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Things fall apart

In the morning, Anita brought us out to the back of the house and picked two young males from the wooden crate full of cute, furry guinea pigs. These large rodents reproduce rapidly, and she has to continuously kill the males or else they will fight and kill each other. She prepared a pot of water to boil and then grabbed the first cuy to kill. I stood there and watched as she quickly stooped down to smash the poor animal’s head into the concrete floor, face first. Then she held it by the back legs over the pot, letting blood pour out of the nose as its body dangled above the boiling water. The creature struggled just once, flexing all of its muscles in a final attempt to hang onto life before going limp. Anita then dunked the cuy into the hot water for a few seconds, so the hair could easily be removed. She expertly pulled out all of the fur, revealing wounds that indicated this cuy had already begun fighting with his cratemates. Repeating this process with the other cuy, we saw that his back was covered with deep scratch marks from being clawed, probably by the first cuy she had killed. Anita used the edge of a knife to gently scrape away any stray hairs and clean the skin before moving on to the next step, which involved slicing open the bodies and separating the organs. Certain organs were thrown away, but most of them went into a pot for soup.

Lenin and I took a walk around town at this point, searching for some more local honey since we had finished the honey we bought two days ago. During our walk, Lenin started telling me how hurt and abandoned he felt that I was going back to the US a month earlier than we were anticipating when we first landed in Colombia. I was considering coming back to continue bike touring for the month of April, but the cost of traveling back and forth was an issue. We were thinking about starting a bike tour business in Colombia, and we still had so much of the country to see by bicycle. Lenin was really upset, and we ended up arguing until he exclaimed that he was going to call my dad and complain. He went into the nearest shop that offered international calling, and I walked away, not wanting to fight anymore.

After wandering around the town for a while, I found Lenin again outside of the house. Anita had finished making the cuy, so we sat down for lunch, to continue our discussion later. The cuy tasted a little bit like dark turkey meat, but better. Very moist, and different from any other meat I had tasted.

Everything rapidly declined after lunch. I spoke with my dad on the phone, telling him about our argument, feeling like we couldn’t come to a mutual understanding. My dad reinforced the idea that it was too costly to go back to keep traveling after going to Portland.

I decided to buy a one way ticket to Portland for the moment and make up my mind later about continuing the bike tour. At this point, while I wanted to keep traveling, I was irritated by Lenin’s attitude towards this project that I was going back for, and I didn’t want to keep traveling with him if he was going to be like that. I still had three weeks to bike around Colombia, see how far we could get, evaluate whether Lenin’s mood was tolerable, and then decide if it made sense to come back again from Portland.

As soon as I announced that I was buying a ticket, Lenin got extra mad. Maybe I should have waited, but there was a 99% off sale on Spirit Airlines, and I had to buy a ticket by the end of the day to take advantage of it. I wasn’t sure when we would have internet access again. Lenin tried to unplug the internet to prevent me from making the purchase, but I managed to buy it just before losing the connection.

We left Anita’s house abruptly while she was out. Lenin was so upset, and I didn’t know what to say or do to console him. We stopped several times to have long discussions on the side of the road, but nothing was very productive. He had decided to end the bike tour and take a bus from the border back to Medellín. I wanted to keep touring for the last three weeks until I had to leave, but Lenin insisted that it was me who was ending the tour early by going back to the US.

We did more arguing on the roadside than cycling, and the darkness crept up on us while we were standing there. When we started riding again after one of our stops, a truck had pulled over to ask if we needed a ride. The driver helped us haul our heavy bikes, fully loaded, into the back of the truck, and we climbed in after them. The truck was empty except for a  layer of sawdust and a few personal items that presumably belonged to the driver. Lenin and I lay in the darkness, holding one another in silence until the truck stopped to let us out, just a few kilometers from the border.

We had to stop in the customs building on the Ecuadorian side first, and then into the Colombian customs building up the road. A few more kilometers uphill from the border lies the town of Ipiales. Lenin was on a mission to get to the bus station, and all I could do was follow him, secretly hoping that the station would be closed for the night, or that he would change his mind before buying a bus ticket.

We arrived at the bus station, and Lenin immediately went to the counter to buy tickets. I told him that I wanted to keep riding and begged him to let me reorganize the contents of our bags, so he could keep all of his stuff on one bike, and I could take the other with my stuff. There was no time. The last bus was leaving in a few minutes for Cali, and Lenin had bought two tickets, not really giving me a choice to stay behind. I started frantically trying to separate our things, but it was useless. I felt like I was being swept towards the bus with no regard to what I wanted, much like Lenin probably felt I was doing to him by leaving Colombia prematurely. I was unprepared for this bus ride, and it felt like I was observing everything in a dream as I reluctantly helped take the front wheel and bags off of my bike to put it under the bus.

The bus ride to Cali was hellish. Our assigned seats were next to each other, and Lenin used the time as an opportunity to further express his dissatisfaction with everything about me. I couldn’t escape, and all I wanted to do was turn my ears off so I didn’t have to listen to his constant berating me.

Somehow, when the bus pulled into Cali the next morning, we were no longer fighting. Maybe we were just too exhausted to keep arguing. It was a long ride. We decided to stay in Cali for a few days before going back to Medellín.

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Crossing the border: Orito to Lago Agrió 

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.

Lenin stops to eat sugarcane from a farm on the side of the road.

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.

We made it to Ecuador!

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.

Lenin’s name is everywhere in Ecuador!

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.

Orito

The oil companies try to fool us into thinking their earth raping machines are really just big pretty birds, but I know better!

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.

When it’s not raining, the river is clear, and you can jump into it from this large rock.

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.

 

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The eco-farm had a rope swing!

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.

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This flower only blooms for one day before dying.

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The long walk to Jhon’s property where Cascada Silvania was located included this rickety bridge.

 

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.

 

img_4347The 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.

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Lenin beams as we walk towards the waterfall.

 

Mocoa to Puerto Asís 

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.

Mochileros, or Gulungos, build these nests that hang from trees like backpacks.

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. 

Riding through wet weather on our way out of Mocoa

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.

Chontaduros are commonly sold on the streets or of carts, like this one in Medellín.

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.

Sibundoy

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.

These flowers are beautiful, but dangerous, and they are growing all over this region of Colombia. They have a chemical call scopolamine, which criminals use to make a person suggestive and easy to take advantage of. The chemical, when ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin, can cause memory loss and make you unable to resist a robbery.

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. 

Herding cows on bicycles in the vereda of San Silvestre

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.

Collecting milk for morning hot chocolate!

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!

Biking to the mountains to find the hot spring

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. 

Hiking in search of thermals

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 found two of these along the way to the river.

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. 

The trail grew steeper and greener as we approached the river.

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 bathes in the hot 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. 

New ducklings, just a day old, waddle around with their mom.

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 

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.

Neiva to San Agustín 

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.

We followed the Magdalena River all the way to San Agustín.

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.

The Rio Magdalena

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 could almost jump across the river at this point.

Here, the Magdalena narrows to just over a meter wide.

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

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.

One of Churro’s last moments, chilling out on the floor on the morning of his death

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.

My bike is all set up with its new bags

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

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. 

Churro runs after us on our way to the desert.

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. 

El Desierto Tatacoa

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. 

Getting ready to swim in the oasis

​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

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.

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Passing under la Nariz del Diablo, on the road between Fusa and Melgar

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. 

Getting my head scanned after getting knocked out from my bike 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.