Popayán to San Agustín: Driving into Colombia’s Soul

by Ekua on April 30, 2014 in backpacking,Colombia,d.i.y. travel,slow travel

When we walk into the Popayan bus station, I predict that I have another memorable overland trip ahead of me. The bus station only has half of its concrete floor. The other half is dirt. Although we see no one repairing the floor, we quickly learn that someone has recently been working on it. My travel buddy accidentally steps into wet concrete, covering his tennis shoe with permanent muck.

Today, I’m traveling with a German I originally met on a walking tour in Medellin. We’d agreed to arrive at the bus station when a few different buses would be leaving after examining the departure times that were posted at  the hostel. Silly us — we shouldn’t have assumed those times would be accurate.

When we get to the station, hardly any of the bus company offices are actually open. The one bus that is traveling in the right direction isn’t leaving for a couple hours.

We tell the ticket saleswoman that we thought the bus was leaving earlier and point to the time listed on their schedule. She replies, “Yes, it is leaving at that time! Buy a ticket!”

I know she is lying to get us to buy tickets, but there aren’t any other options. My German friend, however, does not pick up on her little lie. He is not happy with our long wait. He seems to have an inclination towards order and timeliness — traits that probably won’t come in handy on a day like today.

Our fake departure time comes and goes and we do not get on a bus. Our real departure time comes and goes and we still do not get on a bus. Everyone is beginning to get agitated and people start congregating by the bus.

Finally, a young man comes rushing over, buttoning up his company shirt as he approaches us. He seems incredibly young, especially considering that all of the bus drivers I’ve encountered in Colombia are middle-aged. He starts loading our luggage into the minibus and I figure he must be the driver’s assistant.

But after we have all piled into the bus, he hops into the driver’s seat and drives us out of the station. My travel buddy is sitting in the passenger’s seat in the front and he turns around to look at me incredulously. This kid who looks like he is barely beyond a booster seat is going to be our driver.

Because everywhere is a bus stop in Colombia, we pick up several more people until every place to stand or sit is occupied. My travel buddy had once been alone in the front with our cherubic driver, now there is a woman sitting on a cooler between them.

Sitting next to me is an Afro-Colombian girl who is maybe about 9 years old. This girl is tired. As soon as we get on the road, she starts dozing off, and her head wobbles onto my shoulder. As she gets more comfortable, she purposely leans against my shoulder. Then she clutches my arm and sleeps on it like I am her new found mother figure. My travel buddy notices that I’ve become a pillow and he looks confused. I shrug. The women she is traveling with keep imploring her to stop, but I say it’s okay. As we exchange smiles, I feel a special affinity with this group of traveling women.

I like the atmosphere on this bus, and the vibe of this part of Colombia in general, however haphazard it is. There is a looseness about this region that I haven’t seen elsewhere in Colombia.

This part of the country is far enough away from the big cities that it’s not a quick getaway for wealthy city dwellers. It has its own point of view. I’m just getting to know this corner of Colombia, but I already see its soul shining in subtle ways.

As it always seems to happen on scary, minimally paved mountain roads, it starts pouring when we reach the windiest, steepest part. Our teen driver zooms up the mountain, driving in middle of a two lane road through foggy rain with little visibility, not worrying that someone could drive around the corner straight towards us at any time.

It’s a relief when we get to a straighter paved section of the road. We have a bathroom and snack break at a little rest stop located in the middle of fog and nothingness. Well, I see it as a snack break, but Colombians don’t mess around when it comes to lunch. Most passengers buy full meals, and it’s only the small group of foreigners who stand around while everyone else eats. As we are waiting, I tell my German friend that I really want to ask the bus driver how old he is. He suggests that I wait until we are at our destination because it’s probably better not to know while he is still driving us. I see his point.

When we get back on the road, the girl in the seat next to me is now wide awake and chatty. She speaks quickly and I can’t understand her so I smile and nod. She doesn’t seem to care that I have no clue what she is saying and she keeps on talking away.

Drive from Popayan to San Agustin, Colombia

It begins to clear up and through our steamy windows we can see the beauty of our surroundings — fresh green mountain slopes, a raging river below, a waterfall in the distance. Although I have already visited a number of nature spots in Colombia, in this area I feel like I’m truly out there and that I’m about to enjoy a couple days of sublime serenity.

Eventually the driver stops in the middle of the mountain wilderness and calls out for the people who are going to San Agustin. It’s time for us to get off the bus. I can’t believe it. There is nothing here, not a single person or building. My travel buddy sees my eyes widen but he remains calm. His preparedness pays off this time; he knows that they are not just leaving us in the middle of nowhere. He explains that jeep will be picking us up to take us to San Agustin.

Sure enough, two old men pull up in a beat up old jeep. There are two guys from Spain who are also going to San Agustin, and the four of us get off the bus and collect our bags. As we transition to the next vehicle, I finally ask the bus driver how old he is. He tells me that he is 18 years old.

All I can do at this point is laugh. “What’s so funny?” he wants to know. My travel partner explains that we think he is very young for a bus driver. He looks at us like we are the strangest and most confusing people on the planet, says goodbye, and then returns to the driver’s seat. I wave goodbye to my little seatmate who has rushed to the window to send us off. The entire bus waves at us as they drive off.

The men who will take us to San Agustin are a jolly duo who keep us entertained as they strap our backpacks onto the top of the jeep and drive us into town. When we get to San Agustin’s little center, a woman asks us where we are staying. She casually points to a guy who she says is a cab driver. He really just seems like a man with a car, but this is obviously not a place with a highly organized transportation system. There are probably more horses than cars in this town.

So we climb in and he drives us up a hill to a rustic hostel oasis where there are cozy cabins and tropical fruit gardens tucked away in the rainforest. I know that I’m kidding myself when I say I’ll only spend two nights here — it’ll inevitably turn into a longer stay.

It’s not just these picturesque accommodations that make me want to linger; it’s this region as a whole. While there seems to a be a permanent cloud over this area and it’s a little chilly in the evenings, the people here exude enough soul and spirit to provide ample amounts of warmth.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Herb Moore May 2, 2014 at 6:14 am

I am so curious as to your method for picking destinations. Could you reveal it or should I just keep reading and be curious?

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Ekua May 2, 2014 at 4:50 pm

If you want to know why I chose Colombia, check out this post: http://girlunstoppable.com/2013/06/why-colombia

If you want to know why I chose San Agustin… well, that was more arbitrary. On longer trips, I have a few places I really want to see. In between, I’ll visit other points of interest or towns that seem interesting. I usually look at all the destinations I want to go to on a map, find out what’s in between, make sure I can catch buses in and out of those places (which doesn’t always go as planned in remote locations), and visit destinations in a loop or line so that I won’t have to backtrack. San Agustin was not one of the first places on my list, but when I saw that it has one of Colombia’s few pre-Colombian archaeological sites, I wanted to check it out.

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Justin Sterett July 30, 2014 at 11:54 am

Thanks for writing this. I bought a couple of motos in Medellin and have been riding around the country with my girlfriend. We are pretty nervous about getting stuck on that road as it’s hard to find good info about the conditions. We are sitting in a coffee shop right now and asked a few cops sitting next to us if the road was safe, they said only during the day. Yesterday we accidentally drove into the zona roja and were escorted out by military, soo it was quite the experience that I don’t want to have again.

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