After Monterrey, Mexico, I flew to Colombia
, arriving in Bogota
at night, and experienced the first of my hair-raising taxi rides in this country. The hotel I stayed at this time, as this was my third visit to Bogota within the past 16 months, was three months young and its wood work - wall panels, room furniture, etc. - was all made by my Chinese manufacture client's Bogota importer, using our engineered Walnut veneer. It was so easily recognisable and made me glad that I had chosen to stay here.
However, my euphoria was dashed the next morning when the hotel reception desk failed to make the requested wake-up call and, as I had another early flight, this put me in a black mood for most of the day, never mind that I was actually up an hour earlier than called for and working on my computer as usual. The check-out, despite being labelled “Express,” was moreover inordinately slow, I found, and the taxi driver - who was in fact a good driver and I complimented him on the fact - delivered me to the international terminal instead of the national terminal so we had to do another round-about in the airport. Nonetheless, I still managed to arrive at the departure gate in plenty of time and was not charged for any overweight luggage this flight.
I wished I had had my camera beside me on the plane but the seats were small and I had a large businessman sitting beside me so I missed my chance, but the arrival by air into Pasto airport, with craggy hills, cliff faces and waterfalls rushing down their sides, must easily be one of the best experiences. And the clarity of the air made everything appear at its best. Next time, I promised myself, next time.
I was not prepared for the fact that the town of Pasto, at 2500 metres altitude, the capital of Nariño department and near the border with Ecuador, is about 45 minutes to an hour away from the airport (35 kilometres) and the taxi driver took full advantage of the winding roads by driving fast and letting his tires squeal lustily around the corners. I held on for dear life, but didn't dare to complain. It was more important to me that he had kicked out a businessman who had crept into the front seat of my taxi with his bag while the driver was putting my suitcases into his car boot and, more importantly, he knew where my hotel was and delivered me safely.
The small hotel itself was perhaps less opulent than those I had been staying in over the previous 25 nights, but it had been recommended by my Pasto business contact, was clean and fairly quiet and the staff was kindness itself. Run by a Frenchman, all the hotel staff were young Colombian men who were eager to fetch coffee (which they called a tinto
which means “red wine” in other Spanish-speaking countries so I was somewhat surprised to be offered this at 11:00am but accepted gladly), to find me an adaptor for my computer plug and to arrange a tour for me the next day.
I then called up my business contact and he arrived quickly as he lived only a few streets away and we arranged to visit his factory later that afternoon. In the evening, after the meeting, he took me for a walk around Pasto city where I had the chance to photograph a few churches, including San Juan Bautista
, the oldest church in the city (photos 1 to 3).
Back at the hotel, after dinner, my business contact very kindly offered advice on the tour I had planned for the next day, so as to visit the main sites mentioned in my Lonely Planet guide book. He had also done his homework and had had a look at my photography website before my visit. He therefore knew that I liked to photograph markets, so he recommended I visit Pasto's morning fruit and vegetable market. Meanwhile, one of the young men from the hotel staff negotiated a tour with a 60-something-year-old driver and my contact made sure I would be driven safely before leaving me for the night.
The tour the next day started off alright, although I never did know my driver's name - probably this was due to the generation gap! - and our first visit was indeed the morning market
, which was very picturesque, not only due to the merchandise on offer but also to the carts and the horses that pulled them, and to the colourful houses on the hill behind the market (photos 4 to 16). To my delight, the market people were very friendly and did not mind me photographing them and even smiled for the camera! It was a bit of a maze in there and I had told the driver that I'd be done in about 20 minutes but I managed to find the place at which I had entered the market originally without too much trouble and then began the two-hour fright-of-a-drive to Las Lajas.
I lost count of how many times during the next two hours I literally contracted my stomach muscles in fear, but this route is not for the faint hearted. It seemed to be the driver's constant need to be in front of all other traffic, so he was forever overtaking and speeding, even through areas where there were actual signs warning him to slow down, due to construction areas, school zones, or dangerous corners. Sitting in the front, I noticed my eye going frequently to check his speed gauge, which was unvaryingly over the limit. The only comfort I could seek was to remind myself that he was older than me and if he had survived these roads thus far in his life, we would probably get through this ordeal safely. However, I did give a thought to the many crosses and flowers on the side of the roads signalling previous accidents and deaths. Need I remind you that this was hilly, ney mountainous, country, winding roads and limited visibility? At least the sky was clear, the sun was shining sometimes and we did not have to contend with rain, storms, fog, mist or other natural elements, so perhaps the gods were smiling on us after all.
Finally, after the promised two hours, we did in fact arrive at the Sanctuary of Las Lajas
and after a stop at a paying toilet, which I dearly needed after all that travel stress, we set off down the hill toward the church. This is a minor, neo-Gothic Basilica, built on a bridge over a gorge. A vision of the ubiquitous Virgin Mary had appeared on a rock about 45 metres above the gorge and the rock is now the main altar inside the basilica. It draws many pilgrims all year round, but as it was a Tuesday there was hardly anyone - maybe a dozen or so during our visit. A church service was going on when we arrived, so I didn't like to photograph inside until it was over. On the path to the church there were plaques all over the rocks giving thanks to the Virgin and attesting to miracles that she had performed (photos 17 to 31).
On the paths leading to the basilica, there are religious beads and trinkets on sale. People are fond of roasted guinea pig here and this is what is on the spit in photo 19. Ipiales
, 7 kilometres away, has a whole section of town devoted to the guinea pig (cuy
) where the houses (which double as restaurants) are colourfully decorated with images of this animal in case there was any doubt as to what was on the menu (photos 32 to 34). Photo 35 depicts a bus filled with people sitting on seats inside (as you would normally) and then because there was no more room inside, there are people lying down on the roof, a few clinging to the sides and back, and even one sitting on his motorcycle. Note that this vehicle had just managed to pass us and another was in the midst of passing us, hence the reason why we were driving on the shoulder. Meanwhile, another jeep-like vehicle was passing the vehicle in front of the bus! I am fairly confident that my driver had no inkling as to why I was taking this photo!
We arrived around 2:00pm back at the town of Pasto and I was starting to feel a little hungry but when asked, decided to press on to our next stop, the Lake of La Concha
about 25 kilometres to the East of Pasto (we had been toward the South to reach Las Lajas). Luckily the roads to the Lake were unpaved. This meant that the driver was forced to slow down, so I was quite relieved, as well you might imagine. On arrival, the Lake was well worth the visit. In fact, if I were ever to return to this area or to advise someone else coming to this area, I'd say skip Las Lajas, and go to the Lake instead. There was a lack of tourists here too, so we were the only customers in an upscale Swiss-style restaurant, where we lunched on fresh lake trout and had plenty of flowers to admire (photos 36 to 39). According to the guide book, this is one of the largest lakes in Colombia and an island within it has been declared a nature reserve. To reach the island, however, it was necessary to rent a boat and driver at a price that was equal to our lunch bill, so I had to give it a pass - next time, though, even if I have to skip lunch!
Instead I opted to walk down the main road on my own with my camera and photograph some of the locals and their Swiss-like chalets. I was later informed by my Pasto business contact that this area was originally inhabited by Swiss immigrants but later they moved on and the area was taken over by displaced Ecuadorians, who, if you ask them, have no idea that their houses could have come right off the Alps! I was also privileged to be able to watch an improvised soccer game with the locals (photos 40 to 46).
The next day, I flew back to Bogota, but this time I remembered to have my camera out on the plane. The flight out was not as spectacular as the one coming in but nevertheless photos 47 to 49 do provide some idea of the mountainous territory. Photo 50 is an aerial view as we flew into Colombia's capital. By the way, as a result of the fright ride, I had noticeable bouts of strain and pain in my heart that night as it fought to re-adjust itself to my usual relaxed state.