Colombia 2: Mountainscapes & Wax Palms

“Murillo to ~Ibague”

When we bought tickets to Bogota I really had no idea just how big Colombia was–we landed nearly in the middle of the country, but with more to the north and east of Bogota than to the south and west. Even still, it took us several days of heading west (and a little north) to cross over to the western Colombian Andes. And it wasn’t until we started heading south that I realized just how much of Colombia we’re missing–and even with all that we’re missing out on, by the time we leave, we will have ridden more kilometers in Colombia than what we have planned for transecting Ecuador.

Experiencing places, beyond the memorized locations on a map, feeling their distances and expanse with your whole body, crossing all the borders, tasting their food, withering in their heat, having numb fingers from their (specific kind of) cold, dripping red/pink (from my hair) like a watercolor painting in their rain… It’s BEYOND PLACE …as a name, a map location, or a written history.

You might think that’s obvious, but it’s really not …until you travel, and experience all of that, enough times, that the whole world, and everything you thought you knew, unravels …to the point that it hits you–you know nothing, it’s all relative! Or, perhaps that is just me, as I already identify with being a relativist.

Having transported from Mexico to Colombia has just struck me so much, everything that’s different, more comfortable, less comfortable, the words I choose to describe it, my feelings about these places, about myself, and all the things I miss about home. Everything is kind of getting muddled together in my thoughts, my expectations and disappointments–they’re losing ground. I’m having such a great time, and yet sometimes I remember …I used to laugh more. When did that fade–when did I lose my laugh? I think, maybe, it was when my guard got raised. But that didn’t happen on this adventure. That happened years ago when I first left home, and let go of everything I thought I knew. Or maybe it’s just time, more questions, more quest for meaning… …but right now, my quest is for mountains. And Nevado Ruiz wins the medal for the best mountain landscape I’ve seen in a very long time.

It was a long climb up from Murillo, but I was feeling great. I always feel better at altitude than I do in the lowlands. The road started out paved, but quickly turned to dirt…

We rode past endless potato fields. I’ve never seen such pink flowers on potato plants before. They look a bit purple-ish in the photos, but they were bubblegum-pink in person.

Red-roofed farm-houses dotted the landscape surrounded by grazing land for cattle and patches of trees.

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It’s a bunuelo! …kind of like an unsweet donut hole. Yes, it’s deep-fried. Yes, it’s made with white flour. Yes, sometimes they’re made with cheese (but not everywhere). Food is my greatest challenge on this adventure (and dogs that chase my ankles, and drunks, and… maybe everything). But ignoring all of that, bunuelos are so tasty!

It might be just a donut hole, but it’s got my thoughts in a whirl… … …Who are you–when you strip away everything you know? Away from all the familiarity, and conveniences, of the place/places you call home? — I’ve come to find myself in a constant argument/debate/negotiation with myself, as I move through new places (and try to meet my needs)—about who I am and want to be in this world. It’s very easy when I stay in one place, when I’m home, to define all the things I think are good or bad, for me, for this world, for the future of gaia, for humanity, for the lizards that flit about in front of my art studio, for the bunnies that roam in the morning hours, for the sun that sets over my mountain (Baboquivari) …though of course I never really have any actual answers about the fate of the world, or what is really good or bad. But when I move, or travel, it becomes even more difficult to be “me” (without the familiarities and consistencies of “place”). Who are you—when you strip away the conveniences of everything you know?

Riding up Nevado Ruiz was definitely a highlight of this trip so far. I’ve always loved mountains …even as a tiny little girl, the hill behind our house was “my mountain”. I spent my formative years growing up in the shadow of Mount Rainier in Washington State. For years I dreamed of climbing it, and eventually did. It was my “home” beacon, and became my definition of “mountain”. Mountains, in so many ways, have shaped my life, and my definition of “self”. I’ll never be a “mountaineer”, in the way so many claim, but I’m made of mountains. They’re a deep part of everything about me: my dreams, my past, my goals. They’re giants in the sky, and I’d love to stand on every single one them.

…but while climbing Nevado Ruiz didn’t play into our plans on this trip, I immensely enjoyed its landscape. The tall, strange, frailejones were especially mysterious in the misty afternoon clouds.

The wild landscapes of Nevado Ruiz, embraced by the white sky of low hanging clouds, struck me in many of the same ways an abstract painting does: my mind dove in and my imagination went wild.

It was an incredible day riding through the surreal landscapes of Nevado Ruiz. Near the highpoint of this amazing mountain road, we made a brief stop at El Sifon, a small tienda, to chat with the locals and a few passing tourists before riding off into the sunset to look for camping.

We nestled into a sweet spot, through a fence, next to a small storage building. Nevado Ruiz (above the building) came out to say hello just as the sun was setting. It was a magical night filled with stars, silhouettes of frailejones, and cold crisp air.

I woke to a cold blue light, and clouds rising up from the valley below. By the time we were all packed up my fingers felt like popsicles. I rode for at least a half an hour before I stopped to take in another view.

Unfortunately a portion of the road through the park is still closed, so we headed down the mountain towards Manizales. We contemplated coming back up another road to meet up with the road where it’s open on the other end of the park, but there are so many things we want to see while in Colombia, so we decided to continue on to Salento to see the wax palms of Cocora Valley instead.

…looking down the valley towards Manizales.

That’s just the outskirts of Manizales (behind Neon). Thankfully we chose a route that skirted around the city to the south passing through several smaller towns. Villamaria was a crazy knot of traffic, but there didn’t seem to be a way around it since there were only a couple of roads that headed south that would get us to Salento.

After Villamaria our route turned into a beautiful small dirt road.

We passed through a couple of very small villages on our route between Villamaria and Chinchina.

Chinchina was a bit of a shock after all the small towns we’d been to since we left Bogota. It wasn’t actually very big, but it was loud, and bustling with a lot of activity. We found a cheap motel and rested up from our long ride and the ~10,000 foot descent from Nevado Ruiz.

We took a small paved highway out of Chichina, making it to Santa Rosa de Cabal before lunch. Somewhere I thought I’d heard nice things about it, but it was another very loud, bustling city that I failed to see the charm in. The main road through town had so much traffic that we cut over one block hoping for something quieter. But in that one block it went from a busy highway to the backwater slums; shacks made of bamboo, tarps, plastic, and rusty scraps of metal for the roofs. The street was narrow, with puddles of murky water, dog poop, and trash strewn about. We rode the length of it until it exited out the other side, probably a few blocks in length total. We’ve ridden through a lot of places like that on this adventure, but the proximity and contrast to the main road into town, only one block over, really caught me off guard. The photo below is looking back on the “street” from where we exited. I didn’t feel like it was appropriate to take a photo when we were in the middle of riding past the people’s homes.

We made a couple of short stops in Santa Rosa to resupply, riding across the length of the crowded city, before turning onto a small dirt road. The road faded from the outskirts of the city, to farms, to what I might describe as shanty towns and shacks, a bit scrapped together, but cleaner and with little to no trash. They went on for miles. We drew a lot of stares as we rode through. I said hello (hola), or good afternoon (buenas tardes) to everyone I passed, and most everyone returned the greeting (unlike the street we had ridden down in Santa Rosa, where the only response I got in return there was a cold stare with the words “gringo negro”).

Eventually the shack lined road turned more to a forestry jungle that felt more like wilderness.

It has been easy to get water through this stretch since there are small waterfalls at almost every tight bend in the road.

…even the steep slopes are planted with crops, often coffee, but everything else too.

We had hoped there would be a hotel in La Florida, and though there were a number of juices bars, cafes, and restaurants, there were no hotels. It’s a very agricultural area so there wasn’t much camping to be had, so we pushed on to Salento. It was a long day, and completely dark our last few kilometers into Salento. The batteries in my headlight were dead, but thankfully my rear blinky light was still in working order for the uphill, narrow, winding road into town and all its traffic.

We were exhausted and a bit frazzled from the dark ascent into town. The center was bustling with a touristy nightlife when we arrived. It took awhile to find a hotel. The first place we checked had a beautiful room, but they wouldn’t let us take our bikes in the room. Other places were all booked up, even more expensive, or the rooms were too small for our bikes. We eventually found a suitable hostel for our first two nights.

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The central square in Salento, early in the morning, before it gets bustling with tourists.

We were so exhausted from our previous couple of days that we spent the first day in Salento just resting up and hanging around town. But since we were at a hostel, I decided to make full use of their kitchen.

The next day we moved our bikes to Hotel Colonial, then headed off to Valle del Cocora to hike up into the jungle and back down to see the wax palms.

The hike up was a lot of fun with all its old rickety ridges.

The humming bird preserve, about half way through the hike, was a perfect place for a rest, and the entry fee comes with hot chocolate. Hummingbirds were buzzing about all the flowering trees and shrubs, but the only place they sat still long enough for me to get a photo was at the feeder.

After a little more up we dropped down into the wax palms. They had a tall slender beauty that was captivating, though seemingly a bit out of place amidst the chewed down bright green cattle-grazed slopes.

Wax palms are the tallest palms in the world, growing up to two hundred feet tall.

We took an old Camino out of town. It’s popular with other mountain bikers, and we saw a lot of cyclists during the morning and early afternoon hours.

Late in the afternoon we dropped down into a beautiful valley filled with wax palms. The land was still used for cattle grazing, but the palms were dense and lush, and where they came together into a forest they nearly crowded out the shorter, leafy, trees.

The slopes were steep, but after a little hike-a-bike, past a gate, and up a steep, muddy hill, we found a perch to pitch our tent for the night.

We woke to clouds rising over the ridges and up through the valleys.

Shortly into the morning hours we stopped for a few supplies in the small town of Toche. Supplies were limited, but we found a place that served coffee and sweet bread, a small tienda that stocked potato chips and toilet paper (and potatoes and onions), and I even saw a sign for a hotel. It was a quiet, peaceful feeling town, but I wondered if we were missing a bigger store somewhere. A few kilometers after Toche we stopped for a soak in the warm springs, Termales Machin, before pressing on, back out to the highway at Ibague.

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Sacks of oranges, on the side of the road, waiting for pick up. We’ve seen this a lot with crops like oranges/tangerines and potatoes, where large sacks are left on the side of the road to be picked up, I’m guessing by someone who collects them from all the farmers and then takes them to a store or warehouse to sell.

Lter in the afternoon we passed through another small Pueblo, Tapias. We had hoped to find a few more supplies or a restaurant, but the store didn’t have much we could use, and we had the unfortunate timing of arriving at the restaurant when all the tables were full of empty beer cans. We were heading in to see what the menu offered when one of the drunk men decided that we were very interesting and would not leave us alone. So we decided to skip lunch and push the last 30 kilometer before dark. After a bit of uphill, a fast series of downhills took us to the highway.

As we got closer to the highway we saw several old tunnels, and rode through two long ones out to the highway. At first I thought they were old mining tunnels since several of them butted right up into the ridges, but the young man Neon spoke to (in the photo below) said the one in the photo is an old military bunker. I’m not sure what the real story is, but I think the ones we rode through out to the highway were old train tunnels.

We had a short moment of panic when got to the highway; it looked like a pretty rough neighborhood and the sun was just about to set, and we didn’t see any hotels. But after a quick search we found a couple of hotels just a few kilometers further on the outskirts of Ibague. They were all sex hotels, sometimes referred to as “auto hotels”, that rent rooms by blocks of hours. They’re usually very nice rooms with lots of space. We found one for 24,000 COP (~8 US dollars) for 12 hours. It was a huge room and had an assortment of sex furniture in it. The best part was there was a restaurant on site with good prices and room service, and bottles of wine for the same price as a store. I love happy endings to long day…

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2 Comments

  1. thanks for the story. I rode Ecuador a few years ago and wondered about Colombia, you are filling me in. Lee

    On Fri, Jul 27, 2018 at 4:23 AM The Redheaded Nomad wrote:

    > theredheadednomad.com posted: “”Murillo to ~Ibague” When we bought > tickets to Bogota I really had no idea just how big Colombia was–we landed > nearly in the middle of the country, but with more to the north and east of > Bogota than to the south and west. Even still, it took us severa” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You are seeing the gamut of Colombian society-always something I seek out, in my travels, whether here in the U.S. or elsewhere. One area I would love to visit in Colombia is Cartagena to La Guajira, especially the indigenous areas of the peninsula. Of course, that’s north of where you are. Another area would be Popayan, which may be on your route. The photos of Nevado Ruiz are spectacular, as one would expect!

    Liked by 1 person

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