10 April 2014

Bucaramanga to San Gil... and on to Bogota by bus

We always knew that our sojourn North into Colombia was a temporary state, as the plan has always been to go South. The question for the past month or so has been, how far North will we go? We debated for a long time whether to go to the Caribbean coast or not, the pluses and minuses of which could fill an entire blog post. In Bucaramanga we reached the point of no return, and ultimately a combination of factors including the heat, the traffic on the road to Santa Marta, and the fact that time is ticking away on our Colombian visa, meant that it was time to turn this ship around.

It made sense to get on a bus to Bogota to save time (since we had already done what we considered to be the best route North from Bogota) but first we decided to soak up a bit more of the Department of Santander by riding to San Gil via the back road to Zapatoca.

Pineapple farm outside Bucaramanga - we were surprised about their shape and size, as we had never seen one of these before
We set off from Bucaramanga at 5:15 in the morning, bound for Zapatoca where some friends of Alberto (the paraglider) lived. We knew we had a tough climb ahead of us, and everyone warned us to start it early in the day. By the time we got out of the city, through the sandy dirt roads of Acapulco, and down to the start of the climb, it was 9:30am and already scorching hot. Nothing to do but buy water at the tienda, soak our shirts under the tap nearby, and start climbing.

Sandy roads after Acapulco
The road zig-zagged up the mountain for an eternity, in the baking Colombian heat. A man in a van took pity on us and immediately provided six bags of cold water, which we were grateful for. The views were, as always in Colombia, stunning, and there was a slight breeze which made climbing in the heat almost bearable.

Descending to the river valley down some fun switchbacks... too bad there were just as many switchbacks on the other side to climb.

The big bridge is under construction, and will allow the river flow to be much more high. When it opens, the old bridge in the background, which is the one we crossed, will be swallowed by the river

Looking back on the road we have climbed. In the distance you can just make out the road we descended on the other side of the valley. First proper switchback road of our trip. Plenty of these await for us in Peru.
Four hours later, we reached the top of the climb, and pushed on through the rolling hills until we reached Zapatoca, exhausted. A quick stop for some ice cream, empanadas, and a cold drink and we had regained enough strength to look for Armando and Sonia's house. What a welcoming and beautiful house it was! Anne-Sophie, a cyclist from Belgium, was already there, and we enjoyed a day off taking in the charm of Zapatoca.

Lucy and Anne-Sophie walking into town

Zapatoca main plaza

Armando and Sonia's 35-years old Renault 4 car. Still going strong on the rough roads of Colombia!

We are becoming addicted to Colombian empanadas. The ones prepared by Don Rafa in Zapatoca, with 23 years in the business, were amongst the best we have tried so far!

 We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with Armando, Sonia, and Anne-Sophie before starting off on the dirt road towards the town of La Fuente, where another friend of Armando and Sonia has a finca where we would stay the night. It was a short day, but in the heat we were glad for it, and we had a relaxing and interesting evening talking to Pipo about life in the campo.

Saying goodbye to Armando, Sonia, and Anne-Sophie

La Fuente is a tiny colonial town in an impressive setting

Pipo has been fixing up the finca for several years now. He changed the busy life of Cali for a more quiet one in his parents' old finca, near La Fuente.

Great art at Pipo's finca
Saying goodbye again

Despite trying again to get an early start to beat the heat of the climb, we ended up climbing up from the Rio Suarez towards Barichara at about 10am and it was again already pretty darn hot. Barichara is a cute town, recommended in some well-known travel guides, but Santander has so many other charming colonial towns that, for us, Barichara was a bit inauthentic and very upscale. We had a delicious almuerzo there though, before pressing on to San Gil where some other friends of Alberto (still the paraglider) were willing to host us. Once again we were humbled by the kindness of total strangers.

More great Santander dirt roads

Riding into Barichara's fixed up cobbled roads.
Some travel guide describe Barichara as 'like a movie set' ... pretty accurate in both good and bad ways
We managed to just beat the rain into San Gil, the first rain they've had in a long time, and settled in with Sergio and his girlfriend for a day off. We hitched a ride with Sergio's company, Parapente Chicamocha, up to the Canyon del Chicamocha to soak in the views and watch the others fly – we stayed on the ground this time, but still enjoyed ourselves. 

Watching the action from tierra firme

The Canyon del Chicamocha seems like a great place to fly, with plenty of thermals and stunning views all around

Impressive... but we're glad we didn't cycle to it as the road connecting Bucaramanga with San Gil is very busy and with really tough climbs

Despite it having always been in the plans to take a bus, as the moment of truth approached, we really found ourselves dreading it. Even when we cycled to the bus station in the morning, we were still halfway thinking that we would just ride past it and keep going to Bogota. Ultimately we decided it was a better choice to take the bus, but we weren't happy about it. This ambivalence would come in handy later when, two hours into the journey, the bus driver decided to start demanding that we pay him an extra fee to carry the bikes, which apparently he had forgotten to mention when we boarded the bus in the first place (the company was Copetrans). I was halfway hoping he would kick us off the bus so we could cycle again! But he didn't, and he eventually gave up trying to get money from us too.Advice to other touring cyclists: make it clear that you are not going to pay for your bike, as we had the feeling they just take the piss with foreign cyclists.

In Bogota, we continued our backpacker-style day with a night in a hostel in La Candelaria, meeting up with Martin one last time before he and his friends headed out the following morning to the coast. Then we moved to David and his mother Magdalena's apartment, who we found through the great website warmshowers. David showed us some new parts of the city. We got stuck for a few days doing various errands and enjoying the the delicious food and great company served up by David and his mother.  But soon, with our visa expiration date in mind, it was time to keep moving South.

The auditorio at the Universidad Nacional, with our host David and Lucy in the front

Rogelio Salmona's famous Universidad Nacional Edificio de Postgrados de Ciencias Humanas. Could well be a five start hotel!
Route notes:

- Bucaramanga to Zapatoca: we followed the locals' advice and left Bucaramanga early, before the raving traffic hit the town. Once out of Bucaramanga, we rode through the centre of Floridablanca and on to Ruitoque, where we took on some scenic unpaved roads. The climb up to Zapatoca is a long one, and best done early in the morning or late in the afternoon. There's a shop just before the climb, and another one one third into the climb. After that, water sources become scarce, although there's a couple of fincas which could provide some water.

- Zapatoca to San Gil: the road is unpaved all the way to 3 km out of Barichara, but generally in good condition. There are a few villages along the way, so water and food are no problem. Again, the climb to Barichara coming from Galan is best done in the early morning, as it is very hot down at the Suarez valley. After Barichara, the road is paved and in very good condition to San Gil

01 April 2014

El Cocuy to Bucaramanga: from mucho frío to mucho calor

El Cocuy had been the place where we've spent the most time since starting cycling and it was a little hard to leave it, but after an extra day when Lucy wasn't feeling well, and another day because we went to bed late, we eventually had to get moving again. We said goodbye to Martin who was going by bus to meet some friends for a few weeks of backpacker life in Colombia, and hoped we would meet again, if not in Colombia then in Europe.

Interesting mural  on a school in Panqueba, on the way down from El Cocuy. "Do not study as an obligation, but as opportunity to enter the world of knowing"
We were looking forward to a 55km descent to Capitanejo, but it wasn't as easy as we hoped it would be. The road turned quite rough, and there were a good number of rolling hills to keep us from gaining too much speed, but more importantly, it was HOT. The vegetation resembled that of a desert (not that we've ever been to one, but...!) We had to stop frequently to rest in the shade and were thankful for the slight headwind we had picked up. Along the way, I discovered that one of the screws had come out of the mounting mechanism of his pannier. We improvised a solution for the rest of the day, but as we don't carry any spares of those screws we would have to figure out a better plan before we could continue.

Just chillin´out in the shade
The road followed the Rio Nevados much of the way

The valley opens as you head towards Capitanejo
Desert landscape at 1400 m
Cycle touring does not get much better than this, if it were a bit cooler, that is
Capitanejo was in sight by the late afternoon and we just really wanted a cold shower, so we checked in to a budget hospedaje for the night. In the morning we had to visit the ferreteria (hardware store) to get the pannier sorted out, which meant for a later than ideal start, given the heat and the fact that we had a long climb ahead of us.

Ouch! Ortlieb panniers are meant to be tough, but this mounting screw did not resit the vibrations of the trocha. Luckily, Ortlieb are quick to respond to issues like this, and news screws are on the way to us, for free. In the meantime, I replaced the missing mounting screw with another, less important one, and used gaffer tape to keep the pannier (hopefully) waterproof.
The climb was tough, although the saving grace was that the road 55 was so beautiful. Eventually, after multiple stops, we made it to the cooler air of Malaga. While trying to find our whereabouts in that town, a couple of guys from a bike workshop attracted our attention. Soon we were having a refreshing Pony Malta with them, and then Guillermo invited us to stay the night with his family.

Cooling off - Colombian way

That´s what I would call hot (47 degrees Celsius, or 117 degrees Farenheit!)

José and Héctor Guillermo gave us a warm welcome in Málaga, with some much needed cold drinks! Here at José´s workshop at the entrance of Málaga as you come from San José de Miranda
We then spent some time with Héctor Guillermo´s friends, who treated us to some nice (and sweet) Colombian wine

After a quick visit to Malaga regional airport the following morning, and a bit of cycling in the active runway itself, we made progress North towards Cerrito. The road, of course, kept on climbing, eventually reaching almost 4000 m, once again, the following day after having a pleasant night in another “high” school.

After the small Cesna aircraft bound for Bucaramanga took off, we had Malaga´s airport runway to ourselves
Héctor Guillermo rode with us to Cerrito the next day and even carried my heavy loaded bike for a few kms.
High (3000 m) Schools prove very useful campsites
Route 55 turned into an unpaved road, which despite being relatively flat, was rainy, windy, and quite cold at nearly 4000 m of elevation. We were looking forward to warming up in a restaurant that Guillermo had mentioned, but it turned out to be shut so we continued on until Presidente, already on the descent, where we had a yummy almuerzo and made conversation with some of the other clients about our trip. After that, the once-again paved road made for a quick descent to Chitaga, and a bit further on, where we were finally warm again.

At 3800 m, in the Páramo, it was very cold again

And then, we started another climb (are you noticing a pattern here?) and carried on, looking for a place to camp. It wasn't easy, as the road wound along the mountainside and there was almost no flat ground to be found. Thankfully, a local pointed out basically the only flat area for miles, which also helpfully had great cover from the road.

We only had 26 km to go the following day to Pamplona, where we were looking forward to a hotel (and more than anything, some wifi). It was a relaxed ride, and we enjoyed the final part of the climb in pleasant temperatures. We reached Lejias and stopped at a roadside cafe for agua panela, and enjoyed talking to the cafe owner about our trip and broader aspects of life in Colombia.

The friendly owner of this cafetería in Lejías, near Pamplona, treated us to some traditional chicharrón. Pork scratchings (or torreznos, in Spain) with yummy papas criollas
 Then it was on to Pamplona, where we quickly found a place to stay, and got started with our ever-growing list of errands. The hotel's checkout time was not until 3pm the following day, so we stayed until lunch time taking advantage of the wifi before heading out of Pamplona.

Pamplona is in a valley and the only way out is up, so we knew we were not going to accomplish many kilometers when we left at 2pm. Still, it was good to get some climbing out of the way. We ended up stopping at the Alto de Pamplona, 800m above the town, where we could get a tiny room for 15,000 COP, deciding that it would be easier to get an early start in the morning if we didn't have to pack up camp. After such a short day, we weren't exactly hungry, so some strawberries from the stand across the road and some other snacks from our panniers made the perfect evening snack.

Stylish cafetería, lychee-strawberry farm, and car workshop at the Alto de Pamplona. All owned and manned by the same friendly guy
Santander and Norte de Santander are agriculturally rich areas
An early start is exactly what we got the following morning, on the road by 7:45 am which is the earliest it's been in a long time. We wanted to make it to Bucaramanga, 115 kilometers away, where we had made arrangements to stay with Andrea, a member of the women's cyclist collective Mujeres Bici-bles. There was plenty more climbing to be done, before a 50km descent to lose 2,500m of altitude into Bucaramanga. 

The section Berlín to the start of the descent to Bucaramanga is another altiplano, at 3400m
The descent was so long it was almost surreal, starting out quite cold and with sometimes extemely thick fog, and ending in the heat of Bucaramanga. There are some experiences  that photographs can´t capture, and the feeling of that descent is one of them.

Into the clouds. Bucaramanga is somewhere down there, 2500 m below.

After 50 km of constant descent, we reached Bucaramanga

Reaching Bucaramanga, we found Andrea´s apartment. She kindly offered to put us up for a few days getting to know the city and its diverse cycling culture. 

We joined Ciclaramanga for their night ride through the city. Enjoying the support of the local government, it was incredibly well-organised and well-attended.  Lucy and Andrea wore the pink handkerchiefs of Mujeres Bici-bles.

We were interviewed on the local university radio station La U 107.7 about our trip. Unfortunately the recording isn´t available online after the fact- Lucy says it´s better that way, she´s still embarrassed about her Spanish.
We visited the restaurant and panaderia where Diego and Carmen work at, who are part of Ciclaramanga, and sampled some artesanal bread.
Cycling is big in Colombia, only shadowed by football. The Bucaramanga velodrome was busy on a Saturday morning. 
On Sunday, Lucy joined the Mujeres Bicibles-run class for women learning how to ride a bike for the first time. Lucy says she saw Bucaramanga´s cycling community grow before her eyes!
I also went out on a local mtb ride with another Alberto (see below) and his friends Pablo, Rafael and Toño. Bucaramanga is such a great place for mtb-ing!

While descending to Bucaramanga a man got out of his car and flagged us down to find out our story. He (also named Alberto) was an avid mountain biker but also an avid paraglider and former instructor. He very kindly took us up on tandem flights from the Ruitoque mesa. It was great to be flying after so many years on the ground.

I managed to convince Lucy to try paragliding for the first time. Lucy, Alberto (the pilot), and Bucaramanga in the background

Lucy and Alberto preparing to land. Note the folded paraglider tips, or "orejas", which help the paraglider descent a bit quicker
Route notes:

- El Cocuy to Capitanejo: despite the road no longer showing on most paper and online maps, there´s an unpaved road all the way from near Panqueba to Capitanejo. It seems very few traffic, mostly because of its rough state, and the fact that, very recently, was close to all traffic following a massive landslide. It is, however, one of our favourite roads so far, with incredible scenery through the valley, different climates (very hot towards Capitanejo). There´s only one small village called Chapetón, where one can refill the water. Despite being all downhill, it took us almost the whole day to do 50 km on loaded bikes.

- Capitanejo to Pamplona: the road is mostly paved, except about 20 km before the town of Presidente, which runs at an altitude of 3400 to 3900 meters. There´s plenty of resupplying in all the towns, as well as a good number of wild camp (and not so wild - see the high school above) spots en route.

- Pamplona to Bucaramanga: a big climb to yet another altiplano, all paved, to continue on a 50 km all the way to Bucaramanga. Plenty of resupplying along the way, and also lots of wild camp options in the forests on the way down to town.