14th – 20th August: Thanks to fellow cyclists Cass, Russell and Lorely (although we’ve never met them we like to think of them as friends!) we happened upon a back route to San Gil that took us away from the trucks, and the tarmac too.
In five days riding we encountered some of the hardest, yet most beautiful and most fun terrain in the whole of our trip.
The road from Giron towards Zapatoca. Already it was hot, we'd heard from a cyclist in Bucaramanga that the heat would be 'infernal'! Soon after leaving Giron we hit the dirt, and left the traffic far behind.
Amigos, fascinated and amused by our suncream application ritual. We squeezed ourselves as close to the wall as possible to take advantage of the only available shade.
Along the way we passed field after field of pineapples. I had no idea they grew like this, in bushes close to the ground. For 35pence we bought a huge fat pineapple - peeled and chopped direct from the growers. A delicous, thirst-quenching snack.
As we climbed to the top of the canyon of the river Sogamoso we could see what lay in store for us. A steep, switchback descent to a bridge across the river, then a daunting (to say the least) climb up the other side - with no end in sight!
The bridge far down below over the mighty rushing river.
Screeching round the switchbacks - the heat getting more and more intense at every turn!
Soon after starting the climb up the other side we came across this rather precipitously parked car. The views were breathtaking, giving us ample excuse to stop climbing every few hundred metres or so and gape at what lay below us.
Taking a breather. Although we were back on pavement again the climb was seriously steep requiring many pit stops.
This roadside shrine caught our attention - a pretty impressive affair with a truly awesome view
The road behind us, that we had just climbed, looked like silly string - not a straight section in sight!
The climb continues...
We originally planned to make it all the way to the pueblo of Zapatoca in one day but the climb soon put paid to that idea! Concerned for the waterproofness of our low quality tent we opted to camp under cover, forcing the cattle in the field with us to stay outdoors during the light shower of rain.
Day 2: We rode the remaining eight miles into Zapatoca and were met by our couchsurfing host Armando near the entrance to the town. We originally planned to stay only a night or two in Zapatoca, but the charms of the colonial town and of our generous hosts gave us plenty of excuses to stay longer – a full three days in total.
Relaxing at a lovely spot a short walk from Zapatoca. At 1,700m above sea level the climate here was much cooler and the water definitely refreshing! A very welcome relief from the heat of the lowlands, and of the valley the day before.
With our hosts Armando and Sonya, and Jennifer
We were treated to many things in Zapatoca, but perhaps most memorable of all was this impromptu gig with Reynaldo and another friend (whose name escapes us). You can see by Reynaldo's face how much fun they are having! We couldn't stop giggling either!
Armando and Sonya organised an interview for us with the local TV station. In less than perfect Spanish we attempted to present our adventure to the cameras! Reynaldo did a great job of explaining how our efforts show that traveling by bicycle is possible, and that he hopes more people will begin to realise that they don't need a car and can rely on their own pedal power instead to get around. Together him, Armando and Sonya have many environmental projects that they are working on - trying to preserve the precious environment around Zapatoca. An inspirational trio.
(Cycling) day 3:
Raring to go!
The ride along the ridge above Zapatoca was beautiful (if a little muddy at times, but that's all part of the fun!)
Then began the descent back towards the river. A rough, rocky affair that forced us to grip our breaks with such force that we had to keep stopping to give our aching hands a rest (drop handlebars are not the best for tumbling down dirt tracks!)
The village of La Fuente far below - we had a long way to bounce our way down
In La Fuente the local police officers gave us a soft drink and took a photo of us to prove that tourists sometimes turn up in this sleepy, isolated village! Apparently there used to be 40 police officers stationed in this place - almost more than the entire population! The area used to be a hotbed of guerilla activity just ten years ago. As we passed through there were no signs of the past violence in the tranquil countryside.
Onwards in the midday sun. The ultimate descent to the river was delayed by a rollercoaster ride along a ridge deep inside the baking canyon.
The very cute chapel in the next village, Galan. We considered camping here, but the kind owner of Hotel Danny offered us the terrace to sleep on, plus free use of bathroom facilities - an offer too good to refuse! In the central plaza we were shocked by someone calling out our names as we biked past the church. Turned out that local villager, Vladimir had heard our interview on the radio that morning and had been looking out for us all day! He was effusive in his excitement at having met us and proceeded to buy us many beers, show us round and generally treat us like celebrities!
Entertaining the kids
(Cycling) day 4:
More rough and tumble down to the bridge. With some apprehension we crossed to the other side, to meet our canyon-climbing fate...
A tough ten mile climb ensued. Just when I thought I could take no more hill we emerged at the top of a particularly steeply ascending ridge into the pueblo of Barichara.
The streets of perfectly preserved, colonial Barichara
The doors and windows in this place were really cute.
The view from the pueblo back down into the canyon, from whence we came!
(Cycling) day 5:
Adios Barichara - incredibly we kept climbing!
A mere 15 miles later, and a lovely, long downhill glide (back on the tarmac now!) we arrived in San Gil. San Gil must have the steepest streets in the whole of Colombia - if not the world! It was seriously lung, and leg-busting stuff trying to get up them on our bikes!
In San Gil we stayed with the family of Warmshowers host, Alonso. An avid cycle tourist himself, Alonso gave us a lot of info for the onward route to Villa de Leyva and we spent a few restful days enjoying his family's hospitality recovering from the efforts of our wonderful adventure from Bucaramanga.
Incidentally, on 21st August we celebrated our one year anniversary being on the road. And what better way to spend it having just completed some of the most challenging, yet rewarding and exciting riding days of our whole journey. Vive Colombia!