25 March 2014

Cycling and hiking in La Sierra Nevada de El Cocuy

March is a quiet month to visit El Cocuy, which for us worked out great. Not only do you get the whole village and the park to yourself., but also prices for food and lodging are significantly lower. After paying a hefty 50.000 COP (25 USD) for the entrance, and getting some up to date information regarding what is allowed and not in the park (as of March 2014, doing the whole loop around the Sierra Nevada is no longer permitted), we got ourselves ready for a couple of days hike into the mountains.

Not what I would call gourmet cuisine, but enough calories for 5 days and three people
Instead of taking the infamous lechero (milk) truck up to the Park entrance, we rode up, dealing with some light traffic along the way. (photo courtesy of Martin Andexer)
Even though we travelled light(er) than usual, with only two back panniers, riding at 4000 m is never easy

At 4150 m we caught the first glimpse of the real mountains

And shortly afterwards, the clouds cleared to show us the Pulpito del Diablo and Pan the Azucar snowy peak

We then went to our campsite, at the Herrera´s house, who kindly let us stay for free because we were cyclists

We cooked hearty meals while we acclimmatised

And admired the views all around us. Here the highest summit of the Park, Ritacuba Blanca, at 5300 m

Martin's art vs. the real thing.

Bed with a view

The first day we hiked up to the Lagunillas sector, at 4200 m

Lagunas and frailejones
Sunset from our campsite (photo courtesy of Martin Andexer)

The second day the real climb began. Martin Sherpa in the front, followed by Lucy. Since Lucy and I lack proper backpacks, Martin kindly carried our sleeping gear and clothes!

We climbed some steep sections towards the Alto de Conejo

The Paramo vegetation was all around us

Our Sherpa showing off

I thought this colours and shape were only a thing of the Coral Reefs?

After three hours of uphill climbing, we catch our first glimpse of the high mountains

And then the infamous Pulpito, covered by the afternoon clouds
Looking for a campsite at 4600 m before the last push
We hiked to 4800 m after setting up camp, before descending for some further acclimmatisation
A night at 4600 m, below freezing temperatures, and a gorgeous view of the mountains the following morning 
Then reached the glacier, at 4800 m

And made quick progress on the snow

Towards the rock, at 4920 m
A very special moment for the three of us. Martin reached the Pulpito del Diablo 8 years after his first attempt. We hiked under our own steam to nearly 5000 m. (photo courtesy of Martin Andexer)

Descending to our base camp. Highest point we've ever been, other than on a plane
One last look. The much admired Pulpito del Diablo rock (photo courtesy of Martin Andexer)
The descent was just as scenic
22 km of downhill on dirt road, and 1.5 hours later we are back in the comforts of El Cocuy. (photo courtesy of Martin Andexer)

The town of El Cocuy (2700 m). A welcome sight after 3 days above 4000 m. (photo courtesy of Martin Andexer)

Two pollos enteros for three people was our much deserved post-Sierra dinner. It came higher on the priority list than a shower...(photo courtesy of Martin Andexer)

View from our balcony at El Cocuy. Hopefully we will be back soon for the whole loop round the Sierra
Saying good byes to new friends. Jaime, the owner of the Almacen in the Parque central, who looked after us during our stay in El Cocuy
Special thanks go to our good riding (and hiking) friend Martin from Austria, who not only carried our sleeping gear on the hike up to the mountains, but also was the first in recommending going to El Cocuy.

Some notes and comments regarding our ride and hike in the Sierra Nevada:

- Entrance fee is now 50.000 COP as opposed to 36.000 COP.
- The portion of the lechero route that we rode was completely rideable on a touring bike, despite the Park office trying to convince us we needed the lechero for the ascent.
- The route onwards to the Cabañas Herreras or Sisuma was a bit rougher, but still doable on thick tyres, at least downhill
- Food is very limited up in the Park, except in a few cabañas, where it needs to be arranged beforehand, at least in the low season. We carried everything we needed for 5 days.
- The popular route around the whole Sierra Nevada, from El Cocuy to Guican, is officially closed as of March 2014, due to disputes with the indegenous people on the other side (or that´s what we were told at the Park office)
- Maps handed out in the Park office are very inaccurate and unreliable. We had GPS maps from Openstreetview and those had most paths marked, as well as accurate elevation profiles.
- We could not find reliable weather forecasts, so best to ask the locals, especially while on the actual Park

18 March 2014

Villa de Leyva to El Cocuy: small towns and big climbs

We lingered at the hostel the morning of our departure of Villa de Leyva. Before we knew it it was 11am and we were just getting on the road. We were heading for Duitama, but having enjoyed the back roads so much on our ride from Bogota we decided to take the long way there. We also hoped it would give Martin a chance to catch up with us so that we could head to El Cocuy together.

Winding roads on the way from Villa de Leyva

Classic Colombian imagery
We left Villa de Leyva on a gently climbing road, which turned unpaved and got steeper after crossing the main highway at Arcabuco. At first, we enjoyed a beautiful ride along the mountainside, but then the road deteriorated into one of the worst we have ever ridden! There were massive rocks, dried mud, and cobbles, meaning that even on the completely flat sections we could not reach 10 km per hour.

A great ride along the mountainside

Cyclist vs. mountains

Beautiful scenery but rough roads

10km per hour on the flat
We pulled into the tiny town of La Palma at 5pm. It was so small that there weren't even houses on all four sides of the plaza, and were assured it would be perfectly fine to camp there. As we set up our tent we had conversations with a couple of locals, including a younger guy who offered us water from his house and talked to us about the days when the village was ruled by guerillas, and also about what parts of Colombia have the best fruits and vegetables. The most interested were the kids, who asked lots of questions about our tent and cooking equipment, and visited us several times in the evening and also the following morning. Despite it being a Monday, the nightlife was in full swing with a bar full of drunk campesinos playing really loud music! Fortunately we seem to have learned to sleep through any noise and we had a comfortable night's sleep, only woken briefly when it started to rain.

The kids stopped by on their way to school at 7 am. Note the home-made horses some of them carried!

On our way out of town in the morning, we mentioned to some locals about the route we were planning on taking from Gambita to Paipa and were told that the road was closed due to obras (roadworks). They kindly called someone they knew who was working on the road, to confirm that bicycles could still pass. Now confident of our route choice, (although the locals also assured us that the road surface was going to remain in bad condition for a while) we headed on towards the stiff climb we knew was coming after Gambita. We decided to get as much of the climb out of the way that day as we could, which meant cycling until close to dark and then finding a place to wild camp.

The rough road continued after La Palma, apparently a dairy area

Stylish butcher shopfront in Palermo, before we camped

We ended up choosing a little clearing next to the road which was used for pedestrian access to the finca behind. As we were putting up the tent a woman came out of the finca's gate. She worked on the finca and told us there would be no problem at all with us camping there. Then she offered us a couple of tamales that she was carrying home—they were delicious!

Our camp spot for the night on the climb to Paipa

Morning fog before we continued the climb

The rain came very strong and sudden as we were setting up camp—I happened to be inside the tent when it started, so was privileged to have an excuse to stay under cover and dry while Alberto had to finish cooking dinner in the pouring rain. The owner of the finca then came over, in the pouring rain, and had a long and interesting chat with Alberto.

The rest of the climb was about as good as could be expected for a long, unpaved climb and we made good progress. Then it was jackets on for the descent, first unpaved and then beautiful pavement, which always feels welcome after a few days on dirt roads. We reached Paipa at about noon and immediately found a hospedaje, a bit pricey but really nice, with a large sun-filled courtyard which we set to work taking over to dry everything out. We bought some yummy queso paipa, the only aged cheese available in Colombia.

Paipa cheese - as close to a European cheese as it gets

The next day, we found that the dirt roads of the past few days had sapped a bit of our energy, so we invented the concept of a moving rest day. We would leave as late as we want, eat lots of yummy treats, and just view any kilometers we accomplished as a bonus. We took the longer way from Paipa to Duitama via Pantano de Vargas and a cafe stop for the local specialty of almojabanas with agua panela. Then a delicious almuerzo in Duitama and we set off again up route 55, which was busy at first with truck traffic, but then got quieter.

Duitama is big on cycling

We climbed to Santa Rosa as the clouds got increasingly dark, but we didn't really like the look of the town so we decided to see if we could make it to Belen before the rain started. There was a bit more climbing to be done, but then it was descent all the way. We made fast progress and we had every hope of outracing the storm, but about 2km from Belen, we got caught, bad. The streets were turning to rivers and the rain was forcing my eyes closed so that I could barely see. As soon as we hit the outskirts of Belen, we took cover under an awning to see if the rain would lighten up. Then we noticed the gas station across the way had rooms, and we decided to cut our losses and head there for the night.

Pouring rain in Belen, although it does not quite capture how soaked we got

We had the luxury of a second relaxed morning in a row as we waited for Martin to arrive in Belen. After our joyful reunion we started out on the gently climbing route 55, which was now very quiet. We stopped in El Paramo (Tutaza) for a quick snack, and the road levelled out for a while through beautiful landscapes, then descended fast to Susacon, where we stopped for the night. We had three passes ahead of us to reach the town of El Cocuy and the gateway to the Sierra Nevada there.

Reunion with Martin, who we met two months ago in Ecuador

Great to be three on the road (photo courtesy of Martin Andexer)

The children of El Paramo were surprised by the arrival of three cycling gringos (photo courtesy of Martin Andexer)

The 55 becomes quiet and scenic past El Paramo

It rained the next morning so we waited around until 10:30am before the rain stopped. We descended to  the river valley at 1300m, to start climbing again—it was hot down there! The climbing was tough in the heat, but beautiful. We saw rain clouds in the distance and wished they would come find us and cool us down, but alas, the rain would wait until we were in the middle of cooking an alfresco dinner before hitting.

We dealt with all sorts of road traffic...

Then we saw the town of Soata getting hit by hard rain as we climbed to Boavita

Just before Boavita we passed a restaurante campestre and asked if we could camp there. David, the owner, didn't even hesitate, just said 'of course,' and then, because the restaurant wasn't open for dinner, offered to sell us trout, meat, and vegetables so we could cook. It was a cycle tourists´ dream come true, and although we got soaked when the rain came down, we were then able to shelter under the open-air dining area which made a world of difference.

El Eden restaurant, where we camped, had great views of Boavita and La Uvita

Cyclists feasting on fresh trout after getting soaked

The next day was election day in Colombia, which meant quieter roads but busier towns than usual. We continued our climbing to La Uvita, then descended again to another valley before starting the next climb at about 2:00 in the afternoon—why do we always do that? Nearing the top of the climb we stopped to check out camping opportunities, and fell into conversation with an older man who gave us his opinion on elections (not worth voting), the environment (energy companies are ruining it), and many other topics. He was one of the only farmers living in the area and said we could camp in his fields. It was a lucky break, because as we headed over to the field I found I had a puncture (my first of the trip)—much more convenient to fix it while we were stopped for the night.

The buses were incredibly busy on election day

There's always religious motifs on top of the mountains

Night cooking at 7 pm

It rained overnight and we waited to dry the tents out before getting started with a tiny bit left of our second pass, then the descent to Guacamayas, and our final climb to El Cocuy. At the top of the pass we caught our first glimpse of the Sierra Nevada and stopped to chat to the man running the mirador there about the mountains and the road ahead. 

The last big climb before El Cocuy, at 3000 m, where we saw the Sierra Nevada for the first time

Great Police signage to prevent accidents

Quick descent to the valley before El Cocuy

Then it was the long descent to Guacamayas. The plan was to get some bread for a snack later up the road, but the men drinking in the panaderia (at 10:30am) had other plans. One of them had just lost the election for local government, and they were drinking to commiserate/celebrate. They were totally taken aback by the appearance of three gringos on bicycles into their little village, and especially with Martin. They insisted on buying the boys beers (I got a Coke) and chatting to us about any number of things. We ended up in the panaderia for an hour and a half before prying ourselves free to tackle the final climb and reach El Cocuy.

Martin, a racing cyclist back in Austria, broke the speed limit

Free beers and friendly locals at noon in Guacamayas generated a lot of laughs

The climb was tough in the afternoon heat, but  laughing about the Guacamayas beer experience made it pass more quickly. Soon we were in El Cocuy getting ready for a few days in the National Park of the Sierra Nevada de El Cocuy.

And finally, our destination of El Cocuy

El Cocuy is Alberto's most favourite town with its green and white houses