Catching Up On Our Stories – Southern Colombia

Started June 24, 2016

Hola! Jalene (aka Web Mistress!) here. Keith wrote a long “catch up” blog post and, as travel luck would have it, we’ve had super-slow wifi in the places we’ve been staying lately in northern Peru. What does that mean for you? It means there are no photos below but don’t fret, you can see photos through Ecuador in the Gallery on our website.


We rode out of Salento, in Colombia, and headed south to search out a tiny patch of desert high in the Andes.  It seemed a strange place to find desert, up in the mountains of Colombia, renowned for the green hills and fertile valleys we’d seen everywhere, with rivers and waterfalls all around us.  We would take a couple of days to get there.

We rode south for a short distance before turning east to cross a high Andean pass, which would then take us down into the town of Ibague.  As we climbed, twisting and turning in ever-tightening switchbacks, we began to pass more and more big trucks grinding upward.  Eventually we climbed into the thickly forested elevations, where the road really started to writhe, and then we were over the top and descending in a never-ending procession of trucks and tight switchbacks.  Passing would get us past this truck, only to be on the tail of the next.

When Jalene and I tried to describe Andean roads after returning from our Ecuador trip two years prior, I remember explaining that there were no straight roads, and never would be because a straight road would have to go from tunnel to bridge to tunnel to bridge, endlessly.  Crazy expensive!  Well, it seems the Colombian economists got together with their engineers, and they decided that this particular route Jalene and I were riding was so commercially important, connecting Bogota to Cali and other major cities, that it penciled out to spend the money.  And so, as we crossed the pass, we saw a series of tunnels connecting bridges (or vice-versa) for about 25 miles, I’m guessing.  One place had no conventional roadway at all for at least 10 miles, just alternating tunnels and bridges coming down the valley.  Other places had incredibly positioned bridges looping out from the steep slope and back again to dive once more inside the mountain.  I couldn’t believe my eyes at times the engineering was so spectacular, with spidery bridges sailing high overhead only to disappear and then jump out again from the next fold in the mountainside.  Sadly, I was unable to take any photos, because we were in such heavy traffic on a mountain road.  My Dad, the civil engineer, would have loved seeing it all.

Once we reached lower elevations and the valley opened out, we stopped for the night at a cool eco-touristy hostel outside of Ibague.  A retired professor of agronomy owned it, and he had labeled all the unusual trees he had collected and planted around the well-manicured grounds.  I enjoyed the platform where I and some other kids could climb and look straight down into a pond, watching huge koi and several tortugas (turtles) swim around.  The platform was of thick bamboo, and put us level with the big lower branches of the trees, where the birds and big dragonflies were buzzing and circling around.  Rain threatened, and thunder boomed at times, but we didn’t get any drops on us.  We were pleased when an overlander couple that we had met in Salento roll in and join us.  They were driving a Toyota LandCruiser truck with a camper conversion, and parked under a kind of barn-shelter common here.  After dinner, we all gathered around the map with glasses of wine and, of course, traded stories of our travels.  Talking with other overlanders is always wonderful, and these two had traveled Africa, Australia, and were now in South America heading north.  It was late that night for us when we all finally yawned and headed for bed – about 9 or maybe even 9:30.

The next morning, we rose and pointed the bikes south down the Rio Magdalena, a big river that flows northward to the Caribbean through a very broad valley between ranges of the Andes.  In central Colombia, the Andes are about 400 miles wide east-to-west, as broad as Oregon.  The Magdalena Valley is maybe 50 miles across, and we turned and headed south once we reached the river.  We were heading for the small area of Desierto de Tatacoa, a microclimate about 30 miles in diameter on the eastern side of the valley, where rains rarely fall.  All around can be seen tree-covered mountains, and within an hour one can be on jungle slopes, but in this little basin is nothing but sand and rocks and a little sage and cactus.  The wind blew hard where we stopped at a little lunch place, and we saw tourist busses belching out gringos, who were loaded onto burros and taken out to see the sandy arid hummocks.  A TV commercial was being filmed while we were there, a bit surreal in a strange little place.  After some soup with corn and a meaty bone in it (yum!), we headed back toward the river to a hostel.

After a night nearby in Villavieja, we turned south along the Magdalena once more.  From desert dryness we transitioned to darker clouds near the town of Nieva, and then the rain began.  For the rest of the day, we rode into heavier and heavier rain, passing out of the valley and into jungle gorges where the Magdelana gathered its waters.  The road ascended up toward our destination of San Agustin, a tiny town in the mountains.  We wanted to see the much-heralded Parque Archeologico San Agustin, with its many pre-Columbian stone statues unearthed in the surrounding region.  As well, the area is known for its beautiful mountains and for being the birthplace of five of the biggest rivers in Colombia, many of which we had already followed on one road or another.  The rain by now was falling so hard that it was hard to see ahead.  When we got into town and the GPS map did not show the road to the hostel, we flagged down a taxi and followed him up the muddy track to our destination.  Soaked, we pulled our gear off and enjoyed steaming ourselves by a big, hot fireplace.  The next day was warm and sunny, a fine reward for persevering through the heavy rains.  We walked up to the Parque and, after getting schooled in the museum, wandered the trail along which were displayed many varied statues carved from stone so many years ago.  Some were people, some were birds, and all were interesting to see.  We also saw the places where tombs were excavated, with some of the sarcophagi still in place.  I don’t really remember the who or when of the people that carved the statues, but I loved the artistry and variation in them, and as we live in a Google world now, I can instantly read again about the who and when.

After enjoying the warmth and sun on our day off in San Agustin, we again packed up the bikes and headed out to cross the western arm of the Andes to the city of Popoyan.  Our road took us up a rocky, muddy road, with few other vehicles except the occasional truck or motorcycle.  We rose up and followed a high ridgeline, as roads here often do, and we could look out across huge valleys of unbroken jungle.  We encountered military units spaced out along the road every 10 kilometers or so, but here it was easy to understand how for decades the rebel factions had been able to exist in these endless jungle tracts.  We were suddenly nervous about stopping for long when nature called, or to grab a quick photo.    We’ve been good about paying attention to our “radar”, and for me, it was tingling here.   Eventually, of course, it began to rain again.  We followed the rocky track for about 30 or 40 miles until we came down into a high valley containing the Popoyan.  We found a nice hotel near the center of town after learning that the hostel we had reserved had no secure parking nearby, and spent another evening drying everything out from the rain.  It was here in Popoyan that our decision to buy new, more waterproof gear was vindicated for us, as we were thoroughly tired of being wet and miserable in the Colombian rain.  Our new gear would meet us in Cali, only a day’s ride away to the north of us.

The next morning we rolled out into sunshine and decided to take a secondary road that paralleled the busy main highway, and were we ever glad we did!  It turned out to be a small road, following the ridgeline northward among farms and scattered houses.  Variably we were on asphalt, hard dirt, gravel, and a little mud, but it was the views that made this road so memorable!  We looked out across fields and jungle, and down into river canyons with an immense dammed reservoir of water.  Later on, the road dropped down along a river below the big dam, and we followed that for a time, enjoying the warm sunshine again.  We stopped at a little store and took a break, sharing the bench with the locals, and laughing at the dog tied to the horse, as it kept wrapping the rope around the poor horse’s legs and generally being a nuisance.  But they seemed to be buddies, and so the horse would step out of its canine bonds and the dog would be free again to circle anew.

Shortly after our session with horse and dog, we took another break when Jalene complained that her bike was handling awfully strange, and that she could put her feet down flat on the ground.  Sure enough, she had a flat tire in back, but we were super lucky as we had come to a stop right by a moto shop, and within a half hour we had a new tube installed, and were back on the road.  We couldn’t find anything in the tire after searching inside and out, so concluded it was a sharp rock, as sometimes happens.  Less than $5US for the whole repair, but I should have checked that tire one more time while the guy was patching her tube.  As we rolled into Cali, she again felt the bike was handling oddly, and sure enough the rear tire was looking pretty low again.  We were in the city by this time, and so we parked the bikes up on an island in an intersection, and I inflated her tire again with the electric pump I carry.  The next morning I found a tiny piece of stiff steel wire in her tire, and it only poked through into the inner tube when the pressure of the ground pushed it in.  I did the job again, and it’s been holding fine since.  Luckily they were able to put a hot-patch on the old tube, so I had that to use. 

I so admire the creative nature of mechanics down here.  Their hot-patch machine was made from a big C-clamp and the base of a clothes iron.  The C-clamp was welded upright to a post, and the clothes iron hot-plate was fixed to the screw side of the clamp.  A small steel plate was welded to the other side of the clamp.  The patch was applied to the tube, and then two pieces of thin aluminum from a can were sandwiched on either side of the tube.  The whole affair was clamped in the “hot press”, and the iron plugged in.  A wooden match was placed atop the iron, and when it ignited from the heat, the iron was judged hot enough and unplugged.  A few minutes were allowed for the patch to melt into the tube, and to cool for a few minutes.  The tube was removed and the job was so perfect that I could not see any edges to the patch, just a slightly thicker spot on the tube where the hole had been.

Cali is a big city in southern Colombia, and we stayed there 8 nights waiting for our new riding gear to arrive.  In the meantime, we explored a bit, found some excellent places to eat, and met Zoe, an Englishwoman who works at Motolombia, whom we had ordered our gear through.  As soon as we met in person, we became instant friends with her.  Zoe gave us a bit of a walking tour of the area of town we were in, and that was terrific fun for us.  She also introduced us to the local passion for salsa dancing, which she has studied intensely, and showed us videos of her in action.  Pretty impressive stuff, Zoe!  We also took a side trip out to the Cali Zoo, which I thought was very well done, especially the huge variety of monkeys they had there as well as the big mariposa house, a kind of aviary for butterflies.  It was a bit disappointing to see both grizzly and polar bears, obviously never coming out of their pools in the heat, but in all I thought it was well-done as zoos go, and worth the trip to see and stroll through.  The tropical fish building was fantastic, and that alone made it worth the ticket.

After picking up our gear, we shipped our old jackets and pants home.  We inquired at Servientrega first, and were shocked at the quote of about $260US, but they also steered us toward a private mail agency called 4-72 (can anyone guess what that name means??) that shipped it back to Oregon for only about one-third the price, about $80US total.  Off it went.  A few days later, after I had a haircut and a few other necessary things taken care of, we headed south out of Cali along the PanAmerican, making tracks for Ecuador, which would take a couple of days.

Heading south, we targeted a town called Silvia, known for it’s indigenous market, and we weren’t disappointed.  In the town center, people in distinctive blue shawls, black hats, and a kind of dark gray skirting had come in for the Saturday market day, and we had timed it just right.  It was difficult to get photos of the indigenous folks unless I was far away and zoomed in.  I asked several people, and was universally but politely turned down, even after talking with some of them for some time.  That’s okay, I don’t need to be the pushy gringo.  Here in Silvia, we found a bakery/restaurant that had hotel rooms upstairs and parking for the bikes in the back.  The interesting part was that they had me bring the bikes through the restaurant and the kitchen/bakery and park them in the little walled area out back where the laundry was hung.  Nobody seemed to take much notice as I rode by inches from the table where they were eating.  Trying to be polite and add a little levity, I made sure to wish each table “Buen provecho” from the saddle as I worked my way by.  Next morning at breakfast it was the same scene, with no surprises as the guy on the motorcycle came out through the restaurant.  Happens all the time.

After Silvia it was south again, and this day took us to Ipiales and the Ecuadorian border.  Ipiales is the home of what must be the most photographed cathedral in Colombia, Las Lajas, being built on a stone bridge deep inside the canyon of the Rio Guaitara.  Photos look amazing, and being there is even more spectacular.  It is built directly over a spot on the riverbanks where a woman prayed for her dead daughter, where the Virgin Mary appeared and restored her to life.  The cathedral itself is stunning, and is not very old compared to many others we’ve seen down here.  It’s the construction that’s the amazing part, and I love how the back wall behind the alter is the actual cliff face, and on it is a faint image of the Virgin Mary and Jesus that appeared after the miracle occurred.  Las Lajas is a must-see for anyone travelling in this area of Colombia, and a spectacular way for us to bring our trip through Colombia to a close.

Postscript – While parking the bikes for the walk down to Las Lajas cathedral, Jalene complained that she didn’t have a lightweight raincoat, and it was starting to drizzle a bit.  I pointed out what looked like a nice coat on a nearby woman, and Jalene yelled “Yoon! TB!” and sure enough it was our friends on bicycles from Korea, whom we had camped with in Costa Rica.  We had a wonderful time catching up while we enjoyed the cathedral, and hearing about the time they spent in Venezuela.  It was such a wonderful surprise, and we hope that wherever they are now, that they are safe and happy, and gathering more fantastic stories from their journey.  Maybe with just a little bit of luck we will see them again along the road.

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Head to our Gallery for photos and check out Jalene's post about being stuck in Ecuador.