Arboletes to Montería
20 November 2017
We woke up with the sun next to this amazing view that we couldn’t appreciate the night before. An open crater of a volcano, full of mud, with the backdrop of the sea just behind it, created the illusion of an infinity pool inside the volcano. It was breathtaking. There were a few sets of wooden steps leading into the crater, and Lenin and I had the pleasure of being the first two to jump in before other tourists started arriving. As the heat from the sun intensified, the mud provided a cooling layer of UV protection. Immersing oneself into a volcano is not the easiest thing to do, but once you can bring yourself to relax, it is incredibly soothing. The mud is so thick, that it is nearly impossible to go very deep, and swimming is very slow-going. This particular volcano was much cleaner and larger than the one we had visited in Necoclí, and it felt safer being in a public place with a caretaker and public bathrooms and showers nearby. We had been playing around in the crater for maybe 15 minutes when I noticed a handful of people working on the far end with shovels, perhaps harvesting mud to sell to tourists in town. The mud supposedly has healing properties, but this could just be a marketing gimmick, and I never researched it further.
Instead of paying to use the shower, we ended up walking down a slippery trail to the beach, where we stripped off our soiled clothing and swam in the sea, with only a fisherman in the distance as a witness. If I ever start a bike tour business, I will certainly take people back to this place to experience bathing in a vulcan de lodo. We talked a little bit with the caretaker and some of the other Colombian tourists before heading off on our bikes.
From Arboletes, we headed directly east, towards Montería. Montería is the capital of Cordoba, a department in northern Colombia that is known for its prized ganadero, or livestock. Ranchers are very proud of their livestock, and some of the highest quality meat and leather come from Cordoba. We passed by many cattle ranches as we cycled inland to the city.
It took us a while to locate our hostess, the woman who we had met the previous day in San Juan de Urabá, but we eventually connected with her and found her house. Montería is quite a large city, or at least it felt like one after riding through farmland all day. We ended up staying two nights there, since our hostess was so welcoming and her puppy was so damn cute.
On our day off from cycling, we walked to downtown Montería and explored the shopping area. Every large Colombian city has an open-air marketplace where you can find pretty much anything. We bought some second-hand clothes for just a few pesos, and on the way back we picked up a machete to bring with us for chopping coconuts along the road. Montería also has a pretty nice bike path that parallels the river. In the trees along this path, monkeys hang out and take food from people. There are some neighborhoods on the other side of the river that are accessible via ferry, and there are several crossings for these rudimentary ferry boats. The boats do not have engines, and they are tethered with a rope to a cable that crosses the river from one bank to the other. The captain just uses a stick to push off the river bottom and move the boat back and forth across the river. They are more like rafts with small shacks built on top of them.
Thanks to our lovely hostess, we were able to stay two nights in Montería and share meals for only the cost of food from the market. On the second morning, we continued on our way towards Cartagena.
Necoclí to Arboletes
19 November 2017
Despite our best intentions to get an early start that morning, Lenin and I ended up leaving Necoclí well after noon. The other bicycle travelers who had generously hosted us under someone else’s roof invited us to share the fish that they had caught the day before for breakfast. It was being stored in somebody’s fridge just a few blocks away, so we packed up our belongings and biked over to where there was a little hut and barbecue set up on the beach. This ended up taking a good chunk of our morning, as we helped to clean all of the fish that they had. The fish were much too small to be kept legally, and I felt so guilty eating them, but they were already dead, so there was not much I could do. While cleaning and preparing them, we did try to explain that the fish were way too small, hoping that they would release such young fish in the future. We each ate maybe three small fish of various species, accompanied by fried plantains, before continuing our journey along the coast.
Traveling by bicycle is a unique experience, invoking all sorts of reactions from people. Most are in disbelief when you tell them you are traveling by bicycle, to the point where they are not convinced until you confirm what they thought they heard you say at least two or three times and follow up with interesting stories to prove that you are serious, albeit crazy. On the other hand, you become privy to a whole network of like-minded people who you never knew existed before you dove into this lifestyle choice yourself. I never would have met Lenin (or Dallas) had I not made the decision to jump off the ledge of a typical American career path to ride my bike instead. Now it seems as though people of similar mindset are everywhere I go. That morning as we sat around the fire eating fish on the beach with the other bike travelers, we were approached by a few people who were interested in our adventures, probing us with questions. One group of 3 people walked over to us with a clipboard, obviously working for the city. They were surveying tourists and wanted to ask about our stay in Necoclí. We answered to the best of our abilities, but our situation couldn’t really be applied to the typical tourist (we didn’t stay in a hotel, didn’t spend money, etc). When people do find out what we’re doing, most people want to help in some way, which normally takes the form of advice against doing whatever we were planning to do, or warnings about the dangerous roads up ahead. Advice must be taken with a grain of salt, since most of these people would never consider riding a bicycle that far in general, let alone between different towns and countries. Anyway, the general consensus of the people we spoke with that morning told us to steer clear of the scenic coastal road and take the shorter main road that cut inland.
As we got a late start, we were pedaling through the heat of the afternoon sun the entire time. We stopped for dinner at a small town called San Juan de Urabá, just 20 km outside of Arboletes. While dining on fish at this restaurant, a man and woman with a German Shepherd puppy came and sat at the table next to ours. The man was local, and the woman was his sister, who had just moved back to Colombia after retiring from a career in the US agricultural industry. Sadly, I only remember the name of the woman’s dog, Trotski. We spoke to them for a while after we finished dinner, and the man paid for two rounds of beer plus our dinner! Before departing, we got the woman’s contact info so we could reach out when we passed through Montería, the city where she had just purchased her retirement home.
We departed San Juan de Urabá with a sense of urgency to arrive in Arboletes before the setting sun, and we made very good time over these last 20 kilometers. We arrived at the local beach just in time to witness the sunset on the horizon, and we shared a papaya that we had plucked from a roadside tree. Arboletes has another volcano that is open to the public for bathing in the mud, just a few kilometers outside of town along the road towards Montería. Lenin and I asked some police officers about camping there, and they unanimously recommended against that, saying that it may be dangerous. We decided to check it out anyway.
Darkness sets in pretty quickly after sunset, although it was only around 7pm when we arrived at the volcano. It was difficult to see anything, but there was a small house where the mayordomo (caretaker) lived with his family. A heavyset woman with rich, black skin was lounging on the porch in front of the door, and two kids were playing outside around the entryway. We walked up and asked if we could string our hammocks up under the pavilion next to the volcano for the night. She told us it was technically not allowed, but if we got everything cleaned out before it opened for visitors, we should be fine. This ended up being my favorite place that we slept during the whole trip. It was wonderfully dark and quiet, with only the periodic sound of the sulfur gas bubbling up from the center of the mud-filled crater, less than a hundred meters away. As we were setting up our hammocks, the kids brought over some food that the woman had cooked for dinner. We were fed very well, without even asking, and I was touched by the generosity of this humble family. That day I learned that you can’t always trust the cops, but the locals are generally overwhelmingly welcoming and eager to help.
Turbo to Necocli
18 November 2017
Lenin and I left Tata’s place just after breakfast, reriding the last several kilometers back into Turbo to collect our helmets, which we had forgotten at Tata’s market. The ride out of Turbo was uneventful aside from a flat tire and a short stop to eat fruit at a finca along the road. We stopped again for fresh juice just outside of Necocli, in El Totumo. I didn’t think it was possible, but there were still fruits I hadn’t ever heard of that Colombians eat or use to make juice, and I tried two more of them at that fruit stand.
Eventually we did make it to the volcano, which resembled a small pit of filthy, boiling concrete. I thought Lenin was out of his mind if he expected us to put our bodies in that thing. I stood there, watching, as Lenin undressed and slowly lowered himself into the mud. Seriously? I could see garbage floating among the dried leaves on the edge of the pit, and it smelled like sulfur. I didn’t care what healing properties it supposedly had. I could not imagine touching the mud, let alone immersing myself in it. Somehow, Lenin coerced me into joining him. The mud was much denser and cooler than it appeared, and it was difficult to get my legs to sink. I didn’t want to let my legs sink. Every little bit of debris, which Lenin assured me was nothing more than dried leaves, creeped me out. I had trouble relaxing, while Lenin was having the time of his life, rolling around, smearing mud all over his face and posing for selfies. This place was totally isolated, and we didn’t see a single person while we were out there. There was also no fresh water to rinse off after climbing out of the volcano. We had to walk back along the muddy trail, covered in thick grey mud.
On our way back, I felt all of the cows were watching us. They lined up in groups, just staring at us as we walked. It was great fun to scare them all at once and watch them simultaneously take off running. When we reached our bikes, the two bags that we hadn’t bothered to leave in the stables had been opened, and it was clear that someone had rifled through everything. Nothing appeared to have been missing, except for our phone chargers, which we later discovered we had left at Tata’s house. We made it back to the stables and used a hose to rinse off and wash our clothes before heading into Necocli to find a place to spend the night.
We headed straight for the beach in Necocli and watched the sun set into the sea before going into the main town square to eat. While we were in the plaza, a bohemian guy selling handcrafted jewelry off his bicycle approached us and invited us to come pitch our hammocks in the place where he was staying with another bike traveler. We followed him to what looked like an open air restaurant, situated directly across from the beach. It was quiet and dark, and it offered a roof over our heads while we slept. Both bike travelers were Colombian, and one of them claimed to know the owner of the restaurant who let them stay there. The guy who was already in his hammock was suspiciously friendly and kept repeating to us how welcome we were, but Lenin assured me that he was just drunk. The other guy soon went back into town to continue selling his jewelry, and we fell asleep.
Chigorodó to Turbo
17 November 2017
The road from Chigorodó was totally flat, plus, we had a tailwind, so we really had no excuse to be going so slowly except that it was our first day back to touring on loaded bikes. We did decide to stop and visit a banana plantation, which set us back a few hours.
Uraba is dense with banana and plantain trees, and for a good portion of our ride, we had been passing these plantations. After passing so many, Lenin stopped to talk to some kids on the side of the road, and they agreed to show us one of the plantations. We walked with them across the street and started down a long dirt road surrounded by rows of banana trees.
This walk definitely brought our average pace down, but it was worth it. After walking for maybe a mile, we turned off the road and onto a narrow trail between more rows of trees. We even had to cross a few streams, carefully balancing with our bikes over skinny planks of cement. Running along the row of trees was an overhead track, that was part of a network of tracks connecting all of the rows and aisles throughout the plantation. We finally arrived at the processing plant, where a huge conveyor belt was rising up and dropping bunches of green bananas onto a mountain of more bananas. Apparently, these were the rejects that were not fit for exportation but would be sold to Colombians.
We observed the entire process of banana processing, from the branches that get pulled along the tracks to the last conveyor belt that carries the boxes of cleaned, cut and stickered banana bunches into the trucks that would haul them away for exportation. The factory workers even let us try pulling the stalks that arrived in waves from somewhere within the plantation. The tracks all converged back at the factory, and bananas could be coming from as far as 2 or 3 kilometers. From there, they were cut into manageable bunches of 5 or 6 bananas and dropped into an enormous vat of water to be cleaned. They floated across the water vat to the workers who would support out which ones were good enough and which were the rejects for the concept belt I had seen when we first arrived. The good ones get dropped into another water bath, floating over to more workers who put stickers on them and add them to plastic bins on another conveyor belt. Each bin pauses for a few seconds while the conveyor belt takes them under a glass box where they get misted with a mineral that prevents them from ripening too quickly. Then the conveyor belt continues and the bananas get transferred from plastic bins to cardboard boxes, which get loaded into the waiting trucks. The bananas we watched were bound for Europe. Before leaving, we gave some money to the boys who had led us to the factory.
Back on the road, we didn’t get very far before it started raining, and we ducked under the cover of a furniture maker that happened to be along the side of the road at the time. They were making bed frames, tables and chairs out of teak, which is another common crop of the region.
We had only completed 38 miles before stopping in Turbo, a port that is projected to grow to be one of the country’s largest, due to its proximity to Medellín. Shortly after arriving in town, a friend of Lenin’s from Uramita pulled up on the back of a motorcycle and greeted him. We followed Tata to her grocery store, where she led us into a small, air conditioned office and had one of her employees bring us fresh juice. Shortly after, Tata drove us to a restaurant near the port so we could share lunch. Fish is plentiful and cheap in this region, and we would eat it nearly every day while touring along the coast.
Back at the grocery store, Tata invited us to stay the night at her house, so we loaded our bikes into her pickup truck and rode with her in the direction from where we came, backtracking several kilometers. On the way to her house, Tata pulled in front of a butcher shop and started ordering meat, calling out over the blaring music to the butcher from her window. After several exchanges of meats and money, we were off to her house.
Tata lives in a nice house outside of Turbo with her three kids, her sister, and two women hired to clean and cook. Her husband has been in prison for the past two years, and Tata was preparing to visit him the following morning. I helped her and her sister pack basic dry goods like oats, coffee, sugar, and crackers into clear plastic bags to bring to the prison. Tata goes to visit every week, but this week she had another family member joining her, so she could bring an extra portion of all of the food she usually brings for her husband. The extra bags would be for her husband’s cell mate so he doesn’t have to share half of his food. While their family doesn’t live too far away distance-wise, their family rarely ever goes out of their way to visit them in Turbo, so sadly, Tata is normally her husband’s sole visitor.
Another Colombian bike tour begins
8-16 November 2017
After a busy summer of working on bikes in Newport and playing trombone with What Cheer? Brigade, I reluctantly left New England midway through cyclocross season to return to Medellin with Lenin. Two days later, we had secured a ride with his brother, Edwin, to Uramita. Within hours of this decision, our bikes were tied onto the roof of Edwin’s van, and all of our belongings were packed inside as we journeyed in the night along with 6 other family members through the mountains to their home pueblo, 3 or 4 hours away.
We arrived around 1 in the morning, but the town was in the midst of a lively fiesta, despite heavy rain showers. This weekend Uramita was celebrating Fiesta del Campesino, a party that happens once every two years for the farmers and involves dancing to live vallenato music until sunrise.
Exhausted, I just wanted to sleep. We spent the next few days talking to people, playing tennis, inline skating, and immersing ourselves in the community. One day we cycled to Frontino, a town just 25km away, but mostly uphill. We returned later that day to begin organizing our gear for another bike tour.
Lenin had wanted to bike from Medellín to Uramita, but we ended up riding with Edwin to save time. Similarly, we were hoping to ride all the way to the coast, but we ended up hitching a ride on a bus that one of Lenin’s many cousins operates between Medellin and Turbo. We were missing a part for the rear bike rack, and we wanted to get another rack to install on the other bicycle, both of which were impossible to find in Uramita. The bus left us in Chigorodó, where we stayed with Lenin’s aunt for a day.
Chigorodó is part of Uraba, a region of Antioquia that stretches from Dabeiba to the border with Cordoba, and it is full of cyclists. People of all ages and on all types of bicycles constantly ride up and down the main road through the town, often carrying another person on the handlebars or top tube. It is not uncommon to see entire families balancing on a single bicycle, or someone using their bicycle to carry a large or heavy item such as furniture or a ladder. This was the perfect place to find the last few things we needed for our tour.
4-9 March 2017
Lenin and I biked from the bus station in Cali to an overpriced cafe for breakfast. This is where we start spending money a little recklessly, compared to our earlier time on the road. From there, we went to a gelato place and splurged on gelato. We were the only ones there. After spending an hour or so using the Wi-Fi at Ventolini’s, we went to a sushi restaurant around the corner for lunch. I was really appreciating all the different food options we had in Cali after traveling through small towns that only offered the same type of rice- and meat-based dishes at every meal. Lenin noticed this, and he went above and beyond to appease my wandering appetite.
We headed to a neighborhood where all the hostels are located to inquire about working in exchange for free room and board. We went into every hostel we could find but had no luck in finding a work exchange deal. Most of the places already had an Argentinean traveler working for them.
We ended up going to the cheapest hotel we could find, which was cheaper than all of the hostels for a reason. The room looked like it had been lived in. The girl who showed us the room had to unplug her phone that was charging in the outlet and remove some of her personal items before letting us in, and there was still a half full cup of something (juice? soda?) on the table that served as a desk when we rolled our bikes in. There were holes in the ceiling where daylight was peeking through, but fortunately rain was not in the forecast that night.
The next day, we resumed our search for a room and started following a lead about a chocolateria that was rumored to need help at the moment. We passed an Arabic restaurant, and then backtracked a few steps to talk to the owner, Olga. Lenin did most of the talking, explaining that we were looking for a place to stay for a few days and were free to help in exchange. Olga was interested in learning how to make baklava the right way, and I could teach her. She agreed to pay for us to stay at a hotel for a few days in exchange for sharing the recipe I learned from my grandmother.
Before we solidified a deal with Olga later that evening, we went to a hostel that was owned by the friend of a person who had couchsurfed with Lenin in Medellin. This guy had recommended we go there, but we couldn’t find it on our first day. The owners of Mi Tierra hostel were a mother and daughter, and they were in the process of renovating the building so it would pass inspections. Their next inspection was coming up that week, and they still had some work to do to get it to comply with the fire safety regulations. The woman who was friends with Lenin’s former couchsurfer wasn’t home when we stopped in, and her mother was too busy to talk with us then, so we made plans to come back the next day.
That night we went to the apartment of our friend Catalina’s grandmother. We knew Catalina from Providence, and she hooked us up with her grandmother’s contact info and address and told her we would be coming. She lived alone in an apartment complex on the north end of Cali, and she honestly scared me. She refused to try to understand me when I attempted to speak with her, and she insisted that Lenin do all the talking. From what I gathered of their conversation, it was all about how she loved traveling, but she hated Americans and that there was no reason to go to the US except to see the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and the Brooklyn Bridge. The only reason she thought the Brooklyn Bridge was so interesting was because of how long it took to build and how many people died in the process.
While we were at Catalina’s grandmother’s apartment, we confirmed plans to meet Olga at the Arab restaurant. In the morning, we heard from the owner of the hostel about a work exchange there, so we were able to rearrange our agreement with Olga to teach her the baklava recipe in exchange for a meal at the restaurant and a lesson on how to make a semolina cake with orange syrup. We worked that morning at the hostel, scraping paint and adding a non-skid grip to the stairs. Then we biked over the restaurant to make baklava and cake.
Work at the hostel got us a free place to stay, plus lunch every day. We just had to work 4 hours a day. The next two evenings we went salsa dancing, and the last evening we met Olga and her husband to go to her husband’s band practice. Olga’s husband is a percussionist in a salsa band, and I got to borrow a trombone from one of their trombonists and sit in on a song. It was nice to play again, but I felt a lot of pressure as the special guest of their practice when the solo section arrived and everyone was just waiting for me to solo (I’m terrible at being in the spotlight).
After the band practice, Lenin and I caught a taxi back to retrieve our bikes and biked to the bus station to catch an overnight bus to Medellín. This bus ride ended at the top of a mountain, just shy of Medellín, when we were caught behind a truck thay had flipped over on the narrow, winding road. Sleeping on the stopped bus for about an hour before noticing that it hadn’t been moving, we looked up where we were. At the top of Alto de Mina! We had both biked this road from Medellín before, and we knew the ride down was quick and easy. We also had no idea the bus would be backed up, so we asked the driver to get our bikes from under the bus and we were off. It was a beautiful morning, and it felt great to be back in Antioquia (probably the most beautiful department).
We passed several buses and trucks in the line of traffic before rounding a hairpin turn on the descent and seeing the cause of the backup. A big tractor trailer truck had tipped over, completely blocking both lanes of traffic. It lay on its side, and we first saw the underside of the long truck, with its wheels sticking out uselessly. We were able to pass by with our bikes, and left behind a crowd of people standing around and staring. The top of the truck was ripped open, and it looked like it was carrying water bottles. The remainder of our descent was incredible, with absolutely zero traffic to worry about coming from behind. We also passed at least 30 or 40 other cyclists on their routine morning rides.
Things fall apart
3 March 2017
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.
Crossing the border: Orito to Lago Agrió
24 February 2017
From Orito we backtracked to the main road, which was under construction for a good stretch of the way to Hormiga, the only town of any significant size on the way to Ecuador. The lack of pavement made for slow progress, and we had to wait a few times in places where only one lane was open to one direction at a time.
Along this road was a bridge that had been taken over by guerrillas years ago. The guerrillas basically killed anyone who tried to cross the bridge, dumping the bodies in the river. Many towns in Colombia, including the one where Lenin grew up, were accustomed to the guerrillas coming in several times a year to massacre the police and steal supplies. First, the electricity to the whole town would go out, announcing their arrival. Then, you would hear the bombs and gunfire. They would usually target police stations, and sometimes the entire police force in a town would be killed. Then, the guerrillas would rob everything they needed from the town, including food, ammunition, and medicines. The next morning, when there was daylight, people would come out, inventory the damage and see who had died. Lenin lost friends this way who were caught in the crossfire, or who had been too close to the police station when a bomb went off.
The towns in Putumayo seemed to either be common victims of this type of warfare, or protected from it, depending on who lived in the town. Orito, for example, didn’t get attacked very much because most of the people living there were related or connected to the attackers in some way. Or, it could have been because the town was dominated by the oil industry and was heavily reinforced by military protection. El Tigre, on the other hand, just north of Hormiga, seemed to have a darker history of oppression by the guerrillas. It was chilling to think about what had occurred at the bridge while we crossed over the Guamez river outside of El Tigre.
One of the best parts of riding in Colombia are the many delicious fruits that are so readily available everywhere. Guava was in season, and as we neared the Ecuadorian border, we passed hundreds of trees full of ripe guavas. We also passed sugarcane, and when we saw a farmer loading the back of his truck with freshly cut caña, Lenin asked if we could have some. Without hesitation, he shared four stalks with us, expertly removing the hard, outer skin with a machete. The last snack we bought before reaching the border was a turron de maní. This is a roll of panela that has been kneaded by hand to the point where it is a taffy, or nougat consistency. It is mixed with peanuts, making for a crunchy, sweet and salty treat that resembles a Payday candy bar.
When we came to Puente Internacional, the bridge that crosses from Colombia into Ecuador over the Río San Miguel, we asked a policeman to take a photo of us. On one side of the bridge were Colombia police officers, and the other side were Ecuadorian police officers. The immigration office was still a few kilometers down the road into Ecuador, so after getting a photo from both sides by two different officers, we rode on to this office. Most of my border crossings on land have been between the US and Canada, where photography is always strictly forbidden. I thought it was novel to actually have the police officers take our photos at the border for us.
We pulled up to the immigration office to get our passports stamped. Beyond this point, we passed cacao farms, more guava trees, and many properties for sale, as well as many abandoned houses. During the time when the guerrillas were most active, they would frequently cross over the border to hide out in Ecuador. The Colombian president at the time, Uribe, had a vengeance for the guerrillas since his father was killed by them when he was a boy. Disregarding the fact that this wasn’t his territory, he ordered the military to bomb the jungle, trying to find and kill the leaders of these guerrilla groups who were reportedly hiding in Ecuador. As a result, not many people live near the border, and there is a lot of abandoned property.
When we got a little further south, we started seeing green murals painted with Lenin’s name on them in huge blue letters. Ecuador has recently had an election, and one of the presidential candidates was named Lenin. They actually need to hold another election because the results were so close, so it’s possible that Lenin may very well be the next president of Ecuador.
Continuing to the south, we approached Lago Agrió, or bitter/sour lake. This town was originally settled by people who had migrated from a town in southern Ecuador called Loja and had named it Nueva Loja. However, when the big oil company, Texaco, started taking control of the area, they renamed it Lago Agrió. The town is not pretty, and it appears far removed from the beautiful jungle that we were surrounded by closer to the border.
We had the contact info of a man from WarmShowers who lived in Lago Agrió, so we headed towards the address listed for him. We tried stopping at a few places to use a phone and call him, but nobody seemed to have a working phone we could use. Just after sunset and just shy of 100 kilometers from where we began in Orito, we came to the church where this WarmShowers host was supposed to be. At first glance, it appeared that nobody was there, but when we got closer, a pregnant woman stepped out of the darkness. She told us that the man who used to host people was the pastor, but he had left the church a few months ago, and she didn’t know where he had gone.
We decided to go back towards the downtown and ask if we could stay at the fire station. The fireman who greeted us told us that they were understaffed, and the people working there were just covering for the actual employees while they went to a training in Quitó. He didn’t have the authority to let us stay at the station, so we settled for a cheap hotel around the corner. My birthday was the next day, so it was kind of like an early birthday present to splurge on a hotel, but I still felt guilty about spending $15 on a room (they use US dollars in Ecuador).
While walking around to find food, we found another bike traveler. He was from Bogotá, and he may have been more talkative than Lenin. We were both very tired, but we listened patiently to his stories from the road before retreating back to our hotel.
21-23 February 2017
From Puerto Asís, Lenin and I rode to Orito, a town that exists mainly because of oil. We had to backtrack about 15 kilometers to Santana, and then diverge from the road to Ecuador for another 7 kilometers or so out of the way, but Lenin’s brother, Seled, had a friend living there where we could stay.
Sayra knew Seled and his family from their church, and she had just moved back home after spending the last few years studying in Italy. She wasn’t home when we arrived in Orito, but we were told that her brother was a councilman and we could find him at the town hall. However, when Lenin asked for him, all of the councilmen were having a meeting, and he was the only one not in attendance. Not sure what to do, we wandered around briefly before coming back to the town hall and asking again. This time, a man who knew him gave us his mother’s phone number so we could get in touch with the family. The mother was expecting us, and she came to meet us at the town hall with her motorcycle so we could follow her back to their house.
Sayra and her brother were visiting one of the veredas outside of town and had no phone service, which is why we couldn’t get in touch with either of them. We relaxed at their house, drinking juice and talking with their mother while waiting for them to return.
That night it stormed heavily, complete with thunder and lightning that took out the electricity for the rest of the night and half of the next day. We were thinking about going to a nearby waterfall the next morning, but it was still cool and rainy all day, so we didn’t do much of anything. Sayra’s brother, Jonny, drove us to a huge rock in the middle of the river where people can jump and swim when it’s not so cold and rainy. On the way back, we stopped at the market and bought chontaduros and small bananas, which made for a very delicious juice with our dinner that evening.
Since we didn’t make it to the waterfall that day, we decided to stay in Orito one more night and try to see the waterfall the next day. Jonny’s friend, Jhon, who owned the land where the waterfall was located, planned to pick us up in his motorcycle and show us around.
Jhon first brought us to this eco-touristy farm where they had coconut water waiting for us to drink right from the coconuts. The two women running the farm took us around the property, explaining how the pepper is cultivated and allowing us to sample the guava, guama, cacao, sugarcane, and coca leaves. There were also two small waterfalls that we could stand under. A baby turkey followed us around the entire time, crying out when we reached a steep bank that was too hard for him to climb down. After this, we rode to the property with the waterfall we originally wanted to see.
Cascada Silvania wasn’t too far from the town, but it was totally wild and barely touched by humans. Nobody even knew it was there until relatively recently because the area was infested with guerrillas for 50-60 years and too dangerous to explore. From where we parked the motorcycles, we hiked a little more than 2 kilometers to get to the finca. We ate lunch here and then walked down a steep trail that descended into a lush, green jungle. Everything around us was a vivid green, and the smell of flowers filled the humid air. The only sounds were of birds and rushing water. I felt like we had stepped into a secret world, beautifully hidden away from industry and human destruction. We crossed a small river and came to a deep natural pool that was mostly surrounded by a high wall of stone covered in more green.
The cascade was across this pool and to the right, falling from a height of about 15 meters. Completely shade protected, this place was like a little slice of heaven in the middle of a normally hot part of the country. In spite of the setting sun and lowering temperatures, I had to jump into the cold water and swim around. It was so cold and clean, and difficult to swim towards the waterfall. Just to the right of the cascade was a rope that made it possible to climb up the rock to a small cave with a ledge, a little less than halfway up, from where you could jump. I hate the feeling of free-falling, and for some reason jumping off a small cliff into water is mentally harder for me than jumping out of a plane with a parachute or off the side of a mountain with a paraglider. Maybe because I wasn’t given enough time to reconsider those other jumps. It took a lot of courage for me to jump in, but it was worth it. It grew darker as we hiked back to the motorcycles, and it was pitch black by the time we started heading back towards the town.
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.