We returned to Quito after our six days on the boat around the Galapagos Islands, still feeling a bit sea-leggy and wobbly! We thought it best to stay put on solid ground for a day or so, before venturing out on the bikes where wobbly riding could lead us into a pickle. A few days ‘seeing the sights’ saw us through most of the historic centre of Quito, with its colonial plaza, numerous lofty church interiors, Galapagos-style stone gargoyles, and a fair share of quaint cobbled streets.
A morning of churches and grand colonial buildings meant we were ready for an afternoon spent more leisurely strolling through the more rustic cobbled streets, sipping coffees and chatting to the locals! For dinner we found a beautiful courtyard restaurant which served Ceviche… excellent! – one of our favourite dishes of South America, and one that is getting more difficult to find the further north we go. Ceviche is a Chilean and Peruvian costal speciality. The two countries serve it slightly differently, but essentially it is raw white fish or seafood, ‘cooked’ by soaking it in lemon juice with onions, and sometimes tomatoes too. Not being a fish lover, Chloe’s first reaction wasn’t brilliant. But now she can’t get enough of the stuff! (Although she only has the white fish version – she hasn’t yet come round to sea food!).
Before leaving Quito, a spot of work was also required on the bikes. While we had been at the Galapagos Islands, Pete had kindly been tinkering away on the bikes for us, keeping himself occupied while we gallivanted on a boat at sea. So when we got back there wasn’t much more to do, except get Chloe’s new battery charged and then fitted, plus a puncture (first!) on the Dakar. After helping with the maintenance work, Pete and Caf headed off for the west coast of Ecuador and we prepared ourselves for the push north to the equator and then the border!
Before making it to the border however, we just had to stop off at Otavalo with its huge and amazing markets. Renowned throughout Ecuador, the Saturday market floods the Plaza de Ponchos and half a dozen streets back on all four sides, making it a tourist heaven and a sure way of getting a sale for the vendors! A few rugs and blankets later, we were done. Trying to furnish our yet-un-known future house can be pretty difficult, so it’s easier just to buy everything you think you may possibly need for an unlimited number of rooms!
Leaving Otavalo, we swung by a picturesque volcanic crater-lake, filled over thousands of years from the surrounding volcanic peaks – the water is perfectly blue from a distance, and perfectly clear close up, on the banks. From there we made a dash for the Colombian border, past the last of Ecuador’s volcanoes and through the last of the little quaint towns…. So, this is it… leaving the middle of the world, we would be truly back into the northern hemisphere and ever nearer to our final destination. Colombia would be our last stand in South America…. Bring it on!
So. Colombia. Not the best start we would have to admit…. But that probably had something to do with ending up getting lost in the first big town we came to and driving around until after dark trying to find somewhere to stay. Then secondly, finding the only restaurant in said town was an ‘American-style dinner’ who thought that serving chicken fajitas without any tortillas was normal. How they expect anyone to make a fajita without a tortilla was beyond us.
Next morning got off to an equally bad start when we spend a good hour traipsing around to buy insurance for the bikes, then trying to find a road map. How is anyone supposed to get around without a goddamn road map…? After a poor substitute for a road map was bought, we packed up ready to leave, but were then thwarted again after being advised we definitely shouldn’t take the road we had planned because it was too dangerous, but to just stick to the main Pan American drag. …. Oh….
As it turned out, the Pan American wasn’t what we had imagined, (we imagined big dual carriageway crashing through the landscape in a straight line!), but was in fact, very pleasant. The fairly quiet, single carriageway, wound its way first through dry arid land where we could imagine tumbleweed blowing across the road, then up to the more green and lush hillsides towards the pretty colonial town of Popayan.
Okay, so we were warming to Colombia after our not so brilliant start. In fact, as far as beauty goes, Colombia is stunning. Green rolling hills with a multitude of bright colourful flowers fill your foreground while mountains rise and fall in valleys in the distance giving a spectacular array of layers and colours. And the Colombian people are also extremely friendly too, although quite frankly, we can’t understand a word they say to us because their accent is so different from what we’re used to! Hey ho!
Leaving Popayan, we made our way across country, off the Pan American highway, to find some ancient treasures in form of big carved stones and tombs at San Agustin. After a very pretty, and pretty taxing (due to road works) journey across, we found an amazing little place to stay – an organic farmstead with little cabins in the picturesque garden, set on a hill looking over the stunning countryside. And one of the cabins was a tipi which Chris just couldn’t resist! So we stayed in a tipi for three nights, sharing the tranquillity and some beers with a brilliant Belgian couple, Martin and Sophie, and little 18month year old Ramon in tow. These guys have realised backpacking with a baby is a little taxing, and have decided to cut their trip short from three months, to just over two months…. Two months with a baby! Bloomin ‘ek, two weeks would be enough for most people…. amazing…!
The big stones that we were there to see were indeed, pretty large. Carved as a mixture of man and beast, these guardians protected the tombs of the dead, buried within burial mounds. These burial mounds are for ‘secondary burials’, where bones of the decomposed body were put into urns and then re-buried in the mound. The thought being that bones are the solid substance of the body, and the only thing left after everything else is rotted away, so it is these bones that are then ‘sent on to the afterlife’. It is assumed that these statues were carved to protect the tombs which held the precious bones, plus all their riches and belongings, allowing a save passage into the afterlife.
The debate about whether it is better to be cremated or buried then reached a whole new level when a second burial was brought into the equation… ooohh, two burials, now that sounds interesting…. At least your bones would be nice and clean….! Not sure our families would be too chuffed about having us hanging around the house for a couple of years while our bodies decomposed though, do you…? If you’re important enough, your dead body would even get taken out and about, to dinner and visiting other dead relatives … hmmmm, perhaps not!
A quick respite down at the river, before some more remote tomb hunting ….. luckily we were on the bikes, making the second set of tombs we visited off into the woods, down dirt and mud tracks, a little easier to get to than if we were on foot! Although Chloe did manage to drop her bike in the mud, so perhaps it would have actually been easier for her to walk!
After the hike up the hill to see the statues, a welcome glass of fresh orange juice was waiting for us at the little house at the bottom, and the children had ensured our bikes were safe by playing on them the entire time so no-one else would get a look in even if they wanted to!
Leaving the pretty surroundings of San Agustin and our tipi, we made our way across country again to San Andres de Pisimbala where even more tombs awaited us. The road, would take us up and around in a loop and, eventually, back to the Pan American highway after we had visited San Andres. After a good ride on rough but beautiful road we were stopped by the first military team we had seen since we left the main road. Only half an hour away from San Andres de Pisimbala, we were bombarded by half a dozen soldiers, and ordered by the big man in charge that we had to turn back…. What?! No way! Apparently right there, where we were, and the road ahead was “muy muy peligroso, porque hay teroristas…”. Using the term terrorist because we are obviously westerners and so are clearly familiar with that term. He then shoved a bit of paper in our hand with a ‘WANTED’ declaration, description and photograph of said terrorist. AKA a FARC Rebel. It may seem like we were taking this in our stride, but believe me, our trying-to-act-cool act was slowing deteriorating! Apparently it would be our bikes that would attract attention, being ideal targets for either total robbery including bikes, or robbery and kidnap. So, we were faced with either, a) ignoring the advice of the army and carrying on anyway, after all it’s only another 15 miles, or b) turning back and re-tracing our steps back to the Pan American which was two days of riding, back through San Agustin and back to Popayan…. Nightmare!
After careful thought and questioning of all the other officers, we came to the considered conclusion that although there would be a risk in carrying on, it’s probably no more of a risk than we had already put ourselves through coming this far. And the way back to the Pan American is a lot further than the way forward. So we opted for option a) ignoring the advice of the army and carrying on anyway, after all it’s only another 15 miles…. So, with sweaty palms and racing hearts, we thought the best tactic would be to speed as fast as we could to get it over as quickly as possible, and also, hopefully, being too quick for any rebel who would jump out of the bushes at us anyway… sensible, no?!
Half an hour later we arrived at San Andres de Pisimbala, and had never been so happy to arrive somewhere as we were then! The road had been really rough and our poor bikes had been thoroughly beaten up, but at least they got us there safely! Strangely, we found ourselves riding through the village and straight to the church where we stopped to let out our breath and thank God we were still alive!…. Okay, from now on, we are DEFINITELY sticking to the Pan American…
And of course, the tombs of Tierradentro…. These ones are also secondary tombs for urns filled with bones, but these have been carved out of the rock underground…. Amazing! They are all carved down in the rock, but the situations are all on top of the hills surrounding the valley of Tierradentro. Plus, there are a few more statues – not guarding tombs this time, just chilling out on the hillside on their own, (but now under a little roof!).
After seeing a few more tombs and being very thankful we weren’t in one ourselves, we thought it best to get back to civilization and the main road… We had a nice, but still slightly nerve-wracking, ride the next morning which took us again through beautiful green countryside, only tainted by the underlying uneasiness that we both felt after our scare by Mr Military-Man.
Safely back on the Pan American highway we settled in for a hearty lunch of roast chicken while deciding which route to take onwards. We decided on a slight detour off the Pan American, but running parallel, to avoid the big city of Cali. Just to be sure, after our earlier scare, we checked with the locals on the safety of this route…. Much to our surprise, though it really shouldn’t have been, we were told that our chosen route was dangerous and we should avoid it, not because of the FARC rebels this time, but because it was just plain dodgy and we could get robbed… Great!
Coming up to Cali we took the ring road around the city, still begrudging the fact that we couldn’t veer away from the main roads… 15 minutes on the ring road, it became apparent we weren’t on the ring road at all, but were in fact on the road that we were specifically trying to avoid…. Oh sh*t…. not again…! The throttles were pulled on hard and heads went down. Luckily this road, unlike the other one, was pretty heavily trafficked with lorries and other cars, so we did feel a little safer, but not exactly safe. Arriving in the town where we had aimed for to stop for the night, we were greeted by more warnings about the safety of the town. We shouldn’t go down that street, or that one… in fact, don’t go beyond the plaza on any side…. What…?!
Abandoning the idea of trying to find a hostel within spitting distance from the plaza, in the rain, we opted to head back out of town to one of the motels we’d seen on the way in. At least there, we could park, sleep and eat without having to go out of the building! We checked into one of the motels which oddly only charged in 3 or 8 hours, so we had to double their eight hours to be able to stay the full night… but it did have individual cabins, each with their own garage – Excellent! Everything will be safe here!…. and safe it definitely was, because as soon as we got ourselves into the garage the guy locked the garage door from the outside and left us there.
One door led into the bedroom, and the same door led out of the bedroom back into the garage. There was no other way out! It was a nice bedroom, granted… huge bed with crisp white sheets, a modern leatherette sofa, large painting , (of naked woman), large TV, large mirror with etched image down one side, (of naked woman)…. There seems to be a theme here… condoms on the bedside table. Hmmm. Okay, well, at least we’re safe. Chloe jumped in the shower first while Chris tried out the TV channels…. Okay, nothing on the TV except for porn… Ahhh. … Needing food, we were told that yes, there was a ‘restaurant’, but what they really meant was, ‘yes there is a kitchen and we deliver to your room only, serving you through the hatch in the wall so we can’t see what you’re getting up to…’ This was becoming odder by the minute. So we ordered a couple of beers and some food from the room service menu / hatch. It arrived about 20 minutes later in the large metal box attached to the outside of our wall. This is so weird! By 11pm we were tucking ourselves in to the very nice bed when it occurred to us that there was only one very thin sheet…. No blankets, (which is normal in every other hotel we’ve stayed in)… then we realised, these beds are not actually meant to be slept in!!! Lights out, trying to get to sleep with noises of cars and other cabins being opened up and closed throughout the night did not make for a restful night, no matter how comfortable the beds were! The fact that no one had taken our name or asked us to ‘check in’ made us realise that we were completely anonymous….. no one knows we are here!! Chloe started to have a panic attack about drug barons and kidnapping… again, not inductive to a good night’s sleep.
Next morning, to top things off we took delivery of our invoice and paid in cash (only!) through the little hole before they would let us out!!! What kind of a place is this…?!!!!!!!
So back on the road, reeling from our frankly odd night, we made two resolutions. Firstly, not to ride of the main roads again. Secondly, take note of hotel signage before checking in… if it has motifs of hearts on it, don’t go in!!
A lovely stop in Salento for lunch was just what we needed. A gorgeous, brightly coloured, quaint colonial village perched on top of a hill overlooking a lush green valley helped us forget all our troubled thoughts of seedy hotel rooms, kidnapping and robbery.
Leaving Salento, we dropped back down into the valley, the sides of the roads dripping with green, interspersed with brightly coloured flowers poking through to capture a bit of light. Here, a rare type of palm tree thrives, standing even taller and straighter than most of the other tall-straight palm trees. Up the other side of the valley and heading north, the green lushness continued…. This is the coffee growing region of Colombia. On the west slopes of the sierra, the perfect combination of rain and sun means this is the best place in the whole of South America for growing coffee… mmmm coffee anyone?
Manizales is the capital of the coffee growing region, but in an attempt to avoid big cities, we circled down below Manizales and stayed in Villa Maria. From here, we looked out over the river to the city beyond, perched on top of a foothill with mountains beyond.
A bit more riding through coffee plantations the next morning, then we were up and over the mountains heading eastwards to Bogota. Feeling frustrated and cross after a minor argument about the merits of taking landscape photographs, Chloe showed the unfortunate policemen who pulled us over (for a routine check), the raw end of her nerve. Although when Chris was breathalysed after they saw a bottle of beer in his pannier this served to cheer her up a bit, …. Oh yes, Rule No. 124 of travelling abroad: always be friendly and nice to policemen otherwise they could make like very difficult for you… luckily these policemen didn’t take offence, and finding nothing to fault us for other than Chloe’s gruffness, and Chris’s unopened bottle of beer, they had to let us pass on by.
Up and over the cloudy, cold and wet mountains, we remembered what is was to be in the cloud forest…. Wet and damp. Yes, that’s it… Come back the sun! While praying for sun and warmth, and also praying to get past the millions of lorries blocking our path, we were edging closer and closer to Colombia’s capital city Bogota. Unfortunately, after all the lorries slowing us down on the winding roads, we found ourselves fighting through rush hour traffic at 5.30pm… what a nightmare… it was only one straight road into the centre, but the anxiety and stress of the three-lane medley (i.e. No one actually being in a lane – the road is wide enough for three lanes but everyone goes where they want), was enough to make it seem like we were in a labyrinth, fighting to get out!
So, one more big city and the last capital city the we’ll be seeing in South America … Role on Bogota!
Broke side stand (again!) Chloe 1 v 0 Chris
Holes in clothing stitched up Chloe 9 v 4 Chris
New items of clothing bought Chloe 3 v 1 Chris
Finger prints taken Chloe 1 v 0 Chris
Made hotel receptionist cry Chloe 0 v 1 Chris