San Agustín – Ancient History and Home Away from Home

At about the same time that the Greeks were building the Parthenon, here in hills of present-day Colombia (where all 5 of the country’s major rivers begin), the San Agustín culture emerged, evolved, developed over the centuries, and then disappeared. While we have hardly any evidence of the inner workings of their societies, hundreds of statues, some basic metal works, and tombs have been discovered and give us a tiny peek into their culture, leaving the rest up to our imagination.

Artwork in a museum in the nearby town of Obando where the oldest tombs (from 1000 BC) are found. Depicts the artists interpretation of some key elements from the San Agustin culture.

Some of the personified animals and figures depicted in their statues are similar to aspects of the cultures of many of the indigenous communities that still maintain their traditions today in Colombia. As such, many of the depictions are interpreted through the lens of the modern day indigenous communities’ beliefs and traditions.

In my opinion, these statues are signs that the Agustinians played baseball.

Many of these statues were found next to tombs, suggesting that just like we put gravestones at burial sites today, statues marked or guarded these burial sites, or maybe guided the deceased into the next life.

Some statues were painted with sap from trees, seeds, bark, and plants.

Seeing signs of creativity and human works from so long ago made me feel tiny and at the same time great – as I peeked into tombs from 1,100 BC and marveled at statues carved 2000 years ago (around 9-20 AD)., I could feel a tiny connection a with this far away past, with our American ancestors, little talked about in history class.

These archeological sites are located in and around a small, rural farming town of about 11,000 people, called San Agustin. People come from all over the world to see the statues, which are located in many different sites dispersed throughout the region. You can see many statues and archaeological sites in the archaeological park just outside the city center, but many more sites are farther from the urban center, and are more commonly accessed by rides in van, jeep, or on horseback.

When I was there, the majority of tourists were actually Colombians, (a change in the norm due to the holiday season when people have vacations). It was especially cool to hear so many different people excited to learn about the history and geography of their country. (And I was really impressed with the couple from Cúcuta,* who were there with their three year-old, doing the day tour to see the statues, tombs, and waterfalls.)

El Estrecho del Rio Magdelena is a channel where this major river of Colombia passes through a space only 2.2 meters wide between rock formations.

For me, San Agustín was a magical place. (I was even hesitant to write this blog because I don’t think I can convey in words how special of a place it was for me.) I fell in love with it, not only for its connection with its ancient past, but also because of its current vibe – the friendly and down-to-earth people and the familiar rural Latin American small-town feel.

It resembles my Peace Corps Peru home of Oxapampa in many ways. It has a temperate climate and is surrounded by beautiful green hills, rivers, and waterfalls. A town of agriculture (mostly sugar cane, coffee, bananas) and tourism, the conversations between strangers in the car ride there were about the going prices of different crops and gossip about people they knew in common. The guy who took me to my hospedaje (lodging) just happened to be cousins with the owner and helped me negotiate a price within my budget for a very nice room.

I happened to arrive just when the family was preparing to host the novena that night. And that is how I learned what a novena was.

I arrived at the same time that  extended family members were arriving and gathering on the patio outside the kitchen. While cooking my dinner, I listened as they took turns reading passages and later singing along to (religious) Christmas songs from the stereo while adding some spice with maracas and shakers. After the extended family left, they invited me to eat my dinner at the table with them, and I learned that they celebrate novenas for the nine days leading up to Christmas, alternating houses that host it each night.

Over the few days that I was there, the family became like my Colombian family. They invited me to one of the novenas, let me help milk a cow, and drove me around town to see the Christmas lights and the town’s annual nativity scene. (San Agustin boasts to have the largest pesibre, or nativity scene, in all of Colombia. (They say it used to be the biggest in the world.) It includes 20-50 different outdoor “rooms”, each with different scenes made of life-size mannequins. Some are a depiction of a part of the Christmas story from the bible, while others depict historic life in San Agustin, but most are a mixture of the two, sponsored by a local business promoting its products or services.)

This was one of those really special places where I felt a real connection with the place and the people, so much so that it was kind of hard to leave. I had similar feelings about my experience in Amantaní, the island on Lake Titicaca, and coincidentally I had a similar mystical “despedida” (farewell) with nature. My last morning in Amantaní, a hummingbird came and hovered close my face looking at me for a few seconds, while here in San Agustin, just before I left, a butterfly landed on my face and remained for nearly a minute, giving me a goodbye hug and kiss.

 

 

Famous Footnotes:

*Cuceta is a border town with Venezuela, located on the other side of country. This family of three (a lawyer and an engineer) had literally traveled across the country to visit San Agustin.

**Fun fact: In San Agustin, I saw many guys sporting Mohawk-like haircuts- something I haven’t seen anywhere else in my South American travels so far.

Barichara – “The Cutest Town in Colombia”

Turns out that Colombia is full of tiny adorable towns, and I might have to revise my statement from my previous blog that Guatapé is the cutest small town, especially because it turns out that BARICHARA is popularly known as the cutest town in Colombia (“el pueblo más lindo de Colombia”). (Also it’s a UNESCO world heritage site.)

Upon hearing that, I revised my travel plans and went to investigate.

I would have to say that Barichara certainly deserves the title, though I would not change my statement about Guatapé, which is cute in a different (colorful) kind of way.

I am so glad I had the pleasure of visiting the small town of Barichara and neighboring Guane, where, with the natural landscapes, tranquility, and friendliness of the people, you feel relaxed from just breathing in the air of the countryside. It’s no surprise that so many city-dwellers come here for vacations to decompress and take a break from the noise and rush of city life.

Heading north from Bogota in a bus, I watched the city landscapes transform into rolling green hills. My seat-mate lives in bogota but does construction projects in a rural area a couple hours outside of the city, so he takes on the role of tour guide and points out all the interesting things along the way.

As I see more and more cows grazing, he points out milking stations and informs me that we are in dairy country. We pass a town statue indicating that we are in the self-proclaimed milk capital of Colombia where you can get fresh dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt.

In between the cute, small, rural towns were grazing pastures, houses of brick or adobe, kilns with tall chimneys for making bricks, and I was completely surprised when we passed a series of coal mines.

About 7 hours later, when I arrived in San Gil, the air was filled with that familiar smell of burning wood or vegetation that I encountered when stepping off the airplane in El Salvador and in Cairo. From the busy little city of San Gil, I hopped on another bus that takes me to the small, quiet town of Barichara in about 30 minutes.

With its cobblestone streets, adobe buildings and colonial Spanish style balconies and flower pots, it almost seems like the town hasn’t changed much since it was a Spanish colonial hub in the 18th century.

And the views! Located in the hills above a river valley, there are multiple overlook points where you feel tiny as you stand in awe looking out over the the Suarez river far below and the mountain backdrop in the far distnce.

The town is connected to the nearby tiny town of Guane by “the Camino Real”, a stone path through the countryside that takes about 1.5-2 hours to hike. It used to be an Inca trail and more recently was a rehabilitated by a German engineer in the mid 1900s.

The hike to Guane was divine. The sun shone down, birds and insects were singing and chirping, there was a cool breeze, and while it was extremely hot in the sun, it was cool in the shade (and the path was mostly shaded by trees).

This is going to sound weird, but it was kind of welcoming to arrive to the village and be greeted by the light smell of smoke in the air and cow or horse poop. I guess those smells of rural areas grow on you after a while. ?

Guane was a kind of magical place for me.

The mirador provided an incredible view of the river valley with the river rushing through, and I spent some time there taking it all in, and later chatting with a Venezuelan artisan.

In the middle of Colombia, in this tiny little town of Guane, there is a hidden gem – a fascinating little museum that recounts the site’s history from millions of years ago to the present. (I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside, sorry!)

There are incredible fossils of fish and shells and plants from when the site was under the ocean. There are artifacts, some writing in pictographs, and even a mummy from the pre-Colombian Guane (the town is named after a group of indigenous people that lived in the region).

There are paintings from Spain that had been brought over during the colonial times. And there were coins – from the original “patacones”, (imperfectly round, made of silver from the colonial mines), to the perfectly formed colonial coins fabricated after mints were built, to the current coins in circulation in Colombia.

Unfortunately, the artifacts from the Guane people are pretty much all that remain because they were forced to stop speaking their language and practicing their customs many generations back. In fact, present-day Guane is where those indigenous Guanes that survived the epidemics were sent to be forced to forget their language and culture and be educated in the Spanish colonial language and culture in the 1700s.

Ironically, this incredible museum exists largely thanks to a dedicated priest who worked tirelessly to compile the fossils and artifacts in the late 1900s.

Barichara and Guane are located in the department (state) of Santander, which has its own little sub culture, for which it is very proud. In addition to beautiful landscapes and fascinating history, I got a taste of the Santandereana food and music (specifically “bambuco”), and I felt very welcome thanks to the incredibly friendly Santandereanos.

In a very embarrassing moment in Guane I found I didn’t have enough cash to pay for my lunch. Thinking quickly I asked if I could leave the rest of the payment with someone in Barichara and without flinching the woman said it was not a problem and gave me the name of a store where I could leave it. I was much more worried about the situation than she was.

Finally, I have to note that the hotel where I stayed (“Quédate Aquí”) is run by the nicest woman EVER. She made me feel so at home, cooked delicious food, and emanated a really loving and caring spirit.

I wish I could have stayed a few more days here, but I was intrigued to check out a theme park nearby…which I’ll tell you about next!

Medellín’s Pride and Joy

The Metro is the pride and joy of Paisas* in Medellín. I admit that I was surprised to hear our tour guide say that and more surprised that the Metro was actually a stop in the walking tour! But he explained (through a very well-told and emotional story) that it is one of the city’s key symbols of a transforming and progressing city.

Like many mass transit projects, it took decades to complete, having to overcome political and financial hurdles, among all the other problems Medellín was suffering at the time. So when it did come to fruition, it became celebrated and is still a respected place that is clean and well-kept – and people behave themselves inside the Metro system.

(I was impressed with the public service message I heard on the train saying that women and girls ride comfortably and safely on the metro, free from comments or any type of harassment. Many metro systems in the world could use those messages, including DC!)

The train efficiently gets you from one part of the city to another, and there are plenty of buses where the train doesn’t go. And my favorite part of the metro system…

The teleférico! The elevated (ski-lift-type) cable car! Yep, similar to La Paz, (but different). In La Paz, the entire transport system was a teleférico. In Medellin, the main system is made up of trains (many elevated), and then a few final parts of the system include transfers from the train to a teleférico, which takes you up to parts of the city built on the sides of a mountain.

To get to Parque Arvi, a public nature reserve, we took the train, transferred to one of the teleférico branches of the train, and then took another teleférico that would take us on a 30 minute ride to the park.

It was an incredible public transport experience, as the cable car carried us up a mountain, over the top of a densely populated community on the side of the mountain.

Then it continued as the community became less densely populated and later transformed into forest.

We sailed over the top of the forest in the pod, enjoying the view of the wilderness from above, and I was impressed by this low-impact way to transverse a natural area.

About 30 minutes later we arrived at the entrance to Parque Arvi, a public natural reserve with hiking trails, a river, and picnic and camping areas.

While the park was a great way to escape the city scene and immerse ourselves in nature, I have to say that the mass transit experience was the highlight of the day!

Famous footnote:

Paisa refers to a person from a cultural region in Colombia around and including Medellin.

Medellín – a symbol of transformation

I almost skipped visiting Medellin, and that would have been a major fail on my part, as it has actually been one of my favorite places! Not only is it a beautiful city, it has an incredibly rich and inspiring history.

Unfortunately, Medellin (and Colombia in general) is more commonly known internationally for parts of its tragic history when it was the home of the drug lord Pablo Escobar (romanticized by certain tv series) and was the most dangerous city in the world.

But today, part of the beauty of the city is that has transformed itself into a much safer city, visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, with beautiful public spaces enjoyed by its citizens.

Medellin has a lot going for it – it has a beautifully warm climate (akin to southern California), is surrounded by beautiful mountains, and is a perfect climate for producing the cash crops of coffee, cocoa, and of course the other stimulant for which it became infamous, coca.)

It originally became a wealthy region for its railroad and illegal smuggling routes of cheap goods INTO the country. Those same smuggling routes later were used in the opposite direction to export coca by mafia-type groups that got richer and more powerful each year, fueled by the growing demand from North America. Add into the mix the armed extreme leftists and rights, and you have the molotov coctail for creating the most dangerous city in the world.

Through a complicated history that I will oversimplify by saying that through peace accords and urban revitalization, neighborhoods became safer and a beautiful culture began to emerge into public spaces. Once dangerous squares filled with drug addicts and homeless people, many parks are now filled with statues by the famous Paisa artist Botero and people strolling along enjoying the nice weather.

Services became available for those previously occupying those public spaces and the spaces themselves were transformed to be more hospitable. Buildings were transformed into libraries – designed as cool and interesting places to hang out, and they provided access social programs. And the metro was built, not only helping people get around, but as a symbol of pride for Paisas (people from the Medellin region).

The city is divided into large communities called Comunas, and Comuna 13 was a war zone between the different factions in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Our guide through Comuna 13 lived there through the violence. Her neighbors were armed members of the guerrilla groups, who used intimidation to get what they wanted. The area was notorious for drug trafficking and it was common to hear shots and helicopters passing above. One couldn’t freely leave and enter the neighborhood.

Then there was a hugely controversial government siege in 2002 to oust the guerrilla groups. For our guide, this marked a turning point, where within 2 years, the neighborhood started to turn itself around – it started to be safe to walk in the streets, and the beginnings of a transformation could be felt. (It was controversial because it also resulted in the disappearance and death of many people’s family members.)

Now, what were provisional shack/like houses have been transformed especially by the street art decorating their walls. As Lina guided us through the streets, she explained the meaning behind each work of graffiti, most of which depict this transformation – the suffering, the death, the injustice, the pain of a few decades ago, as well as the hope, the strength of the people, and the power of love to transform.

As a resident, Lina knew each artist and she explained that the neighborhood gets together to decide what areas will be painted and to assign areas to each of the artists that would like to do a piece.

Another big impact for the revitalization was the installation of outdoors, covered escalators in the neighborhood (sorry, I don’t have a photo). It may seem strange, but since the neighborhood is built on the side of a mountain, these escalators first helped people (especially the elderly) be able to get around better, and now are an added tourist attraction too.

For me, it was unbelievable that this sweet, humble, intelligent person standing before me had lived her young adulthood in the middle of a conflict zone, with neighbors as armed guerrilla members. For her, she said, it was unbelievable that she now not only walks freely in the streets, but that tourists from all over the world come to visit her neighborhood. It is something she never could have even imagined before; it is like a dream, she said.

Our guide, standing below the house she lived in for decades.

Standing in the street corner, waiting for the bus to leave Comuna 13, a restaurant had the music loud (nothing unusual there for Colombia), and I noticed that 2 couples got up and started dancing salsa in the tiny space between tables on the sidewalk. Along with the break dancers and rappers we had passed earlier, I was moved by this casual, appreciation for life, a celebration of self-expression and the simple joy of being able to safely be out in the streets in their communities, something they didn’t enjoy a few decades ago here.

A statue destroyed by a bomb remains to remind Paisas of the history, but stands next to a new and in-tact statue symbolizing a new era for Medellín.

Bolivian Andes (Part II)- Glacier Lake and Spanish Gold Trail, Sorata

After a ridiculously cold and uncomfortable night (the first night camping is always the hardest), I was happy for day break so we could start hiking to go find the glacier lake.

If the first day was pure climbing, the second day was pure rock scramble – my favorite way to hike (and I’m not being sarcastic).

Add the fact that there was snow on the ground, and I was in heaven! Actually, it was more like hail or frozen rain because it was tiny little white ice balls, like I’d never seen before. But whatever it was, it was white and beautiful and made that wonderful crunching sound beneath our feet.

We climbed up and down (mostly up), over about 4 ridges on the side of a mountain, crossing a few landslides, literally climbing on the face of the mountain much of the time, and it was exhilarating. I fell once but I caught myself and didn’t die! Win!

We didn’t talk much because we needed all the air for breathing, as the air was getting thinner and thinner as we gained altitude. We both were chewing coca leaf to keep from getting altitude sickness.

As we crossed over the side of the great peak Illampu, the view suddenly opened up to reveal the beautiful glacier lake.

The grand Illampu rises over the left of the lake, while Ancouma rose over the right side (though Ancouma was hiding in clouds).

At the far end of the lake, the snowy side of a mountain seemed to be constantly feeding the lake with a glacier and avalanches.

The lake created an optical illusion such that it was actually much larger than it seemed; after 20 minutes of hiking I still hadn’t arrived to the far side where the snow and ice was falling into the lake, so I headed back since my guide was a little anxious to get back.

Every few minutes I would hear the distant sound of avalanches, but I could never find them when I looked up into the mountains.

The next day, we headed across the mountain pass to see some ruins, a couple of overlook points, and the Spanish Gold trail. We were walking in the clouds the whole way down, so unfortunately I didn’t get to see some of the amazing views. Despite the fog, I still loved it!

We normally would have hiked about 5-6 hours and camped one more night, with a campfire at a mirador, but with all the fog and my stomach acting up, I convinced Eduardo to to do an 8-hour hike that would bring us all the way back to Sorata in one day. Turns out we would have gotten rained on in the night if we had camped, and I didn’t have the most waterproof tent. Win #2!

The day was long and challenged my glutes again, but I enjoyed it just the same.

We hiked along the Spanish trail or the Gold trail, which is the trail that was used by the Spanish colonial rule to deliver gold from a mine in the mountains down to Sorata, carried by the locals who were used as slaves in the gold mining business. (My first night in Sorata I had stayed in a hostel that seemed like a really old house, and I later learned that it used to be the place where the slaves (indigenous people) delivered the gold to the Spanish.)

Walking along the Gold Trail, glutes screaming, sore shoulders, I thought about how this would be torture if someone was forcing me to do it, (especially for their own profit and not for me). But since I had chosen to do it, and I could go at my own pace and enjoy the scenery, and I was not doing it every day, it was something I actually paid to do. Privilege.

Eduardo continued to tell me the history of Sorata while walking this trail. He explained how the Spanish enslaved the locals not only for mining but they also set up the big haciendas, where the Spanish “patron” treated the locals like slaves to work the land and produce crops as efficiently as possible while the patron then got rich from selling the products, sometimes on the international markets that he had access to. The conversation invoked memories or reading Isabel Allende’s “House of Spirits”.

Eduardo went on to say that there came a time when the young rebelled and received a few more rights so they weren’t so much like slaves, but it wasn’t until later with the big land reform policies that the patrons left and locals could own their own land and reap the benefits from it.

Since then, he said, the community has organized itself so that each person owns their land where they live, and then the land in the hills above the community is common land so that anyone in the community can farm it. They meet once a month to resolve community issues and they rotate the leader of the community every year. Anyone with land in the community is registered on the “roster” and therefore has rights to farm the community land and also has the responsibility to serve their rotation as leader of the community for one year.

As I arrived back to Sorata, I could not believe that we had walked that entire distance. I had left behind the busy world of getting everywhere fast, and I had reunited with the age-old tradition of walking. I was just stunned at how two legs, two feet, could take me across massive hills and high up into the mountains, across distances and through terrain that seemed impossible, or difficult at best, to cross. It was a reminder how much I appreciate my feet and also the power of the human spirit and body.

Bonus Content: What do the kids do in the evenings in Sorata? As I made my way back to my hostel, all along the way, kids were playing with the same top-like toy in the streets, so I stopped at one group of kids and asked an older kid to show me what they were playing. He was super shy at first but I finally got him to show me on camera, and he let me try a few times too.

(Unfortunately I am having technical difficulties uploading videos here, but you can find the video on Facebook).