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My Very Own Mary on the Road to Black Jesus

On a whim, I decided to take trip to see the black Christ in Buga, Colombia---just a few fingers widths away from Cali on a map. I ended up on a bus that appeared to take a circuitous route. Even though I was coming from a city east of Buga, it appeared that the driver was following a route that would swing back east through Cali--a lot of extra driving if you ask me. But again, Colombia's topography---all mountains and hills make two points on a map appear much closer and much easier to get to than they actually may be by overland travel. What I thought would be a straight shot on a comfortable coach bus turned into a five hour tour of maintains, waterfalls, hidden highways, roadside food vendors, hour-long bottlenecks caused by rock slides, road repair projects, and more. I filled the time reading my travel guide and dreaming up Buga and Black Jesus.

Standing in front of the altar of Black Jesus in Buga, Colombia.

As the sun began to settle into the nooks and crannies of the tree-lined horizon, I asked the driver where I'd get off for Buga.

He let me know that his route doesn't actually enter the town. When I asked him what my options were, he told me that I could get off at the final stop --as he motioned vaguely toward the opaque blackness that lie ahead, only broken by headlights whizzing by in the opposite direction--or I could get down on the side of the road and find my way into the town on foot.

I had to think fast. It looked like I was the only one going into crisis mode until a young black woman started asking the same questions in Spanish spoken at lightning speed. She was short, and her hair was almost as long as she was tall. She had on a mini skirt and heels which made me think she was headed on a date. After she exchanged words with the driver, she appeared more upset, and just as frantically worried as me. This bus was moving at between 60 and 70 miles per hour up and down hills and valleys, and around blind curves. It must have taken serious skill for the driver to be able simultaneously talk to us and safely traverse this winding highway with a stick-shift bus. The woman and I decided to get off the bus on the side of the dark highway, albeit at the Buga exit, rather than get dropped off down the road and have to pay for a taxi back. Despite the dilemma, I found relief knowing that I wouldn't be alone (there were some serious travel mercies at work here).

As soon as the bus pulled away, we were in the heart of darkness. We both immediately pulled out cell phones to sprinkle some light on the ground ahead of us. Eighteen wheelers nearly blew us over as they hurled past. We walked toward a gas station. Fluorescent lights welcomed us as we approached. But the stray dog guarding the place wasn't as welcoming. I have a love-hate--scratch that --straight-up hate relationship with dogs in Latin America. They aren't pets. They are antagonistic. They are monsters in the street. They entertain themselves by chasing moving wheels and anything that walks on two legs. That damned dog wouldn't let me approach the gas station to find full refuge under it's bright lights. So the lady whom I'll assume is accustomed to teeth-brandishing, growling dogs in Colombia, wasn't easily intimidated. She managed to make it to the building and ask the attendant how to get to Buga's town center. Again--all this happened very fast in very fast Spanish. After she got a satisfactory answer, she waved me over as she cut catty-corner across the station and toward the exit ramp--which meant I had to catch up with her and enter the dog's territory. She was my mother hen for these 15 minutes. I knew she wouldn't leave me in the darkness. But that damned dog! She walked ahead of me clickety-clacking into the curve of the off-ramp. I caught up.

An orange haze of light pollution made the sky glow and let us know that the town center was near--in that moment it was the light of my world. The young woman now knew where she was going, I didn't. And she continued walking without looking back, letting me know that this was where she'd go on her own way. After pausing to think in the orange light, I waved down a taxi to take me to my hostel.

Though I am not a particularly religious person, I thought that Black Jesus would appreciate this quasi-pilgrimage I had made to see him in Buga. And as for the lady in heels and a mini-skirt, she turned out to be my savior that night. I didn't get her name or the chance to thank her before we hastily set out on our own. Relying on the wisdom and guidance of locals is central to my travel experiences. In retrospect, she turned out to be my very own Mary.

Buga and Cali are both stops on the custom curated trip I'll be offering to explore Black Colombia this summer. Check out the itinerary here.

Buga on Your Own

Getting there:

Buses from the main bus stations in Cali and Buenaventura can get you there on several daily routes. Just ask locals to point you in the right direction.

Must do:

  • Start your morning with a rich and cheesy pandebono (cheesy breakfast bread) with a café de leche

  • Visit Black Jesus at the pink Basílica Señor de los Milagros, and don't forget to take a Black Jesus trinket back home to grandma.

  • Have a refreshing glass of craft beer at Holy Water Ale Café, also serving an array of pizzas


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