San Agustín to Popayán


Banana plants, coffee and coca bushes, and vibrant flowers fight each other for ground on the lush hills of San Agustín. The locals´ houses join in this lively display of colour; many are brightly painted, festooned with hanging plant baskets and surrounded by riotous flowers. It isn´t uncommon to pass a solitary house by the side of the road playing loud, cheerful music, and all travellers great each other with an amiable ´Buenas´. The area seems to be competing for the Colombian equivalent of Britain´s ´Best in Bloom´.




Descending from the town, the road snakes along a mountain ridge between the raging Río Magdalena far below, and the less attention-seeking Río Sombrerillos. "The hills around here are perfect for growing coca and red-tipped marijuana. No planes pass overhead." Many of the campesinos´ farms perch precariously on the hillsides, far from roads and peeking eyes.

Along the way to Popayán, our driver stopped to pick up two elderly ladies; the first bearing two sacks of what looked like potatoes, the second clothed in a black, homemade dress, complete with matching baseball cap, and baskets. The first lady, seated next to me, gestured at the plastic bag on her lap, containing a large piece of bread and a bottle of coke, and then at the change she´d been given. She raised her eyes at the $1000 peso note which she flicked between her thumbs - it had been torn in half - as these dog-eared notes (worth 30p) often were. The arrival of the second lady, for whom there was no space but a stool behind the passenger seat, seemed to catch my neighbour´s attention. After ten minutes the basket-bearer departed, let off without paying by the driver, having spent the journey gazing bright-eyed at the beautiful landscape. "She´s going to sell her cheeses", the lady next to me said. "But her son, he makes good money. He owns a supermarket." How the first lady knew so much about the second, yet hadn´t acknowledged her, surprised me. Soon, she too hailed the driver to let her off - "aca por favor" - at a mysteriously isolated spot by the roadside.

The road climbed higher, and our surroundings became damper, mistier. The ground was mossy, and covered with ferns. The road ran out of concrete, and became a spine-cracking, stony track. We could see no further than three metres either side, and the little shops and houses became fewer and fewer. We entered Purace National Park - home of the endangered tapir - as roadside signs informed us. Two hours of seat-bouncing ensued - at one point a bump threw us out of our seats and Tom down the aisle. (Seat belts are not a common feature in South American cars.)

A stop for breakfast as we emerged onto the paramo - a vast expanse of marshy land spotted with plants which looked like shrunken, bleached palm trees - enabled us to realign our skeletons. The occasional cow idled past. Moving on, beautiful undulating green hills, watched over by distant volcanoes, presented a surreal pastoral vision. Descending once again, we wound back and forth above the river, passing numerous waterfalls and roadworks - ever-present in Colombia. A government sign proudly proclaimed when the Palitera-Coconuco road-paving programme would be completed - however, the box indicating the number of days left was (perhaps an honest estimate) left blank.


Two small children flagged down the car in Coconuco, both munching on small, salty, doughnut-shaped biscuits. They were dropped off less than five minutes later, at a small shop tended by a couple - presumably the children´s parents - who they happily rejoined.

Speeding around bends book-ended by warning signs, we re-entered warmer climes - heralded by more banana plants - and saw Popayán in the distance.

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