“There is unrest in the forest, There is trouble with the trees, For the maples want more sunlight and the Oaks ignore their pleas. The trouble with the maples, (And they’re quite convinced they’re right), They say the oaks are just too lofty and they grab up all the light. But the oaks can’t help their feelings, If they like the way they’re made, And they wonder why the maples can’t be happy in their shade” (Rush, The Trees).
I found myself humming the tune and ruminating on these lyrics as I bounced along the seemingly never ending rocky road between Neiva and Popayan, looking out of the window at the incredibly lush and packed vegetation along the roadside and stretching out as far as the eye could see, whether down river valleys or up hillsides. Looking out of the window? Yep, we (Scott, Sarah and myself) were on the first of two busses that were taking us from Neiva in the Colombian lowlands to Ipiales on the border with Ecuador, saving ourselves about 370 miles and 37,000 feet of climbing. More of that in a bit, first I want to get back to staring out of the window . . .
For mile after mile I was marvelling at the sheer number and variety of competing trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses in whichever direction or distance I looked. Palms, firs, pines, yuccas, ferns, climbing flowers of orange, purple and yellow, bamboo, orchids – every inch of soil had something growing in it, competing for life-giving light and water. Many trees had other plants growing on them, in fact not just on them, they were part of them, yuccas had planted themselves into the nooks of branches to be nearer the sky. Densely packed, even the roadside verges looked like thick jungle. In the valleys more trees and fields of lush grass; on the hillsides if there weren’t trees there were rows of farm planted food crops on impossibly steep slopes. This is Colombia!
There are over 56,000 species of flora and fauna in Colombia with over 9,000 of them being endemic (not found anywhere else). It is the second-most biodiverse country in the world (behind Brazil). It ranks first in the world for the number of orchids and birds, second for plants, butterflies, fresh water fish and amphibians, third for species of palm trees and reptiles. About 10% of the world’s fauna species live in Colombia.
All of this is possible because of the diversity of habitats available thanks to Colombia’s wide variety of altitudes, temperatures, weather conditions, soils and sunlight on the coasts, in the Andes and the rainforest lowlands. Colombia is, without doubt, the greenest-in-colour country I’ve ever cycled (or taken a bus!) through. BUT, sadly we don’t currently live in a world where all of this is being maintained. More to follow later . . .
You wouldn’t think it possible to get lost on a twelve mile route, especially when you’ve written down instructions like “stay right at coffee farms after 2.3 miles”, but after leaving Salento and exactly 2.3 miles into my short ride I inexplicably turned left at the coffee farms and plunged down a steep rocky road and into the wrong valley. Scott and Sarah had taken the steep, rocky mountain road to Ibague a couple of days earlier but, as my bike doesn’t suit that kind of terrain, I’d decided to take a different route, including a bus ride. As it turned out my descent into the wrong valley also had me struggling over rocks and wading through rivers and streams.
Although I spent a fair amount of time sweating and pushing my bike back up out of the valley it was still beautiful.
I met up again with Scott and Sarah in the dump of a city that is called Ibague, listening to my companeros tale of being threatened with robbery on their way in and spending a less than comfortable night in a hot and noisy hotel in the cheap part of town (though I suspect Ibague doesn’t have a non cheap part of town.
The only reason we were going through Ibague was to avoid the busy Pan-American Highway route to Ecuador in favour of a quieter road that led to:
Two days ride out of Ibague took us to the small town of Aipe on the Magdalena River, on the opposite shore of the Tatacoa. A motorised canoe took us over to the other side and into a landscape unlike anything else we’d seen so far. For one thing the Tatacoa is not predominantly green, it’s red.
The Tatacoa was named in 1538 by the conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez Quesada (you’ve learned something new today!) and refers to the rattlesnakes that can be found there. It’s not just a desert, but also a tropical dry forest. Unlike most of the rest of Colombia it has low humidity and high temperatures, the area being heavily eroded to create dry canyons. Wildlife includes rodents, snakes, spiders, scorpions, eagles, alligators, snakes and wildcats. I’m pretty sure we saw some eagles but – thankfully – nothing else.
Scott and Sarah’s Colombia visas were due to run out in just a few days time so we decided to do just one more day’s ride to Neiva where we would then get busses all the way to Ipiales on the Ecuador border. To be honest, visas notwithstanding, we’d seen pretty much all we’d wanted to see in Colombia anyway and didn’t fancy riding what looked to be fairly brutal and/or uninspiring roads!
A note for the cycling purists
On my first two or three cycling tours I was determined, as far as it was feasible, to cycle every mile of road from start to finish. It was important to me, that as well as enjoying all the scenery and everything else that the trip could throw at me, that I had the challenge of riding an unbroken road. In New Zealand, when my rear tyre split, that meant parking the bike, hitch-hiking forward to the next bicycle store to get a new tyre, then hitch-hiking back to my bike to carry on. On my trans-America bike ride it meant blagging and pleading my way through two sets of road construction works in Alaska instead of getting in the back of a pilot truck. On the third – seven mile long – section of roadworks I was told quite firmly that I had to get in the truck as no-one was prepared to take responsibility for my serious injury or death from being run over by a piece of heavy machinery. But that was OK, I wasn’t allowed to cycle and there was no other road so it didn’t count as ‘cheating’! There are certain tunnels cyclists are not allowed to cycle through or bridges we are not allowed to cycle over. Again, that’s fine, if you’re not allowed then it doesn’t count as breaking the ride.
However! The first bus – ‘cheating’ – I ever took was in Mexico, from Tuxtla Gutierrez to San Cristobal, just 50 miles of road but with a single 7,000 foot (2,134 metre) climb. It was hot, humidity was running at about 70% and I just. Didn’t. Fancy it! If I had any regrets they were soon dispelled as the bus chugged and heaved its way up the hill, grinding away in the bottom gears, taking about four hours to cover the distance. Thank goodness I’m not riding up this!
And so to the purists I say this: I get it. I get why you want to cycle every mile, I’ve been there myself. But, once you’ve taken that first bus, you almost certainly will not regret it!
Thank goodness we’re not riding up this!
The first bus we took was the 5.00am Neiva to Popayan, an “eight and a half hour” journey that actually took over eleven. It saved us 170 miles and 15,000 feet (4,575 metres) of climbing on a gravel/rock/mud road that would have been hell on a bicycle. I think we’d still be on it now if we’d tried to ride it.
After arriving in Popayan we had just enough time for breakfast of chicken foot soup (complete with actual feet 🤮) before jumping onto the night bus to Ipiales – an “eight hour” journey that took over ten but was on the paved Pan-American Highway and in a more comfortable bus. That saved us another 200 miles and over 22,000 feet (6,700 metres) of ascent. As much as I never want to spend around 22 hours out of 25 on busses ever again I can only thank the busses of Colombia for saving us over 11,000 metres of sweating, heaving, pushing and swearing!
Now, readers of previous trip blogs of mine may remember this feature? Time to reintroduce it. And what really grinds my gears on this post is the arbitrary paying of money to bus drivers for putting a bicycle on their bus! It goes like this: you buy a ticket at the ticket office, explaining that you have a bicycle. The ticket office sell you a ticket to sit on the bus but tell you that you will have to pay the bus driver for the bicycle. If you ask at the ticket office how much you will have to pay the driver they will either not give you a figure or the figure they do give you will not match the reality. You take all your gear off the bike and remove the front wheel to help with space. The bus arrives and the driver immediately pulls a face. He is not smiling. He looks semi angry. He begins to gesticulate and tells you space on his bus is going to be a problem/he is running late/he can’t be arsed/all of these. This is an act designed to ramp up what comes next – he wants money to watch you put all your gear, and the bicycle, on his bus while he stands and watches. How much he gets then becomes an act of bartering usually only seen in a Moroccan souk. Our Neiva to Popayan driver wanted 50,000 pesos per bike – the same amount as the actual ticket cost. Sarah told him to do one and we eventually paid 40,000 (still too much) to load our bikes in the dusty boot. For most of the journey we were the only people on the bus.
My question is this: WHY??! It really grinds my gears!
La Lajas Sanctuary
Before heading into Ecuador there was one last place we wanted to see and it’s just a short taxi ride out of Ipiales.
La Lajas Sanctuary is built inside a canyon and straddles the Guaitara River. Its inspiration was a purported miracle that took place in 1754. Amerindian Maria Meneses de Quinones and her deaf-mute daughter, Rosa, were caught in a storm and sheltered between two giant slabs of rock (lajas). To Maria’s surprise – and that’s putting it mildly – her deaf-mute daughter cried out “The Virgin is calling me!” and pointed to a lightning-illuminated silhouette over the lajas. Quite clearly a deaf-mute child had shouted out that she’d seen the Virgin Mary in the night skies of Colombia and pilgrimage to the site duly ensued. Still, the current church was built between 1916 and 1949 and is quite an impressive sight.
And what pilgrimage site wouldn’t be complete without countless shops selling necklaces, glow-in-the-dark Virgin Marys and llama rides for the kids?
Scott and Sarah were given their best chortle of the day by an old boy who asked Scott if he wanted to buy something from his cool box. “No, gracias” said Scott. “Que hay de algo para tu padre?” (“What about something for your father?”) asked the old geezer! Oh, how they laughed at that!
Riches to Rags?
Before I go, back to Colombia’s rich biodiversity:
The WWF have said that deforestation, urbanisation, habitat loss, over-fishing and mineral, metal and oil extraction have led to environmental degradation that is threatening a third of Colombia’s plants and half of its animals.
Perhaps the most symbolic of these threats is the fate of Colombia’s national tree, the Giant Wax Palms of the Cocora Valley, which Colombian scientist Rodrigo Bernal describes as “living corpses”. These trees, which grow up to 60m tall, live for upto 200 years and are a key component in the region’s ecosystem, its fruits feeding a large number of birds insects and mammals. However, much of the lush, dense forest around the palms has been cut down to provide grazing land for cattle. This means that the seeds of the palms either burn in the sun or are eaten by the cows. As the older trees come to the ends of their lives there are no new saplings to take their place. It is estimated there are only 2,000 Giant Wax Palms left in the Cocora Valley.
I’ll leave it at that, except to say let’s hope it isn’t too late.
Oh, we came across this strange shop window display near our hotel in Ipiales. Answers on a postcard please.
So, it’s goodbye to Colombia and its lovely food (apart from the chicken feet soup), people ( apart from the bus drivers), scenery, hills and rocky roads) and hello to Ecuador!
Until next time