From Popayán we continue south, heading for the border town of Ipiales. Colombia seems to be a country that can be described by three words… green, vertical, and muddy. (At the coast substitute ‘humid’ for ‘vertical and muddy’.) As we head south, this seems to be increasingly true… the scenery is rich green, and mudslides are everywhere. The road we’re driving often narrows to one lane because the other lane has slid away.
In the small town of Patía, Colombia, we stop to fuel up the truck. A man sits by the curb cuddling with his girlfriend. As we pull in, he waves a red cloth to get our attention, and then tells us that there is no fuel. The truck stop across the street has no fuel either. It’s not clear why, but we still have plenty in the tank, so we continue on towards the border, 250km away (155 miles).
Every fueling station we pass has signs on the pumps “SIN GASOLINA”. Some fuel stations have a few dozen trucks lined up at the pumps, but no fuel.
150 kilometers down the road we come to the small town of Pasto. Here, hundreds of trucks, buses, taxis, and cars are lined up at each end of town for fuel stations that are “Sin Gasolina”. Traffic is snarled throughout town as lines cross one another at intersections. It takes quite a while, but we finally make our way through town.
Along the way, we learn what is happening. Colombia is divided into departments, similar to U.S. states. Apparently the southern departments have run through their monthly allocation of fuel. They will get new fuel on December 1, three days away, and everyone is lining up so that they will get their vehicles refueled then. They will wait in their car/truck/bus for the next three days to be one of the first to get fuel when it arrives.
Just before arriving at the border town of Ipiales, we stop at the Las Lajas Sanctuary. The sanctuary was built after an image of the Virgin appeared to an indian woman and her daughter as they sought shelter from a storm under an overhanging rock. Since then thousands have attributed miracles to the sanctuary. (When I ask if any amputations have been healed no one seems amused.)
The sanctuary is a gothic revival structure built in the canyon of the Río Guáitara. There is a cascade of water flowing down the mountain behind the church, which makes for a very dramatic scene.
We drive down into the village surrounding the Sanctuary, then get off the truck and begin walking down towards the basilica. Before we get far, however, we come to a half-dozen men shoveling mud from the paved path leading to the church. Mud has come down the hillside, crossed the path, and swept away the substantial stone railing on the downhill side. The men tell us we can cross, and we slowly make our way through the very slippery mud, well aware that there is a several-hundred-foot drop less than a yard away.
Past the slide the uphill side of the path is carved from the stone of the canyon, and recipients of miracles have left plaques thanking the virgin for her favors. There are thousands of plaques set along the path. None of them are specific as to what was healed or what miracle was performed, but clearly people are grateful.
I take a few pictures of the sanctuary from the path. It’s beautiful in the fading light of dusk.
I want to get a better picture showing the basilica and how it sits in the canyon, and I know that means I have to find a way to go back along the canyon. I climb a trail that goes upwards from the church towards a crypt yard. The paved trail is cut deeply into the hillside and crypts line the uphill side of the trail. I keep climbing higher until I am able to climb behind the stone crypts and onto a path that leads down the canyon away from the church. I follow the grassy path along the canyon wall as the dusk grows dim. The path follows a shelf in the canyon wall that’s about 5′ wide, rising up steeply to my right and dropping off just as quickly down to the river on my left.
Suddenly the grassy trail no longer exists. A 20′ wide mud flow has swept over the grass from above. The trail narrows to three feet wide as the slide has eroded into the shelf, and the flow disappears over the edge, falling into the canyon below.
I really want to take the picture. Like a thief, I take exaggeratedly gentle steps across the mud, my shoes sinking in as I try to walk across on cat feet. I feel just as ridiculous as I know I would look, if there were anyone around to see me. Ten slow steps across and I’m on grass again. I take a few more steps, look back, and set up my tripod to take photos.
I’m taking my fourth shot when I hear rocks and dirt start to fall across the slide. The sound of falling dirt gradually increases then fades. I finish my photo. It’s dark now, and I can barely see the path. I wait a few minutes for the slide to quiet, hold my breath, and quickly walk across the mud. It doesn’t move, and I make it to the other side. My hands are shaking, and my chest feels tight for the next half-hour.
Walking back up towards town, I come across a paved and lit area that seems to serve as the town square. Adults are sitting around talking while children play basketball and fútbol or skateboard around the periphery of the area.
When I get back to the bus some of the group is still down at the sanctuary, so talk to the owners of a shop near the top of the path. It’s one of those small-town shops that seems to carry every imaginable thing that a small town might need as well as religious artifacts. It also seems to serve as a diner. The old couple who run the shop are very friendly, and insist that I take their pictures.
That night we sleep in Ipiales, right on the Ecuadorian border. The town is nondescript, and the only thing I remember is the artwork in the hotel, which was either intensely religious or amusingly erotic: