Colombian Roadtrip – Day 18 – El Cumbal to Pasto

January 3, 2014

Siena is still running a fever and I am starting to worry about it. If it doesn’t go down by tomorrow, we will have to look for a doctor in Pasto. She is also complaining of a headache, a sore throat and a stomach ache. The Dolex helps and she feels fine so I figure it can’t be that serious, but I still hate not knowing what is going on.

Today’s plan was to visit the small town of Cumbal with its gorgeous snow-capped volcano and lake. It’s not in any of the guide books but our Colombian friends told us that it was really beautiful and a must-see when in this part of the country.

The road to Cumbal did turn out to be quite beautiful despite it being so cloudy that we could not see the volcano at all. The town was pretty rough around the edges, the kind of place where people stopped and stared at a car full of gringoes. It had that bleak, high altitude, end-of-the world feel which we had first experienced in Bolivia. This town and its way of life felt far removed from the comforts of more developed places.

Just as we left town to head towards Cumbal Lake, the sky turned grayer and it started drizzling. Not knowing what to do to kill time until we could check into our hotel in Pasto, we decided to go see the lake anyway. Perhaps it would stop raining and we could take a walk or at least let the kids get out of the car and stretch their legs.

The drive to the lake took us deeper into the mountains on some very bad roads. This was a job for a 4-wheel drive SUV, not for our small 2-door Chevy. We started to worry about getting stuck but the lake was only a kilometer away so we decided to press on.

As we drove, we could see farmers working the land, stopping their labor as they heard our car approaching to see who was venturing into these parts. I got the impression that not many people did. Normally, as a traveler, it is pretty exciting to find a place like this, off the beaten path, but I started to wonder if we are venturing into unsafe territory. We are in Colombia, after all, close to a national border, a historically unsafe place.

Just as I was thinking all this, I looked up to see the word FARC (Fuerzas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the country’s main guerilla group) spray painted on a house. I felt my stomach drop. Before I could discreetly point it out to my husband (I didn’t want to alarm the kids), I saw the same acronym spray painted on six more houses nearby. There was a group of six men standing nearby, watching us. I felt like I was going to faint. Did we research online to see if anything had happened in this town recently? Nope. We just went with the recommendation of our friends. Not smart.

In that split second, I felt a tap on my leg. My husband had seen it too. We looked at each other and wordlessly turned the car around trying to get out of there as fast as possible. Perhaps it was painted a while ago (although if that is the case, why didn’t anybody clean it up?) and there was no danger in these parts. Perhaps we were overreacting. After all, our Colombian friends were planning to stop here on their way back from Ecuador. We felt a little wimpy but we had three girls in the car and we are foreigners (thus, much more attractive kidnapping targets according to most Colombians we have spoken with).

*As an aside, our friends did go to the lake and saw plenty of other Colombian visitors there. They thought we overreacted. By the same token, when we researched the town of Cumbal and the surrounding areas on the internet later that night, we found out that there is FARC presence in the area and that there have been murders and kidnappings there in the past six months. This is the thing with a murky security situation… Who? Why? When? Under what circumstances? It is sometime difficult to assess the real danger. But I stand by our decision. No lake is worth spending 6 months or a year in captivity while our families negotiate ransom.

We got to Pasto around 3 pm and checked into our hotel, a decent and clean place located a half of a block away from the carnival procession. Esteban stayed with Siena and Saige at the hotel. They were all tired and wanted to just hang out. While Jade, our 11 year old, and I decided to brave the crowds and the foam to see the parade celebrating the indigenous people of the area. Going out entailed preparation. We put on disposable ponchos which we purchased especially for this occasion, put up our hair under baseball caps and put on sun glasses to keep the foam out of our eyes. We also purchased foam bottles to strike back in the event that we were attacked. We were ready! And it was all good fun!

The parade was amazing with gorgeous costumes and dancing. The people all around us were super friendly and very curious about us. Who are these gringas braving the crowds and the foam?  The foam was actually a lot of fun and we got into it as well, spraying others as good as we got. It’s not every day one can be a kid like this.

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