The Most Interesting Border (So Far) – Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia and Topiary Cemetery in Ecuador

We’ve crossed nearly 60 borders in the Americas so far on our little road trip and they’re usually dead boring. But not this one. When you cross between Ipiales, Colombia and Tulcán, Ecuador you can visit two totally travel worthy sites, the Disney-esque Las Lajas Sanctuary on the Colombia side and a massive topiary filled cemetery on the Ecuador side, in a single day.

Las Lajas Sanctuary Ipiales, Colombia

Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia near the border with Ecuador.

Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia

Less than 10 miles (16 km) from the border with Ecuador you will find the most elaborate and unexpected church in Colombia. The Gothic revival style Las Lajas Sanctuary dominates a narrow gorge and was built between 1916 and 1949. The massive stone church rises 330 feet from the bottom of the canyon where the Guáitara River rages. The elaborate Roman Catholic church is accessed via a 160-foot-long stone foot bridge. 

The Las Lajas Sanctuary may look a bit Disney-esque, but it’s a serious pilgrimage site.

But the Las Lajas Sanctuary isn’t just famous for its location and architecture (which looks like something straight out of Europe, or Disneyland). In 1754, an indigenous woman named Maria Mueces and her deaf-mute daughter, Rosa, were walking through the gorge when Rosa wandered into a cave and suddenly spoke.

What the previously deaf and mute woman said was that she’d seen a woman carrying a baby. This was eventually interpreted as a sighting of the Virgin Mary and the deaf-mute woman’s sudden ability to speak was considered a miracle. Now thousands of pilgrims visit Las Lajas each year.

Tourist lama photo Las Lajas Sanctuary - Ipiales, Colombia

We’re not sure what photo opps with dressed up llamas have to do with purported miracles, but it’s a thing at Las Lajas Sanctuary.

When we were there a cable car was in the final stages of construction. If you visit now you can ride the teleferico instead of walking up and down to the sanctuary. You will also find the cheapest bed in Colombia at the sanctuary where you can sleep in a spartan nun’s room at a nearby cloister for less than US$10 for two people

Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

The topiary-filled Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán, Ecuador near the border with Colombia.

Municipal Cemetery in Ecuador

About five miles (8 km) from the border on the outskirts of the town of Tulcán you’ll find the Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán.

Topiary Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

Flora and fauna and Aztec and Egyptian imagery inspired the elaborate topiary in the Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán.

In the 1930s, local gardener Josè Maria Azael Franco began sculpting the cypress bushes that grow in the cemetery where he worked. Inspired by Ecuadorian flora, fauna and indigenous cultures, including animals from the Galapagos Islands plus themes from Roman, Incan, Aztec, and Egyptian culture, Mr. Franco shaped the plants, which can live for 500 years and grow more than 100 feet (33 meters) tall.

Gardening Topiary Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

A gardener keeps things tidy in the Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán.

Over the years every cypress was transformed until the cemetery was, in Mr. Franco’s own words, “so beautiful it invites one to die.” The Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán now has more than 100 enormous, intricate creations covering the three-acre site, which some of Mr. Franco’s sons now maintain following the creator’s death.

Topiary gardens Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

We loved the topiary crucifix in the Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán.

These cross-border sites were so interesting that we did a story about them for Atlas Obscura, where you’ll find even more details about what could be the most interesting border in the Americas.

Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

You can walk through this topiary tunnel in the Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán.

 

Here’s more about travel in Colombia

Here’s more about travel in Ecuador

 

Support us on Patreon


Leave a comment


Go Green – Laguna Verde & Volcán Azufral, Colombia

It is not easy to get to Laguna Verde, the very green lake inside the very active Azufral Volcano, but it’s worth the effort required on the road and on the trail to enjoy this place as a day trip from Pasto or Ipiales, Colombia.

Laguna Verde Colombia

Laguna Verde inside the active Azufral Volcano in Colombia.

Getting to Laguna Verde and Volcán Azufral

From Pasto it took us about 1.5 hours to reach the square in the town of Túquerres where we asked for directions to the volcano and were told to continue on a paved road out of town. That turned into a dirt road for a few miles before we reached a small shop and living quarters for the caretakers of the Azufral Natural Reserve. There’s a large parking lot there along with clean bathrooms (500 COP or about US$0.15). When we were there we were not charged an entry fee, but some travelers are now reporting a 2,000 COP (about US$0.70) entry fee.

Click here to see a full size image of this panoramic shot of Laguna Verde.

If you don’t have your own vehicle, check out this Laguna Verde post from Emily and Andrew of Along Dusty Roads. It has detailed information about getting to Laguna Verde from Pasto using public transportation and taxis.

Hiking trail to Laguna Verde Colombia

Karen braving high winds on the hike to Laguna Verde.

The hike to Laguna Verde and Volcán Azufral

From the parking lot it’s a 3 mile (5 km) hike (each way) along a narrow, disused dirt road to reach the rim of the volcano where you get views inside the crater–unless things are clouded in which happens a lot.

Laguna Verde, living up to its name.

Inside the crater you’ll actually see two lakes, a green one and a greener one. It’s intense color comes from high levels of sulphur emitted by the active volcano which has many vents and lets out many gasses.

Laguna Verde and Volcán Azufral volcanic vents Colombia

Volcanic vents made white by gasses expelled by the very active Azufral Volcano.

Getting to Laguna Verde itself requires another half mile walk down from the rim along a steep trail that is a slippery, muddy nightmare when wet.

Be prepared for the cold, the wind. At times gusts were so strong we had to plant our feet, turn our backs to the wind, and brace for impact, which explains why this section of trail is called the Wind Trail. Overall weather conditions can change quickly so layer up. And be prepared for strong sun (wear your highest SPF even on cloudy days) and the altitude. The parking lot is at 11,950 feet (3,642 meters) and the volcano rim is up above 13,000 feet (4,000 meters). 

Here’s more about travel in Colombia

 

Support us on Patreon


Leave a comment


Epic Drives: The Trampoline of Death Road, Mocoa to Lago de la Cocha, Colombia

The Trampoline of Death road in Colombia is said to have taken hundreds of lives due to the dirt road’s dangerously narrow, winding, eroded, and often foggy conditions. Of course, we had to this epic drive (and film it).

Driving the Trampoline of Death Colombia

On Colombia’s Trampoline of Death road.

Driving the Trampoline of Death road

The Trampoline of Death is also known as the Devil’s Trampoline (which sounds even grimmer in Spanish: Trampolín de Diablo), the Most Dangerous Road in Colombia, and Adios Mi Vida (Goodbye My Life). It was built in the 1930s to transport troops through mountain terrain in Southern Colombia and it remains a narrow dirt road (single lane in some places) with blind corners and hairpin turns often rendered even more perilous by descending fog and periodic washouts.

Trampolin de la muerte Colombia

The Trampoline of Death cutting a swatch through the jungly terrain near Mocoa.

The most notorious road in Colombia is just 45 miles (70 km) long and rises (or descends, depending on which way you’re traveling) between 1,968 feet (600 meters) in Mocoa, at the edge of Colombia’s steamy Amazon, to 9,120 feet (2,780 meters).

Then the road drops 2,000 feet (600 meters) into an inhabited valley where it becomes paved and is no longer The Trampoline of Death but just another mediocre Colombian road. Beyond the valley, the road climbs again to the route’s high point of nearly 10,700 feet (3,261 meters) before dropping down to Laguna de la Cocha at 9,200 feet (2,800 meters) and finally to the city of Pasto at 8,300 feet (2,529 meters).

We embarked on our Trampoline of Death drive from Mocoa at 9:30 am on a drizzly Saturday morning with the usual excitement from Eric and gnawing apprehension and crossed fingers from Karen. Water bottles were filled. Engine fluids and tire pressure were checked. We even charged up our walkie-talkies thinking Karen might have to scout ahead and direct Eric over particularly perilous patches.

Trampoline of death Colombia

It look innocent enough from a distance…

We were prepared for steep grades, blind corners, and narrow stretches where two vehicles can’t possibly pass. Pot holes? No problem. Rock slides? Been there. Precipitous drops? Our middle name.

You call this a death road?

What we weren’t prepared for was a recently graded surface, helpful safety signs alerting drivers to particularly narrow spots, and what appeared to be newly installed guard rails along many of the sketchy sections. Guard rails? What kind of a death road has guard rails? There were even a few pleasant turnouts…

Trampoline of Death dangerous road Colombia

“Danger Narrow Road”

Still, we drove slowly and carefully. During our four-hour drive on The Trampoline of Death we saw about 40 other vehicles including motorcycles, private cars, taxis, minivans, and medium-sized cargo trucks (no 18 wheelers). Some areas were washed out by the many waterfalls which tumble onto the road and yellow tape, helpfully printed with peligro no pase (danger don’t pass), was up in areas where road erosion was particularly bad. There were also numerous roadside shrines marking spots where loved ones lost their lives.

Trampoline of Death shrines

Just a few of the roadside memorials to those who lost their lives on Colombia’s Trampoline of Death road.

There were many blind corners and long one lane stretches hugging the cliffs. More than once the road was so narrow that we sat for a few minutes and waited for an oncoming truck to chug past us before continuing. This concept of “discretion is the better part of valor” is very anti-Latin. Most drivers just continue moving until they’re face to face with a truck or bus at which point a game of chicken ensues until one driver backs up to a wider spot in the road so the vehicles can pass each other.

After four hours we reached the end of The Trampoline of Death without incident. No trampolines, no death, and we never even used our walkie-talkies.

Check out our dash cam video of our Trampoline of Death drive, below to see this infamous road (and some close calls) for yourself.

Even the guys at Top Gear took their chances on Colombia’s Trampoline of Death road.

From the death road to a hotel inspired by The Shining

Six hours after leaving Mocoa we arrived at Lago de la Cocha. About an hour from the city of Pasto, this is a glacier fed reservoir which is the second largest body of water in Colombia behind Lake Tota.

Lago de la Cocha Colombia

Lago de Cocha, the second largest body of water in Colombia.

We splurged on a room at the Hotel Sindamanoy. On the outside its got a Swiss-ish chalet look and feel with a bit of old-school US National Park Lodge style tossed in, all shaken up with a dash of inspiration from The Shining. Inside it’s like a time machine back to the 1970s:  Carpeting, rotary phones, gingham curtains, creepy red towels. We half expected a Thousand Fingers massaging bed with a slot for quarters. No luck.

Hotel Sindamanoy Lago de la Cocha Colombia

Swiss-ish Hotel Sindamanoy on Lago de la Cocha.

However, the hotel is right on the lake and has great views. Unfortunately, the weather was too wet and cold to make the boat transfer to La Corota Island in the lake which is the smallest national park in Colombia. But we did venture out to a nearby restaurant for a trout dinner, a local specialty.

 

Here’s more about travel in Colombia

 

Support us on Patreon


Leave a comment


Where We’ve Been: August 2017 Road Trip Driving Route in Bolivia

We started the month of August 2017 in the town of Uyuni on the edge of the world’s largest salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni. After driving around this giant white expanse we drove a spectacular, high altitude route in the southwest corner of Bolivia. We then drove around Bolivia’s wine region and the to two of its most historic cities, Potosí and Sucre where we ended the month. In total, our road trip traveled 1,513 miles (2,435 km) in August and you can see the same spectacular scenery that we saw through the windshield of our truck in the drive-lapse video at the end of this post.

Salar de Uyuni Bolivia Red Baron

Where we’ve been: August 2017 road trip in Bolivia

We began the month with a short drive from the town of Uyuni to explore the former mining town of Pulacayo which is now a ghost town.Then it was time for a unique on the road less expanse of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat (see 1:07 to 3:55 in the video below). At 4,086 square miles (10,582 sq km), it’s an endless sea of white. To put this into perspective, the Salar de Uyuni is a little smaller than the state of Connecticut, a bit bigger than Lebanon, and a bit smaller than Jamaica. The empty vastness messes with your sense of perspective and lets you play with reality.

Uyuni Salt Flats trans-Americas Journey Karen Catchpole

Next up was a spectacular loop known as Bolivia’s Southwest circuit, named, no surprise, because it loops around the remote Southwest corner of the country up to the Chile border. This epic high altitude drive starts at over 12,000 feet (3,700 meters) and goes to over 16,000 feet (5,000 meters), taking in numerous lakes in a variety of colors from green to red to white, some filled with thousands of flamingos.

In addition to the multi-colored lakes, this route includes the highest geyser basin in the world, 19,000 foot (5,800 meter) snow-covered volcanoes, hot springs, and a desert area of rock formations known as the Dali Desert.

The downside of all this awesomeness was the road, or lack thereof. At times the severely washboarded track made it feel like we were navigating our truck over one foot seas. Over two days we drove 316 miles on this route. At one point, at the very southern end of the loop at Laguna Verde, we came to within eight miles of where we were in March on the other side of the border in northern Chile.

You can see most of the drive (sorry we had some tech problems so a few bits are missing) from 6:00 – 17:00 in the video below. Highlights include flamingos at Laguna Hedionda (7:58), Sol de Manana geysers (10:33), and Laguna Verde and Licancabur Volcano (12:24).

Flamingo Laguna Hedionda Bolivia

After this adventure, we continued on more horrible roads, down to the town of Tupiza which is near to where Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid are said to have met their end. Then we were off to Tarija, the heart of Bolivia’s wine-producing region. The only thing south of here is Argentina so we headed north to the historic heartland of Bolivia.

First was Potosí, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, founded in 1545 as a mining town. A reasonable percentage of Spain’s wealth in the 17th and 18th centuries came from the silver-rich mountain that looms over the city. From Potosí we continued to Sucre, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the country of Bolivia was founded.

Our complete road trip driving route map for August 2017 is below.

And don’t miss the chance to see what we saw out there on the road in Bolivia in August of 2017 in our drive-lapse video, below. It was, as always, shot by our Brinno camera which is attached to our dashboard.

Here’s more about travel in Bolivia

Support us on Patreon


6 Comments - Join the conversation »


Page 1 of 16612345255075Last»