We decide to drive a loop around San Austin following the back roads towards our first stop of La Chaquira, where we had read that there were fantastic statues carved into the rocks.
On the way to the site, we turn off down a dirt road, where we are stopped by a local guide. He advises us that we cannot continue in our vehicle as the road is in a very bad condition further up… We look at the bumpy dirt road, similar to ones we had driven on a million times before and don’t understand why..
A minute later, another car pulls up beside us, a short base Toyota Prado, and we check with him if it is possible to go down, referring to the guide who said we couldn’t. He laughs raucously and replies ‘In your car, of course, he is an idiot’ then tells us to follow him. He drives off at speed bumping down the steep hill towards a shallow water crossing…
Sure enough, we make it along the rickety track, crossing the stream and down to an area with a horse paddock, a nice little cafe and crafts shop.
A couple of kid point us in the right direction and we follow the track downwards overlooking a steep green gorge with shimmering waterfalls in the distance on the far side of the canyon.
Some steep worse for wear stairs including some which are completely broken or missing lead us down to various lookout points over the Rio Magdalena and down to a dramatically set deity carved into the sheer rock, it’s hands raised in worship.
It’s also blowing a gale and our hats go flying although luckily not too far! Going back uphill is hard work as I am still aching from the morning’s workout!
We re-join the main road and head towards to El Estrecho, which brings us to a lookout over the gorge of the Rio Magdalena, the country’s principal river which flows through its western half.
At El Estrecho, we jump out and take a walk along the canyon where the Río Magdalena passes through a 2.2metre narrow canyon, it reminds us a lot of southern France.
At the bottom of the gorge, there’s a deep pool where the locals are enjoying cooling down in the waters and jumping in from a high rock.
From here the road goes uphill and turns in to a dirt track; at the top we have more fantastic views of the countryside and the long, steep and bumpy road to the bottom of the valley.
Martin then drives via a very scary rocky narrow one lane road with a drop straight down into the plunging canyon.
We continue all the way down to a small rickety bridge where the road goes back up the steep valley and deteriorates a little, a couple of tourist jeeps coming towards us struggle to navigate a large dip in the road.
The drive begins to take us into a remote area passing tall fields of wheat and sugarcane.
Its the Carnival Blancos y Negros (Blacks and Whites Carnival) where the locals take to the streets and flour bomb everyone and everything that moves…It’s the largest carnival celebration in southern Colombia.
Along the road there are three small children, unluckily for the tourists in front of, they have their windows down and before they know it they are covered in a mist of flour and water… We manage to pass by unscathed due to their poor aim…
We stop to ask a local on a bike if we can get to the Alto de Los Idolos this way and he points us in the right direction but as it will be dark soon, we decide to do it in the morning instead.
We head back via the main road and cut through the outskirts of San José de Isnos, this time we are not so lucky and the entire car is covered with foam and flour….
In the evening, we walk into town for another budget friendly menu del dia!
8th -9th January
After a quick breakfast in town, we drive out to the Alto de Los Idolos (The High Idols) this time along the main road before turning down a bumpy gravel track. Road works cause us to be stuck in a traffic jam for a while with people pointing and staring at the right hand side wheel, yes we realise that we are mad driving in South America! It‘s not until an hour later that we actually reach the site.
It‘s another uphill walk to the site, passing a very tired looking shire horse along the narrow path; it’s not tied up and begins to follow a group of worried looking people down the hill!
At the very top of the hill, we come to a large green clearing with a large sculpture in the middle, home to the region’s tallest statue at 7metres representing a female figure.
The mountainside was transformed into a horseshoe pattern by removing earth from the centre and filled to form the arms.
The UNESCO world heritage site has several well preserved funerary complexes with sarcophagi and amazingly conserved sculptures symbolizing guardians of death with various types of tombs.
There is a large unusual stone burial coffin with four protruding edifices which may have functioned as a means of carrying it until you consider the sheer weight, resulting in this theory to be virtually impossible!
The park is much smaller than the San Agustin one but is equally impressive with unusual sculptures we had not seen yesterday in the main park.
We still need to make it back to Popayan before dark so we set off along the gravel road for a repeat of the tortuous drive. It seems to take forever eventually arriving back to the welcome mayhem of the city just before nightfall!
We check into a quirky but nice converted colonial house complete with creaking floorboards and high ceilings.