Salento, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador
July 30, 2014 – Aug 6, 2014
Tatacoa desertWith the route our friend Joaquin helped us plot loaded into our trusted GPS, we finally left Salento for our next stop over, the Tatacoa desert. We rode for several hours with the Cordillera Central to our right and the rays of the evening sun painting gorgeous colours in its clouds. A field of blooming cotton gave us an excuse for a an improvised photo shoot, the old dirt road to the desert invited us for a detour at dusk, and we finally reached Tatacoa way past sunset. Wikipedia will give you more details on the specifics of this area. What we will remember are the Spanish pronunciation lessons of our host Rafael Marquez, the surreal swimming pool at Villa de Marquez and a night sky host of more stars than we knew.
We left early the next morning determined to reach the town of archeological site of Tierradentro high up in the Cordillera. Expecting a challenging road we preventively pampered ourselves at the Termales Los Angeles next to Neiva. In just 50 kilometers the landscape changes drastically with the abundance of fresh water, hinting at what Tatacoa once was. The termales are built around a stream that brings to several small pools the heat stolen from nearby volcanoes. We were surprised mid-bath by Tom and Markos with whom we had shared our route. Quite incomprehensibly, they resisted the appeal of a swim and went hunting for a random internet cafe, go figure.
The Cauca Valley
We painfully extracted ourselves from the pool and begun our climb to TierraDentro. A portion of the road follows an affluent of the Rio Paez and in addition of being alternatively rocky and muddy, it was also under heavy construction. After an hour long bonding session with the other drivers stuck at the road block, we resumed our progress to reach the town at night and under the rain. Our desire to camp was no match for the flood and the warm lights of the hotel La Porta where we found refuge for the night. The following morning I found a Zebra bouncing around at the thought of discovering painting and statues at the nearby archeological site. Under semi-clement skies, we followed the well marked trail to the first site. There we were greeted by a friendly local waving tickets at us and demanding $20 for the visit. Granted by US standards $20 is not much, but a strong trend of building fences around ill-conserved ruins and asking high prices to tourists for access has worn us down a bit. We turned our heels, jumped back on our bikes and rode back down the valley thoroughly enjoying the free and amazing landscape.
No coke, thanks.Next up was San Agustin. The town is arguably the prettiest one this side of the Cordillera and the gateway to several impressive landscapes. As it happened often, a random local approached us as we were looking for accommodation options on our GPS, and that is how we landed at la Casa del Japonese. Nicely located on a hill above town, a deck offers the ideal spot to daydream while watching the town rooftops and its flickering lights. The owner is a colourful character and will entertain you with outlandish stories about Colombia. He’ll also suggest you take a tour of a local coke lab, and offer some samples, in case you’re that way inclined. A behavior not only unique during our stay in Colombia but also in stark contrast with the efforts displayed in other regions to inform guests of the ravaging effects of the coke industry on the country. I personally fell in love with the little 2 stroke Yamaha he drives around town. He told me this model used to be a favourite of motorcycle assassins back in the days, now it does grocery runs, times have changed.
With the help of our Japanese friend, we planned a picturesque, adventurous (and muddy) loop in the nearby mountains. I got my fix of dirt trails while discovering amazing local attractions, among which the Salto de Bordones stands out. It probably is the most amazing waterfall we’ve encountered so far. On the South side there is the recently remodelled Hotel Bordones unlisted in most guides. The owner is very friendly and gave a tour of the building highlighting all the recycled materials used and the architect’s (his father) inspirations. It’s well off the beaten path, offering unique views of the waterfall and if you’re on a budget, they have the prettiest campsite with hot showers. Opposite the Hotel, across the canyon, a tiny, barely maintained trail takes you meters away from the raging waters plunging down the cliff, a magical place with a semi permanent rainbow. Not far away, the Estrecho del Magdalena stages the show of the eponym river strangled thru a narrow 1.70m rock funnel.
El Trampoline de la Muerte!Our initial plan called for crossing into Ecuador at La Hormiga in the Valle del Guamuez. The Zebra was not thrilled with this plan as it would mean missing the sanctuary of Las Lajas and venturing into the only region of Colombia we had heard rumors of turmoil. As we headed South through mudslides towards Mocoa, we stopped at a Military checkpoint. As always the officials were courteous but winced ever so slightly at the mention of our plan. After conferring among themselves they indicated that the Laguna La Cocha further west should not be missed and suggested we take that route instead. For the second time in our journey, we altered our routes to stay clear of a troublesome area. We were not disappointed as this detour lead us to Hwy 10, a road we would later learn has been fondly nicknamed El Trampoline de la Muerte (The trampoline of death) by the locals. The road connects Mocoa to Pasto over the Cordillera Central and while missing certain turns may result in bouncing right off the trampoline, we thoroughly enjoyed the ride and the views.
The only caveat was, the road crests a 4000+ meter pass, erasing any memory of sweating in the desert a few days earlier. A sign bearing the word “Chalet” evoked luring images of fondue and hot chocolate. The Chalet Guamuez delivered and within minutes of our arrival we were warming our derrières with a toasty wood fire, while the bartender poured his first ever Irish coffee.