique flora and fauna.
Geologically, these sandstone table mountains are remnants of a thick layer of sediments (some two billion years old) that gradually eroded, leaving behind only the most resistant rock formations. As they were isolated from each other and from the world below for millions of years, the tops of the tepuis had its own evolution of flora and fauna. About half of the 2000 plant species found on the top of the tepuis are unique to the specific mountains.
The easiest way to access Roraima and the Gran Sabana is to go to Santa Elena de Uairen, which is the only town in the Gran Sabana, and is located close to the border with Brazil. From there you can hire a taxi to take you for a day trip to the Gran Sabana (like we did) or book a tour to climb Roraima. Both options are highly recommendable.
I hope you enjoyed the video tour to the Gran Sabana with us 🙂
I hadn’t really paid much attention to San Augustin’s existence until I arrived in Cali, where I read in my guidebook about some mysterious stone statues a day or two’s travel south in an area known as the Valley of the Statues. What struck me as most interesting was the fact that no one has the faintest idea about the culture that made them.
As no writing has ever been found, archaeologists have been left to draw their conclusions about the culture from the styles of the statues themselves.
What they do know is this:
Some of the statues date back to 3,300BC making these statues some of the oldest examples of human civilization on the planet
There are various Asian and African influences in some of the sculptures – for example statues of Gorillas (don’t exist in S. America), statues showing African Elephants (don’t exist in S. America), statues wearing Indian head-pieces (turbans etc), statues with clearly Asian eyes – which has led the academic community to believe that this culture was so advanced it had extensive contact with Africa and Asia thousands of years before it was originally thought such contact arose
Only 10%-20% of the extensive area has been excavated, and buried underground there are almost certainly extensive dwelling areas, and possibly even an entire city
Somewhere underground there will be examples of writing which will finally shed light on a mysterious civilization talked about by archaeologists as being expert craftsmen and mathematicians
There are about 20 well-kept sites in the area, with most of the statues found in situ (where they were originally discovered). To give you an idea of the size of the area, it can take you almost a day to do a round trip drive in a jeep from San Augustin to get to the more remote sites, although the closest statues are found in the Parque Arqueologico, about 3km walk (or bus) from San Augustin.
Almost all the statues were originally found lying down covered up in underground graves, and it is thought that the civilization that created them may have come under attack from the Incas, therefore burying the statues to avoid their destruction.
I spent the first day wandering around the Parque Arqueologico, which has about 130 statues and graves in 3 or 4 main clusters. I decided to hire a guide, which was definitely the right decision as it seemed he had a story for every statue in the park. He would excitedly point out the various influences that it is thought shaped the statues (African, Asian, Indian etc), as well as describe in gory detail the human sacrifices performed by this civilization by burning alive, burying alive and cutting the throats of victims. They particularly liked to dispatch young virgin boys & girls as gifts for dead leaders to take with them into the afterlife (virgin boys for the women leaders, and vice versa showing a remarkable degree of gender equality for a civilization so old).
Perhaps most intriguing are the statues clearly showing caesarian sections being performed, as well as the statue showing in detail the biological layout of the heart, which (along with evidence from a few of the preserved skulls found) has lead academics to the conclusion that this civilization were expert surgeons and were even performing brain surgery operations thousands of years ago.
San Augustin is a truly wonderful and mysterious place, and unbelievably almost devoid of tourists – we saw about six tourists in two days which, for an area boasting some of the earliest and most creative examples of human civilization, seems laughable. Sadly, this can only be attributed to the vastly incorrect Colombian travel warnings given out by our ‘concerned’ governments.
Most remarkable of all is the certainty that under the rolling hills lies a vast civilization waiting to be discovered. One day, when UNESCO has raised the vast funding required to excavate the area properly, we are sure to be able to not only name but learn from the civilization that built the Valley of the Statues.
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.
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!