Friday, December 10, 2010

Colombia : Tierradentro, Desierto de Tatacoa, San Augustín and beyond...

The time had come to make a break from Cali.  It was a great time out and well needed rest in a comfy hostel that felt more like a home.  But even though the rain hadn't stopped, I needed to get back on the road.  I loaded up my bike and said good-bye to Mike and Diana, Owain and Hannah and rolled out onto the road.  I headed south towards Popayan but turned off into the mountains just before I got there.  I was headed for Inza and the ruins of Tierradentro.

The roads were thick with mud.  The rain was coming down pretty good as I headed up further and further away from the Pan American highway.  I was warned that the area can be a little sketchy at times.  I had my guard up but was simply met with smiles everywhere.

The landscape was amazingly beautiful.  Clouds stuck to the peaks like cotton candy and huge waterfalls plunged down the walls all around.  It was so green and lush it was hard to keep my eyes on the road sometimes.  But the riding was super challenging.  The roads were in the process of being improved but at most there was construction in the works.  Packed gravel but mostly mud up to 8" deep at times threatened to bring me down.

I made it to Inza and was so relieved to get onto the concrete for a few minutes.  But not five minutes out of town I got a flat rear tire.  There were some road workers heading home from their day that helped direct the passing vehicles around me while I got to changing my tube.  Just as I was getting things wrapped up a guy pulled up on a little Honda 150.  It was cool to have local guys around to keep me company as I raced to fix the flat before the sun went down.

Jairo was the guy on the Honda 150 and though the local shop owners warned me that he could be trouble, he turned out to be a top notch friend.  Jairo invited me out the next day to show me around to some of the ruins in the area.

Here's a sweet shot of my bike with Jairo's Honda in the background in front of his house in Inza, Colombia.

Jairo told me about some "pyramides" that were close by.  Knowing that the area was occupied by lots of cocaine production I wasn't sure how badly I wanted to follow this guy into the backcountry to check out the ruins, but when he said his wife was going to come along as well, I relaxed.

The pyramids were a natural conglomeration of rectangular rock that created a pyramidal precipice.  I thought that that was all there was to it but Jairo took me down the steep back side of the pyramid to show me the hollowed out caverns that were used in pre-Columbian times to store gold, salt and other precious commodities.

It felt like some real Indiana Jones set surrounded by jungle, hanging out in a sketchy zone in Colombia on my own with some guy I'd met on the side of the road while changing a flat tire.  But it was awesome.  Jairo was a top notch guy regardless of what the local old folks had to say about him.

I let Jairo use one of my pocket cameras to snap photos while we were exploring the area.  It was fun to see how excited he got about making images.  We went to an internet shop after our hike and burned all of his photos to a cd.  

As always with new friends that I'm not sure I'll ever cross paths with again, it was sad to say goodbye to Jairo.  We had a great day checking out his neighborhood.  And it was a great lesson in trust for me.  Everyone was warning against me traveling alone in the area and also about hanging out with this local bad boy...  but in the end I couldn't have had a better time in Tierradentro.

My bike made quite the impression in town when I took it to the local vulcanizador or tire repair man.

This little girl was awesome.  Once all the older boys cleared out, she came up and asked if she could have a picture with me and the bike.  Her dad had his cell phone camera ready for the shot.  When I said she should sit on the bike, her eyes lit up.  Men and boys are always intrigued by the big KTM but this was the first little girl that was super excited about the bike.  It really made my day to see how excited she was to sit on the bike and have her picture taken on it.

Check out the rear-view mirrors on this guy's horse...
I had a great time there in Inza.  For the equivalent of two bucks, the tire man put a professional hot patch on my tube.  I packed it away for the next time I got a flat.  I rode back to Hostel La Portada near the base of the Tierradentro ruins and holed up for another night of heavy rain.  It the morning I got up early and headed off for the Desierto de Tatacoa.

On the way I bumped into a German couple who'd been touring since July of 2007.  They were riding BMW F650GS Dakar motos.  They were on their way to San Augustín, where I'd be the following day. We talked story for a few minutes on the side of the road at a nice overlook of the Rio Magdelena before heading again in the opposite direction.

The light was perfect as I made my way into the desert.  It was a pretty mini desert and pretty green for a desert too but plenty beautiful.

I was all set to camp.  I had potato chips, some bread and cheese and a bottle of rum and a couple bottles of Coca-Cola.  The evening light was incredible as I made my way out to the observatory and campgroud.  The old man tried to get me to camp on some gravel in back of the observatory but I stuck to my guns demanding that I wanted to camp in the pavilion where I could see the sandstone formations from my tent in the morning.  Other campers had followed my lead a little later.  But when the rain came that night the pavilion filled with strange sounds.  I had to pop my head out of my tent to take a look...

The rain let up an hour or so later and the goats stopped eating our tents and left.  The sun came up and revealed this mini South Dakota Badlands'esque landscape.

Some crazy floppy eared cows on my way out of Tatacoa.

I left Tatacoa and continued roughly south to an archeological area near the town of San Augustín.  I camped out at a little place called Finca El Maco.

Stunning scenery in the backcountry around San Augustín.  In the morning I headed up to the Parque Archeological to check out the famous San Augusín statues and graves.  Due to heavy guerilla warfare, San Augustín was out of most tourists' reach for many years, but now it has quieted down.  There was a heavy military influence on the roads and I was stopped to have my documents checked several times.  Always the Colombian military were friendly and super professional.  Signs that the country is really making an effort to ensure the safety of it's traveling citizens and tourists.

Local banana farmer and horse near San Augustín, Colombia.

The San Augustín statues and graves date from between 500 B.C. to around 1600 A.D.  Some have suggested that they could be an offshoot of the Maya civilization from Central America due to the ease of traveling between the Caribbean and this area along the great Rio Magdelena. 

From San Augustín, I rode through the countryside encountering several heavy rainstorms on my way to colonial Popayan.

From Popayan I pushed further south on the Pan American highway to the city of Pasto, where I bumped into this fellow on guard on a hillside above the city.  He looked a little intimidating at first... maybe it was the AK-47, but after getting him to chat with me I found out that he was just a typical 18 year-old Colombian soldier hoping nobody would mess with their zone.  The border area with Ecuador and Peru is notably a hotspot for drug trafficking and guerilla warfare.  Only a month or so before I arrived to the area, Colombian military had captured several guerillas along with their intel, which included a laptop containing information that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez was supporting them.

I spent a couple of nights in Pasto, not really wanting to leave Colombia yet.  But my visa was going to expire in days so I made my way to the border town of Las Lajas.  The town was dusty, dirty and  a typically chaotic border town.  It did have some nice colonial architecture on the main plaza though. 

And it is also known for this beautiful Santuario de Las Lajas, where the virgin Mary's likeness is said to have appeared in a stone tile.  I didn't take the time to go check out the apparition but I did stop by the canyon to snap this token tourist shot.

COLOMBIA: The only danger is not wanting to leave...

This is the slogan the Ministry of Tourism has planted around Colombia and in their print and television advertisements.  And after staying for two months, traveling most of the country, and leaving only one day before my visa expired... I couldn't agree more.  

Thanks to all the wonderful Colombians that made my journey here absolutely fantastic.  

Up next:  Ecuador's famous Otovalo market and the coastal paradise of Canoa...