Colombia 6: Medellin, then via Utica to Tobia

Medellin - this city may conjure up certain thoughts about its past. Drug centre? Pablo Escobar and his drug empire? Let us go and have a look , we thought. Kolumbien hat auf alle Fälle eine gemischte Geschichte hinter sich, nicht zuletzt wegen der berüchtigten Medellin Drogenkartelle. Gefährlich oder nicht? Auch haben wir an den Brücken noch regelmässig Militär gesichtet und die Abstimmung wegen der Friedensgespräche mit der Farq ist noch nicht abgehandelt. Ein spannender Besuch stand bevor, als wir uns auf den Weg machten. Due to major roadworks we drove along the Ruta 29 and 25 up to the turnoff at Pintada and find our way to Santa Elena outside Medellin, where the camping site Al Bosque was situated, run by David and his brother, both Columbians with good knowledge of English. Useful Wifi and a lounge to work from were a blessing in the cold and wet weather. From the campsite access to Medellin city centre and the Plaza with the Botero statues was convenient by taking a scenic ride on the teleferico to an intermediate station, which links a poorer area of Medellin to the centre of the city. Main attraction for us have been the many bronze statues by the well-known Medellin-born artist, Fernando Botero. The plaza is unfortunately also the meeting point of druggies and prostitutes which is a legacy of the past. All in all Medellin today seems to be a thriving city and many modern buildings bear testimony to this. We did not feel unsafe but remained cautious while shopping . Interesting was a jeans shop with inserts for ladies to ensure your behind would have the roundness so typical for South America. We drove to embalse El Peñol via Marinilla to see the Réplica Antiguo Peñol (a replica of the ancient church). Then our journey continued south towards Bogotá and onwards to Cocorna and to Rio Claro, where we camped at Zona del Camping on a hacienda, a very quiet place along the Rio Claro river under a canopy of large trees. With cows grazing all around us it felt like a real farm holiday. The next day's journey was interrupted by a road accident and subsequent traffic jam which prompted us to take a small back road through the mountains from Honda to Utica after talking to some local truckers. Here we found Camping Rio Negro ( aptly named as the river was a brown/black run of water) and we had consistent rain during the night like most nights before. However, the many birds in this area made up for the inconvenience and a swim in the pool was most welcomed. We proceeded from Tobia on Highway 50 , turned off at El Rosal and took highway 55 Norte to Laguna Guatavita. Finally we decided to call it a day after we reached  Camping La Huerta just short of Guatavita -it continued raining and we were fortunate to be able to sit inside until 10:00pm, warm and dry as the restaurant was closed.  Our ladies spoiled us with a cheese fondue followed by a desert of chocolate fondue. What a treat in this remote location. After a quiet night we were ready to tackle the town Villa de Leyva the next day.
This post covers 26th -30th September 2016

Colombia 5: Filandia,Marsella and Hacienda Guayabal

The village Filandia was even more colourful and laid back. We enjoyed the vibe before we departed to one of the important destinations: an excellent bio producer of coffee for which Colombia is so well known for. Kaffee aus Kolumbien - ist er wirklich so gut wie allgemein angenommen wird? So beschlossen wir mal eine Plantage zu besuchen und eine Pflück- und Verarbeitungstour mitzumachen. Zwischendrin lag Marsella mit dem Alexander v.Humboldt botanischen Garten. We found the coveniently situated camping site El Santuario within walking distance to the Filandia town centre. Filandia did not disappoint with its brightly coloured buildings, gift shops and restaurants. It could be called Jeep city -all taxis based on various models of Jeeps and transporting locals and freight into the mountains. We proceeded via Pereira towards Marsella, where we wanted to visit the Alexander von Humboldt botanical gardens. No problem, our GPS said, a normal road would take us there. This was not the only time that the OSM maps in our Garmin took us on a route one would better not travel on. The road became smaller and smaller, directly into the jungle, fully overgrown to the extend there was no turn around. So we had fun moving and cutting tree stumps and rebuilding bad sections. It became obvious that it was only used by motorcycles nowadays. The botanical gardens in Marsella were reasonable kept and offered a glimpse into the flora of Colombia. We spent a pleasant 2-3 hours there. Our route to the coffee farm Finca Guayabal went via Chinchina. Here we had a camping spot next to a large roofed area in the gardens of the finca, which also has an excellent restaurant. The shed also offered a covered area where we could disassemble and troubleshoot our fridge/freezer, which had packed up two weeks prior. Unfortunately our efforts where inconclusive and we could not repair the unit or find what seemed to be an intermittent fault. A very knowledgeable young guide, Felipe, was punctual the next day to introduce us to the art of coffee growing and processing as well as the right way to make a good cup of Colombian coffee. He took us into the plantations armed with the right headgear and baskets to sample the effort of handpicked coffee beans. Here all coffee is picked by hand to ensure that only ripe and full flavoured beans are picked -which we learned is not done in other countries where coffee is harvested (often by machine) ignoring the ripeness of the fruit. Interesting to us was also the bio control of the small beetle that penetrates the beans -fermented rice juice is sprayed and the farm is almost completely free of it. On the 63ha land Guayabal produces Arabica coffee and Colombia is the third largest producer of coffee, but in outstanding quality. They harvest twice annually due to the high rainfall and excellent soil conditions on the steep slopes, where the pickers very often have to be secured by ropes. Coffee is dried and skinned and then exported -roasting generally happens in the country where the coffee is consumed. Only the largest beans are exported, smaller ones are consumed in the country. The OMA brand of coffee is very good, we learned, and only coffee from Colombia has the "Arabica" type trademark - not Arabicas, which often is not from this country. After the tour within the beautiful setting of the finca we had a coffee tasting, prepared at different temperatures and durations - we realised that these two factor play a significant role in the taste of the cup that you drink. The gardens presented very good opportunities to photograph various species of birds. After such a good time in the remote areas we were ready to face Medellin - a city so well-known due to the Medellin drug cartels of the past. What would such a city look like today? A beautiful road awaited us getting to Medellin.
This post covers 22nd-25th September 2016      

Colombia 4: Cocora Palms and Salento

Palms, so hard a chainsaw cannot cut them down? This seems to be the reason that there are so many Cocora palms left. We wanted to see for ourselves. Wir hatten von den Cocora Palmen gehört und dass es davon einen ganzen Wald gäbe. Auch dass in der unmittelbaren Nähe schmucke Dörfer lägen, welche durch ihre bunte Bemalung einen einzigartigen Charakter hätten. So beschlossen wir, dieses Gebiet ein wenig näher zu betrachten. Our route took us back via El Espinal, as we had decided not to visit Bogotá itself at this stage. As we were travelling on the highway towards Ibagué, a loud whistling noise disturbed the air -we could at first not make out what it was. Suddenly a vehicle passed us with girls in the back, waving and whistling. We decided to stop and find out more. It was a girls' basket ball team on the way to Ibagué, that found it soo cool to spot an overlanding vehicle and heartily welcomed us to Colombia -again we were surprised by the friendliness of the people welcoming strangers into their country - the inevitable photo session and selfies followed. In Ibagué we found a camping spot at the Altamira hostal/camping and at first it took some calling to get the gate to be opened what seemed to be out of season as we were the only guests and campers. We enjoyed the pool, the view over Ibagué and the amount of birds in the gardens. Sadly the tariff we had to pay next morning ended in some arguments as the sum was twice that we had discussed the night before. A misunderstanding? With our rudimentary knowledge of Spanish this could be the case although we had the feeling the owner instructed his personnel to ask for double the amount which meant R150 per Person ipo R75 (Peso 15000) which would have been quite reasonable. In Ibagué we looked for a supermarket to do some shopping of essentials - a taxi driver saw us and promptly offered to drive in front of us so we could get there without problems and did not ask anything for the service. Colombian friendliness. From Ibagué we had heavy truck and bus traffic up to Cajamarca where we turned on a small back road towards Toche. We were told that the Valle de Corcora is touristic and that this backroad offered a much more scenic route with more Cocora palms on the way. Butterflies fluttered around in abundance. The road was wonderful and the number of palms in the area were in the thousands. Along the way we found ourselves a wonderful wild camp site next to the road in a curve and with a marvellous view into the valley. Since it was rainy and cold, we erected our awning and tent walls. Towards evenings we had multiple vehicles and motorcycles stopping to chat and find out more -among them Irvin, the young teacher of a rural school just 2 km ahead and we were invited to visit there the next day. During late afternoon and the next morning we could observe humming birds close by and were fascinated by the flora. We ensured that we stopped at the tiny school next morning and our visit was an occasion where teacher and scholars could demonstrate their activities which included planting and art. We left them a soccer ball and art material as well as some sweets which was most welcome in such a remote area. Next we reached Salento -a village full of colourful buildings, eating places and art shops. A short visit into the Vallé de Corcora followed -pretty busy and we decided not to camp there. We rather pressed on to reach Filandia, an equally colourful town with a good camping opportunity at El Santuario.
This post cover 20th-22nd September 2016

Colombia 3: Desierto de Tatácoa and the polluted Rio Bogota

A desert in Colombia? The thought was intriguing and to reach a hot and dry region in this lush country was a welcome change. Die Wüste Tatácoa ist wohl einzigartig in Südamerika. Ein grosser, farbenvoller Canyon, trocken und heiss mit fast keinem Regenfall. Vollmond und paar Regentropfen machten den Ort besonders fotogen. Our route took us via Pitalito, Altamira and Neiva to Villavieja on the east side of Colombia, along the flow of the Rio Magdalena. Slowly the landscape changed and along the road we saw the first interesting formations making us excited for what may lying ahead. Along the route we came across the traditional vendors producing a refreshing sugarcane drink on wooden presses. It was hot and we sampled the delicious juice, freshly pressed and cool. Soon the landscape started changing with cacti and euphorbia replacing trees and palms. With the change in flora also the birdlife changed. We found a suitable camping spot on the edge of the cañon at the Tatácoa Desert Camp, offering a splendid view. When we arrived temperatures ranged around 37-38 deg C, but a few raindrops towards evening tempered the heat to 31 deg C during the night. Being full moon we sat outside and enjoyed the view until late. From our location we could conveniently explore the cañon on foot, which we did in the early hours of the cooler morning and found it a worthwhile two hours spent, viewing the cañon from below. Black headed vultures circled waiting for nature to deliver. We escaped the midday heat by travelling via Potosi along a small road following the Rio Magdalena until a bridge offered us a crossing and after a tunnel we get back on Ruta 45. The tarred road was good and via El Espinal and Girardot we turn off at Bocachica close to Bogotá and drive along the Rio Bogotá to find a suitable camping site. At this point we had to pay Peaje (toll) again after we had paid on the main road minutes before. It dawned on us that Colombia is heavy on toll roads everywhere and had to get used that we would spend about Rand 1.00 per km from now on -almost as much as we were spending on fuel to drive. (On a normal day R150 =US$10, on a long drive day R600 =US$40 approx). To our horror the river is being used as a sewage dump and is probably the worst pollution we have ever come across. Warning signs urged people living along the river not to get in contact with the water. Even at the scenic falls Salto de Tequen-dama we could not escape the incredible stink. Foam everywhere. Finally we found a place at the Ecolodge that overlooked the valley offering us a good view of the active volcano Nevado del Ruiz as well as the dormant  Nevado del Tolima. Nobody was in attendance at the camping site, but fortunately the ablutions were open. Even when we departed there was nobody around when we left again. It seems to be primarily an action park with slides, ropes etc. Next morning we found our tyre to be flat again without finding a reason after taking it off and checking it. We tracked back to El Espinal and carried on in the direction of Ibagué.  
This post covers 18th-20th September 2016.

Colombia 2: San Agustin petroglyphs and Rio Magdalena

Little detail is known about the Agustin culture that existed before the Spanish conquerors and the petroglyphs of the burial sites invite many questions.

San Agustin ist wohl die schönste Sammlung von Steinskulpturen in Kolumbien. Hier wurden die alten Agustinianos mit Schätzen aus Keramik und Geschmeide, Armreifen und Brustschmuck und kleinen Goldfiguren begraben. Der Campingplatz Gamcelat ist ein günstiger Punkt, diese Gegend zu erkunden. Die Skulpturen stammen meist aus einer Periode zwischen Christi Geburt bis 900AD, obwohl manche auf bis 3000v.Chr. zurück zu führen sind. Our base was set up at the camping site Gamcelat, which is situated in the vicinity of the San Agustin arqueological site and is conveniently close to the very good Italian restaurant, Pepe Nero, just across the road. The petroglyphs are exhibited at the original sites where they had been found. The San Agustin culture reaches back to 3000BC although most are of a later date up to 900AD. The excavations reveal some detail of the burial sites and the sarcophagi of many generations buried under artificial hills. Unfortunately robbers of graves have removed valuable figurines in gold as well as the ceramics and personal jewellery interned with the dead . The San Agustin culture disappeared before the arrival of the Spanish and no written documents exist. Then we explored the surrounding area and the valley where the mighty Rio Magdalena is still moderate and passes through a 2.5m gap in the rocks. Wherever we went we were heartily welcomed by the locals as Colombians really enjoy seeing tourists visiting their country again. The area is a deep green and jungle like. Next we decided on a visit to Colombia's desert cañon, Cañon de Desierto Tatácoa, which would be a welcome change and decided to proceed there.
This post covers 16th-17th September 2016.

Colombia 1: Las Lajas, Laguna la Cotcha and Trampolin de Muerte

Following a 2 hour border crossing, during which a rainstorm started, we drove to the Las Lajas church of pilgrimage and from there proceeded to Laguna la Cotcha. Little did we know that for the next 7 weeks there would only be 2 precipitation free days. Colombia is known for high rainfalls (up to 8000mm pa in some areas!)

Unser Grenzübertritt verlief ohne nennenswerten Probleme und vor Einbruch der Dämmerung standen wir an der Teleferico (Seilbahn) und campten, und fuhren dann am Morgen mit der Seilbahn zur Wallfahrtskirche. Der Regensturm hatte dafür gesorgt, dass der uns zugewiesene Platz recht matschig war - es wurde eine kalte Nacht.

An der Laguna la Cotcha gab es keinen Campingplatz und so standen wir mitten im Dorf und durften die Toiletten benutzen. Jedoch beim Nachtgang wurde uns klar, dass am späten Abend die Toiletten geschlossen wurden und wir mussten dunkle Ecken aufsuchen. Wegen des Regens konnten wir am nächsten Morgen keine Bootsfahrt machen und begaben uns entlang der berüchtigten Strasse genannt Trampolin des eTodes. Die Fahrt war wunderschön, sorgte aber für ein paar spannende Momente.

The church Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Las Lajas is a destination to which many pilgrims wander and in many cases it is purported to have been instrumental in miracle healings -many plaques testify to this effect and the church was built after such an event. Architecturally it is a beautiful construction arching across a river in which some pilgrims washed themselves hoping for healing. We returned again via the teleferico to a much drier camping spot and the mud had dried up. The road took us through Pasto (2850m), where we were happy to find a replacement gas cooker for our lost Cadac gas bottle. Laguna la Cotcha was our next destination and we reached the picturesque town Puerto towards late afternoon. Nobody seemed to worry that we parked our vehicles next to the boat embarkation where we found open public toilets. Little did we expect that they get closed at eight o’clock in the evening and presented a challenge during the rainy night. The weather prevented us next morning to go onto the lake by boat, especially to visit the island  "Isla de la Corota" with its forests and birdlife. Early in the day we departed along the “Trampolin de Muerte”(Death Road), a narrow road cut through the mountain and forest with steep drop-offs -exciting especially with oncoming traffic of trucks and buses. The road was lined with ferns, palms and a variety of trees as well as frailjoles plants. During a short lunch stop we counted 7 different species of butterflies within a short period. The day ended at Mocoa where we took a refreshing dip in the river next to our camping site in the backyard of hostal Casa del Rio. At 600m above sealevel we enjoyed a balmy night. Unfortunately the night was cut short by heavy truck traffic on the road nearby and we proceeded to San Agostin after watching some Tucans and other birds in the morning.
This post covers the period 13th-16th September 2016

Ecuador 4: Trip to the coast into the Cayapas Mataje Ecological Reserve & Tulcan

A trip with Hans from Finca Sommerwind to the coast provided a welcome change from driving with our own vehicle and taking an old train track into the jungle was full of surprises.

Mal einen Abstecher an die Küste machen und mit einer selbst gebauten Draisine in den Urwald fahren? Diese Chance liessen wir uns nicht entgehen und fuhren mit Hans von Sommerwind an die Küste in die höchsten Mangroven und anschliessend in den Urwald. Die Weiterfahrt nach Kolumbien führte über Tulcan mit seinem einzigartigen Friedhof - ein etwas aussergewöhnliches Ziel.

Following some house keeping chores like washing laundry, cleaning the vehicle etc. we booked with Hans from Finca Sommerwind his “special” tour to the coast. Special in the sense that he is the only operator promising a train ride into the jungle along this disused railway line starting at the gold diggers town of Alto Tambo. Furthermore the trip promised to take us in what could be the worlds tallest red mangrove forests. So we set off, Hans, Bernd, Marion, Karin and myself together with Dagmar Thum. This meant not all of us fitted into the Chevvy double cabin,a clapped-out bakkie and a heavy scale had to be delivered in San Lorenzo on the coast as well, a vibrant but poor community of African descent. Nevertheless the ride was enjoyable and we reached San Lorenzo (via Salinas) -where, while visiting the harbour front, the police wanted to see our passports and entry papers which none of us brought along. Some negotiations followed before we were allowed to proceed to Las Peñas, where we stopped at the La Enramada, a favourite eating place of Hans and had a huge seafood platter before going down to the hotel Playa Arena Cabañas where we were booked in. Pool and airconditioning - pure luxury compared to our mobile abode. The warm weather on the coast was a real treat and so was the dip into the warm Pacific ocean. (Note: La Enramada restaurant also allows camping on the beach side -they have recently added toilets to make this possible). Next day we drove to Borbón, a harbour on the estuary of the confluence of the Rios Santiago and Cayapas. From here we were taken by boat first to the island of La Tolita where we were amazed at the pottery shards visible on the beach of the old Tolita culture. A visit to the museum allowed insights into this pre-Inca culture from 500BC to 1500AD. Lorenzo, the boat captain then took us deep into the red mangroves, trees approximately 20m in height, inhabited by brightly coloured crabs. From here we rode to Limones(Valdéz) for a local type lunch. This area of Ecuador is mainly inhabited by ex slaves from Africa who have formed their own cultural community.The community is poor and buildings look delapidated also due to the tropical conditions and high rain fall. Sometimes members of the only 5000 Cayapas indians can be seen in the town selling their crafts and acquiring goods. Next stop were imbibing some freshly picked coconuts on an island along the way. On our return journey to Borbón, Lorenzo took us to his manufacturing of canela pura from sugar cane juice, the ingredient that is later used to make cocada, a type of sweets when refined with peanut, coconut etc. A by-product of the process is the making of charcoal. After a pleasant supper, too many cocktails and a good night’s sleep at our hotel in Las Peñas, Hans took us to a cacao plantation where the process of growing, harvesting and drying of cacao beans was explained. The flesh of the fruit is delicious, however is unsuitable for human consumption as it dissolves the calcium of the bone and would lead to loss of teeth. En route Hans showed us Balsa trees, endemic to Ecuador as well as a similar looking tree, the teak. Next stop was Alto Tambo,a gold digger town, at which the long awaited train journey began with self constructed draisines running on truck rims helping to stay on the very uneven track which has not seen any maintenance for a long time. Amidst rain we made our way into the jungle for about 10 kilometres at which point the vehicle was centre pivoted on a jack and turned around by hand. On the way back we stopped at a waterfall for a refreshing swim, but had to negotiate a muddy and slippery path to get there. By evening we were safely back in Ibarra at Finca Sommerwind despite rain along the way. We said our goodbyes to other overlanders (some bigger than others...) at the customary weekend braai and left for Tulcan. In Tulcan an unusual cemetery can be visited, famous for its finely cut hedges and trees depicting cultural figures of the past. Before we left Karin could not resist trying fake ice cream we have seen often in this area - a sweet marshmellow-like cream with fruit taste -jummy?
This post covers the period 4th to 9th September 2016 before crossing to Colombia.

Ecuador 3: Ibarra, El Angel Eco Reserve and Gruta de la Paz

Ibarra is known to most overlanders passing through Ecuador to Colombia due to Finca Sommerwind- a convenient stopover to explore the area.

Als Overländer in Südamerika ist nichts schöner als ein Campingplatz, der sauber ist, alle Waschmöglichkeiten bietet, hausgebackenes Brot, wochenends Kaffee und Kuchen sowie die Möglichkeit, hierhin Ersatzteile zu verschiffen oder gar den Wagen stehen zu lassen zwecks eines Heimaturlaubes. Bei Hans und Patrizia fehlt es an nichts, und es ist wie ein zweites zu Hause.

Once settled in at Finca Sommerwind, which is situated next to Lago Yahuarcocha (in Quechua lingo meaning Blood Lake), and close to the autodrome, we started cleaning vehicles and clothing, then visited the old town centre of Ibarra - not as spectacular and as elaborate as others, but still worth a short visit.

On the outskirts and overlooking the lake, the statue of arcangel Miguel, the patron of Ibarra was next on our list.

To escape the weekend noise of the pending motor race at the autodrome, we decided with Bernd and Marion to explore the area and take a drive via the town of Mira ( where we come across a grand parade of honking trucks from a race) into the El Angel Eco Reserve to see the Frailejones (Mönchsgewächse) that can withstand the cold of the Paramo weather due to their hairy leaf structure.

We proceeded to camp in an area where the old Polylepis trees grow ( 15mm per year and up to 1500years old) that get rid of parasites etc by shedding their bark in a paperlike fashion. Again, due to the altitude, the night was cold, but we found an excellent spot to camp wild.

Our return journey took us past the Gruta de la Paz, a church in a grotto and pools of healing waters in the river that runs from the grotto. Many people visit this holy place on Sundays and partake in the mass celebrated inside.

The road to and from the grottos is narrow and some reversing manoeuvres were required when busses tried to pass us.

This post covers to 5th September 2016.

Ecuador 2: Crossing the Equator onwards to Otavalo and Cotacachi

Trying to catch the moment on the GPS when you cross the equator on a busy main road was not easy -fortunately there is a park where the pre-Inca’s already had figured out that this is an important place.

Unsere Route ab Quito ging nach Cayembe, vorher an der Sonnenuhr Quitsato am Äquator vorbei, zur Laguna San Pablo und dann bei Otavalo zum Campingplatz und Herberge La Luna de Mojanda. Die Fahrten zu der Laguna de Moyanda, dem Otavalo Markt und dem Parque Cóndor sind der Mühe wert gewesen. Proceeding from Quito our route then took us to via Cayembe to Otavalo where we camped at the beautiful hostal and camping of La Luna de Mojanda - complete with a good restaurant run by the owners Kevin and Tamara. The view across to volcano Cotacachi thrilled us every morning. In Otavalo we visited the fresh produce market enjoying fresh juices as well as the well-known craft market where quality crafted articles are offered. In this area the local women wear embroidered blouses and can also be be seen in town practising this craft. Otovalo has arty lamp posts and some old buildings and a plaza. Since the Condor park is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, we took a drive up to the Laguna Grande de Moyanda and the smaller Laguna de Chiriacu (Laguna Negra), both cold, but clear waters. At Laguna Grande de Moyanda camping is permitted, the surrounding area beautiful and very tranquil. On Wednesday we finally visited the Parque Condór bird rehabilititation centre (also Condors can be seen close up) and were not disappointed by the variety of birds of prey and owls to be seen there. Seeing the mighty Condor close up for the first time is quite something - albeit that the beauty of their head is debatable.
The evening rain and mist made us forget that we are close to the equator -a cold night was awaiting us. From Otavalo we headed via Quiroga to the Laguna Cuicocha close to the volcano Cotacachi(4939m). Despite the overcast weather the craterlake was beautiful with its two islands in the middle. The area is within the large Reserva Ecológica Cotacachi-Cayapas. Continuing towards Ibarra we stopped in the village of Cotacachi, known for its exquisite leather and fashion goods and we noted the many ceramic murals in town - how does an artist create ceramics in these dimensions and matching the colours perfectly? Our journey ended at the favorite overlanding camping site Finca Sommerwind in Ibarra where a few days rest would be welcome.

This post covers 28th August to 1st September 2016