After Bogota Shannon’s Zen state of perfect motorcycle steering set the mood for some aimless meandering back and forth across central Colombia. The new steering head bearings had returned Shannon’s mojo with a vengeance; she is now back to asking if I am okay and “why are you going so slow?”
We went to a town called Honda on the Rio Magdalena where the number one claim to fame is how hot it is. Per capita hotel to swimming pool ratio was the highest we have seen yet. Having the worst diarrhea of the last eight months I steered clear of the pool and concentrated on keeping my britches clean. Hors d’oeuvres of Imodium and electrolyte tablets were manna from heaven and the bout ran its course in 36 hours.
After the mud works were plugged it was off to Medellin. Sounded like a good thing to do after Bogota. We crawled out of hot, hot Honda back into the mountains to Colombia’s second city. We discovered a city, after fancy food and bars galore, without much for us to do. We were spoiled after the intensity of Bogota. So we left after only one full day in town.
Harmony part 1
After getting hopelessly lost trying to get out of Medellin the city finally spat us out into a Tolkien dreamscape of lonely roads through stunning mountain country of endless green. We had days of riding that can only be equaled but never surpassed. Along the way we rode over the oldest suspension bridge in the Americas. Completed in 1895 the Puente De Occidente spans the Rio Cauca. At 290 meters long, this was well worth the detour to see. But the best was yet to come.
There is a tiny Spanish colonial town tucked high in the Andes that is yet to find its way into the travel guides. The town of Jardin is literally ten blocks by ten blocks plopped into a mountain valley. There are no suburbs and the pastures and coffee plantations end right at the edge of town. It is a place where men ride their horses into the central plaza straight from the fields to have a coffee and gossip with their friends.
And, what a central plaza! Filled with small tables and straight back chair. At sunset everyone comes to sip a drink, eat snacks, and hang out. We were so enchanted that our three-day stay was extended to nearly a week. It was everything a daydream of Colombia paints in your head. It was perfect.
Harmony part 2
The road out of Jardin to the south turns to single lane dirt after ten miles or so and climbs over a mountain pass shrouded in mist and cold. We saw little traffic and few people for most of the morning. However, we did pass two gringos struggling up the steep and rocky pass on loaded bicycles. They looked miserable.
The next stop was another jewel of a town called Salento. Kind of like Jardin except the tourists have definitely “discovered” this quaint town. Worth the visit for the camping alone, endless mountain vistas from a grassy hilltop. Our camp was in the country but still close enough to walk into town. But even perfection comes at a price. Agricultural land can invite strange smells and every evening as the prevailing breeze became still the odor from the stacks of bagged chicken shit fertilizer from the farm next door would creep into the tent for an hour. A small price to pay for such a spot though.
From Salento we took a hiking excursion into the Valle de Cocora. It is a wide, lush valley surrounded by steep mountains and so far wins the Colombian lottery as the most scenic place we have seen. The Palma de Cera are common here and these trees are the largest species of palm in the world and tower over 180 feet (60 meters). Our hike was spectacular.
Harmony part 3
The shortest route does not always mean the quickest. South after Salento we rode into a strange little desert that seemed out of place in this tropical country. More like the American Southwest with dunes and towering cactus, the Tatacoa Desert is an odd little nugget indeed.
The shortest road into Tatacoa was a dirt affair that looked so primitive we had to ask twice in the first mile if we were on the right track. The turn-off from the paved highway we mistook for a driveway to somebody’s house. When we asked the family at the house they waved us on saying yes this is the road to Tatacoa. The second person we asked was a cab driver coming the other way. He actually stopped us to gawk at the gringos on the big bikes. After the driver confirmed we were on the right road both he and his passenger broke out laughing as they drove off. Huh?
The road followed the Rio Magdalena through a dry but beautiful valley. The road was decent gravel but at one point we hit an un-signed fork. Straight ahead was a dark tunnel blasted through the rock with mounds of dry mud and horseshit at the entrance. It looked like the opening to a mineshaft. The other road was very bad but did not include a tunnel. As we sat and pondered a grandfatherly gentleman with a lollipop in his mouth pulled up to us on a tattered little Honda motorcycle. He said to take the hole into the mountain. We asked if he would go first. He smiled and took off into the darkness waving us to follow.
We emerged into the light after a bumpy ride through a long creepy tunnel. We continued on our way soaking up the scenery while our benefactor on the Honda stayed out in front of us for the next half hour. We occasionally caught glimpses of him in the straight sections of road. Coming around a bend he was stopped at another fork in the road. He was off his bike and waving for us to stop. He told us he was going left but he was worried we would follow and that we needed to go right to get to our destination. This is the hallmark of the Colombian people: helpful, good-natured, and kind to a fault. We, complete strangers, were important enough for him to stop what he was doing without being asked and expecting nothing in return. This is why we love Colombia so much.
We camped alone in the Tatacoa Desert on a family’s plot of land overlooking the harsh eroded valleys that reminded us of Bryce Canyon in the US. The well-water pump stopped working shortly after we arrived and the family locked up the house and left without saying a word to us. We were forced to stack our turds but I was able to scrounge enough water from the bottom of the cistern to filter some drinking water. This inconvenience was tiny in comparison to having the entire property, night sky, and desert valley all to ourselves. The interruptions are the journey and we couldn’t be happier.