June 21, 2014: 5:00am, a dirt road outside of Valledupar, Colombia:
Hiding in the back of Charlotte, heart pounding, and still in my jammies, I could see the 5 police officers waving their guns at us…
…then the most unexpected thing happened. One of the officers actually walked up to Ned’s window, extended his hand, and politely introduced himself!
That was the good news. The bad news was that the cops could not figure out what to do with us. We later surmised that someone from the nearby rancho had called them to investigate this strange vehicle with a dead cow on the front. Ned gave the head honcho copies of all of our documents, but he and Ned started going around and around; the officer speaking in some high speed local dialect and Ned speaking in his Span-glish. I finally decided that it was safe to come out of hiding and leaned up to Ned’s window. I smiled and told them that we had been heading to the Parque Sierra Nevada last night, but it got late. We were too tired to keep driving and we just came here to sleep. Ned said, “Yes, we are just touristas!” It took another 15 minutes, but they finally accepted Ned’s offer to let them keep the copies of Charlotte’s registration and title, and a copy of Ned’s passports’ main page. They let us go, but Ned is probably on some Interpol list of potentially dangerous criminals! It was 5:30am…the earliest we’ve ever gotten back on the road.
We’re going to try the map thing again. We hope it is helpful to some of you as a way to see where we are in the world. This is a view of the whole country of Colombia. The border with Venezuela can be seen to the east as a pink line. The country borders to the south with Ecuador and Peru. In this blog we only cover the country in the areas from Cartagena on the western coast to the high mountains just southeast of Bucaramanga and south to the town of Villa de Leyva. These parts of the country are still north of Bogotá, the Capital, which itself sits in the middle of the country. Colombia is by far the largest country we’ve visited since Mexico and contains just as much variety.
Kat and I spent six days in Cartagena waiting for Charlotte and enjoying the vibrant port city. However, after those six days we were tired of the stifling heat of the coast and chose to head southward and east toward the Sierra Nevada National Park in hopes of finding higher elevations and cooler temps. Our first camp site where we encountered the cops is to the right just below the park. Originally, our plan was to head to La Guajira desert which is a peninsula in the far north east of the country, but after a super hot, muggy night with no respite from the coastal humidity, mixed with the dirty looks from the locals, we caved in and decided to high tail it south for the 12,000+ foot high mountains in the Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy.
Our decision to head south required passing through the rough and ready town of Valledupar. Being very close to the Venezuelan border, this place felt like an outpost full of outlaws. As soon as we entered the main drag we were accosted by hawkers selling contraband gasoline, smuggled over the border from Venezuela where gas at the pump sells for pennies. There were literally thousands of gallons of the stuff lining the sidewalks in filthy 1 to 5 gallon containers. The going price seemed to be around 5000 pesos for 5 gallons or roughly US$2.50/5 gal or 50 cents a gallon! Not wanting to risk Charlotte’s fuel filter, we drove on, foolishly thinking we’d get gas at a legit Colombian gas station. It was over 100 miles before we found one that was still trying to do a legal business. We passed dozens of abandoned ones, all boarded up, their pumps stripped of hoses and weeds growing through cracks in the concrete. We felt sad for our gas jockey as we paid him over US$5.00/gallon for his legal Colombian gas.
Heading south on the 49 we spotted a restaurant that looked fun. We had a típico (typical) breakfast of rice, beans, fried plantains, pork, egg, arepa (those corn things), queso (cheese) and coffee.
Our southern progress ended in the town of Bucaramanga where we then headed northeast for a bit to Pamplona. Then it was south again into the mountains and windy dirt roads towards the mountain hamlets of Cocuy and Quicán and the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy range. For the next five days we wandered on remote dirt tracks through these magnificent mountains, our jaws dropping at the amazing views around every bend. Eventually we hit pavement again and somewhat reluctantly made our way to the touristy colonial town of Villa de Leyva for a shower, WiFi and yet another Colombian Fútol game.
The outskirts of Bucaramanga.
We drove south for hours. The heat and humidity were relentless, and I was determined to get a wash somewhere before trying to sleep again. A sponge bath, a creek, I didn’t care. I was just feeling too sticky.
In the bustling city of Bucaramanga, we stumbled on a great restaurant where we had a good meal with a healthy salad and this delicious ball of chicken and rice! The weather was encouraging too. It was much cooler eating dinner outside, and a fresh breeze was blowing. We were finally getting out of the same swamp lands that make up the Darian gap.
The road east into the mountains was twisty and choked with trucks, but it was getting cool enough to actually put on a fleece. At about 11,000ft elevation I was asleep in my seat and crawled into bed in the back. We had been driving since 5:30am! Ned was still into it though, passing the monstrous trucks on the treacherous windy road in the dark. Sometimes it’s easier to pass on the corners in the dark, because you can see the reflections of headlights on the cliffs from the oncoming trucks.
Around 9pm Ned finally found a dirt road to turn up and drove another 5 miles before pulling into a gravel pit to camp for the night. We were at about 8,000ft and the temperature was perfect for sleeping. I never did get my wash, but I slept well anyway, happy to not be sweltering.
Having camped just off of the dirt track, we did wake to company again, but these local mountain folks reminded us of the Peruvian people. They were curious and shy, but not dangerous. The first two walked around and around Charlotte, trying to peek in the tinted glass. Then one tried the sliding door but jumped away as soon as it wiggled. They moved on. We got up, made breakfast and did exercises. The weather was cool and misty and felt good. We had several other visitors who were all friendly and stopped to chat.
That morning we drove into the little town of Pamplona. It was beautiful with deep green valleys, patchwork crops, and red tile roofs. At around 10am we found a cheap motel and paid 15 bucks for a tiny room with a shower; not that we were going to sleep there, but it was a great way to get cleaned up. We walked around town and restocked on food and beer.
Ned buying beer at the local boys’ Sunday hangout…the liquor store…complete with slot machines
It was a bustling Sunday market day in Pamplona.
There were few other tourists, and people were puzzled by Charlotte and Vaca Muerta. We got very strange looks; some friendly, some decidedly unfriendly and some very long, blank stares. As it became a reoccurring phenomenon, we decided to categorize the looks as Wink Eye, Stink Eye and Blink Eye, respectively.
We ate a wonderful late lunch across the street from where we parked Charlotte. When we came back outside a local family was admiring her. We had a great chat and gave the mom a hand painted bookmark from Oaxaca, Mexico. She loved it. They told us that it was very inexpensive to live in Pamplona and that tourists rarely visited. It’s always great to be off the beaten path!
Our favorite Colombian sign…and the most prevalent!
Definitely Wink Eye…these two loved Charlotte and were snapping their own photos on the older one’s phone.
Some major Blink Eye going on here, even the dog…
…still staring. The dog seems to have lost interest, though.
Can you spot the Wink Eye, Stink Eye and Blink Eye in these photos?
Driving on the 55 south of Pamplona was incredibly picturesque. Although the overcast weather made it tough to get good shots, we still wanted to photograph everything. We finally had to put the camera down and just enjoy the sights.
For once we found place to camp before dark. At the top of a pass at 13,000ft, we discovered a road that required four wheel drive and led to some abandoned mines and houses. It was above timber line, and I’m pretty sure had perma-clouds; gorgeous but totally socked in. It rained all night, but was otherwise wonderfully silent and relaxing. It was so out of the way we knew there was no chance of visitors.
We were warm and dry in our little casita, playing Dominoes until we fell peacefully asleep.
It was still drizzling when we woke and too wet to get out and exercise or eat breakfast. We got dressed, crawled up front and drove back to the main road which was still mostly dirt and still gorgeous.
We thought these “broccoli trees” were rather interesting.
A memorial altar for the truckers. There were even candles lit inside.
Blink Eye or Stink Eye? Poor wet thing.
Every scruffy little town still features an inspiring church and steeple.
The road dropped down to 3500ft and it became hot again. We were driving along a river valley with beautiful canyons and terrain which turned to desert, complete with cactus. It was beautiful, but we were back to sweating.
Mr. Garmin has been 100% useless in Colombia, so we’ve been relying on our National Geographic paper map and the ATL system (Ask The Locals). All in all, we’ve done pretty well, but we did miss our planned route to Cocuy and happily ended up on another very picturesque dirt road.
We climbed back up to cooler climes and into the charming pueblo of Cocuy. Just like Izamal, the mono-colored yellow town in Mexico, Cocuy is uniformly painted in sea foam green and white.
Interesting parallel parking options on the streets of Cocuy.
Our goal that night was to get up into the Cocuy National Park to find a place to camp, but it was a long 15 miles away going 8 mph on the rough track. We climbed up to 11,000ft, and the scenery was stunning again. We decided that this drive was one of our top five most beautiful ever. The only down side was that it was totally fenced and populated with little huts. There was nowhere to drive off of the road, and it was nearly dark. At almost 12,000ft we just pulled over at the first little inset we came to. It was not hidden, and we were sure we would have visitors early in the morning. We had a great feeling about the area, though. The people were all very friendly (Wink Eye only!) and we felt safe.
We woke to find we were in a little pool of water! Poor Charlotte had wet feet all night, but it was a quiet, cool night. Only two people walked by in the morning and they were very friendly.
It rained constantly but was always beautiful. At 12,000ft the road was rough and slow enough that I was able to get out and run ahead of Ned and Charlotte. Exercise, combined with the crisp, fresh air felt wonderful. I had to slow down here for this wooly checkpoint.
We were curious about the many plastic containers and stainless steel milk jugs sitting on the side of the road. It all became clear when we came upon this “milk truck.” The driver would stop the truck while the other guys jumped out, picked up the jugs and poured them into bigger containers, leaving the smaller ones lying on the side of the road again. Evidently, anyone who has milk cows participates in this high elevation “co-op.”
No Stink-Eye here. All of the people we encountered in the mountains had smiling, welcoming faces.
Bon-Bons never fail to get smiles.
Through the drizzly mist at nearly 13,000ft, we saw a sign for this little hostel/restaurant. A young man named Juan Carlos greeted us at the gate. He and his friend Fabian made us a delicious, wholesome breakfast. The hostel was situated on a working finca (farm) which had been in his family for generations. Several years ago, Juan Carlos, who is also a mountaineering guide, took up the reins, built this cozy little hostel and pursued the eco-tourism market. Everything we had for breakfast was raised on the farm. His parents still actively work the farm and we enjoyed chatting with Dad about the local culture.
After breakfast we headed back out to more spectacular scenes. I got out and ran some more…
…and ran into this friendly family. I chatted with Edwardo, Estela and their sons Carlos and Chistian. Ned eventually drove up, and they invited us to have a cup of tea. Our first knee-jerk reaction was to decline, but as we continued to talk, we realized how silly it was to turn down an opportunity for a truly local close encounter. We back pedaled sheepishly, telling them that we would love a cup of tea. Estela brought us our “aromaticas” in little Styrofoam cups. We have discovered since that aromaticas are very popular here in Colombia, and are basically teas made by placing fresh, locally grown herbs and fruits in a cup and pouring in hot water; healthy and very refreshing.
Sitting outside on their tree stump table and stools, drinking tea with this family at 13,000ft felt amazing. We loved hearing about the farm and how, it too, had been in the family for many generations. We eventually moved into their simple, rustic home as the rain continued, and then got a tour of the farm. The entire family came with us, smiling and proudly showing off their cows, horses, geese (for eggs), sheep…
…and Guinea Pigs! Just like we found on a previous trip to Peru, Guinea Pig is a delicacy saved for special occasions, and someday we will tell you our own special Guinea Pig story!
And then there were the trucha (trout)… This was actually kind of gross. They had two ponds, each about three feet square, and three feet deep. Edwardo told us that together they contained 500 fish! I can’t even imagine how contaminated that water must be.
Note to self: Do not eat the locally raised trucha.
Continuing on my run, I saw these equally friendly guys towing a rather irate bull. Ned told me later that they had smiles and warm greetings for him too, but the bull Stink Eyed Vaca and almost head-butted Charlotte.
The scenery and the elevation continued to be breathtaking…literally!
While following our plan to make a big loop back to Cocuy through the town of Quicán, a man and his daughter in a Land Cruiser flagged us down and asked if we needed a place to sleep. We said, “No, but maybe a place to camp.” They told us that they owned a place called Kanwara which had cabinas and a restaurante. Now temporary fans, we asked if they had satellite TV so we could watch Colombia play their next World Cup fútbol game. To our surprise they answered, “Yes, of course!” “We’re there, we cried!”
Kanwara, situated at just about 13,000ft, and several kilometers inside the park entrance, nonetheless, still featured a satellite dish. Passing through the park guard house, the guards told us they would be up to watch the game with us.
It was game time and very cold when we arrived at Kanwara. Two sweet young women, Mercedes and Lorena greeted us, led us into a rustic dining room and served us another “aromatic.” Everyone gathered together, bundled up in winter woolies, to watch the game. We never did figure out why the place was not heated, but we had a great time anyway. Colombia played Japan and won, and these young mountain people, unlike people in Cartagena, stood with hands over their hearts for the Colombian national anthem.
We stayed later for dinner and then camped on the property. It rained endlessly and was very cold. Amazingly, three days ago we were sweltering. Now we were freezing and frustrated that the fancy gasoline heater that Ned installed especially for the trip would not fire up at this high altitude. We eventually warmed up wearing many layers and slept well in the absolute silence of high mountains.
Mercedes and Lorena bundled up in their spotless kitchen. They are both in their mid 20’s, both have 5yr old daughters, and neither are married. Both kids stay with their grandmothers when their moms are working at the cabinas. They were very shy and very sweet, gifting us with warm hugs when we left.
Interestingly, the guest book at Kanwara showed that 90% of the visitors were Colombians, mostly from Bogota, and 10% were mixed international. People come for backpacking or ice climbing on the glaciers at 17,000ft.
After breakfast, we drove up into the park as far as we could. The road ended after about 40 minutes, but the misty, desolate beauty was well worth the look.
Our loop almost complete, we arrived in Quicán.
In Quicán, we visited this beautiful and interesting cemetery.
Quicán was surrounded by a fairy-like forest with emerald green glades, misty rain and babbling brooks tumbling over granite rocks. We have absolutely no idea what this sculpture represented, but we thought the fairies frolicking on the giant woman’s head were quite appropriate.
Our highest point on the trip so far. After completing the loop back to Cocuy we still hadn’t had enough of the tiny mountain dirt tracks or the interesting people and places they lead to. Instead of taking the nice paved road out of the mountains and down towards “civilization,” we picked another remote dirt route southwestward towards Chita.
A muddy, deserted track at 13,328 ft., past the town of Chita.
A side note on Chita: We did not get any photos, due to heavy rain, but we noticed that, unlike in other towns, the women all wore wool serapes, rode horses, dressed like the men and appeared to do all the work.
South of Chita, we found immense canyons with at least 2,000 ft sheer drops. It was absolutely gorgeous and not written about anywhere we could find. The roads were all muddy dirt tracks with scary rock falls and sheer drop offs. It was a geologist’s dream, perhaps wasted on our unknowledgeable selves, but we still enjoyed the breathtaking beauty and challenging driving. These roads were not on the Garmin at all, and on our trusty, paper NatGeo map were either shown as dotted lines, or not listed at all. The area was dotted with farms, but there were no tourists in sight.
We finally got past the not so cute town of Jerico at dusk and found a good place to hide off the road and camp. It was only 10,000ft., and not as cold. We heated some beans, played Uno and went happily to sleep.
It turned out to be a good camp spot. The night was rainy, quiet and free of visitors until 8am when a guy rode by on a horse. He appeared to be a bit puzzled by our presence, but did not stop.
Passing the towns of Socotá, Socha and Paz de Rio, we observed huge coal mining operations. We found it interesting and Googled them later. Evidently, Colombia is a country rich with mineral resources and has the largest coal reserves in Latin America. One sad fact on Google was that the town of Socotá has been the site of many coal mining accidents over the years.
The mining operations were huge, featuring this immense gondola system to bring the coal from the mountainside mines, across huge canyons, to awaiting trucks.
After the coal mine towns we were forced back onto pavement for the first time in 5 days. Sad to be back on crowded roads, we drove west to Belén, then on to the cute, but touristy Colonial town of Villa de Leyva. Colombia was due to play another soccer match in the World Cup the day we arrived, and everyone was out in the huge town square revving up for the game.
Watching Colombia rack up another win!
As usual, the post game fiesta was infused with lots of alcohol. These youngsters were quite drunk, but eager to have a long chat, practicing their English on us gringos.
We ended up spending three nights in Villa de Leyva, where we did laundry, bought a Colombia phone and posted the Cartagena blog.
Next up…on the road toward the big cities of Medellin, the flower capitol, Armenia, the coffee capitol, and Bogotá, the Capitol capitol of Colombia…but wait, you weren’t thinking we took paved roads to get there, were you?…