Anthony on the Gringo Trail 2005 travel blog

Dedications on the way to the Sanctuary

Overview of the sanctuary

La Sanctuaria de Nuestra Senora de Los Lajas, Los Ipiales, Colombia

Probably the first of many Terry Pratchett references. Well here I am in the Colombian border town of Los Ipiales. Strangest first impression was where are all the guns? None of the ubiquitous tooled up security guards I have come to associate with South America. Actually it seems only the army and police here have guns, and they have big ones and hide behind sandbags.

Generally a bit shabbier than Ecuador, but the people possibly even nicer and easy going, though there are a few more scary looking people around than I have been used to. All in all though I am now regretting I don't have more time to spend in Colombia, that will have to be another trip I guess, as there are some great sounding places here, and it has a nice feel to it. The border country on both sides is very attractive indeed, green and very hilly, like a pumped-up Lake District with more farming. They even have English cows. Also a change to finally be somewhere where there is not a gringo in sight, though I did see some leaving at the border. And what a non-existent border, I could have just walked through it (quite a few people were), but what's the point of having a passport if you can't fill it up with stamps from exotic places?

There seems to be three main types in the racial gene pool round here. Europeans - mostly Spanish, native Indians, and Africans - presumably descended from slaves. Most people you can usually see the relative mixtures in their genes. However, most of the street homeless, the people who come on buses to sell you stuff, and the general dodgy street life seem to be either Indian or african. How much this is as a result of displacement by people fleeing terrorists or what, who knows?

A long day to get here, not helped by still feeling a bit faint, etc. Whether that is altitude, yellow fever jab, malaria pills, or other illnesses who knows. I left my big rucksack in Quito, and am travelling light to Colombia. 5.5 hours on a big bus, over the equator (20 kms norht of Quito), and on through some dramatic and beautiful scenery, including this huge long canyon and very big mountains. I must admit that one of the nicest things about travelling is the actual travelling, at least for meeting people and lookimg at the often awesome scenery. But then I got the wrong bus to get across the Ecuadorian border town of Tulcan, and ended up in the middle of nowhere, which enquiries established fortunately happened to be only 1km from the border crossing. And then another minibus to here. My hotel is scabbiest yet, but I do have my own baños, so can't be that bad.

11 Sep Not such a good night sleep due to noisy couple next door, only other time I heard noises like that was in Spain, so its obviously a latin thing. And also the peñas next door, which is like a club for locals and plays a kind of music that is hard to appreciate, being very maudling, slow and melodramatic. The guy couldn't half sing though. Anyway, I got up early as I wanted to get to my goal, only to find that it was raining. Rain! And no coat! I'd forgotten about this thing called rain, I should have suspected when I saw the English cows. Still, it was fairly light. I had a cool breakfast of donuts and coffee in this place on the square while these very upbeat old guys danced around to the loud music, and it was barely past 6 a.m. Having the measure of the public transport system better now, I got myself to the La Sanctuaria with no problem. I thought there might be a few people there as it is Sunday, and it is one of the major religious sites for about a thousand miles, but there were thousands spread all the way from the town walking and even running to the place.

La Sanctuaria de Nuestra Senora de las Lajas is one of the two main reasons I wanted to come to Colobia. It is basically a church on a bridge which spans this spectacular gorge. The story is that an image of the Virgin Mary appeared in the mid-18th century on an enormous rock above the river. The church has been built so that the rock (and image) is its high altar, which looks very unusual but really rather cool. The church itself was packed with the third of about fifteen masses due to be heard that day, complete with Andean sing-songs. Other highlights were my first sight of what I think was deep-fried guinea pig - head and all - though it did seem bit bigger than I remember them being and a lot more like a big fat rat. Either way it looked really gross with its litle teeth and feet, and there is no way on earth I am eating one in that form. In a curry is another matter.

So now I have the hang of Colombian and rural public transport in general, I made it easily back to Quito, which felt like home, and does look great when you come in from the north, miles of colour spread over all these mountains and ravines. So I've paid the rest of my costs for the Cotopaxi climb, and took the chance to get them to take my big rucksack to Valhalla where I stay tomorrow night, so I don't have to walk a mile with it at 3,700 metres. I think I have finally acclimatised, but no point in overdoing it until I have to on Cotopaxi. All being well, you will hear from me next in Baños in a few days time. And then I had some more chips (lots of chips in the Andes) in this cool middle eastern place with nice loud Arab music and friendly people. I also had a realisation that I have heard no 'news' since leaving home. What is happening out there?

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