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Bucaramanga, Colombia to Villa de Leyva, Colombia

posted Jul 4, 2010, 6:57 AM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Jul 7, 2010, 3:40 PM ]
Ahh, life is good. After the generally unpleasant touring in Central America, and the nice, but relatively boring first section in Colombia, I'm once again loving touring and the places I'm getting to see. Since Bucaramanga, I've descended into and climbed back out of the Chicamocha Canyon, spent a day exploring and hiking around the perfect colonial village of Barichara, smashed my climbing record by ascending a total of 7500 feet in a single day to Tunja from Barbosa, headed into the mountains, and off the "gringo trail" for three days to the village of Iza and back, and finally arrived in Villa de Leyva, another impressive colonial town. 

I ended up staying in Bucaramanga for an extra day, for a total of three days. On the third day there was more rain, and my usual rule is not to leave in the rain if I can help it. On the day that I left, I found myself in a great mood right from the start. I was out of the city by about 8 in the morning, and had a small climb before descending into the increasingly desert-like Chicamocha canyon. While I was in Bucaramanga, I had heard that maps and guidebooks are available from any of the toll booths in Colombia, so when I reached the one at the bottom of the Canyon, in Piedecuesta, I picked one up for about $7. Just after that I met a cyclist who was in a talkative mood. He was a professor from Bucaramanga and was on vacation for a few weeks. He had ridden to the bottom of the canyon, and was waiting for his wife to pick him up. I wasn't so lucky, and I knew about the 6000 foot climb I had in front of me to the next town - San Gil. Not paying much attention to this, or maybe just dreading it, I stopped for some food at a store in Piedecuesta, and spent some time looking at my new maps and guidebook. After this I got on the road again, crossed the river, and immediately began the climb. The views were mind blowing the whole way, and were especially good just beyond a series of switchbacks that made the grade slightly more bearable as I ascended from the canyon floor. I couldn't help but stop and take pictures of the views, and the sheep (goats?) that were along the side of the road. 

When I was thinking the climb would never end, I passed a guy standing on the side of the road, and quickly asked him how much farther it was to the top. He said it was only 1 km more, which I was pretty happy to hear. I'm sure that if I had stopped though, he would have continued to say that it was 1 km more, then another 5 km, then only 7 or 8 km, and then I'd only have about 10 km left to go. The climb was nowhere near over. I finally passed a hotel just outside of the town of Aratoca, and decided to call it a day. With my ADD-induced picture taking, time spent enjoying the views, map reading and climbing, I had only ridden about 30 miles. I had also stopped at the new Chicamocha Park, where there is a cable car across the valley. Since I had just ridden up from the valley, I figured I didn't have to see it again, and just spent a while there eating and taking pictures of the valley and river below. There was a guy there on a motorcycle who was riding all over South America and Africa, so we talked for a while. 

The next day I only had to finish the climb beyond Aratoca, which continued farther than I would have thought, before descending into the town of San Gil. One of my guidebooks called San Gil "an important adventure sports center". It was a nice enough town, with a busy central square, and there are a lot of opportunities for whitewater rafting, parapenting (paragliding), and other adventurous activities. My adventure for my day off there was a bus ride to the nearby colonial town of Barichara and a hike on the Camino Real (historic trail) to the town of Guane. The hike takes about 1.5 hours, and there are great views across a valley the entire way. The trail ends in the tiny village of Guane, which like Barichara consists of whitewashed houses and cobblestone roads. My plan was to take a bus back to Barichara from there, and then another bus from Barichara back to San Gil. I had about 2 hours left before the bus arrived, and ended up getting a big chicken lunch with some travelers from Brazil who were in town. So far in South America, I've noticed many more Latin American travelers than in Central America.

My next stop would be Tunja, where I planned on getting my tourist visa extended, since they had only given me 30 days when I entered the country. It was 110 miles if I remember correctly, and I decided I'd do it in three days, since the last day would have 7500 feet of climbing. This meant I could travel pretty leisurely for the first two days. On the day out of San Gil, the great views continued, and when I saw a small hotel (with a pool) outside the town of Oiba, I decided I'd stop there and ask if I could camp on the lawn, or under the covered BBQ area. They were OK with it, and charged me $5, which was a lot considering I've paid $6 for nice hotel rooms in Colombia. I went for a swim though, and they had REAL hot water, not just water from a sun-heated pipe like the hotel in San Alberto. I think this is more of the norm in the highlands, where it is generally pretty cold all year. Cold water showers would just be torture. Around the hotel there were a bunch of big birds, including a colorful male peacock, and some animals I asked the name of, but didn't understand. They were similar to llamas or alpacas though. They also gave me a free coffee in the morning, and although I never drink coffee, I wanted to see why Colombian coffee had such a great reputation. It was really, really good, and I might become a coffee drinker when I get back home - if I can get anything like the coffee here.

The next day of riding to Barbosa was pretty uneventful, and I didn't take any pictures. I stayed at the nice (but lacking hot water) Hotel Montreal, and went into town at night for some pizza. 

Pizza must have been the right choice, because I woke up feeling great, with strong-feeling legs throughout the day. I decided to make it a priority to reach Tunja in one day, which meant 7500 feet of climbing. To do this, I decided to spend less time stopping in towns or resting than I usually would, take fewer pictures, and use one gear higher than I normally would. First there was a climb over a hill to the top of a valley that I would descend into, probably losing all or at least most of the elevation I had gained during the climb. During the climb my trailer had a flat tire, which was my first flat since January! Descending into the valley was very scenic , and I couldn't help taking pictures of it. There was a huge waterfall on the right during the descent, then the valley became more of a canyon, with steep, rocky walls and a flat bottom. At the half way point, I stopped at a small store outside the town of Arcabuco. I had all the food I needed with me, and had a pretty big lunch, but got a few Gatorade-like drinks and filled up my water bottles. The family that owned the store was interested in my trip, but I had a hard time understanding their accent. On the short ride into the rest of town I was feeling a little weak and light headed and had to stop. I'm not sure what caused it, but drinking some water and resting for a few minutes was all it took to recover. So it was back to climbing. At what I thought was the top, was a large flat area that was being used for pasture, and it reminded me of Tuolumne meadows in Yosemite, although there really wasn't that much resemblance, they are both high altitude plains. The climbing continued after this though, and at a few other points I thought I must have been at the top, but I wasn't. Finally I passed a store named "Tienda el alto" or "The high store", which was, more or less, at the top. One more steep but short climb, and then a downhill into Tunja. The whole area was incredibly scenic and the temperature dropped enough for me to put my leg warmers on during the climb, and my jacket on for the descent. Unfortunately, almost all of my zippers started corroding in Central America, and I wasn't able to zip my jacket up. 

Once I was in Tunja, I realized it was Saturday, and that I wouldn't be able to extend my visa the next day. If I had planned ahead a little better, I probably would have hung around in San Gil for an extra day, and maybe even tried some kind of adventurous activity. I spent Sunday walking around town, and watched Ferris Beuller's Day Off, which I had recently downloaded (don't worry, I own a copy back home). On Monday I went to the DAS office first thing in the morning, where I found out that extending my Visa would be a simple matter of getting 4 color pictures taken (but not there), getting copies of my passport made, filling out forms, having my fingerprints taken, and paying $40. One of my guidebooks said a 10 day tourist extension was possible for free, and that a longer extension would cost about $20. Since it was my understanding that I could have just asked for more time when I entered the country, I wasn't happy about any of this. After a couple hours it was all done though, and I had up to 30 additional days to spend in Colombia. By the way, the tourism slogan here is "The only risk is wanting to stay". Just like the guy who told me it was 1km to the top of the climb, I think they didn't finish their sentence. "The only risk is wanting to stay, and having to go through our ridiculous visa extension process". Yeah, that's more like it... 

I also found a bike shop in town on Monday, and they had bar end shifters I could use! Yeah! The ones they had were 8 speed, so I couldn't set them to "click" into each gear, but that's fine with me. Also, my shifters have been working pretty well since the guys in Cartagena used that mystery liquid to loosen them up.  Shifters are relatively small and light though, and I'd rather carry spares than get stuck somewhere being unable so change gears. I also got some new cable housing there, chain oil, barrel adjusters, and Mr. Tuffy strips, that I would put inside my trailer tire to prevent flats. My bike tubes have a special "Slime" in them that repairs any holes automatically, but I couldn't get pre-slimed tubes for my trailer, so Mr. Tuffy's should help with that. 

And... another good thing in Tunja. I went to a mall looking for a camping store, where I hoped to find some waterproofing stuff for my tent, which suddenly and unexpectedly started leaking in Central America. There wasn't a camping store there, but I wandered into a Payless Shoes store (which are everywhere in Latin America) and asked if they had any waterproofing spray for shoes. Sure enough, they did, and I got a can hoping that it would work on the seams of my tent. 

For the next three days, I went on a little excursion into the mountains to the Lake Tota area. There was a big climb on the first day to 12,000 feet, and maybe half of this was on dirt roads. There were two options for getting to the town of Toca, where the pavement ended, and I opted for the northerly route through Chivata. I spent some time there and in Toca, and while I was climbing, decided that I would camp at the highest point I reached that night, instead of descending into the town of Pesca and having to look for a hotel. Trees slowly gave way to tundra, and there were cows and sheep around, but no fences. I crossed a stream at one point, where I decided I should get water, and had to hike up hill for a while, looking for a place where I could get through all the brush to the water. While I was filtering it, a woman and a gringo boy passed, and headed up the hill to where the cows were grazing. They weren't interested in saying much more than "Buenas tardes", so that was that. I went a little farther, and started walking around looking for a good place to camp. From a distance, tundra appears to be a great place to camp, but on closer examination it is usually pretty spongy and wet, and lumpy. I found a place that had been bulldozed at one point for some kind of access road, and even though my tent wouldn't be far from the main road, I decided since I had seen only a few cars all day, it would be safe to camp there. I set up my tent, and had just finished cooking some rice and beans when it started to rain. My shoe spray worked, and I stayed dry all night. Before I went to sleep, two busses, a motorcycle with three guys on it, a truck and a two people on horses passed. Other than the gawking people on the bus, no one seemed to notice me. The rain didn't last for long, and after dark I got out of my tent to look around. There were lights all through what I thought was a mostly empty valley, and the sky was incredibly clear, letting me see a million unfamiliar stars. I thought it was surprising how different the night sky looked, considering that I don't know it that well back home, but the familiarity that I was used to wasn't there. I think I've been able to see the Southern Cross constellation, but I have to check on that. 

In the morning about about 6:30, I heard some voices outside my tent, and poked my head out to see a couple guys, a young girl who may have been on the horse the night before, and the gringo boy from where I got water. The guy didn't seem upset that I was there, but I told him I was just there for the night and I'd be leaving soon. He said it was his land, so he probably just wanted to see what I was up to. The gringo boy was still a mystery. I got back in my sleeping bag for a little while after that, and after I had packed up and gotten back on my bike, the temperature was 32 degrees F. I really enjoy cold-weather touring, so I just bundled up and finished the remainder of the climb to the top, before the big downhill into Pesca. There was another big climb from there to Tota, and then some rolling hills to Iza. Great scenery all the way, as usual. There was camping on Lake Tota, not far from the road I was on, but I also knew there were hot springs in Iza, and I decided I'd rather swim in hot springs than a cold lake. Iza was a cool little town too, so I explored that for a while and did some shopping before testing the water at Piscina Erika, where I paid about $7.50 to swim and camp for the night. Between the hills, unpaved roads, and elevation, I only rode about 25 miles for each of the first two days. 

On the third day, I knew it would be mostly flat, and I decided to ride 55 miles back to Tunja. The towns I passed during the day weren't very interesting, and Sogamoso, which my book called an "industrial center" had no appeal whatsoever. With about 20 miles left some rolling hills and cold rain started, and since I only stopped to put my rain jacket on, but not my rain pants, I had pretty cold, uncomfortable legs for the rest of the ride. 

That night I stayed at the same hotel as before in Tunja, and found out they could do my laundry. I made sure they could dry everything with low heat, which would have been a good time for them to tell me they don't use a dryer at all, and it would take until the middle of the next day for my clothes to air dry. Luckily my next destination was Villa de Leyva, which was just 25 miles down the road, but of course beyond some big hills. I left at around noon, did the big climb out of town, which was followed by a great swooping downhill, then some other little climbs into town. I've been staying at the Colombian Highlands Hostel, which is a pretty nice place, and I'm partly thinking of doing another short day to Chiquinquira this afternoon, but heading into the hills for a hike is pretty tempting. Since I probably won't be going through Bogota, where I would have taken a day off, maybe another day off here would be OK. I'll let you know what I decide on in my next update. :)


Start: Bucaramanga
Lines at:
1: Aratoca
2: San Gil
3: Oiba
4: Barbosa
5: Tunja (the first spike was before the valley, the second was a glitch)
6: Mountain Top between Toca and Pesca
7: Iza
8: Tunja (the "dip" was a definite glitch)
Finish: Villa de Leyva