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.
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.
10-14 February 2017
Cabunga was out of town when Lenin and I arrived in Sibundoy, but he gave us directions to get to his family’s house, which was only a few blocks from where the truck had dropped us. Cabunga’s family is indigenous, of the kamsá tribe, and his father is a taita, or tribe leader. When we arrived at the house, his brother and mother greeted us, as well as a golden retriever named Falcón. Benjamin, his brother, was carving a drum out of a tree trunk for the upcoming carnival. He showed us other decorative carvings of animals and faces in various other tree parts. Inside, the house was full of handcrafted indigenous things, including jewelry, musical instruments, bags, and clothing as well as more wood carvings. There were also various animal skins and totumas, a type of gourd or fruit that grows on trees and is used to make bowls and cups.
The next morning, Cabunga arrived and told us about his farm not far from where we were. We decided to check it out, but we couldn’t stay very long because our bikes were in Mocoa, and Will had to move out of his house that day. Cabunga assured us that his brother could go get our bikes and keep them at his house in Mocoa, so we could stay as long as we wanted. After a few phone calls to arrange that, we walked to Cabunga’s farm, about an hour down the road. We stopped along the way to buy a chicken, and then at Cabunga’s relative’s house just across the road to drink chicha. Cabunga let the chicken run around with the existing ones in his neighbor’s yard while we passed around a bowl of this fermented corn drink.
Once at his farm, we helped Cabunga to fix the wiring on his electric fence. Totally underprepared for this experience, Lenin and I only had one change of clothes and inappropriate footwear. Since Lenin had lost his shoe on the road after Fusa, I had also left my shoes behind in Neiva, so all we had aside from bike shoes were my flip flops and a pair of indigenous sandals made from car tire that Lenin had bought for $2.000 pesos in Santander. I borrowed sandals from Cabunga to walk around the grassy fields, but they were too big, and it was very awkward walking. The fields appeared flat and easy to walk through from a distance, but up close they were full of ruts from the cows, and there was lots of mud hiding below the surface. I didn’t make it out of there clean, but it was a good experience.
That night we returned to the neighbor’s across the road to drink more chicha. We sat in a circle, passing around the totuma that someone would refill from a bucket. Every time I thought we were finally done with the stuff, someone would come back with a full bucket. I had no idea where this much chicha was coming from. Somewhere outside, I think. I imagined a huge trough out in the back yard, full of chicha, where someone would dip the bucket in to refill. I’m pretty sure nobody wanted to keep drinking it, but they all felt obligated to keep passing it around and make each other drink. I avoided getting as drunk as everyone else by pretending to drink with everyone, only putting a little bit of chicha in the totuma when it was my turn. Then someone brought out the rum, and things got weird. When it was time to go, Cabunga was passed out peacefully on the floor, and Lenin was in tears, convinced that he had killed him with his mind. Cabunga’s chicken was still in the yard, wandering around and looking for a place to sleep. He kept peeking through the window at us.
The three of us eventually stumbled back to Cabunga’s house, where Lenin and I climbed up a ladder to the second level to sleep in a tent. The house is still a work in progress, so instead of beds there are three tents on the second floor, and Cabunga has a tent inside of his room on the first floor.
Cabunga had to leave the next day to get his family, who was waiting for him in another town, 8 hours away. Before leaving, we helped him to fertilize the grass he was growing and relocate some plants. We had wanted to hike to a thermal spring, but didn’t have enough daylight or energy for that, so we extended our stay on the farm an extra day.
The next morning, we woke up extra early to get a chance to milk the cows, which someone comes to do every morning at 6am. I was anticipating the raw milk to taste very farmy, or the way a cow farm smells when you catch a waft of it in the air while passing on your bicycle. The milk was warm, but otherwise didn’t taste any different from regular store-bought milk. Cabunga didn’t have any refrigeration, so we used what we took to make hot chocolate with breakfast. The rest went with the milker to sell at the market. Cabunga only has two cows that produce milk currently, but each cow yields about 20 liters of milk per day!
After breakfast, Lenin and I borrowed bicycles to get to the base of a mountain, about 7 miles from Cabunga’s farm, where we would hike up to the thermals. Cabunga had instructed us before he left on how to get to the trail, but we still had quite a difficult time finding the thermals. We were supposed to go just past the yellow bridge and ask for Cabunga’s aunt, where we could keep the bikes while we hiked. We passed at least 4 yellow bridges before we actually came to the right one, and by that point we had asked so many people where the trail was, the last person we asked said we could keep our bikes in their yard.
Shortly after entering the hiking trail we passed another couple with a horse. They had never been to the thermals despite living there, but they could give us a detailed description of how to get there, right down to the type of trees we would see before we would have to turn off the main trail. Of course, there were other trails that we kept turning down before we got to the right one, and even then we walked too far along this trail when we were actually supposed to climb back down the other side of the mountain from there.
We ended up walking a long way to where the trail dead ended at a gate to a small house. A few dogs immediately came to bark at us, and Lenin called out to see if anyone was there. A few moments later, a very old indigenous woman emerged, hobbling over slowly through her garden and to the gate. This lady gave us instructions to go back and walk down into the valley, but not as far as the river, and then turn left to get to the thermals. She also warned us that we should have a machete or something to defend against animals like wild boar, tigers and snakes. This lady was so old and so slow, I wondered when was the last time she could have left her house to visit the thermals, or to go into town for that matter. She complained of terrible pain in her legs, worse than the pain of having a baby. We shared some of our bread with her before going back on the trail.
From the point where we turned off this trail, things got a little hairy. We found some sticks, which we sharpened and carried with us in case we had to fight off any wild beasts. The trail was basically non-existent as we descended towards the river, which we couldn’t see, but could hear as we approached. I began wondering if we should just turn back and give up on our mission to find the thermals, but Lenin was determined, and at this point I think we had gone too far to turn around and admit defeat. We eventually came to a grassy clearing, and we found a more distinct trail from there going to the left. This trail grew very steep, and we carefully climbed down to a river. Thinking it was the wrong river because we couldn’t see the steam at first, we kept going closer. Emerging from the jungle and into the sunlit, rocky riverbed, we saw another small stream on the other side that joined up with the stream closest to us just a few meters down. Then we noticed the steam. It was a warm day, so it wasn’t as prominent, but the stream closest to us was incredibly hot. Just past where the two streams converged was a shallow pool that was the temperature of a hot tub, and immediately beyond this pool the river plummeted about 10 meters or so in a hot cascade before continuing along a shallow slope as a narrow, winding river.
Lenin and I hung out in the hot water for about an hour, ate some snacks, and then hiked back to our bikes. The hike down took half the time that it took for us to find the thermals, but the bike ride back to Cabunga’s farm seemed to take longer.
During our stay at the farm, one of the ducks hatched 7 baby ducklings. There was still an unhatched egg in the nest two days later, which the mother had abandoned to take care of her other seven ducks. The last duckling had only half cracked his egg, so we helped him along and out of the egg. The mom didn’t want anything to do with him though, and everyone we asked told us that he would end up dying. We couldn’t let that happen, so we brought him with us back to Mocoa.
The ride from Sibundoy was a lot faster than the ride there, since we took a passenger van back instead of hitching a ride in a sketchy truck. It was still bumpy enough to make me wonder if I was damaging my brain, and the threat of being covered by a landslide was ever looming in the back of my mind. Back in Mocoa, we stayed a night with the person who had taken our bikes from Will’s house and hit the road (with our new duckling passenger) the next morning.
10 February 2017
As Lenin and I were preparing to leave Will’s house in Mocoa, he told us about this place that’s just a bus ride away and has a very nice lake. We got a late start as it was, but Will said we could get there in three hours, eat lunch and maybe swim in the lake before coming back or spending a night.
We left our bikes at Will’s house since we planned to return before he had to clean out his place, and all we brought was a backpack with a few extra layers to keep warm. We were really hungry, so decided to have lunch before leaving. We had set a $30,000 pesos daily budget for ourselves, and the bus to Sibundoy cost $30,000 per person, so we tried to hitchhike first. Eventually, a truck pulled over and told us that we could come for the ride for $15,000 altogether. We accepted.
The road between Mocoa and Sibundoy is known as the most dangerous road in the world. This is mainly because of the high risk of landslides, and the high number of people who have died on the road while driving. Along the road were signs warning of the landslides in every possible way you could describe a landslide, including “piedras caídos”, “zona geológicamente inestable”, “derrumbes”, “deslizamientos” and even “avalanches”, just in case you didn’t understand one of them. There were no other roads to turn off of this narrow winding road that we were on, and no houses or roadside attractions, but the signs for landslides frequently dotted the long road, as if people would be coming onto the road anew and not know about the hazards, or just in case people forgot and started to feel too comfortable. There were several sections where we crossed waterfalls, water falling onto the rocky road from a sheer mountain wall on one side and rapidly passing underneath us to fall off the cliff on the other side of the road.
The truck we were in was traveling with another truck that had two drivers in it, and both trucks were empty in the back. Together, we made three stops in total. One to pick fruit from a tree on the side of the road, the second to light a candle at a Virgin Mary statue on one of the ridges, and a third for coffee and snacks around the midpoint. After the last stop, one of the drivers from the other truck switched spots with our driver so he could rest. Lenin, who was sitting next to him, didn’t notice this switch until we were well into the second half of the ride.
It was dark when the two trucks pulled into the town before Sibundoy to load up with cal, or lime. This agricultural product is used to clean the coca leaves in cocaine production. While loading both trucks, our original driver confessed he had forgotten we were in the other truck. Loading took maybe half an hour, and then our original driver brought us the rest of the way to Sibundoy.
The drive that we thought would only take 3 hours took more than 7 hours, and we learned that the town was still almost an hour short of reaching the lake that Will had told us about. We had contact info for Cabunga, a WarmShowers host in town, so we decided to try to stay with him and see the town in the morning.
21-23 January 2017
When we finally left Bogotá, it took about two hours just to get out of the city limits. Along the way, we passed a neighborhood that was full of pedicabs, and Lenin talked one of the drivers into switching with him for a short distance. The man agreed, and Lenin pedaled his cab, full of passengers, to the next corner while the driver wobbled a bit on Lenin’s loaded bike before catching up to ride alongside the cab.
Once we made it out of the city, we started climbing again, and it felt especially difficult after not having biked very hard the past week. The last 20 or so kilometers were downhill, and only interrupted by one quick stop to fix a flat tire on Churro’s trailer. When we arrived in Fusagasuga, or Fusa, Lenin asked for directions to try to find his friend’s motorcycle shop. However, on the way up one of the main roads, his friend, Hugo, recognized him and called out to us from the place where he was eating lunch with his son, Felipe.
In Fusa, Hugo and Felipe took us on a bike ride up to where they were building a finca. The road was more suitable for mountain bikes, but I managed to make it to the top on my road bike without any trouble until the last few meters down the driveway. I slipped in the mud, recovered, and the next pedal stroke threw my derailleur into the spokes of the rear wheel. The derailleur hanger instantly snapped, so I was forced to rig the bike up as a single speed for the ride down.
On the way down the mountain, we stopped to play a game called teho, which is a lot like cornhole except you throw heavy stones at a clay surface that is rigged with explosives. You get points if you explode one of the explosives, but you get more points if the stone lands in the middle of the ring. The most points you can get is when you explode one of the explosives and then that same stone ends up landing in the middle. I was pretty terrible at the game, but it was still fun. People commonly play this game while drinking beers, often going through entire cases of beer by the end. The team who loses has to pay for everything. By no fault of my own, my team ended up winning, so I did not have to pay.
We ended up staying a day longer than planned in Fusa, spending a considerable amount of time looking for the right derailleur hanger to fix my bike. Ultimately, we decided to leave it single speed until we got to a bigger city and could find the part.
16-21 January 2017
The route from Sopó to Bogotá put us back on the nicely paved road with wide shoulders, and it was predominantly flat the whole way there. We didn’t have very far to go that day (only 50 kilometers), so we were able to leave Sopó late in the afternoon. I think it was actually after 5pm when we left, so most of our ride was in the dark. After only 20 kilometers we crossed into Bogotá, but it was still another 30 kilometers to get to la Candelaria, where we were staying with Lenin’s former coworker. The traffic in Bogotá was horrible, and we were weaving around the gridlocked cars and buses. Bogotá is full of ciclorutas, and we rode a few blocks out of our way to get to one of these, but it ended up being faster to ride on the road with the traffic so we went back. We made it to our destination quickly, with no snack breaks and no problems.
In Bogotá, Lenin and I rested, met up with the French girl who we had met in Villa de Leyva, visited thermals in Choachi, enjoyed the higher quality bakeries in the city (including my friend’s donut shop), and biked to parque Simon Bolívar. We also spent a day walking around, visiting bike shops and talking with the owners.
The first and smallest shop we visited was owned by a man who raced bikes in Europe in the 80’s. He gave us coffee and talked for a long time, telling us about the much larger shop he owned a few years ago before robbers stole almost everything he had. Another shop owner and his son told us about how they started the bike polo scene in Bogotá, where everyone began on whatever bike they had. Over time, its popularity grew and people started buying fixed gear bikes more specific to the sport. The guys at this shop build their own bicycles, and they were very interested when we told them about cyclocross. In general, almost none of the bike shop employees knew what cyclocross was. They all though we were talking about BMX at first, which is called bicicross in Colombia. By the end of the day I was so tired of talking to bike shop people and felt so worn out from exercising my brain in Spanish. All I wanted to do was go home and lie down. Churro was clearly exhausted as well, immediately falling asleep on the floor of every bike shop and begrudgingly waking up to move on to the next. None of the bike shops we visited thus far had any cyclocross bikes, and only one of the employees in one shop knew anything about the sport. But then we passed a shop that was actually called Ciclocross, so we had to go in and ask.
We walked in, and the first employee we spoke to did what everyone else had done, taking us to the BMX bikes. “No, that’s bicicross! Cyclocross is different!”, Lenin proclaimed, like he had in every other shop. This attracted the attention of another employee, who came over and invited us to follow him into a back room, where he showed us a brand new LaPierre cyclocross bike, still in the box. He said they had already sold over 100 of them. It was expensive, and we weren’t planning to buy a bike, but it was interesting to see what the market was like here. The employee told us that there were a handful of people who were into cyclocross in Bogotá, but most people have no clue what it is.
Lenin and I had been thinking to bring the sport to Colombia, envisioning all the places where we could have races, and how it could be a year-round sport here. We received positive feedback from almost everyone we spoke with, and I think Bogotá would be the place to initiate a cyclocross club if it were to succeed here.
15-16 January 2017
Angela and Juan Sebastian are siblings who were only kids when Lenin last paraglided in Sopó, but now they are running one of the biggest paragliding schools around Bogotá. We stayed with them for two nights, and Churro quickly made friends with their dog, Apollo, a beautiful Rhodesian Ridgeback about three times his size.
We spent one full day in Sopó, hiking up to the paragliding school, waiting for wind that never came, and then hiking back down, accompanied by both dogs. On the way down, we opted to take a trail that was closed, but a policeman told us how to get there anyway. The trail was tough, and at one point became very steep and rocky. The dogs had trouble in a few spots, but we managed to coerce them down all of the tough areas until one part that involved a vertical drop of maybe six feet from a rock. I climbed down first, and Lenin was able to pass Churro to me, whom I safely transferred to the ground, but Apollo was too big to carry and wanted no part of it. He started running back up the mountain. Churro and I waited patiently for what seemed like over an hour while Lenin chased after Apollo. Apollo was very intent on not being forced down the trail, and he actually hid from Lenin in the bushes, holding his breath so that Lenin couldn’t find him. Lenin eventually succeeded in capturing Apollo, dragging him down towards me with his leash. Before he could make it to the difficult section, Apollo made another attempt to escape, this time breaking his leash, rendering it useless.
We had been hiking down for over an hour on this trail, having already traversed several tricky spots for the dogs, and to go back up to the road that we had walked up on would take a few more hours. We didn’t have enough daylight for that, and we were almost back down. We were starving, thirst, dizzy, and frustrated with the stubborn dog. It seemed ridiculous to climb back up the mountain only to go down again a different way, but both Lenin and I were considering that that might be our only option. Lenin went back up to look for Apollo, but he had no way of pulling him down so asked me to get Churro’s leash. Churro was napping with our backpack in a shady spot a bit further down the trail, so I went down to fetch his leash. On my way down, I heard some rustling in the bushes not far from the trail. There was an animal making its way through the vegetation towards me, but I couldn’t see what it was. Lenin was still high above us, trying to figure out where Apollo had gone, when suddenly out he came from the brush just below me and Churro on the trail! Lenin was moved by Apollo’s intelligence, remarking on how smart he was for the rest of our time in Sopó.
The next day we borrowed Juan Sebastian’s motorcycle to get to Guatavita, a small town just across the lake on the other side of the mountain. This was Churro’s first experience riding a motorcycle, and he seemed to enjoy the wind on his face as he scrambled to get a better position between me and Lenin, resting his head on Lenin’s shoulder. I enjoyed watching him, with his jowls flapping in the breeze, though his nose was running, and mucous was flying back onto my arm.
From Guatavita we went up another mountain to get to the Laguna de Guatavita, where the legend of El Dorado originated. In this laguna, the indigenous leaders would go with all their offerings to the gods, filling a boat with gold, paddling to the middle of the deep lake, and dropping all the gold into the water. We should have done more research before going though, because the laguna was closed when we arrived. It would have been about an hour’s hike to the lake each way, and we still had to bike to Bogotá that afternoon, so perhaps it’s better that we didn’t go. Instead, we went back to Guatavita for lunch and back to the house in Sopó to pack our bicycles and leave.
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.
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.
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.