26 April 2014

Bogotá to San Agustín: life is a highway... with a desert in between

We departed Bogota at 6am, hoping to beat the worst of the traffic. In truth, although the road was busy, we managed to get out without ever seriously feeling unsafe, which is about as much as you can hope for when cycling out of a city of 8 million people. Despite it being a weekday, there were plenty of other cyclists out for their morning training before work, so we were in high spirits by the time we got out of the pull of Bogota's traffic and briefly onto some dirt roads.

Masses of racing cyclists at 7 am near Bogotá

Hard to believe you can find these amazing dirt roads only 22 km out of the big city!
In the interests of quiet roads we had exited the city from the Northwest, although we actually planned to head Southwest from Bogota. We worked our way through the dirt roads around the western side of the Colombian Altiplano and then enjoyed a long descent off of it on yet more dirt to La Gran Via and then onto pavement. We stopped for the night in Apulo, and got a cheap hospedaje, knowing that now that we were at low altitudes, we would need to leave every morning before sunrise in order to make the most of the coolest part of the day.

Leaving at dark brings you amazing sunrises
We knew we were headed for hotter temperatures, but nothing could have prepared us for the oppressive heat that would hit once we got down to 300m above sea level. Well, there were warning signs, like the fact that one of the places we were looking forward to seeing was a (semi) DESERT and that there is apparently a saying in Colombia that goes  "es más caliente que en Tocaima" and translates as “It's hotter than Tocaima”, the name of a town we would pass through.

Second breakfast of the day: huevos perico, patacón, and Pony Malta in Girardot
But we carried on, making a routine of waking up at 4am to be on the road by 5:30am, getting most of our kilometers done before noon and then spending the afternoon cycling in short bursts followed by long rests with cold drinks. The heat also influenced us to stay on the main highway, Route 45, as much as possible, something that is normally not our style at all – but it was important to travel at a speed that would create a bit of a breeze as we moved through the air, and also to minimise the number of days spent in such extreme conditions. It was here were delirium set in and we started making up rhymes about the heat (eagled-eyed readers may spot that these are to the tune of 'What's Beef?' by Mos Def and Talib Kweli):

- Heat is not when your speed takes a knock, heat is when you can´t cycle past twelve o´clock!
- Heat is not when you think you won´t make it, heat is when you don´t care who sees you naked!
- Heat is not when you clothes are soaked in sweat, heat is when that happens when you're not riding yet!
- Heat is not when you drink cause you should, heat is when boiling Coke starts to taste good!

Our second day of riding in the inferno we stayed the night in Natagaima, a pleasant town where there was a fiesta on and we were treated to a concert from the local children's choir.

Boring, yet fast and mostly safe road 45 towards Neiva

Another early start, and by 7am we were at the first of many possible turnoffs to reach the Desierto de Tatacoa, a small stretch of desert created by the surrounding mountains catching all of the rainwater that comes into the area. The locals couldn't agree which route was best, but after a passing motorcyclist warned us that the ferry crossing from Aipe to Villavieja was not operating due to the river being too low, we ended up turning around to cycle 7km back to the turnoff for Pueblo Nuevo. The dirt road was a fantastic change from the highway riding we'd been doing over the last few days, but with tons of steep little ups and downs it was a challenge in the early morning heat. Finally, we reached Villavieja, access town for the desert, just in time for lunch, followed by cold drinks, followed by ice cream.

Another early start and a beautiful sunrise over the mountains East of the road 45

We waited around in town until after 4pm, when the sun was less strong, and then cycled the 7km to the entrance to the desert. The posada nearest the astronomical observatory was full of buses of trainee petroleum engineers on a field trip, so we camped nearby and use another restaurant facilities.

Very little traffic on the dirt roads to Villavieja

The mighty Magdalena river

Scorching heat hit us on the way to Villavieja, but the landscapes were worth it
As we set up camp, the previously quiet desert started to fill with buses, cars, taxis and motorbikes. It was the first weekend of Semana Santa, Holy Week, and the biggest week of the year for domestic tourism in Colombia. Instead of the solitude of the desert we would try to fall asleep to the background of teenagers partying until dawn. Even worse, it was cloudy, which meant we couldn't go to the observatory for the famous astronomy talk that is given each night. Despite these setbacks, the desert was beautiful and we enjoyed our evening and morning amongst the red and gray rocks.

Happy to be reaching our destination for the day in Tatacoa

Camping could not get any better, if it wasn´t for the 32 degrees C at night, and the partying teenagers

Enjoying a quiet breakfast in the morning, with a view of the red rocks

Oil engineering students on a team building thing...we guessed...

We rode 10 km into the desert to see the grey landscapes. Alberto demonstrating the Colombian cooling off technique. 

Somewhat "natural" pool set up in the desert

Lucy´s tattoo shines in the desert. Before the heat set in, we went for a walk.

Indeed, very dry

By 11am we were on our bikes ready to ride back to Villavieja, to be back in civilisation before the worst of heat struck. In Villavieja, our energy sapped from the morning in the desert, we decided to stay a night, and if it was clear, cycle back to the observatory. No such luck, but the town of Villavieja grew on us, and we enjoyed our afternoon of people watching in the town square.

We had a great morning's ride the next day along the quiet, but paved, road to Neiva. After Neiva, it was back on the highway 45, only now the shoulder had all but disappeared and there was about ten times more traffic on the road. There were a couple of options for turning off on to quieter roads, but each time we convinced ourselves that the traffic would get better, and that turning off onto a hilly side road in the heat was not a good idea.

Ambulance with lights flashing arrives in a roadside restaurante. Apparently the emergency was that they all needed a relaxed almuerzo, before they continued, lights back on, towards Neiva. That´s what we call "laid back attitude"

Such a common image for touring cyclists in Colombia. Car, moto or truck slow down, no matter how much traffic there is, to talk to us about the trip

Riding along the thin shoulder in the mid-afternoon, Lucy's front pannier hit the lip of the road surface and she came off the bike. She got pretty scraped up from her knee to her chin, but no serious damage was done. We decided to start riding again soon after the crash before any serious pain had a chance to set in (thankfully, it never did). We had been thinking of camping, but now the plan was to get to the next town or hospedaje so that Lucy could clean her wounds properly. The traffic got much worse as we climbed up to 1300m in the late afternoon, thankfully in cooler temperatures with the fading sun. We descended again to 800m to the town of Gigante, when Alberto got a puncture just a few kilometers before the town. We had to take our sunglasses off just as we entered the edge of town, and by the time we found a hotel, it was fully dark.

Climbing up to Gigante afforded nice views of yet more river valleys
We had a functional day off in Gigante the next day, fixing various minor issues with the bikes and recovering from our 13-hour effort the previous day. We learned that the Route 45 has gotten significantly busier in recent years thanks to the development of oil fields near Gigante, as well as further south. The oil tankers going in our direction were empty, making them go even faster on the roads.

Semana Santa celebrations in full swing
We made plans to leave very early the following morning, as we had noticed the trucks didn't seem to get on the roads before 8am. This plan was foiled when Alberto's watch, which he had dropped off for repair the afternoon before, was still not ready. In the end we left at about 8:30am. We passed the turnoff for the oil wells soon after leaving town, and then by about 10am noticed that the traffic had died down significantly. It seemed that the police were stopping the trucks from transiting, perhaps for Semana Santa or some other reason – either way, it was great for us. The roads were still busy, but no longer felt dangerous.

The 45 was now quiet(er) and without heavy oil tankers

Lots of vineyards around, meaning yummy jugo de uva. Unfortunately, we´ve been told, Colombian wine is not yet up to Western standards, but perhaps soon will be?

Locals assured us that malaria was no longer a problem in the region, but dengue still was!

Getting higher
By 5pm we were pulling in to the town of Timana. Although the heat was significantly better now that we were up around 1100m, we still felt a shower was called for, so we checked into, not just any old place, but the Ritz!

We splurged and stayed at the Ritz

Impressive to see the entire village flowing into the church for Semana Santa celebrations
The next day we set off for the 50km to San Agustin, mainly gentle climbing until the last tough climb to the town in the heat of the day. Our timing couldn't have been worse, arriving with thousands of Colombian tourists for the long Easter weekend, but without too much trouble we found a nice place to camp as we settled in for a few days off and our last real tourist stop in Colombia.  

There was essentially a roadside art gallery on the way to Pitalito, we particularly liked this one

As we approached San Agustín, there was more military presence, yet this time it seemed friendlier than usual!
Route notes:

- Leaving Bogota: there´s a few options to leave the big city. We heard the most obvious, via Soacha, would be very busy and take you through some less than ideal neighborhoods so we opted to head out via Calle 80, past the airport, and to . It was relatively painless. 
- The dirt roads to connect us to the main highway were in good condition, although near La Gran Via none of the dirt roads were on Open Street Maps (neither were they on the IGAC maps) so there was a lot of asking locals before finally connecting to the paved road. 
- El Espinal to Villavieja: The highway 45 has a generous shoulder here and was not too busy. We took the turnoff to Pueblo Nuevo (not marked on the IGAC maps) to get to Villavieja.  There are plenty of short but steep climbs. There are two or three villages on the way for re-stocking on liquids etc. 
-Desierto de Tatacoa: The road to the desert entrance is paved, then unpaved once inside the desert, but very rideable, and very convenient to have independent transportation.
- Villavieja to San Agustin: The road from Villavieja to Neiva is paved (IGAC maps have it as unpaved). After Neiva, there is high traffic and very little shoulder. We don't recommend any cyclists to take this route, if it can be avoided. The section between Hobo and Gigante is by far the worst. Traffic gets a bit better after Gigante. 

10 April 2014

Bucaramanga to San Gil... and on to Bogota by bus

We always knew that our sojourn North into Colombia was a temporary state, as the plan has always been to go South. The question for the past month or so has been, how far North will we go? We debated for a long time whether to go to the Caribbean coast or not, the pluses and minuses of which could fill an entire blog post. In Bucaramanga we reached the point of no return, and ultimately a combination of factors including the heat, the traffic on the road to Santa Marta, and the fact that time is ticking away on our Colombian visa, meant that it was time to turn this ship around.

It made sense to get on a bus to Bogota to save time (since we had already done what we considered to be the best route North from Bogota) but first we decided to soak up a bit more of the Department of Santander by riding to San Gil via the back road to Zapatoca.

Pineapple farm outside Bucaramanga - we were surprised about their shape and size, as we had never seen one of these before
We set off from Bucaramanga at 5:15 in the morning, bound for Zapatoca where some friends of Alberto (the paraglider) lived. We knew we had a tough climb ahead of us, and everyone warned us to start it early in the day. By the time we got out of the city, through the sandy dirt roads of Acapulco, and down to the start of the climb, it was 9:30am and already scorching hot. Nothing to do but buy water at the tienda, soak our shirts under the tap nearby, and start climbing.

Sandy roads after Acapulco
The road zig-zagged up the mountain for an eternity, in the baking Colombian heat. A man in a van took pity on us and immediately provided six bags of cold water, which we were grateful for. The views were, as always in Colombia, stunning, and there was a slight breeze which made climbing in the heat almost bearable.

Descending to the river valley down some fun switchbacks... too bad there were just as many switchbacks on the other side to climb.

The big bridge is under construction, and will allow the river flow to be much more high. When it opens, the old bridge in the background, which is the one we crossed, will be swallowed by the river

Looking back on the road we have climbed. In the distance you can just make out the road we descended on the other side of the valley. First proper switchback road of our trip. Plenty of these await for us in Peru.
Four hours later, we reached the top of the climb, and pushed on through the rolling hills until we reached Zapatoca, exhausted. A quick stop for some ice cream, empanadas, and a cold drink and we had regained enough strength to look for Armando and Sonia's house. What a welcoming and beautiful house it was! Anne-Sophie, a cyclist from Belgium, was already there, and we enjoyed a day off taking in the charm of Zapatoca.

Lucy and Anne-Sophie walking into town

Zapatoca main plaza

Armando and Sonia's 35-years old Renault 4 car. Still going strong on the rough roads of Colombia!

We are becoming addicted to Colombian empanadas. The ones prepared by Don Rafa in Zapatoca, with 23 years in the business, were amongst the best we have tried so far!

 We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with Armando, Sonia, and Anne-Sophie before starting off on the dirt road towards the town of La Fuente, where another friend of Armando and Sonia has a finca where we would stay the night. It was a short day, but in the heat we were glad for it, and we had a relaxing and interesting evening talking to Pipo about life in the campo.

Saying goodbye to Armando, Sonia, and Anne-Sophie

La Fuente is a tiny colonial town in an impressive setting

Pipo has been fixing up the finca for several years now. He changed the busy life of Cali for a more quiet one in his parents' old finca, near La Fuente.

Great art at Pipo's finca
Saying goodbye again

Despite trying again to get an early start to beat the heat of the climb, we ended up climbing up from the Rio Suarez towards Barichara at about 10am and it was again already pretty darn hot. Barichara is a cute town, recommended in some well-known travel guides, but Santander has so many other charming colonial towns that, for us, Barichara was a bit inauthentic and very upscale. We had a delicious almuerzo there though, before pressing on to San Gil where some other friends of Alberto (still the paraglider) were willing to host us. Once again we were humbled by the kindness of total strangers.

More great Santander dirt roads

Riding into Barichara's fixed up cobbled roads.
Some travel guide describe Barichara as 'like a movie set' ... pretty accurate in both good and bad ways
We managed to just beat the rain into San Gil, the first rain they've had in a long time, and settled in with Sergio and his girlfriend for a day off. We hitched a ride with Sergio's company, Parapente Chicamocha, up to the Canyon del Chicamocha to soak in the views and watch the others fly – we stayed on the ground this time, but still enjoyed ourselves. 

Watching the action from tierra firme

The Canyon del Chicamocha seems like a great place to fly, with plenty of thermals and stunning views all around

Impressive... but we're glad we didn't cycle to it as the road connecting Bucaramanga with San Gil is very busy and with really tough climbs

Despite it having always been in the plans to take a bus, as the moment of truth approached, we really found ourselves dreading it. Even when we cycled to the bus station in the morning, we were still halfway thinking that we would just ride past it and keep going to Bogota. Ultimately we decided it was a better choice to take the bus, but we weren't happy about it. This ambivalence would come in handy later when, two hours into the journey, the bus driver decided to start demanding that we pay him an extra fee to carry the bikes, which apparently he had forgotten to mention when we boarded the bus in the first place (the company was Copetrans). I was halfway hoping he would kick us off the bus so we could cycle again! But he didn't, and he eventually gave up trying to get money from us too.Advice to other touring cyclists: make it clear that you are not going to pay for your bike, as we had the feeling they just take the piss with foreign cyclists.

In Bogota, we continued our backpacker-style day with a night in a hostel in La Candelaria, meeting up with Martin one last time before he and his friends headed out the following morning to the coast. Then we moved to David and his mother Magdalena's apartment, who we found through the great website warmshowers. David showed us some new parts of the city. We got stuck for a few days doing various errands and enjoying the the delicious food and great company served up by David and his mother.  But soon, with our visa expiration date in mind, it was time to keep moving South.

The auditorio at the Universidad Nacional, with our host David and Lucy in the front

Rogelio Salmona's famous Universidad Nacional Edificio de Postgrados de Ciencias Humanas. Could well be a five start hotel!
Route notes:

- Bucaramanga to Zapatoca: we followed the locals' advice and left Bucaramanga early, before the raving traffic hit the town. Once out of Bucaramanga, we rode through the centre of Floridablanca and on to Ruitoque, where we took on some scenic unpaved roads. The climb up to Zapatoca is a long one, and best done early in the morning or late in the afternoon. There's a shop just before the climb, and another one one third into the climb. After that, water sources become scarce, although there's a couple of fincas which could provide some water.

- Zapatoca to San Gil: the road is unpaved all the way to 3 km out of Barichara, but generally in good condition. There are a few villages along the way, so water and food are no problem. Again, the climb to Barichara coming from Galan is best done in the early morning, as it is very hot down at the Suarez valley. After Barichara, the road is paved and in very good condition to San Gil