An Xmas ¡Hasta Luego! to Colombia

I wanted to write about my Colombian Christmas but quickly realised I hadn’t had a Colombian Christmas. So I re-framed my thoughts in terms of a Christmas in Colombia but that didn’t fit either because Christmas has just been a series of ordinary days for me. So the ultimate conclusion was that if Christmas felt like an ordinary day then every ordinary day must be like Christmas. And that fitted perfectly, despite the perceived hardships and the time away from friends and family everyday on the bike is like Christmas. I love it… more than Christmas!

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Christmas day in Parque La Pola, Ipiales

Christmas day I was not celebrating Christmas, I was celebrating the end of my time in Colombia. Venturing out into the morning streets if Ipiales it could have been any other day. The market stalls were out, the streets bustling, the car horns blaring and business going on as normal. No surprise really. Economic realities mean many people can’t afford to miss a day for Christmas and generally many Colombians will celebrate on the 24th. By the time the afternoon rains arrived things were slightly different, people packing up and going home early and less folk in the streets. I appreciate that I am a bit isolated up in my hotel castle but it feels to me as if Christmas day is just a part of a season here, as opposed to its central significance at home.

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Parque de la Independencia  seemed the favorite place for kids to be riding their new Christmas bikes

It is also true that in these heavily Catholic Latino countries Christmas has a far greater religious significance. Every house seems to have laid down a square of green carpet and arranged small pieces into a nativity scene. And every day people gather together to sing and pray as a community. Jens and I experienced one such gathering at the Mirador on our first night out of Mocoa. In a scene reminiscent of WW1, helmeted and armed soldiers appeared menacingly out of the mists, ordered all music turned off and then gathered around the nativity scene. They removed their helmets, invited us over and started to sing. After each had said their piece of thanks to God, much clapping, singing and the passing around of biscuits, they put their helmets back on and went back to their duties. It was a beautiful moment and was my Christmas for 2013.

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The magnificent Las Lajas Sanctuary built over the Guáitara River canyon

On Christmas day I did what many people all over the world do, I went to church. But I consider myself agnostic  and didn’t go to worship, I went as a tourist to take pictures and soak up the atmosphere. It wasn’t any old church I went to either, I got on my bike and rode a few miles out of town to the Santuario de las Lajas. The Shrine of Our Lady of Las Lajas has reference dating back to the mid 1700’s but the impressive church you see in the pictures was only erected in first half of the 20th century. The site has great religious significance and is a major attraction for tourists and pilgrims alike. I found my visit to be quite a powerful experience. As Gregorian chants leaked out of the church and the sun warmed my face, a sense of calm and tranquility unexpectedly consumed me.

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The Las Lajas Sanctuary looks even more spectacular given context

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Just up the valley from the Sanctuary lies the small town of Potosi

Cycling back up the hill to Ipiales I visited a petrol station to fill up my stove bottle. As I waited my turn at the pump a man with a young wife and six month old baby offered to fill my bottle for me. He would not accept any money and didn’t really speak much, it as just a random act of kindness. Anywhere else I may have been surprised but in Colombia I have been on the receiving end of so much kindness. Tomorrow I cross the border into Ecuador, drawing a line under my short two month stay in Colombia. I have decided to stay here a few days longer mainly because it is such as easy place to relax. Colombia’s enduring legacy for me will be the incredible positivity and generosity of its people. The politeness, warmth and excitement of the Colombian people I have encountered is something I wish I could take back to my own miserable moaning country.

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On the right of shot you can see some of the thousands of plaques that are cemented into the rock walls of the canyon. Each plaque is a thank you from a family for a miracle performed by the virgin

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The church raises 330 feet (100 meters) from the canyon bottom

Having stowed Shermy I went out wandering in Ipiales. Some shops were starting to shut and there were a lot of children out on shiny new bikes, but otherwise it was normal life. In a country like Colombia that has been riddled with difficulties over the last few decades, normal life is something quite special and to be appreciated. When I was researching my trip back in 2009 it appeared that most bicycle tourists were bypassing Colombia and flying straight from Panama to Quito. Maybe at that time such a flight represented the sensible option but it is usually hard to know a countries real danger level until you arrive there. In all my travels I don’t think I’ve ever felt as welcome as I have n Colombia. Also, and perhaps more surprisingly, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as safe as I have in Colombia. I have never felt under threat here, even when people were warning me of guerrillas in the back reaches of Norte de Santander it never worried me.

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My full route through Colombia… click here for more detail

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Elevation profile for my full Colombia route

So after 1591 miles (2,560 km) cycled and 135,865 feet (41,411 meters) climbed over 66 days, I am ready to leave Colombia. My experiences have reinforced what reputation had taught me to expect of the country. My progress has been uncharacteristically swift and I have missed out large and significant chunks of Colombia but I am ready for the high Andes. Ecuador promises the reintroduction of strong indigenous cultures and more big landscapes. Unlike other countries I’ve cycled through I really hope I am able to return to Colombia in the future, it is definitely somewhere everybody should experience and will enjoy if they do.

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