Friday 21 March 2008

Bogota to Popayan

Left Bogota under a cloud, a very dark threatening one, as it´s been raining most afternoons. This weather pattern (an early rainy season, or El Niño) has swamped Peru, Bolivia & Colombia in the last month. And there was more to come...with landslides and all.....
But it was a perfect day to ride out of the city as many streets (100kms)were closed to traffic- just cyclists and pedestrians. This happens every Sunday morning (and on public holidays) from 7am -2pm. Quito and Mexico City have also adopted this idea recently. It works well here because of the large urban population and the popularity of cycling.

Bogota Ciclovia

Candelaria, the central historical area of Bogota attracts a lot of colourful characters, like these two Kogui men, visitors from the Tayrona region of Santa Marta.

And plenty of cultural events on the weekends. Street performers from a youth theatre group.

It was a long winding descent from the cool Bogota sabaña (2600m) to Girardot in the hot Magdalena valley (400m). I rode through a deep gorge, passing El Nariz de Diablo (the Devil´s Nose) a massive overhanging rock. After all the rain it was dripping snot from its mossy nostrils.

In the Magdalena valley I passed a lot of roadside restaurants, selling lechona. Is this dressed pork or just another disgruntled pig?

The next day I had long day riding down the highway through Tolima department. Lots of open and friendly people here in the south, quite different from the more taciturn folk in the Eastern cordillera. The sealed road wasn´t too busy, but a bit boring so, on a drizzling morning, I took a turn down a dirt road to the Rio Magdalena. No bridge, but a motorised canoe to ferry my bike across the languid muddy river.

Along a rocky, bumpy road through a dry eerie landscape of tall cacti and hungry vultures, straight out of a spaghetti Western. In this mesa desert scenery, the rain evaporated and I couldn´t help bursting into song..
I´ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain

After a nice cheap lunch in Villavieja it was back on the nameless neddy to visit the famous Tatacoa Desert. It´s a small area of eroded red soil, capped with mesa and punctuated with cacti. Prolific birdlife in this micro-desert - wrens, parakeets & tanagers.

The ride from Villavieja to Neiva in the late afternoon light was splendid. Undulating, paved road through green mesa landscape, sliced by cool streams. Along the way, jumped into a river with the locals to cool down. A night in Neiva, a pleasant provincial city (the capital of Huila department) and back onto the highway at 6am, with rain falling. Delightful scenery and a few small hills to Tesalia. Just outside this town the heavens opened up and drenched me.
And when it rains... it pours. As I changed gears to climb up a very steep hill the cable from the Rohloff unravelled. Found the remains of a the cable nipple in the housing. Wet, bedraggled and anxious about the bike, I limped along with a busted nipple with my gear off (not a pretty sight!). No bike shop in Tesalia to cut a replacement cable, so next morning rode 30kms (mountainous terain, still maually changing gears) to La Plata where I found this very helpful and generous shop owner. Worked on the bike in his workshop and repaired the gearing. But as I was tensioning the chain, a lug under bottom bracket sheared clean away from the frame. The lads in the bike shop were very cool about it...took me to the local welder down the road. He brazed it back on (a lovely brass weld) for 2000 pesos ($A1.20)! Now painted jet black. So ended a few very anxious moments for me and machine. At least I´m more familiar with the Rohloff mechanism now.

Back on a rough dirt road as I left La Plata for San Andres de Pisimbala. This is the famous indigenous church with a thatched roof in the village. It´s a tranquil little spot - friendly and carefree atmosphere. Great litle hospedaje (guesthouse) called Los Lagos, run by German and his wife Blanca.

The area is known as Tierradentro(´within the earth´) so named by the early Spanish settlers because they may have felt swallowed up by the earth. An early civilization here built a remarkable network of subterranean tombs and the hillsides of the picturesque valley are dotted with these underground mausoleums.
El Aguacate ´The Avocado´- entrances to unexcavated tombs on the top of a hill.

The decorated interior of a tomb. Red, black and white were the primary colours used, signifying blood, death & life and depicting geometric patterns, human masked figures and animal motifs. Lots of urns and ceremonial vases were left in the tombs.

Some beautiful bamboo forests in the small creeks of the valley.

The rest day in Tierradentro was a rest from the bike but I spent the day clambering up and down the valley slopes visiting the burial sites. Next day was a hard climb from 1600to 3000m on a steep, stony road, but the landscape soothed the pain. The hillsides surrounding the valley around Inza, cloaked in morning mist.

Heavy overnight rain had caused some landslides on the steep hillsides and I had to cross muddy patches and swollen streams. Here I am pushing the bike underneath a massive landslide.

Mud & Shimano don´t mix

As the road climbed higher into the high montane cloud forest (2500-3000m) the colours of the birds and flowers were intense. Hummingbirds flitting and hovering from the flowers like hyperactive darts. Some of the beautiful and unusual flora of the forest.

The mosses clinging and dripping from the roadbanks were extraordinary displays of soft hues and textures.

Waterfall and cascading moss

On the way to the pass I was greeted by the friendly local indigenous people, the Paez. Two Paez brothers on their ´mountain bikes´. The one on the right, Sebastian was a strong little rider and climbed with me for 6kms on the rocky muddy road.

In the middle of nowhere I came across a restaurant which served smoked trout from the Rio Sucio (`dirty river´) but the fish was superb. The only other customers were 3soldiers. This a dangerous stretch of road, with 2 large military camps just below the paramo (above 3000m). They advised me to camp near houses so further up the road I found a farmhouse to pitch my tent nearby. From my camp (3100m), looking east, the view at dusk of the verdant-cloaked central cordillera.

Popayan street scene - more text to come

I arrived in Popayan after a delightful paved descent from the paramo (3360-1760m)with long sweeping curves and litle traffic. I met up with a group of 5 cycling ´oldies´ (45-72 years) in lycra gear out for a day´s ride. A jovial lot who helped me find the Castrillon family, a contact from a Colombian, Alejandro, living in Hobart. I have been staying at his mother´s (Laura) house on the outskirts of Popayan. Easter is a very busy holiday season and the Castrillon clan have converged on the town for the famous Semana Santa. Many of the extended family live here in Popayan. Laura is a very hospitable and charming host and there´s a constant flow of visitors to the house, most of whom speak very good English. It´s been a pleasant time here, resting and talking with Laura, Dario, Juanita, Christina, Christobal & others.

Holy Thursday - Procession of the pasos through the streets of Popayan, the most famous Easter procession in the Americas. It´s a solemn and far too ceremonial for me. I prefer the chaotic and more spontaneous indigenous festivals.

In the highlands NE of Popayan are a proud indigenous group called the Guambianos, similar to their Ecuadorian cousins, the Otavalons. A Guambiano couple shopping at the supermarket in Popayan.

Guambiano musicians in the main plaza of Popayan

1 comment: said...

Loving these stories Pete, so pleased to hear you've had some time with a family as well as the solo work.... what an amazing country!