Like a cordoned crowd, the jungle seems to hang over and stretch out across the muddy road as if it is tantalisingly off limits, waiting to snatch me up the moment I step from it. Lost. In its multitude of shadows and greens; light green, dark green, mysterious green, ‘peligro’ green….impenetrable green. Though it’s hard to tell which there is more of, green, or the dark, dark black which one feels certain you can see something amongst it.
Grasping a complete single orchid in his fist, the man in his home-made shirt points the way. His shirt is square like a piece of pink paper and gives the impression that the man is only two-dimensional. His other, claw like, hand points me deeper into the jungle. I shake his claw, knotted and rough like knobbly tree branch and I wonder if soon he himself will turn into a tree to join the jungle.
As I go, circumnavigating the dark towering “selva”, at every cleft the jungle bleeds water; cascading down out of the shadows 10, 20 or 50m, flowing across the road, over rocks, between giant boulders and chunks of what was once mountain.
At the top of the pass the valley ahead is visibly hidden by a pallid sheet of grey; rain. At once it is upon me and I am wrapped it’s heavy dampness without even chance of squirming into my waterproofs. It’s everywhere now, the rain, and I question from where it came. The peaceful waterfalls become terrified torrents, escaping the grip of the jungle as quickly as I descend and do the same. In an hour, the rain stops, the grey sheet vanishes like an apparition.
“¿Tinto?” asks the man hunched beneath his heavy woollen poncho.
“¿Perdon?” says I.
“Ooooh, yes please!” and a lengthy conversation ensues in the small mountain village, huddled over the cold wooden counter drinking small dark coffee sweetened with “panela”; a brick of sugar cane extract, which gives the coffee a distinct taste more like treacle or honey. (One can even drink “agua panela” so, quite obviously, water with panela). The shop belongs to an old man, who studies me with a fixed gaze from the other side of the counter, on which rest his large weathered hands.
“So you’re a tourist?”
“Yeah! I’ve been travelling for three and a half years….working, too. Petrol isn’t free!”
“So, what are you doing here?”
It was the first of many such suspicious conversations, and a wary glare I’d have to get used to. Suspicions I can only assume built on years of internal distrust, guerilla groups such as the FARC and ELN, and too of prospecting western businesses looking for gold, or the next exploitive cash crop, to leave a vacuous hole in where once beat the jungle’s steady rhythm of life.
Mountainous – always mountainous – swathes of coffee and bananas guide the way to one city after another on my way to the Valle de Cocora, where Quindio wax palm trees rise up out of the grassy valley, like the Indian rope trick, topped by a fluffy frayed end reaching up for the misty cloud.
“Where are you going?” asks the man, wearing his helmet tilted back high on his head, so that the helmet’s chin guard is resting on his forehead.
“Argentina!!” I reply incredulously – riding as we are through frantic city streets – dodging the swarm of 125’s overtaking from all sides and the rapidly decelerating bus ahead. The buses: there being no bus stops passengers walk out of the office and merely wave a finger down to the ground, then up a bit and down again, and the bus will stop. It’s amazing the buses get anywhere.
“Are you on a world tour or something?”
“Yeah!” I say as I pull away from the lights, amidst the growing wave of bikes; carrying huge boxes, dogs, a family, a bicycle and one guy I note a computer desk with built in book case. Two youths on bicycles are being towed by a truck and a precariously thin length of pink string and I’m overtaken then, on the way down by a man on a skateboard squeezing between motorbikes, themselves between rows of cars. Out of the city, Manizales, the third of the day after Armenia and Pereria, rising up and up to the underbelly of a dark, dark thundercloud residing over the volcanoes of snowcapped Nevados del Ruiz, at 5300m. A blinding branch of lightening and it’s deafening roll of thunder are enough to warn me to set up camp, which I do hastily and slip into my cosy sleeping bag to cook and await the morning.
With fortunate grace, it dawns fine; a palpably thick and deep blue sky and papaya pink sun. The icy tent cools my hands as I pack it away eagerly in anticipation, knowing the clear weather will not last. I coax Rodney to life and make my way gingerly upto 4080m, the engine spluttering and coughing.
The entrance to the park marks the glorious end to the asphalt and the beginning of the potholed belt that runs around the volcanoes midriff to the town of Murillo.
The perfect bright white of the snow capped peak is stained by the tobacco yellow of the smoking crater, overshadows the trail, upon which are only Rodney and myself. I couldn’t understand why it was devoid of traffic but was little inclined to wonder, perhaps – for the Catholics – it was the towering jagged edges of black, cream, mustard, red and white rock that could only conjure up images of one being in the depths of “infierno.” If this be the case, then send me down! for it was one of the most spectacular stretches I’ve ever ridden.
Ever changing, each corner offering another offering of colour, grandeur another sulphorous cascade leaping off and down into the flat lava plain far below, itself littered with “frailejones” the stout plant topped by a bloom of green velveteen rabbit ears! Then up, of course, the snow and ice which feeds the small deep blue pools. Majestic. Or “divino!” as a girl told me at the petrol station when asked “how is it?” on my way up.
I sit and eat breakfast as I reach the far end of the trail and watch the late morning cloud gather and envelop the volcano to shroud in mystery for the day. And despite the frosty reception in Murillo, I headed back to camp to beneath the volcano.
Dawn at camp. A woman approaches on a motorcycle, she stops, we chat, the usual questions and small talk, until she procedes on to the unusual,
“Como?” I say (what!)
“En mi casa, amorrrrr. Tu no entiendas?”
“Si…si….entiendo (I understand)….but I just don’t understand….do you understand?”
“Look, my house is over there, you go there, half an hour.”
As you can appreciate I’m sure, this struck me as a bit odd. I’m no fool. What’s the game? I had a few ideas, but this game was one way, was only one road and this passed her house on the way to Old Kent road, or was it Mayfair, on the way to the prize….$200, or amorrrrrr. I stopped, I had no choice. Her family is there and we chat all together, all the time I have one eye on her and her two on me. Some thing’s not quite right, the hands, the writs…..
SHE WAS A MAN!!! A transvestite prostitute man at that working in Germany! Por lo menos, I worked it out! She was also a hair stylist – in the time she wasn’t conning contrived men – and as such gave me a free – though fairly gay – haircut.
“Do you like it?”
I pulled a face, I couldn’t help it.
“It is too short?”
“Not really….it’s just….too gay.” Luckily she (he?) didn’t understand and I quickly corrected myself with a big fat lie (read; I was polite – I hate that). “It’s great!”
I also got a free lunch, and a great one, “sancocho” soup, chicken, rice and plantains, and vegetables in mash (name unknown) cooked by her appreciably more normal mother.
Post hence, I scarpered with a wide-open throttle.
I was on my way to Antioquia, Colombia’s Antigua, through the cloud forests that reside some way above the town “Jardin”, where I was lucky to enjoy a free guided hike. A beautiful walk through trees and vines encrusted with the green frost that is moss, as if fossilising before your eyes. Quietly we go, tip-toeing along in the hope of spotting birds, as the forest falls apart around us in damp decay. Humming birds thrum like fairies about our heads – unbelievable – as we stop to chat and I spot a little fella in the undergrowth…my guide, Terry (he wasn’t really called Terry), was wetting his pants at the small dark brown robin.
“All the gringos want to see this!!”
“I fuckin don’t…..”
“…..I want to see toucan! TOUCAN!!!”
“Look at it!”
“….or a parrot!”
But it wasn’t to be, I heard the toucans and the parrots, but couldn’t spot them – apparently very difficult – but a really fantastic walk along a great trail with some great company and obviously a very keen birder.
“A German has been trying to see this for 25 years!”
“I bet he’s seen a few Toucans then.” I say.
Jardin is a bit disappointingly large and the road disappointingly asphlat despite my map telling me it is, “Barely navigable. 4×4 and death-wish necessary.” Camping as such was tricky to find, though the coffee farmers were happy to oblige, provided, it seemed, they could watch as they chain smoked $1 packets of cigarettes, whilst marvelling at the stove, the inflatable – with my pillow pump – bed and especially, Lord knows why….. the tent poles. Always the tent poles.
|Leaving a tricky little path to camp!|
After extricating the bike from a tricky camp beneath a Lulo tree, dropping the bike (see pic left of location, the bike fell right!) on a narrow and steep cow path, screaming all the while in a “is that a hernia?” type manner, as my feet slip from the grass’s grasp, I reach Urrau, a bustling town straight from the wild west. The trail from here became feinter and was intent on getting me lost amongst more coffee and bananas and constant glaring from people who seemed unresponsive to any greeting, wave, toot or nod.
I arrived at what seemed to be a steep cliff of red dirt, not unlike a supercross ramp and I wondered if I was expected to jump whatever lurked beyond. I step off the bike to investigate, greeting a group of comotosed glaring men sat beneath a short wooden bus shelter.
In anticipation I slowly walk the short bank, and peer over. The road has gone, some way below gobbled up by a huge landslide, 50 or 75m down, leaving a wide treeless red scab of powdery red. One wonders at the force of water, can be likened only to dynamite as it looks here more like the mountain exploded out and disappeared. Having been like this for nine months, the foot traffic passing along the landslide of those people desperate for supplies has created a narrow path flattened into the dirt, punctuated by channels in the dirt that are crossed by bamboo bridges.
I walk the trails length, a steep, twisty, narrow, shoulder-width affair, that would resemble trying to ride on the upper edge of a dangerous funnel.
|Looks easy…..t’was not.|
“Can you cross this?” I ask a bystander.
“NO WAY!” he says as fear fills his face, “Talk to him.” he adds with returning calm, gesturing to a man on the other side..
I go over to the man, in smart dress I notice in an area where you probably shouldn’t have, i.e. not be able to have, smart threads.
“Can you cross this?” I ask him. He looks to the bike.
“Yeah, but I can remove the bags.”
At that, he starts removing bags and I tell him that a) if anyone’s crossing it, it’s me and b) I need to think about this first, a lot.
I walk the trail again, feet thumping in heavy time with my pounding heart as I go steeply down, over the bamboo bridges – which are ready to slot a wheel into – and then, stretching calf muscles as I go steeply up the other side and listen to the sound of falling dirt fade into the precipice below.
“It’s bloody steep isn’t it.” I say.
“Is very dangerous.”
“No, no….noooo, Don’t say that.” I say with half a smile, “only positive things please.”
I look around the growing group of glaring faces for some inspiration, comfort, warmth, a sign, encouragement. Alas, nothing. So I walk to the bottom of the trail to think alone without the weight of eyes upon me.
“That’s three times now.” the smart dressed man says.
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” I say, “it’s just there’s nothing quite like this in my country!” Then add joking,”Has anyone ever fallen?”
His face remains expressionless, until he states matter-of-factly, “five.”
“FIVE!! What bikes as well?”
He slices his finger across his throat before adding, still with the face of a placid giraffe, “is very dangerous.”
So, I start taking the bags off, feeling the weight of each one fill my heart, whilst my stomach remains weightless, floating up to stick in my dry throat, contemplating what I’d do if my bike ended up amongst the remains of the road far below. Walk I suppose.
All eyes on me now, I start the bike and ease up the bank of red dirt, half expecting the click-click-click of a rising roller-coaster, but receiving only Rodney’s tired tick-tick-tick, cresting the bank and accelerating down the other side towards the first bamboo bridge.
Don’t snag the bars, don’t lock the breaks, keep it tight for the bridge so you can keep straight….don’t look down.
Straight and easy in the lower middle reaches, time to breathe. Time to look down into the eye of the funnel below, far far below, glaring at me with menace like the men at my back.
Watch the cliff!
Then, the bit I’ve been fearing, narrower, loose – the edge falling away – twisty and steep. Very steep. So steep I fear that Rodney won’t be able to climb it. At the very least, I know, I’ll have to gun it if he’s to make it at all. To stall would mean certainly falling, maybe I could save myself, but the bike’s a gonner.
I twist the throttle.
A rising note, a rising bike, front wheel light and high, elbow brushes the wall, and up and up and out.
On the other side I chat nervously, in long endless sentences of elation to the ‘glares’ on the other side.
Other bikes show up then, some cross nonchalantly, others pay the smart dressed man to cross for them. I get invited to have a beer, to celebrate our survivals, perhaps.
“You speak verrrrry good Spanish!”
“Yes, it’s very gooooood!”
“You understand eveerrrrrything we say!”
“That’s because all you keep saying is how good my Spanish is!” I say.
“Noooo!” they all say in unison, sloshing beer over the dirt floor of the bar.
“….and how big my ‘cojones’ are for travelling solo.”
But as we talk, word spreads of “ladrones,” bad men, thieves, and I am informed that this is not really safe territory, “guerilla”. I scarper, leaving the second beer, probably causing some offence.
Near Antioquia runs the brown muddy swathe of the Rio Cauca, Colombia’s gutter it seems, where I set up my tent. Then I see three shadows moving amongst the rivers detritus of rock, wood and bamboo. Two are policia, who come and give me the usual questions though have little idea of how to actually deal with the situation, or how to read a passport. I point out too, that I did in fact get permission, from the third guy who stands in the trio and I wonder if it was him who in fact called the police?
“All right.” they say, “No problem. It’s just, there’s a lot of bad people around here and we have to be very careful. Good night.”
“Hey, hang on….” I say, with a fork of fear running through me, “bad people….does that mean I’m not safe here then?”
“Oh no, quite safe. Nothing to worry about.” and they pat me on the shoulder reassuringly whilst I contemplate the contradiction and they walk back into the detritus. I get into the tent and zip up tight-tight, and get deep-deep into the sleeping bag and try to distinguish animal footsteps from human and sounds of the gurgling river, awaiting the machete that will slice through the tent walls.
Thankfully, it doesn’t come and in the morning I’m even treated to a free breakfast in the farm and given free panela and a huge block of cheese. Top stuff, and no glaring.
A quick trip around Antioquia and the surrounding “pueblos blancas” and Lago Peñol, on my way to meet Adam (www.shortwayround.co.uk who I met originally in Mexico), stopping off at the aptly named finca called “Mongolia”, thanks to the permission of the fabulously sombreroed Willem.
It’s a beautiful camp amongst the smooth hills and humps of pale fluffy grass, where the horses and cattle graze freely and far to the est rise the eastern corderilla, up which I must ride in the morning to meet Adam.
I meet him next day in falling rain after a long days ride, and Adam despite a year passing wears the same t-shirt and same jeans, though a few wrinkles around his eyes….perhaps from endless days of smiling at the helm of his DR650. Soon enough, the tea is flowing and I forget about my cold wet clothes entirely in a frantic catch up.
Riding along, we seem to drop into El Cocuy National Park, despite its black jagged peaks rising up, ahead, to 5330m. Gone are the bananas and coffee, the selva, the pine forests, the potatoes…well, there are potatoes, instead Bola-hatted women work the fields, children search for cows grazing amongst the piled rocks and boulders – cleared to allow grass growth – and ponchoed weathered men seem only to amble about the roads with a horse in tow, whilst Adam and I talk over a lengthy breakfast looking up to the bright white glaciers high above.
“In 30 years all of it will be gone.” says Marco our host as we sit sipping piping hot potato, onion and cilantro soup, in La Esperanza farm lodge, before embarking on the 20km hike up to Laguan Grande de la Sierra.
Red markers signify how far, or little, we have travelled and also with each one more metres in altitude gained. I breathe fast, and walk slow, occasionally squeezing in an emergency gasp as if coming up from below water, on our way to 4500m. The anvil in my head pounds with the sharp blows of a hammer, though I must push on….unfortunately it’s a cloudy day and whilst it’s clear that El Cocuy is a magical place, today is not the best day, and back at the farm I go straight to bed, nil by mouth, with the exception of two pills which Adam feeds to my stupour-ous self.
Time – like he – is short for Adam, his bike due on a plane in Bogota. And after 12hours of rejuvinating sleep in La Esperanza after the hike, that’s where we head, though along some spectacular mountainous roads, and at one point through a half buried town beneath a landslide (oddly we took no pictures!).
I don’t like cities and tell Adam as much over a lunch “papa rellenos, ” “empenadas,” and “buñelos”. (potatoes stuffed with meat and rice, fried pasty-like do-dahs, and deep fried cheese bread balls.), but I grew to like the city, despite wondering if it’s merely a place for the rich get richer and the poor to merely scrape around in the gutters, or to come begging and, here unlike anywhere else I’ve seen and been, there is a stark difference; they beg for food, not money. With desperation.
However, as I’ve said I grew to like Bogota, and it’s busy streets full of life and vendors of all things imaginable. Popular too as a recreational activity it seems is graffiti and the street art, which it is perhaps more aptly called, is fantastic….and at least gives something more positive to focus on!
I leave Adam behind after several days together in the city, heading back north, with aims of cloud free hikes in El Cocuy and trip into indigenous territories. Little did I know that things were take several severe turns for the worse.
Cont. Soon…in Part 2.