Colombia · Ipiales · Popayán

TRAVELING TO THE DEEP SOUTH (OF COLOMBIA)

DEPARTING FROM POPAYÁN

Our stay in Popayán, Colombia with Luisa Fernanda and Polly was wonderful but it was time for us to move on once again. One of the most difficult things about the traveling that we are doing is to have to leave amazing places when you just start feeling comfortable there. We really enjoyed the city of Popayán and the wonderful hospitality we were shown there but there was more for us to explore elsewhere, so once again we found ourselves at the bus station looking for a ticket to a new city.

This time our destination was Ipiales, Colombia, in the deep south of the country and just a few short kilometers from border with Ecuador. Bus terminals in South America are usually quite chaotic and the one in Popayán also fit that description. Perhaps that was why we acted so hastily and went with the first company that we found offering rides to Ipiales. In hindsight, that was a very poor decision. You should always shop around at the terminal and examine all of your choices before deciding on which company to use for your transportation needs.

Acting hastily, we ended up riding to Ipiales with a company called Supertaxis, a decision we would later regret. We ended up paying quite a bit more than we had previously paid for other rides through Colombia, a hefty 40,000 COP (roughly $13 USD) for the seven hour journey. Aside from overpaying for the ride, we were extremely rushed by the company. They told us that our ride was leaving in five minutes and that we needed to get out to the departure zone quickly. Once we were outside we immediatley found the vanbus that was going to take us to Ipiales. Much to our disgust, the vanbus was already completely filled with the exception of two very cramped seats in the very back corner of the bus. Apparently they needed to fill those two remaining seats before the bus could depart, which was why they had pressured us so strongly at the ticket counter. We decided at that point to never again rush to buy a bus ticket.

The ride was absolutely terrible, at least the first five hours were anyway. Our seats were so cramped that we had to have our knees scrunched up against the seats in front of us and keep our backpacks on our laps. The temperature inside the vanbus was extremely warm for us and, to make matters worse, we did not have a window that opened. Also, since most Colombians seem to never get hot or sweat, nobody on the bus had their windows open either. We spent the first five hours of our ride not only trying not to cramp up, but also trying not to pass out from the intense heat that was making our breathing difficult. As if that were not bad enough, the side door of the vanbus had a broken latch and it kept sliding opening by itself. Each time the door opened it would let in a quick breath of air. While it may seem that the door swinging open would give us a little bit of relief from the sweltering warmth, each gust of air that came in was accompanied by a considerable amount of dust, making us cough and choke heavily.

Lucky for us, after five hours of being in the hot, dusty, cramped bus, we arrived in Pasto, Colombia where we dropped off a few passengers before heading back out on the road to Ipiales. As soon as some of the seats were vacated, and before anyone else could get on the bus, we quickly switched our miserable seats for ones that were considerably more comfortable, with more legroom and access to working windows. Needless to say the last two hours of our ride to Ipiales were significantly more comfortable that the first five, although the side door sliding open by itself every few minutes was still quite unnerving (especially for Sally who ended up sitting right behind the sliding side door).

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Not far from Ipiales (Rumichaca is the bordertown between Colombia and Ecuador and Tulcán is the first Ecuadorian city that you come to after crossing through the border at Rumichaca)
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Inside view of the crammed (and cramped) Supertaxis van that brought us from Popayán to Ipiales

ARRIVING IN IPIALES, COLOMBIA

It goes without saying that we were incredibly happy to get off of the bus when we finally arrived in Ipiales. After messaging our Airbnb host William through WhatsApp to tell him that we had arrived at the bus terminal, we took a breath of somewhat fresh air, collected out thoughts and got in line for a taxi. William responded to the message asking us to let him know when we were in the taxi. On our way to the Airbnb in the Totoral neighborhood of Ipiales, William called us and asked to speak to the driver so he could give him detailed instructions on how to arrive at the apartment.

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Arriving at the bus terminal in Ipiales we were greeted by a rather unflattering portrait ofGabriel García Márquez

A few minutes later we arrived at the Airbnb, located just past the Colegio Gabriel García Marquéz. We unloaded our bags from the taxi, paid the driver and approached the front gate of the apartment. When we got there however, the gate was locked and it started to rain. We messaged William again explaining that we were waiting outside. He let us know that his friend Judith was going to let us in and that she should have already been there. A minute later we received another message from William confirming that Judith was indeed on her way. A couple minutes later a man and a woman came walking down the street walking a rather large dog without a leash. When they got very close the dog began barking and jumping up on Sally. At seeing this, the man restrained the dog and then the woman introduced herself to us as Judith. She unlocked the gate and let us into the apartment. We could relax at last.

Here are a few photos of the colorful walls surrounding the Colegio Gabriel García Marquéz just down the block from our Airbnb in Ipiales:

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Gabriel García Marquéz and a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on the Façade of the Colegio Gabriel García Marquéz
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Gabriel García Marquéz and his famous yellow butterflies

William’s apartment was very clean and although it was a little bit chilly in Ipiales we felt very comfortable in our new temporary residence. We were quite happy to once again be settling down for a few days. We unpacked a little and decided that we should head out for some food before it got too late.

Ipiales is a rather small town and afforded us limited dining options. Searching online we found out that there was an Éxito supermarket about 12 blocks away so we decided to go there first to get some food just in case we were unable to find a restaurant to our liking. At the Éxito we picked up some fruit, juice and some snacks that would serve us well in the upcoming days. On the way back we stopped at a restaurant that served large battered and fried chuletas (pork chops) and we decided to dine there. The food was delicious and rather cheap, leaving us more than satisfied. By the time we had finished our meal nighttime had arrived and we strolled back to our new home in the darkness with our groceries.

OUR DIRTY LAUNDRY

The next day, we had an unexpected adventure. We had been several days without access to a laundry facility and we desperately needed to wash some of our clothes. We sent William a message to ask him if he knew of a lavandería (laundromat) close to the apartment. He said that he knew of one a few kilometers away and he also let us know that his aunt, who lived quite a bit closer, might be able to help us out with washing our clothes. After a few more messages he informed us that we could bring our clothes to his aunt’s house and wash them there. We gladly accepted the offer.

Much to our delight, William’s aunt (Irma Ines) lived in a very large, gorgeous house that William’s grandfather had custom-built. His aunt gave us a tour of the house, which included a nice classroom for William’s English teaching and was topped with a large terrace that offered incredible views of Ipiales. The house was absolutely amazing, featuring many stylish rooms and was thoughtfully decorated with a great variety of beautiful art. Not only were we able to do our laundry there, but also we were able to meet some wonderful people, William’s aunt, grandmother, and grandmother’s brother, all of whom were very interested in chatting with us. They even shared a hot panela (a hot molasses drink) with a piece of fresh cheese to be submerged inside as well as some fresh uchuvas (gooseberries) right off of the plant (side note: in each country we visited, up to the time of writing this, we have learned different names for what is known in United States as a gooseberry). We were extremely thankful for our wonderful experience with William’s family, even though to this day we still have not met William in person. It turned out to be really great luck that we needed to wash our clothes while we were visiting Ipiales.

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View of Ipiales from the house of William’s aunt, Irma Inés
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Another view of Ipiales from the house of William’s aunt, Irma Inés
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Uchuva (gooseberry) plant
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Opening up the covering of an uchuva (gooseberry) to reveal the deliciously tangy fruit

STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND

The next day we decided to give ourselves a walking tour of Ipiales to explore the city more in-depth. We decided to visit some of the city’s main plazas and some of its beautiful churches. When we arrived at Parque La Pola, dedicated to independence heroine Policarpa Salvarrieta, we were greeted by the curious and gazing stares of many of the local people. Apparently tourism in the city is quite rare and we inadvertently became a tourist attraction for the local people in their very own town square. We felt quite a bit uncomfortable, although not necessarily threatened, by being the only non-locals in the plaza and having hundreds of pairs of eyes cast upon us almost simultaneously. We decided to very quickly snap a few photos of the plaza and the church, Iglesia San Felipe, before moving on towards the main plaza.

After walking down a large hill and seeing some amazing street art we arrived at the principal plaza of Ipiales, Parque de la Independencia, also known as Parque 20 de Julio (20th of July park). The cathedral at this plaza, Catedral Bodas de Plata, was quite spectacular; for us it was truly a feast for the eyes. We took several pictures within its walls before continuing our trek to explore more of the city. We were delighted to find many interesting streets, shops, buildings and murals, some of which were relatively recent while others were in various stages of decay. We even stopped a bought delicious bread from one delightful street vendor. At this point we were exhausted, the town was filled with hills that we had climbed up and down and we were ready to return home. We climbed the hill once more to the main street of Ipiales and wandered home for dinner.

EL SANTUARIO DE LAS LAJAS

On our final full day in Ipiales we wanted to visit the legendary Santuario de Las Lajas. While we were staying in William’s home, he was having a new laundry room installed (a little late for us but it was beautiful when completed) and there were two incredibly friendly men doing the work. When we were ready to visit the catedral, we asked the men for advice. They told us to catch a colectivo from the Las Lajas colectivo station and they gave us very detailed directions. We were to walk three blocks passed the Catedral Bodas de Plata on Carrera 6 heading east until we reached the corner of Carrera 6 and Calle 4. There we would find several colectivos going directly to Las Lajas. We were to pay no more than 2500 COPs per person (as of February 2018) and we had to wait until the vehicle was filled with four passengers. Luckily for us, we were the last to arrive so we just hopped in and took off for Las Lajas.

The ride was short and pleasant as Las Lajas in only 9km from Ipiales. When we arrived, it began to rain yet again as it so often does during the rainy season in Colombia. It was cold and we had not yet had breakfast so we decided to seek shelter at one of the local cafes. Be forewarned, the prices of food and drink are very high near the catedral and we paid 20,000 COPs(around $7 USD) for two coffees and a four buñuelos. When we had finished, the rain had slowed to a drizzle so we began the decent down the street lined with many vendors and restaurants to the cathedral we had been very much anticipating. Along the way there were several overlooks and funny signs that we enjoyed.

Finally, we reached the top of Las Lajas. Here there were plaques that explained the legend of Las Lajas. According to the legend, several hundred years ago, a woman and her deaf mute child as they were passing the river and when a storm suddenly arose. In need of shelter, they were drawn by some mystical force to a small cave where the Virgin appeared. The young girl, Rosa, pointed at the image and shouted out. According to the legend this image of the Virgin was a cure for Rosa’s condition. Soon afterwards, word of the miracle spread throughout the surrounding areas and since then has become the source of the local legend. Because of this supposed miracle, a shrine was built on this site a few years later. The site of this shrine still exists today near the top of the cathedral.

As the cathedral is located in a deep valley, one arrived at the top and has to slowly work their way down several sets of stairs to the bottom, glimpsing more and more of the cathedral reminiscent of a castle out of one of the Grimms Brothers’ fairytales, with high twisting spires, arched bridges, and ornate carvings. We began our decent toward the entrance to the cathedral. First, we came upon the entrance to the museum, which had an entrance fee of 1500 COPs, and a smaller chapel. After touring the chapel we continued on to the main cathedral. The interior was incredible, ornately detailed, warm and inviting, and packed to the brim with visitors and worshipers alike. We were able to take a few pictures before making a hasty exit to continue exploring the surrounding grounds.

We crossed the incredible bridge lined with marvelous statues to the opposite side of the valley. Here there were several expensive restaurants serving local dishes and vendors selling various trinkets. Descending through this maze of expensive delights, we discovered a wonderful little park and picnic area. Several local people were sitting at the tables, enjoying lunches they had brought with their families. This area also had a small path that afforded us a wonderful view of the basilica, its giant bridge, and magnificent arches from afar. We decided that we would continue down to the river as there were workings of a hydro-electric system under the basilica’s bridge.

By this time, we had spent many hours exploring the vast area that the basilica encompassed, its parks, its restaurants, its rooms and places of prayer. We were exhausted and we still needed to climb the hill leading out of the valley before we could return home. By the time we reached to lot where we were to catch the colectivo back to our home, it was late in the afternoon and we were starving. As we said before, the colectivos must have at least four passengers in order to make the trip to Las Lajas or the return trip to Ipiales. We were the only passengers waiting and our driver told us it would be only a few minutes that we would need to wait. The drivers would sit at the top of the hill and yell to everyone that reached the top “Ipiales, Ipiales!!!” No one was taking the bait. After about 15 minutes of waiting, we were starting to become impatient and very hungry so we decided to join in. We stood with the drivers and yelled “Ipiales, Ipiales!!!” at the top of our lungs and soon enough a young couple with their adorable daughter took the ride. We drove the short distance back to town, dropped the couple off near the bus terminal, and our driver asked where we wanted to be taken. We directed him to the Parque 20 de Julio and walked back to our Airbnb. We grabbed a quick dinner and turned in as we were getting up early to cross the border into Ecuador early in the morning.

HEADING FOR THE BORDER

We arose early and having arranged with William the night before, we waited for his friend and taxi driver, Sr. Jorge, to pick us up, and take us to the border town of Rumichaca. William’s mother (Isabel) and father even made a special trip to say goodbye and wish us a safe journey. This being our first time crossing a land border, we were nervous, excited, and completely unprepared for what lay in store for us. It was nothing like we had expected but that is another story…

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