Category Archives: Colombia and Ecuador
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.
Neiva to San Agustín
3-7 February 2017
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 and the tragic death of Churro
28 January – 1 February 2017
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.
South to the Desert Tatacoa
26-27 January 2017
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.
The crash between Fusa and Giradot
24 January 2017
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.
Bogotá to Fusagasugá
21-23 January 2017
When we finally left Bogotá, it took about two hours just to get out of the city limits. Along the way, we passed a neighborhood that was full of pedicabs, and Lenin talked one of the drivers into switching with him for a short distance. The man agreed, and Lenin pedaled his cab, full of passengers, to the next corner while the driver wobbled a bit on Lenin’s loaded bike before catching up to ride alongside the cab.
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.