Saying goodbye to our friends, Jim and Alina was sad, but we were excited to move on and get to see AJs mom and little brother in Ecuador. From San Gil, we drove through the mountains to get back to the main highway heading south. Colombia is breathtaking. The mountains are smaller than in the rest of South America but they are the start of the Andes and still bigger than anything we have up north. The roads are all in really good shape, better than anywhere we have been so far but also very expensive. In total, I believe we spent US $90 on tolls.
However, tolls might have been the most expensive part of driving. Gas was comparable to the US and services (oil, etc) where cheap. We ended up parking and staying in places for free all over Colombia, whether it was on a beach somewhere, on a street, or in a parking lot. We never felt threatened or in danger, although we traveled up to this point with our friends which adds extra security. Our interactions with police where always very polite and they only were concerned with our comfort and safety. The Colombian people are very welcoming and love to have tourists to show off their country. The only time the locals tried to take advantage was on the back or dirt roads when the parents would send their children out to hold ropes up in front of cars and then ask for “tolls”. Especially to our beast, Romona. It would get a bit annying when you could see the line of ropes that you would have to persuade small children to drop, our worst was ten in a row. I have a little polaroid camera that I busted out and started giving them pics of themselves that helped to get the rope down without any money exchange.
We had to hurry towards the boarder of Ecuador and skip Cali and Medellin which was a bit heartbreaking because they are supposed to be some of the most beautiful spots in Colombia. That just leaves us with a reason to go back to Colombia on a future trip, I think I would also like to try and fit in the lost city hike. We were both excited that our route took us to the Salt Mine Cathedral on our way south. Its a crazy functioning salt mine that has the stations of the cross and a church that is as large (or larger) than most cathedrals. And it was built by the salt miners who work there; twice, because the first one collapsed!
Next, we stopped by San Augustine. A beautiful town nestled in the mountains. They have a very impressive village of ruins that you can spend the day hiking around in. Then if you want to drive, or horseback ride you can visit the other set of ruins an hour away. It was such a pretty little town to stop in. We parked at a hacienda that allowed us to park on the grounds in between the little villas and hammocks. We really liked this little town, but keeping with our schedule we pushed on. We had to cross over the mountain range west towards the pacific to be able to head south.
Unfortunately, on this particular drive AJ began to notice a problem with accelerating going uphill. And soon after Ramona started making strange protesting noises and registered several warning codes telling us we were cruising on three of our six injectors. We limped our way into Popayan and found a really nice mechanic who dropped everything he was doing and started working on our car. Turns out we had an air leak in the fuel line and it was a really easy fix.
For the night though, we headed up the mountains into Purace National Park. It’s the biggest National Park in Colombia and has the widest variety of wildlife in the country. We had heard about these crazy natural hot springs that you can’t swim to preserve the ecosystem but also because some of the springs get up to 1300 degrees F! We found the ranger station and he ended up being the coolest guy! He walked us up the springs, which was about one kilometer, and let us wander around. It was fantastic! Maybe a five kilometer loop around some of the craziest natural water formations that we have ever seen! Then to top it off, our new ranger friend Omar, let us park next to his ranger station and spend the night there. He also invited us to have hot showers in his place! So we cooked him dinner and had a really good conversation, even though we are barely conversational. Omar did know some English though. He schooled us on all of the American presidents (in order) and states and their capitals. We said bye to Omar just as a huge bus of tourists were heading in to the park.
Our final camp spot in Colombia was right on the boarder on a mountain overlooking a canyon that just happened to have a fairytale like church built on a bridge covering the canyon. We actually rolled up in the dark and had no idea what we were about to wake up to. It was a really great way to end a really great country. We will definitely be back!