Friday 29 February 2008

From the Caribbean to the Andes

I had planned to start the cycle ride from Punta Gallinas, the northernmost point of the continent but, due to lack of time and logistic problems, I decided to begin from Santa Marta. As it´s the oldest town in Colombia and situated at 11 degrees 15´ North, it seemed a good place as any to embark on the journey south.
Here is my bike loaded up on the seafront at Santa Marta at 6am on Day 1. Beyond is the steely blue Caribbean Sea.

On the first day heading south I stopped at Aracataca, the birthplace of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the inspiration for the fictional town of Macondo. His portrait graces the walls of the local billiard hall.

The Highway to Hell
After a while the highway up the Magdalena river became the worst road I´d ever ridden on - the Highway to Hell. A straight flat boring paved road with columns of long semi-trailers and speeding buses and a scorching tropical sun without shade. I perservered for so long until I was pushed off the road twice by overtaking trucks. I was listening to my MP3 player to drown out the din from constant traffic and one ominous song put the shivers up me- Thom Yorke´s ´Black Swan´

People get crushed like biscuit crumbs and lay down in the bitumen.

As I didn´t want to end up as Arnotts Shredded Petemeal, I accepted a lift from a truck-driver who took me 200kms down the road to the foothills of the Andes. I was cheating a bit but more like cheating death.
Arrived late in the evening in Bucaramanga the following day and got lost in the dark alleyways with rain pissing down. At least it was cool at 1000m ASL.

The next 3 days of riding were blissful after the hot and hectic ride on the highway. I took the backroads east of Bucaramanga, mostly steep, winding gravel roads, with very little traffic. And the scenery was superb - small villages nestled in the folds of valleys and, higher up, wet verdant cloud forests. There were many reminders of tragic road accidents on these dangerous roads. Here are three crosses where members of the same family went over a sheer cliff. Check out the road in the distant, snaking its way up to a pass.

This was a typical scene on the road to Malaga. Forest and farmland surrounding a little village called Pangote, with the ubiquitous church steeple.

The air was fresh and cool as I rode over the Eastern Cordillera. The roads were of much steeper gradients than those of Tibet, sometimes climbing 100metres in just 1.5 kms. But with the birdsong and delightful landscape, it was worth the sweat and toil up the hills. In the five days of riding from Bucaramanga to Belen (Boyaca) I climbed over 7000 metres in elevation, an average of 1400m a day. Now I can see why Colombia has produced so many strong hill climbers in the Tour de France. Closer to the bigger towns it´s common to see cyclists out for a climb, individuals as well as large groups.

From the rolling green hills of Malaga, the paved road descended rapidly to the dry dusty cacti-punctured valley of the Chicamocha valley. I left the bike here in Capitanejo and took a short bus ride up to Guican for the trek around the Cordillera del Cocuy.

Sierra Nevada de Cocuy

I've just returned from a fabulous 5 day trek around the Sierra Nevada de Cocuy. A high altitude trek, all above 4000m with 8 passes over 4300m. Very spectacular peaks, amazing flora and wonderful weather. I didn´t see anyone for the 5 days, my own 'Cien Horas de la Soledad' - a unique moment to be up there alone and ranks up there with my other solo treks in the Ruwenzoris or 'Mountains of the Moon' (East Africa) 1990 and Kangshung/Karma valleys(Tibetan Himalaya)2005.
Hope you like the images....

A self-portrait with bemused and silly smile inside the tent. Looking very grizzly, sun-dried and tired.

Climate Change in the Andes - A Sad Note
El Paso del Castillo 4600m. In the 1990´s this pass was blocked by a large glacier, running down to this lake. Global warming has now reduced this glacier to a small cap on the peak, a pattern repeated in all the equatorial zones of the world. A sad indictment on our Pursuit of Crappiness.

Saturday 16 February 2008

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the highest coastal range in the world and, although it isn't part of the Andean chain, a visit to the fringe of the sierra was a fantastic introduction to las montaƱas del Sudamerica. This view was from a crest at 2700m looking south to the main range. Pico de Christobal Colon sits in the centre at 5775m, Colombia's highest peak. It's quite a dangerous area to visit but it would be a great expedition to climb from the south into the range - many alpine lakes and unusual endemic vegetation.

Birds of Paradise
The birdlife was the highlight of my 2 days in the cloud forest of the Sierra Nevada. These photos of a pair of Quetzales dorados (Spanish) or White-tipped quetzals, were taken at 2300m in mixed pine, podocarpus & tagua forest. These birds are endemic to this area, so it was a unique moment watching these two flamboyant birds. Other birds seen in my brief visit- toucans (incl. a cute Emerald toucanet), trogons, a Crimson-crested woodpecker (or the Spanish nom de plumage - Carpinterio mariscal), 3 species of hummingbirds, incl. one endemic to Sierra Nevada, loads of parrots and partakeets squawking and, from the ridgetop at 3000m, an errant Andean condor. Unfortuantely too excited, preoccupied and slow-witted to take more photos of 'Los Aves de El Dorado'.

The flora was also an unexpected delight. Amazing display of bromeliads, some covering hillsides like the giant lobelias of Central Africa or as epiphytes sprouting out of clusters in trees.

Here are two unusual trumpet flowers.

Sphagnum moss mosaic falling down a steep bank of rock and water - an interesting specimen.

A Tale of Three Cities

I arrived on the South American continent as weary and jaded as a sailor on the Santa Maria. After 46 hours crossing the Pacific, the US and the Caribbean, I arrived in Barranquilla a bit worse for wear. The worst part of the flights were the 16 hours in those vacuums of emptiness - 4 nondescript airports, Sydney, Taipei, LA and Miami.

Barranquilla was also in slumber mode, shaking off a massive hangover from the famous Carnivale. It took me a while to get get my head and body into the frenzy of the Caribbean. This is a river port, sitting on the Magdalena river and it has this rough nature and wild and exuberant atomsphere. I forgot to take a photo of the hotel I stayed in, the Costa Caribe, an important detail for my trip from north to south.

Cartagena in the early morning
Cartagena is an impressive sight with its massive forts and walls surrounding a cloistered city of fine colonial architecture. A much more genteel atmosphere than Barranquilla yet, instead of a unrestrained living culture, it has the appearance of a preserved relic. The old city is sandwiched between a tacky multi-storey Gold Coast-style resort and an ugly urban sprawl. Perhaps the enclosure not only kept out intruders in the past but has also shielded the modern ugliness from the contemporary inhabitants of the walled city.

I had a 'training ride' from Barranquilla to Santa Marta and, apart from the heat and traffic, I really enjoyed the trip. Some warnings of the dangers ahead - the road was littered with dessicated snake skins (even a live python basking in the sun) and the ubiquitous tombstone memorials of past accident victims. On my left was the rolling Caribbean Sea and on the right a large expanse of inland water and wetlands. This is the Cienaga de Santa Marta - an important habitat for water birds, esp. herons.

Santa Maria was a nice surprise - a hybrid of the other two cities. Cobbled narrow streets and fine colonial buildings but with an intimate and lively centre. From the seaside promenade a lovely view out to the Caribbean Sea.

La Bahia de Santa Marta

I only spent a short time in these cities but their characters were so distinct I pictured them as members of a family in a Marquezian world.
Cartagena is the culturally refined and rather snobbish aunt who has been tarted up with quite a lot of make-up. As a conservative, she doesn't like to go out much and would rather stay confined behind the walls of her historic home.
Barranquilla is the wild extroverted youth, slightly delinquent and unkempt and often rowdy. He enjoys the chaotic and hedonistic lifestyle, and loves a party, especially around February.
Santa Marta is the oldest of the three, the patriarch and provincial gentleman. A modest man who was once a prominent businessman but now in his twilight years. Each evening he likes to sit on the promenade, looking out at the Caribe and sipping a cerveza.