Our first weekend in Armenia, the volunteers were planning to make an overnight trip to Salento. But on Friday afternoon, we heard from our Regional Coordinator that all volunteers would be getting Monday and Tuesday off work. Why? I’m not sure. If someone gives me a four-day weekend, I don’t ask questions, I just take it. I decided to bail on the Salento trip, since I wanted to take advantage of the long weekend to go somewhere a little farther and see something I haven’t seen. Jordan, one of the other vounteers, was up for that as well, and suggested we go to Popayan.
We found an overnight bus, and headed out at midnight on Friday. I slept like a baby on the overnight bus from Cartagena to Bogota, but this trip was a little different. First of all, the seats weren’t quite as comfy, but the biggest obstacle to a good night’s rest was when I would suddenly wake up feeling as if I was about to be thrown into the aisle because the driver had taken a corner that fast. In the end, though, we made it out alive and made pretty good time.
We headed from the bus terminal to the hostel and dropped our bags off. I kept my purse and camera with me because I don’t always trust the hostels to keep an eye on your stuff, and the particular woman working at this hostel seemed to give zero shits about her job and negative shits about the security of my belongings.
We decided to go for a walk while we were waiting for our rooms to be ready to check in. A couple blocks from the hostel, we saw a hill with a church at the top and some promising views of the city, so we climbed up. At each bend in the path were statues that seemed to be stations of the cross. The top did have some great views. Popayan seemed like such a peaceful town. There were kids playing in the basketball courts and soccer fields, people going for a morning run. The town was nestled between some mountains. It was like the beginning of a feel-good movie.
Unfortunately, the peaceful feeling didn’t last long. Jordan and I made our way down the hill and started walking toward the soccer field we’d seen. I put my camera in my bag just in case. And then I saw a really cool flower. Colombia has a plethora of beautiful flowers and I have a weakness for taking pictures of them. After I had snapped a picture, I turned back and started to catch up with Jordan again. It was a pretty empty street, but all of a sudden I heard a bunch of footsteps walking quickly behind me. I knew I was about to get robbed. I sped up, and before I could even turn around, someone grabbed me from behind and swung me around. I couldn’t see anyone’s faces, just their hands as they grabbed my camera. My DSLR that
is was my most prized possession. I don’t remember if I screamed, but I don’t think I did, because it took Jordan a second to realize I was being robbed, since he was a little ways ahead of me. After they took my camera, they started yelling at me to give them my bag. I was yelling at them to take it, but with me struggling against them (probably not a smart move, but that was my instinctual reaction to being grabbed by 3 men) and my bags crossed over me, they were pulling at them but couldn’t get them off. I heard Jordan scream at them, and later I learned that one of them let me go and turned around and pulled a knife on him. Next, I heard lots of voices and the men let me go. I turned around and it took me a second to orient myself to what was going on. I saw a lot of people, and as a few guys took off on motorcycles, it dawned on me that they were the ones that robbed me. But not soon enough to try to get a look at them, or their bikes, or their license plates. I realized the other people were a family that had heard us and came out of their house which was right by where all this was happening.
They called the police for us. The cops took us in the back of their car to drive around and see if we could recognize the people who did it. Unfortunately, all I knew was that they were men on motorcycles and it happened really fast, so all Jordan knew was they were men with long sleeves and helmets that covered their faces. So men on motorcycles – that narrowed it down to about 50% of Popayan’s population. The police took us to the station and wrote up a report. They told us they would let us know if anything turned up, and then they gave us directions on how to get safely back to our hostel through the nice non-sketchy neighborhoods. As we were sitting at our hostel, still waiting for our rooms to be ready, a different hostel employee came up to me with a worried look on her face asking if I’d been robbed. I said yes, a little confused as to how she knew. She said the police were there to see me.
Unfortunately, they weren’t there to tell me that my camera had been found. Instead, they were there to tell me that for some reason the chief of police wanted to talk to us about what happened. We shot the shit with the officer for a while until the chief arrived. So if getting mugged wasn’t traumatic enough, I had to talk to the scariest police officer I’ve ever seen. Let me tell you something about Colombian police. Most of them look like they’re 14. They’re not super intimidating, because they seem to be just getting their very first chest hairs. This guy, on the other hand, was chief for a reason. He was really just a normal looking guy, but the fact that he didn’t smile once, spoke to me in really serious, gruff, fast Spanish, and completely commanded the attention of all the lower ranking officers had me feeling a bit nervous to talk to him. After he asked me again what exactly happened (wasn’t someone writing this down before?) he said they would be in touch if there were any new developments.
The police were actually really fantastic throughout this ordeal, so I have to take a moment to give them props. If I had been an officer talking to me, I would have said “Welp, sucks to be you. You’re never gonna see that camera again.” But instead they took an incredible amount of time helping us. I don’t know if it was just a slow day in Popayan or if it’s because we were gringos and they wanted to minimize the damage this incident did to our outlook on Colombia (no worries, Colombia, I still love you dearly).
As I’m writing this a month later, I’m pleased to inform you that there’s at least a tiny bright side to this situation. Remember when I fell on my ass during the Ciudad Perdida trek and my lens ended up getting busted? I got it replaced while I was in the states and paid for it with my Chase credit card. Because I had purchased it within the last 120 days, it was still insured by Chase (yep, your credit card insures your purchases – I had just read that in an article a few weeks prior, and had absolutely no idea before that). All I had to do was send them the police report, copies of the receipts, and a short claim form, and a week later they fully reimbursed the lens. Unfortunately the body of the camera was purchased a little less than a year ago, so that wasn’t covered under the credit card, nor is theft covered under my travel insurance, but at least it wasn’t a total loss.
Now on to happier stories. Popayan is beautiful. It’s called the white city, because all the buildings are…wait for it….white. Jordan had a friend who’s a fellow volunteer SENA teacher in Popayan, and he was nice enough to let us crash at his place instead of the hostel. We also met up with some other friends from training who are living there.
We saw the sights in Popayan, which really doesn’t take long. The next day, Jordan and I spent a relaxing day at the Coconuco hot springs nearby. When we were walking back to the village from the hot springs, where we were going to catch a bus to Popayan, a nice family stopped and asked if we wanted a ride. We hopped in the back of their truck, where the women had made a comfortable little space filled with blankets and cushions. When we got back to the town, the driver forgot to stop and let us out at the bus stop. When we asked if we had passed it, the women looked surprised, and said the driver must’ve forgot. They said we could just stay there, and catch a ride all the way back to Popayan, since that’s where they were going anyway. Along the way, they brought out pop and snacks and shared with us, and dropped us off a few blocks from our place. They wouldn’t accept any money for gas, and wished us well and were off. Just further proof that aside from the ones that rob you, Colombians are the best.
The next day we rounded up some of the other teachers to visit the Parque Nacional Natural Purace. This was a while ago, but I will try to remember as best as I can the many different forms of transportation we took that day. first we walked to the terminal where we were going to catch a bus, but we missed the bus. We were told we could take a taxi to another bus stop and take a different bus. So we took the taxi, and got off. We waited a while and the bus didn’t come. Meanwhile, a guy told us he would be willing to take us to the village of Purace in his car. We eventually decided on that. We got to Purace, and it was a really quiet, sleepy town. There was a restaurant open where we had a nice breakfast, and the waitress/owner/cook told us there was usually a bus that comes, but we should make sure and watch for it because it would be the only one. She also told us that it might just not come at all. After breakfast we waited for the bus for a while and nothing came. Finally a semi truck pulled up and we flagged it down. They let us hop on, us 2 girls in the front, and the boys in the cargo part. The bus dropped us off at a fork in the road, where it also dropped another of it’s hitchhikers who was from the area. He told us where the Condor lookout was, so we climbed to the top of that and enjoyed some amazing views.
Then we kept walking down the road. We had been told the entrance to the park was only about a kilometer away, but it was clearly farther. Finally we saw a passing jeep, and they let us hitch a ride to the entrance of the park. There was an information center, but it was locked and no one was there, so we took a trail and decided to see where it lead. It ended up taking us to some beautiful hot springs. The weird thing, though, was the complete lack of people. After walking around the hot springs for a while, we finally saw another older couple. They were retirees from Canada who had been doing all kinds of amazing things, like taking a cruise to Antarctica and traveling all over South America. I totally want to be them when I retire. We asked if they had any idea of what else to do in the park and/or how to do it. They were pretty much just scoping it out like we were, but they did remind us the last bus out was around 5.
We headed back up the trail we had come in on, and back to the main road. We decided to take it and see if we came upon anything else. We got to a trail marked Cascada (waterfall) San Nicolas, so we headed down that one. The trail ended up being a little difficult, in that it was filled with sloppy mud that would eat your shoe if you weren’t careful. We had to do a lot of leaping from rock to rock to make it through without destroying our footwear. But we saw that it was worth it when came to the waterfall.
When we got back to the main road again, we decided to start making our way back. It was a long walk, and eventually we were able to flag down a jeep that allowed us to hang on the back. I got some good footing, but the rest of our group wasn’t quite so fortunate, and they were literally holding on for dear life. It dropped us back off at the information center, where we met up with our Canadian friends again. This time there were actually people at the information center having some sort of group excursion. We caught the bus, thankfully. I was getting a little worried that we might be spending the night in the park, because traffic on that road was sparse. But we made it back to Popayan, in time to have our last amazing dinner with the volunteers at their hostel.
But the adventure doesn’t stop there. Jordan and I decided to get an early start out the next morning for the 5 hour bus trip back to Armenia. We left town around 8 or 9, but within an hour, the bus stopped. The police had blocked the road. I figured they would give a quick look through the bus, and maybe check our ID’s, because that happened sometime. Not so. It turns out that all traffic was stopped due to an indigenous group holding a march to protest land rights violations. Apparently it had gotten pretty heated, and they were blocking the highway with semis. We thought we’d be stopped for an hour or so. Five hours later, after many arguments amongst the driver and passengers about whether to wait it out or head back to Cali, police started letting us through. The bus made it maybe a half an hour before we stopped again. I fell asleep in the back waiting, and woke up about an hour later to Jordan saying that this bus was turning around, but there was another one up ahead on the road that was going to try (no guarantees) to make it to Cali. We decided to go for it. We made it through, and in Cali we caught a bus to Armenia, arriving only 6 hours later than planned.