After having a wonderful time exploring Colombia as a trio with our friend Cadence, we were back to a duo and really excited to camp again. Well, I was excited to camp again. I think Scott was enjoying the luxury of the soft beds that didn’t involve a ladder for midnight potty breaks. After some less than exciting time at the auto shop getting The Joan all of the fresh fluids she could possibly want we headed north (I know we are supposed to be going south).
Our first stop was a town called Villa de Leyva. After striking out on our first choice of camp spots we ended up at a hostel up on a hill just outside of town. The parking was a little awkward as we were right in front of the dining room window. That pretty much took tailgate nose picking off the table. Villa de Leyva is a picturesque white stucco town in the hills just a couple hours north of Bogotá. There are a couple of reasons to visit aside from the overall cuteness of the town. There are dinosaur bones, fossils, giant penis sculptures, and the attraction we chose to visit; a house made entirely of terracotta. With Scott’s experience in pottery we couldn’t not visit. It was about a mile walk from the hostel and did not disappoint. Currently there was nobody living in it but we could tell that it was designed to be lived in. The cabinets and shelving were all placed where they would be needed for practical things from bathroom reading to storing brooms. It had an external staircase leading to the roof that was shaped like a dragon’s tail. We joined about twenty other looky-loos as we wandered around the house and the grounds. From there we headed back up to the hostel to make some dinner and prepare ourselves to move on. Still heading north.
Our next stop was Barichara, another cute white stucco colonial town. Our campsite there was one of the best of our whole trip.
During that time, we enjoyed the company of a couple from Kenya who bought a rig sight-unseen to tour South America and a chance to meet the family of a guy from Brazil who we met while shipping the truck from Panama. We had a little community there for a bit. We all walked the trail that connects the towns of Barichara to Guane together. It is called the Camino Real and is actually quite long connecting many towns but this little stretch was perfect for us. It was originally built by the Guane indigenous people, then used by the Spaniards when they showed up, and finally restored by some German guy in the late 1800s. It was a pleasant albeit hot experience. Instead of walking back to camp, which would be uphill, Scott and I caught a tuk-tuk back from Guane. The trail to Barichara was the polar opposite of the Camino Real. This one was narrow and steep uphill. The views were fantastic! We wandered around town and picked up enough groceries to justify taking a tuk-tuk back to camp. Eventually, we were able to peel ourselves away and continue our explorations. Still heading north…
Our destination was Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy up in the easternmost range of the Colombian Andes. It took us a couple of days to get there and we lucked into some of the most scenic miradors at the apexes of hairpin turns for our overnight sleeps. The first was not so restive as it was at the top of a hill and every single truck that passed stopped there to fiddle with their tires. It was our first night “wild camping” in Colombia so I was waking up and peeking out the window every time I heard a noise.
The second night was much better. We had to open a stretch of someone’s fence to access it. We stopped in at the nearest house and asked if we could sleep there. “Claro.” They also assured me that the fence was not electrified. We only got two visits there. One from a very old man who was fascinated by our tent. We told him that it was our house and had everything we needed. He asked us if we had a TV inside. One more visit was by a couple of guys who like to take their lunch break there. They were retrieving forgotten Tupperware from under the water tank we were parked beside. They were also tickled by our tent. They took pictures of our house and us and then gave us a couple of pastries.
The next day when we arrived at the town of Cocuy, where all arrangements to hike in the park had to be made, it began to rain. It was kind of a financial blessing. To hike in the park, it is required to pay for the entrance, a guide, and accident insurance for yourself and the guide. It worked out to be an $85 day hike. We figured that if the views were not going to be available because of the rain the decision was easy. Instead we decided to just drive the scenic roads around the park and save ourselves the expense for something we could actually see. We spent one more night wild camping in a tiny pull-out on the side of the road at around 11,500 feet elevation. It was misty and very cold. Most of the passing traffic was on horseback and they all looked pretty baffled to see us there.
From El Cocuy we finally started to head in a southern direction. We stayed the night in a wide-open expanse of paramo (as you recall from my last blog, paramo is the ecosystem that occurs above the tree line and below the permanent snow line). We were surrounded by my current favorite flower the frailejone. There were a bunch of men filling a dump truck with sand from the streambank when we arrived. We asked if it was okay to camp and they indicated that it was as long as we don’t park where they need to drive. We set up camp and set off to hike among the frailejones. We crossed braided streams on questionable bridges and headed for the hills as the lowlands were really a swampy network of narrow rivulets.
We were hiking along a narrow trail perhaps made by roaming cattle when we saw in the distance a bunch of people surrounding our truck. It is not uncommon for people to look intently at our truck but it was unnerving because we were a quagmire away and someone was climbing the ladder to our tent. Scott hollered at them and they hollered back but we were so far apart that the words were lost to the wind. We decided to call off the hike there and hightail it back to our home. It had taken us about an hour to get where we were and thought that if we just crossed a narrower part of the swampy area we could access the road and make quicker time back to the truck. That was a poor decision on our part. We had to navigate the swamp by jumping from bunchgrass to bunchgrass while trying to stay upright and make good time. We soon realized our folly but were already knee-deep in high altitude swamp so we persisted. We were not making good time and feeling very worried about the state of our truck that was no longer in our line of sight. Periodically we would misjudge the terrain and end up stuck in a vegetative crevasse. I fell victim to one of those crevasses at an inopportune place. As I plunged toward the earth I felt a hard, sharp spine of vegetation enter my left nostril and stab the back of my sinus. Reflexes were strong and I immediately felt the spine exiting the way it had entered as I recovered from the fall. It took about five heartbeats for the blood to start pouring down my face. I rummaged through the pockets of the three layers of jackets I was wearing in the hopes of finding something to shove up my nose. Jackpot! I found an emergency cache of toilet paper in the pocket of jacket number two. Staunching the flow of blood from my face was a nice diversion from the task at hand. Once we reached the end of the swamp it took a shallow water wade and a quick jog on the road to get back to the truck. She was shy three out of four valve stem caps and the ladder was out of place but other than that she was unmolested. Our stress levels began to drop as we changed into dry clothes and the puncture up my nose coagulated. With deep breaths, we settled in to make dinner.
From there we dropped significantly in elevation down to a little town called Guadalupe. We arrived at a little city park on a river where we could camp for free. Unfortunately, it was Saturday night. I had read that this park gets really busy on the weekends and is best to be avoided if you don’t like crowds. I don’t but I also don’t have the power to change the date so we decided to just see what it is like. We asked the guy at the little store by the park what time people started to show up on Sunday. He told us that it would likely be around 9 or 10 in the morning when people start showing up. That didn’t seem too bad. Folks were still partying pretty hard at his store until about 8 at night and we were relieved when they all headed home. Making conversation with drunk people is not my favorite thing. I hadn’t counted on the second wave of revelers arriving in the night. Young people high on life and drunk on Aguardiente (licorice flavored, high octane firewater) started streaming in sometime after midnight. I’m not proud of how relieved I was when the skies opened up and rained their party out. The sound of firewood being chopped was our alarm clock at first light. Once the fire was going men started showing up on motos with cooking supplies and beer. Around 9 in the morning women started arriving with the food and party supplies. Apparently, we were parked in the center of ground zero for the world’s most punctual quinceañera (girl’s fifteenth birthday party). We ate some breakfast and skedaddled as soon as possible. We headed across town to a swimming hole (or holes) called Las Gachas. This was a place where water had eroded numerous round potholes in the bedrock of a river. Again, we had been warned that the weekend can get crazy but there was only one other car at the parking area so we had a good feeling about it. We walked about a half an hour to the swimming hole. As we got closer we could hear laughter. A lot of laughter. It was like a scene in a movie with people streaming in to one place from every direction. It was mayhem! Hundreds of people were there swimming in the holes, taking photos, picnicking, drinking beers, and basically having a fantastic Sunday Funday. There was even a guy selling ice cream. I was walking very carefully as the rocks were super slippery and we were the only people who did not get the memo that we were supposed to wear socks to keep from slipping. This is where I learned that socks are no longer called calcetínes in Spanish but medias. I thought a guy was trying to get me to walk in the middle but really, he was telling me I should have brought socks. Spanish is confusing. We embraced the chaos for about an hour before we hit the road to head further south.
We made it as far as Barbosa. Nothing to see there but it was a nice affordable hotel to shelter us for the night. Or rather, to shelter us for the next three nights because Scott wanted to dig in and work on the latest YouTube video and I felt compelled to binge-watch an entire season of a cooking show on the Netflix. I’m obsessed with cooking shows. I really miss having a kitchen at my disposal. Before arriving in Barbosa one of our water jugs had been jostled out of its secure place in the back of the truck and leaked, soaking everything. Our bag of dirty laundry absorbed most of it. It should be noted that we wear our clothes for a long time before they are relegated to the dirty clothes bag. So now we had a waterlogged bag of clothes that were stinky to begin with. Unfortunately, we were unable to find a laundry service while we were there so the laundry got to fester for three days and the stench became immense. Anyhow, we left Barbarosa feeling refreshed and headed toward the town of Guatapé and hopefully, laundry service. We decided to take the scenic route on some bumpy, windy, dirt roads.
It took longer than we had anticipated and we were low on snacks. Hungry, we arrived at the hostel where we had planned on camping and were delighted to learn that they indeed had laundry service. The plan was to get the laundry off our hands and then head into town to find some dinner. I opened the back of the truck to “Release the Kraken” that was our laundry to find that the bumps on the road that day had jostled loose a large bottle of Dr. Bronner’s castile soap in eucalyptus scent. It had opened and half of the contents were now coating the back of the truck. The wood platform had soaked much of the moisture out of the liquid soap so it was a thick glaze. About half of our toxic laundry was now impregnated with eucalyptus soap. It smelled better but we didn’t want to wreck their laundry machines with inappropriate amounts of soap so we set to rinsing the soap out of our clothes at a spigot we found in the parking lot. Eventually, we sheepishly handed over the very heavy bag of wet, stinky clothes all the while apologizing profusely. As for the truck, we just closed it back up to deal with another day. Hungry had morphed into hangry and neither of us had it in us to contend with that cleanup. Plus, it smelled nice.
The next morning, it took me about four very sudsy hours to clean the soap out of the truck. With comedy podcasts streaming through my earbuds, I lathered and lathered and lathered our truck. The eucalyptus scent reminded me of a spa so I felt very Zen. After the truck was relatively soap-free I treated myself to the rest of the afternoon “off” to sit in a hammock, poolside and read a book.
The next day, we walked to an attraction called Piedra Del Peñol. This is a large stone monolith that towers over the nearby lake. It has a zigzagging staircase built on one side. We couldn’t resist hiking up all 740 steps to the mirador on the top. Scott is part mountain goat and basically ran up. I chose to take my time and enjoy the view. Mostly because that is a lot of steps and I just couldn’t keep up. The rock has a false summit. You get to what you think is the top and music is playing, beer and sliced fruit is being sold and you think you have arrived. Nope. There is a narrow spiral staircase to the apex. It was a pretty view from the tippy top. In order to go back down you literally have to exit through a gift shop that spits you back out at the aforementioned refreshment stands. We counted that excursion as our exercise for the day and thus felt justified taking a tuk tuk into town to treat ourselves to some delicious Thai food. If you ever find yourself in Guatapé, Colombia treat yourself to the Thai food. It was beyond good.
From Guatapé, we only had about an hour’s worth of driving to get to the city of Medellin. Our plan there was to take care of some life maintenance in the form of getting our teeth cleaned and getting an issue with our truck worked on. To this end, I booked us four nights in a hotel in Medellin thinking that would give us enough time to take care of business and see some sights (read- eat at restaurants). Unfortunately, none of the dentists I contacted could fit us in and none of the mechanics we talked to wanted to touch our truck problem (knock sensor #2 malfunctioning). So, we filled our days eating at vegan restaurants and checking out the sights. One day we drove into the city center to check out a couple of plazas that are full of huge chubby bronze sculptures by and artist named Fernando Botero. From there we planned to head over to the modern art museum and then eat fancy vegan food again. Oh, the best-laid plans. We drove around for an hour and a half chasing our tails trying to find parking. All of the parking on google either did not exist or was really only for motos. Eventually, we found parking under a hospital just in time for the museum to close. Dinner was good but we definitely learned a lesson.
The next day we eschewed the truck in favor of public transportation to go across town to visit Comuna 13. The Metro was cheap, clean, comfortable, and fun. Comuna 13 is a neighborhood that used to be the most dangerous in the world. In the depth of its horrible past in the 1980s this small neighborhood had a murder rate of 360 homicides per year. Now that rate is down around 90. Which is still not great. The problem is the location. Comuna 13 is stuck between a highway funneling drugs, guns, and money from the countryside into the city of Medellin. It is experiencing a boom of tourist activity now. People are led on tours to view the colorful murals and check out the freestyle hip hop artists doing their thing. When we got to Comuna 13, I let google guide us walking to the main draw which is a section of the neighborhood renowned for high-quality street art. We definitely took the back way into an area that is teeming with tourists. For about an hour we were the only tourists in sight. We climbed narrow stairways that crisscrossed through people’s back yards. We gave a smiling “buenas tardes” to everyone we saw. We got a lot of confused looks in return. All of the research I did about visiting this area said we would be safe as independent tourists as long as we made it back to El Poblado (the sanitized tourist zone) before nightfall. No problem. Eventually, we emerged from the backside of a hill to see walls of color. Herds of people were being led around to look at the street art and hear about the transformation the neighborhood has been through in the last couple of decades. We are too cheap to spring for the tour so we just gleaned bits and pieces from the groups we passed. When we’d had our fill of the bright colors we made our way back to the metro station. This direction, we took the electric escalators that we would have taken up if google had used any sense in directing us to the top of the ‘hood. We were just in time to see rush hour start on the metro. When we left the station there were lines of people waiting to get into the terminal where there was only empty space when we first entered hours earlier.
All of that sightseeing left us very hungry so we found an Indian restaurant that was more delicious than anything we had eaten in months. It took all of our will power not to order a second dinner immediately after finishing the first. We consoled ourselves with a trip to a gelato shop that had a ton of vegan gelato. We both got cones with a single scoop of a flavor called Monster. It was an almond milk base with chocolate, peanut butter, dark cherries,