In this final blog on Colombia we spend some quality time with new-found friends in the capital of Bogota. (just off the map where the finger is pointing) After Bogota we continued south along the eastern side of the Cordillera Central, the mountain range that forms a spine north to south down the middle of the southern half of the country. The Pan-American Highway runs down the western side of these mountains. We’ve learned that we want to avoid the Pan-Am any time we can because of the hoards of slow trucks and subsequent backed up traffic. Interestingly, the only time we seem to see other Overlanders is in the vicinity of the Pan-Am. Hummm? Just sayin’. The drive down highway 45 through Neiva and Pitalito to Mocoa was pretty uneventful with heavy traffic and unexciting towns. The exception was the side trip to San Agustín and the Parque Arqueologico with its mysterious “stone dudes” and, nearby, the second highest waterfall in South America. After Mocoa we headed west to reach the border crossing into Ecuador at Ipiales. This involved crossing the Cordillera Central via a pass with the catchy name of “The Trampoline of Death.” With a name like that we just had to drive it!
Rolling into Bogota after eight hours of crazy, mountain driving, we encountered Bogota gridlock. We knew from our previous brief visit (see Cartagena blog) that traffic in this city barely moves any time of day. But we hit downtown right at 5pm and were treated to the best of it. There are no such things as traffic lanes. It is just a free-for-all with the most aggressive drivers getting ahead.
Kat’s priority one in the big city was getting her hair done. I’ll let her tell it…
“Back in the small pueblo of Villa de Leyva, it seemed like a simple thing to get a little color touch up. Asking around, I found that “Celia’s” was touted as the finest salon in the village. Unfortunately, Celia’s was crowded with curious, gossiping locals and was a tiny, run-down house. Celia herself was busy, so her daughter, Diane, did my color…kind of…
First I had to wait 45 minutes past my appointment time. Then I had to wait while Diane ran to another store to buy the color that would supposedly match mine. When we finally got going, I had to hold the bowl of goop while Diane applied it, the water in the (bathroom) sink was ice headache cold as she rinsed it out, and to top it off, the color did not take. In fact, my hair was in danger of being slightly on the orange side of gray-brown. I was on the verge of tears, when Celia told me to come back in the morning to have it re-done. I politely declined, offering a few bucks to cover the cost of the color. This job would have to wait for the more cosmopolitan city of Bogota!
The contrast was stunning. Once in Bogota, I did a little research and found this “little” salon near our hotel. Walking into Norberto’s was a once in a lifetime experience. It was an immense four stories of sheer elegance with over 200 employees, all bustling around, waiting on pampered patrons hand and foot. I was whisked away to have a facial, was offered lemon ices, coffee and croissants, and then had my disastrous hair “repaired” by, not one, but two attentive men. I almost had a heart attack when I received my final bill, but it was so worth it as there are few luxuries to be found living on the road. I found out later that, ironically, while Celia’s was the finest salon in Villa de Leyva, Norberto’s was the finest (and most expensive) salon in Bogota!”
My priority one was getting some fuel line and spark plugs for Charlotte. Spoiled at home by the ease of one-stop-shopping for auto parts at NAPA or AutoZone, I was amazed in Colombia to find every little item is offered in its own little shop. There was a whole district devoted to car parts with shops for rubber things, shops for electric things, some for gauges, some for taillights, even some for used hubcaps. Cooling systems, suspensions, brakes, etc. they all had their own stores, and there were plenty of each, all selling the same thing right next to each other. The trick was finding the ones you wanted in the maze. It took the better part of an hour and a hell of a lot of walking to get two items.
The FIFA World Cup raged on. Even though Colombia was out of the running, it didn’t keep everyone from stopping everything when a game was on. We were riding in a taxi, listening to the match between Germany and Brazil on the car’s radio when the Germans scored three goals in five minutes. Unheard of! Everyone was going nuts in the streets since all of Colombia was for Germany after Brazil had beaten them out of the finals. We passed this huge portable TV mounted on the back of a truck parked in a neighborhood park. Being the temporary fútbol junkies we’d become, we yelled at our driver to stop. We jumped out and joined the mob in the park, eager for the visual fix.
Our new best Colombian friends Honorato and Jeannette Espinosa in their beautiful home. Honorato made quite a name for himself in his home country and in the States as a professional race car driver with a career that spanned three decades. According to him, some of his best and favorite racing that he did in the States was in a car that I now own, a 1975 Porsche RSR. We spent a wonderful afternoon at their home where Jeannette, the best of hostesses, made us an amazing dinner, and we all reminisced through Honorato’s awesome scrapbooks of his racing days.
We also were treated to a viewing of their car collection which included several very original examples of Porsches and Nissans. But the highlight was this all original 1947 Lincoln Continental that Honorato’s father bought new. It was an export model to Colombia when new and has been in the family ever since. It just oozed wonderful patina and the love of ownership that’s been bestowed upon it over the years.
Our other new best friends in Bogota are Alvaro and Lilianna Pachon and their adorable daughter Marianna. I actually met Alvaro at the SEMA show (Specialty Equipment Market Association) in Las Vegas last November. When I told him of our impending trip south, he promised me when we got the Bogota he’d take us 4 wheeling with his friends and offered any help we needed in the city. We’ve kept in touch throughout our journey south and when we got to town, Alvaro found us a great hotel just down the street from his home. On a Saturday, true to his word, we piled into his Land Cruiser and met up with six other rigs and a bunch of enthusiastic 4×4 friends, all eager to get out of the city and into the dirt for a day – just like my 4×4 friends at home. Besides ‘wheeling, one evening Lilianna had us to their home for a wonderful dinner and we joined the family another night for dinner at their favorite burger joint. The hospitality we received in Bogota has been the best of the entire trip.
We drove about an hour west out of the city to the Tablazo Trail outside the little town of Subachoque. The trail was short, maybe two kilometers long, but offered plenty of excitement with steep climbs and deep ruts. It definitely wasn’t Charlotte country! The views at the top, the table, (Tablazo) were amazing in every direction. The clouds parted long enough to see a particular village below. One guy told us it was the first time he’d seen that town in ten years of driving the trail, due to it always being cloudy at this altitude (about 11,000 feet).
Alvaro’s LC80, rolling on 40s, made short work of the trail, but the deep ruts still challenged his suspension and required pushing the ARB button more than once.
Animal rights activism is alive and well in Colombia. We saw this large, hand painted message on a wall in Subachoque. “Torture is neither art nor Culture,” referring to bull fighting and cock fighting.
Leaving Bogota after a week, we spotted this guy begging at a traffic light. Despite his miserable situation in life, he wore a happy smile and chatted with the passers bye.
I gave him my Colombian Futból jersey I had proudly worn for every game we watched. He seemed a bit overwhelmed, but grateful. As we drove away I was glad to see a street hawker help him put the shirt into his bag of belongings lying on the sidewalk. We were a bit concerned someone would take it from him.
Down the road a couple of hours from Bogota, we pulled over at this chicken joint to watch the final game of the World Cup. When Germany beat Argentina and won the overall honors, the staff and patrons all went nuts. We found it odd that the Colombians were rooting for a European team rather than fellow South Americans???
Look Ma, no silverware! My mother would cringe at these plastic gloves provided at every chicken joint, allowing the diner to tear the bird apart with his bare hands yet remain grease free!
Post game revelers gave us a Colombian flag for Charlotte which I attached to her CB antenna.
In turn, we gave out Charlottamiles stickers to everyone.
Things just keep improving since Central America. We now have half -toilet seats instead of no-toilet seats!
This bizarre statue by Colombian sculptor Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt is found along the highway in the town of Neiva. It is a bronze menagerie of tumbling horses and slain conquistadores saluting the 1539 rebellion of the indigenous Yalcon people which briefly slowed the Spanish invasion.
This huge Ceiba tree fills the entire town square in Gigante, Colombia.
Sharing the farm with the cows. We camped in this farmer’s front yard in San Agustín.
We were pretty much over Colombian breakfasts long before we were over Colombia. Don’t think one can kill an egg any more than this. And the cold bread and rice ball didn’t add anything to the mix.
The “Stone Dudes.” Outside of the town of San Agustín is the Parque Arqueológico which is the site of dozens of these mysterious stone carvings. They date pre-Inca ranging from 3000BC to around 900AD. No known history of these people exists, not even a name, as they did not have a written language. The only thing they left behind were these spooky tomb guardians, carved in stone and buried with their dead.
We got Charlotte a key chain depicting this happy guy.
Cool bamboo bridge built over a creek that features ancient carvings in the creek bed, made by the same mystery people that left the tomb guardians.
Carvings in the creek.
This is how many of the figures were found buried, with a huge flat stone above them.
Not just people but birds too.
Upside down babies.
Charlotte finds a friend, and a GoWesty built one to boot! Leaving San Agustín we passed this Syncro headed the other way. We both waved and screeched to a halt to compare notes. The owners, an Israeli couple, had come up from the south, having bought their VW from our friends at GoWesty in Los Osos, CA (see our first blog about Baja). They then shipped the van from California to Argentina. They were essentially doing our trip in reverse so we had much to share. We ended up having lunch together comparing notes of what is to come for each of us.
Biggest spider web ever. Couldn’t find the owner.
Our next stop was to see the second highest waterfall in South America, Salto de Bordones. We followed a muddy dirt road at 6 mph for about three hours until it ended at this really nice new hotel, Hotel Salto de Bordones, situated on a cliff side overlooking the falls. After asking permission, we stayed in their parking lot for the night and went in for breakfast the next morning. That’s when we found out they had only been open two weeks and had only had family for customers so far. We felt pretty guilty. It got worse when we were told the hotel had been a multi-year labor of love by the family patriarch, who died just four months before it was finished. The son, Juan, an anthropologist, had temporarily quit studying for his PHD in order to help finish the place and get it open. We sure hope they make it considering the road it takes to get there.
The inside of the hotel was beautiful and all made from recycled materials.
Co-owner Juan points out the waterfall from the best room in the house.
Salto de Bordones drops roughly 400 meters and is pretty spectacular, but pales in comparison to Angel Falls in Venezuela which is the highest uninterrupted waterfall in the world at 979 meters (3,212 feet).
These two little gals couldn’t have been cuter. Tatiana and Darli ran after us from the village of Bordones to where we stopped at the hotel. They each wore shirts emblazed with official tourist assist logos and, looking at each other for reassurance, shyly explained in struggling English, the details about the waterfall they had obviously rehearsed for hours. I think we were the first tourists they had had the courage to approach.
We explained with maps on our ipads where we were from and how we were traveling and living in our car. They seemed to think that was pretty cool. Their brave interaction with us inspired us to interact ourselves the next morning. Thanks to these two little girls, Kat and I have found a new way to give back a bit during this trip…
We decided to visit the girls’ school and tell their teacher how impressed we were with the girls’ English and their bravery in approaching us. Here Kat meets their teacher and explains our feelings.
The school’s reception to us was overwhelming. All the teachers, the principal, and most of the student body, crowded around and begged us to enter their classrooms and explain the importance of learning English. Here Kat poses with Tatiana and Darli and the teacher responsible for their English.
Kat was amazing. She took over the first classroom, captivating most of the students in Spanish by describing our trip and answering questions. Andreas, the director of the school, explained to us how he was frustrated that he could only give the kids two hours a week towards English classes. Kat offered alternatives to them like listening to songs and TV shows in English. She also encouraged them to spend an hour a day only speaking English with their friends. I wandered around taking photos and relating to the wisecrackers in the back who never pay attention. I should have been explaining to them (if I could have) that, had I paid more attention in Spanish class, I might be standing in front of the class teaching!
Watching the kids in the classes, (we visited three) I was reminded how school atmosphere doesn’t change. It was just like school was for me, forty something years ago. There were the girls in the front who hung on every word and the guys in the back screwing around.
The older kids were all riveted on teacher Kat and asked great questions, while lots of curious onlookers peered through the windows.
Well, some things change… I don’t remember times tables like this in the 60’s. The whole class laughed when I took this picture and when I praised the teacher for his clever way of getting those back row boys’ attention in math class.
To cool for school. Boys are the same everywhere.
Vaca made lots of new friends with the little ones.
It was tough to leave, and groups of kids ran after us. Back on the road we talked about the experience and how good we felt. We vowed to do this again as often as the opportunity presents itself. We also decided it would be great to give giant world maps to the schools to show the kids where we come from. We bought some great maps in Quito, Ecuador and hope to repeat our schooling experience soon.
After teaching school we headed south to Mocoa and then turned west to cross the Cordillera Central on the “Trampoline of Death.” After some of the cliff-hanging remote roads we’ve been over, the Trampoline didn’t quite live up to its name. We even drove the steepest first part at night for greater effect but… maybe it was the safety guardrail?
It was kinda narrow in spots.
After climbing for over three hours in first gear we called it a night at this illustrious spot – the only level one we’d come across during the entire climb. The family that lived in the shack next to these radio towers was more afraid of us than we them when I knocked on their door at 10pm and asked if we could sleep in their yard. “Sleep” was rare as their chickens woke us up around 4am, pecking and crowing under Charlotte.
Ah, but we had Tyler’s coffee. I think he’d cringe if he saw the desecrating way we make it. No precise measuring or perfect water temps around here!
Traffic was a little tight along the downhill side of the Trampoline the next morning. Of course the pouring rain didn’t help.
Amazing mud slides could be seen everywhere. As the rain continued to fall in buckets, we wondered how any of this road stayed up on the mountain.
Some of it didn’t!
After about ten hours, the Trampoline ride was over and we approached the border with Ecuador. We had one last thing to see before leaving Colombia. Way back in January my daughter Emily emailed us with a picture of this church and a plea to us to check it out.
Cathedral Las Lajas is just outside the seedy border town of Ipiales. It affords an impressive sight, spanning a river gorge and looking like a medieval castle. In reality, it was only built in 1949 so it’s got a ways to go to antiquity.
Still, Las Lajas left us with one more impressive site from a country that has delivered plenty in the month we’ve spent in it. Colombia has been wonderful and a welcome change from Central America. We look forward to the adventures that lie further south… Stay tuned.