Tag Archive for 'bogota'

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 Warmshowers.com 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.

Back to the mountains in Colombia

Kilometers this post: 562 on the night bus, 24 in Gringo Mike’s Land Rover, and 448 pedaling in 9 days


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Colombians love to ask us how their country is treating us. It is a much more common question than in any other country we’ve visited. It is surprising and endearing, and it makes us feel as though we are nationally invited to enjoy the food, customs, and generosity of each of the varied regions. It also suggests a sense of national identity that we didn’t even realize was missing in many Central American countries. The economy here seems healthier and more self-sustaining, the social class structure more complex. It has been a while since we’ve seen a large middle class. Sometimes there is a tentative nature to the question, “Como les parece Colombia?” and in some of our more in-depth conversations, we have discovered that this is because many people have stories of having been robbed, or sometimes worse. We’ve received lots of warnings to be careful in this or that city or region, don’t leave our bikes alone, don’t ride at night (things that we take care to do automatically). But the same people who offer these warnings are the ones who seem to receive us and send us along in a way that feels exceptionally warm and, well, safe. As though everyone we talk to is looking out for us.

The first thing we did when we arrived on the night bus to Bucaramanga was to ride to one of the central parks. This is a common first move for us when we arrive in new cities. We were there for under a minute when we were approached by 4 or 5 homeless guys who lived in the park. We were momentarily on our guard, but soon decided that these gentlemen were really just interested in sharing some stories. They asked us questions about our trip and told us a bit about their lives. One explained that he had spent years making a tour of Colombia too, but walking. Eventually he developed a muscular disorder that forced him to stop. Before too long, a couple of policemen came over and seemed to join the jovial conversation. As we headed out of the park to find a hotel for the night, the police accompanied us and in the friendliest, best-intentioned manner possible, explained that they were worried we’d be robbed by the dudes in the park. They pointed us toward what they promised us was a clean, safe hotel, and, a bit bewildered, we thanked them. After giving this series of interactions some thought, we decided that we were no more suspicious of the homeless guys than we were frustrated with the police’s warnings. Everyone was just operating under the best intentions, but from different angles. We spent the day wandering around Bucaramanga enjoying the market, the squares, and the cooler weather.

We eagerly rolled away the following morning, happy to be back on the bikes, carrying all possessions necessary to eliminate the need for a plan. It had been a while. We biked up over a small climb, and then descended into Chicamocha Canyon, which we hear is the second biggest in the world! The descent was beautiful, and at the bottom we found ourselves in the town of Pescadero, where we inquired at the police station about a place to camp. Some combination of boredom and friendliness inspired the guys to take turns guarding the bikes (with their large guns) while one of them took us on a thorough tour of every possible campsite in town, and some of his favorite spots on the river. When we returned to our bikes, they had picked some mamoncillo for us as a welcome gift. One of them asked for help with his English homework.

After a peaceful night of camping, we set off early to tackle the monster climb out of the canyon. We’d come down far enough that the heat was oppressive again, which made the day creep by slowly with lots of breaks in the shade. We were passed numerous times by speedy road bikers with fancy gear who cheered enthusiastically as they whizzed by on the way up the hill. One patted a’s shoulder and promptly wiped off his hand on his shorts. Heh. Half way up, we took a break to buy some overpriced water and popsicles at the “Parque Nacional Chicamocha,” which was not much like a national park, but rather more like a theme park with daredevil rides and long lines. We were amused but not interested in entering, so we continued up the mountain. The views down into the canyon inspired increasing awe, and effectively distracted us from the pain of the climb. Unfortunately, the pictures can’t possibly demonstrate the incredible expanse of the mountains nor can they inspire the resulting soaring exhilaration, but goodness, it is great to be up high.

In Colombia we have noticed three new vehicular trends. 1) There are tons of motorcycles. Not really powerful or loud, just enough to get one or two people where they’re going with a minimum of gas (which costs about $5 per gallon). 2) There are lot of fancy road bikes. This sport is a pride of the Colombians, and people from 12 to 65 come speeding by us on country roads in spandex and helmets. 3) There are a lot more European cars than we’ve seen before.

The day after our climb, beat and plagued with the task of washing our moldy tent (oops), we took a short ride to the colonial town of San Gil, where we made use of a hostel’s facilities to get some things cleaned and some internet-ing done. We were eating breakfast at a sandwich place run by a gringo biker named Mike and planning to be underway in an hour when, chatting with Mike, we found ourselves convinced to take a detour to another, much more beautiful we were told, colonial town in the hills. Mike was driving himself and his mountain bike up there that afternoon to ride with a friend, and he offered to throw our bikes on his rack, our gear in the back of his truck, and haul us up there. One of those things you just don’t pass up. And we are so glad we didn’t, because we ended up spending two of the best days of our trip so far in the picture-perfect town of Barichara, staying on the floor of the very same friend Mike planned to ride with. Mauricio, a woodworking artist and his wife Laura, a graphic designer, welcomed us like we had been friends for years. We slept like babies on a huge air mattress in their living room, were fed delicious food, and even enjoyed a mini birthday party for Andrew the night before we left. The hours we didn’t spend chatting with Laura and Mauricio or admiring their cool art, we spent hiking to yet another, but much tinier, idyllic colonial town over a ridge. Our visit to Barichara was one of our favorite accidents of our trip so far.

Riding south through the departments of Santander, Boyaca, and Cundinamarca, we’ve rolled and climbed through regions that specialized in sugar cane, coffee, bocadillo (guava paste), chorizo (and all manner of pork sausage), and finally dairy. We have found a handful of people each day to chat with and conversations have been delightful because folks are so relaxed and genuine, and also because the Spanish is the clearest we can remember! Before leaving Santander, we finished our last large climb for a while, arriving at an altiplano at 2600 meters. It is hard to describe how utterly delicious it feels to be cold, to ride in long sleeves and wear our down jackets at night, to crave hot drinks, to sleep later because we’re waiting for the sun to warm the mornings…

In the middle of the altiplano sits a ridge that forces all traffic to go up to 3050 meters before descending into the bowl that contains Bogotá. Just like the last time we climbed over 3000 meters (on our second day of the tour, in Mexico), the weather turned gross. A blowing fog that turned to drizzle, and temperatures in the 40’s. While pedaling uphill, we worked hard enough to keep warm, but as soon as we started the descent and the drizzle turned to real rain, we had to stop to change out of wet clothes and add layers. A little further on, we pulled into a store and sucked down tinto (coffee, usually served sweetened with cane sugar in rural areas, and always provided in the morning with a hotel room, no matter how cheap) trying to make our fingers come back to life. Luckily, the rain stopped and as a last resort for getting warm, we headed farther down the road. By the time we got to the flat part, the sun was out and we changed back to our usual riding clothes, which dried long before we reached the city limits. How quickly the weather changes here!

Our stay in Bogotá has been a good one, full of help from friendly Bogotanos. We are staying in the beautiful apartment of Alicia’s sister, Ruth, who is off working through the weekend. By good fortune, we were chased down by an avid biker, Gustavo, who lives just down the block and has been incredibly helpful leading us around the city to pick up replacements for worn out items, treating us to breakfast at his coffee bar, and answering all manner of language and cultural questions in the region. But it seems that everyone wants to help. The bike shop manager gave us a list of must-see destinations downtown and directions how to get there. A gentleman helped us navigate the metro-style bus system, and we chatted on the crowded metro (which is actually a bus) all the way home.

And tomorrow we’ll be on our way again – with Gustavo as our guide out of the city, we’ll roll our way down into the Magdalena river valley, and then up and over the central range to coffee country.