It was difficult leaving Neiva without Churro, and it just didn’t feel fun to bike anymore. Both Lenin and I felt his absence strongly for a long time after. I was glad to be moving again, and especially glad to get out of Neiva, where I felt held a dark cloud of negative energy since the incident. It was not a very pretty city, and there wasn’t much to do there, so I was itching to get away, but it still didn’t feel right bike touring without our dog. Without enjoying the ride out of the city, I found myself questioning whether I should continue. Lenin noticed my lackluster attitude, and we stopped to talk a few times along the road. I promised to try to be happy and make the best of our situation.I felt better when we started climbing along the Río Magdalena and could see some nice views from the road. We stopped to take photos and share a beer. The climbing became more difficult, and we were slow. We stopped near the top of a long climb to try some warm goat milk with honey and buy some quesadillas, which, in Colombia, are pieces of bocadillo wrapped in cheese. We hadn’t made it as far as planned when it started to grow dark, so we ended up staying in the fire station in Gigante, one town shy of our goal town for the night.
The next morning, we had breakfast at the local market before leaving town. Nearly all towns have a local market where the farmers come to sell their fruits, vegetables, meat and cheese. There is often a restaurant inside the market where you can get tasty food for very cheap. The breakfast here was goat meat with rice, and it was delicious.Following the Río Magdalena, we passed through the larger town of Garzón and later took a break in Altamira, where we ate lunch and bought some local snacks, including panderitos and achiras. From Pitalito, we got off the main highway to head to San Agustín, a small but touristy town that has a lot of archaeological sites and indigenous ruins nearby. The last few kilometers to San Agustín were very steep and challenging, and when we arrived in the town, we had to climb even more to get to the house where we would end up staying for three nights.
It took Lenin a little while to remember how he knew Steven, who we found through WarmShowers. Lenin had come to San Agustín before with a bunch of German tourists who stayed at Steven’s house on Couchsurfing, and Lenin had subsequently hosted Steven at his apartment when he lived in Bogotá. Lenin still remembered how to get to his house, but found that Steven was actually in Bogotá celebrating his birthday. His family welcomed us regardless, and we were even able to sleep in Steven’s bed while he was gone.We spent two days in San Agustín, first visiting some indigenous ruins called Chaquira and el Tablón. The second day we biked to el Estrechó de la Magdalena, where Colombia’s largest river narrows to only a meter or so wide. From there, we biked up a steep mountain for 2 kilometers to eat lunch in the small town of Obando. The road from San Agustín to all of these sites is full of fruit trees, and we collected enough oranges, lemons, mandarin and papaya to fill my backpack on the first day. The second day, we stopped to fill a bag with tomatoes that were lying on the side of the road. In the town’s local market, we tasted a sweet and juicy cucumber that’s meant to be eaten like an apple. We stayed one night more than planned, which worked out because Steven’s car broke down and they were one day late in returning.
Neiva is a large, oppressively hot city that is not nearly as pretty as its name. It is the capital of Huila. Lenin’s ex-sister-in-law lives in Neiva with her son, Nico, who is Lenin’s nephew. Nico was elated to have his uncle show up for a surprise visit. He also became instant friends with Churro.
On our second day in Neiva, we were going to go on a bike ride around town with Nico. While getting ready, Churro became playful in a mischievous way, unable to contain his energy. He tugged at the skirt of a schoolgirl who was walking by on the sidewalk, and wouldn’t listen to us to come to his trailer. Lenin started to chase him with the leash, and Churro ran all the way down the block. When Lenin approached again, this time Churro decided to run across the wide street. He was clear on one side, but then hopped the middle barrier and ran straight into an oncoming car as we all watched in horror. I screamed at the top of my lungs in disbelief, and the three of us ran over to him. Another lady who witnessed the whole thing came to join us. I continued screaming, “nooooo!” loudly enough to bring nearly all the neighbors and their dogs out to see what happened.
Lenin lifted Churro’s limp body off the road and onto the grassy barrier. Blood was dripping from his mouth, and there were already flies collecting around his open eyes. Lenin turned his head, and we saw that his skull was broken. His upper jaw was split down the middle. I couldn’t accept that he wasn’t going to survive, and I begged Lenin to take him to the veterinarian, but there was nothing we could do. His heart stopped soon after that. The lady who saw the whole thing helped us to bring Churro to a spot overlooking the river, and we borrowed a shovel to dig a grave for him.
I still couldn’t believe how we could lose him so quickly, and Lenin couldn’t believe how much we both loved him after just a month of having him in our lives.
Lenin and I stayed inside in Neiva for a few days after this and did little more than watch sad movies. The night before we were planning to leave, Eliana told us that Nico was sad we were leaving and convinced us to stay one more day. I couldn’t imagine how we could be any fun to have around, when we barely did anything, and when we weren’t watching movies, Nico was playing video games.
We decided not to take the trailer, since we didn’t have a dog anymore, and a Lenin quickly found someone interested in buying it. To carry the stuff we had been putting in the trailer’s pockets, I finally made a frame bag and handlebar bag out of some waterproof material we had been lugging around since Medellín. I had tried to make the bags in Bogotá with Adriana’s sewing machine, but the thread kept getting jammed so I was waiting for another opportunity to use a sewing machine. The people we asked in Neiva who had sewing machines recommended glue for the material we had, so I spent most of our last day in Neiva trying to glue together the bags. I think I succeeded without too much mess, but didn’t trust that the glue would hold very well in the heat. We set off the next day anyway, to the south, and to see how the bags would fare.
Lenin and I continued our pattern of switching bikes every twenty kilometers, since the road was predominantly downhill or flat from Bogotá to the southern border of Colombia. From Giradot, we were able to make it about 90 kilometers to stay at a tire mounting place at a truck stop, just outside of Natagaima. The family who ran the place were very welcoming and even fed us dinner and breakfast the next day.We left late in the morning, and veered off the main road onto a dirt road that brought us on the other side of the Río Magdalena. The condition of the road slowed us down considerably, but it was beautiful. I think we only passed two cars the whole way, until we reached Villavieja, the small town at the entrance to the desert. It was dark when we arrived, and while Lenin was hoping to camp in the desert that night to see the stars, it was cloudy and raining a little bit. We ate dinner in Villavieja and then biked around town in search of a place with a roof where we could lay our sleeping pads. We came to a construction site by the river, and the security guard there said we could spend the night in the house that was being built. He even let us sleep inside his tent! It was a quiet night until a crazy guy came and started banging on metal pipes in the house. The security guard was sleeping soundly in his chair through the whole thing, so Lenin had to get up and try to make the guy stop. The security guard was reluctant to phone the police until the crazy guy actually tried to steal something.
The next day, after breakfast, we started pedaling into Desierto Tatacoa. At the top of a hill, Lenin and I had an argument so bad that we didn’t even want to travel together anymore. I can’t even remember why we were fighting, but we were so angry that we declared we would go separate ways. Lenin threw one of the bags from the road bike to me, and I put it in the trailer and biked all the way back to Villavieja with Churro. Not knowing what to do when I got to town, I started heading back until I saw Lenin again. We stopped at a juice place and talked more calmly, agreeing to keep on going together.Climbing back to the desert, we encountered a man whose motorcycle was broken. Lenin fixed it for him, and the man invited us to have coffee when we reached his ranch a few kilometers into the desert. We ended up talking to this guy for an hour at his place, which offered hammocks and camping to tourists as well as food. We stayed to have lunch and then biked the rest of the way down the desert road to swim in an oasis, which was really just a swimming pool fed by a natural spring in the middle of the desert.
The desert is pretty small, so we didn’t need more than one day there. We decided to pedal back to Villavieja and try to make it to Neiva as quickly as possible. After finishing dinner in town at 6pm, we pedaled furiously for 40 kilometers to make it there by 8:30pm.
We were heading south from Fusa, with every intention of making it to Espinal, or possibly further, on our way to the desert. The route that day was not very difficult, and we had great weather. The first ten kilometers went by so quickly, we decided to switch bikes every twenty kilometers instead of ten.
During one of our water stops, we realized that Lenin was missing a shoe. We had been keeping our running shoes in the pocket in the back of Churro’s trailer, but a corner of this pocket was starting to rip, and it must have fallen out along the way. We had gone too far to return, so we continued without it. The first half of the ride was beautiful, and I wished that I had a GoPro or some kind of video camera to capture the terrific descent. Stopping in a tiny town to fix a flat tire, we were surrounded by children who wanted to hear me speak English. We stayed here for lunch and then kept going to Melgar, where we stopped for a snack.
From Melgar, we continued on the main road, a wide highway with two lanes in each direction. I was riding the road bike and Lenin was riding the cross bike, pulling the trailer. Whoever is pulling the trailer usually rides in front, since it is heavier and slower, and it keeps us from getting separated accidentally. The road bike is faster, but with all the weight in the back it feels very unbalanced and can be tricky to steer. Steering is especially sensitive when going fast down a steep hill. At some point during a long descent, I must have run into the trailer with my front wheel and lost control (as well as consciousness). I woke up on the road, completely disoriented. Lenin and Churro were by my side, very concerned. I had no idea where I was, what day it was, or what we were doing. An ambulance arrived while Lenin was trying to answer all of my questions, and the paramedics helped me walk in to sit on a seat inside the ambulance. Slowly, my memory returned, and I vaguely remember overlapping with the trailer’s wheel, but totally blacked out for my crash.
The ambulance brought me to a hospital in Giradot, the capital of Tolima. Lenin arrived shortly after, by bicycle, with Churro. I had to wait to have my head scanned, but otherwise was released from the hospital with a few days worth of pills for pain and swelling. It was dark by then, and I was in no condition to start riding again anyway, so we had to stay in Giradot. Lenin found someone through Couchsurfing who was not living there anymore, but she put us in touch with friends who we could stay with. They even picked us up from the hospital! My head was hurting for a few days, so we rested one full day in Giradot, doing little more than sleeping and walking around town a bit. We also miraculously found a bike shop that had the right derailleur hanger for the road bike, so we no longer had to ride single speed. They let us use their tools to install it and clean the bikes up on our way out of Giradot.
Once we made it out of the city, we started climbing again, and it felt especially difficult after not having biked very hard the past week. The last 20 or so kilometers were downhill, and only interrupted by one quick stop to fix a flat tire on Churro’s trailer. When we arrived in Fusagasuga, or Fusa, Lenin asked for directions to try to find his friend’s motorcycle shop. However, on the way up one of the main roads, his friend, Hugo, recognized him and called out to us from the place where he was eating lunch with his son, Felipe.In Fusa, Hugo and Felipe took us on a bike ride up to where they were building a finca. The road was more suitable for mountain bikes, but I managed to make it to the top on my road bike without any trouble until the last few meters down the driveway. I slipped in the mud, recovered, and the next pedal stroke threw my derailleur into the spokes of the rear wheel. The derailleur hanger instantly snapped, so I was forced to rig the bike up as a single speed for the ride down.
On the way down the mountain, we stopped to play a game called teho, which is a lot like cornhole except you throw heavy stones at a clay surface that is rigged with explosives. You get points if you explode one of the explosives, but you get more points if the stone lands in the middle of the ring. The most points you can get is when you explode one of the explosives and then that same stone ends up landing in the middle. I was pretty terrible at the game, but it was still fun. People commonly play this game while drinking beers, often going through entire cases of beer by the end. The team who loses has to pay for everything. By no fault of my own, my team ended up winning, so I did not have to pay.
We ended up staying a day longer than planned in Fusa, spending a considerable amount of time looking for the right derailleur hanger to fix my bike. Ultimately, we decided to leave it single speed until we got to a bigger city and could find the part.
The first and smallest shop we visited was owned by a man who raced bikes in Europe in the 80’s. He gave us coffee and talked for a long time, telling us about the much larger shop he owned a few years ago before robbers stole almost everything he had. Another shop owner and his son told us about how they started the bike polo scene in Bogotá, where everyone began on whatever bike they had. Over time, its popularity grew and people started buying fixed gear bikes more specific to the sport. The guys at this shop build their own bicycles, and they were very interested when we told them about cyclocross. In general, almost none of the bike shop employees knew what cyclocross was. They all though we were talking about BMX at first, which is called bicicross in Colombia. By the end of the day I was so tired of talking to bike shop people and felt so worn out from exercising my brain in Spanish. All I wanted to do was go home and lie down. Churro was clearly exhausted as well, immediately falling asleep on the floor of every bike shop and begrudgingly waking up to move on to the next. None of the bike shops we visited thus far had any cyclocross bikes, and only one of the employees in one shop knew anything about the sport. But then we passed a shop that was actually called Ciclocross, so we had to go in and ask.We walked in, and the first employee we spoke to did what everyone else had done, taking us to the BMX bikes. “No, that’s bicicross! Cyclocross is different!”, Lenin proclaimed, like he had in every other shop. This attracted the attention of another employee, who came over and invited us to follow him into a back room, where he showed us a brand new LaPierre cyclocross bike, still in the box. He said they had already sold over 100 of them. It was expensive, and we weren’t planning to buy a bike, but it was interesting to see what the market was like here. The employee told us that there were a handful of people who were into cyclocross in Bogotá, but most people have no clue what it is.
Lenin and I had been thinking to bring the sport to Colombia, envisioning all the places where we could have races, and how it could be a year-round sport here. We received positive feedback from almost everyone we spoke with, and I think Bogotá would be the place to initiate a cyclocross club if it were to succeed here.
Angela and Juan Sebastian are siblings who were only kids when Lenin last paraglided in Sopó, but now they are running one of the biggest paragliding schools around Bogotá. We stayed with them for two nights, and Churro quickly made friends with their dog, Apollo, a beautiful Rhodesian Ridgeback about three times his size.
We spent one full day in Sopó, hiking up to the paragliding school, waiting for wind that never came, and then hiking back down, accompanied by both dogs. On the way down, we opted to take a trail that was closed, but a policeman told us how to get there anyway. The trail was tough, and at one point became very steep and rocky. The dogs had trouble in a few spots, but we managed to coerce them down all of the tough areas until one part that involved a vertical drop of maybe six feet from a rock. I climbed down first, and Lenin was able to pass Churro to me, whom I safely transferred to the ground, but Apollo was too big to carry and wanted no part of it. He started running back up the mountain. Churro and I waited patiently for what seemed like over an hour while Lenin chased after Apollo. Apollo was very intent on not being forced down the trail, and he actually hid from Lenin in the bushes, holding his breath so that Lenin couldn’t find him. Lenin eventually succeeded in capturing Apollo, dragging him down towards me with his leash. Before he could make it to the difficult section, Apollo made another attempt to escape, this time breaking his leash, rendering it useless.
We had been hiking down for over an hour on this trail, having already traversed several tricky spots for the dogs, and to go back up to the road that we had walked up on would take a few more hours. We didn’t have enough daylight for that, and we were almost back down. We were starving, thirst, dizzy, and frustrated with the stubborn dog. It seemed ridiculous to climb back up the mountain only to go down again a different way, but both Lenin and I were considering that that might be our only option. Lenin went back up to look for Apollo, but he had no way of pulling him down so asked me to get Churro’s leash. Churro was napping with our backpack in a shady spot a bit further down the trail, so I went down to fetch his leash. On my way down, I heard some rustling in the bushes not far from the trail. There was an animal making its way through the vegetation towards me, but I couldn’t see what it was. Lenin was still high above us, trying to figure out where Apollo had gone, when suddenly out he came from the brush just below me and Churro on the trail! Lenin was moved by Apollo’s intelligence, remarking on how smart he was for the rest of our time in Sopó.
The next day we borrowed Juan Sebastian’s motorcycle to get to Guatavita, a small town just across the lake on the other side of the mountain. This was Churro’s first experience riding a motorcycle, and he seemed to enjoy the wind on his face as he scrambled to get a better position between me and Lenin, resting his head on Lenin’s shoulder. I enjoyed watching him, with his jowls flapping in the breeze, though his nose was running, and mucous was flying back onto my arm.
From Guatavita we went up another mountain to get to the Laguna de Guatavita, where the legend of El Dorado originated. In this laguna, the indigenous leaders would go with all their offerings to the gods, filling a boat with gold, paddling to the middle of the deep lake, and dropping all the gold into the water. We should have done more research before going though, because the laguna was closed when we arrived. It would have been about an hour’s hike to the lake each way, and we still had to bike to Bogotá that afternoon, so perhaps it’s better that we didn’t go. Instead, we went back to Guatavita for lunch and back to the house in Sopó to pack our bicycles and leave.
The ride out of Tunja was tough at first, climbing up and over the mountains. Juan Manuel had warned us that the first half of the ride would be rolling hills after a long 7km climb out of town. Lenin and I were tired, and Churro was heavy, but I felt there was too much traffic for him to be running at the beginning, and we had a long ride ahead of us still.
We let Churro run when the hills are more difficult to climb, but since he’s still a puppy and his bones are still growing we are trying not to let him run too much. Over the past few days, I think Churro has come to appreciate his ride and all the extra work that Lenin and I are doing to pull him along. He is usually restless in the morning, so when there’s not much traffic and we are going slowly up a hill, he runs. And he is usually very good about staying on the right side of the road, keeping our bikes between him and the travel lane. Only when we encounter other animals do we need to worry about him, because then his fear of the other dog or cow or goat on the grass makes him forget that there are cars on the pavement. We quickly learned to corral him into his trailer when we see an animal ahead, and he has quickly learned to feel comfortable going into the trailer when we ask him. It has become his safe zone, where he feels untouchable to the other animals.Lenin wanted Churro to run as we left Tunja, but I thought he should be in the trailer until we got further outside of town. We had been switching bikes every 10 kilometers to share the duty of pulling the trailer, but since Lenin was pulling the trailer at the time, he felt that I wasn’t considering him when I asked for Churro to take a ride. We argued about this until Lenin agreed to put Churro in his trailer, and then we rode separately without speaking to one another for the next 20 kilometers. The down side to traveling with someone for so long is the arguments that get blown out of proportion over stupid disagreements. The benefit to traveling by bicycle is that pedaling helps to burn off anger, and it’s hard to stay angry when you’re outside, on a bicycle, exploring a beautiful country. We eventually stopped and calmed down at a park commemorating the battle where Simon Bolivar won independence for Colombia from Spain. The road between Tunja and Bogotá is nicely paved, with wide shoulders and very little debris or bumps, making for an enjoyable ride. We made several stops for snacks, and while sharing some treats on the side of the road, Lenin found someone’s wallet complete with their personal documents. He packed that into the trailer to try to contact the person when we had internet access.
We had to pedal over 100 kilometers just to get to the road to Sopó, and it was dark when we reached it. We made one last stop for food at that junction, and then rode the last 5 kilometers into Sopó, which is a playground for rich people who live and work in Bogotá. It is also the home of Alpina, one of the two major dairy manufacturers in Colombia. Lenin used to come here every weekend to go paragliding, and we had a place to stay with his friends who owned one of the paragliding companies.
On the second day, Lenin called Juan Manuel, and he took us on a bicycle tour of Tunja, which basically consisted of pointing out all of the nine churches in the city. He knew people on every street, and Lenin started calling him “Alcalde”, or mayor. Before going to his mom’s house for coffee and sandwiches, Juan Manuel took us to Nairo Quintana’s apartment building. He lives in Tunja, and is very receptive to visitors. However, when we asked the security guard if we could meet him, he told us that Nairo was in Bogotá for a social event.
We made plans to meet again the next morning to ride to Villa de Leyva, the second most touristy city in Colombia after Cartagena. The first ten kilometers was up, but the rest of the ride was downhill or flat, and the climate grew much warmer and drier in a short distance. We arrived before noon in the small town, where the main square and streets were made up of old cobblestones. This region is rich in paleontology and archaeological findings, including prehistoric fossils and indigenous ruins, and there are many museums, restaurants, shops and cafes in a relatively small area. Juan Manuel had to work that day, so he took a bus back to Tunja. Lenin and I ate lunch and walked around the town. Down one of the streets off the main square, I found the best gelato I’ve had since arriving in Colombia. Good ice cream is increibly hard to find, although there are many ice cream shops. Nearly all of them offer the same two brands of mediocre quality ice cream. Needless to say, the gelato in Villa de Leyva made me very happy.
We ended up finding a host on WarmShowers at the last minute, where we stayed two nights. There were two other travelers staying there, and we all shared a room. One girl was from France, but living in Bogotá, and the other was from Bogotá. The next day we all walked to the paleontology museum, but it was closed, so we ended up hiking up a nearby mountain instead. The family hosting us was incredibly generous with their space, as every room in the house contained multiple beds, including the kitchen, and it was unclear how many people actually lived there, or whether people had their own bed or just slept in whichever one was vacant at the time. We shared dinner and breakfast with everyone, with the girls from Bogotá cooking dinner and Lenin and I cooking breakfast. Churro made friends with their dog, Dakota, and he did not want to leave when it was time for us to go. We rode back to Tunja the second morning for one more night at Edna’s house before continuing south.