The Missing Concrete

Written March 27, 2016

I’ve had my two bananas for the morning.  That’s become a bit of a ritual here in Barichara, as there is always a huge bunch on the table each morning, along with other interesting fruit we’ve never seen before.  Bananas here are not like bananas at home.  They are smaller, and the flavor is much more intense and fresh.  Fruit is everywhere, and covers all the trees.  Yesterday I had to move my chair because the wind was causing some fat mangos to sway and swing, and they were hitting me.

We’re now in Barichara, Colombia, a lovely little town of about 8,000 up in the Andes mountains north of Bogota.  Barichara rests on the upper edge of the Rio Suarez canyon, which joins with gigantic Chicamocha Canyon to the north of us.  I’m sitting on the deck of Tinto Hostel, where we have holed up over the Easter weekend.  This is a HUGE holiday down here, and we have seen some amazing processions from the cathedral.  It’s Easter Sunday this morning, but the town seems quiet.

Getting from Panama to Colombia was quite the chore.  There are no roads connecting the two countries.  The Darien Gap is an area of jungle, mountains, and swampland about 60-100 miles across, through which you cannot cross unless you are crazy enough to try.  If you look it up on Wikipedia, you’ll see just how few outsiders have actually crossed it.  Only a handful on bikes.  You can go, therefore, by boat or by plane, and we elected to fly.  It’s somewhat more expensive, but much faster, and so you spend less time in hotels and taxis waiting on the bikes.  We wrote up a detailed account of how we shipped the bikes and ourselves across in “Flying across the Darien Gap”, located in the Gallery section of the webpage.

We flew out of Panama City to Bogota - a huge city of 8.5 million people.  It takes a long time to get anywhere, as the traffic can be murder during rush hour times.  The morning after we got our bikes, we took an Uber car downtown to buy our insurance.  The route took us from the airport section, filled with construction and modern apartments, through the industrial part of town with every kind of blue-collar activity you can imagine, and into the seedier part of downtown, where we were treated to a variety of hustlers, hucksters, working girls, beggars, and thieves.  One man rolled his window down next to us and told us to keep our camera out of sight, too dangerous.  Okay, so caution in Bogota is the word of the day.  We finally got to the insurance office in the heart of downtown, insured the bikes, and were then footloose in the city.  We walked up through the University District and caught the Teleferico (cable gondola) up the mountain to Monserrate, a cathedral perched at 3,200 meters (10,500’) on the ridge over the city.  Inside is the sculpture of El Senor Caido, or Christ after removal from the cross, which attracts huge numbers of pilgrims, most preferring to climb on foot to the summit.  The view out over the city is amazing, and it’s a very popular spot for sunsets.  After we came back down, it was time for another Uber ride through the city to the apartment we were renting, and a lesson on how to jam a car into a traffic circle across 4 lanes and come out ahead of everyone else.

From Bogata to...

Barichara. 

We eventually left Bogota on a Saturday morning, headed for Barichara and Tinto Hostel.  We don’t like to travel on Saturdays because it can be a pain to find a place to stay, but we had reserved space at Tinto, so weren’t worried.  It took us about an hour to finally break free of Bogota, but traffic heading north out of town was still intense for quite a long while.  Everyone was getting out for the weekend, and taking time off over the next week, which was Easter.  Monday, Thursday, and Friday are all holidays that week, so lots of people were just blowing off work and heading out.  As we gradually left the city, and found ourselves surrounded by green fields, orchards, coffee farms, and cattle, we realized that once again we were in South America.  The dry brown fields and coastal mountain jungles of Central America were gone, and there was a completely different feel to the land.

We are still in the Andes now, but lower now at 1,300 meters (4,250’).  I look out over a staircase of red tile rooftops blackened by lichens that stagger down to the creek, beyond which the steep, rocky hillside rises covered with green trees.  All exterior walls are painted white, and there is somehow a serenity in the uniformity, a quieting of the usual riot of color found elsewhere.  The cathedral bell-ringers are very artful here, ringing loud then soft, and alternating low and high tones in long serenades.  There are craftsmen and artisans, with shops full of paintings, sculptures and various textile and jewelry crafts, much of it quite beautiful and of high quality.  Once again, our lack of carrying capacity saves us.  Our hostel is only two blocks from the main plaza in front of the cathedral, and we can walk up and sit under the tall palms and leafy trees while watching the people who have come to town enjoy themselves amid the green shady garden areas while feeling the cooling breeze in the open space.  It’s hot here, and fairly humid in the mid-afternoon.  Ice cream becomes a necessity.  Some kind of refuge, whether it’s the plaza or the pool is a welcome place between lunchtime and the evening.  Once the sun is down, the air cools a little, and a hammock outside is a wonderful place to pass the time, letting the air flow over and around you on all sides.  Finally everything is quiet as we all get sleepy and head inside.

Like in Central America, the roosters here have a problem with their internal clocks.  They like to go off in the night, somewhere around 3 or 3:30.  After a bit they quiet down again and are not heard until just before light.  I used to wear earplugs all night, mainly because of the incessant dog barking, but that’s not so much of an issue here.  And so I leave them on the table and, if the roosters get it wrong and wake me up at 3, I put them in and go back to sleep.  It’s strange, but I somehow look forward to the rooster calls in the middle of the night.  I wonder what has started them, and why do they calm down again after a while?  Sometimes I go out and look at the sky.  I will miss the roosters when I get back home, but maybe not for long.

As I said, Barichara sits perched on the edge of a huge canyon.  I have taken a couple of rides by myself to explore.  The first day I went down the paved road which runs a short ways to the village of Guane, which is situated about 9 km from here and below the upper edge of the canyon.  I turned off onto a dirt road and headed down, down, down until I finally reached the river after maybe 10 miles, and then headed up the other side.  I crossed the river on an old steel arch bridge.  The concrete deck had several holes in it, some large enough that I could have fallen down through them.  The concrete was flaking apart, leaving big holes with networks of rebar exposed.  Most of the missing concrete was on the underside of the deck, making the ride across a bit of a crapshoot as to just where the thin spots lay.   I observed this by kind of crawling up to one of the holes and looking through.  I didn’t like the condition of what I saw under me, so I backed away.  Still, it was cool to look down and see the brown river rushing along madly about 50-75’ below me.  If you fell in you would have been swept away instantly, it was all boulders and rapids in this section.  Someone had thoughtfully spray-painted bright rings around the holes and cracks in the bridge deck, so it was not hard to ride across, just a bit breathtaking.  Later, I noticed pickup trucks weaving across, so what the hell.  At night, you’d want good headlights.

Way up the other side of the canyon was another small town, Galan.  Like all towns, there was a main plaza and church.  Approaching Galan, I was reminded that the state of the road you are on suggests nothing about what you are going to come upon.  The road was rocky and dirt, traveling up through sparse trees and a few cattle.  In the middle of nowhere what do I see through the trees above me but a big, bright yellow and orange Terpel gas station sign, with prices listed, all concrete and a nice big roof shading the pumps.  You’d think you were on a major highway.  Beyond the gas station was just more dirt road, and I finally reached Galan a few miles later.  Judging by the vehicles I encountered, probably no more than 5-10 per hour passed that station.

Tomorrow we are heading north toward the Cartegena area on the Caribbean coast.  It will take us two days to get up there, so we’ve chosen to take a break halfway in the town of Aquachica, on the advice of a lovely Bogota couple who are also staying here at Tinto Hostel.  We also met a woman from Argentina who is giving us some great information about the area she lives in.  Once again we’re reminded that while we are traveling through beautiful country, it’s really the people that we are traveling through, isn’t it?

***

See LOTS of photos, and a short video of the Good Friday cross raising, HERE.

You may notice that we've given a wee bit more organization to the photo gallery. Now you can select the continent you want to view and then, scroll down like usual.