A Short Tour of the Town of Popayán and Ascent to the Peak of Puracé Volcano
A Travel AccountNovember 10, 2015
A single image or memory can suffice to ignite one’s curiosity about visiting a place. The same is true of stories heard during childhood, that time when everything seems more exotic and unfathomable. I first came to know certain places in my country when I was in high school, by way of small photographs in geography textbooks, maps or the stories some of my teachers told. Many of those experiences, along with the ones I had on family trips, have remained etched in my memory, in a place where they resist being forgotten and, quite the opposite, insist upon being relived.
One of these mythical places seduced my curiosity with the mention of its name alone: the Great Colombian Massif. In this mountainous zone in the country’s southern border with Ecuador, the Andes mountain range divides into three branches that fade into the jungles of the Pacific and the prairies of the Caribbean, where hundreds of lagoons provide the sources of some of the country’s great rivers, such as the Cauca and the Magdalena (on the Caribbean slope), the Patía (on the Pacific slope) and the Caquetá and Putumayo (in the Amazon basin). Also found within its boundaries is the archaeological zone of San Agustín, with its enigmatic monolithic sculptures. In my mind, the Great Colombian Massif represented something akin to “the origin of all things” for many years.
Most places in the high mountain region of Colombia are quite inaccessible due to their treacherous topography, irregular access routes and sometimes unpredictable climatic conditions. These factors, along with the inherent risks of such adventures and the social problems brought about by decades of political conflict, could be reason enough not to visit the area. Nevertheless, when I recently saw a photograph of the Bedón River falls in a book, the myth of the Massif and a desire to climb to a volcanic peak provided me with the motivation for a new voyage and for expanding the horizons of my own knowledge and experience.
I arrived in Popayán the night of June 6th, 2012 after approximately ten hours on the road from Medellín.
The city was founded on January 13, 1537 by Sebastián de Balalcázar. Popayán was on par with cities such as Cartagena, Bogotá and Tunja in terms of the numbers of titled nobles living there. In addition to the capital of Santa Fe, it was also the only city that served as headquarters for a Currency House of the Spanish Crown in the entire territory of New Granada. To a large degree, this background illustrates the splendor that this city enjoyed over the course of the colonial period and the first traces of the Republic, all of which adds to the genealogical pride of the founding families, who based the preservation of their riches on a structure of endogamy that was very particular to the elite of the time. The historical events tied to the places I visited help to explain nearly 500 years of the history of New Granada and Colombia, as well as to highlight some of the facets of its idiosyncrasy.
Morro del Tulcán
The day after my arrival to Popayán I went out walking early in the morning. My first destination was Morro del Tulcán, a moderately sized hill near the historical center where one can take in a broad panoramic view of the city. It was a clear morning, the sun was strong from early on, and after spending a little over fifteen minutes on a tour starting in the colonial center, I reached the peak of the hill.
The hill is Popayán’s primary archaeological site. It consists of a small natural mound in the form of a truncated pyramid where artifacts from the pre-Columbian era have been found, dating to approximately 500–1600 BCE, a period known as the era of “the Late Chieftain Societies.” According to chronicles written by Pascual de Andagova and Cieza de León (Cubillos 1959: 350), when the Conquistadors arrived in these lands under the command of Juan de Ampudia in November 1535, the Morro del Tulcán had already been abandoned. In 1937, on the occasion of the city’s 400th anniversary, the construction of a road bypass built to ease access to the peak caused damage to the pre-Hispanic ruins, which at the time were not clearly identified. In 1940, the indigenous structure found itself decapitated when it was flattened by a bulldozer in order to make it level. The newfound plain was crowned with an equestrian statue of Sebastián de Belalcázar by Spanish artist Víctor Macho. Ancestral tombs were removed to make way for ornamental works and the installation of urban amenities in compliance with the tendencies of the time.
Museum of Natural History
After visiting the scenic overlook, I began my descent and headed for the Museum of Natural History of the University of Cauca, located in a small neighborhood right at the foot of the hill. The museum, which has a great collection of animal and geological specimens, primarily from this region of the country and the Pacific coast, was founded on September 1, 1936 by biologist Federico Carlos Lehmann Valencia.
His father, Frederich Carl Lehmann Goldschmidt, a botanical collector, arrived in Colombia in 1876 following the path of a colleague named Eugene André. The latter had been the first to collect and classify the Anthurium andreanum species, an exotic and boldly colored anthurium originating in the Darién mountain range, located in the jungle of the same name along the border between Colombia and Panama. Lehmann Goldschmidt undertook a number of expeditions in our territory and his collections nurtured numerous museums and botanical gardens in Europe. After deciding to stay in the country permanently, he married María Josefa Mosquera Espalza and was named General Consul of Germany in the State of Cauca. His grandson, Federico Carlos Roberto Lehmann Valencia, was also the great-grandson of General Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera, who had started his military career under the command of Simón Bolívar and had served as president of Colombia on four occasions. This biologist from Popayán, who had lost his mother just a few days after he was born, spent a large portion of his childhood in the care of his grandmother María Josefa, who imbued in him the investigative and naturalistic spirit of his grandfather. It was in her home that he was able to access to a great library from a young age, particularly works on Natural History by Buffon, La Condamine, Cuvier and Humboldt, and where his interest in science was sparked. As a professor, advisor and conservationist, Lehmann Valencia made important contributions to zoology in the country, particularly ornithology, holding positions in the National University, the Universidad del Valle and the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1963 he would establish the State Museum of Natural Sciences in Cali.
I remained in the museum for a couple of hours. My attention focused on a polar bear, the requisite condor, some exotic marine specimens, and the enormous collection of birds and stones. The sophisticated mise-en-scène characteristic of the dioramas in developed countries’ museums is not the forte of this locale. Nevertheless, the absence of theatricality is made up for by an almost encyclopedic visual experience resulting from seeing hundreds of mineral and animal specimens classified and stored with great taxonomical precision in the tightly packed spaces of the glass display cabinets.
On the way back downtown, I visit the Metropolitan Basilica Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption of Popayán. Although its first stone was laid on May 30th, 1819, economic difficulties faced by the church, bureaucratic obstacles, and a civil war or two brought about lengthy interruptions, and the temple was not completed until June 12th, 1906. Just short of seventy-seven years later, on Holy Thursday, March 31, 1983 at 8:15 AM, a 5.5 magnitude earthquake that lasted a few minutes was sufficient to cause the collapse of the dome and most of the roof, causing the deaths of one fourth of the total number of fatalities of this unfortunate natural disaster.
For several centuries, Popayán Cathedral was home to the Crown of the Andes, a colonial jewel made with 2.25 kilos of pure gold and 1500 carats of emeralds. Legend has it that its largest emerald, at 45 carats, was hanging from the neck of Atahualpa himself on the day he was captured by the Spaniards. The crown was made as an ex voto in gratitude to the Virgin Mary for saving the city’s inhabitants from the terrible epidemics of plague and smallpox imported by the Spaniards themselves, and it took six years to construct it out of gold and emeralds donated by the eager high society of Popayán. After experiencing several robbery attempts, the Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception, who was charged with overseeing the crown’s security, obtained permission from Pope Pious X in 1917 to sell it with the goal of raising funds to build a hospital and an orphanage.
In 1936, after the Russian Revolution thwarted a possible deal with Czar Nicholas II and the economic crisis of 1929 got in the way of another transaction, the crown was acquired in the United States by Warren J. Piper, the director of a jewelers’ union, for the price of $125,000. The union’s initial idea was to disassemble it and use its materials in new jewelry, however they decided it would be more lucrative to rent it out for events, and from then on it began traveling the world. It was exhibited in events such as the New York World’s Fair (1939) and the launch of a line of Chevrolet vehicles in Detroit (1937). In 1963 it was auctioned off by Sotheby’s in London to a buyer from Holland (Below: Auction of the Crown of the Andes for 55,000 Pounds Sterling in Sotheby's, London, 1963 [YouTube]), and in 1995 the Colombian government failed to buy it back at Christie’s auction house. Popayán was left with no crown, no hospital and no orphanage. Most of the money ended up being spent on a new archbishop’s palace.
Mosquera House Museum
Prior to departing for the volcano I made one last stop at the Mosquera House Museum. This museum, also located in the city’s colonial center, brings together a collection of furnishings, objects, paintings and uniforms belonging to the members of a family that gave the nation two presidents and an archbishop, all of them children of Don José María de Mosquera y Figueroa, who was very close to Bolívar and was a supporter in his fight for independence.
One of these sons, Tomás Cipriano Ignacio María de Mosquera-Figeroa y Arboleda-Salazar, was one of the most influential individuals in Colombia’s history over the course of the second half of the 19th century. A military officer, diplomat and statesman, he was loved and hated with equal passion by many of those who crossed paths with him over the course of his life. Some accused him of coming from a family of slave owners, due to his arrogance and impulsiveness, his persecution of the Jesuits and his disorderly lifestyle. On the other hand, there are others who exalted his social sensibility, his courage in confronting those in power and his protection of the dispossessed, who looked up to him as a saint for their cause.
Walking toward the door, I found hanging from the wall a discrete funeral plaque that I assume accompanies or accompanied the remains of the parents of these illustrious individuals. They say there is no bad way to die, and these heartfelt words offered moving testimony to this fact.
Climbing Puracé Volcano
Most of the world’s highest peaks require months, even years of planning and preparation of those who wish to conquer them. The remaining mountains, of lesser renown, practically absent from historical tales, records and statistics, are simply there, undaunted and indifferent, seemingly docile and easily conquerable. This might be said of Morro de Tulcán, but not of my subsequent destination.
After spending an hour on the road out of the urban center of Popayán, the road became steeper and the agricultural landscape faded gradually, giving way to a series of ever loftier mountains and a much wilder type of vegetation. After approximately 50 kilometers I arrived in the town of Puracé, which is found on a charming plain sandwiched between by two deep ravines. After passing the last of the houses I continued on to a narrower dirt road, and from one side of the horizon to the other I began to see small forests of dwarf trees covered in moss that announced the beginning of the highland. I arrived to a crossroads where I took a left in order to make it to my final destination for the day, the Pilimbalá Cabins of Puracé National Park. The road turning to the right led to the El Vinagre natural sulfur mine found at the volcano’s base. This mine—which is used by the indigenous community of the Puracé region—and another one like it in Chile are the only ones of their kind in the world.
I took advantage of having arrived early and decided to go see the road connecting Puracé with the municipality of La Plata, in Huila state. My map indicated that I would have to cross an extensive plain and that I would eventually find my way to the Bedón River falls. At these heights, just a few meters’ difference in altitude were enough to be able to note substantial changes in vegetation. It had been about ten minutes when I began to see hillsides covered in dwarf forests alternating with expansive flatlands carpeted in frailejón shrubs on either side of the dirt road. I had entered the high mountain plateau.
After a few kilometers I began to hear a murmur that was becoming louder as I moved forward. It didn’t take me long to identify it as the sound of flowing water, and when I rounded the bend I arrived to the site of Bedón River fall. Generally, the waters of the high plateau are thin streams that only become rivers much farther below. The Puracé highlands have a particularly turbulent topography, which causes their waters to channel together and form stronger flows at a high altitude, such as the one I was witnessing at that moment. After spending a good long while in that magical place, the wind and mist began to intensify, signaling to me that it was time to return to the cabins.
That night I found myself in the cabins with a couple of foreign hikers who had arrived earlier that same day. The cold was creeping in through the cracks in the doors and windows, and I felt this was a good excuse to start up a conversation and offer them a cup of coffee, which I always carry with me, fresh and recently ground, and I prepared a small gas fire. It was impossible for them to hide their happiness at drinking a good cup of coffee, and they told me that they had been longing for one for months. They also confessed that they had naively expected that upon crossing the border and entering Colombia they would automatically find excellent coffee service everywhere, regardless of the pedigree of the establishment. In the midst of our conversation they also mentioned that they had hired a guide for the next day to quest to the summit of the volcano, and invited me to join them. Given that I had no specific plans, I had to take advantage of this invitation, and although I knew I was not very physically prepared, I decided to say yes.
The three of us set out the next day accompanied by our guide, Mr. Noé Puliche. The first two hours of the hike passed along a slow-going and swampy path formed by the winter climate and the hustle and bustle of the frequent traffic of pastoral animals. A friend’s recommendation to wear tall rubber boots proved most useful. After a while we arrived to a scrubland plain in which numerous streams of water came together to form a dark and mysterious highland lake. After a brief pause, we continued along the path, which was becoming ever steeper and rockier, and before long we reached an abandoned building that belonged to a deserted military base. We took advantage of the spot to eat lunch, make coffee and recuperate the energy necessary to embark on the final stage of the ascent. Instead, though, my hiking companions decided to make their way back. Their energy had already been sapped by the muddy journey, and our guide recommended they return to the cabins on a road connecting the military base to the cabins by way of the sulfur mine. In a very generous gesture, they offered me Noé’s companionship as well as a walking stick. From that point on it was just Noé and me, along with a stiff wind and the volcano, its peak covered by fog.
The military base marked a sort of botanical borderline. Behind it, or rather beneath it, lay the dwarf forest, the scrublands and the swampy trail. Further ahead the path took on an even steeper incline, and rather than being swampy, its surface consisted of ruddy stones interspersed with a complex variety of mosses and lichens. Not half an hour had passed when we found ourselves nearing the peak of the volcanic cone. I calculated that we were 4,400 meters above sea level, with only 250 meters of altitude remaining. Vegetation was now nonexistent and the wind was constantly stirring the fog, which opened intermittently, allowing momentary glimpses of the peak and the sulfuric fumaroles against a blue sky. Just as quickly everything would be covered up again, as my excitement faded into physical exhaustion. My knees caused me take ever more frequent breaks, which was unusual since on other ascents, it had normally been my lungs that forced me to rest.
Twenty years had passed since my last climb to a summit, and I knew that the mountain was putting me to the test. Though I felt like my knees were about to burst, Noé’s patience and the desire to make it to the peak kept me motivated. The wind was now accompanied by waves of hail that pricked my face like tiny needles. My mind was filled with images of parishioners carrying heavy statues of saints during the religious festivities in Popayán. Everything felt extremely heavy, even my camera. The hiking stick that Renata lent me proved indispensable. Over the course of the final hundred meters, I was spending more time resting than walking. Neither of the mountains I had previously summited—Nevado de Santa Isabel or the Concavito in the Sierra Nevada of Cocuy—had greeted me in full sunlight and framed by the blue sky. Puracé Volcano was no exception. Fog cut off all visibility, and I knew I had arrived simply from the fact that the ground was flat and I no longer had to climb upward.
I spent a while walking around the crater. The snow was light and had only accumulated in places that were protected by mid-sized boulders. At 4,650 meters, snow is not permanent in these tropical latitudes. After half an hour I decide it would be prudent to make my return. I knew that the descent would be slow because of the sensitivity of my knees. When we got back to the park headquarters, I felt energized by the rewards of a great effort expended, and by the joyful praise of the locals, who saw my climb as no small feat. For several days, the weather had thwarted the attempts of multiple groups; the mountain’s generosity is fairly elusive. I enjoyed my fifteen minutes of fame until I had used up what little energy remained. It was five in the afternoon, and Renata and Bruno, who had arrived much earlier, took me into the cabin like an adopted child, making me a bed and preparing hot beverages for me. At six in the evening I fell asleep and rested until the following day.
Information and photographs of the Colombian Massif found in: Alfredo, Tomás. The Colombian Massif: Colombia’s Limnological Ark. Bulletin of the Colombian Geographic Society, Number 113, Volume 33, 1978.
Biographical data on Federico Carlos Lehmann Valencia found in: Londoño Díaz, Lelvinnova. Biographical Sketch of Federico Carlos Lehmann. Journal of the Colombian Academy of Mathematical, Physical and Natural Sciences, Bogotá, Vol. 26, No. 99. June 2002, pp. 213-228
Historical profile and photographs of the Morro del Tulcán in: Cubillos Chaparro, Julio César. The Pre-Hispanic Pyramid of el Morro del Tulcán: Archeology in Popayán, Cauca, Colombia. Colombian Journal of Anthropology, Bogotá, Colombian Institute of Anthropology, Vol. 8, 1959, pp. 215-357.
Profile of the Crown of the Andes found in: Norman, Geraldine. Crowning Glory of the Andes. The Independent, London, 18 June 1995.
Unattributed photographs by Camilo Echavarría