After having a lovely time cycling off tarmac and away from busy roads and in very small rural communities for a week it was a bit of a culture shock to set off along the busy highway in Boyaca. The scenery was completely different, instead of steep grazing land there were lush, flat, fertile valleys full of corn fields, potatoes, beans, peas, onions and acres of leeks. We had not only given ourselves a bit of a break at Duitama, we thought that the bikes were due some TLC too as the sand had got in everywhere.But the easy cycling did not last, after visiting Sogamoso, which incidently has a brilliant museum that should have a mention in the guide books (think it is someones life’s work), it was all up again. It wasn’t until we had climbed several hundred metres and were looking back over the town from a sun drenched hillside that we realised that the fog we had started the morning in was in fact a dirty smog. That would explain the sore throats then. Vehicle pollution is a big problem here. But we left all that behind us as we topped off at 3289 m with a wonderful view of the Laguna Tota, which was surrounded by more leek fields than I have ever seen before. It was lovely and peaceful sitting on our verandah listening to all the birds in the reed beds and watching the sun set behind the wooded islands on the lake. It reminded me of Scotland, especially at 5:30 when all the midges and mosquito’s appeared.We had thought that all the fairs and fiesta’s were over as it was now mid-January, but we arrived at Aquitania the next morning into a country fair in full swing, but it was a very local affair with families coming in from surrounding villages.And of course, being Colombia, you can never have too many sweets!We were often passed by very lively horses, often being ridden bareback down busy roads with little to control them except a halter.Although the scenery was picturesque the farming here life looked very hard indeed.We spent the night in the small town of Iza. Like most of the colonial towns in this area it had quite a large and well maintained Catholic church and a monument to the indigenous people originally from the area, which were both in stark contrast to the poor and badly built houses in the rest of the town. We had met a couple of local Colombian cycle tourists in the town who had told us they thought our next days planned ride to the capital of Boyaca, Tunja, would be too far as we would be doing a big climb up over the paramo. So we decided to see if we could find somewhere to stay in Toca enroute. We had a really early start, before it was light, so that we could get the early climbing out of the way before it got too hot. In the early morning light we passed lush fields with freisian cattle (we could almost have been in England).As the climb got steeper the tarmac on the road got thinner, then gave up and turned to sand and gravel which was much easier to cycle on. It also got quite cold as we climbed. We passed a surprising number of small farms, each with the usual posse of barking dogs encouraging us to peddle harder, and each with a smiling farmer wrapped warmly in his poncho.I thought that I had got acclimatised to the altitude, but I needed a long rest after we passed 3200 m. Mind you I could have just been plain tired after the climb! But it was a good excuse to photograph some of the flowers growing in this cooler environment.
As we got closer to the top the vegetation began to change. There were no more farms or trees and there were tall clumps of feathery grasses. Then at 3500 m some bright yellow flowers caught my eye. They were beautiful, tall yellow orchids, the first orchids I had seen in Colombia in the wild. I have seem many in peoples gardens.Then the paramo began. Initially what we saw were spikes of weird looking Frailejones (pronounced fry-lay-ho-nez), or as I think of them, Frail Joneses. The name apparently means friar or monk, as in the fog they look like hooded monks. They are from the genus Espeletia and are now an endangered species due to farming activity. They can grow quite tall and have lovely yellow flowers.The ground up here is very boggy as it holds a lot of water and is a great resource as a water supply for Colombia. When you look closer you can see lots of tiny, low growing plants in between the Frailejones.
I think I detected at this point, after half an hour of exclaiming enthusiastically over tiny plants, that Bernie was not enjoying this as much as I was, and we still had a long way to go. We headed down steeply and soon saw the reason for the decline of the Paramo. Although you cannot blame them for wanting to scratch out a living from what looks like fertile soil.As we dropped down to the small village of Toca we found they had the largest church that we had seen in any small town we had passed through, and it was of a very different design. But on closer inspection it was in a very bad state of repair and many of the windows were broken. In a way it truly represented the town, as this is the first place I have been to where I have seen a two storey brick house built with no cement between the bricks. I just hope they don’t get a tremor.
We soon made it to Tunja, the capital of Boyaca, and spent a couple of days there as they had a lot of beautiful churches and museums, and best of all, plenty of delicious food. It is a university town so quite lively.
Unfortunately we couldn’t avoid the main road on the next section and we were thinking that now we were closer to Bogota things would change and the people would not be so friendly. We could not have been more wrong. We arrived in a noisy roadside village of Choconta and cycled hopefully around their piazza looking for somewhere to stay. We were immediately approached by a lady with a young child who wanted to help and directed us to a local house. Once there, as there was no one at home, the neighbours started to ring around, then the local tourist policeman arrived to add to the suggestions. Eventually when the landlord arrived it seemed like half the village all trouped upstairs to view the room with us, making us promise we would let them know if we needed anything.
We managed to get away from the roads for a while as we headed to the lovely town of Zipaquira to see their famous Salt Cathedral, built inside a salt mine. We passed several old colonial towns on the way through. To be honest the salt cathedral was a bit of a tourist catchment area but the town was worth seeing.
We took the high route into Bogota hoping, in vain, to avoid the heavy traffic. But we were rewarded by a view over the whole city. I was pretty tired as we dropped down into the city when suddenly, in a instant, everything changed from laid back, friendly Colombia to terrifying, fast and agressive 6-lane highway Bogota. Eventually we managed to get off the outer-circular but their driving style did not change. This picture was taken after things had calmed down a bit and I was able to unweld my fists from the handlebars to get my camera out. Our first impressions of Bogota were not good. But things improved after a nights sleep, and leaving the bikes behind we set off to see everything that Bogota is good at. The incredible gold museum, the national museum, and I had to include to include this as it reminded me of a grumpy toddler, wonderful art galleries such at the Botero Gallery with his outsized paintings of outsized people,and art everywhere in the form of multistorey graffiti, and roadside graffiti. We also visited the Botanical Gardens and some nearby coffee farms just outside the city. This area had been badly hit by the violence but was now making a comeback, with many of the small coffee growers forming cooperatives so they could access grants, for example from the UN, to buy better equipment so they could roast the coffee to a set standard and therefore export their coffee. The video and pictures show how it used to be done.
The day before we left Bogota was a Sunday when they shut many of the major roads so that they can be used exclusively by cyclists, pedestrians and skaters. Every city should do this, it was great! It also allowed buskers and chess players some space. It wasn’t all carefree fun though. Last Sunday there had been a big demonstration against the re-opening of the bull ring. So this Sunday there were literally hundreds of riot police around, and we found it almost impossible to get across the centre of the city as they wanted to keep some areas free of crowds. We have made a video of bits from the journey from Tunja to Bogota.
Tomorrow we are leaving Colombia as we are flying to Quito in Ecuador, so I would like to say a big thank you to all the people we have met in Colombia who have looked after us, worried about us, fed us and generally been wonderful to us. We have loved Colombia and would recommend other people come here and experience this beautiful country.
Just a word about ShelterBox. While we are cycling in South America we are also fundraising for the humanitarian charity ShelterBox. If you would like to donate to ShelterBox you can click on the donate button at the bottom of this blog, or go to the ShelterBox link at the top of the page. You can find out more about what ShelterBox does by going to the links page and clicking on ShelterBox.