Colombia

“The only risk is wanting to stay” is touted as Colombia’s new slogan for tourism after years of internal conflict that veered tourists away. In recent years there has been a significant increase in tourists in Colombia and rightfully so as this country has a lot to offer. Vast changes in landscapes from the Caribbean to the Pacific, Andes to the Amazon and the places in between. This country also boasts some of the highest biodiversity on the planet and holds some of the world’s best UNESCO world heritage sites like the Old Town in Cartagena and San Agustin (both of which we were lucky to visit).

 

The want and desire for the tourist dollar is apparent but the hospitality in this country is over the top, people are very kind and often the first question they ask is “what do you think of Colombia?”  The potential of Colombia to become a hotspot exists but there is a need for more infrastructure and a general increase in tourist information. Our overall impression of the country has been very good, but traveling here didn’t come without it’s challenges. Colombia, for us, was the first country since the United States that we had reached that actually promoted activities that we wanted to do for example rock climbing in La Mesa de Los Santos and backpacking in El Cocuy National Park but getting information about these activities was hard to come by. The potential for Colombia to become an eco- or adventure tourism destination exists but the industry itself is still in its infancy. Never the less this country was a wonderful experience and full of surprises.

 

It’s very hard to look back and try to write about all the experiences we had in Colombia so we’ve opted for a photo essay instead, what’s the cliche, a picture is worth a 1,000 words …

 

Cartagena

Beautiful Old Town UNESCO World Heritage site of Cartagena, where 2013 started out for us … except we ended up waiting here for 2 whole weeks for Karen’s rear wheel to arrive from her Rohloff getting fixed.

 

After two long weeks of waiting and getting over Christmas illnesses, Karen's rear wheel finally arrives.

After two long weeks of waiting and getting over Christmas illnesses, Karen’s rear wheel finally arrives.

 

Back on the road

Within moments of Karen’s rear wheel arriving, Mike had already installed it on Karen’s bike ready to hit the open road again in the sweltering heat. It didn’t take us long until we stopped in this little town of El Bajo to catch some shade and some cold refrescos.

 

Bird watching on the side of the highway

Riding south of Cartagena was hot. We took every opportunity possible to catch some shade. This is bird watching near the lagunas near Plato.

 

bus time

After four days of riding in the sweltering heat we caved and decided to take our first bus of the trip. A combination of heat, lack of shouder on the road and  gnarly climbs helped persuade us. Bikes are all ‘dis-armed’ and ready to load.

La Mesa de Los Santos

 

Our first real destination after the town of Bucaramanga was to head to the Mesa de los Santos, an epic rock climbing area. We found the sweet haven of The Rock Shelter or Refugio la Roca where there is world class climbing, with over 100 bolted routes and a mix of traditional routes as well, and best yet, it’s still very much a secret. We practically had the whole Mesa to ourselves with stunning views.

 

Refugio la Roca

The Refugio la Roca overlooking the valley. A little taste of heaven.

 

camping

… complete with a sweet spot for camping, a yoga loft, meditation room and just a great place to hang out (literally).

 

Mike climbing

It has been years since we have climbed outdoors after investing most of our energy in focusing on mountain bike racing in the summers, but it was great to get back on the rock and work some of that upper body strength. Mike planning his next move.

 

Karen lead

Karen getting back into it on her first lead climb in over 6 years… feels good.

 

After leaving La Mesa de Los Santos, we needed to get across the Chicamocha Canyon,  Alexandra co-owner of Refugio la Roca suggested we take the aerial tramway across the canyon to save us some time and a needless decent just to climb back up again. Fortunately she called ahead and asked if we could take our bikes, and sure enough we rolled up, loaded them on the tram and then we were transported across the valley with stunning views!

 

Crossing Chicamoca Canyon from Two Wheeled Wanderers on Vimeo.

 

Hiking El Cocuy National Park

 

Next on our must see list was the Park National El Cocuy, high up in the Andean mountains where there are several trekking opportunities. The most spectacular option was  a beautiful circuit that takes you through some truly stunning terrain as you hike between the towns of Güicán and El Cocuy. The trail usually takes about 6 days and averages between 4,200 and 4,600 metres above sea level so acclimatization is essential. We had a hard time finding any concrete information about doing the hike without a guide which was a bit frustrating but did find a GPS track file through the website Wikiloc for the whole loop complete with way-points. You can get a decent map at the main office in El Cocuy, but if you are like us and start from the town of Güicán the office being actually open can be hit or miss. We managed to get a good map from the Cabañas Kanwara, our point of entry for the trail, which are located up in the hills a little way outside of Güicán. The Cabañas are located at 3,900 m and make a good place to acclimatize for a couple of days before starting the hike which is what we did.

 

The trail was fine to do without a guide provided you have previous back country experience, a good map and compass. We cheated a bit, using our GPS with the track already delineated. You also need to be able to  pack all the essentials including food, shelter, stove and warms clothes and sleeping bags as temperatures are below freezing at certain camps and rain, snow and sleet are common on the passes.

 

This trail for us has been a highlight of our whole trip with every day providing views of  truly awe-inspiring scenery. It was one of the most strenuous hikes either of us had ever done, but truly some of the most rewarding experiences. I’ll let the pictures do the talking for us.

 

For those that are interested in our route and waypoints we’ve provided a link to our GPS file: http://db.tt/FWgPEhDp  (Make sure to right click and save file as …)

 

Note: this also contains a few tracks for the road between Mocoa and Pasto (could not separate for some reason).

 

 

Climbing to 5,300 m

Our first day was spent acclimatizing to the altitude. We arrived at the Cabañas the first night and slept at 3,900 m then hiked almost to the summit of Ritacuba Blanco at 5,300 m. REMEMBER: when glacier hiking to cover up and wear sunscreen we both got severely burnt from the reflection off the snow of the sun.

 

The beginning

A teaser on the beginning of the circuit… every day was breath taking.

 

The trail was full of ups and downs, but again, every view was priceless.

The trail was full of ups and downs, but again, every view was priceless.

 

Here’s the full slideshow on the beautiful hike (make sure to expand to full screen and then click ‘show info’ on the top right hand corner for descriptions.):

 

 

 

Carrying on …

 

 

Hormigas

After returning to San Gil where we stored our bikes while we tromped around the hills in Cocuy, we spent a day checking out the beautiful colonial town of Barichara, known for the gastronomic delicacy of large bum ants. We even went to the restaurant known in the area for serving these ‘Color de Hormigas’ but I didn’t find anything on my plate that resembled the little 6 legged creatures… sadly.

 

Fibas

We spent our time around Villa de Leyva exploring the area around by bike and happened on this adorable garden “Fibas” in the desert where owner Jaime Rodriguez Roldan, a beautiful soul, invited us into his garden where we had a great conversation and enlightening experience. More about the power of this special place here: http://youtu.be/c3XX2ifFCHY

 

Villa de Leyva

The famous view of Villa de Leyva.

 

Ráquira

We decided to take a back road from Villa de Leyva through the artesian town of Ráquira and through the back roads to avoid the PanAm… the bonus was coming across this eclectic hotel and owner with amazing coffee and good conversation…

 

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… as warned, the BAD thing about taking the back roads was cobble stone and a WICKED rain storm where we could smell the lightening, which forced us back down to the PanAm as there was literally rivers flowing down the roads.

 

Bogota

 

The road to Bogota

After spending the evening in the most affordable hotel we could find in the popular day trip destination from Bogota of Zipaquirá where there was plastic mattresses, frequent coming’s and going’s and weird noises we were well on our way to the capital on a treat of a road where there was a designated cycle lane all the way to the city (which then petered out once you reached the city limits for a while until you picked up a Ciclovia).

 

Exploring the city on bike

We spent most of our time in Bogota resting, catching up on internet stuff and eating out at good restaurants but one way we did get out to see the city was through the well organized Bogota Bike Tours, where former journalist and expat Mike takes you on an informative tour starting in the well known La Candelaria district …

 

Graffiti

… to areas of the city with amazing graffiti, areas where you wouldn’t dare go by yourself like the red light district …

 

Bogota Bike Tour

… and several other notable locations in Bogota that include museums and monuments. Mike provides an informative glimpse into Bogota’s rich and troubled history and has a wealth of knowledge to answer all your questions. The tour even goes to a local market where you can find out what all those things are that you’ve always wanted to try but didn’t know what they were. Well worth the time and money!

 

Best Western 93 Park Hotel

I can’t quite say we were roughing it in Bogota. We managed to book a few nights through points at the Best Western Park 93 hotel in the north, quite swanky for our standards. The staff were so nice and accommodating, they provided us with the best service possible even though our bike wear didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the clientele’s business dress. Our bikes had special valet parking and the hotel managers were kind enough to sponsor us for a night so we could have one more day in the big city! Thanks Best Western for helping us little cycle tourists on our big trip!

Beyond Bogota

 

San Agustín

Again getting short on time as we were meeting friends in Quito at the beginning of March we hopped a night bus from Bogota to San Agustin (another UNESCO world heritage site) where there are some interesting ruins of civilizations that still to this day, little is known about. The archaeological parks in the areas have amazing stone carvings, many of which are anthropomorphic in character, some of which are realistic and some of which resemble masked monsters. Very little is known about these people and they are thought to have disappeared before the Europeans arrived to the area, making this area one of the most important archaeological sites on the continent.

 

 

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Mike and School kids

On our way south to Mocoa, Mike is surrounded by school children on a morning break from riding, they had a million questions!

 

Mocoa and the Trampolin de la Muerte

 

We often seek out the back roads, which in turn tend to be some of the hardest but most spectacular road. There is one specifically known in Colombia as the Trampolin de la Muerte (Trampoline of Death), it’s name is due to the fact that most of the road is a single carriage way lined with sheer cliffs and a 400 m drastic drop off the side if you aren’t careful. It would be considered a white knuckle ride if you were to go on a bus but by bike it ends up being a spectacular roller coaster.

 

James and Sarah

We met these two in Mocoa seeking out the same road as we. These two are on an adventure from Alaska to Argentina and have their own blog: http://www.big-sur.co.uk/

 

Trampolin

As promised the climbing was hard BUT the views again left us in awe.

 

Places to camp

With not a lot of flat ground in the vicinity the community of El Mirador was our stop for the night. After a soggy day we soaked up the last few rays and tried to dry out our things for the night.

 

Our home for the night.

 

Much needed cerveza

A celebratory cerveza with James and Sarah, “cheers” to new friends and spectacular roads.

 

 

flat spot

We hunkered down for the night in our spacious apartment sin roof for the night, thankful the small community opened their doors to us and made us feel at home. Just happy to have a place to lay our heads for the night, even if it resembled a small swimming pool.

 

river crossing

Foggy with the moisture and rain in the air you get an idea of what this road entails, there were countless river crossings and rain to be had!

 

Laguna de la Cocha

Our decent from the hills lead us to the Laguna de la Cocha…

 

Agaurdiente

… where we were greeted with a hot warming drink of mora (blackberry) and aguardiente (a liquor made of cane juice and tastes a little of anise) …

 

trout

… and the local specialty of trucha (trout) with a rosé sauce and shrimp. YUMMY!

 

Santuario

The road south of Pasto would lead us by this peculiar sight of the Santuario de Las Lajas, a cathedral built in the mid-18th century deep within the gorge. Happy to view it from a distance we kept plugging south towards the Ecuadorian border to make it to Quito in time to meet our friends.

 

Cuy

.. but not first without first observing the local specialty that apparently is common in southern Colombia, Ecuador and Peru … CUY or guinea pig. Yup, this man was trying to convince us that it’s ‘muy rica’ … poor little piggies.

 

Running out of time having to meet our friends in Quito, we raced for the Ecuadorian border. Anxious to reach a new country but glad to have experienced Colombia, but the adventure continues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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