Cocaine, Churches and Crossing Borders, Colombia

Tombstones in southern Colombia

3500 year old tombstone in San Agustìn’s UNESCO listed archaeological park

San Agustin

Rolling hills, deep canyons, waterfalls and 3500 year old archaeology make San Agustìn in southern Colombia a must visit town on any backpacker’s list. The UNESCO listed archaeological park is impressive with more than 500 large tombstones dotting the landscape.

Gold was once plentiful, some of which is stored in the museum, but most gold was taken by looters after the site was discovered in the 1800s.

Here, I took a horse riding tour to visit the ancient archaeological sites which included a stunning canyon and waterfall viewpoint.

But it is another tourist attraction that has many travellers visiting, a tour that takes you inside the country’s cocaine industry. For the past two years, visitors have been able to request “the special” tour and, for US$50, can tour a cocaine farm, make cocaine and take a sample home. Those that I met said the tour was very underwhelming and they simply watched cocaine being cooked on a family stove – a tour that no doubt can be achieve by finding your local drug dealer in your home country. There were certainly some travellers that had come to San Agustìn just for this tour, but ethical traveller may wish to avoid contributing to an industry that continues to hold this beautiful country back.

From San Agustìn, I took Colombia’s most dangerous road – an absolutely stunning mountain track that is overhung by dense, wet jungle and prone to landslides – to Pasto, near the border. Read the blog post here.

Laguna de la Cocha

Pasto

Stopping in the unremarkable Pasto for the night, I visited the nearby lakeside village on Laguna de la Cocha where wooden houses and boats line the lagoon amongst the reeds and are painted in bright colours. I did, however, have a long day of travel ahead of me and couldn’t find a collectivo taxi heading back to Pasto so I had to jump on a mototaxi.

At the border town of Ipiales is the beautiful neo-Gothic church of El Santuario de las Lajas that spans a deep gorge with waterfalls nearby. This stunning church can easily be visited by taking a colectivo cab from the bus terminal, before crossing the border.

El Santuario de las Lajas, constructed across a canyon

The border crossing went very smoothly. Probably the best yet and I soon found myself standing on the side of the Pan Americana at Otavalo (the buses don’t go to the terminal) in Ecuador, at night needing to trust the only cab around to take me to my hostel.

Accommodation: Casa de Nelly, a few kilometres out of San Agustin, is the perfect place to relax and super friendly Henry will sort your (legal) tours. It is a short walk to the main archaeological site.

In Pasto, Koala Inn provides basic and slightly over priced accommodation but it is the only hostel in town and a good place to stop ahead of the border crossing.

Transport: Buses run from Bogota to Pitalito (10 hours), 40 minutes from San Agustin where your can transfer to a bus to the town.

Border crossing, Colombia to Ecuador: Buses run between Pasto and Ipiales and colectivos go to border. On the otherside, collectivo taxis run between the border to nearby Tulcàn bus terminal where you can catch direct buses to Otavalo or Quito. There are no border charges (unless you are Canadian entering Colombia).

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