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bogota to the border (in ten and half days)

I can’t say I recommend the border or bust approach but after my unsuccessful Venezuela visa wrangling I find myself with only ten days to get to the Ecuadorean border from Bogota before my Colombian visa expires. It’s only around 800 kilometres, which seems doable, but there are some serious mountain ranges to cross and I’m not really willing to stick to pavement to speed things up.

Day 1: Only a hour or two out of Bogota, I'm on dirt...

... but there are still places where there is no avoiding tarmac and trucks.

It's almost all downhill out of Bogota and so I cover a fair amount of ground and spend the first night with the bomberos in Melgar.

Day 2: I wake to a drenching downpour in an inadequately pitched tent on concrete at the back of the Melgar Fire Station. Everything is soaked. It continues to bucket down as I set off and for a while I am stuck on an unavoidable bit of highway.

I never understand when people try to convince me that travelling on the highway is my safest and most comfortable option.

Day 3: However eventually the sun makes an appearance and soon I am back at the Rio Magdalena again. Crossing to the other side in an outboard canoe life is far calmer. But hot!

I like this cyclist's plantain pannier set.

My tranquility is soon exploded, quite literally! A sudden bang...

... and my expensive and highly lauded Schwalbe XR tyre is rendered useless with only about 4000 kilometres on it. To make matters worse it is only a matter of a few days since I lost my recently purchased spare on a rough mountain descent. I was philosophical about the loss at the time, smugly thinking, "Oh, there you go, 800 grams lighter!" Sigh.

...

I'm heading into the Tatacoa desert, it's about 40 degrees, and I'm not expecting any traffic any time soon. As luck would have it, however, a pick up does arrive and loads up my bike and takes me to the nearest village where I buy a $4 Chinese tyre that will get me as far as Nieva. My rescuer feels the need to buy me lunch, too. Did I mention that Colombians are super nice?

I had hoped to spend the night in desert which is famous for it star gazing potential but what with cloud cover, cruddy tyres and a tight deadline I plough on to Neiva.

Rumble thunder over the mountain ranges holding the valley in a pincher grip doesn't bring much relief. It's a hot, dry, dusty trip.

Neiva is a city without much charm but after I search about for a decent replacement tyre it is too late to escape it’s clutches. The bomberos here don’t cater to cyclists needs and all the ‘family’ hotels are ridiculously overpriced. I wander the seedy end of town searching for the least sordid cheap place to stay but I end up being defeated as much by the fact most of the cheap hotels are on the upper floors of buildings at the top of long flights of stairs, as put off by the general air of dissipation. It is heading for 8 or 9PM before I stumble across a ‘love’ hotel catering to people on motos*.

I wheel my bike down a tunnel like corridor into a reception area filled with parked motorbikes and try to convince the woman at reception to let me have a bed for the night. She is reluctant but at the same time obviously curious about me and eventually, after asking a lot of questions, she calls the manager and gets the OK. I have to wait for a couple to finish their business and then for the receptionist to see to the room. She heads off bearing a mop and a large bottle of disinfectant and some clean sheets.

Neiva marks pretty much the end of my 300 kilometre downhill run out of Bogota and the going gets a lot tougher as I head into the foothills of the Central Cordillera the next morning.

I want to spend some time in San Augustin but as I approach more bike trouble strikes. My brakes are squealing horribly on the rough rocky descents and an inspection of my rear wheel reveals a split rim of sobering extent. I back track a little to take a more gentle paved approach to San Augustin and end up catching the bus for the final 30 kilomtre deviation from the highway.

It is the weekend before Semana Santa**, the most important holiday period in Latin America. After a sleepless night in a hostel full of partying Colombians, I catch the bus back to the highway. So much for San Augustin.

Day 6: This rim (a Rigida Sputnik for those of you who care) has seen almost 25 000 kilometres of pretty rough road and I have no complaints at all with its performance. Never one for a fearless descent, I'm a heavy braker. Next time I buy a bike I think I'll probably go with disc brakes.

This is what riding on beaches leads to.

A bus trip back to Pitalito, a medium sized town on the highway, yeilds a 13 000 peso 36 hole V-brake compatible rim. The wheel build costs 5000 pesos bringing the whole affair to the princely sum of $10. I am mobile again, if not particularly confident about the potential performance of this replacement wheel. A quality 36 hole rim is not to be had in Colombia - as a later trip to a high end bike shop in Pasto reveals.

Just about all my equipment is starting to fail. My panniers let water in but not out - leaving my belongings in a swampy dank state. My clothes all have mildew spots.

It’s 2PM before I leave Pitalito, which leaves me with three and a half days to reach the border. There are no real alternatives to the highway so at least I don’t have to face the dilemma of choice but what amounts to highway between Mocoa and Pasto is a single lane dirt track nicknamed The Trampoline of Death because of the tendency of vehicles to plunge fatally over the edge of precipitous drops while transiting it. Exactly where the trampoline part comes in is unclear.

Mocoa sits at 600 metres on the steamy edges of the jungle. The road to Pasto climbs over the Central Cordillera to just under 3000 metres, drops, then climbs again, before swooping down into the valley of Sinbundoy. It’s Colombia’s epic grand finale.

I set off out of Mocoa at about 2PM after after a longish lunch break to recover from a brisk 60 or 70 kilometres in the morning. Things start out innocuously but the pavement ends as the gradient increases and the road goes up and up and up. Eventually I spot radio towers far above but dusk and then darkness fall before I reach them. There is no flat place at all to pull off the road and set up camp so I continue in darkness hoping my reflective tape and patches will alert trucks and buses to my presence on the narrow road. It is well after 7 PM when I reach the towers where a hysterically barking dog brings a man and his son to the door of the building alongside them. I ask if I can camp on the flat patch of gravel at the front of their house and they invite me in.

During the night a fearsome storm unleashes torrential rain while wind howls around the ricketty house. I’m glad I’m not outside in my tent but the tin roof rattles and strains and water drips steadily onto the mattress laid out on the floor for me. Dawn brings no abatement to the storm and my host dons wet weather gear and goes to check on the internet and phone antennae in his care and replace the blown fuses while his son cooks sweet arepas. We sit down to coffee, eggs and fried dough.

Day 8: Rain, rain, rain... This storm is pretty much unnavigable and it doesn't look like I'll ever get to Pasto, let alone the border but eventually it abates and I set off.

Day 9: Looking back at the mountains on the other side of the Sibundoy valley.

A sullen roadside Mary with a sleepy Jesus and a manic eyed sheep.

Day 10: Leaving Pasto, mid-afternoon, the highway is populated by an unusually large number of pedestrians. I don’t pay it much heed, imagining perhaps that people are walking home from a sporting event or some such thing. However, as I continue there are more and more groups of people walking with unusual purpose along the road swinging stout walking sticks. Eventually it occurs to me to ask them where they are going. “Ipiales!” It transpires that each year at Easter pilgrims from all over Narino walk to El Santuario de las Lajas a wildly gothic church built over a deep gorge where a miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared to a deaf-mute young girl sheltering from a storm with her mother in 1754. It is 84 kilometres from Pasto to Ipiales and the pilgrims walk it in 24 hours. People come from further afield, too.

It becomes apparent that I am not going to reach Ipiales under my own steam on the 27th which is when my 90 days in Colombia expire but caught up with the whole peregrination thing, I decide that the immigration officials at the border might be sympathetic to me arriving with the pilgrims on the 28th.***  The highway doesn’t offer many viable camp sites so, passing a help station manned by volunteers from the Civil Guard which provides electrolytes and foot massages to the walkers, I ask if there is somewhere I can camp. “Here!” So I set up my tent next to the help point and the chaos goes on all night.

Most of the pilgrims are young men but some young women accompany them.

...

...

The volunteers offer basic first aid, foot massages and electrolytic drinks. More serious causalities of what is clearly unaccustomed exercise are attended to by the bomberos. I am woken in the middle of the night by a kerfuffle with an unconscious girl being borne off on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance.

The madness goes on all night.

When I wake in the morning the place is deserted by volunteers and walkers but a stream of cyclists, which I soon join, is flowing by. I have about 40 kilometres still, to the border, most of it uphill. The way is littered with the fallen. People sprawl on the highway embankments nursing sore joints and blistered feet. I am sorely tempted to visit the church with the rest of the pilgrims but it is a deviation from the highway and the border and my confidence in the understanding nature of Colombian immigration is uncertain.

And sure enough it transpires that 91 days is definitely not considered almost as good as 90 days. It is considered an infraction and unsurprisingly the official is utterly uninterested in exploding tryes and split rims as mitigating circumstances. A fine of over a hundred dollars is threatened but I must have looked so pathetic that eventually the man stamped my passport and contemptuously waved me into Ecuador.

* motos = motor bike

** Semana Santa = Holy Week/Easter

*** Fool!

{ 8 } Comments

  1. Sarah | April 6, 2013 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    Sounds like a soggy ride! Hope you get your bike back up to scratch soon. Let the adventures continue!

  2. WSmart | April 6, 2013 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    Do you listen to your feelings I wonder? I could never have gone far without buying that $4 dollar spare. I’m a cheap bastard, but I would have had a nagging feeling which would have made me miserable in the saddle until I bought that tire.

    I was looking at drum brakes this week after seeing a Gazelle -dutch bike- on Craigslist which has drums front and rear.. Would love to play with that. Yeah disc, but not on my Schwinn 10 speed.

    Continential TourRide is only $25. It’s a harder rubber which can chatter in a tight turn and would be a compromise in technical terrain but it’s got low rolling resistance, decent thorn protection and wears well.

    Be real, be sober.

  3. Tony | April 7, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    I’ve often pondered on how your equipment holds up with such extremes of weather. After all you have been through freezing, hot, wet humid weather. It’s got take a toll. Of course preventative maintenance would be quite difficult on the road. I’ve always been amused by certain types of cyclists that hold Schwalbe in such high esteem. They are after all just rubber tyres! I’d say your Ortleibs have done good service. Don’t know how you can handle all the wet gear. That would just absolutely give me the the shits. Guessing replacing the pannier bags would mean a bike shop in a largish city. Yes I have to say disc brakes have a lot going for them, but interestingly tradional tourers seem to eschew them. Pity for them. There are some good things about equipment development. Hope you can sort the bike out. Our weekend adventure in our campervan takes on easy street.

  4. Arrick | April 7, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Regarding the Sputniks, Im wondering if a wider rim from Rigida might handle the load better – like the Andra 40. Runs tires from from a 37 to a 62. It has a wider inner well width (25) so maybe the extra pressure of wide tires pumped up to sufficient pressures for carrying all that extra weight wouldnt be a problem.

    And I run Schwalbes 26 x 2.3 winter tires on Sputniks, and they do feel a little squirmy. For that reason alone I would rather have a wider rim.

  5. Michele L. Appel | April 9, 2013 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Anna,

    You are seriously one of my greatest heroes these days. But you are making it very hard to stay put. I really can’t believe you made it all that way, and got out without a fine. However, again, I would do the same thing! Good luck in Ecuador. I look forward to the next update.

    Ciao!

    Michele

  6. Tim Joe Comstock | April 10, 2013 at 2:45 am | Permalink

    I really like the Cowgirl Madonna with the stoner Baby Jesus guarded by the psychotic lamb. But I don’t get the party pilgrims and the sticks. Is it a kind of Columbian Spring Break and what do they do with all those sticks afterwards? There is something ominous about the whole affair.

    Someday I would like to be contempuously waved into Ecuador, whatever that is. It sounds like fun and also there are foot massages, which you don’t get just everyday.

    It’s going to take me awhile to digest all this.

    tj

  7. anna | April 10, 2013 at 4:19 am | Permalink

    Hi, tj.

    The pilgrim party was not so much ominous as slightly deranged. I’m afraid the free foot massages go with pilgrim thing in Colombia and are no longer available once you’ve been waved contemptuously into Ecuador and anyway I didn’t feel as a cyclist that I could join the queue. I mean there wasn’t a stated rule or anything but there was a general feeling in the air.

    There’s plenty of uses for a good stick. I almost stopped off to pick up some discarded ones but I’m trying to emulate the lightweight minimalism of people like Joe and Cass.

  8. Will Kemp | April 13, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    According to wordreference.com , “trampolín” also means “diving board”, which puts a different perspective on the name – and makes it sound more ominous.

    It seems to be hard to buy a new bike without disk brakes in Australia these days. My new bike’s got them. They’re pretty good, but they’re hydraulically operated, which i’m a bit dubious about – although i guess i shouldn’t be, as i trust my car’s hydraulic brakes with my life!

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