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.
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.
Ambuqui to Julio Andrade
2 March 2017
In the morning, we left the fire station and pedaled about 5 kilometers up the road to a restaurant for breakfast. There was little tension from our arguments the day before, or maybe we were just ignoring it. We looked at our options on WarmShowers for a place to stay that night and took down contact info for three different people. We were hopeful to get to the border that day, but just in case we fell short, we had hosts in two other towns before leaving Ecuador.
The riding was tough, with a lot of climbing. Worse than that was that we were breaking mentally, and we were losing the motivation to keep going strong. The rainy weather we were subjected to every day was not helping. It rained while we ate breakfast, and when it stopped enough to venture out, we simply had to push ourselves uphill. The distance to the border appeared, in my mind, to be out of reach if we were to climb discontentedly on loaded bikes all day. All I needed was to have a minor mechanical issue, and I probably would have wanted to take the rest of the day off.
We made a stop for lunch at a restaurant on the road, and Lenin talked them down in price for the meal we shared. This meant that we couldn’t get ice cream, since he told them that we didn’t have enough money to pay the full price for the lunch.
We felt some relief from the climbing after passing San Gabriel, but it was only a short distance of downhill before we had to go up once again. When we reached Julio Andrade, the first town where a WarmShowers host resided, we were ready for a break.
We stopped at a bodega for ice cream and asked the lady there if she knew our host, Richard, who owned a bakery called Anchwy Hwan Chae. She directed us further into town, and as we climbed a steep hill, a man must have recognised us as some of the crazy bike travelers that always visit this one guy in town. He showed us exactly where to go.
A young boy answered our knock at the door and let us in as if he had been expecting us. He introduced himself as Darwin and asked us where we were from, and then his mother came to greet us while he proceeded to finish his homework. Darwin and his mother, Anita, were very nice and social, both warning me of the cold water when I asked to take a shower. With maybe one or two exceptions, none of the places we stayed in had warm water, so I was used to the cold and actually looking forward to a refreshing shower after sweating from climbing all day. This water, however, must have come from some icy mountain spring, because it was more frigid than any water I had bathed in before. Within seconds of standing under the icy stream, my hands and feet were numb and I barely had any dexterity left in my fingers. They weren’t kidding about the cold water. For the rest of our time there, I was reluctant to volunteer to wash dishes.
Lenin and I were almost considering to keep going on to the town by the border, Tulcan, or Ipiales, which was just over the border in Colombia, but once we got a taste of Anita and her family’s hospitality, it wasn’t a hard decision to stay. She gave us the most delicious bread and cheese with hot coffee, showed us the cuy she was raising in the back yard, and helped us to set up a mattress to sleep on. The mattress was in the back of a room shared by all three of her sons, one of which had been hiding on his bed, using a laptop the entire time we were there. He was clearly less social than his mother and younger brother. We squeezed between a bunkbed and another twin bed to get to the back area where we laid the mattress down. The eldest son we heard on the radio before we met him. Anita turned the volume up when she recognised his voice, telling us that it was her son on the radio. Richard was out of town for a few days, selling his bread near the border, so we wouldn’t get to meet him.
Lenin and I both were curious to try cuy, which is guinea pig, and since it had been a year since we met, Lenin figured we should celebrate by eating one. Anita offered to cook it for us the next day.
Over dinner that night, Anita shared her own experiences with Yaje and told us about the shaman who was going to be visiting them in 4 days. It really sounds like this stuff is amazing, and if you have any kind of health problems it would allow you to see inside yourself and understand how to fix your problems. Anita started taking Yaje because she had cancer and acid reflux. She swears by it as a cure for any disease.
In spite of the discouraging time we had earlier in the day on our bikes, the day actually turned out to be pretty good. We made it through the whole day without any serious arguments, and we slept heavily on that mattress in the back of the bedroom.
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.
15-21 February 2017
According to Lenin, Putumayo was once the most dangerous and most active zone in Colombia for guerrillas and cocaine production. It’s also very religious, and our host, Monica, was possibly the most devout person we stayed with. She didn’t have a job, but she spent more time at her church than most people spend working. Monica lived in a small apartment just a block from Puerto Asís’s main square with her 10-year-old sister, Carolina. Their mother lived in another apartment around the corner and was also very religious, but subscribed to a different religion than Monica. They were all very nice and welcoming to us, and Carolina and Monica shared Monica’s bed so that Lenin and I could sleep in Carolina’s bed, which was tucked into a corner of the kitchen.
When we arrived in Puerto Asís, we had a vague idea of trying to hop on a river boat to the Amazon. It was Wednesday night. On Thursday, we walked with Carolina to the nearest dock to ask about taking a boat. The walk was inky about fifteen minutes, but it felt like we had walked to a completely different country. After a stretch of nothing but guava trees were houses of a simple wooden construction between the dirt road and the river. They were decked with banners advertising Colombian lager, and the ambiance was more Caribbean coast than jungle.
Our options for taking a boat seemed limited. There was a passenger boat that we could pay $100,000 each to take us to another town in one day, but then we would have to get onto another passenger boat (for who knows how much $) to take us the rest of the way to Leticia, the capital of the Amazonas. That second boat would take about 5 days or so to get there. Our other option was to go to the bigger dock on the other side of town and inquire about hitching a ride on one of the larger cargo boats. These were slower, however, because they stop at the small villages along the way to unload and load stuff and could take anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks to get to Leticia. We borrowed Monica’s motorcycle that night to get to this dock, which was a bumpy ride down a long dirt road. We arrived just around sunset and saw three large cargo boats at this dock. After asking around, we learned that it would be hard to get a ride with a cargo boat without a special license or certificate to work on a boat, but it was not impossible. One person told us that sometimes the owner of one of those boats will take passengers, but it really isn’t allowed, and there are quite a few control points along the way. Since none of the owners of the boats were actually there at the time, we had to come back the next day to speak with them.
The next morning, we packed up our belongings and rode our bikes to the big dock. It seemed to be faster and easier to bike there than it had been by motorcycle. We spoke with the owner of one of the cargo boats, who informed us that he could only allow us to ride with them if we first got permission from the navy, or someone in charge of fluvial transportation. So we rode a short distance to where several naval officers were standing guard and inquired with them about getting permission. Their captain explained that we actually had to go to an office near the airport to ask the fluvial inspector. When we went there, the security guard informed us that she was in Bogotá until Monday.
That afternoon our duck died. He was never quite strong enough to hold his head up, and feeding him was a challenge since he hardly ever opened his mouth. He probably would have died sooner if we hadn’t tried to rescue him, but I still felt like I had failed him. I didn’t want to give him a name until I was sure he would survive, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected that he didn’t make it. We threw him to the river behind Monica’s house, and he made some vultures happy, at least.
We decided to hang out in Puerto Asís for the weekend and try to get permission from the fluvial inspector on Monday. Meanwhile, I had received news that I was accepted to take part in a documentary called Project Y, which I had applied for while we were in Fusa. This documentary is investigating what makes people do crazy things, like ride their bikes hundreds of kilometers around Colombia, for example. More specifically, they were looking for endurance athletes who appear to have an appetite for torturing themselves via extreme physical challenges. Apparently, I fit their requirements. The first step in participating requires all the athletes to meet in Portland, Oregon for an evaluation, to receive equipment (including a new bicycle!), and be given individual goals and personalized training plans. It meant that I would have to leave Colombia at the end of March instead of the end of April, as we had planned. This did not make Lenin happy, and while I was ecstatic to have been given this opportunity, the mood of our journey was never quite the same after receiving this news. We only had a month before I had to board a plane, and spending three weeks on a cargo boat may not have been the most appealing way to spend my time in Colombia. I also had to either leave the country by March 14th or ask for an extension to stay longer, since my tourist visa only allows for 90 days at a time. I still thought the experience of riding a cargo boat down the Amazon was worthwhile, and I could fly to the US when we got to Leticia. If we couldn’t figure out a way to make the Amazon trip work, we would continue south to Ecuador.
We totally weren’t planning on staying more than a night or two in Puerto Asís, but Monica and her family were happy to have us. We cooked all our meals in their abandoned kitchen, using up whatever food would have otherwise gone to waste. We tried to share with Monica, but thanks to her religion she was fasting for a month and could only eat one piece of fruit after sunset each day. Lenin taught me how to scale and clean a fish, and then proceeded to clean all of the fish he brought home while I worked on one of them. Lenin does everything fast, but I could use more practice for sure.
On Monday we rode back towards the airport to talk with the fluvial inspector. The street was blocked off a block or two before we got there, and we learned that the president was in town, meeting with one of the last guerrilla groups for negotiations. We were still able to bike through, and upon arriving at the office, a group of school kids surrounded me, sensing that I was a foreigner. They bombarded me with questions, tried to speak English, and asked me to speak English. It seems that everywhere I go, outside of major cities, the children are fascinated by me. It makes me very self conscious and uncomfortable, but as they keep questioning me, it gets easier. I imagine that these kids in Puerto Asís were more interested in taking to me than they were in meeting the president, or at least it was easier for them to get close enough to talk to me. They invited me to come to their school and talk the next day. Apparently, the English teachers in most schools are not native English speakers. When people hear a real foreigner who speaks English, it is enchanting. They want to listen to us speak, or ask us to look at their homework assignment for them. During my time in Colombia, I have corrected a fair number of class assignments or projects people were working on in English.
Anyway, when we finally met with the inspector, she told us that she could give Lenin permission because he is Colombian, but I would need to have a work visa in order to be granted permission. Without a work visa, I would need a visa to enter Brazil, which, for Americans, is not a quick or cheap process. The cargo boats pass many check points along the way, where they are inspected thoroughly. They also pass into Brazil briefly before coming to Leticia, which is on the Colombian side of the border with Brazil and Peru.
Leaving the fluvial inspector’s office, I mentally prepared myself to ride to Ecuador instead. Lenin hadn’t given up quite yet though. He had heard that sometimes the cargo boats drop people off before going to the checkpoint to pass into Brazil and then come back to pick up the people to continue down the river. He was still thinking about going anyway, without the fluvial inspector’s blessings. I thought it was too risky and didn’t want to do anything that might get me kicked out of the country or banned from traveling there in the future. In the end, Lenin was not happy, but we decided to ride to Ecuador.
Mocoa to Puerto Asís
15 February 2017
It was raining when we were getting ready to leave Mocoa, so we waited a bit for it to let up. On our way out, we came to a public botanical garden, so we left our bikes with the security guard while hiking along a trail through the jungle.
Mocoa is very warm and humid, full of tropical flora and fauna. We saw toucans as well as other birds, known by the locals as mochileros, or backpackers, because the nests that they build look like bags hanging from the trees. We came to a river and decided to let the duckling swim around in a pool of water near the river. I took a few steps towards the water, and suddenly my legs sank into the sand. I was buried up to my knees! I managed to climb out, but I lost one of my flip flops below the sand. Lenin supervised the duck while I dug into the sand in a desperate search for my sandal, mentally preparing myself for the possibility of walking back on the trail barefoot. I eventually gave up and walked to the river to clean my arms, which were now covered in mud. When I walked back to where Lenin was, he had excavated my flip flop as if it were no big deal. It started to rain again on our way back to the road, so we waited with the security guard while it poured outside. Not wanting to be stuck in a room with this guy for too long, we made a break for it when it lightened up enough.
We rode in this drizzle until the Fin Del Mundo, a waterfall that everyone told us we had to see if we go to Mocoa. Near the entrance to the trail for this waterfall, we rolled our bikes into a covered parking area attached to someone’s house and sat talking with the family there while the rain grew heavier. We decided not to go to the waterfall because it was cold, and we didn’t want to pay to see a waterfall when it was too cold and rainy to swim in it.
The rain eventually lightened up again, and we got back on our bikes to leave Mocoa. We stopped in the town of Villa Garzón for lunch and debated whether to just stay in a hotel that night because of all the rain. The hotel was dirt cheap (only $10,000 pesos) because they didn’t have a television, but by the time we finished eating, the rain was gone, and it looked like it wasn’t coming back.
We made one more stop in San Pedro to snack on chontaduros, a fruit that grows on a tree similar to coconut, but is smaller, orange, and its taste and texture somewhat resembles pumpkin. I first saw this fruit in Neiva, where there are many people selling them in carts on the street. It’s widely available in the warmer climates of Colombia and popular among the black communities. People eat it with salt or honey, and also as a juice with milk or a creamy soup. I definitely preferred it with honey, but my taste is always partial to sweet over salty.
Our ride was mostly flat or downhill, and we remained in a warm, tropical climate the whole way to Puerto Asís. We made it to the town just after sunset, and just before our WarmShowers host, Monica, would be free to meet us in the main square.
Neiva to San Agustín
3-7 February 2017
It was difficult leaving Neiva without Churro, and it just didn’t feel fun to bike anymore. Both Lenin and I felt his absence strongly for a long time after. I was glad to be moving again, and especially glad to get out of Neiva, where I felt held a dark cloud of negative energy since the incident. It was not a very pretty city, and there wasn’t much to do there, so I was itching to get away, but it still didn’t feel right bike touring without our dog. Without enjoying the ride out of the city, I found myself questioning whether I should continue. Lenin noticed my lackluster attitude, and we stopped to talk a few times along the road. I promised to try to be happy and make the best of our situation.
I felt better when we started climbing along the Río Magdalena and could see some nice views from the road. We stopped to take photos and share a beer. The climbing became more difficult, and we were slow. We stopped near the top of a long climb to try some warm goat milk with honey and buy some quesadillas, which, in Colombia, are pieces of bocadillo wrapped in cheese. We hadn’t made it as far as planned when it started to grow dark, so we ended up staying in the fire station in Gigante, one town shy of our goal town for the night.
The next morning, we had breakfast at the local market before leaving town. Nearly all towns have a local market where the farmers come to sell their fruits, vegetables, meat and cheese. There is often a restaurant inside the market where you can get tasty food for very cheap. The breakfast here was goat meat with rice, and it was delicious.
Following the Río Magdalena, we passed through the larger town of Garzón and later took a break in Altamira, where we ate lunch and bought some local snacks, including panderitos and achiras. From Pitalito, we got off the main highway to head to San Agustín, a small but touristy town that has a lot of archaeological sites and indigenous ruins nearby. The last few kilometers to San Agustín were very steep and challenging, and when we arrived in the town, we had to climb even more to get to the house where we would end up staying for three nights.
It took Lenin a little while to remember how he knew Steven, who we found through WarmShowers. Lenin had come to San Agustín before with a bunch of German tourists who stayed at Steven’s house on Couchsurfing, and Lenin had subsequently hosted Steven at his apartment when he lived in Bogotá. Lenin still remembered how to get to his house, but found that Steven was actually in Bogotá celebrating his birthday. His family welcomed us regardless, and we were even able to sleep in Steven’s bed while he was gone.
We spent two days in San Agustín, first visiting some indigenous ruins called Chaquira and el Tablón. The second day we biked to el Estrechó de la Magdalena, where Colombia’s largest river narrows to only a meter or so wide. From there, we biked up a steep mountain for 2 kilometers to eat lunch in the small town of Obando. The road from San Agustín to all of these sites is full of fruit trees, and we collected enough oranges, lemons, mandarin and papaya to fill my backpack on the first day. The second day, we stopped to fill a bag with tomatoes that were lying on the side of the road. In the town’s local market, we tasted a sweet and juicy cucumber that’s meant to be eaten like an apple. We stayed one night more than planned, which worked out because Steven’s car broke down and they were one day late in returning.
Neiva and the tragic death of Churro
28 January – 1 February 2017
Neiva is a large, oppressively hot city that is not nearly as pretty as its name. It is the capital of Huila. Lenin’s ex-sister-in-law lives in Neiva with her son, Nico, who is Lenin’s nephew. Nico was elated to have his uncle show up for a surprise visit. He also became instant friends with Churro.
On our second day in Neiva, we were going to go on a bike ride around town with Nico. While getting ready, Churro became playful in a mischievous way, unable to contain his energy. He tugged at the skirt of a schoolgirl who was walking by on the sidewalk, and wouldn’t listen to us to come to his trailer. Lenin started to chase him with the leash, and Churro ran all the way down the block. When Lenin approached again, this time Churro decided to run across the wide street. He was clear on one side, but then hopped the middle barrier and ran straight into an oncoming car as we all watched in horror. I screamed at the top of my lungs in disbelief, and the three of us ran over to him. Another lady who witnessed the whole thing came to join us. I continued screaming, “nooooo!” loudly enough to bring nearly all the neighbors and their dogs out to see what happened.
Lenin lifted Churro’s limp body off the road and onto the grassy barrier. Blood was dripping from his mouth, and there were already flies collecting around his open eyes. Lenin turned his head, and we saw that his skull was broken. His upper jaw was split down the middle. I couldn’t accept that he wasn’t going to survive, and I begged Lenin to take him to the veterinarian, but there was nothing we could do. His heart stopped soon after that. The lady who saw the whole thing helped us to bring Churro to a spot overlooking the river, and we borrowed a shovel to dig a grave for him.
I still couldn’t believe how we could lose him so quickly, and Lenin couldn’t believe how much we both loved him after just a month of having him in our lives.
Lenin and I stayed inside in Neiva for a few days after this and did little more than watch sad movies. The night before we were planning to leave, Eliana told us that Nico was sad we were leaving and convinced us to stay one more day. I couldn’t imagine how we could be any fun to have around, when we barely did anything, and when we weren’t watching movies, Nico was playing video games.
We decided not to take the trailer, since we didn’t have a dog anymore, and a Lenin quickly found someone interested in buying it. To carry the stuff we had been putting in the trailer’s pockets, I finally made a frame bag and handlebar bag out of some waterproof material we had been lugging around since Medellín. I had tried to make the bags in Bogotá with Adriana’s sewing machine, but the thread kept getting jammed so I was waiting for another opportunity to use a sewing machine. The people we asked in Neiva who had sewing machines recommended glue for the material we had, so I spent most of our last day in Neiva trying to glue together the bags. I think I succeeded without too much mess, but didn’t trust that the glue would hold very well in the heat. We set off the next day anyway, to the south, and to see how the bags would fare.
South to the Desert Tatacoa
26-27 January 2017
Lenin and I continued our pattern of switching bikes every twenty kilometers, since the road was predominantly downhill or flat from Bogotá to the southern border of Colombia. From Giradot, we were able to make it about 90 kilometers to stay at a tire mounting place at a truck stop, just outside of Natagaima. The family who ran the place were very welcoming and even fed us dinner and breakfast the next day.
We left late in the morning, and veered off the main road onto a dirt road that brought us on the other side of the Río Magdalena. The condition of the road slowed us down considerably, but it was beautiful. I think we only passed two cars the whole way, until we reached Villavieja, the small town at the entrance to the desert. It was dark when we arrived, and while Lenin was hoping to camp in the desert that night to see the stars, it was cloudy and raining a little bit. We ate dinner in Villavieja and then biked around town in search of a place with a roof where we could lay our sleeping pads. We came to a construction site by the river, and the security guard there said we could spend the night in the house that was being built. He even let us sleep inside his tent! It was a quiet night until a crazy guy came and started banging on metal pipes in the house. The security guard was sleeping soundly in his chair through the whole thing, so Lenin had to get up and try to make the guy stop. The security guard was reluctant to phone the police until the crazy guy actually tried to steal something.
The next day, after breakfast, we started pedaling into Desierto Tatacoa. At the top of a hill, Lenin and I had an argument so bad that we didn’t even want to travel together anymore. I can’t even remember why we were fighting, but we were so angry that we declared we would go separate ways. Lenin threw one of the bags from the road bike to me, and I put it in the trailer and biked all the way back to Villavieja with Churro. Not knowing what to do when I got to town, I started heading back until I saw Lenin again. We stopped at a juice place and talked more calmly, agreeing to keep on going together.
Climbing back to the desert, we encountered a man whose motorcycle was broken. Lenin fixed it for him, and the man invited us to have coffee when we reached his ranch a few kilometers into the desert. We ended up talking to this guy for an hour at his place, which offered hammocks and camping to tourists as well as food. We stayed to have lunch and then biked the rest of the way down the desert road to swim in an oasis, which was really just a swimming pool fed by a natural spring in the middle of the desert.
The desert is pretty small, so we didn’t need more than one day there. We decided to pedal back to Villavieja and try to make it to Neiva as quickly as possible. After finishing dinner in town at 6pm, we pedaled furiously for 40 kilometers to make it there by 8:30pm.