Bike Touring Colombia – Neiva to Popayan via Tierradentro
If you like to travel, perhaps you’ve noticed something about the character of popular destinations. When you arrive at a popular destination, you’ll often notice that many services have popped up: restaurants, hotels, gas stations. At one point, clearly, these services didn’t exist. In the popular place that you’re visiting, there was a time when people were just discovering the touristic merits of this location. At the same time that people were finding this place, other enterprising people were paying attention: The visitors need services. In some situations, this occurs on a cold and calculating way. I’ve heard that businesses like Starbucks use satellite imagery and more to examine year-over-year expansion of cities in towns – feeding this data into a computer program that spits out the best location for the next coffee house. In other situations, development occurs more organically – people arrive, and locals take note – over time, converting their homes to guest houses, and small stores – gradually building infrastructure to serve the tourists.
There is an enormous difference between these two patterns of creating infrastructure. In fact, the organic pattern could potentially precede the computer generated model – but it can’t go the other way – organic development can’t really come in after the Starbucks. Here in Colombia, I feel that we’ve been witnessing the early stages of organic growth of infrastructure and services to serve tourists – and “I’m McLovin’ it.”
Tonight we’re staying at the home of Lucille, Joanna, Wilson, and Sara. We arrived on the tandem bike at 5PM, and stopped for a break. We noticed that there was a small separate building with 3 doors – the look of the building seemed to suggest “bathrooms” – which for me and Janet might mean “camping.” We loitered for a few minutes, and Sara (the 4 year old daughter) came along with her huge fuzzy pink hat with long chin ties bouncing along like tendrils. She asked if we were going to use the bathroom, and I said no. I asked her if her hat had a name (because it looked like an animal). She said, “Oso…Oso Polar” (polar bear). Then she asked us to follow her on a great adventure. We followed her to where a duck sat perched in a shack filled with sawdust. She told us that the duck was drunk, because it ate too much corn. The next morning, we were informed that “boracha,” which usually means “drunk” colloquially refers to a hen or duck that no longer lays eggs.
Soon the adults arrived, and informed us that yes, there is a Hospedaje (guest house) here. It was not immediately evident that there was lodging here because the only sign was a hand painted board that said, “Restaurant.” Come on in, they said, and I followed them through a dark and slightly smoky kitchen with low ceilings through several bedrooms. As I walked, I noticed that I could see sunlight coming up through the many cracks in the floorboards that sank heavily with each of my footsteps. Eventually after walking through three interconnected bedrooms, we arrived at the last room, which could be ours for the night for 10,000COP – $3US. Having just met them minutes ago, we felt that this might be too-close quarters, and so we asked about camping. “Whatever you prefer,” they said, as we went out back and investigated camp sites near the hen house, the duck house, and what I later discovered was the trout-house. We merrily set up our tent, and then were joined by Wilson and Sara who wanted us to come play. She told us that she often plays by herself, but now that we were here, we could pick “rice” (pampas grass) and leaves with her.
Joanna told us that they want to convert their home into an “EcoRestaurant-Hospedaje” and in many ways, they have already succeeded. To me, it is an amazing story of innovation, brilliance, and creativity. She told me that they had already build a facility to convert pig feces into cooking gas. Immediately, I was intrigued, as I had been considering building such a system in my own home. She took me on a tour of the yard, and showed me the system built with such simple materials – and a safety valve. It was amazing that it works – and then she told me it makes 3 hours worth of cooking gas PER DAY! Not only that, but now they don’t need to use as much firewood (which creates smoke inside and costs a lot of money). Then she took me on a tour of their trout pond. It’s very difficult to keep these trout here at 11,000’, she said. In fact, they’re one of the few places that have managed to succeed. She also informed me of some other elevation related facts: For example, it is illegal to live over 3,200 meters in Colombia. I asked why, and she first said that it’s too cold – but then followed up with, “It is considered to be the source of the water.”
They invited us in for a shower to clean up. Janet preferred to skip the shower, but I went in, and they had prepared a ~5 gallon pot of warm water. Their house is powered by a dynamo that generates electricity from water that cascades from the mountain. At this time, however, not enough water is falling, so they don’t have electricity. The shower was in the middle of the house, and it had a large clay floor with a rudimentary curtain held in place by an ingot. The small room was lit by candles placed on the floor, and I showered by using a small bowl dipped into the pot – and pouring it over my head. They provided a towel and soap. The family was extremely accommodating and friendly. I tend to be a do-it-yourselfer, and at first glance, the simple materials they had at their disposal gave me pause – was this going to be comfortable? I quickly realized that they were experts at “making it work.”
Janet and I spent a wonderful evening eating in the restaurant’s kitchen – also by candlelight – talking with Joanna. Her brilliance was immediately evident from her manner of speech, actions, and topics of discussion. She works for a government program that assists with women who are single mothers, people who need health care, etc. Her work also includes visiting homes of people who don’t have adequate sanitation – and seeing about adding toilets, places to wash hands, and increasing education about pathogens as well as helping to develop a culture of saving money for future projects. It’s work that spans a broad area of important issues, helping people who are living on the edge.
The ingenuity and creative problem solving of this family are absolutely inspirational; this place is worth a visit if you’re in the area.
Tierradentro Complete Foot Route
Tierradentro was a fairly hard place to find! We couldn’t find it on most maps, though we knew it was relatively close to the small town of Inza, Colombia. Once we thought we found Tierradentro on the map, it was still a challenging dirt road to get there. We saw a sign pointing to Tierradentro off the main dirt road – but it just went to a dead end road at someone’s house (after a long, steep descent which we had to re-trace). You’ll notice the correct (and incorrect) route to Tierradentro in our map below:
In the map above, you will want to avoid the out-and-back at mile 43, and ignore the brown sign that points you towards Tierradentro. Keep going straight until you see a large blue/white touristic sign that points you on “via San Andres.”
Once we got to the small village just below San Andres (named Pisimbala), we weren’t exactly sure what to do. It turns out that you can figure everything out with my one map below:
In the map above, I visit all of the sites in this order: Alto de Segovia, Alto del Duende, El Tablon, Alto de San Andres (stop for lunch in the town of San Andres BEFORE you go to the archaeological site), then Alto de Aguacate. There is one other site that is beyond this map, and would be very difficult to visit in this same journey. There are two museums – if you follow the loop as I did, one museum where you enter, and one where you exit. The advantage to following the route in the direction that I did is that you can always bail out from San Andres and skip the difficult Alto de Aguacate. In my opinion, Alto de Segovia and El Tablon held the most interest.
When you visit each site, you should get an embossed stamp in your passport. Nevertheless, after climbing very steeply to the remote Alto de Aguacate, no one was there to stamp my passport – so don’t get too hung up on completing your booklet!
Getting to Tierradentro from Neiva by Bike
Getting to Tierradentro from Neiva is going to get easier in the future. They are actively paving the road. Unfortunately, at this time, this means that there is going to be a lot of dust from 5 miles after La Plata… all the way to the Tierradentro site. Here are some things you will see along the way as you leave Neiva towards Tierradentro:
Lodging at Tierradentro
We found that there were quite a few places to lodge just below the San Andres townsite in Pisimbala. There is also a small restaurant. These hospedajes are about 30,000 COP ($9US) for two people. We stayed at “Mi Casita,” Which had amazing staff, small rooms, served breakfast, and had reliable hot water. We loved it so much, we stayed an extra night. You can also lodge in the town of San Andres, but it might be less convenient for visiting the park because the entrance is much closer to Pisimbala. The hotel there is also more expensive, and there is a good restaurant nearby.
Tierradentro to Popayan by Bike
The ride from Tierradentro to Popayan has little in the way of services after you pass Inza. The road is unpaved right now, but at around 9,000′ in elevation it becomes paved. You can lodge as discussed at the beginning of the post. You can also probably camp in the Paramo, which is found above 10,000′.
The first settlement you come to after the Eco-restaurant is “Gabriel Lopez.” Unfortunately, this is where the pavement ends again, and is unpaved until a few miles before Totoro. Gabriel Lopez has some small tiendas. In Totoro, you can buy real supplies and use your cellular internet connection again.