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.
We were heading south from Fusa, with every intention of making it to Espinal, or possibly further, on our way to the desert. The route that day was not very difficult, and we had great weather. The first ten kilometers went by so quickly, we decided to switch bikes every twenty kilometers instead of ten.
During one of our water stops, we realized that Lenin was missing a shoe. We had been keeping our running shoes in the pocket in the back of Churro’s trailer, but a corner of this pocket was starting to rip, and it must have fallen out along the way. We had gone too far to return, so we continued without it. The first half of the ride was beautiful, and I wished that I had a GoPro or some kind of video camera to capture the terrific descent. Stopping in a tiny town to fix a flat tire, we were surrounded by children who wanted to hear me speak English. We stayed here for lunch and then kept going to Melgar, where we stopped for a snack.
From Melgar, we continued on the main road, a wide highway with two lanes in each direction. I was riding the road bike and Lenin was riding the cross bike, pulling the trailer. Whoever is pulling the trailer usually rides in front, since it is heavier and slower, and it keeps us from getting separated accidentally. The road bike is faster, but with all the weight in the back it feels very unbalanced and can be tricky to steer. Steering is especially sensitive when going fast down a steep hill. At some point during a long descent, I must have run into the trailer with my front wheel and lost control (as well as consciousness). I woke up on the road, completely disoriented. Lenin and Churro were by my side, very concerned. I had no idea where I was, what day it was, or what we were doing. An ambulance arrived while Lenin was trying to answer all of my questions, and the paramedics helped me walk in to sit on a seat inside the ambulance. Slowly, my memory returned, and I vaguely remember overlapping with the trailer’s wheel, but totally blacked out for my crash.
The ambulance brought me to a hospital in Giradot, the capital of Tolima. Lenin arrived shortly after, by bicycle, with Churro. I had to wait to have my head scanned, but otherwise was released from the hospital with a few days worth of pills for pain and swelling. It was dark by then, and I was in no condition to start riding again anyway, so we had to stay in Giradot. Lenin found someone through Couchsurfing who was not living there anymore, but she put us in touch with friends who we could stay with. They even picked us up from the hospital! My head was hurting for a few days, so we rested one full day in Giradot, doing little more than sleeping and walking around town a bit. We also miraculously found a bike shop that had the right derailleur hanger for the road bike, so we no longer had to ride single speed. They let us use their tools to install it and clean the bikes up on our way out of Giradot.
Once we made it out of the city, we started climbing again, and it felt especially difficult after not having biked very hard the past week. The last 20 or so kilometers were downhill, and only interrupted by one quick stop to fix a flat tire on Churro’s trailer. When we arrived in Fusagasuga, or Fusa, Lenin asked for directions to try to find his friend’s motorcycle shop. However, on the way up one of the main roads, his friend, Hugo, recognized him and called out to us from the place where he was eating lunch with his son, Felipe.In Fusa, Hugo and Felipe took us on a bike ride up to where they were building a finca. The road was more suitable for mountain bikes, but I managed to make it to the top on my road bike without any trouble until the last few meters down the driveway. I slipped in the mud, recovered, and the next pedal stroke threw my derailleur into the spokes of the rear wheel. The derailleur hanger instantly snapped, so I was forced to rig the bike up as a single speed for the ride down.
On the way down the mountain, we stopped to play a game called teho, which is a lot like cornhole except you throw heavy stones at a clay surface that is rigged with explosives. You get points if you explode one of the explosives, but you get more points if the stone lands in the middle of the ring. The most points you can get is when you explode one of the explosives and then that same stone ends up landing in the middle. I was pretty terrible at the game, but it was still fun. People commonly play this game while drinking beers, often going through entire cases of beer by the end. The team who loses has to pay for everything. By no fault of my own, my team ended up winning, so I did not have to pay.
We ended up staying a day longer than planned in Fusa, spending a considerable amount of time looking for the right derailleur hanger to fix my bike. Ultimately, we decided to leave it single speed until we got to a bigger city and could find the part.
The first and smallest shop we visited was owned by a man who raced bikes in Europe in the 80’s. He gave us coffee and talked for a long time, telling us about the much larger shop he owned a few years ago before robbers stole almost everything he had. Another shop owner and his son told us about how they started the bike polo scene in Bogotá, where everyone began on whatever bike they had. Over time, its popularity grew and people started buying fixed gear bikes more specific to the sport. The guys at this shop build their own bicycles, and they were very interested when we told them about cyclocross. In general, almost none of the bike shop employees knew what cyclocross was. They all though we were talking about BMX at first, which is called bicicross in Colombia. By the end of the day I was so tired of talking to bike shop people and felt so worn out from exercising my brain in Spanish. All I wanted to do was go home and lie down. Churro was clearly exhausted as well, immediately falling asleep on the floor of every bike shop and begrudgingly waking up to move on to the next. None of the bike shops we visited thus far had any cyclocross bikes, and only one of the employees in one shop knew anything about the sport. But then we passed a shop that was actually called Ciclocross, so we had to go in and ask.We walked in, and the first employee we spoke to did what everyone else had done, taking us to the BMX bikes. “No, that’s bicicross! Cyclocross is different!”, Lenin proclaimed, like he had in every other shop. This attracted the attention of another employee, who came over and invited us to follow him into a back room, where he showed us a brand new LaPierre cyclocross bike, still in the box. He said they had already sold over 100 of them. It was expensive, and we weren’t planning to buy a bike, but it was interesting to see what the market was like here. The employee told us that there were a handful of people who were into cyclocross in Bogotá, but most people have no clue what it is.
Lenin and I had been thinking to bring the sport to Colombia, envisioning all the places where we could have races, and how it could be a year-round sport here. We received positive feedback from almost everyone we spoke with, and I think Bogotá would be the place to initiate a cyclocross club if it were to succeed here.
Angela and Juan Sebastian are siblings who were only kids when Lenin last paraglided in Sopó, but now they are running one of the biggest paragliding schools around Bogotá. We stayed with them for two nights, and Churro quickly made friends with their dog, Apollo, a beautiful Rhodesian Ridgeback about three times his size.
We spent one full day in Sopó, hiking up to the paragliding school, waiting for wind that never came, and then hiking back down, accompanied by both dogs. On the way down, we opted to take a trail that was closed, but a policeman told us how to get there anyway. The trail was tough, and at one point became very steep and rocky. The dogs had trouble in a few spots, but we managed to coerce them down all of the tough areas until one part that involved a vertical drop of maybe six feet from a rock. I climbed down first, and Lenin was able to pass Churro to me, whom I safely transferred to the ground, but Apollo was too big to carry and wanted no part of it. He started running back up the mountain. Churro and I waited patiently for what seemed like over an hour while Lenin chased after Apollo. Apollo was very intent on not being forced down the trail, and he actually hid from Lenin in the bushes, holding his breath so that Lenin couldn’t find him. Lenin eventually succeeded in capturing Apollo, dragging him down towards me with his leash. Before he could make it to the difficult section, Apollo made another attempt to escape, this time breaking his leash, rendering it useless.
We had been hiking down for over an hour on this trail, having already traversed several tricky spots for the dogs, and to go back up to the road that we had walked up on would take a few more hours. We didn’t have enough daylight for that, and we were almost back down. We were starving, thirst, dizzy, and frustrated with the stubborn dog. It seemed ridiculous to climb back up the mountain only to go down again a different way, but both Lenin and I were considering that that might be our only option. Lenin went back up to look for Apollo, but he had no way of pulling him down so asked me to get Churro’s leash. Churro was napping with our backpack in a shady spot a bit further down the trail, so I went down to fetch his leash. On my way down, I heard some rustling in the bushes not far from the trail. There was an animal making its way through the vegetation towards me, but I couldn’t see what it was. Lenin was still high above us, trying to figure out where Apollo had gone, when suddenly out he came from the brush just below me and Churro on the trail! Lenin was moved by Apollo’s intelligence, remarking on how smart he was for the rest of our time in Sopó.
The next day we borrowed Juan Sebastian’s motorcycle to get to Guatavita, a small town just across the lake on the other side of the mountain. This was Churro’s first experience riding a motorcycle, and he seemed to enjoy the wind on his face as he scrambled to get a better position between me and Lenin, resting his head on Lenin’s shoulder. I enjoyed watching him, with his jowls flapping in the breeze, though his nose was running, and mucous was flying back onto my arm.
From Guatavita we went up another mountain to get to the Laguna de Guatavita, where the legend of El Dorado originated. In this laguna, the indigenous leaders would go with all their offerings to the gods, filling a boat with gold, paddling to the middle of the deep lake, and dropping all the gold into the water. We should have done more research before going though, because the laguna was closed when we arrived. It would have been about an hour’s hike to the lake each way, and we still had to bike to Bogotá that afternoon, so perhaps it’s better that we didn’t go. Instead, we went back to Guatavita for lunch and back to the house in Sopó to pack our bicycles and leave.
The ride out of Tunja was tough at first, climbing up and over the mountains. Juan Manuel had warned us that the first half of the ride would be rolling hills after a long 7km climb out of town. Lenin and I were tired, and Churro was heavy, but I felt there was too much traffic for him to be running at the beginning, and we had a long ride ahead of us still.
We let Churro run when the hills are more difficult to climb, but since he’s still a puppy and his bones are still growing we are trying not to let him run too much. Over the past few days, I think Churro has come to appreciate his ride and all the extra work that Lenin and I are doing to pull him along. He is usually restless in the morning, so when there’s not much traffic and we are going slowly up a hill, he runs. And he is usually very good about staying on the right side of the road, keeping our bikes between him and the travel lane. Only when we encounter other animals do we need to worry about him, because then his fear of the other dog or cow or goat on the grass makes him forget that there are cars on the pavement. We quickly learned to corral him into his trailer when we see an animal ahead, and he has quickly learned to feel comfortable going into the trailer when we ask him. It has become his safe zone, where he feels untouchable to the other animals.Lenin wanted Churro to run as we left Tunja, but I thought he should be in the trailer until we got further outside of town. We had been switching bikes every 10 kilometers to share the duty of pulling the trailer, but since Lenin was pulling the trailer at the time, he felt that I wasn’t considering him when I asked for Churro to take a ride. We argued about this until Lenin agreed to put Churro in his trailer, and then we rode separately without speaking to one another for the next 20 kilometers. The down side to traveling with someone for so long is the arguments that get blown out of proportion over stupid disagreements. The benefit to traveling by bicycle is that pedaling helps to burn off anger, and it’s hard to stay angry when you’re outside, on a bicycle, exploring a beautiful country. We eventually stopped and calmed down at a park commemorating the battle where Simon Bolivar won independence for Colombia from Spain. The road between Tunja and Bogotá is nicely paved, with wide shoulders and very little debris or bumps, making for an enjoyable ride. We made several stops for snacks, and while sharing some treats on the side of the road, Lenin found someone’s wallet complete with their personal documents. He packed that into the trailer to try to contact the person when we had internet access.
We had to pedal over 100 kilometers just to get to the road to Sopó, and it was dark when we reached it. We made one last stop for food at that junction, and then rode the last 5 kilometers into Sopó, which is a playground for rich people who live and work in Bogotá. It is also the home of Alpina, one of the two major dairy manufacturers in Colombia. Lenin used to come here every weekend to go paragliding, and we had a place to stay with his friends who owned one of the paragliding companies.
On the second day, Lenin called Juan Manuel, and he took us on a bicycle tour of Tunja, which basically consisted of pointing out all of the nine churches in the city. He knew people on every street, and Lenin started calling him “Alcalde”, or mayor. Before going to his mom’s house for coffee and sandwiches, Juan Manuel took us to Nairo Quintana’s apartment building. He lives in Tunja, and is very receptive to visitors. However, when we asked the security guard if we could meet him, he told us that Nairo was in Bogotá for a social event.
We made plans to meet again the next morning to ride to Villa de Leyva, the second most touristy city in Colombia after Cartagena. The first ten kilometers was up, but the rest of the ride was downhill or flat, and the climate grew much warmer and drier in a short distance. We arrived before noon in the small town, where the main square and streets were made up of old cobblestones. This region is rich in paleontology and archaeological findings, including prehistoric fossils and indigenous ruins, and there are many museums, restaurants, shops and cafes in a relatively small area. Juan Manuel had to work that day, so he took a bus back to Tunja. Lenin and I ate lunch and walked around the town. Down one of the streets off the main square, I found the best gelato I’ve had since arriving in Colombia. Good ice cream is increibly hard to find, although there are many ice cream shops. Nearly all of them offer the same two brands of mediocre quality ice cream. Needless to say, the gelato in Villa de Leyva made me very happy.
We ended up finding a host on WarmShowers at the last minute, where we stayed two nights. There were two other travelers staying there, and we all shared a room. One girl was from France, but living in Bogotá, and the other was from Bogotá. The next day we all walked to the paleontology museum, but it was closed, so we ended up hiking up a nearby mountain instead. The family hosting us was incredibly generous with their space, as every room in the house contained multiple beds, including the kitchen, and it was unclear how many people actually lived there, or whether people had their own bed or just slept in whichever one was vacant at the time. We shared dinner and breakfast with everyone, with the girls from Bogotá cooking dinner and Lenin and I cooking breakfast. Churro made friends with their dog, Dakota, and he did not want to leave when it was time for us to go. We rode back to Tunja the second morning for one more night at Edna’s house before continuing south.
On the way out of Moniquira, we slowly made our way uphill for about an hour before we came across the finca that the tourist policeman had recommend to us the night before. We only had to go about 65 km to get to our friend’s house in Tunja, but there was a lot of climbing, and Churro in his trailer slowed us down considerably.We finally started to descend a steep mountain when it began raining. The rain was cold and hard, and the on the way down we passed a magnificent waterfall. Shortly after this, and the only place for miles where one could pull over, was a house that happened to have an amazing view of the cascade. Lenin and I were not the only ones stopping here, as there was another couple on a motorcycle who had also come in to stay dry. The family inside seemed accustomed to frequent visitors, and they made coffee for all of us while Lenin and I changed into dry clothes. Lenin asked them why they don’t have a restaurant or some business there, with the perfect view of the waterfall, but the woman answered that there are too many thieves from Bogotá on the road. After waiting for about an hour, the rain let up enough for us to venture back outside. We continued on to a small town called Arcabuco, where we stopped for lunch. We got inside just a moment before the rain recommenced, this time for longer and harder than the first time.
The rest of the ride to Tunja was uneventful, until we reached Combita, just 15 kilometers from our destination. The home where Nairo Quintana grew up is on our route, and it has become somewhat of a shrine to the superstar athlete. Nairo’s parents run a small tienda out of the house, selling mugs, shirts, souvenirs, coffee and other snacks. I had been anticipating arriving at this place all day, and it seemed to take forever to get there. The road was hilly, and weather was pretty horrible for cycling, and nobody seemed to know anything about distances or how long it would take to bike somewhere. Seriously, every time we asked someone how far the house was, they severely underestimated either the distance or the time it would take. Anyway, it was dark by the time we arrived at Nairo’s house in Combita, and all I wanted to do was rest inside and recharge. We had already wasted a lot of time waiting for rain to stop, and Lenin wanted to get on the road quickly to get to Tunja.
After a quick tinto (black coffee) and brief conversation with Nairo’s mom, we got back on our bikes. It was dark and cold, and from there it was all downhill, so we were going fast with not much pedaling, making me even colder. My front light died almost instantly, so I couldn’t see the cracks in the road. Within the first few kilometers after leaving Nairo’s house, I got a flat tire. I felt like giving up and hitchhiking right then, but we sat on the side of the road in the dark, fixing the flat with frozen fingers. From there, the descent was steeper and the pavement grittier and less consistent.
When we arrived in Tunja, Edna was still driving back home from out of town, so we sat at a cafe to pass the time. Two guys came up to us and bought us coffee, actually! They had seen us in Moniquira that morning and wanted to talk to us about our trip. One of them, Juan Manuel, was an enthusiastic cyclist who wanted to show us around the city, so he and Lenin exchanged phone numbers. When we finally met Edna and walked to her house, it was a relief to have a nice place to rest for a few days.
It was Sunday afternoon of a holiday weekend in Colombia, but we eventually found a bike shop that was open and able to replace the shifter cable. I was amazed at how inexpensive it was, and I bought new brake pads to hang onto for when the existing ones inevitably wear out. One guy at the shop told us that we had just missed Nairo Quintana, world champion Colombian cyclist, who was in town for a mountain bike race. A girl at the shop was very excited to meet someone to try to practice her English, and she asked me to talk in her Snapchat video before leaving.
When we finally got back on the road, we only had a short distance to travel to the next town, Moniquira, in the department of Boyocá. It got dark as we rolled into town, and it started to rain. I wanted to seek shelter from the increasingly heavy rain before my shoes got too wet, so we pulled aside and under the cover of a fruit market. The fruit man gave us some mandarins, and we sat and talked with him and his family for over an hour, trying to decide where to sleep, waiting out the rain, and hoping that maybe one of them would offer us a place to spend the night. The problem was that it was a holiday, and that town specifically had a special celebration that night where everyone sprays foam at each other. People were in town from all over, visiting family, taking up all the space that would normally be vacant. The rain wasn’t letting up, so we ventured out to ride across town to a church to ask if we could stay there.
We arrived, cold and wet, to the church, where we asked a boy if we could speak with the priest. The boy came back several minutes later, saying the priest was busy. His family was in town so we couldn’t stay there, but he gave us directions to another church in town, where we would meet the head of tourist police. The other church was only two blocks from the market where we had been passing time earlier. We waited for over an hour under an awning in the doorway of this church before Lenin finally found the tourist policeman. Every place in town was booked solid for the holiday, except for this one finca that the policeman estimated to be about ten minutes out of town by bicycle. Instead, Lenin talked him into letting us sleep inside a community building around the corner, which the policeman thought was too dirty. He obligingly unlocked the building for us, and we made ourselves comfortable on the floor of an empty room for the night.
Our decision to leave Medellín was very last minute, based on the fact that Lenin’s brother, Seled, was driving to get his family in La Paz, Santander, and he had just enough space in his car for me, Lenin, Churro, and our bikes. We folded down a back seat in his hatchback and stuffed in our bicycles, along with the trailer and all of our belongings, and joined Seled for the 8-9 hour drive. Within the first two hours we discovered that Churro gets car sick. While sitting on Lenin’s lap in the front passenger seat, he started to vomit. There wasn’t quite enough time to pull over, so he puked out the window, plastering the side of the car with half-digested dog food.
It was very late when we arrived in La Paz, so we stayed in a hotel that night. The next morning, we took Churro on a test ride in the trailer from the town to one of Seled’s in-law’s houses, about 10 kilometers away. He hated it, and we had to zip the screen on to keep him from jumping out.
From the house, we got into the back of a pickup truck with Seled and his family and rode up to a giant hole in the ground, about 80 meters in diameter and 300 meters deep. Instead of riding back with the rest of the family, Lenin and I took Churro on a hike from the hole to where we were supposed to find a clear blue swimming hole. After a nice long hike in the wrong direction and back, we eventually made it to a river with a waterfall, but it got too difficult to walk along the river, and it was growing dark, so we turned back before we made it to the swimming hole. It was a long walk back into town, and we took turns carrying Churro the last few kilometers. Hopefully, he would still be worn out enough to relax in his trailer the next day.