Sunday 30 March 2008

The Colombian Massif - San Agustin to Ipiales

Southern Colombia - Popayan to Pasto
In southern Colombia, between Pasto and Popayan, the Andes forms this vast mountainous knot (the Colombian Massif) and from here, three mountain ranges begin to diverge from the main Andean chain, the Eastern, Western and Central cordilleras. The ranges unfold from the massif like a fan, radiating northwards, overlooking deep valleys and precipitous gorges. Above Popayan and Pasto the crest of the cordilleras are lined with a belt of volcanoes up to 4600m high and the eastern slopes are cloaked in dense cloudforest. The headwaters of Colombia´s two main rivers, the Magdalena and Cauca originate here too and they slice their way through a jumbled landscape on their long journey to the Caribbean. The scenery is spectacular and chaotic.

The ride through the canyon country between Popayan and Pasto was impressive, but some tough cycling. Lots of long climbs and steep descents. In one day´s cycling I climbed 2235 metres, which is a daily record for me. Mind you, it was on a sealed road and all below 3000m compared to the gravel roads and high altitude ascents over 5000m in Tibet. But it was both an exhilirating and strange few days. In the hot, humid Paita valley at 500m I was soaked in dripping sweat in the 40 degrees heat (I come from a long line of bald sweaters) and as I approached the pass at 2900, the heavy charcoal clouds burst overhead, drenching me. I was almost hypothermic when I wheeled into Pasto.

A Stratified Land
I crossed the provincial border between Cauca and Nariño in the Patia valley at 550m asl. In this low-lying and hot humid region, many blacks from the coast had settled at this elevation to grow sugar cane and bananas. As I climbed higher (1000-1500m) mestizos seemed to be the predominant racial group and maize and coffee replaced the crops below. On the higher and more remote mountain slopes (above 2000m), the indigenous campesino cultivates potatoes and grain. Pasto, the capital of Nariño, has a mixed population but it is the ladino (of European descent) who controls the business interests and is the face behind the till in the shops. Nariño, in a simplified way, is a microcosm of Colombia´s statified society. Its topography defines the demographics of the region and the racial composition, like the terrain, is layered according to altitude. It resembles a geological map where the earth is sliced horizontally into strata of racial, not rock, types. This is a stratified land.

San Agustin
This unique landscape was also the cradle for the ancient cultures of San Agustin and Tierradentro, both situated at 1700m on the eastern slopes of the Central cordillera. The two civilisations reached their peaks between 500-900AD. I visited the underground tombs of Tierradentro en route to Popayan, before crossing the massif. After a welcome rest in Popayan I left my bike at La Casa de Castrillon and ventured down to San Agustin by bus. A rough ride and not near as much fun as cycling. You can´t stop to admire the scenery or talk to the local campesinos. Unfortunately it was Easter holidays (Semana Santa) and hundreds of boisterous Colombians from Bogota descended on the town with their barking dogs and loud music.

The statues of San Agustin are very enigmatic. Many depict the jaguar in a human form, a motif seen in many Ameridian cultures. But some of them, with the bared fangs and silly smile, look less feline and more Wallace (from Wallace and Grommit fame) while others, with enlarged heads and squat torsos resemble the Tele Tubbies.

Fuente de Lavapatas site - petroglyphs carved into the bedrock of a stream.

Stone sacrophagus from one of the underground tombs.

On the way to the archaeological sites I came across this tarantula, the size of my hand. A beautiful specimen.

En route to San Agustin some wonderful floral displays in the cloudforest.

...and a waterfall and rainbow

I left the noisy crowds behind in the archaeological park and walked to the Chaquira petroglyphs, where human figures have been carved on a rocky outcrop above the deep ravine of the Magdalena river.

Then I climbed down the precipitous slopes down to the river (mostly sliding on my bum), discovering remnants of ancient terracing. The petroglyphs are on the crest of the hill on the right, overlooking the narrow defile of the Upper Magdalena valley.

At the river I crossed an old wooden bridge where an old campesino had just lit a candle in the tiny shrine.

The view from the bridge..waterfalls cascading into the Magdalena river.

Walking around this area you come across stone statues everywhere. Some farmers pointed out two lonely statues sitting in the middle of their coffee and banana fields.

Pasto to Ipiales
I decided to get away from the busy Pan American highway and head east on backroads to the Western Cordillera. Some nice riding in rural countryside around the slopes of Galeras Volcano, which is still active. Unfortunately it was overcast or raining....and didn`t get to see ol´ Smokey. But on the other side, in the Guaitara valley, the scenery was very impressive. Back in canyon country. I´ll have to return to Nariño in the dry season to explore the volcanic chain of the Western cordillera.

Back onto the Pan American Highway for my last day´s riding in Colombia. Que lastima!
What superb cycling country. It was another long climb from the spectacular Guaitara gorge at 1700m to Ipiales at 2900m. Here is a snap of the PanAm with the ubiquitous semi-trailer. Notice also the narrow shoulder, compared to the wide one in Ecuador in the next post.

In Ipiales there is a famous sanctuary which has recorded as many miracles as Lourdes. I wasn´t really in need of any (I´d had my miraculous journey already) so I took photos from afar. An austere Gothic affair, but in an amazing setting.

Outside Ipiales, a small indigenous community where all the shops are painted with interesting zoomorphic designs. This was the site of the guinea pig slaughterhouse.

The Life Cycle of the Guinea Pig

I cycled out of Ipiales this afternoon to have a look at the famous sanctuary of Las Lajas. The main attraction though for me were the restaurants in a small indigenous barrio along the way. They were selling the local delicacy cuy, or roast guinea pig. If you remember the names of your pet guinea pigs in the past or don´t like meat on a stick, go onto the next post.

I´ve eaten cuy (pronounced 'kwee') in Andean Peru, where it´s a favourite among the Quechuans. It tastes much like chicken and is very tender. The sign was just before the pass into Pasto, which has a large indigenous population, hence the appetite for our little furry friends.

In fact the guinea pig was domesticated in Andean regions about 5000 years ago and provided all those great civilisations from Chavin to Incan with a good source of protein. It only became a pet when the Spanish returned to Europe with the cuddly creatures. Queen Elizabeth 1 even had one of the prized pets. So please don´t be too sensitive and squyamish.

Delicious Grilled Guinea Pig Ahead!

Guinea Pig Pen Alive and Well (& Fat)

Warm soak

Hot Wash Spin & Defurred Option


Spin Dry

Hung out to Dry

The End - Ouch!

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