Saturday, July 18, 2015

Rushing to the border

I had two weeks left. Two weeks to reach Ecuador before my Colombian visa expired. From Bogota it was only 800 km to the border, but I had little idea of what obstacles lay ahead. I'd be cycling through the Andes again, and for a while. So there was no point in taking conservative guesses, this was Colombia afterall. So I thought of a novel idea – catch a bus if time runs out! Actually, catching a bus was an absolute last option; I am far too stubborn to even think of cheating. I just needed reassurance that I could make the border in time. 

So after a rather long and pleasant stay in Bogota, I made my way south of the city towards the first milestone, the city of Girardot. On the decent from the cool plateau of Bogota to the lowlands of Girardot, I met another cyclist. Mike was the first touring cyclist I had met in South America. The reason was obvious, I was now traveling on the Bogota-detour route of the Pan American highway. He would also not be the last. After a rather lengthy and entertaining chat, we parted ways. Mike had a lot of uphill to take on, while I had the easy downhill. Though I did not yet know what awaited me… The heat in the lowlands was almost unbearable. Every patch of lawn with a trickle of shade along the way provided some refuge from the sun, and I did not hesitate to pull over and crash on the lawn. I guess the two months of slothing in Bogota had stolen my cycling legs, and I was now paying the price! I knew all too well that these all-too-frequent emergency stops were gradually eroding away the time I had available for reaching the border on time. The idea of the bus sneaked into my thoughts a few times. No way! That alone was enough motivation to get back on the saddle.

Mike was the first touring cycling I met in Colombia, and South America, actually.

Grinding my way up the relentlessly long ‘La Linea’ pass that connects Ibague with Armenia across the central Andes mountain range, I met another cyclist. We chatted over a late lunch at a roadside restaurant before taking to the road again. This time it was my turn to continue uphill. It took me nearly two days to reach the top of the ‘La Linea’ mountain pass, and what a relief it was. Seeing the downhill road on the other side of the peak is always a joy! Victory is almost palatable while squeezing in those last few pedal strokes over the top.

Sean and I had a chat over lunch while taking a break from the 'La Linea' climb.

A small cable car bridging the gap across a valley beside the 'La Linea' route.

Maybe halfway up the mountain pass...better than at the start.

Friendly road workers offered me coffee and a bite to eat near the top of the pass.

Only minutes away from the top of the mountain pass at 3200m asl. Great view!!

I figured I needed a snack at this roadside restaurant at the top of the pass.

The 20 or more kilometres downhill to Armenia were a breeze. With the dense fog along the way I figured it would be safer to activate the rear-wheel dynamo so that oncoming traffic could see me better – the rapid descent ensured that the dynamo wheel would spin right off! There goes a perfectly working dynamo that had served me well since March 2013 – time to say goodbye!     

A room for four at a backpackers in Armenia.

After a night’s rest in Armenia, I headed in the direction of Cali, the largest city due south. For over 150 km it was plain sailing across the perfectly flat plains between the central and western Andes. I made good progress in two days, and it felt like I was catching up on the time lost fighting gravity on the ‘La Linea’ ascent.

A fire raging in the sugar cane flats between Armenia and Cali. It lasted only minutes.

There was, however, no time for birding. I dared not even reach for my binoculars in case I got caught up in the act of serious birding – this has happened many times before. Just a peak, then next thing I need to get the camera out, then the books are out, and then an hour has passed. I no longer had the luxury of time, so I spotted what I could with my bare eyes. Blue-winged Mountain Tanager and an unidentified dove nearly added to my list!

I spent a night in Popayan, a town famed as the ‘white city’ due to many of the colonial houses in the city centre being, you guessed it, white. I spent a couple hours walking the streets at night to soak in the sight, and to chat with my room mate at the backpackers. Dan was also traveling by bicycle, but at a much faster pace. He had completed the stretch from southern Argentina to Colombia in six months! Goodness, I spent six months just in Colombia! I figured I would need years to reach the south tip of the continent – time to reconsider the route plans!

Street view of Popayan's centre, known as the 'white city'. 

Street view from the backpackers in Popayan.

After Popayan only one city stood between me and the border, Pasto. I still had six days to go on my visa, so it seemed like an easy task. After some more hilly country to the south of Popayan, and consuming the odd mango by the roadside, the countryside became drier and hotter. I longed for time to go birding, as I have an affinity for drier places, but rather pushed on. I felt the increase in altitude again, not only in my legs, but also the surrounding montane scenery and drop in temperature. 

Looking back at a storm that was chasing me, I somehow stayed ahead of the rain.

A quaint little house beside the road.

Spectacular scenery along the way south of Popayan.

More scenery...

More mountains...

Need to wash your truck or clothes in the middle of nowhere, anytime; no problem!

A friendly French couple coming downhill on their fully-loading touring bikes was a welcome sight. They were in a rush to get to their destination for the night, so we kept the formalities brief. They handed me a map of northern Ecuador, showing the route I intended to take from the border to Quito. This would be useful! My first route map since I started cycling in Latin America! I am happy to say that I eventually passed the map on to some other cyclists after I no longer needed it, so by now it has guided a number of cyclists through northern Ecuador!

Gaining altitude surrounded by pristine-looking mountain scapes.

Mountains stretching out in every direction.

A lone tree enjoying the scenery, all to itself!

A Fench couple who had come a long way through Latin America by bike.

The border only 129 km away!! Wonderful news!

Arriving in Pasto in the rain.

My hopes that the continuous mountains would give way to plains were not realized, but then the scenery was amazing and well worth it. I arrived in the border town of Ipiales with one day to spare on my visa. Whew, that was close! With that I ended my six-month visit to Colombia, a country that easily makes it into the ranks of my favour three countries cycled thus far. I could write a chapter on that alone, but will boil it down to the friendly, hospitable folk found throughout the country, the fantastically scenic countryside no matter where you are, and of course the birds and other wildlife. Looking back, I realized that I had missed pretty much most of the best birding sites (the length of my bird list reflected this), getting caught up with other things instead, so I have plenty of reasons to return…     

My cycle route through southern Colombia, from Bogota (A) to Ipiales (B).

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