9th to 15th of September 2018.
This week I finally admitted to myself that I have a love-hate relation with steep dirt roads and asphalt roads. When I am biking or frequently pushing up the hill on a dirt road, I long for smooth straight asphalt. When we finally are on asphalt roads it is often combined with heavy traffic and I long back to the peace and quietness of remote dirt roads. The breath taking reward of a stunning view when reaching the top in solitude.
This Sunday starts in a different way. During the night Frank was happy with our private bathroom and feels shitty (sic) in the morning. While I feel stronger and could maybe cope with cycling over a 4,000 m pass on asphalt, Frank is dizzy and stays in bed for the rest of the day. I am getting a bit concerned by the loss of weight and fluid and ensure that we drink enough water, still eat and look into possibilities of transport to a bigger city if this does not settle by the evening. I hunt and find Probiotics, as we don’t want to take Imodium.
We have the possibility to take a bus to Manizales at 5:30 in the morning or charter a Jeep. As next day Franks issue is still not solved we opt for a charter as this gives us more freedom. It is one of the Jeeps which is normally used for the more remote public transportation.
It is arranged through the bus station and our driver needs to take the breath test for alcohol usage, same as all other bus drivers. They register all our details, where we go and link it to the drivers info.
Leaving at 6:00 we already arrive in Manizales at 8:30, after a beautiful, fast ride. In our current condition we would never have been able to do these 90 km in one day, especially as this was also going from 1,400 m over a 4,000 m pass. Lush green coffee plantations, steep hills and climbing above the treeline. With Volcano Ruiz looming over us from the other side of the valley.
When locals say it is one hour by car we now know this often means a full day by bike.
We arrived at Manizales which is the capital city of one of the smallest Colombian departments and lays in the center of Colombia. Seems that we are already travelling for 6 weeks in Colombia and we are only halfway? This bustling university town is perched on one of the ridges of the Colombian Central Mountain Range (part of the longest continental mountain range, The Andes), views as in San Francisco with the main street running over the ridge, side streets steeply dropping off.
We have us drop off at a supermarket for some breakfast and you know you are in a big city when you see the below products.
We head to a hostel close to the main office of Tigo, our SIM provider, that blocked our phone, because we did not register it. Our main aim for today is to solve our phone problem and if needed visit a doctor to do a lab test. All should be possible as half a million people live here.
When we got the SIM when entering Colombia (at a small shop) they did not mentioned anything about registering your phone. After receiving some SMSes indicating we had to register our phone, we tried but it was a very difficult Spanish multiple choice menu. Checking in a tourist village with the local Tigo shop they said it was not needed, since we would not stay for more than 3 months and now my phone is blocked! Lucky wifi is still working.
As there had been massive phone robberies in the past, Latin American countries are working together to reduce this. One of the actions taken is that each phone needs to be registered, if not they can block it remotely. Long long story short, it took us 2 hours and next day another half an hour in Manizales, 1 ½ hour in the Tigo shop in Armania and 2 hours in Bugalagrande before it was finally released and properly registered. Even if you would remove the SIM and replace it with one from another provider, your phone would still remain blocked. Unblocking is required before crossing the boarder, as the phone would have the same problem in Ecuador and the question would be if you would be able to solve it there. So fellow travelers, if staying longer than a few weeks in beautiful Colombia and using a local SIM, please register your phone (or even better have it registered in one of the big official shops. Also note that Claro has better coverage in remote areas than Tigo).
In the meantime it looks as if the probiotics also start to work for Frank and we don’t need to look for a lab.
We wander a tiny bit around Manizales, visit a archaeological museum and rest a lot.
Enjoying the luxury of large supermarket grocery shopping and preparing a pasta with lots of vegetables and rich of iron. So much that we can share with police officers visiting the hostel and still have enough for breakfast. Pasta, yogurt with fruit together with an omelet should add some meat on our bones. We both have our appetite back!
Leaving this big city in the clouds.
Enjoying the view of rolling hills covered with coffee and dotted with old houses (fincas), cruising downhill to Santa Rosa de Cabal where we find a ground floor hotel which also offers excellent massage. You notice at the small city center that this is a more wealthy region. As we arrived early we enjoy connecting with people.
Higher pricing for food, a better restaurant, that offers a real menu and not only the dish of the day. Savoring fish with vegetables in a rustic environment with a good glass of wine brings back our spirit.
Biking out of town to follow part of @redheadednomad route, we enter the shabby area she described. These are the discoveries you only make when biking/hiking and going off the beaten track, following dirt roads, seeing the back end of cities. Bamboo small houses clustered together, giving a less positive vibe than the area we biked through in the mountains.
People were maybe even poorer in the mountains but life feels better there and they seem to be more positive than people at the poor outskirts of big towns. For the first time we do feel like stopping and definitively not take photos. You feel that people are more desperate, but still friendly. At one moment a white, spotless pickup stops with 3 soldiers inside. They ask where we are going and recommend us to be very careful and watch our stuff. They invite us for a coffee at their compound. We first don’t know what to think and say we will drop-by when we see it. They are so friendly to drive very slowly in front of us through this shabby area and wait at intersections to indicate where we need to go (so we don’t need to take out our phone to check directions!). At the entrance of the military base they wait for us and we can leave the bikes at the bottom of the hill, driving with them to the main meeting place and have a coffee. The colonel is a very kind person with a natural authority. Dedicated his life already for more than 20 years to the military, working every day to make Colombia a bit safer.
Having a great chat with him and some of his team about Colombia, 2 years of mandatory military service, people joining the service (of which quite a few women) because of the believes and vibes created by this institution. At this compound there are 400 people, divided in 3 different battalions focused on training. After a great coffee we are dropped again at the gate. What a heart warming experience. Staying with us forever. Thank you for this warm welcome and the inside peak. More info.
We continue our dirt road biking to La Florida. Road as wide as a car, up and down we go through dense tropical forest or tall thin eucalyptus tree plantations. Crossing rivers without bridges. Frank kept his feet dry…We enjoy the weather which is not to warm, it is not too steep, but still a rewarding, challenging ride with only one logging truck and some bikers during the whole ride.
We reach La Florida just in time to enjoy a local lunch, same price for two full meals (soup, rice with meat & beans and lemonade) as yesterday for one glass of wine. This always makes us wonder, just 25 km apart and such a different pricing structure. Something we would not see in the Netherlands, also there is a difference between the capital and some remoter villages but not in the same way as here.
La Florida is nested along a riverbed in the delta of a small canyon and yes it was a great ride down but after lunch also a steep climb back up. Climbing up the right side as this one is paved, would have been worse if we would have ridden it the other direction. Once at the top a downpour starts where droplets dance in the muddy water. We continue to ride between crops and over a dirt road, that is quickly turning into a small river. Last part uphill the road becomes worse and our energy levels are low. No escape of pushing the bikes up hill. Even so steep we can’t bike-push (one rides the other pushes).
More than happy to reach the highway and ride faster than 3-5 km per hour. Last kilometers in the rain on the small switchback road to Salento make me long for hot chocolate.
Reaching Salento, base for trips to National Park Los Nevados and knowing we will stay here for 2 nights makes us spend quite some time in finding the right, affordable accommodation. For the first time we hear Dutch, English and German floating through the air.
Leaving the next day from the main square with a Willy to drive to the start of the 2.5 hr relaxed hike through Cocora valley to admire the wax palms.
Wax Palms are the national symbol and where almost extinct due to claim of land for agriculture in combination of overuse of the leaves for Palm Sunday and use of the wax to make candles. Fruits were used to feed pigs. As they are now protected they dot the landscape. They are the tallest monocot in the world with an average of 45 m meter but can reach 60 m and average age of 80 years.
They only grow between 2,000 and 3,100 m above sea level and are most abundant in this area where average annual temperature is only 15 degrees and it rains almost daily. Walking between these giants and having the time to sit and watch the clouds move between them gives us the time to talk and contemplate on what we have seen and where we want to go next.
Collecting our washed and clean dry cloths is always a joy. You can’t imaging how great it is to open a bag of fresh washed laundry and put on some cloths with are not just washed in the sink.
Great thing about being back in a tourist area is the availability of European style food. We can’t resist to try out the pizza. Ending up eating 1 ½ medium size pizza each. Next day waking up when the clouds are slowly moving behind the mountains, leaving a freshly washed earth behind. It rained so much the area was without electricity for most of the evening. We take a old road going down the mountain. Feels like biking the Hollow Roads in Hoegaarden, Belgium, my birth town.
Only here they are lined with bamboo. I love bumping down the rough road while Franks shoulders enjoy it less, maybe time for front suspension? This is one of the things we will adjust when being at home for Christmas together with changing to a bike packing setup.
Dirty Back Road.
Yes, we are going down the mountain as yesterday, when we hiked, we had a bit more time to really talk. When I mentioned at one moment that we were already 2 months in Colombia, Frank said what I was thinking: we have seen so many beautiful sites, hiked above 5,000 m, crossed a 4,150 m summit on dirt road, seen different cultural regions. Did so many beautiful steep dirt roads that we wonder if we should cross the Andes again and then having to cross it again over the Trampolina de la Muerte to go to Ecuador. We agreed we would not mind to cover some km faster on a more or less flat road and have some more time in Ecuador to explore some remote areas there.
And what a wise decision: it is a beautiful ride, 95% descending almost 1.200 m in 75 km. Going from cloudy coffee plantations to bananas and sugarcane. Much warmer surrounding. We need to spend some time in Armenia to fix the phone. Biking into town we are accompanied by a English Mountain biker who already lives here for several years. Enjoys the climate, people and possibility to work remotely!
We decide to call it a day in La Paila as there is a small, very basic hotel. All around is agriculture, large sugarcane trains on wheels transport the mechanically harvested cane to several factories in the neighborhood.
People have said before that each region has his own people, culture and customs. What a difference in colors and music, but the food remains a bit the same. You see that you are closer to the sea and the harbor where slaves came on land. Happy to have found a room as it rains the whole night. So much water fell during the night that water supply has been contaminated resulting in no tap water at all. Now we have had it all. Washing with hot, cold, river, lake, rain, from a bucket and no water at all. Happy we still carry wetties.
It is so strange to be in the valley, riding along a smooth road and covering 75 km before 15:00 in the afternoon. Good news, we both feel much better! We pass very poor villages along the highway, but one has nicer houses than other villages. Then our noses pick-up a sweet chocolate smell and we pass the Most Important Nestle production site in Colombia. Founded in 1866 in Switzerland, first products were imported in 1922. In 1946 Bugalagrande produced the first Nestle products.
They support and organize better conditions for farmers who supply milk and other products to the factory. In 2004 Nestle received a certificate from the President of Colombia, for the support of developing the region: la Orden Nacional al Mérito.
Find out in next week blog if we are happy to be on the main road again.
Did you know that when you used celery and put the bottom part in a bit of water and later in earth you can grow your own again!