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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). 

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

This post is part 2 of 2 in the series Epic Drives

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.

 

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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.

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Stone Statues with a Secret – San Agustín, Colombia

The San Agustín Archaeological Park in the town of San Agustín, Colombia is home to a collection of stone statues with a secret that makes this archaeological site even more compelling than most.

Tombs San Agustin Archaeological Park Colombia

These carved statues are guarding a tomb at the San Agustín Archaeological Park in Colombia. But why?

The stone statues of San Agustín

In 1995 the San Agustín Archaeological Park (25,000 COP, about US$8.50, for a ticket that’s good for two days and includes other sites we talk about later in this post) was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s home to what’s been called the biggest collection of pre-Columbian religious monuments and sculptures in South America. It’s also considered the largest necropolis in the world.

Visit San Agustin Archaeological Park Colombia

The peaceful setting of the San Agustín Archaeological Park in Colombia makes it feel more like an art-filled sculpture park than an archaeological site.

San Agustin Archaeological Park Colombia megalithic sculptures

A stele-like megalithic sculpture at the San Agustín Archaeological Park.

All of that is a fancy way of saying this place is full of really old graves, thought to have been created between the 1st and the 8th century AD, which are marked with carved stone statues, some of which are enormous and weigh many tons. And no one knows all of their secrets. Exactly why and how were the graves created? Who’s buried there? And what are the stone figures all about?

San Agustin Archaeological Park tomb

Stone statues guarding another mysterious tomb.

San Agustin megalithic sculptures

Images carved into stone varied greatly and included animals, faces like this, and fantastical creatures.

That’s a lot of hype to live up to, but we were immediately impressed. The site, located about 2.5 miles (4 km) from the town of San Agustín covers about 290 acres (116 hectares) in total, but the area that’s been set up to visit covers just a few acres where you can see 130 stone statues (out of the 500 or so in the area in total).

San Agustin megalithic sculptures UNESCO World Heritage Site

Two megalithic stone carvings.

Mesita A, B, C, and D, which are funeral complexes, clearings with groupings of sculptures, and tombs in situ, have the majority of large sculptures and tombs. Don’t miss the ceremonial Fuente de Lavapatas which features figures carved into rocks in a flowing stream bed. Visiting Alto de Lavapatas, home to a group of stele-like carved stones, requires a climb to a plateau.

The Bosque de Estatuas trail winds among 39 carved stone figures and is sloping, and mostly shaded.  

San Agustin Colombia megalithic sculptures

Most of the carvings depict humans or fantastical animals but this bird was pretty true to life right down to the worm (or snake?) in its beak.

It’s a peaceful setting for the amazingly distinct and intact stone statues. We were amazed at how much the carving styles differed from stone to stone and many areas were more like outdoor sculpture gardens or very mysterious cemeteries rather than archaeological sites.

San Agustin Colombia sculpture park

You will see a wide range of styles in the carvings at the San Agustín Archaeological Park.

By the time you get to San Agustín, there may be even more stone figures to admire. In July of 2017 the Colombian government asked for the return of 35 statues from San Agustín which are currently in a museum in Germany.

Also, when we were at the site the museum was closed and a new facility was being finished. Even without the museum, we spent 2.5 hours at this site. Be sure you’ve set aside enough time for a thorough visit. Taxis and minibuses go from town to the site, which gets busy on weekends though there were only about 20 other people at the site when we visited on a Tuesday.

San Agustin Archaeological Park sculptures

It’s hard to believe these two very different versions of humans were found at the same archaeological site.

More archaeology around San Agustín

Your ticket to the San Agustín Archaeological Park also covers a few smaller sites nearby, so bring your ticket with you as you explore the area.

El Tablon archaeology site near San Augustin Colombia

Stone statues at the El Tablon site.

Just outside of San Agustín you will find two smaller sites called El Tablon and La Chaquira.

La Chiquira archaeology site near San Augustin Colombia

This rock face carving at the La Chiquira site overlooks the gorge carved by the Magdelena River.

About 3 miles (4 km) southwest of the town of Isnos is the Alto de los Ídolos site. It is the second most important site after San Agustín and contains 23 anthropomorphic and zoomorphic monoliths including the tallest statue in the area at 22 feet (7 meters). However, only 13 feet (4 meters) is visible since the rest of this statue is buried underground.

Alto de los Idolos San Agustin Archaeology Park

This carved stone image guards the tomb in the photo below.

Alto de los Idolos sarcaphogus

A sarcaphogus at the Alto de los Idolos site.

Alto de las Piedras, 4.5 miles (7 km) north of Isnos on a rough road, is a smaller site but contains one of the most famous sculptures in the area, the Doble Yo.

Doble Yo Alto de las Piedras - San Agustin, Colombia

The famous Doble Yo at the Alto de las Piedras site.

Alto de las Piedras San Augustin Colombia

Alto de las Piedras

Continuing another rough 6 miles (10 km) past Alto de las Piedras you reach a viewpoint for the dramatic Salto de Bordones, a 984 foot (300 meter) high waterfall. Sadly, only the top half of the falls are visible from the viewpoint. A more accessible if somewhat smaller waterfall, Salto de Mortiño, is just off the highway on the way into San Agustín. When we visited this waterfall there were hundreds of parrots flying around. 

Salto de Bordones and Salto de Mortiño - San Agustin Colombia

Salto de Bordones (left) and Salto de Mortiño (right).

While we were in the area we also drove about 6 miles (10 km) from San Agustín town to Estrecho del Magdalena to see the mighty Magdalena River power through a very narrow stone chute (estrecho means narrow in Spanish).

 Estrecho del Magdalena near San Agustin Colombia

The Magdalena River as it squeezes through a narrow rock chute at Estrecho del Magdalena.

Hotels in San Agustín

While we loved the archaeological site and all the stone figures, it must be said that the town of San Agustín was substantially less charming than we’d hoped. We spent quite a few hours popping into one dumpy hotel after another before we found these recommendable hotels in San Agustín.

Yes, you can find someplace to sleep for as little as 15,000 COP (about US$5) per person in San Agustín town. If you’re after a bit more comfort, cleanliness, and working Wi-Fi (as we were), then we suggest you head to the El Fogon restaurant in town and ask about the rooms they have upstairs which are clean, have lots of light, and working Wi-Fi. The downstairs restaurant offers decent food at decent prices too.

Awanka Lodge San Agustin Colombia

The atmospheric and art-filled Akawanka Lodge just outside San Agustín town.

People rave about Finca Ecologico El Maco, just outside of town, but it was full when we were there (and, honestly, looked a bit run down). Just past El Maco is the Akawanka Lodge where we stayed during the second half of our time in San Agustín. This restored traditional farmhouse is full of art and has an easy, eclectic vibe. Ample wrap-around porches (check out the hammocks made from strips of leather – they’re more comfortable than they look), a sprawling lawn and garden, a fireplace in the bar/restaurant, no TVs, and art everywhere make this a very relaxing place. A spa was in the works when we were there.

Here are other hotels that caught our eye in and around San Agustín, though we did not stay at any of these hotels so we can’t personally vouch for them: Terazas de San AgustínHotel La CasonaFinca el Cielo, and Hotel Casa Tarzan.

Richard manning the grill at Donde Richard restaurant in San Agustín.

Where to eat in San Agustín

As we said, decent food at decent prices is available at the El Fogon restaurant in town. For expertly grilled meat, head to Donde Richard on the road between town and the San Agustín site. Huge plates of pork loin, chicken, beef, and chorizo (around 23,000 COP or about US$8) are big enough to share. Don’t miss the cerdo asado of tender slow cooked pork. Richard himself is usually manning the grill.

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Photo Essay: The Mystery & History of the Doors & Windows of Cartagena, Colombia

This post is part 7 of 7 in the series Cartagena Travel Guide

The restored Colonial architecture in the center of Cartagena, Colombia, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1984, is so gorgeous that the overall effect can be overwhelming. So much stone! So much color! So many balconies! When we traveled to Cartagena we particularly loved the mystery and history of the doors and windows of Cartagena, as you can see in this photo essay. Often shut to keep the Caribbean sun at bay, we couldn’t help but wonder what we’d see if we could just peek inside.

IMG_5801_Cartagena IMG_5885_Cartagena IMG_6195_Cartagena IMG_5888_Cartagena IMG_5913_Cartagena IMG_5883_Cartagena

IMG_5767_Cartagena IMG_6131_Cartagena
IMG_7114_Cartagena IMG_5884_Cartagena

IMG_0746_Cartagena

IMG_6156_Cartagena IMG_5764_Cartagena IMG_5887_Cartagena IMG_5918_Cartagena IMG_5911_Cartagena IMG_5864_Cartagena IMG_5752_Cartagena IMG_5969_Cartagena IMG_5759_Cartagena

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FARC, Firefights, and Burial Sites – Tierradentro, Colombia

The Tierradentro National Archaeological Park is home to what is believed to be the greatest number of cave tombs in Latin America. There are dozens of them, some dating back 1,400 years. It’s a highlight for many travelers to Colombia and the place is unlike any other archaeological site in the country. However, we were a little distracted by the firefights between Colombian soldiers and FARC rebels in the surrounding foothills when we were there…

San Andres de Pisimbala, Colombia Tierradentro Archaeological park

The foothills around the Tierradentro Archaeological Park in Southern Colombia are usually peaceful.

FARC guerrillas near Tierradentro

During the more than 18 months we spent traveling in Colombia we heard many personal stories about the FARC and the ongoing violence associated with the rebel group which has been operating in the country for decades. These stories brought the grim reality of living in a country that’s been essentially fighting a civil war with guerrillas into stark relief.

But nothing prepared us for our one and only firsthand encounter with the FARC as we arrived in San Andres de Pisimbala, the village in southern Colombia which is the gateway town to the nearby Tierradentro site.

Soldiers San Andres de Pisimbala Tierradento Colombia

NOT what you want to see when you rock into town: Colombian soldiers in the streets of San Andres de Pisimbala after FARC guerrillas booby-trapped the local school with land mines.

And when we say “first hand” we mean the town’s school, just one block from our guesthouse, was booby-trapped with land mines, Colombian soldiers were in the streets, and FARC rebels were in the hills. When those opposing groups began shooting at and shelling each other, we hid in the kitchen of our guesthouse (La Portada Hospedaje) numbly trying to process the tense, powerless reality of being caught in the crossfire. 

The two-day saga is chronicled in our Breakfast with the FARC story for New Worlder. 

Tierradentro Archaeological Park Colombia

Structures protecting entrances to the elaborately painted and carved underground tombs at the Tierradentro Archaeological Park.

Exploring Tierradentro (finally)

Once the FARC and the Colombian soldiers had moved on, things returned to normal remarkably quickly in sleepy San Andres de Pisimbala. The Tierradentro Archaeological Park (20,000 COP or about US$7 per person for a ticket that’s good for two days) also opened up again so we finally had a chance to explore what we’d come to see in the first place.

Tierradentro hypogeas cave tombs

The decorated interior of one of the man-made underground tombs at Tierradentro.

As we said, Tierradentro is unlike any other archaeological site in Colombia because it’s home to a very high concentration of elaborate cave tombs – more than 160 of them. The area has been excavated since the 1930s and experts say some of the tombs date back up to 1,400 years.

Tierradentro tombs Colombia

Geometric shapes in red or black pigment are the main motifs inside the tombs at Tierradentro.

The tombs exist inside man-made “caves” called hypogeas which were dug into the ground. These are accessed via hand cut steps that form steep, curved staircases that take you from ground level directly down into the dug out space – like entering a crude cellar.

Step entrance Tierradentro tombs

Hand-cut staircases like this descend steeply into each tomb.

Once inside, the spaces are impressively large. Big enough to stand up in and walk around. There is lighting inside, but bring a flashlight to be sure you can really see the tomb decorations.

UNESCO Tierradentro tombs Colombia

Tomb painting at Tierradentro.

Almost every interior surface is painted using red or black pigment to create geometric shapes, animals and human faces. Niches are also dug into the walls of the tombs along with carvings.

Tombs Tierradentro Colombia

Human figures and carved niches inside a tomb at Tierradentro.

There are also two small museums on the site, but it’s the tombs, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, that are the highlight. They’re spread out over a fairly large distance on sloping hillsides, so be prepared to do some walking. And, as we said, bring a flashlight. If you have a tripod, bring that too to assist with your shots inside the tombs.

In addition to the underground tombs, the El Tablón area of the site also has carved volcanic stone statues which you can hike to when FARC rebels and Colombian soldiers aren’t trying to kill each other in the hills, which we hope has stopped since both sides signed a peace treaty in 2017.

 

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