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.
Tunja to Sopó
14 January 2017
The ride out of Tunja was tough at first, climbing up and over the mountains. Juan Manuel had warned us that the first half of the ride would be rolling hills after a long 7km climb out of town. Lenin and I were tired, and Churro was heavy, but I felt there was too much traffic for him to be running at the beginning, and we had a long ride ahead of us still.
We let Churro run when the hills are more difficult to climb, but since he’s still a puppy and his bones are still growing we are trying not to let him run too much. Over the past few days, I think Churro has come to appreciate his ride and all the extra work that Lenin and I are doing to pull him along. He is usually restless in the morning, so when there’s not much traffic and we are going slowly up a hill, he runs. And he is usually very good about staying on the right side of the road, keeping our bikes between him and the travel lane. Only when we encounter other animals do we need to worry about him, because then his fear of the other dog or cow or goat on the grass makes him forget that there are cars on the pavement. We quickly learned to corral him into his trailer when we see an animal ahead, and he has quickly learned to feel comfortable going into the trailer when we ask him. It has become his safe zone, where he feels untouchable to the other animals.
Lenin wanted Churro to run as we left Tunja, but I thought he should be in the trailer until we got further outside of town. We had been switching bikes every 10 kilometers to share the duty of pulling the trailer, but since Lenin was pulling the trailer at the time, he felt that I wasn’t considering him when I asked for Churro to take a ride. We argued about this until Lenin agreed to put Churro in his trailer, and then we rode separately without speaking to one another for the next 20 kilometers. The down side to traveling with someone for so long is the arguments that get blown out of proportion over stupid disagreements. The benefit to traveling by bicycle is that pedaling helps to burn off anger, and it’s hard to stay angry when you’re outside, on a bicycle, exploring a beautiful country.
We eventually stopped and calmed down at a park commemorating the battle where Simon Bolivar won independence for Colombia from Spain. The road between Tunja and Bogotá is nicely paved, with wide shoulders and very little debris or bumps, making for an enjoyable ride. We made several stops for snacks, and while sharing some treats on the side of the road, Lenin found someone’s wallet complete with their personal documents. He packed that into the trailer to try to contact the person when we had internet access.
We had to pedal over 100 kilometers just to get to the road to Sopó, and it was dark when we reached it. We made one last stop for food at that junction, and then rode the last 5 kilometers into Sopó, which is a playground for rich people who live and work in Bogotá. It is also the home of Alpina, one of the two major dairy manufacturers in Colombia. Lenin used to come here every weekend to go paragliding, and we had a place to stay with his friends who owned one of the paragliding companies.
Tunja and Villa de Leyva
9-13 January 2017
We stayed several days in Tunja. The first day, after lunch, we drove up to Edna’a uncle’s finca in Combita, where the family there was making pizza. The climate here is on the cold side, and rainy, so after dinner we all went into the sauna and played Cranium while drinking beer.
On the second day, Lenin called Juan Manuel, and he took us on a bicycle tour of Tunja, which basically consisted of pointing out all of the nine churches in the city. He knew people on every street, and Lenin started calling him “Alcalde”, or mayor. Before going to his mom’s house for coffee and sandwiches, Juan Manuel took us to Nairo Quintana’s apartment building. He lives in Tunja, and is very receptive to visitors. However, when we asked the security guard if we could meet him, he told us that Nairo was in Bogotá for a social event.
We made plans to meet again the next morning to ride to Villa de Leyva, the second most touristy city in Colombia after Cartagena. The first ten kilometers was up, but the rest of the ride was downhill or flat, and the climate grew much warmer and drier in a short distance. We arrived before noon in the small town, where the main square and streets were made up of old cobblestones. This region is rich in paleontology and archaeological findings, including prehistoric fossils and indigenous ruins, and there are many museums, restaurants, shops and cafes in a relatively small area. Juan Manuel had to work that day, so he took a bus back to Tunja. Lenin and I ate lunch and walked around the town. Down one of the streets off the main square, I found the best gelato I’ve had since arriving in Colombia. Good ice cream is increibly hard to find, although there are many ice cream shops. Nearly all of them offer the same two brands of mediocre quality ice cream. Needless to say, the gelato in Villa de Leyva made me very happy.
We ended up finding a host on WarmShowers at the last minute, where we stayed two nights. There were two other travelers staying there, and we all shared a room. One girl was from France, but living in Bogotá, and the other was from Bogotá. The next day we all walked to the paleontology museum, but it was closed, so we ended up hiking up a nearby mountain instead. The family hosting us was incredibly generous with their space, as every room in the house contained multiple beds, including the kitchen, and it was unclear how many people actually lived there, or whether people had their own bed or just slept in whichever one was vacant at the time. We shared dinner and breakfast with everyone, with the girls from Bogotá cooking dinner and Lenin and I cooking breakfast. Churro made friends with their dog, Dakota, and he did not want to leave when it was time for us to go. We rode back to Tunja the second morning for one more night at Edna’s house before continuing south.
Moniquira to Tunja
8 January 2017
On the way out of Moniquira, we slowly made our way uphill for about an hour before we came across the finca that the tourist policeman had recommend to us the night before. We only had to go about 65 km to get to our friend’s house in Tunja, but there was a lot of climbing, and Churro in his trailer slowed us down considerably.
We finally started to descend a steep mountain when it began raining. The rain was cold and hard, and the on the way down we passed a magnificent waterfall. Shortly after this, and the only place for miles where one could pull over, was a house that happened to have an amazing view of the cascade. Lenin and I were not the only ones stopping here, as there was another couple on a motorcycle who had also come in to stay dry. The family inside seemed accustomed to frequent visitors, and they made coffee for all of us while Lenin and I changed into dry clothes. Lenin asked them why they don’t have a restaurant or some business there, with the perfect view of the waterfall, but the woman answered that there are too many thieves from Bogotá on the road. After waiting for about an hour, the rain let up enough for us to venture back outside. We continued on to a small town called Arcabuco, where we stopped for lunch. We got inside just a moment before the rain recommenced, this time for longer and harder than the first time.
The rest of the ride to Tunja was uneventful, until we reached Combita, just 15 kilometers from our destination. The home where Nairo Quintana grew up is on our route, and it has become somewhat of a shrine to the superstar athlete. Nairo’s parents run a small tienda out of the house, selling mugs, shirts, souvenirs, coffee and other snacks. I had been anticipating arriving at this place all day, and it seemed to take forever to get there. The road was hilly, and weather was pretty horrible for cycling, and nobody seemed to know anything about distances or how long it would take to bike somewhere. Seriously, every time we asked someone how far the house was, they severely underestimated either the distance or the time it would take. Anyway, it was dark by the time we arrived at Nairo’s house in Combita, and all I wanted to do was rest inside and recharge. We had already wasted a lot of time waiting for rain to stop, and Lenin wanted to get on the road quickly to get to Tunja.
After a quick tinto (black coffee) and brief conversation with Nairo’s mom, we got back on our bikes. It was dark and cold, and from there it was all downhill, so we were going fast with not much pedaling, making me even colder. My front light died almost instantly, so I couldn’t see the cracks in the road. Within the first few kilometers after leaving Nairo’s house, I got a flat tire. I felt like giving up and hitchhiking right then, but we sat on the side of the road in the dark, fixing the flat with frozen fingers. From there, the descent was steeper and the pavement grittier and less consistent.
When we arrived in Tunja, Edna was still driving back home from out of town, so we sat at a cafe to pass the time. Two guys came up to us and bought us coffee, actually! They had seen us in Moniquira that morning and wanted to talk to us about our trip. One of them, Juan Manuel, was an enthusiastic cyclist who wanted to show us around the city, so he and Lenin exchanged phone numbers. When we finally met Edna and walked to her house, it was a relief to have a nice place to rest for a few days.
La Paz to Moniquira
7 January 2017
We left La Paz after breakfast, cycling a grueling distance on a hilly, unpaved carretera before arriving in Velez for lunch. From there, it was almost all downhill on pavement to Barbosa. In between Velez and Barbosa we were passing many signs for bocadillos, a paste made from the guava fruit. We were in the region where bocadillos come from, so we stopped at one of the places where they were making them. The man outside was in the middle of painting the building, but he went in and emerged with a fresh package of bocadillo, which he gave us for free.
Shortly after this, the shifter cable on the bike Lenin was riding snapped, and he was forced to ride in the hardest gear. We were climbing uphill at the time, so we stopped and sat on the side of the road, eating bocadillo while trying to see if we could fix the shifter. Sitting down again in surrender, it began to rain. Fortunately, we only had to walk a short distance to the top of the hill before we could coast down all the way to Barbosa and find a bike shop.
It was Sunday afternoon of a holiday weekend in Colombia, but we eventually found a bike shop that was open and able to replace the shifter cable. I was amazed at how inexpensive it was, and I bought new brake pads to hang onto for when the existing ones inevitably wear out. One guy at the shop told us that we had just missed Nairo Quintana, world champion Colombian cyclist, who was in town for a mountain bike race. A girl at the shop was very excited to meet someone to try to practice her English, and she asked me to talk in her Snapchat video before leaving.
When we finally got back on the road, we only had a short distance to travel to the next town, Moniquira, in the department of Boyocá. It got dark as we rolled into town, and it started to rain. I wanted to seek shelter from the increasingly heavy rain before my shoes got too wet, so we pulled aside and under the cover of a fruit market. The fruit man gave us some mandarins, and we sat and talked with him and his family for over an hour, trying to decide where to sleep, waiting out the rain, and hoping that maybe one of them would offer us a place to spend the night. The problem was that it was a holiday, and that town specifically had a special celebration that night where everyone sprays foam at each other. People were in town from all over, visiting family, taking up all the space that would normally be vacant. The rain wasn’t letting up, so we ventured out to ride across town to a church to ask if we could stay there.
We arrived, cold and wet, to the church, where we asked a boy if we could speak with the priest. The boy came back several minutes later, saying the priest was busy. His family was in town so we couldn’t stay there, but he gave us directions to another church in town, where we would meet the head of tourist police. The other church was only two blocks from the market where we had been passing time earlier. We waited for over an hour under an awning in the doorway of this church before Lenin finally found the tourist policeman. Every place in town was booked solid for the holiday, except for this one finca that the policeman estimated to be about ten minutes out of town by bicycle. Instead, Lenin talked him into letting us sleep inside a community building around the corner, which the policeman thought was too dirty. He obligingly unlocked the building for us, and we made ourselves comfortable on the floor of an empty room for the night.
Spontaneous initiation to an indefinite bike tour around Colombia
6 January 2017
Our decision to leave Medellín was very last minute, based on the fact that Lenin’s brother, Seled, was driving to get his family in La Paz, Santander, and he had just enough space in his car for me, Lenin, Churro, and our bikes. We folded down a back seat in his hatchback and stuffed in our bicycles, along with the trailer and all of our belongings, and joined Seled for the 8-9 hour drive. Within the first two hours we discovered that Churro gets car sick. While sitting on Lenin’s lap in the front passenger seat, he started to vomit. There wasn’t quite enough time to pull over, so he puked out the window, plastering the side of the car with half-digested dog food.
It was very late when we arrived in La Paz, so we stayed in a hotel that night. The next morning, we took Churro on a test ride in the trailer from the town to one of Seled’s in-law’s houses, about 10 kilometers away. He hated it, and we had to zip the screen on to keep him from jumping out.
From the house, we got into the back of a pickup truck with Seled and his family and rode up to a giant hole in the ground, about 80 meters in diameter and 300 meters deep. Instead of riding back with the rest of the family, Lenin and I took Churro on a hike from the hole to where we were supposed to find a clear blue swimming hole. After a nice long hike in the wrong direction and back, we eventually made it to a river with a waterfall, but it got too difficult to walk along the river, and it was growing dark, so we turned back before we made it to the swimming hole. It was a long walk back into town, and we took turns carrying Churro the last few kilometers. Hopefully, he would still be worn out enough to relax in his trailer the next day.