Friday, August 7, 2009

Bless our bus.

Most guidebooks and our fellow travelers had suggested staying in Pastos rather than Ipiales on our way to the Ecuadorian border. But having passed through Pastos, I can’t say it was any more appealing than Ipiales. And Ipiales had something Pastos didn’t – El Sanctuario de Las Lajas. We had seen pictures of this ornate gothic-style church stretching across a canyon and despite being another church, we knew we had to go there. So after our scalding hot shower, we met Nick and Heather for a quick breakfast at their hotel then grabbed a taxi to take out to the church.

Now, I had imagined the sanctuario to be in the middle of the countryside, a faraway place to which people made pilgrimages. So I was a little surprised when we were let off in the middle of the next town over. We were surrounded by small hotels, religious street vendors and, for some reason, hardware stores. The church was nowhere in sight. I asked the driver where it was and he pointed to a ramp lined with more kiosks and cafes. So the four of us began the steep walk down (which means a steep walk back up). The kiosks thinned out revealing the walls of the canyon. Well the walls were sort of revealed, because in reality they were covered in plaques and statuary. Each was a personal thank you to the virgin of who they believed responsible for some miracle. Some were very elaborate but most were just simple plaques baring the name of the purchaser, I mean, happy devotee and they went on and on and on. When we got to the final bend in the path, we could finally see the church. It wasn’t quite as big as I thought it would be but it was still pretty. The four of us agreed to split up and meet back at the top in an hour.

So why was this impressive church here? Well, apparently many years ago, the Virgin Mary appeared to someone in the rocks of the canyon. The devoted soon flocked to the site, making this second only to Lourdes for pilgrimages and miracles. A small church was built and then later the bigger gothic-style one across the raging river, the one we were now standing in front of. Mass was going on – one of three a day, seven days a week – so we decided to walk to the bottom of the river canyon for the best view of the church (photo above). Of course that meant doubling our walk back up but it was worth it. After lots of pictures we huffed and we puffed our way back up to the church. Mass was over but there were still plenty of devoted giving confession to priests, and praying to the image of Mary behind the altar. The image in the rocks had long since been “highlighted” by paint, i.e. completely replaced by a painting. I took a few more snaps inside and out then started the steep walk back up to the beginning of the path.

Nick and Heather weren’t there yet and since they were the ones in a bit of rush (they had to get to Otavalo, Ecuador before 2 to keep their reservation), I wondered if perhaps they meant meet up at the beginning of the plaques not the ramp. Adrian went down to find them. Yup their top was different than our top. No worries, we caught a taxi and headed back to the hotel to get our backpacks. Except our taxi wasn’t a taxi, when we got to town he told us he was a collectivo and could only take us to the bus terminal. Nick convinced him to drop us off in the square a few blocks from the hotel. Heather started to get a bit worried because time was ticking away and she didn’t want to lose her reservation. But in less than 10 minutes we had all grabbed our stuff, checked out and gotten into another cab, this time to the border.

As we got closer to the border, the traffic became thick with transport trucks and buses. Through the traffic I thought I spotted Colombian immigration but the cabbie kept driving (albeit stop and go). Ahead of us I could see the Bienvenidos a Ecuador sign, which is actually a bad sign. We need to stamp out of Colombia first. So I asked the cabbie where the Colombian immigration office is and he points back. Good thing we hadn’t gotten very far. We paid the cabbie and walked back to the office through the maze of vehicles all beeping their horns at us. As soon as we got to the steps of the buildings we were swarmed by money changers. They hang around us as we get our passports stamped and Nick the great bargainer manages to get them to improve their exchange rate. We still lost about $10 in the transaction but that’s the price you pay. Now we retraced our steps to the Ecuador border. It takes forever to get through the short line as the immigration officials thoroughly check the papers for all the children in the family ahead of us. Apparently, child trafficking happens in these parts. Not a pleasant thought but at least they’re trying hard to stop it. Eventually, Nick and Heather got through so Nick headed off to find transit for us using his amazing bargaining skills while Adrian and I made our way through the formalities. When we were finished, Nick and Heather were waiting with a taxi to the bus station in the next town for only $4. Ecuador, I like your prices.

At the bus station, the bargains continue. Nick had just enough time to call their hostel to let them know they were a bit late and then we’re on the bus to Otavalo. It was only $3 each and took as through some stunning country. However only 23km from our destination the bus broke down. I guess we should have asked for a bus blessing while we were at the church. However, within minutes another bus pulled up and we were piled on. There were no seats for the first bit – scary – but as people got off seats freed up for all of us. Not only did we lose our seats on this new bus but we also lost our ride into Otavalo. This bus was on its way to Quito so we were let off on the highway just outside of town. Nick and Heather considered walking but the town looked like it was still a bit off. Adrian flagged down a taxi and was told it was just $1 to town. Nick and Heather changed their mind and we all jumped into the taxi. It was a short ride to Nick and Heather’s hostel but definitely too long to walk.

Unfortunately for us, there were no rooms available at Nick and Heather’s hostel, unless we wanted to share a room with them. As nice as the two Londoners were, that was just too much togetherness. But they did offer those beds if we couldn’t find a room. No worries, the place next door had room and it was in fact where we were going to stay. We settled in and then headed out to get something to eat in the main square. Even though the big market day was the next day, there was a big tourist market packing up. Otavalo is famed for its market day but it was such a big draw that many sellers continued to sell stuff every day. Hopefully, the stuff we’d see tomorrow would be different from the typical souvenirs they were selling today. But just in case, our first stop was the locals only animal market first thing in the morning. That meant getting up at the crack of dawn. So after dinner it was back to the hostel for an early night.

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