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.
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.