Monday, November 13, 2017

Colombia day 4: Welcome to the Jungle

Today was on of those days of cycling touring where everything goes according to plan, but by the end of it you feel anything like it - because the plan toured out to be far tougher than either us realized. Blame rests with the NASA GDEM elevation data and it's low quality around deep gorges, but I'll get to that in a bit.

Our Zipaquira hostel provided a great breakfast in the bargain ($8 ea) but it did take a little while to get the cooking going. While scoffing it down our table neighbors, from bogotá, mentioned they were planning to cycle all the way from home to Ushua and back. Thus insued a lengthy discussion about the wonders and challenges of Patagonia. It was facinating they'd not considered that Patagonian winter is in June not December, leaving their planned dates (or starting next month) a full 6 months out of phase with the ideal. I guess seasons are hard enough to grok when you live in a country on the equator that has no seasons, let alone having to deal with southern hemisphere opposites. Anyway it was really fun to describe our time there back in 2011, and also quite interesting to reflect that that was the last time we were on a proper cycle tour until this one.
We eventually got away about 8.30, not too bad but did mean 3 hours, or almost one quarter, of today's day light had already passed us for the day. Another subtlety of being on the equator: day never lasts longer (or shorter) than 12 hours.  We were keen to get going as we knew we had a long day planned - even if the toughness was not fully known.

It started with a steep but we'll graded climb out of the West of town, for about 10miles and 2000 feet. Being a public holiday Monday, plenty of locals were out making this climb too, so we had a good steady assent shouting a Buenos each time we were passed. At the top we made the first of many soda stops for the day, before starting out on "the" descent of the day.

And what a descent! As we rounded the corner at the top of the pass we cut through to another valley, and found ourselves staring down a rolling green meadows and on to the top of a huge cloud bank, blocking the further view. Fascinating to be sandwiched between cloud layers!

The descent continued for 30miles and 7000 feet, so of course we broke through the clouds into spectacular view of the gorge we were descending into. Part way down we passed through Pacho, self proclaimed capital of oranges, with many stands selling them around the town. We hadn't planned to stop here but navigating was tricky and we happened to stop for map discussion right out side a bakery, so second elevensies was procured. 
As the road continued down, we'd been told how the temperature would rise; from about 15C to almost 30C. Another fact of being on the equator is the climate is largely dictated by altitude. But what we'd not been prepared for was the change in dominant foliage that went with it. Looking back the farm lands of Zipaquira recalled Scotland in a very lush year. But this one short freewheel downhill and suddenly we were in subtropical jungle plants, and associated changes in bird calls and other sounds. Really breathtaking to experience, doubly so as hitting the cloud layers we'd been bracing for cold but got this instead!

As the valley floor levelled out we passed many small shop-cum-cafes that make the roads here so amenable for cycling, but one really caught our eyes as it advertised "camping", first time we'd seen this. Too early to stop for the day, but we did stop for some lunch and another cold drink, and noted the location of the facility so I can add it to Google maps and generally make other cyclists aware of it via this blog. 
Soon after lunch the road turned away from the river and we started the last smallish climb up our destination town, La Palma. And here's where the challenge really started: rather than a small climb it was a fairly decent 1500ft ascent and at steep grade. And there was a second problem: ever since we summited the first pass this morning the roads had made a significant drop in quality, generally nicely paved but with occasional sections of 100m or more where the tarmac had been completely washed away and there was just the rocky and muddy base remaining. Aircraft sized potholes if you like. Well, the frequency of these holes increased as we progressed, and by these climbs it was more "spot the  patch of tarmac" in any given mile of rocks. Climbing steeply on this surface in the heat was tough work.  

Eventually we crested the climb, just as we emptied the last of our water, and sighed relief it was just 10km to go. Only, this was another steep drop still on rocky road, followed by another 1000ft climb. So the final 5km took about 1H20 to complete, with some impromptu stops to grab more sodas ("gaseosa") at the town swimming pool on the way in. So it was 5pm, just 30mins before sunset, that we stopped at the first of the hotels in town - Masion Rose. We must have looked quite a sight! But the landlady was just down the street chatting with neighbor, and came running up to welcome splattered us and grubby Dobbin in. Another bargain: $13 for onsuite double room. A much needed shower and Google translate jumped to our rescue in helping us get restaurant recommendations, a tasty parillia grill, and the land lady walked us around there, and went and found the grill owner who was across the street nattering in a hairdressers shop. If this sounds like the kind of town where everyone spends much of their time in each other's shops you're getting the idea. Tranquilo.
Feasting on pork and rice and fries really hit the spot, with some recovery drinks and pastries really rounded out the evening.

A totally amazing, and truly awesome day. Even tougher than expected,  and has truly taken us off the beaten track even for locals tourism routes. Tomorrow we have more climbs and broken roads to Caparrapí and then it's down to the Magelana River and busy highways. But for tonight, we'll sleep well and savor some well earnedmemories.

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