Sunday, March 29, 2020

The sights and statues of San Agustin, Colombia

San Agustin is an unassuming small town in the Andes Mountains of western Colombia, but it’s surrounded by what’s said to be the largest complex of megalithic funerary monuments, statues and structures, burial mounds and terraces in Latin America, some of which are estimated to date back to before 1,000 B.C.

They’re most concentrated in an area five kilometres outside of town which since 1931 has been the San Agustin Archaeological Park. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site 64 years later. A bus or taxi can get you there easily and economically, and 50,000 pesos (approximately $17.50 Canadian) gets you a two-day entry passport and a guide to take you around and explain what you’re seeing, although little is known about the various monuments.

The guide spoke very minimal English, but we had a fully bilingual tour leader from Tucan Travel to translate what he said about the history and mystery of the relics. The guide further entertained our group by playing a pan flute and creating a finger painting of various colours derived entirely from different plants he found as we walked.

A trail through a scenic and calming cloud forest leads to the archaeological park’s four main sites, which are clustered and within easy walking distance of each other.

About 20 earthen mounds within the park boundaries, some measuring as much as 30 metres in diameter, covered large stone tombs of the upper and ruling class members of the long gone society. 

Many of these tombs feature statues of gods, supernatural beings and animals including jaguars, crocodiles and bats, all carved from volcanic rock. While much is believed to be still buried, there are approximately 200 known statues within the park. The tallest one excavated so far is about seven metres tall, and many others are more than four metres and weigh several tons.

The ancient San Agustín sites were abandoned around 1350 AD and rediscovered during the 18th and 19th centuries, which led to people looting and disturbing the monumental tombs. There was little in the way of great riches to be found, aside from an archaeological standpoint, which likely aided in the preservation of the carved and painted stones. Much of the paint has worn away, but it’s still evident on some statues. 

One of the most important and impressive sites of the park is the ceremonial Lavapatas fountain, which is comprised of a set of carved rocks on the bed of the creek that bears the same name and is believed to have been related to cults that worshipped water. The channels that carry water up to three ponds are silhouettes of snakes and lizards. 

Aside from the tombs, statues and fountain, the elevated location of part of the archaeological park also provides excellent views of the surrounding countryside and mountains. 

After walking around the park for more than three hours, I spent another 30 minutes visiting a small on-site museum to learn more about the area, its significance and the civilization that created the things in the park, as well as to see tools, urns and other objects related to past inhabitants.

A taxi took me into town, which like most Colombian cities has a main central square dominated by a church and important public buildings. There wasn’t a lot to see, but I walked around for an hour to check out the architecture and pick up snacks and a bottle of rum at a grocery store. 

I caught another taxi to my lovely accommodations outside of town at the rustic Hostela Anacona, which offered green vistas, bright flowers, tasty food and inexpensive cans of cold Club Colombia Dorada beer.

There are two other archaeological sites, El Tablon and La Chaquira, not far from the hotel. The former offered more statues to look at, but the longer walk to the second one was a nice, light hike that ends with great views of a Magdalena River valley and waterfalls as well as a few small carvings in large rocks.

The Magdalena, the most important river in Colombia, crosses the country along 1,500 kilometres from south to north before emptying into the Caribbean Sea. I encountered it a few times during my two weeks in the country.

The walk back to the hotel provided photo opportunities of vividly coloured plants as well as local people, animals and buildings.

The next day would present the longest and roughest bus ride of my Colombian trip, but I was prepared for it after this relaxing respite in San Agustin.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Zipaquira, Colombia’s Salt Cathedral

I’d heard of Poland’s Wieliczka Salt Mine cathedral and, as long as travel bans are lifted by the end of June, I plan to visit it as part of a summer trip to Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. (Editor's Note: the European trip has been cancelled due to COVID-19.) 

But until I started researching for the trip to Colombia I took this past December, I was unaware of the Catedral de Sal de Zipaquira.

Zipaquira is a city of 130,000 people located just 50 kilometres northeast of the Colombian capital of Bogota, though with the heavy traffic in the metropolis of eight million people it took a couple of hours to get there by van. A tourist train also runs between the two cities.

While Zipaquira has lovely colonial architecture and has gained local notoriety for its boarding school where Nobel Prize in Literature winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez studied during his teen years (and which is now open to visitors to showcase his time there), it’s best known for the Roman Catholic church built within its tunnels 200 metres underground.

While the Salt Cathedral isn’t officially recognized by the Catholic Church as a cathedral because it doesn’t have a bishop, it holds regular services and is a functioning church in addition to being a tourist attraction.

Salt had been mined from the site for centuries before more modern techniques were introduced in the 20th century to extract it more efficiently. Work on the original cathedral began in the early 1930s and expanded in 1950. It was officially inaugurated in 1954.

However, since the cathedral was carved out of an active mine, structural problems and safety concerns arose that led to it being closed in 1992. Work began on another cathedral by making additions to caves created by previous mining operations, and it was inaugurated in 1995.

Upon entering, after paying a U.S. $17.65 admission fee for a one-hour guided tour in English, visitors can stop at 14 small chapels representing the stations of the cross — which illustrate the events of Jesus’ final journey before he was crucified. 

After reaching the entrance ramp to The Dome, there’s a balcony offering views of a bas relief of a large cross. You then descend further to get a closer look and to see three interconnected naves.

After taking in the cathedral, the site offers other attractions to lengthen your stay. I watched a 15-minute 3D film about the mine and sat through an eight-minute sound and light show that made me think of a low-budget version of Las Vegas’ Fremont Street Experience. I passed on the virtual reality room and gift shops, but walked by a few small exhibits and through a simulated emerald mine since the mineral is quite prominent in Colombia.

Upon returning to the surface and bright sunlight, visitors can also walk through a small maze, take a short zipline ride or check out the Brine Museum to learn more about the extraction process on the grounds of Salt Park.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Marvelous Meteora and Delphi

I’ve been fascinated by the clifftop monasteries that balance precariously  in the Meteora region of central Greece since seeing them in the 1981 James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only.

My previous time in Greece was spent farther south in Athens and on the islands of Ios and Corfu, so the opportunity last July to travel 230 kilometres southwest from Thessaloniki to this wondrous location next to the town of Kalabaka as part of a journey traversing eight Balkan nations was one I couldn’t pass up.

Twenty-four monasteries were built in this area to serve monks and nuns following the teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church between the 14th and 16th centuries. Six remain functioning, four sparsely occupied by monks and two by nuns, in what was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.

It cost three Euros (approximately $4.50 Canadian) to enter the biggest building of the Monastery of Great Meteoron, the largest and highest of the six. Climbing several flights of stairs is required to get to the top, and visitors can enter a church, a small museum and reproductions of an old kitchen and carpenter shop.

But it’s the spectacular exterior views that are the main draws of Meteora. I only had a few hours to spend here and the monasteries are spaced widely enough apart that there wasn’t time to visit the others: Varlaam; Rousanou; St. Nicholas Anapausas; St. Stephen; and The Holy Trinity.

However, even if I couldn’t enter these other structures, which at some point I’d like to have the time to do in the future, there were still vistas to be cherished from a distance from the viewpoints I was able to access. 

The concept of building these beautiful places of worship and contemplation on these steep natural pedestals more than 500 years ago, when ladders and rope pulleys were the only way of accessing and transporting materials to the top, boggles my mind.

It was time to board a bus again, and while its air conditioning was more comfortable than the 40-degree Celsius heat of Meteora, perspiration would have been a small price to pay for wandering around a place that I wanted to experience more than any other on this trip for several more hours.

It was another 230 kilometres to Delphi, much of it on winding roads through mountains, and the lovely views out the window lessened the blow of leaving Meteora. 

We arrived at 7 p.m. in Delphi, and I got fine looks of the mountains from the balcony of my room at Hotel Hermes. There are only two commercial streets in the small town, and I walked them both while checking out menus and taking photos of the surrounding landscape.

I bought a craft pilsner beer from Elixi Microbrewery, which is named after the town and comes in a unique bottle, and drank it on that balcony before heading out again for dinner.

I chose to eat at a small place where I was the only customer, perhaps because it was on the other side of the street from the restaurants offering much better views from their terraces. My meal consisted of a Greek salad, homemade bread, a plate of spaghetti, a large pork souvlaki skewer with green peppers, homemade French fries and a plate of different types of melon. It was more than adequate taste-wise, very filling and a good deal at 10 Euros (approximately $15 Canadian). People-watching on my sidewalk table was free.

I took another walk to work off some of the food, had another beer, and was in bed by the relatively early hour of 12:30 a.m.

While the town is quaint, Delphi is on the radar of tourists because of its historical significance and ancient ruins on the southwestern slope of Mount Parnassus. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is best known as being home to the Oracle of Delphi — an extremely influential priestess through whom the god Apollo is said to have spoken.

The archaeological site dates back to the eighth century B.C. and includes the remains of the Temple of Apollo, other temples, treasuries, statues, monuments, a theatre, a gymnasium, a stadium, a hippodrome and other structures.

The Delphi Archaeological Museum has been built at the site to house a collection of artifacts that have been excavated over the years, beginning in earnest with digs by the French Archaeological School in 1893.

A guided 2.5-hour morning tour allowed enough time to take everything in before it was time to board the bus for the final stop on this journey: Athens. There was one more photo stop near the base of Mount Parnassus ski area, the largest in the country, before the winding mountain roads started to straighten out as the terrain flattened before Athens came into view in mid-afternoon.

If you’d like to get a taste of what several countries in this part of the world is like, I’d recommend TravelTalk’s All About Balkans tour. The regular price is $2,570, but tours from March through November are now on sale for $1,414.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

North Macedonia’s Ohrid and Skopje

I passed through Macedonia on an overnight train in July 1991, a couple of months before its referendum vote to gain independence from the former Yugoslavia. On my most recent visit this past July, five months after the country was officially renamed the Republic of North Macedonia after a lengthy dispute with Greece, I didn’t sleep through most of it.

After leaving the Albanian capital of Tirana and entering North Macedonia after traversing winding roads through beautiful mountain scenery for two-and-a-half hours, my bus dropped me off at the 74-room Hotel Aura on the shore of Lake Ohrid. While the country is landlocked, the lake — one of the deepest in Europe and with a surface area of 388 square kilometres — provides waterfront views that would be the envy of some nations with ocean ports.

I walked along the stony beach — which was full of bars, restaurants and hotels, though not all were open — for as far as I could go before turning around and stopping for a casual dinner at Grill and Pizza Boni. A basket of bread, a Macedonian salad (comprised of tomatoes, onions and peppers), a large bacon cheeseburger and French fries set me back 330 denars (approximately eight Canadian dollars).

After drinking a couple of beers while catching up with emails and social media in my hotel room, I went for another beach walk. I had one end of it all to myself so I was able to listen to the waves lap up against the shore and admire a very clear night sky full of stars. If I can’t be with someone special, I cherish moments like that by myself where I can appreciate the moment and the environment and how lucky I am to be experiencing them.

After a nightcap on the hotel terrace with some newfound friends, I went to bed at 1:30 a.m., anticipating getting up in five hours to experience more of the lake and the city that bears its name.

The first stop the next morning was the Monastery of Saint Naum, which is located on the lake and has a river running behind it. After 45 minutes of walking around the scenic grounds and admiring the architecture of a site that was first established as a monastery in 905, it was time to board the bus again for the drive into Ohrid.

The city of more than 40,000 people once was home to 365 churches — one for every day of the year — and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It’s also said to be where the Cyrillic alphabet has its origins. 

A local guide, who’s also a professor of tourism management and the environment at the local university, was entertaining and informative as he conducted a walking tour of Ohrid’s hilly old town. Stops included St. Sophia Church and the 13th century Church of St. Jovan at Kaneo, which sits on a point overlooking the lake.

I continued on my own from there up a trail that partially went through a forest to the hilltop Tsar Samuels Fortress. I climbed on top of its walls to get great views of the lake, the city, the mountains and what remains of the of the fortress that acted as the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire at the turn of the 10th century.

I walked back down into the old town via a different route and explored churches, an ancient theatre that originally dated back to 200 B.C., and several homes and other buildings that are hundreds of years old. 

I ended up on a lengthy all-pedestrian street in the newer part of the city and then turned back to walk along a lakefront promenade before it was time to board a bus to continue my journey.

There was more exquisite mountain scenery on the drive to Skopje, which included passing through an Albanian-dominated area where ethnic skirmishes early this century resulted in many deaths and almost led to a war between the two countries. 

We stopped at Matka Canyon and had three-and-a-half hours to spend in one of North Macedonia’s most popular outdoor destinations. A 20-minute boat ride up the Treska River passed by sheer cliffs that rose on both sides as well as more gradually inclined tree-covered areas.

We disembarked at Vrelo Cave, which some have speculated may be the deepest underwater cave in the world. The public is allowed to visit the most easily accessible parts of the cave, which is full of stalactites and interesting formations, and I spent 15 minutes taking it in before having to return to the boat to cruise back to the starting point.

Having seen things from the water, I hiked a trail along the river, the canyon walls and forested areas for 30 minutes before returning along the same route. That still gave me time for a pint at the riverside restaurant before boarding the bus for a 30-minute ride to the modern, four-star Panoramika Design Hotel in Skopje, the capital and largest city of North Macedonia with about one-quarter of the country’s 2.1 million people.

A group of people took taxis to the city centre for dinner and drinks at St. Patrick’s Irish Pub (not my choice). A chicken Caesar salad, calf’s liver and boiled potatoes set me back 400 denars (approximately $10 Canadian), while several half-litre mugs of beer cost 120 dinars (approximately three dollars Canadian) each. Four shots of rakia, a fruit brandy popular in the Balkans, also appeared in front of me and were quickly downed.

The pub was part of a vibrant night-time scene on one side of the Vardar River, which featured impressive government buildings on the other side reachable by bridges adorned with statues. They look more impressive while illuminated at night though, as I found out on a walking tour the next morning, Skopje’s architecture has a lot to offer.

The tour began at the former train station that was largely destroyed by a 1963 earthquake that killed more than 1,000 people. The earthquake happened at 5:17 a.m. and the clock on the wall of the station, which is now home to the Museum of the City of Skopje, still shows that time to memorialize those who perished in the quake.

A major rebuilding program began early in the last decade and is still ongoing, although fiscal restraint has stalled or cancelled some projects. There are several statues around the city centre, including one of Mother Teresa, who was born in Skopje. A fortress overlooks the city, as does a large cross on a hill farther out.

An inclined area in one of the oldest parts of Skopje features its bazaar, a cobblestoned street area of shops, restaurants, bars and a microbrewery that was unfortunately closed that morning.

It was time to continue my journey and move on to Greece, but I enjoyed the few days I spent in North Macedonia and recommend it to those looking for a relatively untouristed destination in eastern Europe.

If you’d like to get a taste of what several countries in this part of the world is like, I’d recommend TravelTalk’s All About Balkans tour. The regular price is $2,570, but tours from March through November are now on sale for $1,414.