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Villa de Leyva, Colombia to Cali, Colombia

posted Jul 21, 2010, 4:09 PM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Jul 22, 2010, 7:20 PM ]
I ended up leaving Villa de Leyva shortly after writing my last blog entry, which meant I wasn't able to do any of the hiking I had in mind. Sometimes I just feel like getting back on the road, and like many times before, the distance to my next destination made the timing less than ideal, and less than efficient. It would be a little too short for two days, but much too long for one day. When this trip is (finally) over, I'll probably write something about "realistic planning" for long trips like this. The PanAm always seems to take people longer than they plan, and it's probably because (like me) they think it will be more like the shorter tours they've done, where it's easier to do longer days. Anyway, I decided to split the distance into a short day, and a "regular length" day, which meant that after waiting a while for the rain to end in Villa de Leyva, I'd only have to ride 25 miles to the town of Chiquinquira. 

I headed out of Villa de Leyva on some back roads, where I met some mountain bikers who told me I "couldn't get there from here". It only took them a couple minutes to change their mind, and I was off again on my planned route. The road back to the highway was unpaved and went through some nice pasture area and some woods. There ended up being a big (and unexpected) climb once I got back on the highway which, according to my GPS, was 2000-2500 feet. I didn't really know what to expect from Chiquinquira, but I did know that my hero Jeff Kruys (Vancouver to Alaska to Argentina to the Canadian Maritimes to Vancouver) had stopped there and found a cheapish place to stay. Thinking there wasn't much, I just went into the first place I found and payed a little too much for a room that was just big enough for the bed, with no lock on the door and a shared bathroom. The family who owns the hotel and lives there let me keep my bike in a secure area out back. I could see people sleeping through the open door to the family's private room.

After relaxing for a bit, I headed into town looking for something to eat. While I was wandering down the road, I thought, huh, that's a pretty nice brick sidewalk. Then, hmm, there are trees with little fences around them on the sidewalk. Then, what? a pedestrian sidewalk heading into a main square? I followed that into a large, lit, brick, square, with a statue at the center that was surrounded by a cathedral, a college and a couple upscale restaurants. I think I've said before how it's always great not knowing what to expect (or even having low expectations of a place) then being perpetually surprised when you find out all it has to offer. The pedestrian roads left the square in a few different directions, and I wandered around for a while seeing where they'd go. Many towns have their own "specialty", and the specialty of Chiquinquira is guitars. There were workshops and shops everywhere selling them.

The next day was about a 55 mile ride to Zipaquira, where I planned to take a day off to see their famous "salt cathedral". The day started out relatively easy and flat, with a 2000 foot "bump" later in the day. I met the first two touring cyclists of Colombia during the first, flat section. They had just left from Bogota a couple days earlier, and were planning to spend a year touring around South America. They had very little gear, lower-end bikes, and sadly, I have to wonder how far they'll actually get. They had the motivation though, which is cool. 

The long holiday weekend was coming to an end, and even on the secondary rode I took to Zipaquira, there was a ton of traffic. Everyone was returning to Bogota, and they were all in a hurry; passing on hills, around corners and over solid double lines. It was the worst display of driving I've witnessed on the entire trip.

I found the hotel I was looking for fairly easily in Zipaquira, and as usual, rested a bit before heading out for some food. I walked in the direction that I knew the town center to be, and like the night before I found myself thinking "Wow! This is awesome!", as I strolled down the well-lit but empty colonial streets. I finally reached the square, which was nearly deserted, and even nicer than the one in Chiquinquira. (There are day, and night panoramics in the photo album for this section.) I had considered trying to see the salt cathedral early enough to get back to my hotel before the checkout time, but decided that if I felt too rushed, I'd spend more time exploring the town instead of pushing on to Bogota.

The next day, I got to the cathedral first thing in the morning, and waited in line with some Colombians for the guide to arrive. One woman was sitting near me, and her friend asked: "Your new boyfrind?" (in Spanish of course), which was followed by a slightly embarrased look on her face when I said "Very funny!" (in Spanish of course). The salt mines have a number of different carvings, and they were part of a group who had created one of them. The tour starts at the entrance to the salt mines, which supposedly contain enough salt for another 500 years of mining. The tour takes visitors through a number of different chambers, and finally to the salt cathedral, which holds something like 8000 people, in three separate areas. 

When I was walking back to the hotel, I stopped by a small store to get an arepa (more on Colombian food later...) and was greeted by the owner Miguel, in English. He told me he's always liked speaking English, but doesn't get to practice much. We talked for a while (him in English, and I in Spanish) and I found out that he teaches Oracle database classes at a college in Bogota. He invited me back that night to have dinner with him and his wife, so we agreed to meet again at 7:30 that night.

It turned out that I had been lucky the night before, and had seen the best parts of the town during my search for dinner. Still, it was a nice place to spend the day, and since I had a friend in town, I definitely wouldn't be rushing off to Bogota. That night we had some great sweet bread with "queso doble crema" (good cheese) and hot chocolate. He warned me about some FARC activity on my planned route and told me about a safer option - and the huge pass I would have to go over on the safer route. 

The next day ended up being about 50 miles to Bogota, which was more than I expected. It felt like most of this (at least as far as time spent) was in the city, which has a population of around 8 million. Since I generally avoid big cities, I had debated whether or not to go into Bogota, but since my reason for avoiding cities is to avoid their traffic, and Bogota is supposedly one of the world leaders in bicycle-friendliness, I thought I'd check it out. There is a huge network of bike lanes throughout the city, but very few of these were on my map. Also, while many of them were very well done, others were nothing more than a few lines painted on a sidewalk, and there were always oblivious people getting in my way. It was hard not to yell "Cicloruta!!!!" every time this happened. The historic center, also known as "La Candelaria", was at the far end of the city, so I got to see a little of the city while I wasn't swerving pedestrians. There were american chain restaurants again, including, to my surprise, Dunkin Donuts, and to my delight, McDonalds. (Hey, I hadn't had a burger from a McDonalds or Burger King since Fortuna, Costa Rica!). I was looking for the Platypus hostel, but after finding every hostel EXCEPT for the Platypus, I decided I'd stay at one called Hostel Sue (pronounced soo-ay, it means traveller in some other language). 

I wasn't too impressed by the historic area of Bogota, or at least the parts I was able to see between the frequent rain showers, so I decided to leave after spending one day there. I woke up on my departure day with a headache, and just feeling pretty fatigued, so even though my next day of riding would be almost completely downhill, I decided to stay and recover.

The next day my headache was gone, but I still wasn't feeling 100% yet. I decided to head out anyway. It wasn't too hard to leave the city, but there was a hill before the decent started. In town there were a number of people selling car fire extinguishers on the side of the road, and during the climb, three-packs of Pringles were the hot item. There was a military checkpoint at the top of the hill, where I talked to a couple military guys briefly. A few others were taking pictures of each other posing with their guns. I've heard that there is a checkpoint every 10 miles on the main roads of Colombia, which I believe, but hadn't paid attention to. 

For such a big downhill, it seemed like a lot of work. There was at least one good size climb about half way down, and a few others along the way. My destination was Melgar, which is a popular getaway for Bogotanos, since because of the elevation difference, it is much warmer than the city. Along the descent there were a number of "Centro Vacacionales", which are like mini Club Meds - all-inclusive places where a family could spend a weekend. During the descent, I also encountered the most evil dogs of the entire trip. I've been chased by dogs for so long now I usually don't even pay attention to them, but these dogs were possessed. Two got close enough that I was able to kick them in the head, unfortunately not as hard as they deserved, and I wished I had saved my dog-wacking stick from Mexico. When the third dog got within range, I gave it a good squirt with my water bottle, which definitely confused it because it left me alone after that. It was pretty fun too.

I had read that it was possible to camp in Melgar, but no one I talked to knew where. The one place I found wanted more for camping than I have ever paid for a hotel in Colombia, so I definitely wasn't going to stay there. Some of the military guys around town sent me to the town's soccer field to camp, but this just seemed like a bad idea. While I was getting a price at a hotel, some sketchy looking guys got a little too close to my bike, and I was glad that I had decided not to camp. I got a couple more prices on the road with the cheap hotels, and ended up staying at one that was run by a pretty friendly family, who also warned me about the route I had wanted to take. While we were talking, an off-duty cop joined the conversation, and reiterated the warnings. My junction was the next day, and I made the decision to go the safe route. This was actually very disappointing because I had really been looking forward to the desert I would have gone through, and the town of San Agustin, which has a bunch of mysterious burial statues.

After getting dinner that night, I left the restaurant and got very light headed while walking down the sidewalk and had to sit down for a while to recover. Even though I hadn't felt 100% during the day, and it was a long day, this was pretty out of the blue.

The next morning I was feeling about the same as the morning of the day before. Not 100%, but not bad. My goal was to reach Ibague that night, which was about 55 miles and flat (or so I thought - I'll be ranting about my travel guide later...). I rode about 20 miles from Melgar, to a town called Espinal, where I stopped for a drink and some snacks. When I was leaving the store, I had a repeat of the night before - very light headed and I nearly collapsed into a chair outside of the store. Not knowing what was going on, but deciding that not riding was the best option, I checked into the surprisingly nice hotel across the street. The next day I had a bit of a headache and was just feeling really fatigued, so I decided to hang out for another day to rest. The family who owned the hotel was pretty friendly and let me cook a total of three meals in their kitchen during my time there. 

I was finally feeling better the next morning, and hit the road again, only planning to finish riding to Ibague to get back on schedule. The people who had advised me to change my route, had also warned me about the pass I'd have to cross on the alternate route. I hadn't understood this because my travel guide "La Guia de Rutas por Colombia", has elevation profiles for the common routes in Colombia, and there was only a more-or-less flat line between Melgar and Cali. But, during my day off, I found another profile in the same book, and that one showed a 9000(!!!) foot pass. It seemed that Ibague was at the bottom of this, so I'd spend a night there, do part of the climb to Cajamarca, then cross the pass and spend the following night in Calarca, which was most of the way down the other side. It turned out that even the better elevation profile wasn't quite right, and I had about a 3000 foot climb to Ibague. It was a very deceiving, maddening climb that was perfectly consistent, and hardly noticeable to my eyes. All I knew was that I was going much slower than I should have been. It wasn't until I had seen my GPS graph that I understood. 

Ibague was a good sized town, without a ton of appeal, but with a number of stores that each had their own specialty. I saw one with more or less only light bulbs, another with just hats, another with saddles, another with every type of foam pad imaginable, etc...

The next day the climbing continued to the town of Cajamarca. It was another hard climb, with only about 2000 feet of difference between Ibague and Cajarmaca, but with so many ups and downs that one website I loaded my GPS report into said the total climb was over 5000 feet. 

On the next day, the climbing got hard. It was a more consistent climb, but also much steeper. At one point I passed a tunnel which was still under construction, but will eventually be 5 miles long and save a significant part of climbing for the traffic passing between Bogota and Cali. Just after passing the construction site, my second derailleur cable housing imploded, excactly like the other one had before Bucaramanga. It also started raining at almost exactly the same time, so I backtracked 100 yards to the construction site and did the repair under an unused piece of equipment. The rain finished just about when I did, and I got back on the road again and continued the climb. Finally, there was a sign telling me how much left I had, which was about 3 miles, and an hour or more at the speed I was going. That's also when the rain started again...

When I got to the top it was just a little above freezing - and yes, still raining. There was a store/restaurant at the top where a couple motorcyclists were also avoiding the weather. I got my second free Colombian coffee there, which was almost as good as the first. I bundled up, with a hat, jacket, gloves, shoe covers and rain gear, and headed down the other side. Since I was going slow to avoid having an accident, I was giving my brakes a workout, and when I stopped a few times to rest (yes, my shoulders and hands were getting tired from the DOWNHILL) there was steam coming off my breaks.

I stopped first at a really nice looking hotel that I figured would have been out of my price range, but since the sign said that they had hot water, I had to at least ask. It turned out that the price was pretty average, and I didn't do anymore shopping around. Before long the hotel room floor was soaked from all my wet gear, and after my shower (which I enjoyed until I had used all the hot water up) the bathroom floor was soaked too. For the rest of the night, I'd have to put my shoes on anytime I wanted to move around the room. I got dinner at a restaurant across the street from the hotel, where a Colombian family ended up sitting with me due to a shortage of tables. They were from the valley between Bogota and Cali, and as usual, had a bunch of questions about my trip.

The next day was to Tulua. At 60 miles, and half way between Calarca and Cali I planned on stopping there more for convenience than anything else. On the way I met a real, actual, bike traveler. He was Irish and had been on the road for two years out of a four year trip. Starting in Ireland, he headed south to South Africa, flew to Argentina, and is now heading north through the Americas. We talked for quite a while and did the obligatory complaining about the rain and hills, and shared info on what was to come. In Tulua, yet again, I was surprised by how big a town it was, and by the "bicycle district" I passed while looking for a hotel. There were at least a dozen bike shops all at the intersection of two roads. I even spotted a couple nice carbon bikes through the window of one of the stores. I miss my carbon bike...

I had a pretty uneventful ride the next 60 mile day into Cali. I decided to stay at the more "relaxed" Hostel Totasky, and to spend a day in town seeing what was around. Cali is known as the Salsa Capital of Colombia, and is also known for having the most beautiful women in Colombia. Since there are beautiful women everywhere in this country, that's quite a claim. The difference is that here, plastic surgery is more common. 

Once again I managed to arrive at a city on a Saturday night, and just about everything was closed the next day. Grr. I walked around a little, wasn't impressed by much, and didn't really do anything in particular. I had considered making it a two day stop, but decided to take my extra day off a another town farther down the road. 

That's all for now. Ciao!

Start: Villa de Leyva
Lines at:
1. Chiquinquira
2. Zipaquira
3. Bogota
4. Melgar
5. Espinal
6. Ibague
7. Cajamarca
8. Calarca
9. Tulua
Finish: Cali