We visit the stunning sanctuary at Las Lajas and we become stunned by the masses seeking sanctuary from Venezuela. We also set a new border record….not the good kind.
Tuesday, March 20th
Time to leave Cali. My goal for the day was to make it as close to the Ecuador border as possible. I would have a few delays, so this would be as far as I would get:
The day began with really heavy rain. I delayed my departure, trying to wait it out, but eventually decided to start to plow my way through. I felt a little embarrassed that I had not really seen anything in Cali during my time there. I decided to at least go see the Cristo Rey (Christ the King) statue which overlooks the city on my way out of town.
This morning I began to realize just how big Cali is. It took me a long time to wind up the roads to where the statue was located.
I arrived at about 8:40 to a closed gate. It did not open until 9:00.
Important announcement: “I” was the 200,000th word that I’ve written on this blog. Hooray. Sorry for the interruption.
was right on the edge of whether to wait or whether to continue. There was nowhere to take shelter from the precipitation. As any person of faith can testify, waiting on the LORD is one of the most difficult tasks. 🙂
I decided to wait since I had already ridden all of the way up there. At 8:58 one of the staff entered. I asked if I could come in, but he said that I had to wait. He made sure to padlock the gate behind him after he entered. Around 9:10, I was allowed entry.
Many months ago, I got to see “Touchdown Jesus” at Notre Dame (August 1st).
So what was this Jesus? I would recommend “Big hug Jesus,” “Ready for liftoff Jesus,” “‘The fish I caught was this big’ Jesus,” or, sticking with the football theme, “Unsportsmanlike conduct Jesus.”
It was too cloudy for any views of the city, but this was still a nice detour. I’m sure it’s pretty spectacular on clear days.
I had a tough time getting out of Cali. When it’s raining hard, I can’t have my phone out for navigation. I made a few wrong turns, but eventually got out onto the open road.
It was a pretty miserable day of riding…lots of rain, construction, sections of road missing…Just like in southern Mexico, the roads seem to get worse towards the south of Colombia.
But there was a literal and figurative light at the end of the tunnel: The rain eventually let up and I had a couple hours of pleasant riding.
Because of the delays, I pushed the sunset a little more than I should have. I found a hotel next to a gas station and inquired about a room. They only had a double room available, so I had to pay a little more than I would like (about $12). My next option would have required night time riding, so staying there was an easy decision.
There was a cheap, local restaurant at the gas station which provided a sufficient supper. Despite the conditions, this was an effective travel day.
Wednesday, March 21st
The morning light revealed that my hotel actually had a pretty view of the valley.
I returned to the same restaurant for a nice $2 breakfast.
I was excited for this day. Today I was going to visit the Las Lajas sanctuary. This was probably the first attraction in Colombia that I had on my list. It is an absolute “must visit.”
Since I had pushed hard the day before, I was in no rush. I leisurely made my way to the little town of Las Lajas.
This sanctuary was built in the early 20th century. It is both a chapel and a bridge which spans across the Guaitara River. It was built to commemorate an 18th century apparition of the Virgin Mary.
I parked in an area for motorcycles, but there was no one to take my money. It is a bit of a walk down to the valley, probably 15 minutes or so down a steep path. My first view of the sanctuary was stunning.
Time for the picture:word ratio to trend favorably
(Yes, that statue features six strings and just four tuning pegs. I have registered an official complaint.)
After I went inside, a service started. I tried to do my best Catholic impression, but I can never remember whether crossing oneself is left to right or right to left.
Either this place is still relatively undiscovered by tourists, or I just came on a good day. The area was not crowded and most of the visitors sounded like locals.
I do wish the light would have been more favorable for photography, but it is a truly difficult task to take a poor picture of this location.
There’s an overlook trail to the SE…
…and a lower hiking trail to the NW
From below an arch:
One of the most fascinating things to me were the plaques giving thanks to the Virgin Mary. They populated every relatively flat surface.
Most were pretty general, giving thanks for health and family. Others were more specific, like the one below giving thanks for reaching a goal in education.
Beneath the sanctuary is a confessional chapel.
The atmosphere was a strange mix, almost a tranquil eeriness. I spent some time in quiet meditation, as I was the only one here.
The lights constantly change hues. Each picture I took almost has a distinct personality.
On my way out, I realized that I had almost forgone my pledge to always photograph flying buttresses.
As I rode away, I noticed an overlook spot that I had missed on my way in. It really offers a nice overview of the site. (The sanctuary is small, but I’m going to leave it uncropped.)
It was hardly noon, but my day was essentially done. I returned to Ipiales, the last city before the Ecuadorian border. In theory, I had plenty of time to cross into Ecuador, but I’d heard this border had been super congested recently. I decided that it would be best to stay in Ipiales and tackle the border early the next day.
I checked into Hotel Metropol. It was about $12 for the night. The room was nothing fancy…
…but I cannot imagine having a better view.
I spent the rest of the day writing, eating junk food and preparing for the border.
Thursday, March 22nd
On this day, I was going to be crossing from Colombia to Ecuador. However, I believe it is important for me to begin by talking about another country: Venezuela.
Venezuela is currently suffering the greatest economic collapse in the modern history of the Western Hemisphere. However, It does not appear that many North Americans know much about the things that are happening there. Though I am far from an expert on the subject, I’ve tried hard to educate myself on the situation. I’d like to try my best to at least summarize what’s going on.
As with any crisis, it’s hard to know when the story actually begins. Perhaps it’s best to begin with the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998. Chavez promised radical revolution for Venezuela, focusing on helping those in poverty and being heavy handed against corruption.
Venezuela has an incredible amount of oil reserves, given its relatively small size. It is estimated that they are sitting on 20% of the proven oil reserves in the world. When oil prices began to spike in 2004, Chavez had his opportunity to enact a plethora of programs. Despite being much maligned early in his presidency/dictatorship (which even featured a coup attempt), Chavez became popular among the people once he began spending the hefty oil revenues on social programs.
In 2006, oil accounted for only 56% of Venezuela’s exports. By 2012 that number was up to 96%. The economy had lost any semblance of diversification. When oil, which is always cyclical, came down again; the economy had absolutely no way to support itself.
Furthermore, Chavez had nationalized a countless number of businesses, from banks to construction companies to supermarkets. He gutted the constitution and destabilized the separation of government powers. He truly believed that having his government control everything, would provide the best results for Venezuela. His model was woefully unsustainable.
Chavez died in 2013. His handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, is still in power. The next “election” is scheduled for May, but the opposition party has already decided to boycott. Chavez’s party has continued to use underhanded tactics to remain in power. But even if there was complete political freedom and cooperation, it is hard to see a way out of this crisis.
So what does this mean for Venezuelans?
The access to basic supplies like food and medicine, is growing harder by the day. 75% of Venezuelans have lost an average of 19 pounds. Many pick through trash barrels to find food. Due to the hyper-inflation, their currency is worth almost nothing. In fact, some Venezuelans have begun to use the bogus bills to weave crafts to sell in neighboring countries.
(photo from http://www.looptt.com/nl/node/297520)
There is very little motivation for anybody to work in Venezuela, since they will be compensated in a currency which shows no signs of stabilizing. Because of this, crime is increasing rapidly, oil exports are falling, people are fleeing the country and the situation shows no signs of improving.
The following graph really struck me. It does a good job summarizing Venezuela’s woes.
Economists estimate that in 2018, the inflation rate will reach 13,000%. A current version of the inflation line on this graph would easily stretch to the next floor above where you are sitting.
At least one fifth of the population have now emigrated from Venezuela. Neighboring Colombia has been fairly generous in their handling of the influx of Venezuelans. But though Colombia has made great strides in recent years, it is not economically equipped to handle such a major migration.
It’s hard to see a way out of this crisis, short of a bloody, armed insurrection against those in power. I sincerely hope that it does not come to this.
I don’t have the historical aptitude to truly evaluate Hugo Chavez’s legacy, but I think one of two things is true: First, I think it is possible that his motivations were actually benevolent. If this was the case, he was either too ignorant or too blind to evaluate the long-term consequences of his actions. The other plausible scenario is that Chavez was always a power-hungry despot who would do anything to realize and retain his power. Either way, he built a very fragile house of cards and the common people are the ones who are paying the price.
(I know that a motorcycle blog is not the place that people normally go to read geopolitical pieces, but I really felt that I had to write about this. My heart just breaks for these people and I don’t know what else I can do, besides calling attention to the crisis.)
So how does this crisis affect me?
There used to be 6 or 7 buses a week that traveled from Venezuela to the Ecuadorian border at Ipiales. Currently, there are about 70 buses, packed full, arriving every single day.
I got a fairly early start to the day, rolling up to the border right at 7am.
I was taken aback at the length of the line at this early hour. Seeing my pasty complexion, a guy came up to me and offered to take me to the front of the line (for a fee, of course). He warned that it would be a three hour wait if I didn’t accept his offer. I refused his services without asking the price. In paying to jump the line, I felt that I would be adding my own cracks to an already crumbling system.
It turns out that this guy was a liar, too. The wait was actually closer to five hours. It bears mentioning that this was just to get the exit stamp to leave Colombia. During this duration in line, I had lots of time to observe all of the families on the move. As much as this was an inconvenience for me, these people were essentially fleeing for their lives. I tried to maintain a correct perspective.
About half-way through the line, so close yet so far.
About three hours in, a young lady (speaking American English) approached me to verify that she was in the right line. Apparently she had surveyed the hundreds of people in the line and judged that I was the most likely one to speak English. I’m not sure if I should feel flattered or not.
She returned awhile later, essentially asking if she could join in at my place in the line. Someone had told her that it would not look out of place for gringos to be together. I told her that she could do what she wants, but that it did not see right to me so I wasn’t going to help. Yes, I am very good with the ladies. 🙂
A few times during the wait I walked over to check on Annie. She was parked right in the flow for the entrance stamp line. One time a few young guys were leaning on her. I uttered a gruff “disculpe” (excuse me) which I hoped could not be mistaken for either courtesy or disrespect.
I was fortunate to be stuck in line with a nice young guy from Germany. Though in the interest of full disclosure, I don’t think we really started talking until our respective handheld devices were at critical battery levels. 🙂 He had been backpacking around the world, in the easterly direction, and had already visited the Middle-East and Asia. He also follows American football closely. I think he was one of the first people to ask me my opinion on the Alex Smith trade. (No me gusta.)
Five hours after lining up, I was finally at the counter. Given the slow pace of the line I figured there would be a thorough interrogation once I reached the window. Nope. The guy didn’t even make eye contact with me. Despite all of of the people trying to get permission to leave Colombia, there were only two people exit-stamping passports.
The picture from up by the window is possibly the most powerful.
The distant-center is about the midway point of the line. It stretches out of sight to the left side of the frame.
I was free to go, but I still had to deal with Annie. I found the Aduana (Customs) and waited for about 10 minutes, giving me plenty of time to study the stickers of other adventurers.
Does my trip not count if I don’t have a sticker? I didn’t know that was a requirement.
When I finally got someone’s attention, I found out that I just needed to hand my import paper in. Thanks for the memories, Colombia. Ecuador, here we come.
I entered with a hopeful disposition. The only way there could be a line was if the process was slower than Colombia, right?
As I pulled up, I was offered another line jumping deal. The conversation distracted me and I accidentally left my camera running.
My hope dissipated quickly as I rounded the building in search of the end of the line. It would be another long wait. After the first hour or so, I at least had Annie in my sights. It was mildly amusing to watch people’s reaction to her.
It started to rain, but I was able to retrieve my rain jacket from my case. Most of the other people were not as well equipped. I can’t imagine trying to do this wait with kids in tow. Being a parent has to be the world’s toughest job. A lot of the kids seemed in good spirits though, at least the ones young enough to be oblivious of the crisis they were fleeing.
Early on in the line, they did come by to label everybody to discourage line jumping. I appreciated this.
The entry interview was quick and painless. I had my visa. Getting Annie in was another hurdle. The office which I needed to visit was empty for a long time and it was very difficult to find out what to do next. Things had obviously changed since the last reports that I had researched.
Once someone finally returned to the office, the process was smooth. Miraculously, I wasn’t even asked to make any copies.
At 3:48pm, my border crossing was finally completed. This one clocked in at 8 hours and 51 minutes, the longest of the trip. (Unless you count the multi-week crossing between Panama and Colombia.)
Whew…How do I sum up this one? There are many requisite attributes for traveling on a long-term basis. (I hopefully own at least a couple of them.) One important trait is perspective, being able to understand the context in which things are happening. Maintaining a proper perspective on this long day of waiting was vital in transforming my attitude from annoyance to condolence. Call me a “bleeding heart” if you want, I’ve been called much worse. 🙂
Keep your economy diversified and your currency stable, everybody.
Realtime update: Hello, all. Sorry for the delay since my last update. I’m still in Cusco, Peru with my parents. I’m sort of on vacation right now, so I’ve allocated a lot less time to writing. Plus, it’s really hard to write a post with your parents critiquing everything.
Tomorrow evening I will be flying back to Quito, Ecuador, arriving on Thursday morning. I’ll reunite with Annie and spend some more time with my new family in Cayambe. Updates will probably be a bit more sparse for the next 4 weeks or so, then my trip will kick back into full swing. Thanks for coming along!