Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Time out in Bucaramanga

Villa De Leyva is a town that has pretty much been preserved in it's original form containing a massive cobble stone main square and white colonial style buildings. I had a day checking it out with Noemi from Canada and Katherine from the UK, It's a popular Holiday destination for both tourists and locals alike but I must admit that it didn't do much for me, all the buildings the look the same and a baron environment with few trees.

Cobble stone streets in Villa De Leyva

The main roads in Colombia are congested with heavy traffic, lots of trucks and  roads on hilly countryside allowing for few passing opportunities. Not much fun but fortunately I linked together some interesting back roads from Villa De Leyva to San Gil. The first section was for the most part just a farm track and bit of a bone shaker at that where the only traffic was some cattle and horsemen.

According to the road men I talked to at the start it was going to take 3 hours just to make a short distance to the first town so I was pushing the bike hard, avoiding sharp edged rocks that would easily dent in a rim. My thoughts get into a rhythm that has become a daily occurrence as I analyse the track ahead, dodging this, dodging that, slow down for that, speed up for this, unconsciously absorbing and processing the sounds, vibrations and movements of the bike to keep her running smooth. And all at the same time taking in this foreign environment that's unfolding in front of me with an unknown certainty. Another day at the office!

I've now done 30 000 km In South America and according to my vapour bike computer I've spent 660 hours of butt numbing time on board. You get to now your bike pretty well, familiar noises, vibrations, and when something changes you need to stop and check it out so to avoid an unwanted mechanical problem worsening out in the middle of nowhere.

I arrive in the small town of Gambita 2 hours later, enjoy a coffee and some bread for lunch, try and explain to the curious crowds what the heck this strange gringo person is doing in town! An hour later and I find the main highway but ride straight across to the other side and onto another back road.

It's another hot day and when I stumble upon a waterfall and swimming hole, I have to stop even though it's getting late in the afternoon and have a dip with some local teenagers. It's a beautiful spot. The track takes me through a bunch of Panella (sugar) farms and it's not obvious which is the main route, I come across a major junction and would have been stumped on which way to go, but there just happens to be a guy sitting there in the shade and I get a "small" amount of clarification on where I should be going. I'm heading along this track, it seems to be heading in the right direction but I'm not sure, but it doesn't matter, I just ride along, I somehow know that it will work out, and it does, I rejoin the main highway and traffic for the last hour into San Gil, another great day out.

San Gil is Colombia's adventure sport capital, with grade 5 rafting being the main attraction. I meet up with Noemi again at Macando hostel and we spend a day checking out the nearby town of Barichara which is another fine example of a town preserved in time with impressive stone buildings and roads. Next stop up the road is the considerable city of Bucaramanga and according to the map I can once again avoid the main road via several small towns and a dirt road.

The trail takes me past some impressive waterfalls and then I ride into the the middle of a movie set which is being shot in the town of Galen. It's a pretty little town surrounded in mountains and a little out of the way. A short film is being made by students from the nearby University in Bucaramanga. I have some Tinto (strong black coffee) and some lunch, watch a bit of movie making and then prepare to exit to Bucaramanga. A local wants to buy me a beer, It's a nice sunny Saturday afternoon and it just happens to be my Birthday, what the heck, a beer turns into a few and that's the end of the riding for the day! Only 20 km today! It's difficult talking to the locals but the uni students speak  English. I spend most of the afternoon chatting with the producer which in my now pleasantly drunken state conclude that she's so incredibly nice that she must be a birthday gift from the heavens and I can't help but instantly fall in love with her!!

The following morning there is a big soccer match on, I decide to hang around and watch , it's just like a rugby game back in rural NZ but with music at full song for the entire game, the Colombians like there music and dance. The ride out of town is a little rough, but the bike performs faultlessly as usual and the only thing that's been broken at the end of the day is my heart!!

The old town of Barichara

Impressive stone work in Barichara

Milk delivery downtown Galen

I head for Kasaguane Hostel which is owned by Richie who I met back in Medellin. Richie's passion is paragliding, he spent 10 years in North America flying before returning home and setting up a flying school here in Bucaramanga. I head up to the flying site to check out the paragliding and then spend the afternoon on a ride with Richie and his partner Lili. They are just about to set off on a year long motorbike trip around South America on a KLR 650. 

Day out with Richie and Lili

At the paragliding site Richie also has a small hostel for the trainee pilots, it´s a real nice location on the hill with great view's out over the city below. Its also a lot quieter up there away from the city and more like a house than a hostel, ...but with the one exception of a disco tech right next door that goes all night on the weekends! I move up to the Fly site Hostel and meet Lewis, Evan, and Robin from Nelson, Canada and also John from Wales. The guys have just started their 10 day flying coarse.

After hearing a few stories and watching the boys having a lot of fun in the air I decide that while I´m there I have to have ago and book in for a tandem flight. It´s definitely a buzz being up in the air but unfortunately my weak stomach is just not up for it, I end up getting motion sick before even doing the optional aerobatics which is a shame! I will just have to stick to two wheels.

Brothers, Lewis and Evan about to launch out above Bucaramanga City
That's me coming in for landing

I guess after 6 months on the go I´m definitely slowing down a bit and with the Fly site hostel feeling more like a house to ourselves than a hostel I´m happy to spend some time off the bike and hang with the Canadians for a while. I decide to try and improve my very limited Spanish with a week long coarse. The places I can get to and the people I meet on the motorbike would be so so much more rewarding for everyone if I could speak the language better. I spend two hours a day with my teacher Luz Dary and then study in my spare time. I have enough problems getting my head round English so for me this is really hard work. Luz does a terrific job of getting me motivated though, shows me some near by sites and basically goes out of her way to help. It's just typical of the people here, extremely helpful. Thanks for all your time Luz.

The 650 gets plenty of attention at a moto shop in Bucaramanga
Basic housing in Bucaramanga
Veiw of Bucaramanga City from the hostel

It´s now been a few weeks and I´m still here in Bucaramanga. Unfortunately during one week I spent a lot of time at the hospital, on one day I even visited two hospitals. I guess this is what happens when you become friends with trainee paraglider pilots!! Motorcycling is as safe as houses in comparison! Robin broke his wrist on a hard landing and sadly Lewis broke his back on an even harder landing. Fortunately they managed to fuse his damaged vertebrae back together and to the adjacent ones without any permanent damage and he will have a full recovery and a bunch of steel in his back. It was a tough time for Lewis as the temporary loss of movement was pretty scary, it's another reminder how easily life can change.

I see the beaten up Canadians off and then head out of town with a new appreciation of my mainly well functioning body, I'm on a week long loop ride to visit Cocuy National Park, Colombia's highest and most dramatic mountain range. The ride there takes a day longer than planned, I spend a day almost completing a circle and finishing up not far from where I started. The first delay is due to a washed out bridge and a bunch of freshly excavated ditches spanning full width of the road waiting for culverts. After walking the narrow temporary path I'm in two minds as to have a go at getting the bike across, I could easily damage the bike or loose it over the edge. Is it worth the risk? The option of returning back down the road would take a couple of hours.

Washed out bridge

I walk back over all the obstacles spread out over a few hundred meters back to the construction workers on the other side. I run through the possibilities in my head, and piece together a route that traverses well above the road and dodges the worst sections. It could actually work, but I will need the help of the workers, on my own no way. I get back to the workers and I'm not surprised that they're keen as mustard to help so I quickly strip off all the luggage and we go for it, 20min and a bucket load of sweat later we're on the other side, no problems. I load the bike back up and while doing so entertain the workers with info on the bike and my trip. I ride off feeling elevated, the guys were just super friendly and helpful to me but at the same time they just loved helping out, loved my bike and loved having a stranger passing bye their backyard.

Helpful construction workers

I get to the next town and my run of good luck comes to and end, the police inform me that the next section of road is not passable, even on the moto. I have to rejoin the main road not far off where I left it! It's not all bad though the riding is first rate. Another day and several mountain ranges later I finally make it to the town of El Cocuy on the edge of the park. The motorbike proves very handy as I spend the next two days riding up high to 4000m and accessing the park for a couple of day hikes. The first is a wash out with very cold rain but the second proves to be a brilliant day out. Firstly hiking up high to the snow line with brad and Sheena, and James and Laura, all from the us and also doing overland travel but with 4wds. Then, later riding up high on a ridge late in the evening light which was just stunning.

The Police get round 2 up on the little 200

El Cocuy

Sheena and Brad beating the lack of oxygen at around 4500m

These guys were way more friendly than they look!

A walk in the mountains, a beautiful sun set and a motorbike to ride down on, what a day!
I head back to the city feeling content, some time hiking in the mountains was well overdue for me. I pick an alternative route back to Bucaramanga, I was hoping to make it in one big day of riding but the cold steady rain for the first few hours had me doubting if I would make the distance. I had most of my clothing on and along with my full rain suit I was surprisingly comfortable. By midday the sun was out and I was again riding on some neat little back roads, it was a great finish to my week out. After a 10 hr day on the road I arrive back at the hostel very happy if a tad tired. Hank, who is now at the hostel with me cooks up great feed and then drags me out to town for the night to check out another of Colombia's highlights, the chicas!!

I met this family on a farm out in the middle of nowhere
Downtown Onzaga on the way back to Bucaramanga

Bowling, Colombian styles!
Main highway back into Bucaramanga