I am on a journey to Tierradentro, an archeological site of underground burial chambers scattered over a swathe of steep green Andes. These painted caverns were dug by a long-forgotten people into the volcanic rock on ridges and small plateaus on some of the most spectacular Colombian mountain scenery.
But Tierradentro, literally the inner land, has a much richer back-story than just a tomb with a view. It sits deep in the contested mountain reserves of the Colombia’s Paez Indians and still pulses with the resistance that took root 500 years ago when the conquistadors first stumbled their horses over its rocky riverbeds in their search for riches. And driving there across the mountains from Cali is going to be huge fun. But which way to go? Maps show several routes west to east across the Central Cordillera. Maybe the internet can help.
A quick google throws up several websites with digital maps, with Las- Distancia.com also giving a 28-step detailed set of instructions: “Turn Left at Carrera 3” etc all the way along Route 37, a mountain road which runs east along the skirts of the volcano Nevado de Huila, past the towns of Toribio and Paez, all the way to the Tierradentro, in total “202 kms and 4 hours 40 minutes drive.” I double check on INVIAS, the Colombian road authority website with its Viajero Seguro (Safe Traveler) maps.
It shows the same route along Route 37. So we set off early next morning driving east across the misty Cauca valley. The closing mountain range, silhouted by the rising sun, rises over the misty cane fields like a giant cardboard cut-out. What can go wrong?
We stop at El Palo, a small town on the edge of the cordillera and gateway to Route 37, that should take us into the mountains close to a town called Toribio. The local road-signs are spray painted with “FARC-EP…present,” the calling card of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group. This doesn’t look good. A soldier is standing on the street corner street. We ask him how to get to the turn- off. “Don’t know, ask a local,” he says. He seems a little nervous. We see a foot patrol moving up the street, equally alert.
We sit down in a small café. The owner gives us coffee, cornbread and eggs all served with a big smile. A local strolls across the road to the café. He is in green shorts, a short woollen poncho and a camouflage cap with a Che Guevara sticker. I get the feeling he is coming to see us. ‘Do you like Ché Guevara?’ I ask him as way of opening the conversation and, also to assess if his cap logo is a fashion statement or something more political (because with El Ché it can go either way). “Yes, I like him, very much,” he replies. I explain our planned route and he shakes his head. “You cannot travel this way through the mountains, the road is very long and slow. You will find it… inconvenient. Best to take a different way.”
A file of soldiers pass by the café, but our new friend does not even glance up. Then woomph there is a loud explosion from the hillside be- hind. “Are they blasting the road,” I ask, hoping it might just be dynamite to clear rocks. “No,” he says calmly. “There’s fighting.” He suggests anoth- er route that runs across the mountains from further south down the main road towards the city of Popayán.
We finish breakfast and drive south on a road running parallel to the Andes, with the mountains now seeming more impenetrable than ever, passing army checkpoints, armored cars and more “FARC present” graffiti. Our carefully-printed Google maps flutter uselessly on the dashboard.
“Bloody Google,” I moan. “You would think they would know better than to send us into a war zone.” We are stuck on the main highway now, battling double over-taking buses and thundering trucks all hell-bent to get to Popayan before us. Several times we are forced onto
the berm and nearly into the ditch. I begin to ponder if this mad traffic, clear- ly a known risk, is more or less danger- ous than the known unknowns of the mountain route (landslides, blockages, crumbling roads), and where do the army and guerrillas fit in on the risk scale? Are they unknowns that we think we know? Or knowns that we don’t know? Or even unknowns that we don’t even think we know? Mentally I am entering deep into Donald Rumsfeld territory.
Our luck changes an hour later with a road-sign marking a small road east into the mountains to “Totoro, Inza and Tierradentro.” This was both welcome and unexpected as this route had yet to be highlighted on internet maps, but a large touristy sign for the Parque Arqueologíco looks promising. A perfect tarmac road climbs steadily to Totoro, a small town in full flush of Saturday market which takes on an almost medieval aspect with pigs roasting on the spit and local staggering around the streets after their lunchtime tipple. Noone pays us any mind – they are too drunk to notice – and we drive slowly through the merry throng, then up and out into the high meadows and Andean moorland that forms the roof of the cordillera.
The next three hours is on a road as lonely and beautiful as any I have seen in Colombia as we pass field of wild flowers with grazing horses and tin-roof farmsteads, kids scampering in the yard. There is just one small village along the way – Gabriel López – three cars and a potato truck. In places the road is new and engineered to perfection, only marred by the FARC-EP, the guerrillas spraying their presence like randy tomcats on the concrete road snaking into their territory.
At around 3,500 metres high we enter a wild paramo plain covered in stunted trees and frailejones plants and then down curve after curve of perfect concrete road. Since there are no other cars, I can swing wide on approach, ride the camber down, cut across the inside curve, gently slow on the gears ready for the next curve as the waterfalls tumble down the rainforest cliffs to the valley below. Never mind ancient tombs, this is car heaven.