Colombia / Ecuador

Partial Recall, and Las Lajas, Ipiales, Colombia, Lucky Country #7

Yesterday was one of those ambivalent mornings. My and Ester’s sad words from the previous night reverberated through my hungover skull: “We don’t write enough to call ourselves writers. [Deep mutual sigh.]” There’s only one way through that or anything else, really, and another thing Ester said about unrelated topics seemed relevant: “These are all things you can change.”

las lajas 8

This blog isn’t finished and most will question the point of concluding it at all. I question whether it will ever really be over: surely I won’t be done till I get to Caracas. For the record I’m doing it so I can get on with my writing life and also because I drown in South America super-nostalgia every other day. And honestly we can question the point of writing at all till the llamas come home. This is not the place to defend my place.

So where were we? Two days on the rim of the Quilotoa Crater. Mark and I then returned to Latacunga to pick up our backpacks and we changed clothes right there in the foyer of the motel, went for lunch in the cemetery (where I left behind my mother’s grey windbreaker, sorry Mom) and then headed back to Quito to get to Colombia.

Practical note: The bus terminal in Quito that serves southbound routes is easy to find, large, clean, modern, well serviced, has all the amenities, could be in any European city. The northbound terminal is precisely the opposite. It took us, oh, all night and as yet unmatched levels of confused frustration and lost-in-translations to find the station that had the bus that would take us to Ipiales in Colombia. Lonely Planet’s 2006 edition is a total letdown on this front.

Mark and I had our first small quarrel in front of bemused strangers about which bus to get on (I wanted to stay and eat something then take the last bus out, Mark wanted to get onto the one leaving in 10 minutes, he won that round), the bus was full so I ended up sitting next to the conductor in the front, made wordless peace with Mark by passing him water and chips through the door that separated us.

I’m thinking of memory now and personal narratives. The theory goes that every time we recall something we change a little detail about it. The obvious mistake I’ve made with this blog is leaving the writing so late and consequently but unintentionally changing so many of the details. All of which exacerbated by the fact that I didn’t take any notes whatsoever in Colombia; in fact my last journal entry was made in Cuenca. The specifics have faded into general impressions punctuated with random unreliable minutiae, for example:

  • It was 4am when we arrived in Ipiales (or was it 2?)
  • It was warm (no, it may have been drizzling)
  • We hadn’t slept or eaten properly (I want to say in days, but probably more like 12 hours)
  • Out of desperation I found us a room in a hotel across the road
  • It was upmarket with white towels, a telephone, a TV and a remote control (but there was nowhere to smoke, and my standards of “upmarket” are warped)
  • Fresh white sheets on the bed (Grey sheets? Light brown?)
  • Comatose sleep (do I remember a bout of sleeplessness first?)
las lajas 9

Artwork at the hotel. Couldn’t have been such a classy establishment after all

And just now I ran through all these details in my head without remembering the most critical part of the getting-into-Colombia story, which is this:

At the Ecuadorian border the bloody agents said haha I’d be unable to get into Colombia because South Africans require a visa. I snort-laughed and said I did my research, I can get into Colombia without a visa. They sniggered amongst themselves, smug and shitty, and said go ahead, go ask them. So I threw my backpack down on the ground (I threw it on the ground!) and stormed across the bridge to the Colombian side, where the border control woman on that side was the comforting cheese to Ecuador’s cantankerous chalk.

las lajas 5

No, she said, I was very welcome in Colombia (bienvenida chica!) and then without crib notes rattled off a list of African countries that do require a visa (Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe … I forget the rest; am not even certain that I remember these three correctly). It was my turn to be smug as I waltzed back over the bridge and demanded they stamped me out of their shithole of a country (accurate memory: I loved Ecuador, every part of it).

Of course, she probably didn’t say “bienvenida chica” at all, it’s just the way I remember it now, the memory of the contrast is what’s important.

And then when we woke up I realised that we were in fact in the Ipiales, which is next to Santuario de Las Lajas: I came across this cliff-hanging cathedral in my pre-planning and pinned it but made no plans to see it. It was pure chance that I ended up here in a rainy corner of the last new country I would end up visiting before returning home.

las lajas 4

I think this is how it went down:

  • We packed up and bought tickets to get to Cali and then walked up the hill into Ipiales proper, where it took us ages to find a working bank (did we try more than one ATM? Was there some kind of riot in the street?).
  • Then the hunt was on for decent coffee (was it here that the barista and his family quizzed me about Africa? Was the coffee really as weak as I remember it, or was it here that I first became acquainted with the magic that is Colombia’s dark nectar of the soul?)
  • Finding decent coffee was always more of a priority for me than it was for Mark (this is where second-person memory comes in handy).
  • We missioned to Las Lajas, but not before taking shelter from the drizzle (definitely rained that morning, the pictures confirm this) in a taxi next to the bus station and waiting for hours (probably 30 minutes) for our taxi driver to deem it the right time to go (actually he was waiting to see if he could get more customers for the 20-minute ride).
  • So beautiful, so green, so wet. (Accurate)

las lajas 3

So wow – this painstakingly beautiful ornate place of worship in this unlikely place. (Accurate.)

las lajas 2Santuario de Las Lajas was built in Gothic Revival style between 1916 and 1949 inside the canyon of the Guáitara River. It rises 100m high from the bottom of the canyon and is connected to the opposite side of the canyon by a 50m-tall bridge. (Accurate, researched, plagiarised.)

las lajas 1

The young couple genuflecting and taking selfies with their newborn in the spooky church.

las lajas

The rocks covered in candle wax (and the little fire that had broken out when we walked back.)



It took me going through my photographs again to remember the following story, the one where I got my first real (confirmed) view of Cotopaxi in Ecuador, the highest active volcano in the world. We were on our way from Latacunga to Quito:

  • The bus driver’s assistant noticed me trying to take pictures of Cotopaxi through the window of the moving bus
  • He ushered me forward and made me squeeze in next to him in the little bucket that’s next to the bus door, on the steps that lead inside
  • He then motioned to the bus driver who pulled over to the right (left?) side of the road and slowed down ever so slightly (or not at all, things were getting pretty extreme)
  • And then the driver opened the bus door – while we were in motion – to let me take a few blurry snaps without a glass barrier
  • Loved Ecuador and everything about it.



One thought on “Partial Recall, and Las Lajas, Ipiales, Colombia, Lucky Country #7

  1. Aaaah so happy that you’re resuming writing about your fascinating SAmerican journey! ….and the windbreaker (was it grey?) was old and worn anyway. x

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