Guatemala aside, Central America put my adventuring spirit to sleep. I found it to be too small with too many people and not enough space for the ever swelling numbers of bicycle tourists to really explore. The people are generally used to seeing ‘gringos’ plodding around and even cycling through. Their attitudes were often as jaded as mine became with positive energy seemingly hard to find. That has all changed now I’m in South America. Here there are options and plenty of them. In Colombia alone cycle tourists are spoilt for choice with the three spines of mountains that run north to south through most of the country. Riding the spine of either of the Cordillera Occidental, Central or Oriental is an exciting prospect. Then there is the space in between these mountains and the coasts, then big roads, small roads, tracks and goodness knows what other options. All this means that the tourist influence in this already under-visited country is heavily diluted. The people aren’t gringoed out and there is plenty of opportunity to go exploring. And that is what I did in Norte de Santander after leaving El Tarra.
The 3,000 foot climb out of El Tarra was a plug in the Ipod and catch up on some podcasts kind of affair. It was raining when I started and that would stay with me on and off all day. After two and half hours I reached Alto del Pozo (elevation 7,500 ft, 2,300 m) and the turning to Villa Caro. At this point my road became dirt and continued to climb as the asphalt fell away down the other side of the pass. This is where the real adventure began. With all the rain the road had in many places turned to a shallow mud bath, But it was always passable and carried up and down on a winding course up to the high point of roughly 9,100 ft (2,800 m). The riding was glorious, only a few motorcycles as traffic and a road cut out of the side of hills that swooped and swirled through forest and farmland. With every turn it felt that new valleys were opening up. As brooding clouds moved quickly about the vista I found myself inspired by the constant change and a little disappointed when they eventually enveloped me. At 25 miles, the ascent had taken longer than expected. Feeling the chill from the wet clouds and altitude I was still supremely happy as this was the riding I’d been looking for. Then came the long descent down to Villa Caro at 6,350 ft (1,940 m), much of it in the dark.
Villa Caro was like my El Dorado. It is the town I’d looked at on the map and known I had to visit. Apparently hard to access and surrounded on three sides by high mountains its promise was one of the main factors drawing me into these particular mountains. But my arrival there was slightly muted. Darkness and thick cloud meant I’d have to wait until morning to see the town for real. It was worth the wait though when the next morning I shuffled out onto the hotel balcony to be greeted by a spectacular view. The valley I was going to ride up that day dominated a stunning landscape. Things weren’t far from how I’d imagined, a gorgeous little town nestling into an armchair of big mountains.
On the way out of Villa Caro I stopped at the bakery Panaderia Pechis, so named because it’s owned by the Pechis Graualote family. Despite feeling like a bit of a novelty I’d already felt very welcome in town. But the Pechis family insisted upon taking that hospitality to the next level. They wouldn’t accept payment for the goodies I collected for lunch and insisted on giving me a free Pepsi. Then they gave me a Gatorade to take away. And then they forced some delicious cheese pancakes on me. All out of the goodness of their hearts. Once I had managed to tune my ear into their strong accent it transpired that like may of their fellow Colombians, they were really thrilled to have me explore their country. Having never seen a cycle tourist in Villa Caro before these good people were desperate that I feel welcome.
From Villa Caro I gained almost 3,000 ft (915 m) plodding up the picturesque valley and over a pass before descending into the tiny town of El Carmen de Nazareth. As I dropped altitude I could see storm clouds coming in. It became a race against time to reach shelter before the weather caught me. I would have made it but for an Evangelical on a motorbike who flagged me down before force-ably making me repeat all sorts of things about Jesus and his alleged place in my heart. When I finally extracted myself from the madman the rain had already hit and I found myself muttering things about Jesus I really hope his dad didn’t hear.
Arriving in El Carmen de Nazareth I took shelter outside a tienda and waited for the rain to stop before hoping to move on. That move never happened, the good people of El Carmen took me into their lives instead. My presence caught the towns attention and before long I had over thirty people stood around me laughing, joking and staring. I think I gave as good as I got and we were all soon comfortable with one another. After a while the lady who lived above the store came down and gave me some eggs, bread and coffee. I devoured them sat on a plastic stool in the rain skillfully balancing the plate on my knee as 30 people stood around me and stared. A true case of the ‘Gringo Zoo’.
The lady who had scrambled the eggs for me knew a little English and had been teaching the language to the older children in town. They had never met an English speaker before so a few of them were bulging with enthusiasm to speak with me. A great learning experience for my Spanish as well as their English. Who knows when they’ll get to speak English again as tourists don’t really visit El Carmen de Nazareth. The consensus was that there had once been a guy who came through on foot and that on a separate occasion a couple of fellas visited on motorcycles. As far as they could remember they had never had a cyclist pass through. From what local people were telling me it appeared that I was the first cycle tourist down these roads.This is a bit of a surprise as Jorge in the El Carmen I visited before Ocana told me they have on average about one cycle tourist a month spinning through there. My novelty may go some way to explain why every time I went into a tienda I’d end up having my picture taken with the shopkeepers children.
Headed by my new friends Daniel Galvis and Jose, the mob organised for me to stay in the local Casa Campesino for free and I was booked in at Daniel’s Aunts house for dinner. Having escaped the throng I showered and went back out, wandering around the town with Jose. This took all of about ten minutes and was interrupted by the Police who questioned me quite extensively before phoning details of my passport through to someone. They insisted that I check in at Police stations in every town until Pamplona. Although they were nice to me (eventually) there was no chance I was going to do this. Being seen to be allied with the Police is not something on my Colombian wish list.
Ana and Nancy Osorio cooked me up a feast and I chatted with my new friends until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Things continued the next morning when Jose, Daniel and his friend Cindy took me on a tour of their school. It looked very much like my old classrooms although I’m sure things have moved on since then in the UK. Colombian children go to school from aged 4 to 18 but it was clear that there were far less older children than younger in the classes. My friends spoke to me about their hopes and dreams, Jose wanted to move to Cartagena and Daniel work in Bucamaranga. None of them wanted to stay in El Carmen. That is no real surprise, it isn’t even possible to get mail delivered here. To these youngsters the internet and particularly Facebook has made them a part of the country let alone a part of the World. It would be surprising if these intelligent and articulate young people didn’t have ambition. Luckily for them they now live in a country where those ambitions have at least some chance of being satisfied.
On that memorable day from Villa Caro to El Carmen de Nazareth I found myself on the extreme end of hospitality. It bowled me over but was not really out of character with the rest of my experience in Colombia. I have found Colombian people to be the most kind and cheerful folk imaginable. Everyone seems to be happy to see me and they’ve been generous to a fault. Everyday it seems I get offered as least something to nourish me and some days I’ve been given everything I need; food, lodging and good company. According to the Happy Planet Index Colombians are reported to be the third happiest people in the world, perhaps surprising considering the traumatic lives many of them have had. Just as surprising is that El Salvador and Jamaica are the two happiest countries in the world. It seems violent and corrupt societies breed happy people. Or maybe these people just have a sense of perspective and context that stops them dwelling on the menial complaints that can ruin the lives of inward thinking western types. Another theory is that there is so much insecurity in these places that people will often surrender themselves to whatever body can offer them the most security. Combined with a lack of education and ambition that submission can promote resignation to the will of the powerful and essentially take the worry out of life. No worry, more happiness. Sounds counter-intuitive but I have no idea what it must feel like to be in that position.
From El Carmen de Nazareth I trundled downhill to Gramalote. From a distance Gramalote looked much like all the other towns, there was a church tower sticking up and a main square, typical Latin American stuff. But as I got closer I began to make out the huge piles of rubble that led up to the church. Then as I entered the town through those piles of rubble it became apparent that the church was collapsing. Riddled with huge cracks it had already lost one tower to gravity. The square was abandoned too, it’s tiles fractured and weeds sprouting all over. What was this? No one was around and what the maps marked as a reasonably sized town appeared to be wrecked and abandoned. In my ignorance I felt a bit uneasy. After a wander around with the camera I sloped off down the road out of ‘town’.
In between taking the obligatory pictures and trying to convince me her daughter was a ‘gringo’ from Cucuta, the owner of the first tienda I encountered explained how Gramalote had come to tit’s present state. Once a bustling town of about 3,000 Gramalote was destroyed shortly before Christmas 2010. Heavy rain that month combined with a series of geological factors in setting the whole town on a 13 feet per hour slide down hill. Built on a geologic fault it’s believed that a series of small earthquakes caused the water saturated and already broken layers of rock and soil to start slipping. The movement quickly reduced the town to rubble, collapsing one of the churches towers and forcing 870 families to flee. Although some disillusioned families are starting to move back and rebuild a life on fragile foundations, the town for all intense and purposes does not now exist.
Having ridden unpaved roads into vibrant towns it felt a little bizarre to be shooting away from a pile of ruins on a stretch of decent pavement. I quickly descended past towering cliffs to the Rio Cachira. With the drop came an uncomfortable rise in temperature so I was glad to begin climbing again up towards Salazar. Just before I reached town the heavens opened and a storm hit. Dumping Shermy in a ditch I retreated to the shelter of a large boulder. Forty-five minutes cowering under shelter with a incomprehensibly fast talking one-eyed machete wielding man and I decided to make a break for it. Shermy’s ditch was rapidly filling with water and darkness was falling. So I put on my back light, thanked the world this part of road was paved and cycled/swam into town.
I didn’t manage to get out of Salazar until after 9:30 the next morning as I had to see to Shermy’s loose cups again. No one bike mechanic had all the tools I needed so I wasted time pooling tools before getting her tightened up and on the road. Slightly unnerved by the sound of gunshots I left Salazar behind. An even greater volley of gunfire came and persisted until I passed through a massive military base. Soldiers then lurked camouflaged in the bushes skirting the road for another mile. After seven miles the pavement ended, only to restart five miles later once I’d crested a pass and was dropping down into Arboledas. Once again the clouds opened up on me and I spent a good while sheltering under a hotel awning before finally moving on. And glad I was to do so too! Arboledas is the first town I’ve encountered in Colombia that has made me feel uneasy. People tried begging from me, there is a strangely large and fancy hotel with enormous swimming pool in this poor little town and twice I was warned not to take the road up to a nearby village.
Back on unpaved roads (as I would be all the way until the main highway 66 into Pamplona) I thoroughly enjoyed the climb up valley to Cucutilla (4,176 ft,1,273 m elevation). My arrival in Cucutilla was somewhat embarrassingly trumpeted by a man on a motorcycle who insisted on riding just ahead of me to loudly proclaim my greatness. I half expected a marching band and ticker tape! Instead I got the cleanest, most put together hotel room I’ve seen to this point. It was astonishing to find a hotel where the owners obviously take care and pride in their establishment.
The biggest cycling day of the whole of my Norte de Santander adventure was saved for the end. It took four and a half hours and 17.5 miles to climb 4,700 feet out of the valley from Cucutilla. From there the ascent continued through illegally forested swathes of pine and sinister feeling cloud to eventually top out at around 10,000 feet (3,050 m). 5,700 feet of climbing in 26 miles, I turned a corner and there was the main highway down to Pamplona. A smooth wide piece of pristine asphalt that marked the end of my adventure. A quick six-mile freewheel downhill and I was in Pamplona and ready for a rest.
It’s probably easy to guess from the way I’ve gone on at length about this stretch of riding that it represented something quite special to me. It is rare that I find myself riding a route that I know very little about. Usually I have the words and pictures from a previous rider to follow and expectations of what I’ll find. But on this stretch I was all alone discovering new things at every turn. Hills that looked like climbs on the map turned out to be descents and minor tracks on the map became paved just as routes marked as quite major were in fact dirt tracks. Finding the people I did in places like El Carmen de Nazareth and the stories I discovered in towns such as Gramalote gave this route so much more than simply the incredible riding I expected. So if you’re a fellow cycle tourist passing through Colombia I strongly suggest you give this area some thought.