Thursday, January 24, 2008

San Agustin- Casa François

I have been in Bogota a week now and about the only negative here is the shabby internet cafes. I might have to wait till I get back home to finish posting my Colombian entries. I left off last week promising the story of Francois, owner of a idyllic guesthouse on a hilltop overlooking San Agustin.

One of the many benefits of the improved security situation in Colombia is that San Agustin and its enigmatic monuments are once again accessible to the greater public. Though less than 100km from the white walled colonial town of Popayan, it is a tortuous six hour bus ride over the mountains on rough dirt roads. It had rained the day before I departed, so the trip was seven hours through the mud.

I was treated to a typical South American journey. The dirty short bus that gasped and shuddered up to the terminal an hour and a half late was already full, a peasant in every seat and the aisles stacked with sacks of various goods. Two bird cages, also occupied, were resting precariously on the dry goods just behind the driver. It did not appear there was room for me or the Swiss woman who also had a ticket in hand for the 7am, now 8:30 bus. There was no way I was willing to risk a later departure; it is still not safe to travel after sunset. The ticket agent squeezed the Swiss woman in between the driver and a passenger riding shot gun, and I was offered a sack of corn where I was ear level with the parrots.

Still, I was glad I had taken the second bus of the morning. Two hours into the trip we passed the 6am bus broken down in the middle of the road on a steep and muddy incline. A couple hours later the rain started and before long we reached our first impasse. All the men on board, myself included, got out and helped another bus in front of us that was stuck in a mud hole. We dug up large rocks from the shoulder and threw them into the stretch of mud-bog until there was a sufficient bridge for the vehicles to pass.

The ride was worth it. San Agustin is one of the most spectacular sites in Colombia. The town is set in a hollow one rise of hills away from a gorge containing the headwaters of the Magdalena River, Colombia´s longest running almost a thousand miles north before emptying into the Caribbean near Cartagena. Several hundred shades of green make up the hills and gorges dropping off into the river. At scattered sites around the town lie the remains of a people that disappeared around the time the Spaniards first planted their flag on South American soil. Little in known about these people, though archeologists suppose that the statues left behind can be attributed to several different pre-Columbian groups. The hundreds of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic stone monuments sprinkled over the hills are thought to be funeral markers.

San Agustin is the kind of place one could linger for some time. This is exactly what Francois decided. He came to San Agustin seven years ago, long before a tourist footprint existed in the town due to the FARC control of the area. Francois had previously been living in Nicaragua, and did not consider the rebel army much of a threat. So he dropped his backpack and opened what quickly became the town's most popular bar. In time he earned the money to purchase a dilapidated farmhouse.

On the afternoon he went into town to settle his deed, there were three men waiting for him on the bank´s front porch. One of the men greeted him and asked if he`d care to join him for a drink. They directed him to a jeep, blindfolded him, and headed off on one of the bumpy roads winding into the hills.

Francois admits he was little nervous in the back of the jeep, though not panicked. The local commander of the FARC had visited his bar and by word of mouth Francois had gathered that he had liked it. Maybe this would count for something, he thought, as he was led out of the jeep and into a farmhouse. His escorts helped him to sit in a chair, and then undid his blindfold. He found himself seated before a spread of juices, cakes and other sweets. A group of soldiers sat around him at the table. One of the soldiers he recognized as the commander, who said,

"We want nothing from you only that you know that we exist."

Though he crossed paths with guerrillas several times while hiking in the mountains, he never once was hassled after his welcoming party to the region.

With seven years of construction experience in France, Francois set to transforming his crumbling homestead into a comfortable home and guesthouse. With knowledge of carpentry, masonry, and electricity, he did most of work himself, only slowed by the time he needed to purchase materials. And the materials are eclectic. He added a second story to the farmhouse with a guadua frame, the largest variety in the bamboo family. In the masonry of the enlarged kitchen and extra guestrooms, he added all sorts of recyclables to the stucco additions. The glass bottles he inserted into the kitchen wall add colorful light during the day, and various plastic objects can be found throughout the main house and the guest rooms. A cabana stuck on ten foot high guadua stilts is the four bed backpackers´ dorm. The room has thirteen sides, producing a round room with five pairs of large wooden shutters and a double door opening out to vistas of undulating hills and mountains.

I arrived to Casa Francois at sundown. By luck the Swiss woman was a old friend of Francois and convinced me to climb the hill and have a look at his place. The other inhabitants of the cabana, a guy from Norway and another from Canada, were rolling their evening joints while staring out into the darkening landscape. I settled into a hammock on the porch and appreciated the quiet. The parrots had squawked in my ears the entire ride from Popayan.

I spent three days hiking trails to the monument sites. The most spectacular of the lot were carvings made directly into the rock face of a gorge that bottomed out into the Magdalena. Four waterfalls were visible along the opposite wall of green and impossibly steep fields of coffee bushes.

I would have stayed much longer than I did if it hadn´t been for a resident kitten who had lathered the beds and blankets with her dander. I got very little sleep, sneezing the night away on my hilltop paradise. This was probably for the best. I saw most of the major archeological sites, and my bunkmates were so stoned for the duration of my stay that they had little to contribute in conversation.

So I caught a 5am bus to Bogota, a twelve hour trip through the mountains and then along the opening of the Magdalena Valley. We passed through the Tatacoa Desert one of the smallest by area in the world, an 80 square kilometer stretch of sand and scorpions where the sky is blue straight above though mountain-blocked clouds are visible in all directions on the horizon. Then the long creeping climb up into the high plateau of Santa Fe de Bogota.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,
I like how you describe Colombia. You capture a lot of what I remember about Colombia. It is such a beautiful country.