Neiva-San Agustin (227km, 4 hrs)
After breakfast, and a not so pleasant stay in a hotel in Neiva, we meet our driver Jairo who will take us to San Agustin - Jairo is contracted by Rene, a Swiss guy who settled in San Agustin many years ago, probably one of the first foreigners to settle down in this beautiful area. He runs the agency Chaskatours and we will probably hear more from him in the not too distant future. Here, the Andes Mountain Range, in one final show of grandeur, splits into three majestic mountain ranges, the Cordilleras Occidental, Central and Oriental. We are now driving through a wide green valley that divides the Cordilleras Central and Oriental, which is itself split in two by the Magdalena River, which stretches 1500km from San Agustin to Barranquilla and is the longest and most important river of Colombia.
15 minutes outside of Neiva we stumble upon the hamlet of Rivera, known for its thermal springs, and here we find a great alternative to the place we slept last night. This is the perfect place for our groups when they come driving down from Bogota to make a stop on their way to San Agustin. What better place to spend the night after a long day’s drive than a hotel with 4 swimming pools, next to a set of thermal springs?
A nice detail of local roads here is that, as well as being mostly perfectly asphalted, they are shaded by ‘ecological tunnels’. This part of Colombia gets very hot and most municipalities make a habit of having their main roads lined by trees that meet each other over the middle, thus creating a green roofing that not only creates shadow but also absorbs most of the exhaust gasses of the trucks, cars and motorbikes passing by. On top of this it truly enhances the visual experience of driving here.
Jairo is a good driver and he also turns out to be an excellent storyteller. Thanks to him and his knowledge of local folklore I have a very interesting ride, while the girls mostly sleep in the back. The first thing he asks is if we have already tried the famous ‘Asado Huilense’, a ritual pig roast only prepared during the festivities of San Juan & San Pedro. During these festivities, about which I still need to do some more reading, each province holds folkloric dancing contests where one girl is chosen to be the ‘Reina’ or ‘Queen’. During the ‘Vispera de San Juan’, or ‘the Eve of Saint John’, which I understand falls on midsummer’s eve, the family spends all day on the preparation of the pig; first the slaughter, then the cleaning of the animal and the selection of the best parts of meat. Then follows the preparation of the wood for the fire and finally the entire family, friends and neighbors sit down for a true feast. It is kind of a sacred ritual, but these days the Asado Huilense has found some resonance outside of El Huila and you will find more and more local restaurants offering the dish, also out of the official season.
Next we drive through the small town of Hobo, apparently a tourist stop, but we decide to push on. While we drive out of town on one of the scarce pieces of straight road that we have encountered on our trip, Jairo tells me that this is the highway airport of Hobo. Upon my puzzled look he explains that some nine years ago a local governor managed to get his private plane hijacked and forced to land on this main road. The governor was then kidnapped, and as far as my recently blossoming understanding of Colombian Spanish helps me understand, was released after direct negotiations between the FARC and the then president Pastrani.
Now we drive past ‘Los Altares’ – sand rock formations that line the road, shaped by wind and rain, resembling the medieval gothic churches of Europe. Here, at 700 m.a.s.l, climate and vegetation have already changed completely. Whereas in Neiva the main crops are rice and cotton, here we drive across coffee and cacao plantations. We pass countless food stalls selling ‘Quesillo’, a local cheese variant made from cows’ milk. The kids are asleep so we don’t stop; we’ll have to try this on our way back…
A road sign indicates the distances to the next three villages, one of them called ‘Gigante’. I turn to Jairo and he begins to tell the legend of El Gigante, a giant Indian who according to the story used to steal the crops of the local villagers until they had enough of it and finally managed to ambush and kill him. Apparently he still lays there today, flat on his back. We drive through the town of Gigante, but I see nothing strange or disturbing…
‘Curvas Peligrosas’… we drive through a stunning mountain area, on a recently paved road, but with about as many curves as a beautiful woman, each one more dangerous than the one before. Numerous signs alongside the road warn against drinking and driving, or simply taking the wheel when tired: ‘No more stars on the road’, they say, and before and after practically every curve a star-shaped cross is painted on the asphalt, marking a fatal accident… We take it slow, following a ‘Poker’ Beer truck and then all of sudden he appears, Matambo, the slain giant. A huge face-shaped mountain, looking like those on the statues found on Easter Island, a true indigenous boogieman, carved out of Andean rock.
We drive past a pond where ‘mojarra’ is cultivated, a local fish that is served in restaurants throughout La Huila province, of which Neiva is the capital. Will make sure to try some in San Agustin! Jairo warns us not to eat mojarra from ponds close to ‘lulo’ (a local fruit used to make juices) plantations, as this particular plant needs a lot of chemicals to withstand insects and other threats. With rain, the chemicals are flushed into the soil and then find their way into the ponds which makes this particular fish not always the healthiest option.
Up and up we go, from the 400 or so m.a.s.l where we started out this morning, making our way through the valley and up the hills. Cacao and coffee make way for tobacco as the air gets fresher and temperatures slowly drop. We drive past the town of Garzon (named after the male variant of the ‘garza’ (heron) that frequent this area. Garzon is the second city of El Huila and is the catholic center of the province, and most of the south of the country. The town has a beautiful cathedral and a seminary from which most of the prominent priests and clergymen in the country emerge. If that is a good thing or not I’ll leave to your own judgment. It’s a nice town though, from what we see driving past.
La Jagua, the next spot on the map, is a town of artisans, formerly known for being bewitched… I imagine the 31st of October must be a true party here, but we do not get much time to ponder, as Jairo begins a story about the two towns that we are approaching, Altamira & Timana.
Altamira & Timana are home to the Timanareis people. Their most famous ancestor is probably the Caciqua La Gaetana - a local chieftain whose son was killed by a Spanish invader looking for gold. The story goes that she was so angry and grief-stricken that she gathered all the local caciques in the south and together they conquered the Spaniards and captured their leader, Pedro de Allasco. La Gaetana picked out his eyes, punctured his lower jaw through the mouth, tied a rope through it and pulled him behind her horse before decapitating him. Sadly enough history was not in her favor; the Spanish came back with more men, to avenge the death of their kinsmen. La Gaetana was hunted down, but before they could catch her, she managed to reach El Pericongo, a steep cliff from which she is said to have jumped and disappeared into the Magdalena River.
The Timanareis people are the oldest tribe in Colombia. In the town of Timana there is a statue of La Gaetana, holding Allasco’s head in her hand. In Neiva, around this time every year, there is the ‘Cabalgata de la Gaetana’ where around 3000 women saddle up their horses and parade through town, emptying bottles of ‘aguardiente’, the local liquor, and making a lot of noise in praise of this fierce warrior of the past.
Driving through Altamira, we come past a sign saying ‘Florencia’. Under the Pastrani government, this town was the gateway to the ‘zona del despeje’, a large area of land cleared of military and police forces, where the FARC incumbents were given the right to reassemble, rearm, train and basically reinforce. This was a state within the state, ruled by the guerilla. I still have a lot to learn about Colombia, its history, and its people. There will most probably be a logical explanation for this guerilla state, but at this point I have no clue as to why a government would allow an enemy army to have a place to rest and rearm. I am not Colombian, so I‘m in no place to judge, of course.
Late afternoon and after a great trip we arrive in San Agustin. Not too long ago this little town was a stronghold of the FARC, and to this date the area has still not been officially given the green light by most embassies. However, as locals assure and reality shows, there is nothing to be afraid of here. Two main military bases in the vicinity mean that there are soldiers present in the streets, restaurants and sometimes also at the hotels. Through time people here have come to terms with the fact that either military or guerillas frequent the town and its facilities. The difference now is that the military are treating the villagers with respect, they pay for the services rendered and help out where needed. They are like any other citizen of Colombia, carrying out their assigned job, living and working amongst their fellow citizens. Their job is to keep the area safe and yes, they have to go on patrols into the surrounding areas, but a normal passer-by is taught to see them as peacekeepers and defenders of everybody’s safety. After a while we hardly notice them as different and the kids play around them as we all eat breakfast together.
The Anacaona is a true find and probably the best place in town. An old farm-house, this place was bought by a Frenchman some nine years ago and was slowly converted into the oddly quaint home-stay it is today. A beautiful garden and a wide, panoramic view over the adjacent valley combined with a very friendly (even if somewhat inexperienced) staff, make this a good place to spend at least a few days. The manager, Hector, is on his way to becoming one of the main players in San Agustin tourism development, and is a nice guy to have a chat with if you want to get to know more about the area. He arranged for horses, guides, a jeep and everything else that we needed when planning to explore the area. The equipment was good, the horses healthy and well fed, the guides and drivers correct and on time. English is a challenge still, though we did see some people with English speaking guides, but they had come together from Bogota. No problem for us, but something to keep in mind if you want to visit this beautiful area.