Gail Howard’s Colombia Travel Adventures Story Part 2
Written by Gail Howard
After Colombia’s 10-year ‘La Violencia’ revolution from 1948 to 1958, in which 200,000 people were killed, many of the children who had witnessed atrocities and bloodshed suffered mentally and became bandits themselves. Filled with intense destructive rage, they killed more than 30,000 people.
Carlos, a friend of Antonio’s who was mayor of Popoyan, Colombia at the time, told me, “Three bandits tied a man to a tree. They attacked his wife and children, then slaughtered them in front of him. Then they killed the father.”
Carlos organized a posse to catch the bandits. Carlos and his five men surrounded the woods, closed in on the three bandits and took them to jail to await trial. He was warned to kill the bandits or they would get away. Carlos wanted to be fair. A few days later the bandits disappeared. Police had let the bandits go because they were old friends.
In Colombia, everyone is a friend of a friend. Carlos, who was educated in the United States, was fed up with the system of individuals getting favors or positions because of having a powerful friends. Carlos said that if he were to do it over again, he would shoot the bandits on the spot.
My sister, Terry Howard, eager to visit archeological sites with me in South America, flew in from New York. Antonio and I met her at the airport, and she was totally charmed by him. For several days, Antonio and his friends entertained us. Then, with great sadness, I had to leave dear Antonio, but it was time to be traveling on.
Terry and I flew from Bogota to Neiva. From there we took a car to Garzon, then on to the archeological site of San Augustin. It rained all the way. Vegetation became tropical with bouquets of fern trees everywhere. Not only were we the only guests at the only hotel in the area, the Yalconia, but we had the entire archeological site of San Augustin to ourselves.
Located throughout the woods were more than 300 large statues carved in stone. Carbon dating showed one of the statues to be 1,800 years old, give or take 100 years. The origin of this culture is still a mystery.
We followed the path that zigzagged through the woods, stopping at each statue along the way. The statues were carved in many different styles. Some have a head above a head, which represents a spirit guide or double self; another appears to be eating a baby; another is an owl with a serpent in its beak; others are a warrior, a god, a woman, a frog, a jaguar, a monkey.
As we turned on the path to look at a huge stone frog, an old Indian caretaker was busily scrubbing the stone with a brush and bucket of water. He told us there were two other places with stones. When he saw how eager we were to see all the places with piedras (stones), he volunteered to arrange horses for us the next morning. We had the hotel pack three lunches. The old man met us promptly at 8 a.m. and we were off.
It was a lovely ride until we reached the foothills outside of town. Then it became a difficult steep mountain trail, a muddy incline over slippery rocks. My poor horse kept falling to its knees, either the front pair or the back, but, fortunately, never both pair at the same time.
Just as we were becoming tired, the guide pointed to the rushing rapids and told us that there, below, were the piedras. I asked him on which side of the Magdalena River. He said both sides.
We tied our horses and walked down the muddy trail to the rocky ledges of the river. I started to look for the piedras, but the guide said we must eat first. We sat on the rocks at the edge of the rushing rapids and ate our lunch. The guide mentioned that Kirk Douglas had made a movie at this Estrechas location.
He then motioned for us to climb back up to the place where we had left our horses. He started leading us back in the direction from which we had just come. Again, I asked where are the piedras? He said that we had just seen them – there, where we had eaten lunch.
Suddenly, we realized that piedras to him meant stones. Not stone statues. We had traveled all that way just to see plain old rocks. As further punishment, the sky opened up and drenched us instantly. The rain was so heavy we could barely see. My bottom went squish, squish in the saddle as I bounced with each step.
My horse kept slipping, half-falling, and I held on tight to keep from sliding over his head. Later when the sun came out, Terry and I sang cowboy songs all the way back to the hotel.
After three days in San Augustin, we boarded an open bus. Within minutes, we were coated with dust. Four weary hours later, we arrived in Garcon. From Garcon, we took a car to Neiva, where we spent the night.
On Tuesday, market day, Terry and I went to the Indian village of Silvia in the mountains above Popoyan. The locals speak Quechua and sell fruit, dried herbs, belts, bags, parrots, pigs, hens – and you can have your fortune picked by a bird.
Archeologist Gregorio Hernandez de Alba in Bogota had told us about the mysterious La Yunga rock near Popoyan. He referred us to Dr. Jaime Valencia, Director of Indian Affairs (Asuntos Indigenas) in Popoyan, who drove us in his Jeep to see it.
The rock lies 20 miles west of Popoyan in a wilderness named La Yunga. The 40-cubic meter boulder has 267 signs carved on its flat side. Local Indians have long feared the stone, believing that demons etched the marks with their claws.
Dr. Valencia informed us that Padre Leopoldo Von Kinder had deciphered the markings and identified them as Phoenician, from 180 B.C. After seeing the boulder, we wanted to meet Von Kinder and learn more. Dr. Valencia drove us to his house. A young woman answered the bell and invited us to be seated in the ‘parlor.’