29 Aug 2015

Colombia Comes Alive

I am trying hard not to start this episode with 'After', but what the hell!

After 2 more days of breakfasts and hot showers at Salento we spent one night in the Cocoa valley where they have huge palm trees. Next stop was the Desert of Tatacoa, with some clever photography the picture in the Lonely Planet made it look similar to one of the Parks in Utah, in actually fact it is very small, but we caught up with Carol and Victor again and had a very enjoyable time.

We then headed down to San Augustin, Colombia's premier archaeological area, where they have 2000 year old graves guarded by statues which are a mixture of human and animal.

The plan was to head from san Augustin to Tierradentro (Colombia's second archaeological site), but we heard that the road at one point was only open for one hour per day at lunch time due to road works, so we went to Popayan instead. We stayed at Popayan for 2 nights to get some work done on the cruiser and then planned to head for Tierradentro, but that morning the camp site owner told us that the police had advise that the road was closed all day due to a demonstration. This was really impressive because the police were apparently contacting all locations where travellers might be staying to warn them to stay away and instead we had a lazy day and had a really interesting walk on the camp site owners land.

The day after we finally set off for Tierradentro. This is a rough mountain road which peaks at 3,200 metres in 2 places and is 25% good sealed road, 25%  rough unsealed road, 25% road works and the rest is where thy have bulldozed through land slides that have completely obliterated the road, just what a land cruiser is designed for! Above 2,600m we were basically in the clouds but below that the scenery was some of the best we have seen on the trip so far.

Tierradentro is a series of sites which have 2000 year old tombs up to 9m in deep dug into volcanic rock and each tomb housed numerous ceramic jars filled with semi cremated remains. This was somehow linked with San Augustin as they also found a number of similar statues, but unlike San Augustin, which is basically jungle, these sites are high in the mountains with spectacular views.

After a challenging but fabulous walk round 3 of the sites in glorious sunshine we decided we would do one more (of the 5) in the morning before setting off back to Popayan. That night the rain was torrential, but by 11.00 the sun was shining again. Chris decided against the 4th site so I did this on my own and although some of the route was a quagmire the rain seamed to have made everything even greener and the various shades of green rivalled even the highlands of Guatemala.

After the previous nights rain, the drive back across the mountain road to Popayan took on a totally different perspective as the road works and land slides were miles of deep mud, we had to go to low box for some of it but nothing the cruiser couldn't handle. Fortunately it was Saturday and very little traffic (otherwise there would have been vehicles stuck all over the place) and we just sailed through for a thoroughly enjoyable drive!
Chris crossing one of the bridges in the Cocoa Valley
Some of the huge Wax Palm Trees

The Tatacoa Dessert
Looks impressive from this angle

But this gives away how small it really is (the cruiser is top right)
A couple of ancient statues with silly expressions

A rather odd sign! No cars allowed, but pedestrians, cyclists and cows are?

Chris crossing another bridge in Popayan, made totally of bamboo and extremely wobbly.

Driving over a land slide

A very ornate bamboo bridge on the way into Tierradentro
The steps into one of the tombs.

Inside one of the tombs

The earns inside the tomb

The steps down into this one were a little easier so Chris managed to get down

But struggled when she climbed back out

It was a little steep but the walk and scenery was fantastic

In the 2012 Lonely Planet this was a beautiful thatched church, but now it is a burned out ruin.

After the torrential rain overnight it looked even greener

But was rather muddy in places

We have lunch with a Brazilian couple headed north

And watch the locals trying to get on a bus, by the time they had finished I think there were more on the roof than inside

These large thistle like plants only grow above 3,200 meters, some as high as people

16 Aug 2015

A Dog called Venga

After being surprised for some time at how many dogs are called Venga throughout Central America and Colombia we finally realised that Venga means 'come'. however, the name has now stuck and if we ever get another dog it will be called Venga (just hope it doesn't get too confused if we take it to Spain).

After a few days rest in Villa de Layva we set off on a bit of a tour with Medallines (medagine) the first destination. The first day was very slow, on the most bizarre road so far, with stretches of perfect road with lines down the middle, then rubble and pot holes, then back on to perfect road and  sometimes as little as 50 metres of each? By 5pm we were less than half way to Medallines and after passing through a very busy little town we came across a restaurant, a large pool and a kids play area with stables behind. I picked a spot tucked round behind the restauarnt and asked if we could camp there. They were unsure at first but when we explained that we sleep on the car and that we wanted to drink beer and eat food they agreed, no charge and even left the toilet lights on for us when they closed up.

From then on the road was very smooth, we made good time and the scenery in the last 50 miles was fabulous, lush green valleys with mountains behind. Then we hit Medallin! The traffic was awful and took us almost an hour and a half to do the 4 miles to the hostel we planned to camp at. Fortunately there were no other overlanders there and we just managed to fit into the small strip next to the hostel, but at least we were close to the Metro (similar to the London underground except that it does not go underground) and a couple of stops from the centre.

Everyone told us how nice Medallines was but we found it awful! Dirty streets choked with exhaust fumes and people with shops and stall selling cheap rubbish, we escaped to Bolivar Square and found every bench occupied by a sleeping homeless drunks. Time to escape to a bar and found one on a balcony in the sun, next to a hairdressers, we were both in need so at least we made something of the day and then the football on the TV finished and was followed by a replay of the whole of the Hungarian GP - result - which I watched while Chris had her hair cut. After which we found a very nice restaurant on another balcony so at least the day ended well.

To be fair, for back-packers staying in Hostels Medellines is probably good, the Hostels are cheap and central, there is lots going on at night and lots of day trips to places around Meallines.

From Medallines we went to El Penol, a huge rock sticking out of the ground overlooking a lake. We climbed the 740 steps to the top of the rock to an amazing view of the lake full of peninsulas and small islands. This is one of the popular day trips from Medallin and by co-incidence a group of young Israelis staying at our Hostel were at the top when we got there, but of course they had to get the bus back to the Hostel and we camped in the car park.

Next we took a detour north to the oldest suspension bridge in Columbia and then south again to a little town called Jardine. On the way we had an hour wait whilst ambulances took a couple of people that had come off a motorbike after hitting a car, both had broken left legs, but the rider's was badly broken. There was no room in Jardine but we found a restaurant next to a river about a mile up a rough road and walked back into town for a beer.

After a wet day in Jardine (our first rain in the day time since our return to the road) we took a rough track over the mountains and then a good road to Salento to another IOverland site, highly recommended by our American friends and every bit as good as everyone says (with amazing, hot showers and breakfast included). When we arrived there were 3 other overlanders already here, Victor and Carol from Chile (we first met in Costa Rica), Michael and Veronica from Germany (our third meeting in the last 3 weeks) and Laurent and Liz from France and Victor cooked Pasta for all of us and we had a nice evening.

We have now been in Salento for a week, we intended to stay for  couple of days but the weather is perfect (sunny by day and cool by night), the location is superb and we found we could get Spanish lessons for £5 per hour and we have now had 5 days of Spanish! ('not before time' I here you cry!). can now quite happily write sentences in Spanish, but remembering all the words and speaking them is another story altogether (I cant remember the English words half the time). Chris has done better than me  at remembering the words so between us we should be able to communicate and we both have little notebooks to put useful words and paragraphs in.

The drive to Medallin

El Penol

The view of the Lake from the top

Camping in the car park

The oldest suspension bridge in Colombia

Camped by the river near Jardine


A huge church for a small village

The square in Jardine

We squeeze in with 3 other overlanders from Chile, Germany and France

The view from the camp site
The road up to the square in Salento
The walk up to the view point

The view from the top
The square in Salento


2 Aug 2015

30,000 miles and 3,682 metres (almost 12,000 feet)

After 5 days on the beach we were ready to get on the road again and with little to see for the next 500 miles we needed to get some miles under our belt. First night we stopped at a restaurant that someone on IOverlander said was the best meal they'd had in Colombia. Unfortunately it did not live up to the billing, but it was OK and we camped for free behind the restaurant. The next night we ended up driving the last 30 minutes in the dark to reach El Portal, another IOverlander site and woke up the following morning in a beautifully landscaped gardenswith lakes and pools, a real oasis from the madness of the Colombian roads.

Up to now we had no choice but to stay on the main roads with huge lines of traffic behind large slow lorries, with smaller trucks and buses trying to overtake them and cars trying to overtake all of them. Occasionally right hand drive would give us an advantage and mean we could get the drop on the cars ahead in order to get past the slow lorries. After 400 miles we were getting into the foothills of the Andes, the big lorries got slower and the overtaking more frantic, it is amazing how many Colombians can see round corners!

Finally we arrived at Chichamocha Gorge and camped in the car park for Chichamoch Park, with a fabulous view of the gorge . Next day we took the cable car down to the bottom of the gorge and back up the other side, we had lunch in a little Peruvian restaurant and then back on the cable car for a walk round the park, which included a huge memorial to the struggles between the locals and the Spanish, with life size bronze statues of people and animals, including four bullocks pulling a cart.

A short drive from the Gorge we stayed near Barrichara, a small village declared a World Herritage site and walked up an ancient footpath to Guane, an indigenous village.

After this we headed for the Highest Vineyard in the world at 2,600m on smaller roads, which turned out to be a lot smaller than we expected, a single track, unpaved road, first along a lush green valley, up into the clouds at 3,682 metres and down to the Vinyard. The owner of the vineyard told us there is a vinyard in Argentina at 3,200 metres, 'which is owned by Italians and they cheat, they have vines there but it is not possible to grow wine making grapes at that altitude and they bring them up from the valleys below'.

And now we have been at Villa de Layva for 4 days, another World Heritage Site, cobbled streets and the biggest square in Columbia, two nights ago we found a wonderful little Restaurant just off the square, with live piano musc and recorded concerts on 2 strategically placed TV'd, so good we went twice. Not only the best restaurant so far in Colombia but the best restauarnt on the whole trip!There is also lots to see in the area, plus a nice walk direct from the camp site.

We are now 40 days into this leg of the trip, 356 days on the road in the Americas and just over 30,000 miles since leaving New York last June.

The restaurant at El Portal

Camped in Chichamocha Park
The view from the roof tent.
The cable car goes down one side of the Gorge

Through a station at the bottom and up the other side.

Chichamocha Water Park, we didn't go but the setting was amazing.

The Monument in the Park


The Walk to Guane
Near the end of the walk approaching Guane

A road less travelled (we saw 3 other vehicles in 60 miles)

And over the top at 3,682 metres

Villa de Leyva

The main Square in Villa de Leyva
The biggest Square in Colombia

The Terracotta or Clay House near Villa de Leyva

Dinosaur Skeleton, found in tact (except for the tail) in 1977 just outside Lilla de Leyva and left in position. This was a reptilian dinosaur dating back to when the area was under water, if the tail had been in placeit would have been 12 meters long! The area is full of fossils and many have been used in the building of walls and patios.