Many countries have a north/south divide and Colombia is no exception. As you head south from Cali, the landscape changes, the mountains are bigger, the roads scarier and the people look different too – ethnic Andean features begin to predominate. The warmth and friendliness of Colombians thankfully remains the same, as does, sadly, the general awfulness of the food.
I was in Cali over a long holiday weekend and the city really didn’t grab me. There’s not a lot to do anyway, and although wandering the buzzing streets of downtown would have been diverting, the whole place was shut down all day Sunday and Monday, making it extremely unsafe. I had to take a bus through the centre to get to Granada, the main restaurant and nightlife area, and what I saw out of the windows was frankly terrifying – several run-down blocks with demolished buildings and people rummaging through the debris, figures slumped in shuttered doorways smoking crack, a few policemen in full body armour.
I fled to San Agustín (see previous post), then backtracked to spend a few days in Popayán. It’s known as the Ciudad Blanca, the White City, due to its many whitewashed buildings. I was lucky enough to stay in one. Through an anonymous door sandwiched between shops on a commercial street was a beautiful two hundred year old house, occupying about half the block. My room looked out onto the open patio, where the owner cultivated a charming garden, containing a fig tree as well as a coca plant. Apparently, it’s acceptable to have one plant for medicinal purposes.
I spent a day exploring the streets and colonial churches and also climbed up the Morro de Tulcán, a hill with great views over the city. The clock in the tower next to the cathedral was made in England and fitted in 1737. It was damaged in the earthquake of 1983, but repaired by the same English company. It’s no longer working.
The next day I was back on the Pan-American Highway for the six hour ride to Pasto. The bus driver drove so fast and recklessly that we made the journey in record time. His technique seemed to consist of accelerating into 180 degree bends, avoiding using the gears as much as possible and overtaking on blind curves. My knuckles were white the entire journey.
Pasto is an undeveloped authentic Colombian town, with many old-fashioned shops, almost untouched by chains. There’s not a lot to see, but I enjoyed just walking around and barely seeing another tourist. I spent a half day visiting the Laguna de la Cocha, where you can take a boat out to an island, and then had some nice fried trout. It felt almost like being in the Lake District in England, with suitably moody weather to match.
From Pasto to the border town of Ipiales it’s just an hour and a half in a minivan, past some stunning scenery. It’s in Pasto that the mountains split as they go up through the country to the Caribbean, so from here I will be travelling down the main spine of the Andes and the peaks are going to get more impressive.
There’s always something thrilling and a little scary about land border crossings, but also something satisfying too. From the bus station in Ipiales I caught a shared taxi to the border at Rumichaca. Avoiding the plague of money-changers, I found Colombian immigration and luckily no queue. The woman at the counter spent ages looking at my passport and called over two other colleagues for their help.
Behind the glass screen I couldn’t hear what the problem might be, but just as I was starting to get anxious, she looked up and smiled and stamped my passport. This is one of those borders you have to walk across, so I headed out onto the bridge and into no man’s land. I’d spent ten weeks in Colombia, but now I was keen for a new challenge and a new country, so I picked up my pace and stepped into Ecuador.