Author Archives: Sarah
North from Tumbaco: short distance, long day
27 February 2017
While we left Santiago’s house in the morning, Lenin and I stopped for breakfast before leaving Tumbaco, and it was almost noon by the time we actually got on our bikes that day. We had a lot of climbing ahead of us, all the way to the border with Colombia and beyond. The riding was slow, and we had a hard time feeling motivated. When we came to a small, lively town that was celebrating Carnival, we had to stop. We really hadn’t gone very far at all, and it was still fairly early, but we both liked the vibe of the town, and we considered staying there for the night. The only problem was, when we asked where the fire station was, we were told that it was back from where we came just a few kilometers. Okay, so maybe it was less than one kilometer, but we didn’t want to backtrack at all, especially since we had just come downhill into town.
Inspired by the Argentinian travelers that we met at the Casa de Ciclistas, Lenin wanted to start trying to get food for free. The Argentinian travelers he had met in the past all had specific tricks for not spending money while traveling, and he learned some valuable things from them, such as asking to stay at fire stations. However, all of the Argentinians had a parasitic tendency to overstay their welcome while trying to squeeze every last drop of hospitality out of their hosts before moving on to their next victim. They were all incredibly warm and friendly people, but they were in the business of taking advantage of people – notoriously thrifty and scheming. Lenin didn’t want to be that bad, but he did feel ashamed of how much money we were spending in comparison to them (which really was nothing compared to what we would be spending if we were living in the US, but hey, we had no income).
I couldn’t bring myself to ask for free food, but we wandered around the market in El Quinche and eventually landed at a fruit stand where Lenin struck up a conversation with the woman selling fruit. She was with her daughter, who knew a few words of English that she had learned in school, so he tried to get her to speak in English. Like me, she was very shy and didn’t say much, allowing Lenin to do most of the talking. The next thing I knew, her mother asked her to grab some apples to give to us. Before we said goodbye to them, she had talked the fruit vendor across from her into giving us a few bananas for the road. There was our first taste of getting some food for free. I felt a little guilty taking food from them, but they were happy to give it to us.
Instead of backtracking uphill to the fire station in Quinche, we agreed to continue another 35 kilometers to the next one in the town of Cayambe. However, shortly after we got back on the road it started raining, so we stopped and ducked into a bakery to stay dry and wait for the rain to pass. The only other person in the bakery was the baker, a cheerful young woman who welcomed us to stay as long as we wanted. While we were waiting, she gave us each a roll of bread for free! We were doing pretty well without trying very hard at not spending money.
The rain didn’t last long, so we were back on the road in no time. We had a nice stretch of riding downhill before we came to a small junction at the bottom of a long climb. As we approached the top of the climb, we stopped to switch bikes and realized that we no longer had our backpack. Trying to think back to when we last had it, and dreading the thought of riding all the way back to Quinche, we realized we must have left it at the bakery. I took a mental inventory of what was in the bag, briefly considering to just leave it and go on without it. All of our dirty laundry was in there, plus the bananas that the fruit man had given us. We would have to buy all new clothes, which didn’t seem as bad as backtracking all that distance. But then I remembered that both of our passports were in there, so we had no choice but to go back.
We turned around and descended all the way back to where the long climb began, but we hesitated to begin the climb up to the bakery. Lenin thought that maybe we could find a place to sleep at that junction, leave our bags there, and have an easier time riding up to the bakery and back without the extra weight. We asked a man at a small shop if there was a place like a community center, where we could set up our sleeping pads for the night. He told us there was something in that town, but he warned us that it was uphill. People often tend to exaggerate their voices when something is a long distance or uphill (“bien arriiiiiba”), even if it isn’t really that far or that steep. Lenin asked how many blocks it was, and after giving it some thought, he answered that it was six blocks. We set off to find this place, thinking it couldn’t be that bad.
The first block wasn’t that bad. Then the road became very steep, and it was really hard to keep pedaling. We came across a boy walking his bike with a flat tire, and he told us the name of his uncle who was in charge of the community center and could let us in to sleep there. From there, we started asking people outside of their houses for this man. Everyone knew him, of course, and they kept telling us to keep going uphill, very far uphill. I’m not sure how many blocks we really went, because the road wasn’t really the type to have blocks. It was just long and steep and twisty. The last part of it was so steep that we couldn’t pedal anymore and had to walk our bikes. It was even harder to walk. The man we were looking for was not home.
Not many people were around, it seemed, because everyone was down at the main road celebrating the end of Carnival. We eventually came to the police station, and we pulled up to ask to stay there. Nobody was there either, but we could hear them talking on the radio from inside one of the rooms. At this point, we were exhausted. We still didn’t have a place to sleep, and we still had to go to the bakery for our backpack. We decided that I would wait at the police station to ask for a place to sleep when someone returned while Lenin biked down to the main road and took a car service up to the bakery and back to the police station. Lenin unloaded the panniers from the road bike and set off, while I settled in on the ground to write while I waited. Maybe an hour later, Lenin returned with the backpack. There was still no sign of the police, and the street was dead. Only one person had passed by me in the time that Lenin was gone, and I explained to him that I was waiting for the police to ask for a place to stay. It never occurred to me to ask him for a place to stay, which Lenin would have done in his own charming way if he had been the one waiting. We kept waiting.
It grew cold, and dark, and even colder before we started walking around the deserted street, looking for someone to talk to. The police station was next to a small hospital, which was next to a school, both of which were dark and quiet. The only activity on the street was a window where an old woman was running a bodega out of her house, selling small packaged snacks and staples like milk and eggs. Lenin and I walked to her a few times to ask about the police and the community center. Lenin must have found out from her where the people who run the school and the hospital live, because he walked down the street to another house and called out a name I didn’t recognize. Nobody came out of that house, but the lady across the street from them came out and asked us what we were looking for. She told us we could sleep in her living room, and she signaled for us to meet her in the back, just around the corner. When we went inside, the man who I had talked to while waiting for Lenin was there, asking why I hadn’t asked him in the first place for a place to stay. I felt pretty dumb, but I also hate asking for things, and trying to navigate a request like that in Spanish makes it even harder. We were so happy to not be waiting outside in the cold, drizzly rain, and we fell asleep almost immediately after setting up our sleeping pads.
Since we spent most of my birthday traveling, we decided to celebrate the day after by having brunch in Quito. The ride to Quito was pure uphill, and it was not easy, even without our bags. It was just about 15 kilometers, or 9 miles, and we climbed 1930 feet to a fancy brunch restaurant.
From there, we rode to the middle of the world, just north of the city and all downhill. Just as we reached the site where they have a line on the ground representing the equator, we got distracted by a huge parade. It was Carnivale, and all of the towns were celebrating over the next few days by holding parades and partying in the street. It reminded me of a cleaner version of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where all the people spray each other with sweet-smelling foam instead of throwing dangerous objects like shoes at people. We tried not to get sprayed while we watched the parade, but it wasn’t easy. The poor people who were in the parade got the worst of it, with beauty pageant girls especially being targeted, trying to shield their eyes with sunglasses, and musicians trying to play their instruments while totally covered in foam.
After we had had our fill of watching the parade, we went back to where the touristy equator site was. Just to go inside would cost Lenin and I each $6, so we decided to just observe from behind the gate and read the interesting facts that were posted near the ticket sales outside. Did you know the actual location of the equator is constantly moving, and it only approaches the yellow line marked on the ground during the summer solstice? It’s a total tourist trap, and $6 could buy us a very nice meal at a fancy brunch restaurant.
The ride back to Tumbaco was fast, once we got back into downtown Quito. From the fake equator we had to ride uphill to get back to Quito, and we made a stop to try the helado de paila (ice cream that is hand-made in a pail). I was never impressed with any of the ice cream I had in Colombia, and Ecuador was no exception, really. They advertised helado de paila in many places, but it still was never as satisfying as the ice cream I missed from back home. Most of the flavor options are fruit-based, and the ice cream tastes watery, like the milk-fat content is not nearly high enough to even legally be called ice cream in the US. At this point of our journey, I would do just about anything for a rich, creamy, coffee-based ice cream filled with chunks of chocolate or cookie pieces.
Getting to Quito (almost)
25 February 2017
We woke up on my birthday to a drizzly, grey sky. Neither of us felt like biking in the rain, and according to my map, there were not many places to stop between Lago Agrio and Quito. It would have taken us three days of climbing to get to Quito, which sits at an elevation of 2850 meters. Over breakfast at the corner bakery, we decided to try hitchhiking to Quito before spending the $24 on bus tickets.
We rode back in the direction of the church where we tried to stay the previous night, in the light rain, to a gas station on the outskirts of town. Hitchhiking requires patience, and we were mentally prepared to be waiting there for a while before we found someone who would agree to take us in the right direction. Luckily, the first person we talked to offered us a ride almost all the way to Quito!
Carlos had a new-looking, spacious SUV that easily fit both of our bikes in the back. Before leaving Lago Agrio, he stopped at a restaurant furnished with beautiful handmade tables and chairs, that the owner had made himself from local trees. Lenin and I shared the local specialty of the season, which was a fish wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over charcoal, accompanied by a tea called guayusa. While waiting for our food, the restaurant owner invited us to look around his house, which was next door and full of beautiful hand-crafted furniture that he had created.
The drive towards Quito took several hours and winded through beautiful jungle as we climbed in altitude. The first hour or so was relatively flat, but once we began climbing, it was very curvy and would have been a tough ride with our loaded bikes. We passed several waterfalls and enjoyed many scenic views across the valley from the mountains we were on. Halfway through the drive, Lenin, who had been sitting in the back seat, had to get out to vomit. We switched places after this and continued on along the twisty mountain road, stopping just once more to use the bathroom and try some homemade ice cream.
From where Carlos dropped us off, we had a quick ride downhill to get to the Casa de Ciclistas, which was actually just outside of Quito in a town called Tumbaco. We arrived just before sunset, and Santiago welcomed us onto his ample property, which is contained behind a wall.
Within the wall was a white, two-story house, a laundry area, bathroom and shower across the courtyard, two garage-sized buildings behind the bathroom/shower/laundry, and several avocado and guama trees. The home had a spacious living area on the first floor that included a piano. The kitchen and stairs to the second floor had separate entrances from the house, as well as a room where Santiago’s mother lived. There were already 5 other bike tourists hanging out in one of the garages. Four of them were from Argentina, and one was from Belgium. Another cycling couple from England had also been staying there for the past week, but they were out getting dinner when Lenin and I arrived.
For dinner, we walked a few blocks to an artisan pizza place, and on the way back we stopped to buy an ice cream cake to share with the other travelers. Where Lenin and I stayed on the second floor, there were two other rooms and a bathroom. The property could accommodate a lot of travelers, and Santiago didn’t charge anybody to stay there. He even wanted us to stay longer than the two nights we stayed.
Crossing the border: Orito to Lago Agrió
24 February 2017
From Orito we backtracked to the main road, which was under construction for a good stretch of the way to Hormiga, the only town of any significant size on the way to Ecuador. The lack of pavement made for slow progress, and we had to wait a few times in places where only one lane was open to one direction at a time.
Along this road was a bridge that had been taken over by guerrillas years ago. The guerrillas basically killed anyone who tried to cross the bridge, dumping the bodies in the river. Many towns in Colombia, including the one where Lenin grew up, were accustomed to the guerrillas coming in several times a year to massacre the police and steal supplies. First, the electricity to the whole town would go out, announcing their arrival. Then, you would hear the bombs and gunfire. They would usually target police stations, and sometimes the entire police force in a town would be killed. Then, the guerrillas would rob everything they needed from the town, including food, ammunition, and medicines. The next morning, when there was daylight, people would come out, inventory the damage and see who had died. Lenin lost friends this way who were caught in the crossfire, or who had been too close to the police station when a bomb went off.
The towns in Putumayo seemed to either be common victims of this type of warfare, or protected from it, depending on who lived in the town. Orito, for example, didn’t get attacked very much because most of the people living there were related or connected to the attackers in some way. Or, it could have been because the town was dominated by the oil industry and was heavily reinforced by military protection. El Tigre, on the other hand, just north of Hormiga, seemed to have a darker history of oppression by the guerrillas. It was chilling to think about what had occurred at the bridge while we crossed over the Guamez river outside of El Tigre.
One of the best parts of riding in Colombia are the many delicious fruits that are so readily available everywhere. Guava was in season, and as we neared the Ecuadorian border, we passed hundreds of trees full of ripe guavas. We also passed sugarcane, and when we saw a farmer loading the back of his truck with freshly cut caña, Lenin asked if we could have some. Without hesitation, he shared four stalks with us, expertly removing the hard, outer skin with a machete. The last snack we bought before reaching the border was a turron de maní. This is a roll of panela that has been kneaded by hand to the point where it is a taffy, or nougat consistency. It is mixed with peanuts, making for a crunchy, sweet and salty treat that resembles a Payday candy bar.
When we came to Puente Internacional, the bridge that crosses from Colombia into Ecuador over the Río San Miguel, we asked a policeman to take a photo of us. On one side of the bridge were Colombia police officers, and the other side were Ecuadorian police officers. The immigration office was still a few kilometers down the road into Ecuador, so after getting a photo from both sides by two different officers, we rode on to this office. Most of my border crossings on land have been between the US and Canada, where photography is always strictly forbidden. I thought it was novel to actually have the police officers take our photos at the border for us.
We pulled up to the immigration office to get our passports stamped. Beyond this point, we passed cacao farms, more guava trees, and many properties for sale, as well as many abandoned houses. During the time when the guerrillas were most active, they would frequently cross over the border to hide out in Ecuador. The Colombian president at the time, Uribe, had a vengeance for the guerrillas since his father was killed by them when he was a boy. Disregarding the fact that this wasn’t his territory, he ordered the military to bomb the jungle, trying to find and kill the leaders of these guerrilla groups who were reportedly hiding in Ecuador. As a result, not many people live near the border, and there is a lot of abandoned property.
When we got a little further south, we started seeing green murals painted with Lenin’s name on them in huge blue letters. Ecuador has recently had an election, and one of the presidential candidates was named Lenin. They actually need to hold another election because the results were so close, so it’s possible that Lenin may very well be the next president of Ecuador.
Continuing to the south, we approached Lago Agrió, or bitter/sour lake. This town was originally settled by people who had migrated from a town in southern Ecuador called Loja and had named it Nueva Loja. However, when the big oil company, Texaco, started taking control of the area, they renamed it Lago Agrió. The town is not pretty, and it appears far removed from the beautiful jungle that we were surrounded by closer to the border.
We had the contact info of a man from WarmShowers who lived in Lago Agrió, so we headed towards the address listed for him. We tried stopping at a few places to use a phone and call him, but nobody seemed to have a working phone we could use. Just after sunset and just shy of 100 kilometers from where we began in Orito, we came to the church where this WarmShowers host was supposed to be. At first glance, it appeared that nobody was there, but when we got closer, a pregnant woman stepped out of the darkness. She told us that the man who used to host people was the pastor, but he had left the church a few months ago, and she didn’t know where he had gone.
We decided to go back towards the downtown and ask if we could stay at the fire station. The fireman who greeted us told us that they were understaffed, and the people working there were just covering for the actual employees while they went to a training in Quitó. He didn’t have the authority to let us stay at the station, so we settled for a cheap hotel around the corner. My birthday was the next day, so it was kind of like an early birthday present to splurge on a hotel, but I still felt guilty about spending $15 on a room (they use US dollars in Ecuador).
While walking around to find food, we found another bike traveler. He was from Bogotá, and he may have been more talkative than Lenin. We were both very tired, but we listened patiently to his stories from the road before retreating back to our hotel.
21-23 February 2017
From Puerto Asís, Lenin and I rode to Orito, a town that exists mainly because of oil. We had to backtrack about 15 kilometers to Santana, and then diverge from the road to Ecuador for another 7 kilometers or so out of the way, but Lenin’s brother, Seled, had a friend living there where we could stay.
Sayra knew Seled and his family from their church, and she had just moved back home after spending the last few years studying in Italy. She wasn’t home when we arrived in Orito, but we were told that her brother was a councilman and we could find him at the town hall. However, when Lenin asked for him, all of the councilmen were having a meeting, and he was the only one not in attendance. Not sure what to do, we wandered around briefly before coming back to the town hall and asking again. This time, a man who knew him gave us his mother’s phone number so we could get in touch with the family. The mother was expecting us, and she came to meet us at the town hall with her motorcycle so we could follow her back to their house.
Sayra and her brother were visiting one of the veredas outside of town and had no phone service, which is why we couldn’t get in touch with either of them. We relaxed at their house, drinking juice and talking with their mother while waiting for them to return.
That night it stormed heavily, complete with thunder and lightning that took out the electricity for the rest of the night and half of the next day. We were thinking about going to a nearby waterfall the next morning, but it was still cool and rainy all day, so we didn’t do much of anything. Sayra’s brother, Jonny, drove us to a huge rock in the middle of the river where people can jump and swim when it’s not so cold and rainy. On the way back, we stopped at the market and bought chontaduros and small bananas, which made for a very delicious juice with our dinner that evening.
Since we didn’t make it to the waterfall that day, we decided to stay in Orito one more night and try to see the waterfall the next day. Jonny’s friend, Jhon, who owned the land where the waterfall was located, planned to pick us up in his motorcycle and show us around.
Jhon first brought us to this eco-touristy farm where they had coconut water waiting for us to drink right from the coconuts. The two women running the farm took us around the property, explaining how the pepper is cultivated and allowing us to sample the guava, guama, cacao, sugarcane, and coca leaves. There were also two small waterfalls that we could stand under. A baby turkey followed us around the entire time, crying out when we reached a steep bank that was too hard for him to climb down. After this, we rode to the property with the waterfall we originally wanted to see.
Cascada Silvania wasn’t too far from the town, but it was totally wild and barely touched by humans. Nobody even knew it was there until relatively recently because the area was infested with guerrillas for 50-60 years and too dangerous to explore. From where we parked the motorcycles, we hiked a little more than 2 kilometers to get to the finca. We ate lunch here and then walked down a steep trail that descended into a lush, green jungle. Everything around us was a vivid green, and the smell of flowers filled the humid air. The only sounds were of birds and rushing water. I felt like we had stepped into a secret world, beautifully hidden away from industry and human destruction. We crossed a small river and came to a deep natural pool that was mostly surrounded by a high wall of stone covered in more green.
The cascade was across this pool and to the right, falling from a height of about 15 meters. Completely shade protected, this place was like a little slice of heaven in the middle of a normally hot part of the country. In spite of the setting sun and lowering temperatures, I had to jump into the cold water and swim around. It was so cold and clean, and difficult to swim towards the waterfall. Just to the right of the cascade was a rope that made it possible to climb up the rock to a small cave with a ledge, a little less than halfway up, from where you could jump. I hate the feeling of free-falling, and for some reason jumping off a small cliff into water is mentally harder for me than jumping out of a plane with a parachute or off the side of a mountain with a paraglider. Maybe because I wasn’t given enough time to reconsider those other jumps. It took a lot of courage for me to jump in, but it was worth it. It grew darker as we hiked back to the motorcycles, and it was pitch black by the time we started heading back towards the town.
15-21 February 2017
According to Lenin, Putumayo was once the most dangerous and most active zone in Colombia for guerrillas and cocaine production. It’s also very religious, and our host, Monica, was possibly the most devout person we stayed with. She didn’t have a job, but she spent more time at her church than most people spend working. Monica lived in a small apartment just a block from Puerto Asís’s main square with her 10-year-old sister, Carolina. Their mother lived in another apartment around the corner and was also very religious, but subscribed to a different religion than Monica. They were all very nice and welcoming to us, and Carolina and Monica shared Monica’s bed so that Lenin and I could sleep in Carolina’s bed, which was tucked into a corner of the kitchen.
When we arrived in Puerto Asís, we had a vague idea of trying to hop on a river boat to the Amazon. It was Wednesday night. On Thursday, we walked with Carolina to the nearest dock to ask about taking a boat. The walk was inky about fifteen minutes, but it felt like we had walked to a completely different country. After a stretch of nothing but guava trees were houses of a simple wooden construction between the dirt road and the river. They were decked with banners advertising Colombian lager, and the ambiance was more Caribbean coast than jungle.
Our options for taking a boat seemed limited. There was a passenger boat that we could pay $100,000 each to take us to another town in one day, but then we would have to get onto another passenger boat (for who knows how much $) to take us the rest of the way to Leticia, the capital of the Amazonas. That second boat would take about 5 days or so to get there. Our other option was to go to the bigger dock on the other side of town and inquire about hitching a ride on one of the larger cargo boats. These were slower, however, because they stop at the small villages along the way to unload and load stuff and could take anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks to get to Leticia. We borrowed Monica’s motorcycle that night to get to this dock, which was a bumpy ride down a long dirt road. We arrived just around sunset and saw three large cargo boats at this dock. After asking around, we learned that it would be hard to get a ride with a cargo boat without a special license or certificate to work on a boat, but it was not impossible. One person told us that sometimes the owner of one of those boats will take passengers, but it really isn’t allowed, and there are quite a few control points along the way. Since none of the owners of the boats were actually there at the time, we had to come back the next day to speak with them.
The next morning, we packed up our belongings and rode our bikes to the big dock. It seemed to be faster and easier to bike there than it had been by motorcycle. We spoke with the owner of one of the cargo boats, who informed us that he could only allow us to ride with them if we first got permission from the navy, or someone in charge of fluvial transportation. So we rode a short distance to where several naval officers were standing guard and inquired with them about getting permission. Their captain explained that we actually had to go to an office near the airport to ask the fluvial inspector. When we went there, the security guard informed us that she was in Bogotá until Monday.
That afternoon our duck died. He was never quite strong enough to hold his head up, and feeding him was a challenge since he hardly ever opened his mouth. He probably would have died sooner if we hadn’t tried to rescue him, but I still felt like I had failed him. I didn’t want to give him a name until I was sure he would survive, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected that he didn’t make it. We threw him to the river behind Monica’s house, and he made some vultures happy, at least.
We decided to hang out in Puerto Asís for the weekend and try to get permission from the fluvial inspector on Monday. Meanwhile, I had received news that I was accepted to take part in a documentary called Project Y, which I had applied for while we were in Fusa. This documentary is investigating what makes people do crazy things, like ride their bikes hundreds of kilometers around Colombia, for example. More specifically, they were looking for endurance athletes who appear to have an appetite for torturing themselves via extreme physical challenges. Apparently, I fit their requirements. The first step in participating requires all the athletes to meet in Portland, Oregon for an evaluation, to receive equipment (including a new bicycle!), and be given individual goals and personalized training plans. It meant that I would have to leave Colombia at the end of March instead of the end of April, as we had planned. This did not make Lenin happy, and while I was ecstatic to have been given this opportunity, the mood of our journey was never quite the same after receiving this news. We only had a month before I had to board a plane, and spending three weeks on a cargo boat may not have been the most appealing way to spend my time in Colombia. I also had to either leave the country by March 14th or ask for an extension to stay longer, since my tourist visa only allows for 90 days at a time. I still thought the experience of riding a cargo boat down the Amazon was worthwhile, and I could fly to the US when we got to Leticia. If we couldn’t figure out a way to make the Amazon trip work, we would continue south to Ecuador.
We totally weren’t planning on staying more than a night or two in Puerto Asís, but Monica and her family were happy to have us. We cooked all our meals in their abandoned kitchen, using up whatever food would have otherwise gone to waste. We tried to share with Monica, but thanks to her religion she was fasting for a month and could only eat one piece of fruit after sunset each day. Lenin taught me how to scale and clean a fish, and then proceeded to clean all of the fish he brought home while I worked on one of them. Lenin does everything fast, but I could use more practice for sure.
On Monday we rode back towards the airport to talk with the fluvial inspector. The street was blocked off a block or two before we got there, and we learned that the president was in town, meeting with one of the last guerrilla groups for negotiations. We were still able to bike through, and upon arriving at the office, a group of school kids surrounded me, sensing that I was a foreigner. They bombarded me with questions, tried to speak English, and asked me to speak English. It seems that everywhere I go, outside of major cities, the children are fascinated by me. It makes me very self conscious and uncomfortable, but as they keep questioning me, it gets easier. I imagine that these kids in Puerto Asís were more interested in taking to me than they were in meeting the president, or at least it was easier for them to get close enough to talk to me. They invited me to come to their school and talk the next day. Apparently, the English teachers in most schools are not native English speakers. When people hear a real foreigner who speaks English, it is enchanting. They want to listen to us speak, or ask us to look at their homework assignment for them. During my time in Colombia, I have corrected a fair number of class assignments or projects people were working on in English.
Anyway, when we finally met with the inspector, she told us that she could give Lenin permission because he is Colombian, but I would need to have a work visa in order to be granted permission. Without a work visa, I would need a visa to enter Brazil, which, for Americans, is not a quick or cheap process. The cargo boats pass many check points along the way, where they are inspected thoroughly. They also pass into Brazil briefly before coming to Leticia, which is on the Colombian side of the border with Brazil and Peru.
Leaving the fluvial inspector’s office, I mentally prepared myself to ride to Ecuador instead. Lenin hadn’t given up quite yet though. He had heard that sometimes the cargo boats drop people off before going to the checkpoint to pass into Brazil and then come back to pick up the people to continue down the river. He was still thinking about going anyway, without the fluvial inspector’s blessings. I thought it was too risky and didn’t want to do anything that might get me kicked out of the country or banned from traveling there in the future. In the end, Lenin was not happy, but we decided to ride to Ecuador.
Mocoa to Puerto Asís
15 February 2017
It was raining when we were getting ready to leave Mocoa, so we waited a bit for it to let up. On our way out, we came to a public botanical garden, so we left our bikes with the security guard while hiking along a trail through the jungle.
Mocoa is very warm and humid, full of tropical flora and fauna. We saw toucans as well as other birds, known by the locals as mochileros, or backpackers, because the nests that they build look like bags hanging from the trees. We came to a river and decided to let the duckling swim around in a pool of water near the river. I took a few steps towards the water, and suddenly my legs sank into the sand. I was buried up to my knees! I managed to climb out, but I lost one of my flip flops below the sand. Lenin supervised the duck while I dug into the sand in a desperate search for my sandal, mentally preparing myself for the possibility of walking back on the trail barefoot. I eventually gave up and walked to the river to clean my arms, which were now covered in mud. When I walked back to where Lenin was, he had excavated my flip flop as if it were no big deal. It started to rain again on our way back to the road, so we waited with the security guard while it poured outside. Not wanting to be stuck in a room with this guy for too long, we made a break for it when it lightened up enough.
We rode in this drizzle until the Fin Del Mundo, a waterfall that everyone told us we had to see if we go to Mocoa. Near the entrance to the trail for this waterfall, we rolled our bikes into a covered parking area attached to someone’s house and sat talking with the family there while the rain grew heavier. We decided not to go to the waterfall because it was cold, and we didn’t want to pay to see a waterfall when it was too cold and rainy to swim in it.
The rain eventually lightened up again, and we got back on our bikes to leave Mocoa. We stopped in the town of Villa Garzón for lunch and debated whether to just stay in a hotel that night because of all the rain. The hotel was dirt cheap (only $10,000 pesos) because they didn’t have a television, but by the time we finished eating, the rain was gone, and it looked like it wasn’t coming back.
We made one more stop in San Pedro to snack on chontaduros, a fruit that grows on a tree similar to coconut, but is smaller, orange, and its taste and texture somewhat resembles pumpkin. I first saw this fruit in Neiva, where there are many people selling them in carts on the street. It’s widely available in the warmer climates of Colombia and popular among the black communities. People eat it with salt or honey, and also as a juice with milk or a creamy soup. I definitely preferred it with honey, but my taste is always partial to sweet over salty.
Our ride was mostly flat or downhill, and we remained in a warm, tropical climate the whole way to Puerto Asís. We made it to the town just after sunset, and just before our WarmShowers host, Monica, would be free to meet us in the main square.
10-14 February 2017
Cabunga was out of town when Lenin and I arrived in Sibundoy, but he gave us directions to get to his family’s house, which was only a few blocks from where the truck had dropped us. Cabunga’s family is indigenous, of the kamsá tribe, and his father is a taita, or tribe leader. When we arrived at the house, his brother and mother greeted us, as well as a golden retriever named Falcón. Benjamin, his brother, was carving a drum out of a tree trunk for the upcoming carnival. He showed us other decorative carvings of animals and faces in various other tree parts. Inside, the house was full of handcrafted indigenous things, including jewelry, musical instruments, bags, and clothing as well as more wood carvings. There were also various animal skins and totumas, a type of gourd or fruit that grows on trees and is used to make bowls and cups.
The next morning, Cabunga arrived and told us about his farm not far from where we were. We decided to check it out, but we couldn’t stay very long because our bikes were in Mocoa, and Will had to move out of his house that day. Cabunga assured us that his brother could go get our bikes and keep them at his house in Mocoa, so we could stay as long as we wanted. After a few phone calls to arrange that, we walked to Cabunga’s farm, about an hour down the road. We stopped along the way to buy a chicken, and then at Cabunga’s relative’s house just across the road to drink chicha. Cabunga let the chicken run around with the existing ones in his neighbor’s yard while we passed around a bowl of this fermented corn drink.
Once at his farm, we helped Cabunga to fix the wiring on his electric fence. Totally underprepared for this experience, Lenin and I only had one change of clothes and inappropriate footwear. Since Lenin had lost his shoe on the road after Fusa, I had also left my shoes behind in Neiva, so all we had aside from bike shoes were my flip flops and a pair of indigenous sandals made from car tire that Lenin had bought for $2.000 pesos in Santander. I borrowed sandals from Cabunga to walk around the grassy fields, but they were too big, and it was very awkward walking. The fields appeared flat and easy to walk through from a distance, but up close they were full of ruts from the cows, and there was lots of mud hiding below the surface. I didn’t make it out of there clean, but it was a good experience.
That night we returned to the neighbor’s across the road to drink more chicha. We sat in a circle, passing around the totuma that someone would refill from a bucket. Every time I thought we were finally done with the stuff, someone would come back with a full bucket. I had no idea where this much chicha was coming from. Somewhere outside, I think. I imagined a huge trough out in the back yard, full of chicha, where someone would dip the bucket in to refill. I’m pretty sure nobody wanted to keep drinking it, but they all felt obligated to keep passing it around and make each other drink. I avoided getting as drunk as everyone else by pretending to drink with everyone, only putting a little bit of chicha in the totuma when it was my turn. Then someone brought out the rum, and things got weird. When it was time to go, Cabunga was passed out peacefully on the floor, and Lenin was in tears, convinced that he had killed him with his mind. Cabunga’s chicken was still in the yard, wandering around and looking for a place to sleep. He kept peeking through the window at us.
The three of us eventually stumbled back to Cabunga’s house, where Lenin and I climbed up a ladder to the second level to sleep in a tent. The house is still a work in progress, so instead of beds there are three tents on the second floor, and Cabunga has a tent inside of his room on the first floor.
Cabunga had to leave the next day to get his family, who was waiting for him in another town, 8 hours away. Before leaving, we helped him to fertilize the grass he was growing and relocate some plants. We had wanted to hike to a thermal spring, but didn’t have enough daylight or energy for that, so we extended our stay on the farm an extra day.
The next morning, we woke up extra early to get a chance to milk the cows, which someone comes to do every morning at 6am. I was anticipating the raw milk to taste very farmy, or the way a cow farm smells when you catch a waft of it in the air while passing on your bicycle. The milk was warm, but otherwise didn’t taste any different from regular store-bought milk. Cabunga didn’t have any refrigeration, so we used what we took to make hot chocolate with breakfast. The rest went with the milker to sell at the market. Cabunga only has two cows that produce milk currently, but each cow yields about 20 liters of milk per day!
After breakfast, Lenin and I borrowed bicycles to get to the base of a mountain, about 7 miles from Cabunga’s farm, where we would hike up to the thermals. Cabunga had instructed us before he left on how to get to the trail, but we still had quite a difficult time finding the thermals. We were supposed to go just past the yellow bridge and ask for Cabunga’s aunt, where we could keep the bikes while we hiked. We passed at least 4 yellow bridges before we actually came to the right one, and by that point we had asked so many people where the trail was, the last person we asked said we could keep our bikes in their yard.
Shortly after entering the hiking trail we passed another couple with a horse. They had never been to the thermals despite living there, but they could give us a detailed description of how to get there, right down to the type of trees we would see before we would have to turn off the main trail. Of course, there were other trails that we kept turning down before we got to the right one, and even then we walked too far along this trail when we were actually supposed to climb back down the other side of the mountain from there.
We ended up walking a long way to where the trail dead ended at a gate to a small house. A few dogs immediately came to bark at us, and Lenin called out to see if anyone was there. A few moments later, a very old indigenous woman emerged, hobbling over slowly through her garden and to the gate. This lady gave us instructions to go back and walk down into the valley, but not as far as the river, and then turn left to get to the thermals. She also warned us that we should have a machete or something to defend against animals like wild boar, tigers and snakes. This lady was so old and so slow, I wondered when was the last time she could have left her house to visit the thermals, or to go into town for that matter. She complained of terrible pain in her legs, worse than the pain of having a baby. We shared some of our bread with her before going back on the trail.
From the point where we turned off this trail, things got a little hairy. We found some sticks, which we sharpened and carried with us in case we had to fight off any wild beasts. The trail was basically non-existent as we descended towards the river, which we couldn’t see, but could hear as we approached. I began wondering if we should just turn back and give up on our mission to find the thermals, but Lenin was determined, and at this point I think we had gone too far to turn around and admit defeat. We eventually came to a grassy clearing, and we found a more distinct trail from there going to the left. This trail grew very steep, and we carefully climbed down to a river. Thinking it was the wrong river because we couldn’t see the steam at first, we kept going closer. Emerging from the jungle and into the sunlit, rocky riverbed, we saw another small stream on the other side that joined up with the stream closest to us just a few meters down. Then we noticed the steam. It was a warm day, so it wasn’t as prominent, but the stream closest to us was incredibly hot. Just past where the two streams converged was a shallow pool that was the temperature of a hot tub, and immediately beyond this pool the river plummeted about 10 meters or so in a hot cascade before continuing along a shallow slope as a narrow, winding river.
Lenin and I hung out in the hot water for about an hour, ate some snacks, and then hiked back to our bikes. The hike down took half the time that it took for us to find the thermals, but the bike ride back to Cabunga’s farm seemed to take longer.
During our stay at the farm, one of the ducks hatched 7 baby ducklings. There was still an unhatched egg in the nest two days later, which the mother had abandoned to take care of her other seven ducks. The last duckling had only half cracked his egg, so we helped him along and out of the egg. The mom didn’t want anything to do with him though, and everyone we asked told us that he would end up dying. We couldn’t let that happen, so we brought him with us back to Mocoa.
The ride from Sibundoy was a lot faster than the ride there, since we took a passenger van back instead of hitching a ride in a sketchy truck. It was still bumpy enough to make me wonder if I was damaging my brain, and the threat of being covered by a landslide was ever looming in the back of my mind. Back in Mocoa, we stayed a night with the person who had taken our bikes from Will’s house and hit the road (with our new duckling passenger) the next morning.
La Ruta de la Muerte: aka The most dangerous road in the world
10 February 2017
As Lenin and I were preparing to leave Will’s house in Mocoa, he told us about this place that’s just a bus ride away and has a very nice lake. We got a late start as it was, but Will said we could get there in three hours, eat lunch and maybe swim in the lake before coming back or spending a night.
We left our bikes at Will’s house since we planned to return before he had to clean out his place, and all we brought was a backpack with a few extra layers to keep warm. We were really hungry, so decided to have lunch before leaving. We had set a $30,000 pesos daily budget for ourselves, and the bus to Sibundoy cost $30,000 per person, so we tried to hitchhike first. Eventually, a truck pulled over and told us that we could come for the ride for $15,000 altogether. We accepted.
The road between Mocoa and Sibundoy is known as the most dangerous road in the world. This is mainly because of the high risk of landslides, and the high number of people who have died on the road while driving. Along the road were signs warning of the landslides in every possible way you could describe a landslide, including “piedras caídos”, “zona geológicamente inestable”, “derrumbes”, “deslizamientos” and even “avalanches”, just in case you didn’t understand one of them. There were no other roads to turn off of this narrow winding road that we were on, and no houses or roadside attractions, but the signs for landslides frequently dotted the long road, as if people would be coming onto the road anew and not know about the hazards, or just in case people forgot and started to feel too comfortable. There were several sections where we crossed waterfalls, water falling onto the rocky road from a sheer mountain wall on one side and rapidly passing underneath us to fall off the cliff on the other side of the road.
The truck we were in was traveling with another truck that had two drivers in it, and both trucks were empty in the back. Together, we made three stops in total. One to pick fruit from a tree on the side of the road, the second to light a candle at a Virgin Mary statue on one of the ridges, and a third for coffee and snacks around the midpoint. After the last stop, one of the drivers from the other truck switched spots with our driver so he could rest. Lenin, who was sitting next to him, didn’t notice this switch until we were well into the second half of the ride.
It was dark when the two trucks pulled into the town before Sibundoy to load up with cal, or lime. This agricultural product is used to clean the coca leaves in cocaine production. While loading both trucks, our original driver confessed he had forgotten we were in the other truck. Loading took maybe half an hour, and then our original driver brought us the rest of the way to Sibundoy.
The drive that we thought would only take 3 hours took more than 7 hours, and we learned that the town was still almost an hour short of reaching the lake that Will had told us about. We had contact info for Cabunga, a WarmShowers host in town, so we decided to try to stay with him and see the town in the morning.
San Agustín to Mocoa
8-9 February 2017
From San Agustín, we had to backtrack towards Pitalito to get back on the main road. This part was mostly downhill, and we made good time for the first 30 kilometers. Back on the main road, we encountered another pair of bike tourists traveling in the same direction. They were a brother and sister from Switzerland, and we saw them again when we arrived in the small pueblo of San Juan Villalobos. They had pitched their tent next to the police station at the entrance to the village. We thought about joining them but ultimately decided to camp at the school instead.
The next day we rode to Mocoa. The road became increasingly lush with green trees and birds surrounding us, and there was nothing but jungle on the mountainsides for as far as we could see. We stopped at a panela factory in the middle of nowhere, where we observed a family making panela from sugarcane. A young boy was feeding the caña into a machine that would crush it, and juice was flowing into a bucket on the other side. Two other men were working on filtering and boiling the sugarcane juice, or guarapo. Lenin and I got to drink a cup of the sweet juice before they cooked it. We thanked them and continued down the mountain, eventually coming to Mocoa.Here, we stayed with Will, an American ex-pat who was working as an English teacher and had been living in Colombia for the past two years. He was actually in the process of moving out of his house because the landlord, who was also the owner of the school where he taught, hadn’t paid the rent in 18 months. This man was apparently also a priest, and his whole family had been run out of town because he owed so much money to so many people, including Will, who had not been paid in a while either.
Will may have had a bit of an obsession with Yaje, or Iowasca. It was interesting to learn about this spiritual ritual that the indigenous of the area partake in. It consists of two plants that, when combined and brewed in a tea, have a hallucinogenic effect. Will had nothing but good things to say about it, and he barely spoke about anything else while we were there. He claimed that it brings people closer to nature, and that he had seen the future twice (he takes Yaje every month). Neither Lenin nor I had had any desire to try this before, but after talking with Will, we were definitely intrigued.