Colombia: Bogotá to San Agustin – on the move again

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.

After only 35km from Bogota we come to a halt at Claudio's family restaurant. My newly centred wheel is not so true at all, so a bus trip back to Bogota ensues. All is solved, and we are looked after royally - complete with Agua de Panela, Queso and Pan de Yucca (yum!) (Photo S.Hedges)

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!

After being treated to the delights of the local fruits (lots we'd never heard of) in Agua de Dios we camp in this yard, off the road to Ricuarte. It's hot, but has Manansillas (another local fruit) and very friendly if somewhat stunned locals (Photo S.Hedges)
Just as we're assembling our dinner, the family living in the next house come over to invite us in for dinner. Grilled fish from the local pond and rice. We quickly realise it's all they have and are extremely touched. We chat into the night, and Michael is promised a ride on my bike the next morning (Photo S.Hedges)
We're back in big sky country! The upper part of Colombias central valley in flanked by mountains and we make our way towards its apex

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.

Believe it or not, this is a road on both the maps we have of this section of the ride. Lots of horses, and no cars have passed here recently... Others were warned off this section recently because of FARC/AUC activity, but we asked persistently and we directed onwards without hesitation. They didn't even say we wouldn't be able to ride it on bicycles!
A bit further on things narrow down further, and with some nicely technical rocky sections, the singletrack "road" stretches for nearly 10km (Photo S.Hedges)
El Desierto de Tatacoa. After the lush irrigated rice and cotton fields around San Alfonso, the road towards Villa Vieja is pretty hot and dry.

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.

Life's a bit of a squeeze... The dusty road from Iquira
But the views are pretty special as it winds its way round the mountains
Colombia has been notorious for illicit drugs. This is one of the licit ones - Cacao pods or chocolate
After La Plata, the road heads up along the river valley before beginning to climb, and climb, and climb....
We're still working our way through the camping location tricks. After finally getting onto the Bomberos in Costa Rica and Panama, we set-up for the night at a local primary school. We promptly acquire an audience of small children, though these are of the shy type. A few minutes later we're the proud recipients of a large bag of bananas - enough to last a couple of days!
It used to be that the person keeping an eye on the bikes while the other shopped mostly tried to avoid eye contact with anyone in case they tried to converse. Things have moved on a little bit since then. We're sent off by the whole family who've just fed us agua de panela (hot water with molasses) and pan de queso (small cheesy breads), after their father got chatting to me outside the grocery store in La Argentina!
After embarking on a long climb over from the road out of La Argentina towards San Roque, we eventually found a 'top' only to discover there was more up. We were then told by a local horse-riding sage that it was 3 hours to the next town, and some teenagers on motos assured us that it was over 100km... Our maps suggested differently, but the road we were on didn't appear to be on it. Then we crested the real summit and had a great time descending through cloud forrest with tree-ferns reminiscent of south island NZ!

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…

We rolled into Salado Blanco expecting it to be another slightly sleepy little town, and a good place to stock up and check some emails. Little did we reckon with our coinciding with the efflux of the local school. You don't need to be a pop star to get a crowd like this - Sarah thinking about a sharp exit!

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.

Nice flat grassy campsite surrounded by mountains aren't to be sniffed at
but when this is part of your view, life's really good. El Salton de Bordones camping, complete with the now standard set of curious, very polite small children!

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…

Our rest-up spot for a couple of days in San Agustin. We'd thought that 10+ days of cycling in the mountains hadn't got to us, then we found that we could hardly walk up the last hill to the hostel!
I'm actually doing some work - finishing off a contribution to an academic book chapter, while supposedly preparing for a telephone interview. Happily, though the interview wasn't fun, the job is mine - for April 2012. Now all we have to do is ride our bikes some more! (photo S.Hedges)

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