In retrospect, my bus journey from Popayán to San Agustin in Colombia seems quite funny! I can now laugh at myself: the foreign girl falling apart who couldn’t speak Spanish, sobbing uncontrollably in her crappy bus seat with a dog at her feet, on a remote dusty road full of pot holes, heading towards the Ecuador border. After experiencing what could be described as culture shock, San Agustin was worth every moment of getting there.
Getting To San Agustin
After a hospitable stay in a remarkable ‘finca’ in Cali with my friends Jim and Sofi, an Australian man and Colombian woman, they kindly drove me to Popayán. They wanted to make sure I made it to my destination OK and got on the right bus.
In Popayán, I would stay overnight and connect with a bus to San Agustin the following morning.
I was recovering from an illness which had me vomiting and running to the toilet (at the other end also) for the days prior, so I felt pretty ‘shitty’ and low on energy. Which no doubt extenuated their friendly concern for me, now a weak non Spanish speaking woman venturing into remote areas of Colombia alone.
We dined that night in Popayán at an Italian restaurant. Having leftovers from my meal we took it to a sleeping homeless man nearby. In my observations Colombia has way less homeless than Canada and very rarely do they ask for money, well definitely not to the degree that people may ask in Montreal or Vancouver . In many places, if I have food left over from a meal, I usually try to find someone who might need a feed.
The next morning, Sofi drove me to the bus terminal.
She insisted, fretting that after days of practice I still couldn’t properly pronounce the Colombian destinations on my itinerary.
I read the concern in her face “how is she going to manage with no Spanish?”
After organising my ticket for me in the bus terminal, she escorted me to the departure area where the buses were waiting.
By the way – it wasn’t the bus in the featured photo above – although at times it felt like it!
After hugging me she looked into my eyes and gave me a fond smile, one mixed with appraisal and worry, before kissing my cheeks and walking away.
Suddenly in her absence I felt a little fragile, venturing into an unknown.
Colombia by myself.
Well at least for the next five and half hours on this bus until I reached the guest house Casa De Nelly, in San Agustin, where the friend of a good friend working there was expecting me.
That reassured me but I still felt a little out of my depth.
I’d been in Cartagena for five days alone but I had meet plenty of people and it’s a reasonably cosmopolitan place. It reminds me somewhat of Dubrovnik.
Now I was facing something entirely different.
Online advice warned of not travelling this route at night for the risk of robbery or kidnapping. Heading towards the Ecuador border, on this type of journey I was the only foreigner around, well at least the only one on this bus.
As I watched my friend go out of sight, I contemplated my solitude.
I kept telling myself silently, you can do this, you can do this.
The same mantra I used the first day I left my Medellin apartment to ride the metro alone to Comuna 13 for my first English volunteer class.
Reassuring my own self has not only become a habit but a necessity in order to confront my fears when I feel I’m going out of my comfort zone. Most of the time, fear is not warranted but it has a way of messing with decision making and procrastinating action. The “You can do this” strategy is something I do call on from time to time. It is becoming more and more effective as I now recount happy memories as a result of me following this philosophy.
In this case, I was only looking at five and a half hours on a bus. OK some of it might be a bit “off-road” and it’s not the most well known destinations among travellers but I had a close friend’s recommendation.
It was all I needed to convince me.
Him being a seasoned traveller (way more adventurous than me – cycled though Afghanistan before the war, rode horses from Colombia to Ecuador and peddled through Medellin) I trusted his insights.
Time to board the bus.
I was relieved to find comfort in a spare position – a window seat near the front!
I could take photos out the window en route from here!
Plus my neighbour in the next seat looked pleasant, a nicely dressed friendly Colombian man.
This journey was going to work out all OK!
The elusive bus driver suddenly appeared, leaping up the entrance stairs and growled angrily at me in words I did not understand.
All I knew was he was waving his hands towards the back of the bus, ushering me with a sweep of his arm.
I guess the tickets are seated!?
Every eye in the bus was on me as I attempted to stay where I was.
I can’t exactly remember how or why I did this?
Somehow I thought I could talk my way out of it. The only thing my Colombian mama forgot was to ensure I got a good seat!
I played a bit dumb.
Trouble was, I didn’t have the words to beg him to stay where I was, just an expression.
My face was trying to say: please be kind, let me stay where I am.
With another spout of spat-out sounds, I got up, a little humiliated and made my way down the bus aisle towards the back.
Each and every passenger was watching me move.
I checked my ticket for a seat number. Shit I need glasses!
It’s that moment you know you are going to cry any second.
You don’t quite know why but you just know it’s coming.
Focus. Ok, I can see the number and find the place.
Found it – back row!
Well there was only one seat left! But it didn’t match my ticket.
My seat had been taken by a local lady with a mound of packages.
She didn’t look like she was going anywhere.
The only seat left was the centre aisle in the back row, the most precarious place to sit in the event of an accident.
Yet the entire row was crammed with locals with their mountain of goods, spilling over to the tiny remaining gap of an ’empty’ seat. Lucky for me, I was thin.
Yet seating space was not the only issue, the man next to me had a dog at his feet. Well the ‘perro’ was more at my feet, not his, as he had bundles occupying floor space.
Initially I had to put my daypack on my lap as there was no where else to place it. I wormed my legs around the surrounding packages.
Rolling my eyes, we set out of Popayán, me playing courtesy to a dog.
As I pondered the following five hours crowded in, with my pack on my legs, travelling to a remote place with this dog at my feet, it came.
A torrent of emotion, tears to fill a San Agustin waterfall.
Just like this element of nature, the flow did not stop.
Gasping for breath, I searched for tissues in my bag. Frustration was heightening, with me murmuring with angst “Where are my FUCKING tissues!?”
I relinquished my salty tears from my cheeks with the side of my shawl, shaking and overwhelmed.
This was all foreign to me.
I wasn’t used to travelling like this with dogs and packages and police passport checks and armed military on roads along the way.
Then my thoughts turned to what a princess I was being. How precious I was about where I would sit.
How some of these locals were probably just grateful to be able to afford to BE on the bus.
This made me sob even harder.
As much as I tried to be discreet about the flood of droplets drenching my jeans and trying to disguise wiping my nose, I could sense nearby travellers observing me.
That intensified things even more to see the concern on their faces.
Somehow I reclaimed some composure.
And some clarity.
I had paid for my ticket and this dog had not.
Why was I being being so polite and considerate to a canine?
With my feet applying pressure against its torso I began edging it away from me. With enough distance I put my pack and my feet on the ground. Little by little I gained ground.
As time went on the dog ended up being in the aisle before me. With each twist and turn of the windy road he began sliding from one side of the bus to another, slipping in front of Colombian passengers in the seats either side of the aisle.
Annoyance on the faces of the middle class Colombians was priceless. Finally they had a taste of what I had dealt with.
Now instead of crying I couldn’t stop laughing!
You know the kind of hysterical laughter which can sometimes follow an emotional upheaval.
I was wiping snot away, whilst heaving at the humorous change of events.
There was only momentary patience and tolerance before angry travellers started yelling at the bus driver.
He came to a halt and came to the back of the bus to assess the situation.
I felt a bit guilty as I was the one who pushed the dog. Just a little, just so I could sit properly.
Now my neighbour, his owner was looking fretful.
After a short exchange I got the impression the bus driver said something to the effect of “the dog goes in the back boot/trunk or the both of you are out!”
The man next to me looked compromised and uncertain of what to do. He then motioned to get up as he got out with the driver to relegate the dog to the luggage area.
Out of curiosity and somewhat responsibility for the dog’s fate, I got out also to check if he’d be OK.
Deciding it was humane, we all returned to our seats and after that resumed a somewhat uneventful journey, aside from the intriguing landscapes we passed through.
When the bus stopped on the outskirts of San Agustin, all the locals on the bus started waving at me and pointing, yelling San Agustin. By now, the curious had discovered my destination.
After all the tears and the sliding dog amongst weary locals and their packages, traversing an uneven dirt road littered with holes to send me flying, I was finally here.
All I needed to do was get a taxi to where I was staying on the other side of town from this stop off point.
I said goodbye to everyone on board, even the “perro” as I grabbed my luggage out the back of the bus and looked around for transport.
Soon enough a taxi arrived and I told him my destination, Casa De Nelly. We set off but within a few minutes as we passed through town, he stopped the car in front of a decrepit looking building.
The fact he had turned off the engine had me nervous.
“NO – Casa De Nelly!!”
I couldn’t defend myself with words so I had to rely on my disposition, body language and tone.
It was everything I had, plus the confidence that someone was expecting me, should I never arrive.
Despite my throat being choked up with fear, I did all I could to sound assertive.
“Senor. Casa De Nelly. Amigos!!!!”
He resigned himself that I wasn’t getting out the taxi, gave a signal to someone inside and started the car again and took off.
From town we took a rocky trail into the hills to arrive at what I describe as a sanctuary.
Relieved to be out of another taxi unscathed, I was greeted by tropical gardens with a mountainous vista, vibrant birds, flowing wine, strumming musicians and travellers returning from a day of horseback riding.
Over the next five days I enjoyed some of the most memorable moments of my travelling life. The Archaeological Park of San Agustín was eye opening with its ancient statues. The town and its residents gave me a taste of authentic Colombia. Whilst the regional landscape was calming, virtually untouched from modern development and instead boasted fertile green hills and exotic wildlife.
This was an experience I would have never had, if I hadn’t taken a leap of faith. To have the sentiment that I could do it and that all would be fine, meant that I took this bus ride into the unknown.
Travelling comes with ups and downs, bumps and rises, good and bad. One thing is certain, adventure is always enriching.
It’s worth taking the road less travelled, as it is often the road you’ll never forget.
To read about my experiences in San Agustin, see Best Remote Towns in Colombia: San Agustin