As The Rush Comes
The Llama Show hit the road again!
Sure, my stay in Ecuador had no shortage of rides and adventures but it’s just not the same: The enthusiasm the morning prior to hitting the road, the rush when riding new routes heading toward the “unknown”, the discoveries and surprises along the way (for the good and the not so good) before reaching a new destination awaiting to be explored, savoring new food and fruits, meeting new people and sharing a few moments of our lives, … before laying your head down remembering the day and dreaming about tomorrow.
Travelling by motorcycle can loosely be planified, the roads always hold a few surprises: Flexibility, patience and a smile are de rigueur; just enjoy the ride and go with the flow. I left Quito on Thursday 9 of Dec in the morning (Kilometer 34,018; Quito, 9-Dec-10 @ 9:15) and I was supposed to meet Raul for breakfast but, leaving out the details, it turned out I could only see him for a few minutes in downtown Quito and thus exiting the city by 11:30. On the way to the border, I caught up with a couple of Ecuadorian Highway police on motorcycles and we stopped for a chat. Upon reaching Ibarra, I crossed 2 riders on BMW GS650 and we stopped at a gas station for a ½ hour chat (Kilometer 34,163; Ibara, 9-Dec-10 @ 13:00): they are a Canadian couple, Carol and Ralph, on their way south to Tierra del Fuego. A further hour riding and the rain was to the rendez-vous, accompanying me up to the border. There, I tackled a 45 minutes traffic jam since this is the unique “official” border connecting Ecuador to Colombia. Upon reaching the Ecuadorian customs and immigration offices my delays just kept on accumulating: my name did not show on their electronic database. See, when I crossed into Ecuador from Peru back in October, I used the remote border crossing of La Balsa. The custom agents there are not connected to the immigration’s computer network; I don’t know if I told you before but at La Balsa I was the unique vehicle which crossed during October! During all of 2010, there were a total of less than 25 vehicles crossing this way. AnywayZ, the immigration/custom’s info is written in a log book which is sent to Quito for it to be entered into the database. Surprise, surprise, 6 weeks later and it was still not done. It took 3 hours before Quito gave the permission for me to exit the country. There’s nothing I could do and I’ve grown used to these wait so I just chilled and shared a few laughs with the border agents. At one point they even invited me to head back to Tulcan, the Ecuadorian border village, to spend the night there and go out for a drink with the boys. I just told them the Colombian girls were awaiting me on the other side and I don’t want to disappoint ;).
By 18:30 I was finally on Colombian soil and since travelling at night in southern Colombia is a no-no (to the west up to the Pacific and to the East into Colombia jungle, it’s mostly guerillas & narco traffickers controlled lands) I just decided to stop in Ipiales, the Colombian border town; Kilometer 34,305; Ipiales, 9-Dec-10 @ 18:35.
The next morning I decided to leave the surrounding sites to visit on my way back and took the thrilling road to Popayan, a continuation of the cloud forest that covers most of Ecuador’s Andes: roads zigzagging up and down the cordillera Occidental, lounging the mountain sides, dropping into valleys before climbing up to its summit and revealing an incredible panorama of lush and vibrant green forests. The icing on the cake was the thousands of white butterflies which are present in this region and on the roads. It was sort of a fairytale ride; it felt like I was flying with them. Check the vid!
Kilometer 34,649; Popayan, 10-Dec-10 @ 17:10: I stayed in a fun hostel in Popayan, hooked up with other fellow travelers for dinner and my first night out in Colombia. Got to tell you, Colombian are the nicest people you can ever meet. They are quick to come and chat with you or invite you for a dance, offering you a few shots (of Aguardiante… wacala) and most of all, telling you that Colombia is not about drugs and violence, rather fun and beauty, like they are :).
From Popayan, I wanted to visit the archaeological ruins that lie in the surrounding village of San Augustin and Tierradentro but I was debating how. The extensive rain that La Niña dumped and is still dumping on Colombia caused significant landslides and washed away roads on the already extremely bad off-roads around here. And in the surrounding areas, the guerilla has been known to pop its head out once in a while to remind people of their “cause and struggles”. So riding solo these roads might not be the best of options. To top it off, everyone has a different opinion and advice about what I should do: The hotels owners mentioned it’s pretty safe and many tourists and a few riders went there without encountering any issues (other than the horrendous roads). Asking the locals in the city, opinion defer from “don’t even think about to” to “just go but be careful”. Military and police tells you they are in charge but if any person in military camouflage wants to stop you, just do so, do not run. Worst case, if I fall in the wrong hands I will be treated to a 2 hour lecture and probably “lose” my cash but nothing more.
So I just went for it… 🙂 don’t ask, I’ll probably won’t be able to make my case. Suffice to say: the thrill of the ride, the adventure, the difficulty of the terrain, the adrenaline rush during the trip and bathing in the sweet scent of accomplishment by the end of the day drives me. These sensations empower me, surmount any hesitations and push me forward.
The first 30Km where bad asphalt but as soon as it finished I was immediately faced with rough, muddy and potholes infested gravel road… not even some sort of preliminary “bad gravel road” to adapt to the condition! Nop, just bam, welcome to the jungle. To top it off it was still raining heavily and visibility was limited. At least no guerilla would be sticking around in these conditions ;). On the other hand, the military where everywhere: In the bushes, on top of hills, in barracks, road check, in every village, in helicopter,…. I don’t know if I should feel more secure by their presence or to the contrary, they are here because the situation is “that bad”. Actually, everyone here wears military fatigue: army, police, tourist police, guerilla, paramilitary,… so technically I had no idea who they really were (although, yes, there are differences in each vestments but I had no idea how to distinguish it). AnywayZ, I always gave a peace sign when I crossed any of them and the few times I stopped to chat, they were all extremely nice, mentioning the situation is perfectly safe… and were so curious about the bike. What really made me feel at ease where actually the many trucks and buses that ploughs these roads. Work is also underway to asphalt all the roads in the region to facilitate movement of both the people and army, thus driving out the last pockets of guerilla, sort of what Fujimori did back in the 90’s to squash the “Sendero Luminoso” (“Shining Path”) movement. Although here we’re still talking about a very well financed militia(s), > 1billion U$D/year industry. That can pack a lot of punching power… and “influence” a few government officials.
Back to my road, the breathtaking moments, other than sliding in the mud, was the surrounding scenery and nothing better can put a smile on the trip… other than the sun wish came late afternoon to accompany me during my last few kms toward San Ignacio. Raul, I think you’ll be the only other person who would be as eager as me to ride these roads.
Kilometer 34,794; San Augustin, 11-Dec-10 @ 15:30: San Ignacio is famous for its pre-Colombian statues scattered in the hillside the ancient civilization left behind. Not much is known about them but their burial sites and their many sculptures withstood the test of time. I took a horse ride to check the nearby statues before heading to the main archeological complex which contain several burial chambers, mainly for their leaders and a multitude of statues. These tribes used to perform many sacrifices, including children, during the burial ceremony and it’s evident with the many statues around the tombs. The other highlight of my tour is meeting so many Colombian along the way, so friendly and eager to chat and I even hooked up with them again at night for some drinks and dance. Next morning I was back on asphalt road heading north toward the Desert of Tatacoa, riding in the valley between the Cordillera Occidental and Central. Kilometer 35,089; Villavieja, 13-Dec-10 @ 13:30: I checked in into a local bungalow (and look at the pic below to see where Llama stayed) before heading to the desert. Just to clarify, Desierto de Tatacoa is really not a desert: It’s green… and it rains here. It’s actually more a dry tropical forest than anything else. It is different than anything I saw before and since I headed there for the sunset, the visual effect was even more grandiose, really stunning play of colors. I kept venturing out with Llama on the dirt road until reaching its end, a platform called “Ventanillas” (i.e. windows) with stunning views. I rode back after sunset toward the local observatory at the edge of the desert. There, I met Javier the local astronomer who explained to us about the stars, constellations and the universe while we gazed at the stars via a couple of telescopes. Then by 22:00 we set outside to watch the Geminids meteor shower (http://www.meteorblog.com/2010/12/geminids-meteor-shower-peaks-in-december/). It was fun and we were joined by a few Colombian visitors from Bogotá and we started counting the shooting stars: a total of 113 of them in 1 hour.
My next destination was Tierradentro (Kilometer 35,298; Tierradentro, 14-Oct-10 @ 13:05), another unique archeological site in Colombia (and South America) where ancient cultures practiced complex burying tradition: The deceased were first buried in small holes (in an “L” shape, the entrance being the top of the “L” and the bodies lay down in the bottom right part of the “L”) scattered around the hillsides. A couple of years later the bodies where exhumed from this primary tomb then buried in hypogea (i.e. collective tombs). For this secondary burial the skeletons were placed in ceramic jars and sort of cremated (remains of ashes and calcined bones can still be seen in the jars). A typical hypogeum was dug in the volcanic rocks, has a spiral staircase heading down to the main funerary chamber, usually 5 to 8 meters below the surface. The walls of the tombs were painted with geometric pattern and anthropomorphic figures usually with red and black paints on white background. The big chambers have columns holding their roof and depending on their size, they could contain 40 or more jars each. Unfortunately as in most South America tombs, the huaceros (or tomb raiders) were always first to find these tombs which they dugout (and thus destroyed them in the process) in search of artifacts, gold and ceramics to sell in the black market. Even painting or sculptures on walls were ripped out.
The final leg of my tour, the road from Tierradentro back to Popayan was the most difficult, both from the road conditions point of view and the dodgy situation. The roads here lounge steep mountain sides composed of red earth which in this rainy season are ideal conditions for landslides. And I had many of these. Worst, I left early afternoon and the sunny skies were soon shrouded by dark clouds and it started to rain heavily and didn’t stop for my whole trip. I was drenched in seconds, not even having time to stop and put on my rain pants. The roads immediately were flooded, huge ruts dissected them and they turned into mud pits. A couple of small landslide I had to cross didn’t make it easier either. In 10 minutes, I was literally sitting in a pool of water which formed in my pants and my shoes were flooded. It reminded me of the Carretera Austral…. at least, it’s not that cold here. Funny, during my whole trip last year I only had 5 or 6 rainy days, where is now, I am not even getting 1 dry day. To make it worse, few vehicles were on the road; I only passed the odd truck along the way. Army was also non-present… or non-visible. Probably everyone, the good, the bad and the ugly, were hiding from the rain… at least that was my wishful thinking.
Kilometer 35,415; Popayan, 15-Dec-10 @ 17:50: I only arrived to Popayan by sunset, averaging less than 20Km/h during this trip. I was soaked and I knew I will be spending the next few days to wash and dry all my gear. But in absolute all honesty, I was so happy to have done this tour with Llama and visited these villages & sites and I will venture out again if another occasion present itself. It’s all part of The Llama Show :).
or click on “page 2” below to see the photo album.