Monthly Archive for July, 2012

What? They’re still in Colombia??

Kilometers this post: 642 biking in 11 days, 10 hiking

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We really did mean to leave Bogotá the next day. But as we were posting the previous blog entry, we got in touch with Andrea, who is the sister of Laura, our host in Barichara. She and Ana, her other sister visiting from Peru, invited us to meet up that evening, and we were promptly invited to an asado, or Colombian barbecue the following day. Of course, we stayed, and spent the day hanging out with a fun group of highly educated, bilingual (at least), very interesting people while eating the delicious comida of Ana, who also has an awesome cooking blog. We meet so many amazing people on this trip, and sometimes we feel a little sad to constantly be passing through and never staying put. But our last day in Bogotá was so relaxed and full of friends that we had the pleasure of forgetting that we were just traveling through. Jaime, one of the hosts of the asado, even tempted Andrew with talk of a job in the city! That conversation is to be continued…

The next day, we did indeed mount the bicycles once more and head for the valley by way of the hills. Thankfully, our friend Gustavo came along for the ride out past the city limits, taking us on myriad bike paths and streets that are changed to bike routes on Sundays. We had some mechanical problems (Aran’s front tire destroyed a tube and we didn’t have a spare that fit because of funny valves and poor planning), but luckily there was a car full of bikes headed up the hill that stopped and gave us a spare, albeit peppered with six patches. At around 4pm, Andrew spotted a sign that said “Zona de Camping” at a paintball field a little further down the hill, so we pulled up the driveway to check it out. A very confused woman inquired if she could help us, and when we explained we wanted to camp, the confusion was promptly replaced with enthusiasm. She and her sister (the owners) welcomed us to set up the tent wherever we liked, have a beer, and watch the ensuing paintball match. After eating dinner across the road, we returned to find the owners, Paula and Alejandra, as well as Alejandra’s hilarious husband Fredy and some friends from down the road sitting around relaxing in the middle of their long weekend away from the city. We got to talking, and shortly they decided that they too would set up tents to join us, rather than sleeping in their building. Since we seemed so ambivalent about having a bonfire, they made the decision: yes, fire. And quite a fire it was. Of course, it led to snacks. Hot dogs on the grill (eventually, after the roasting stick caught fire, and a suitable grill placement was decided, and oh yeah, we should probably take the plastic casings off! and then Alejandra dropped them through the slits in the grill — quite a comedy), plantains roasted in the coals, with tinto (Colombian coffee) and popcorn that appeared from inside the building. And beer, of course. In the morning, our new friends invited us for a hike to check out an abandoned house/hotel/convent/brothel in the jungle, the ancient road from Bogota down the mountain, and some beautiful waterfalls. We dare anyone to turn down that invitation. Upon returning from a memorable several hours with the merry band, we discovered that the police had turned the two lane road into a one way street to ease traffic congestion at the end of the three day weekend. Impossible to descend, we hung out all afternoon, playing with the dogs, eating lots of meat, saying goodbye to more Bogotanos, playing cards, and camping out again next to the paintball field. When we left the next morning, we were thoroughly in love with Bogotá, Bogotanos, and the idea of returning someday when we’re finally done biking.

A word about the geography. Colombia has a little bit of everything, mountains and valleys, coast, great plains, rain forest, desert, snowy peaks, sunny beaches, etc. (but no four seasons!) As far as mountains go, the Andes come north out of Ecuador and break into three ranges (cordilleras) in the south of Colombia. Bogota is in a high altiplano in the eastern range that is divided from the central range by the Magdalena River. A lot of development and the Panamerican Highway run down the west side of the central range, in the valley of the Cauca River, and that’s where we were headed.

Underway the next day, we got the rest of the way down into the Magdalena River valley to the armpit of a town, Girardot, where many Bogotanos go when they need somewhere warm. From here, we started our longest climb of the trip: 3 days and 3000 meters from bottom to top. It starts slow through the valley up to Ibagué, then gets increasingly harder up to the top. The summit, known as “Alto de la Línea”, is at 3265 meters above sea level. This is the main truck route from Bogota to the Pacific coast, so all freight from Asia headed for the capitol goes through here, and the traffic gets tiring, as well as the climb. Toward the top, the curves get so tight that only one tractor trailer can pass at a time, so long lines of idling diesel engines sit on the hillside. And of course there’s construction! Add in the usual fog/drizzle above 3000 meters and the chilly temperatures that reside there, and it gets a little excruciating by day three. But we have conquered, and the 1700 meters descending into Armenia took less than two hours.

We took a day off to rest in Armenia, luxuriating in a bus ride to visit the overly scenic town of Salento and nearby Valle de Cocora. Salento is plagued by well restored colonial architecture, lots of crisp contrasting paint jobs, a view into a mountainous nature preserve, and literally hundreds of tourists, most of them Colombian. A Jeep ride away, the Cocora Valley is a place where Colombia’s national tree, the wax palm, grows among lush forested hillsides and picturesque steep pastureland. It’s really not quite like anything we’ve seen before, and we’ve seen a lot of green mountains by now. Also, the area is known for its trout farm, and trout lunch was a must-have. Although, if you’re coming to Latin America for the trout, we still recommend the comedor in the Mexican mountains of Oaxaca state. On our day off, we also wandered the market streets of Armenia buying produce, and meandered through the streets around the Plaza Bolivar in the evening sampling street food including: 1) chicken livers, hearts, and gizzards in an arepa, and 2) arepa sliced open, filled with cheese, and slathered with butter. Ice cream for dessert.

Colombian food is good. A bit heavy on the grease, perhaps, and they really like their meat. Grilled, fried, beef, chicken, pork, goat, any combination. The standard meal consists of a good hearty soup with potatoes, yuca root (aka. manioc), and some kind of meat, followed by a plate containing a portion of meat, a tiny little salad, and at least three starches, usually a combination or rice, potatoes, yuca, plantains. Breakfast for us is usually not cold oats any more, but good Colombian coffee accompanied by some delightful mildly cheesy breads. Arepas enter the scene any time of the day, and are different almost every time you see them. All they have in common is that they’re made from corn and usually come covered in butter. Sometimes they’re sweet corn, sometimes bland. Sometimes thin like a tortilla, sometimes 2 inches thick. Often salted, sometimes cheesed. Usually delicious (although the ones at chicken roasting places are universally terrible — cold, dry, flavorless pucks.)

Colombian fruit is nothing short of amazing. We attempted to count the different varieties we’ve had in the six weeks we’ve been here, and it’s something like 31 (a few of which are imported). Fresh, or juiced, the flavors range from super sweet to too tart to eat plain.

Right, the road. Out of Armenia the road rolls through grassy hills until it gets to the plain of the Cauca river valley, where the land is flat and covered in sugarcane. We cruised quickly to Cali, the third largest city, stopping for a night in Buga to glance in the Basilica. Passing through Cali, we had our first truly negative experience of the trip when a guy took our GPS that was a few feet away from Andrew on the arm of the park bench. That sort of violation is so rough on moral, and put us in a funk of not quite trusting anyone, and not enjoying Cali much at all. So we took to the road again after just one night, and a mad search for replacement helmets. We hoped the feeling of having the wind knocked out of our travel sails would fade as we left the city. We had the good fortune to find an incredible, kind, welcoming host family on who we contacted and who scooped us up, offering us a shower, bed, dinner, lively conversation, and of course breakfast in the morning. And so we rolled up through the hills again to the lovely city of Popayán, thinking little more about the sourness in Cali. Though, it is interesting to be all of a sudden without the comfort and convenience of the incredibly detailed open source maps Andrew found for our GPS. Not sure we realized how automatically we were using that tool to navigate and plan. We feel a little blind now. Though, that can open up some very interesting possibilities.

Today we took another day off, and another bus trip, this time to the market in the town of Piendamó where indigenous folks go to get their shopping and selling done, and we were the only foreigners around. Tomorrow, barring any invitations to any asados, we will get on the road again, but one more time in a bus, because Aran’s parents and brother are coming to Quito to hang out with us on July 26, and we don’t have quite enough time to bike the whole way there. We are very reluctant to leave Colombia, but there is in fact some danger in this part of the country at present because of guerrilla activity (the news publicizes this as “the war in Cauca,” the department where we are), and we figure if we have to take a bus somewhere, perhaps better to take it through the red zone of Colombia than the green northern hills of Ecuador. And so, we bid Colombia farewell, with a strong feeling that we’ll be back in not too long.

We’re in Armenia

After more fun adventures in Bogotá, we’ve made it down the valley to the west and up over the cordillera central, and are now taking a day off in Armenia. Here is a Google map of the most challenging part. 2012-07-06