Salento to Dolores
8/17/19 – 8/24/19
Salento was packed with tourists. We arrived late afternoon and spent two hours calling and knocking on hotel doors only to find them booked. We eventually found one that appeared to be under construction. It smelled of musty cigars and the boiler, we later found out, was prone to violently bursting and pissing hot water all over the floor.
After half a shower, we took a walk to the plaza and discovered a delectable drink called salpicon; a fruit punch made with something known as “Colombia Juice” and chunks of whatever is grown locally. We weaved through a mess of Colombians purchasing hand woven bags and little wire figurines and climbed several hundred stairs atop a hill to watch the sunset.
It was fifty cents to take a jeep ride to the wax palm forest so we didn’t bother with the bikes. In true Latin American style they pack ten people into six seats and two to four more stand on the rear bumper (commandeered from another vehicle) while holding onto a metal bar welded across the roof by an amateur with suspicious equipment. Such a business would be shut down and sued in the United States. Here they are bastions of a budding tourism industry. The drivers slice through curves with the same regard for life they would have if their only cargo were a box of moldy newspapers.
The palms themselves are, as advertised, quite tall. The tallest in the world I have been told. They’re scattered across several pristine prairie hilltops. If I understood correctly, the area has been cleared for ranching, although the trees were begrudgingly left because they are protected. The dramatic views are not natural as the hillsides should be shrouded in forest with just the tips of the palms poking out. The consolation prize for not being able to completely destroy the jungle is the creation of one of the country’s most stunning tourist destinations and the ability to charge an entrance fee of a dollar. We watched a family roll down the hillside like logs, then we took a nap.
Highway 40, also known as La Linea, climbs two thousand meters in twenty kilometers from Calarcá. It is one of Colombia’s most famous cycling passes. The road from Salento was packed with riders for the weekend. We were stopped at a military checkpoint just as the climbing began. It was the first time anybody had actually wanted to search us. They walked the dog around my bike and it barked at one of my panniers. I had a flashback to spending two hours in the back of a police car while my Volkswagen was disassembled after a German Shephard had pawed at it during a “routine” traffic stop. I was on my way home from a bartending shift at three or four in the morning. I watched as they pulled a gallon sized Ziploc bag of powdered white chalk out of my climbing bag. They all high fived and I shook my head. After a long game of good cop bad cop, they left me on the side of the road with all of my belongings scattered on the curb.
I was envisioning them dumping my panniers into the road and kicking everything around. An officer walked up and gave my bags a quick squeeze. He asked if I had any drugs, to which I replied that I did not. He opened one bag and took a quick peak.
“Te gustas Colombia?” he asked.
I told him that Colombia was my favorite country in a year of traveling. To that he smiled and told us to carry on.
Six and a half clicks from the top the wind hits. Soph wants to hitch. It's cold. She tells me to keep going and we’d meet at the top, but I knew that thumbing was not a popular endeavor in Colombia so I waited. We leave after about ten minutes of no offers. I took her laptop to save her some weight and it took another hour and a half to reach the pass.
First real cold in months. Fingers and toes numb. Sometimes the wind pushes us uphill from behind. It constantly changes directions though so the help is always enjoyed with trepidation. It hits so hard from the right, then the front, then the left, and finally the rear that I realize I'm caught in a small dust devil. It is like being whipped around in a blender. Approaching each corner you have to watch how the trees are bending to know which way it will hit from as you round the curve.
At the top, we sat in a dingy little restaurant eating cheese sandwiches and drinking gloriously hot agua panela for forty five minutes. I wrapped my hands around my mug to warm them. With a sufficient amount of feeling and dexterity regained in our fingers to squeeze our brakes we began the descent to Cajamarca. Sixteen hundred meters in less than an hour. It was hot and dry. Town was nothing special, but had a nice feel to it. Former gold town; but the citizens, to the chagrin of the politicians, voted to kick the mines out due to environmental abuses.
We wandered the square and I found a little housewares shop and bought a nice steel mug to replace the old ice cream container that I’d been using as a food dish. In the plaza there appeared to be a police funeral taking place. We checked our strava stats for the day over dinner. Out of one thousand nine hundred twelve people that have ridden La Linea, we were third to last.
We were starting to see more and more Venezuelan migrants walking along the road. Perhaps a more appropriate term is refugees. One stops and asks me for water. I ask if he has a bottle and he picks one up from the side of the road. I fill it.
“A donde va?” I asked.
“Medellin.” That was hundreds of kilometers away. He was young and looked strong, but half dead at the same time. His clothes were dry and dusty. So was his skin and hair. Chapped lips from the sun and I swore his tongue looked shriveled from dehydration. Colombians are incredibly empathetic to them. It wasn’t long ago that millions of their people fled to Venezuela and they see it as a duty to repay the favor. Cars will pull up to families walking down the road and give a handful of change or some food without solicitation. And they have so little to give. It’s a stark contrast from the richest country in the world saying there is no room to help anyone in need.
After about sixty clicks we stop for a salpicon with ice cream on top. A man tells us about a nice river where we can camp in Gualanday. It is just a few kilometers away and he leads us there. The water felt amazing after a hot day. A few locals came down to ask us where we were from and assured us that we would be safe. After swimming we rode five minutes to the nearby town to eat and I managed to get my tenth flat tire.
We were heading for the Tatacoa Desert. One of those otherworldly sort of places according to the internet. Since descending La Linea, the land had become arid and hot. In an act of nobility, a highway planner had specified the planting of cottonwoods all along the road. They’d matured into a shade providing tunnel which we appreciated greatly. Still scorching, but the riding was flat and the wind quiet.
We’d heard there was a nice lake outside of Prado and decided to take a rest day there. There were some expensive hotels and campsites that were only reachable by boat. We didn’t want to drop the coin though and end up with an amazing camping spot on a floating pier. Boats drive by in the night and the waves rock the entire structure. It is all haphazardly welded and tied together and feels like one of those videos of old bridges that weren’t constructed properly and bend and sway in high winds.
Fishing boats going out and coming in all night. Subsistence living in the land of the plenty. One family arrived and everyone crowded around me as I was cooking dinner. They just stood there and stared at first. Eventually somebody asked what I was making.
“Lentajes, tomates, cebolla, y pimiento.”
Anytime you’re seen eating a meal without meat, people ask if you’re vegetarian. The boat captain was beyond excited and asked if he could take a video. I agreed. Suddenly he was the local reporter. He asked where I was from, how I liked Colombia, where we were going, and how on earth did we ever find the little town of Prado. I fumbled through my answers in Spanish. Everyone crowded around smiling at me and shining the flashlights of their phones in my face.
At seven in the morning, boats start pulling in and dropping uniformed kids for school. Some of them look as if they’d already been up for hours catching breakfast. Some of the parents jump off as well wearing construction helmets or carrying large plastic bins of bread to sell in the Prado Mercado. We sat around all day reading and swimming. The local police came by and asked to see our passports. They were mostly interested in the stamps from everywhere we’d been. There was an abrasive but friendly shop owner nearby that let us use the shower. He told me about a magic fish that only existed in this lake, which was formed by damming the confluence of the Rio Negro and Rio Cunday.
Outside of Prado you get a quick downhill. Surfaces alternate between dirt and pavement. Semi-desert brown and scrub green encaged in towering sandstone cliffs. Carpets of orange and purple blossoms dropped by trees leaning out from the steep terrain blanket the road.
My stomach began to hurt late morning and by the time we arrive in Dolores, a windy little cowboy town, I was nauseous and tired. We ate soup and found a hotel. I dragged our bikes up the stairs and Soph took the bags. I wanted to walk around a bit, but was ravaged again.
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