Colombia, Colombia, I wish you could continue forever
to view all of the photos that belong to this set, click here
25th January- Calarca to Ibague
We were ready to go by 7am- all 3 of us pretty psyched about the mountain ahead of us. Our job that day was to get over the notorious mountain pass called ‘La Linea’ (the line). That day we would climb 1800m of up hill over a 20km distance which makes it pretty steep.
We made steady progress, Mel soon wizzing off, not to be seen until the descent 6 hours later. Some of the views were stunning and we took breaks- to chat to some mountain bikers (who gifted us powerade) they had made a pulley out of an inner tube so that they could create a lead and the get pulled up the mountain by a truck and then cycle down the mountain off road – genius!
We just kept on going up- we stopped for hot agua de Panela (cane sugar water) with cheese which is the thing that everyone is telling us we had to try whilst we were on top of the mountain ( Panela is basically sugar cane that is boiled down into a brown block, before it goes through the final refining stages to make sugar, Colombian’s are crazy for it and tell us it’s full of vitamins) and a block of salty cheese was actually pretty good, and with that we powered on to the top of the mountain.
Some people ask if we feel safe here- That day was the only time in I have been afraid whilst in Colombia. We were nearly at the top of the mountain when there where about 20 teenage boys up ahead, they seemed to be trying to stop a truck to ride on the back, they were literally blocking the trucks. The boys were really intimidating and passing cars were signally us to take care. Kindly a truck driver could see what was happening and drove slowly in front of us until we reached the top. At the top of that mountain, (some 3300m I think) it was cold and I put gloves and a jumper on for the cold winds of the descent but it was actually fine. We had a thrilling down for some 40km, meeting up with Mel again before some more undulating roads would see us in to Ibague.
This was a town that Manuel from the Casa Ciclista had told us to avoid as a cyclist had recently been robbed there- but Diego knew another professional cyclist that we could stay with so we decided we would go in. Julian and his family were incredibly kind and sweet, they looked after us and fed us until we all literally passed out on the blow up air mattresses they had set up for us on the living room floor. It was like a bike girl sleep over, complete with Disney cartoon bed sheets, but no energy for ghost stories or mid night feasts.
26th January- Ibague to Castillo
Because of the tough day the day before we hadn’t planned on setting our alarms to get up early, we were really tired. The family gave us breakfast, the other 2 had caldo which is basically a broth with meat and potatoes. I ate some arepas (sort of like a White thick tortilla).
Finally on the road we stopped again for coffee, it’s hard to get the caffeine kick we need when everyone serves such weak sugary stuff, I’ve taken to pouring my own granules into the coffee they give.
Again Mel went on ahead, she is a speed demon! It was pretty hot back down in the valley and Jo and I traveled pretty slowly- we stopped to speak to some Colombian bike travelers, there are quite a few on the road doing loops of the country. Then we are slowed down by drinking the free coffee from the petrol station and then we stopped again to drink salpicon which is this fruit salad drink which we have at every opportunity, perfect for a hot day.
After 100 easy kilometres we caught up with Mel and decided to call it a day. We all split off to ask for places to sleep in the village. Jo and I had no luck with the school church or red cross but Mel had been successful. We went to find the place and Mel had thought we were camping behind the house but the guy was actually saying we could camp in the flat above the shop. This guy was a business man who owned a bakery down the road, the place we were sleeping in was soon going go be converted into another bakery. It was Sunday, and anyone who reads this blog regularly will know what this means- men are sat out on the street drinking. There was a bar next door to the shop and the shop owner was keeping the beers flowing. We set up camp on the floor of the apartment, we were all showered when the owner came up and bought us dinner- tamales (rice and chicken wrapped in a leaf and boiled) and some amazing cheese bread filled with guayaba jam (called almojadas) from his bakery), plus a bottle of pop. I picked the meat out of my tamal for Mel and wow, we were all so happy. So as it goes in rural Colombia you will see nothing for miles and then you will come to 10 stalls on the side of the road all selling the same thing- biscuits made with some local wheat, or then you will find 10 stalls all selling mangoes, or one day we arrived at a place where everyone was selling nothing but grape juice. It seems that one village produces one thing but there is no distribution process which creates this sort of insane system of everyone competing against each other. So… This town specialised in these type of cheese bread filled with what is called bocadillo (Guyaba jam)… Mel had arrived before us to the town and sampled a few, and from our expert market research the guy who was giving us the place to sleep had the busiest and best bakery- score!
The guy insisted we sit with him and the others drank some beer with him and I sampled another local speciality- Arequipe (pot of caramel sauce that people eat like it’s a yogurt). We were in hysterics with Mel, she is so funny and only speaks some words of Spanish so what she does say ends up being really funny as it doesn’t make sense. The guy was sort of taken by Mel especially and he sort of looked at us as if we were magic, he was deeply catholic and told us it was his duty to help us.
We all went to sleep in the apartment but the coca cola he had given us with our food meant I was wide awake, then we ended up looking through some pics we had taken and ended up in hysterics recounting things that had happened. I’m 29 years old, you think I would have learnt sugar before bed is a bad idea…. I wonder if one day I will stop being such a fool.
It was late by the time we finally calmed down but we couldn’t sleep, Sunday night in Latin America is still considered the weekend up until the last moment, music blaring til the early hours. (In Spanish there is a name for the time between night and morning, the hours after around 2am and before sunlight, it’s called the madrugada, I love this word). It was also really hot and we were getting bitten a lot by Mosquitos…. Blah!
27th January Castillo to Desierto de Tatacoa
We all slept so badly but the music had started again, so we were awake! The owner had bought us breakfast- local artisan cheese wrapped in a leaf, it was a bit like mozzarella and he insisted we eat it with arequipe and bread- people here love putting cheese with jam but cheese with this caramel goodness was next level insanity, but of course it was pretty good! He was already sinking a beer before 8am! Off we pedaled in the insane heat, there wasn’t much on the road to see or buy that day, it was dry and pretty desolate. We stopped for juice and rice and made a decision to go to the desert, off the main road, we weren’t really sure how to get there but we guessed from our map to go to a village where we hoped we could cross the river to the other side, we had read that from the other side we could then cycle to the national observatory and camp there, it was a plan!
Off road adventure
We arrived at the town of Aipe and of course there were plenty of men coming to speak to us and give us advice, they pointed us in the direction of the bridge, and didn’t say much more than that. One of the men insisted on directing us. We got to the bridge and the gaps between the planks were wider than the planks themselves. In true Indiana Jones style we managed to lift our bikes over the planks with this guys help, we where all laughing, hysterical and scared! We followed some tracks through fields and shrub land. The guy was still with us and told us that the next bridge was ‘mas comodor’ which means more comfortable, or better. When we arrived at this next bridge it was sort of worse, it felt like walking through some haunted house ride at the funfair! Mel was totally thrilled- saying this was the most adventure she’d had on the trip and how awesome it was. It was hilarious but I wanted to wait until we were safe on the otherwise before getting too excited.
We arrived at the river and were told we would need to wait for a canoe to cross, before we knew it a motor powered canoe came to us, I can’t use words to describe the driver. I think the pictures are better.
Some fishermen helped us haul the bikes into the boat and we gave the guy who’d guided us a bit of money to buy a drink for helping us out! We arrived on the other side safe and sound, hauling our bikes up the steep bank of the river. This was funny and adventurous but I kept thinking about our cameras being discovered in some Blair witch type scenario, we just had to put our trust the people who were guiding us.
We stocked up in Villa Vieja before cycling the 10 km to the observatory, the late afternoon sun through fields and cactus and rolling hills was magical.
The desert of Tatacoa wasn’t really a desert, it was far too green,but still there was cactus back in my life, not seen since Mexico, so it felt really special. We set up camp outside the observatory. The observatory is considered the best place in the country for star gazing, plenty of clear skies and far from a city. You could pay for the resident astronomer to teach about the stars but instead we lay outside our tent under the observatory and eavesdropped, I could sort of understand what he was saying and followed the laser he was using to point out the constellations.
28th January – Desierto de Tatacoa to Campoalegre
We slept brilliantly and set off back to Villavieja to eat breakfast. We found a lovely old lady in the plaza selling cheese arepas and some other fried plantain and cheese snack. We felt pretty fatigued by all that fried stuff.
There was another road we could take to get south so we didn’t need to go on the canoe and bridges again, it was pretty hot but lovely cycling, 30km to the town of Neiva. This place didn’t seem too desirable so we hung out to drink salpicon on the outskirts, local people warning us about watching our stuff. Colombians have a phrase which translates as ‘give a papaya’ , people say this when you are leaving something out on display to tempt someone else into taking it. Often people come up to us and say ‘Dar papaya’ if we put our bags or cameras on a table. We since met some other cycle tourists who’d had stuff stolen off the back of their bikes whilst in this town, so our instincts were correct.
Mel was struggling in the heat, Jo and I were a bit more accustomed after all our central America cycling. She decided to hang back until it wasn’t so hot and meet us down the road. Jo and I continued, getting distracted making a birthday sign for my brother at a petrol station. Shady and flat we cycled to the town of Campoalegre. We found the bomberos (fire station) on the main road, at which point Mel caught us up. The female commandante was happy for us to sleep in the bunk beds and insisted she cook us dinner back at her house. I don’t know how this fire station worked, they just seemed to sit around eating and watching tv. One day the commandante was doing her ironing too. Anyway, she cooked us up the standard meat free plate of eggs, rice and plantain in her house, which was also a bit of a farm, chickens, kittens and dogs all living in the kitchen. She had a baby vulture which she said brings good luck. Vultures still give me the creeps even though I see them every day around here…Ooooohh.
Back at the fire station we weren’t going to get to bed easily, the fire fighters were keeping bees at the station and I was getting stung in the dark which meant having to put my tent up on the top bunk where I was sleeping. I think a lot of people saw a video on Facebook that I made about this place.
29th January – Campoalegre to Hobo and back to Campoalegre
Mel left before us in the morning, we made fruit salad and oats before hitting the road. This was rice growing region. We’d been cycling in a flat valley, 2 branches of the Andes on either side of us. which meant feels filled with lush green green rice valleys.
We stopped an hour in to the day and met a couple- French and Spanish who were heading south too, having just started in Bogota. The guy bothered me, he told me we were carrying too much stuff and that we had left too late that morning (we had started at 7.30 and them at 5). I used to feel like there was a right way of doing things, but the longer I am travelling the less I realise I know, so I hope I don’t come across like this guy when I meet other cyclists.
We cycled with the couple until I realised there was something wrong with my bike, I thought it was the brakes at first but then realised I had a cracked wheel rim. I don’t know how it happened, I’d been keeping an eye on the rims and they weren’t too warped. I had no idea if it was safe to keep cycling like that or what. We called Diego who told us that I could ride if I take all the weight off the back wheel I was so heavily loaded there was no chance. We made a decision to go back to Campoalegre, we knew it was a good sized town so could find a bike shop and we knew we’d be able to sleep at the bomberos again. We hitched a ride with a really nice guy called Dario. He was just going to the next town 5km away, we checked at the bike shop there but I wasn’t happy with the rims. Kindly Dario offered to drive us the 30km to Campoalegre which was amazing, he even bought us fruit for the journey!
Back at the bomberos the caretaker who the day before had set up a washing line for us to dry our clothes, said- “I kept the washing line up, I knew you’d be back.” The bomberos were sweet and drove us around the town in their mopeds. The wheel was re-built without problems.
A few hours in an internet cafe, wandering the town eating miscellaneous deep fried snacks and drinking juices and that’s an afternoon spent in a small town. Excitingly we also found a bingo hall and played a few games. This time I slept soundly without any bee stings.
30th January- Campoalegre to Altamira
In the morning we hitch hiked back to the same spot that we’d stopped at the previous day, it was a pretty hilly day, and hard work, but we managed 100km in total.
We stopped in one village to buy fruit and in true Colombian style this lead to a long break, drinking coffee with the owner. He gifted us so much fruit, he sharpened my knife for me and insisted took his telephone number and said we have to call him when we arrive at the end of world. He said Mel had stopped at the same stall too the day before.
We arrived in Altamira as it started to rain, we were hunting for the bomberos when we came to a warehouse next to the bomberos, we asked the people there but they said there wasn’t one. We started chatting to a couple who had a business picking and distributing grapes, the women was asking so many questions- where do you sleep, how do you wash, you poor girls, it sounds horrible! She invited us to camp outside her house but once we arrived she changed her mind and invited us indoors to sleep. We tried specialty biscocho, the town’s biscuit that everyone was selling. It wasn’t very impressive. The woman insisted on washing our clothes for us, they were fresher than they’d been for a long time.
31st January – Altamira to San Agustin
The woman cooked us eggs and we got on our way, not before the neighbours and family all came over to chat to us.
I was done in that day- we’d cycled too many days in a row and the hills were hard work, I had a little moment before a little hill where I just threw my bike down and sat myself in the gutter, I think it was just arequipe that gave me some energy to keep going.
We made it to San Agustin that evening and found a campsite to stay in.
1st – 2nd February – San Augustin
Mel had made it to the town the day before, and had checked in to a hostel, so we all met up. Sadly she had decided to hitch hike on a different route to us, which was a shame. We spent the day in the town and sort of faffing around at the campsite. The following day we took a ride up a mountain to visit a place called ‘El Estretcho’ which is where the Magdalena river begins, this river we had been following for most of Colombia. The journey down the hill in a little 4×4 bus with about 15 people piled in, standing around the edge and sitting on the top was pretty thrilling, we got off at the bottom of the hill to go and visit some stone carvings, the most important one is called Shakira. San Agustin is home to the most important archeological site in Colombia. There is a big archeological park where you have to pay $10 to enter with more of the stone carvings but we decided not to do that.
In true Colombian style we got chatting to a family, they insisted on our walk back from Shakira that we play pool with them, they bought us beers and then later on in the afternoon it led to a football match and some food, these people are totally incredible and just spent the whole afternoon smiling and laughing.
3rd February – San Agustin to 105km
We didn’t leave early as I didn’t really want to get out up, we cycled happily down hill and back on to the highway. Here I got flashed #4 of the whole trip. I did my usual- a middle finger and some Mexican Spanish I needed to learn at the beginning of the trip for this reason.
We stopped to drink coffee and some locals started chatting to us, they insisted on buying us lunch, amazing! We were moving pretty slowly that day, now going up hill. We decided to stop at a road side restaurant which had lots of space for camping. This restaurant had a trout farm below, and served the trout in the restaurant, it seems to be a bit of a trend around these parts. The owner and workers were so nice, giving us juice and dinner, chatting about the trip, it was a cold night so they gave us blankets too.
4th February- km105 to Mocoa
We left the restaurant after they gave us loads of bread and coffee, the road was pretty quiet apart from the odd tanker. The ride was beautiful, we were heading into the outskirts of the amazon, and of course it was not at all flat. I was struggling that day, it was the first day in a really long time that I just wanted to be surrounded by friends, in the pub or the park, so instead for the first time in a long time I listened to my ipod which really kept me going. Thoughts turn to home more quickly than they used to, now that I am 9 months in to this trip. Johanne wasn’t feeling good, and she kept having to stop on the side of the road, by the time we arrived in Mocoa she was pretty poorly. We tried half heartedly at the bomberos but they said no, and we then decided to check into a cheap hotel so Johanne could get better.
5th-6th February – Mocoa
We where grounded due to Jo’s illness and I was going to make the most of having a room, by doing a lot sleeping. I blogged, wandered the town, did stretches. There is always something to do. Leaving Mocoa there was an unpaved road leading through the mountains, enterign the amazon, it was going to be a really memorable part of he trip, and not the kind of place you want to be if you are not feeling fantastic.
Some of the best of Colombia was still to come.
- up hills and down valleys
- Next Post