One of the things I have found most empowering as a cyclist in the America’s is just how quickly it’s possible to move between completely different environments and ecosystems. With just the energy in my legs and my incredible bike Shermy, I have discovered the ability to move between more than just places. Sometimes it almost feels as if I’m transporting myself between worlds. Descending down from the snows of the Californian Sierra Nevada into my first experience of desert remains one of my most enduring memories on the road. Such opportunities to quickly move from one extreme landscape and climate to another are far from rare in the United States and a major reason why the country holds a special place in my heart. In that time I learnt just how small the world can be and just how big the bicycle is. I have long adored mountains and since that first escapade in the U.S. I have grown incredibly fond of the desert environment. So when taking my tour back on the road after Bogotá, the Tatacoa desert was the obvious direction in which to head.
Cycling out of Bogotá was a chore made infinitely more bearable due to the companionship of my Bogotá host Javier. Being able to follow Javier’s wheel freed me up to concentrate on avoiding other vehicles and the inordinate amount of broken glass all over the place. We rode fifteen miles before the city released us into a dramatic deep canyon. There the heavily polluted Bogotá River tumbled over a hundred feet down through the low clouds. My route followed the river for a distance and as it fell I fell too, descending thousands of feet in no time. After Javier turned back towards Bogotá I snaked down through the towns of El Colegio, Viota and Tocaima before coming to rest in the heat of Agua de Dios. From there it was hot flat mainly highway riding until I turned off towards Pata. A lancha (boat) across the Rio Magdalena and things suddenly got a whole lot more interesting. A dirt road took me through La Victoria and gradually into the Tatacoa Desert.
The Tatacoa desert is reportedly about 330 square kilometers in area. It’s dry climate comes from a combination of low altitude and the surrounding mountains that pull rain their way. But rain does come (I know, it rained on me) and when it does the water cuts into the clay soil, carving out a network of gullies. Although not on any grand scale, these gullies are still quite distinctive, combining with the cacti to create a typical desert landscape. At this time of year (December) there is still quite a lot of greenery around so the feeling of being marooned in the desert never really materialized for me. Still, that is all part of the charm of Tatacoa, the Valley of Sadness. Another very distinctive charm is the Astrological observatory. Being so close to the equator and free from light pollution, the desert is ideally positioned for star-gazing. Every night between 7 and 9 there are talks given in Spanish and the chance to look through three large telescopes. Unfortunately my group only got ten minutes of clear sky before the clouds rolled in but that was plenty long enough to get some great photos of the moon and take a closer look as Venus among other things.
I had planned to venture west up into the mountains from Neiva where I know there is some quite special riding to be done. However, in the last hour my plans have changed. I’ll have to make do with Cass Gilbert’s fantastic account of that route as I’ll be taking the main road to San Agustin. My old riding partner Jens has wound up living in Popayan and we’ve arranged to meet in San Agustin in few days time. It’s always a hard decision to pass up amazing routes but I figure that is something a cyclist does everyday in South America. I also know that this week I’ll have forging quickly south on the main roads is going to buy me some time to explore the dirt roads of northern Ecuador before my sister arrives in January. There are definitely some exciting times ahead as the road now promises old friends as well as new.