Colombia and its people live lives defined by the vertical. In just a few hundred kilometres we plunged from the lofty coolness of Bogotá to the intense dry heat of the Desierto de Tatacoa, then slowly inched our way back up to the heights of San Agustin.
Starting out from Bogotá felt like beginning a new trip, with a whole new continent to encompass, and the inkling of a time-line. We’d had time in Bogotá to form a vision of how things would be. A french couple had inspired us with their photos, having just arrived in Bogotá after leaving Tierra del Fuego 6 months earlier. We envisioned bleak, empty, mountain-ringed highlands. We saw forests and remote dirt roads. All of this was at altitude until much further south, when it would be time for temperate riding conditions as we’d be out of the tropics.
It’s a measure of how ready we were for a change from the central american climate, that when we lost nearly 2000m of elevation in the first day from Bogotá and were returned to tropical heat, we both felt betrayed by our false notions of south america.
We were, in part, placated by finding a route that kept us well clear of highways and traffic. In fact, merely by following the smallest roads on the Mapa de Ruta, we immersed ourselves in the backroad charms of Colombia. Some stretches very definitely don’t see much motorised traffic, and some very definitely haven’t had a car in years!
We both loved the arid, wide open spaces of the Wyoming Basin, New Mexico and the Mexican Sierra Madre Occidental. Thus, we were drawn without much question to the Desierto de Tatacoa. This near-arid area with cacti and temperatures into the 40s is in the rain-shadow of the hulking Andean peaks on either side and has a reputation for clear skies and stars. Unfortunately the night we stayed near the observatory there was clouded over and we were foiled.
After escaping the clutches of Neiva we began our quest to regain our beloved altitude. We have had the luxury of much better maps for our foray in Colombia, than we’ve used since México and the US. After a somewhat confusing purchasing episode at the Geographical Institute in Bogotá we even have double coverage of some areas! Despite this relatively up-to-date information we were very happy to find some of the climbs turned out to be paved (particularly the climb to La Argentina). Highlights of our rise in the world include the dusty dirt road stretch between the hill-top town of Iquira and Picarní; and the forested summit of the ridge between La Argentina and San Roque.
After stopping in Oporapa to check up the state of our brake pads (and replace both front sets from the spares bag), we pootled onwards. Progress came to a temporary halt at ‘junction with a view’ shortly afterwards where we had to make a route decision. The quandary all centred around where we wanted to be a few days later for Tom to have a phone interview for a job back in Australia. In the end, after much faffing, we opted for the ‘high and cool’ of San Agustin rather than ‘low and hot’ of Mocoa. Typically, we chose the longer, rougher route to get there too…
Normally when we’ve asked for directions or information we’re very rapidly told that ‘you don’t want to go that way, take the easier well-surfaced route instead’. Quite often, people have been unwilling to admit that a particular route actually exists. As if by avoiding the topic, they’ll direct us onto the approved and less arduous path. In Colombia until we decided to go the back road to San Agustin, we hadn’t managed to evince an instant of surprise at our being there or our route choice. No matter how precipitous or rough. Instead we’ve had warm welcomes through-out and happy confirmations of our location and direction. The sheer friendliness and patience of everyone we’ve met together with the spectacular and varied riding we’ve done make Colombia one of our favourite countries. In fact we’d recommend doing a tour around Colombia alone.
We aren’t very good at being ‘standard tourists’. We arrived at El Salton de Bordones at camp o’clock and camped there with the company of some very curious local children. The next day saw us trying to visit all the archeological sites between the Salton and San Agustin. We managed four, but couldn’t find the interest or energy for the main Parque Arceologica in San Agustin by the time we got there…