Bike Touring Colombia – Bogota to Cocuy National Park
Thwack!..Thwack!………Thwack! The handful of rocks I had just thrown scatter-gun style had just hit their squishy target. Satisfaction surged through my body – like that feeling you get when you pop that annoying pimple in your face.
Janet and I cheered as the three (formerly) barking dogs ran away with their tails between their legs. Our tender ankles and legs would be spared once again from a canine onslaught.
OK, the dogs in Colombia aren’t that bad… and as Janet has noted, they’re a lot more spritely than their less ebullient and malnourished Mesoamerican counterparts. In a way, we’re glad to see dogs like this, as I will discuss later… but first let’s jump back to the beginning of our trip to Colombia…
Because we almost always fly with a tandem, Janet and I have perfected our calm, steady (but firm) voices for negotiating travel with an 8 foot long cardboard box full of disassembled bicycle parts. We arrived at the check-in counter with unimpassioned preparedness…
Check-in Agent: “Tickets please…”
Me: “Here you go.”
Check-in Agent: “OK… Hmmm… I cannot let you board the plane. You must have a return ticket. I’m sorry, you cannot board without a return ticket.”
Suddenly, a shot of adrenaline surged through my blood. I had heard of this requirement to have proof of onward travel in order to enter a country… but had never experienced it before. What were we going to do?
Me: “Um, But I, uh have traveled many times without an onward ticket.”
Check-in Agent: (after conferring with several bosses): “Hold on, I’m going to call Colombia to see if they can make an exception.”
Check-in Agent: (after long conversation on phone): “OK. Colombia says you can go.”
We’re grateful that Colombia said OK, because it turns out they’ve got a pretty nice place.
Being the world travelers that we are, prior to our arrival, Janet and I already knew a few things about Colombia. Here is the complete list:
- Juan Valdez Coffee
We also assumed that Colombia would probably be a lot like Mexico and Central America. Although each country in Meso America was subtly different, we’ve already noticed some huge (and very welcome) cultural differences.Trash: You may remember our “Trashy Spreadsheet” where Janet and I subjectively categorized the amount of trash found on the side of the road in various Central American Countries. Costa Rica was the winner on that spreadsheet, but they’re WAY behind Colombia. So far, we’re so happy to see recycling bins in even the smallest cities, ads encouraging recycling in the newspaper and magazines, and people employed to pick up trash on the side of the road. While there are individual exceptions, the ethic of the people is for a clean world.
Dogs: Although I started with a negative dog story, we’ve found positives in the Colombian dogs. To begin with, we’ve noticed that there are fewer mutts, and the dogs appear to be health and well cared for. The relationship with animals is very different here too. A week ago, we we came around a corner to find a dog who had been hit by a vehicle. It had clearly just happened, as he was in the middle of the road, but trying to get off to the side. He moved slowly, as his rear legs were crippled. A motorcyclist had pulled over (as did we), and he walked up to the dog, calmed it, and carried it up the dirt road to the owners. After having seen so many animals ignored in other places, it warmed our hearts to think that this dog was going to be able to heal.
Courtesy: Similar to Mexico and parts of Guatemala (but not the rest of Central America), we’ve found that people are extremely polite here. The politeness is on a new level: Everywhere we go, people greet us with a good afternoon, and often a “how are you doing?” Janet and I each receive our own “Buenos Dias” since there are two of us passing on a tandem. In any place of commerce, invariably we are greeted with a smile and a “para servirle,” and “es un gusto sevirle” which basically means “at your service,” and “it is a pleasure to serve you.”
Fear: There is no better way to destroy a country than to have its citizens living in fear. If you are afraid for your future, are you going to want to invest in it? If people are afraid, will they invest in new businesses, have children, seek ways to improve the lives of others, or stick their necks out to make change and improvement? Terrorists who attach places with good social well-being know that fear is a powerful way to weaken a huge populace. Something we very frequently experienced in Mexico and Central America was the “It’s dangerous over there” syndrome. We’d come into a pueblo, and people would tell us, “You can’t continue. It is very dangerous farther down that road. ’They’ will kill you.” We’d go down that road, and get to the next pueblo, where the people would say, “That pueblo you came from is dangerous. You shouldn’t have gone there, ‘They’ will kill you.” In general, there is a sense of fear in those countries. I don’t mean to discount the dangers (after all, all of these countries, including Colombia have much higher murder rates than the US)**… but we have not once had someone tell us that a place is dangerous here in Colombia. Why? The words of our tour guide in Bogota on the first day may lend some insight. He told us that there are many different cultural groups in Colombia. Not too long ago, they didn’t know anything about each other… and they had this type of fear discussed above. The guide told us that the Colombian government has made big moves to encourage public knowledge of the many neighboring cultural groups. The’ve made many (free) museums dedicated to the various groups so people can get to know their neighboring communities instead of fearing them.
** Note that we would filter these comments based on how specific the danger was. If there was an actually story or history of danger, we’d take it much more seriously than if someone told us “they” were going to do something.
Begging: With the exception of two people who asked for a swig of Janet’s diet coke in Bogota, we haven’t experienced any begging. (She honored one of the requests by pouring some into a cup shaped object that a man pulled out of the trash when she initially refused to let him drink out of her bottle). Somewhat related, we’ve noticed that the banks have less security than some in the USA. No armed guards outside with automatic weapons, and no floor to ceiling 5” thick bulletproof glass.
Given our expectations upon arrival, our views have changed somewhat about the social well-being of Colombians. On a few occasions, I’ve had people tell me something like, “Money doesn’t matter; the most important thing is having health,” and “We don’t have much money, but we have this,” pointing to the mountains around us.Starting to really like this country partly due to the aforementioned reasons, Janet and I decided to “settle” for a few days in one location so Janet could start studying Spanish. Because Janet and I lean on speaking English to each other, she had not been getting enough practice with the language she’s been working hard to learn. Spanish schools are available in the big cities – but besides being expensive, one could have more exposure to English, which tends to set you back if you’re trying to study intensively. Because December and January are “Summer” vacation here, I figured we could ask around in the next village we reached to see if we could find the children’s Spanish teacher. Such a person would have the skills needed to teach a language – and presumably wouldn’t mind making some extra money during vacation. Sure enough, we found this person within a few hours of arriving in Guacamayas – the first place we tried. We negotiated one-on-one Spanish classes for Janet (2-1/2 hours per day) where she would be forced to do everything in Spanish – while I headed off on a backpacking trek to the Sierra – El Nevado de Cucoy.
We felt immediately accepted in Guacamayas. By the second day, we already knew several towns people by name – and were greeting them in the street while going to breakfast or walking to the neighboring village. After seeing new people every day, the sensation of greeting a “familiar,” smiling face makes you feel at home. The woman who helped connect us with the teacher told us she returned here with the intention of leaving within a few months… but now she’s been here for years.
In the evening, we were invited to the Noveña celebration. We learned that in Colombia, “La Noveña” (meaning 9 – as in 9 days of prayer) is celebrated from December 17th to December 24th. Each night, people gather in the central plaza to listen to music, dance, and watch performances.We sat on the steps around the football/basketball court, and almost immediately, a group of 5 boys huddled in next to us. They glued themselves up against my hips and crawled on top of each other. They asked us, “where is the bike?” We hadn’t seen these boys before, but apparently, they had seen us. Soon, we were answering all sorts of questions like, “how do you say ‘moto’ in English?” (motorcycle). Dancers were twirling, holding illuminated candles, and occasional raindrops were failing from the illuminated night sky. “My name is George… My name is Sebastian… My name is Daniel…” Although they were only about 6 years old, they politely introduced themselves, and shook hands with me and Janet. I thought to myself: These kids are so polite. They’re going to grow up to be such good people like the many friendly and kind Colombians we have already met. To my surprise, I was later informed that these boys were known as troublemakers in this town! The boys huddled in closer. “Do you have this in your country,” they asked, referring to the Noveña celebration. “No,” I said. “Well, what do the people in your country do, then,” they asked. I thought about this for a minute. “Well, on Christmas day, we open presents,” I said, suddenly feeling kind of boring. “We open presents at midnight on the 24th,” they informed me. Suddenly, I was reflecting on how rich and social these evenings were. A woman walked around handing out lollipops to everyone, and I reflected on the sweetness of this evening while sucking the colorful dulce.
But a while after the lollipop ran out and I had sucked all the sweetness out of the gumball inside, I soon learned of a bittersweet component of the Noveña: the 4am wakeup call. The idea is that everyone in the village (and surrounding villages) should wake up at 4am to think about God. To ensure this occurs as a community, three things must happen at the same time: 1) Fireworks are launched – the loud ones that shoot into the sky. 2) The Church bells are literally pounded in all sorts of ways. 3) Christmas music is blared from enormous speakers in the plaza. This noise persists from 4am until 4:30am, and it is inescapable no matter how far you are from the city center. The best earplugs have little impact – you can FEEL the firework/bell/music noise vibrating your body as you lie there praying to God: “Please make this be the last song!” For me, at least, in a round about way, they got me talking to God.
There are other ways to get closer to God, though. If you believe that God resides in the heavens above, then just being in the mountains of Colombia brings you physically closer. Many of the regions we visited on this route were over 8,000 feet, and we frequently crossed passes over 10,000’ to 11,000’! We’ve been finding that Colombia is blessed with beautiful scenery – it’s the type that doesn’t photograph well because there is no singular subject for a focal point; instead, you’re just enveloped in beautiful pastoral grasslands, mountains and valleys. If it weren’t for the vegetation native to this area, you might guess you were in Switzerland. It’s a strange sight to see Cactus, pasture grass, palm trees, Frailjones, and pine trees all growing together in abundance. You can see all of this different vegetation together in one spot in Cocuy National Park.
Cucoy National Park has been a conservation area for the last 20 years. This park intends to protect the nature and culture of this region. No matter how hard they try, though, the disappearing glaciers cannot be protected. The glaciers in this park have been melting rapidly, meaning you have to (or get to, depending on how you look at it) walk farther to reach the edge of the glacier. In an effort to protect the vanishing ice, it is prohibited to make snow angels, have snowball fights, and build snowmen. They are taking this very seriously!Also protected are sacred grounds of the U’wa people who lived in this region long before this was a park. Historically, there used to be a route called “Vuelta a Cucoy,” but that route is no longer permitted because the U’wa have asked that people do not come to some of their sacred spots such as Laguna de La Plaza. This still leaves plenty of gorgeous terrain to be explored. Much like the California Sierra, this is a place of extraordinary beauty and ruggedness. A couple differences from the California Sierra present themselves. For one, in the California Sierra, you will see little or no plant life over 11,000′; tree line is at 10,500′ in the Southern Sierra. In Colombia’s Sierra, you still see plants (and big plants) growing well over 15,000′. In fact, the Frailejone, which looks like a tree, can be see well over 14,000′. The species of Frailejone growing in the park is endemic.
My first route into the park proper was via the Lagunillas route. If you are coming by bicycle, you can leave your bike at two of the three cabanas. The cabanas are Migel Herreras, Alejandro Herreras, and SISUMA. Bicycles are not allowed all the way to SISUMA, and you wouldn’t want to ride that trail anyway. Camping is allowed next to the various cabanas for $3US per night.Because of some confusion I had about the location of the cabanas, I ended up stopping early at the house of Luis Alejandro Herreras. He said I could camp by his house and that he had lived there for 40 years – before the park had come to be. This turned out to be a very rustic evening for me. I decided to run out to the Lagunas and back – a pretty straight forward route. Upon returning to the cabin, it was time for dinner cooked by Luis himself.
After dark, I entered into his small mud, rock, and wood hut and immediately noticed the smell of smoke. There was a wood fire burning between several rocks, and a pot suspended by a metal ring that looked like a spiderweb. Several pots were on the rocks surrounding the fire; each coated with a one centimeter thick layer of carbon. I sat down on a wooden board just above the floor, and Luis and I started talking about what is for dinner. Something dark was frying in an inch of oil; I couldn’t tell what it was because the only light was a candle and the glow of the fire. Luis didn’t speak English, but he told me that this was “shit.” I asked him what “shit” was, and he said “oveja – shit.” Suddenly, I realized, he was saying sheep – in English. For the rest of the evening, he spoke only in Spanish – except for the one English word: Sheep. As we discussed varying topics such as politics, his home grown potatoes (which were just as delicious as the sheep), I looked around the room. I noticed the walls of the room were black and coated thick with carbon. I asked him if he had thought of putting in a chimney, and instead he pointed upwards at a cloth sack hanging from the rafters. This was cheese, and it was being smoked just above our heads. My eyes became more accustomed to the light, and I saw raw meat hanging from the rafters in the small room. I asked about this; it was the sheep we were eating, which he had given a little salt. Here at a cool 13,000′, he said it would last 10 days like that – presumably also being smoked a little by the fire. His water came from a hose connected to one of the many mountain streams, and the hose constantly gurgled into a large bucket with a small plastic bowl inside for scooping. This is how he had lived for 40 years.
The next day, I rode over to discover another end of the park, passing by the “La Esperanza – Laguna Grande de la Sierra” trailhead (this looks to be another great route, but there is only so much time). The Ritacubas route starts at the Kanwara cabañas, and takes you to the glaciers.
I had 3 maps, and one of them indicated a trail also going up to the Laguna de los Tempanos, so I thought I would devise an off-trail route to connect these two trails thereby making a loop. The trail starts off nicely – easy to find, with multiple paths wandering and reconnecting. You quickly ascend from 14,000′ to 15,700′. From this elevation, you can ascend further to Ritacuba Blanco – (17,484′), but this would require walking on the glacier and requires special equipment. Instead, I traversed South-East, and have exposed an all Class-2 route down to Laguna de los Tempanos. If you follow the route in my GPS file, it is all easy Class-2, with the exception of a difficult Class-2 traverse near the top. Unfortunately, when I got to the lake expecting a trail, none emerged. The area was covered in fog, so I headed down the drainage following my intuition. Not far down, I knew my intuition was wrong, but I continued anyway, hoping to make a new route back. My “best” map only had contour lines every 1000′ or so. Two of my three maps did not have the “trail” on them that I had been hoping to find. Well below the lake, when I approached some 300′ cliffs and waterfalls, I continued to move along ledges and ramps overgrown with sharp cutting grass. I could connect the ledges by grasping the vegetation at times. Curving West, the cliffs did not abate. Eventually, I found myself on a 1′ wide ledge with an 80′ cliff below – and 800+’ cliff above. I momentarily panicked. Looking down the cliff made my stomach swoon. There was no option but to turn back – and renegotiate all the cliffs that had been so hard to traverse in the first place. Time check: it had taken me 4 hours to get here – and there was only 1.5 hours of daylight left. If I could make it back to the top before sunset, at least I could descend the trail in the dark. Traveling off trail would be scary. Retracing my steps, was laboring – but when I got back to the lake, the fog on the cliffs had lifted.
I realized that the line I had seen may actually indicate a route: I saw a weakness in the cliff that might be climbed. From my experience with the Sierra High route, I was able to imagine a zig-zagging line up the cliff using ledges and ramps. The risk of taking this route is that I didn’t know if it connected – and if it didn’t I’d be 30-45 minutes further into the dark if I had to retrace my original route. The benefit was that it could possibly be a shorter return with less climbing. Nervously working to the top, it was never more than class-2… and at the top of the cleft in the cliffs, my heart leapt with joy. I found a rock cairn!If you choose to follow this route, I recommend following my GPS track exactly, except for the out and back portion below Laguna de los Tempanos. It is very enjoyable, never more than class-2.
By the time I returned from Cucoy, Janet had settled in on her one-on-one Spanish classes. Janet had two teachers concurrently, one of whom was actually an English teacher. Janet made acquaintances in town, and would go on conversational hikes with her teachers in the mountains around the village. Janet is already speaking more confidently, and even caught a few grammatical mistakes made by her teachers!
This route takes you on some rough dirt roads, avoids traffic for the most part (you will still encounter traffic in some sections, but there is an ample shoulder). You will have to pay a couple dollars per person to enter into the Nuesa Park.
This route is one of our favorites! Starting in Duitama, the traffic on the main road begins to diminish quickly as you head to Santa Rosa de Viterbo. Almost the entire route is good traffic-wise, and a lot of the surfaces are paved. We covered this route over several days, so there isn’t a single Strava map to link to. Here is the route: Duitama -> Santa Rosa de Viterbo -> Portachuelo -> Cennza -> Belen -> Canutos -> Paramo -> Susacon -> Soata -> Boavita -> La Uvita -> San Mateo -> Guacamayas -> Panqueba -> Cocuy -> La Capilla -> Guican.
This route will take you over beautiful and varied terrain, and elevations over 13,000′. It is all dirt from Cocuy to Guican.
Some more pictures that didn’t quite fit: