Ecuador

From Popayan it was a fast trip to Ipiales by bus. As now I had decided to head home earlier to get the shoulder fixed I must take a few short cuts from now on. It also started raining a lot. I really don’t enjoy riding the Panamericana, because of the traffic and the exhaust fumes. I wouldn’t ride the Autobahn in Europe either! I’m much more off an adventure and off road biker and prefer traveling light. In Ipiales, last town in Colombia before heading to Equador, I got stuck for an extra day because of heavy rain. I visited the impressive Cathedral in Las Lajas Sanctuary, 7km east of Ipiales, in the morning. The Cathedral was built inside the canyon of the Guáitara River and is the second biggest pilgrimage site in the world after Lourdes in France. In the afternoon I made a recce trip to Tulcan, Ecuador. You can cross the border between Colombia and Ecuador as far as Pasto (Colombia) and Ibarra (Ecuador) without needing a passport. In Tulcan I visited the cemetery which is a sculpture garden of tress and a pleasant place to hang out. I also was on an impossible mission to find a road map of Ecuador. In the visitor center they told me that the  road through the ecological reserve to El Angel has been recently tar-sealed and would be a beautiful ride away from the busy Panamericana. That made my day and I was looking forward to what would be my first day of decent riding in South America. Well things always turn out differently: first I missed the turn off and climbed a big hill before realizing, than caught a truck back which left me up the apparently right road. Meanwhile I had found out that the tar-seal story was a big joke. I pushed my 40-50kg up a very steep and bad cobblestone road and when I finally met a man on a horse he told me that I was on the wrong ridge. By than I had made the hill climb twice and didn’t have the energy to have a third go. I continued up the hill and cut back to the Panamericana. I got out exhausted mid afternoon were I had picked up the truck in the morning. I guess that’s were one needs a GPS and a decent map! The locals don’t even know the road they live on. I’ve seen the Paramo from afar and had an adventure anyway …..and caught a bus to Ibarra. The next day was a short 20km to Otavalo, a largely indigenous town famous for its markets. I found my first dark chocolate here since the start of the trip and was happy again…. it’s the simple pleasures in life! Since the big market is on saturday I decided to stay till than before heading to Quito next.

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La ‘Zona Roja’ and San Augstin

After having passed the long weekend in Bogota and collected the results from my appointment on Tuesday I left the big smoke the next morning really early….just as the other Hostel members had gotten home from their party bus night out. I kind a missed out on the night life of Bogota, and will have to come back another time to Colombia…for the dancing. Instead I had explored the medical sector of Bogota and had an MRI done on my left shoulder which was quite sore after a fall when two trucks ‘gigantes’ had pushed me off the road…. actually I left the road by choice…. and went for the ditch, a slippery slope, which was still the saver option. The results show a full tear of part of the supraspinatus muscle. However, the specialist, recommended that I continue my bike trip and get it fixed once back home.

On way out of of Bogota (2640m) I followed a ciclovia along the calle 26 nearly all the way to the airport and than I had to change over to calle 13 and share it with a million trucks and progress slowed right down. After another 20km and after breathing a fair share of exhaust fumes the traffic started to disperse and my road headed up a hill close to 3000m pass. I was looking forward to the massive descent back to the low hundreds, but once over the pass it started raining heavily and the fog was dense. I had to go real slow and started to get cold and wet. After about 1000m decent I stopped for a warm drink….wondering why one bothers with cycle touring: it’s either raining, or there is a headwind, or there is too many trucks, the dogs are chasing you, etc… I asked a nice couple what they were eating and ordered the same, hot chocolate + arepa con queso (un campesino). We had a quick chat and than I settled on my table and got changed into dry clothes. They left  shortly after and had paid for my desayuno campesino. Asi es la Colombia (that’s Colombia), the people are incredible generous and open hearted, quite a contrast with the poor and violent reputation the country has. Something like that would never happen in Europe, but yet had happened a few times to me here already. These moments of human sharing made up for the rain and misery of today.

The rain had stopped and I got to enjoy the rest of the downhill, some uphill, ordered some tripe soup for lunch by mistake (I hate tripe), had another nice Colombiano come up to my table to chat and wish me all the best.  After 150km and 10h in the saddle I finally arrived in Girardot (315m), a hot place and noisy. The hotter the climate the more noisy the place. The rule seems to be the louder one can advertise what they sell the more chances they have…and everyone is selling something! I found a place with a swimming pool which was quite a treat. The next morning I wanted to make my way south to the Tatacoa desert, but got warned that south from Girardot starts the ‘zona roja’ and there would be a threat of guerrilla. I wasn’t too sorry to have to take the bus all the way to San Augustin, as I wasn’t too keen on cycling in the heat anyway. I arrived after dark and the whole town was struck by a blackout….it was quite challenging to find the Hotel Finca el Maco, and a strange, slightly unnerving feeling arriving in the dark. But it all turned out well, it was a nice place to stay and the next day I visited the Parque Arqueologico de San Augustin a UNESCO world heritage center, together with a nice german/colombian couple. I not only had a culturally interesting day, but I also learned lots of spanish… what a great day! Thanks Theresa and Diego:) The next day there was another bus ride through ‘zona roja’ country on a bad road (120km took 6 hours) in the rain to Popayan. . The town is well known for its beautiful colonial architecture,  was destroyed by an earthquake in 1983, but has been well restored. In 2005, Popayán was declared by the UNESCO as the first city of gastronomy because of its variety and meaning to the intangible patrimony of Colombian culture. I had the best food there yet.

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Bogota and ciclovias

I was worried having to ride my bike into Bogota, the capital of Colombia with about 12Mio people. I heard many scary stories and initially wanted to avoid the city all together. But since I had an appointment there I had to brave the big smoke.

After leaving Villa de Leiva I had a long day riding to Ubate via Chinquinquira. In Ubate I talked to a local guy while eating street food on the main square in the evening. He said he’s been robbed of all his belongings with a gun in Bogota, which didn’t make me feel any better. The next day I rode on to Zipaquira, actually I got a ride with a mountain biker in his pick up truck, as it rained, the road climbed to 3000m, was full of trucks, narrow and in bad condition. He was a Bogotonian and a great source of information about the area and the city. He said that riding into Bogota would be fine as they have ciclovia to Chia and than autopista with 3 lanes. In Zipiquira I visited the amazing Salt Cathedral, a huge cathedral carved into the mountain, a massive and still operating salt mine. There are only two of its kind open to the public, this one and one in Poland which is a Museum only. This salt mine has been exploited since hundreds of years, and the different techniques are well explained, as well as the use of the salt: only 20% are for human consumption, the rest ends up in cosmetics, plastic bottles, asphalt, etc…. This is rated one of the main attractions of Colombia and it sure is. I spent most of my day there and than walked around town and bumped into the same guy from last night, which ended up following me…..I knew than that his story was lie!!!

The ride into Bogota was easy enough with the ciclovia to Chia, where I had cafe on its lovely plaza central. Than it was autopista to Bogota and probably 30km of town traffic before arriving in the centre. I stayed in the Candelaria, the old part of town, in the hostel Cranky Croc, which I can only recommend, even though it’s a busy place and full of young party folk. I had several days in Bogota since it was Mother’s day weekend with a holiday on Monday and most things were closed. I visited the Museo del Oro, the Museo de Botero, explored town via the ciclovia on Sunday…..they close the main avenidas for cyclists only on Sundays and holidays from 7am-2pm and lots of people make use of it with bikes, roller blades, jogging, dog walking, etc…. and lots of food and fruits to be sampled on the side of the road. A very fun and social time.

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More colonial architecture

I left Giron by bike on a ‘autobahn’ which was busy, but at least there was enough room for trucks to overtake me without taking out the oncoming traffic or me. This didn’t last for too long and it reverted back to a normal small country road and I soon learned to appreciate my new piece of equipment, my revision mirror….best investment I made! It was a hot sunny day and I was climbing my first pass to than enjoy a wicked downhill into the Chicamocha canyon. Apparently this is the second biggest canyon system in the world, so I’ve been told by a friendly local military guy. It was mid day, I was back at low levels and the heat was excruciating, though I got a ride in a local truck back up the other side of the canyon and saved myself a 1000m climb. I still had to climb further and than had a pleasant ride down to San Gil, the adventure capital of Colombia. Here tourists can enjoy everything from rafting, paragliding to abseiling, but I preferred a bus ride to the colonial village of Barichara, founded in 1741, which is also noted as the most beautiful colonial town of Colombia.

The next day was a short ride to the town of Socorro. Just after breakfast I tried my first ‘leche de capra preparada’ on the side of the road. It’s a shot of Brandy with honey and vitamin granulate, topped up with milk fresh from the goat. Great way to start the day! Food is an important part of life here and in the towns every second house is a shop, while along the road people sell local specialities. Socorro is a nice place to hang out for the day with some colonial influence and without the busyness of San Gil. The next day brought many ups and downs on the road and the sun was beating down. I took to leaving about 7am so I can stop and look for a hotel by about mid day. I stayed in the country town Vado Real and managed to find a lovely family run hotel, Hotel Parque Vado Real.  The family was very nice and interesting to chat to, well educated and the hotel was clean, had fast wifi, TV and all the comforts needed by a traveller. From there it was one more day to Villa Leiva, colonial town founded in 1572 and declared a national Monument. It has one of the largest plazas of the Americas, is surrounded by cobbled streets and has a charming peaceful atmosphere. Time for a couple of days rest! I stayed in the austrian-colombian owned family hostel Casa Viena which was a home away from home. I arrived on a Sunday and the plaza in town was transformed into one big bar, with lots of day visitors from close by Bogota. Colombians take pride in their looks and everyone was wearing their best attire. It was quite fun watching the ladies navigate the cobbled street in their high heels.

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Bike-Boat-Bus between Colonial Towns

The last 3 days since leaving Mompox have seen me on my bike, on a boat and on a bus…..and I finally reached the foot hills of the Cordillera Oriental which bring a slight relief in temperatures. My first day on the bike wasn’t an easy one with soaring hot temperatures and 74 km of what I’ve been told would be ‘camino de tierra’, dirt road, which becomes very muddy and impassable at times after heavy rain. As a pleasant surprise nearly all of the first half from Mompox was asphalted in very good condition and I made good progress, but as the heat of the day increased the road turned to dirt and in stages mud. I finally arrived in El Banco, tired and dehydrated. I also had to get used to carrying a lot more weight than on my last trip where I had back panniers only and was fully self sufficient. The front panniers make stirring a lot harder and when stopping the bike wants to fall over all the time. A lot to take in on the first day. I decided to take the boat the next day, a ‘chalupa’, down the Rio Magdalena. It brings me about 200km further south to Barranca and was a pleasant 8h trip (66.000P+10.000P for the bike). The massive Rio Magdalena is the main artery for many small communities in this very hard accessible territory. Both towns, El Banco and Barranca are noisy and busy without too much interest. The next day I took a bus up to Giron at about 960m, a small colonial village founded in 1631 and well preserved. It is located just before Bucaramanga, which is the main city of the province Santander. It is a slightly cooler climate up here and I’m looking forward to having a second start on my bike tomorrow. I also was very happy to see my first and many road bikers on the way up. I’ve been told the Colombians are very fond of road biking and well trained on their steep hills.

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