Thursday, May 6, 2010

Colombia : Deep Backcountry Adventure


Perusing the Lonely Planet Colombia guidebook back in Bogotá, I found a section on the Sierra Nevada El Cocuy.  The book said that if one wanted to get off the beaten path, that this tour out to the big mountains and glaciers of Cocuy would be it.  "Off the beaten path," sounded great to me.  I was sporting aggressive knobby tires, might as well put them to use.  I looked at the map and it seemed like cutting through Mogotes from San Gil was the most direct route.  Then hooking up with a bit of pavement into Soatá and cutting back into the wilds through Boavita, La Uvita and eventually ending up in Guícan at the base of the big mountains.  It looked easy enough on the map.  Of course my map didn't show topography...

Henry Valasquez, our new friend back in Barichara, said that we'd be hard pressed to make it to Guícan that day since it was already noon.  But what did he know?  Sam and I are fast and capable riders.  He mentioned that 'just in case we were running behind', we could find a place to stay in Tipacoque.

According to the map, Tipacoque wasn't very far away.  He must have been mistaken, we'd be there in no time.  Or so I thought.

I stopped for a quick moment of relief at the most unique road-side restroom I've ever seen... anywhere!

We filled up with gas and blasted off into the unknown, heading vaguely east.  The roads were winding with tight switchbacks but still paved.  This lasted about twenty minutes.  For the rest of the day we pounded loose gravel roads that varied from decent to downright terrible.  It was a blast.  And we were certainly off the beaten path.  People stared at us as if we were aliens when we passed through their little villages.

The first couple of hours of this Sam and I were giddy.  It was so much fun being off pavement and rallying the bikes like they were meant to be rallied.  But later in the day, after a 25 km, hour long detour due to a wrong turn, we started getting hot and tired.  We both crashed at different times.  The challenge of dirt riding with fully loaded touring bikes became apparent.

Check out this ridge road...  It just keeps going and going and going.  Where?  Well we accidentally found out when we hooked up with it instead of taking the right-hand turn we needed.  We were told that it would eventually end up in the town of Soatá, where we were headed, but it would take us a full extra day to get there.

Yes.  That is the road way up on the ridge behind Sam.  All day we climbed, ridged out, and descended back into the next valley.  And in every valley there was a little town, that had likely never seen riders like Sam and I.  Being fresh to backcountry Colombia, we were also on high alert, not knowing if the next corner would yield a revolutionary guerilla roadblock.

Often people didn't know what to tell us when we were asking for directions.  If we weren't diligent about knowing the name of the very next town on our route it lead to problems because often there were several routes out of town.  And often they lead to the same place... eventually.

The depression in the foreground to the left is actually a several hundred foot dropoff into a raging river. Guardrails?  What are those?  It was amazing that there was even a directional arrow out here.  They must have had it on a truck by accident and figured why not stick it there...  See the mountains in the far background of the above shot?  Those are in between where we are and where we are going, just to give a bit of scale.

Yep that's our road way over there on the other side of the valley...

When we got to Onzaga, we were about halfway to Tipacoque according to the map.  It was already 4:20 pm.  We'd be lucky to make it there by nightfall.  I guess old Henry was right after all.  The map showed two routes out of Onzaga to Soatá.  One was shorter and straighter to the north, the other went more to the east and then picked up a paved highway to the north.  Sam and I pondered this while taking in the view in the plaza.  We saw a Policia Nacional station on the corner of the plaza and decided to ask them.  The officer in charge was a little stand offish.  This caught me off guard because in every other town we'd been in today, they happily pointed us in the right direction.  Later I realized he was just unclear about what we were asking.  Both roads went to Soatá, so what was he supposed to say when we asked which way to go...  'Whatever way you want crazy gringos!'  "Which is easier?" I asked.  He pointed to the road to the east.

So off we went rallying along the river.  The road got really rough and started climbing precipitously.  The air got cool.  Then almost cold.  We popped out onto a high mountain plain, know as an altiplano.  The views were incredible.  It felt as though we were on the valley floor because the mountains rose to the sky all around us, but we'd been riding for an hour out of the valley from Onzaga.  Here the vegetation changed drastically.  High mountain cacti filled the expanse.  It was an otherworldly vista.

The light was incredible.  I wanted to stick around and photograph.  But we were still so far from Tipacoque, we needed to push on.  But soon we got to the paved highway.  

After riding such challenging dirt all day, it felt like we were flying when we finally hit the pavement.  We swooped down from the altiplano, gliding past Sativanorte, eventually passing through Soatá and landed in Tipacoque finally, just as darkness settled in on the huge canyon country.  Just before darkness we caught a glimpse of the mountains to the east.  There was a giant canyon between us and the mountains.  This would be our ride in the morning.

We found a makeshift motel at a truckstop just before the big descent into the canyon.  The beds were good and the room was clean.  And at the equivalent of $6. US a piece, the price was about right too.  We asked the owner where we could find a restaurant.  He pointed down the canyon and said that we'd need to ride another ten minutes down and there would be two of them.  He said the one that was a little further and on the right was the better of the two.

The last thing we wanted to do was get back on the bikes, but we did.  And we were rewarded for doing so.  We found the restaurant.  When we walked in, it was like a scene out of a movie.  Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked up at us.  No joke.  The sound of silverware clanking on porcelain stopped like the needle slipping off a record.  It was like walking into a biker bar with purple leathers on or something.  Big mustaches watched our every move.  I greeted them with a simple, "Buenos Noches, Como Estan?" and the record resumed playing.  Just like that everything snapped into action again.  They greeted us as we sat down at an open table.  The proprietor came over to us and took our order.  There wasn't much to choose from...  We could have goat... or goat.  So we chose goat, naturally.  And we had our choice of soda or beer.  "Cerveza, por supuesto."

And goat?  Why not?  I was so hungry 'I could eat the crotch out of a low flying duck.'  To steal a verse from Daniel Hawes, that makes me laugh hysterically every time I say it.

When I busted out my camera to document our meal, a group of truckers started laughing like this was the funniest thing they'd ever seen.  They yelled over, "how about a picture with the 'real' Colombians you're having dinner with?"  We were more than happy to oblige.  We got everyone in the restaurant bunched up for a family portrait with the token gringos.

The typical twenty questions ensued.  I spoke mostly, for Sam and I, but often the proprietor of the joint, Luis Antonio, had to translate my Spanish to Spanish that the rest of them could understand.  We told them where we were headed and where we'd come from.  They just looked at us incredulously with jaws dropped, fuzzy mustaches hanging like moss.

But I had some questions of my own...  mainly "were we the first to come through here on big motos?"  They just nodded their heads.  Somehow I doubted that we were really the first ever.  But it didn't matter, a more unique experience couldn't be had, period.  These moments were priceless.  

We left Luis Antonio's restaurant with a light beer buzz and soaring spirits.  A quick couple minutes up the pitch black canyon dodging headlights of oncoming trucks and we were back at our little motel oasis.

Trucks stopped to check their air brakes outside our door all night long.  But really I was so tired it barely registered.  The beds were comfy and though I felt like I was sleeping with one eye open, constantly concerned that someone might be loading our bikes up on a passing truck, I woke up pretty refreshed.


We started the day backtracking ten minutes uphill to Soatá.  The smell of fresh baked goods wafted out into the street and straight into my nostrils.  I couldn't help it.  I had to stop.  We stuffed our faces with pastries before pushing out the back of Soatá towards Boavita.  The road was paved and new.  It was narrow and the switchbacks were really tight but it was a big surprise to have pavement.

Looking down on this road from above was astounding.  We kept on towards Boavita.  The views were incredible.

Boavita and La Uvita passed by quickly, as did the pavement.  Soon we were back on the dirty stuff.  We rode hard pushing for Guacamayas.  Just before town it started raining on us.  This changed the dynamic significantly.  We suited up in rain gear and slowed way down.  Luckily it only rained hard for a bit and then settled down to a constant mist.

Surprisingly we got to El Cocuy town without much trouble.  A lot of the roads we took this day ended up being paved.  But when we got to Cocuy we were a bit turned off by the plain white plaster and seafoam green trim on every building.  The church was interesting, as it only had one tower instead of two and there was an interesting model of the mountains in the plaza.  (If you look close you can see the mountain model in the foreground of the photo below.)

We had lunch while it rained.  After looking around town, Sam and I decided that we didn't really want to spend the night here.  It was early in the afternoon and we had plenty of time so we asked around to see how long it would take us to get to Guícan, another town here at the base of Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy.  The responses varied from an hour and a half, to four hours.  We saddled up and decided to make a push for it anyway.  We were used to rolling into places at dark anyway.  It ended up taking us fifteen minutes.  Yeah you read that right: fifteen minutes!

So we picked our way around town and eventually found the hostel that we were looking for.  There was no one around to be found except for a crew of kids.  They assured us that someone would be there soon, so we got to work on Sam's battery issue.  Somewhere around the rain, his bike stopped starting with the electric starter, forcing him to push start the bike.  The local kids were a huge help, running to get him water and a couple of drinking straws to facilitate filling his battery.

With the battery filled and replaced, the bike fired to life without issue.  Sam haggled the hostel owner to a fair price and we dropped some gear.  The weather had lifted so we headed out deeper into the backcountry.  Now there were no longer towns between us and the mountains.  A couple of outposts and nothing more.  We rode the dirt roads high into the foothills hoping for a glimpse of the glaciers that we knew were hiding above us in the clouds.  The scenery was incredible as we got closer and closer to the park.

At one point while we were stopped taking pictures, I saw this local boy sneaking up to us.  His eyes were glued to our bikes.  Then all of a sudden he slipped a cell phone from his pocket and started sneaking photos of me.  The tables had turned.  The photographer becomes the photograph.  I chuckled. So many times I'm trying to sneak photos of people candidly, always wondering what they're thinking when they catch me.  Now I knew.  I asked him if he wanted a picture of just the bike or with me too.  He smiled shyly and said with me...  I was honored.

I asked his name...  "Julio" he replied.  I introduced myself.  He rattled off the same twenty questions as everyone else before we fired up the bikes blasting off into the hills before the sun set on us.  Julio was a cool kid.  I felt like I knew him.  As a matter of fact I did know him; I was the same way as a kid, I couldn't let a motorcycle get by me without a serious stare down.  I hope Julio has the opportunity to have a motorcycle in his future.  And if it is his dream, like it is mine, I hope he gets to travel far and wide on it.

We blasted up higher and higher on the bikes.  They were light with the luggage removed.

The cliff in this photo is a source of local lore.  The legend says that the indigenous people committed mass suicide off this cliff when the Spanish arrived in these deep valleys.  I obviously don't know if this is true, but I'm certain that anyone who decided to jump off would meet their maker; quickly.  

We came to a turnoff for some lakes.  I had a gut feeling that we needed to go there.  Sam was ahead of me, but I knew if I stopped he'd soon be back to see what the matter was.  I told him I thought we should take the spur trail.  He reminded me that it would be dark soon and that we were far from town.  I nodded and rocketed up the spur road anyway.  Seven kilometers up the road, we came to this sign next to a little locked cabin.  We were only there for a couple of minutes when the clouds lifted giving us this amazing view.

That is a glaciated peak behind the sign there.  It is called the Devils Armchair.  And it looks a little something like this...

Pretty amazing.  The clouds stayed aloft only long enough to snap these pictures before descending again covering up the peak for another day.

Behind this sign was this amazing singletrack...  Neither Sam nor I could resist.  We ripped down into the valley for several kilometers until it really turned into a hiking trail.  We knew we were in the park now and decided it would be best to turn around and get back out before anyone found us.  We weren't sure if it was strictly a hiking trail or not, but waiting to find out wasn't an option we were interested in.

The views back down to El Cocuy town were fantastic now that it had cleared up a bit.

There's another glaciated peak there in the background if you look closely.  So incredible.  It was awesome ripping around through all this amazing landscape.  Words really don't do it justice, and sadly enough, neither do photographs.

When we got down to town it had a different feel than when we were there earlier in the afternoon.  Now that the rain had subsided, the locals were out in the streets milling about.  We pulled up to a little store that had beer and sat out on the curb drinking beers until it got dark.  We zipped back to Guícan in the dark and found some cheeseburgers before bedding down for the night.


Another huge day awaited us.  Fortunately we were becoming accustomed to these huge riding days.  We rode out of Guícan around 8 am.  It was chilly in the mountain air and we dressed accordingly.  We rode down out of the mountains, this time pointed for Capitanejo, deep in the canyon below Tipacoque.  Within an hour we'd dropped several thousand feet in elevation.  The air was hot and humid and we were overdressed.  The landscaped had changed from bright green to drab brown and the vegetation turned from lush mountain greenery to cacti filled desert.

We were questioned by young military when we got to Capitenejo.  And questioned by seemingly every member in town when we stopped to eat some breakfast.  We filled up with gas and pointed it for Málaga, where we needed to turn into the mountains and start our massive dirt trek headed for the highway some six hours away in Piedecuesta on our way to the third biggest city in Colombia, Bucaramanga.

If you look closely at the photo above, you can see our road winding along into the distance.

Just another day as the living oddities passing through rural Colombia.  By this point we were totally used to it, but the locals obviously were totally amazed every time we pulled through town.

I've run short of words to describe this amazing riding but it didn't cease to amaze.  This section, we were warned, is home to heavy coca growth and the manufacturing of it into cocaine.  We rode swiftly through this area only stopping occasionally between towns to snap a couple of photographs.  These areas, between San Gil and Soatá and Málaga and Piedecuesta were some of the only roads I've visited that were void of military or police.  We didn't encounter anything out of the ordinary.  In fact the only thing we encountered were incredibly friendly, albeit inquisitive Colombians.  But there were moments where it certainly felt like we were in the middle of nowhere.  It felt a little bit like we were creeping around the boogey man's lair...

We hit pavement about seven hours into our ride for the day.  From there it was a huge sigh of relief...  My body was rattled.  When we stopped to catch our breath and have a soda, I asked Sam how he felt.  "Happy to be on pavement," was all he had the energy to say.  

The road went by quickly to Bucaramanga.

We were happy to find out that Bucaramanga is host to a dozen Universities and so happens to be stuffed with beautiful young ladies.  After three days of deep backcountry adventure, nothing sounded better than a shower.  We posted up at Kasa Guane Bucaramanga, or KGB, owned by an awesome Colombian dude named Richie, who is also a ripping paraglider pilot and instructor.  Lots of people blow right through Bucaramanga on the bus from Bogotá to Santa Marta and Taganga.  We were happy to not be those people...

Thanks to Sam Miller for joining me on this one.  Looking back, these were probably my favorite days of riding in Colombia.  
(But stay tuned, there's more Colombia to come...)