We had been planning to visit Medellin all along. We were excited to hear the double L pronounced as a jjjj instead of a shhhh. We were excited to feel the energy of a town best known for its gangster violence. Medellin was hot on everyone’s Must Visit list. In the end it turned out that it felt very much like a lot of cities we had visited. Culturally interesting but mostly a maelstrom of money sucking. We are happier in nature. La naturaleza. We are more comfortable in tiny towns on the edge of the wilderness. Happier without the sounds of honking horns wearing at our serenity and the pervasive exhaust fumes blackening our boogers. We had grown accustomed to the rural soundtrack of barking dogs and crowing roosters and were very happy to get back to it.
After absorbing more city life than necessary, we headed south out of Medellin to the tiny town of Jardin. In Jardin we camped in the parking area of a hostel a couple of miles outside of town. We were surrounded by trout farms and water flowed through the grounds giving us a dose of nature’s white noise to sleep by. It was a lovely way to recover from the frenetic energy of the city. One of the main reasons people go to Jardin is to watch birds. At the hostel, they put out bananas and bread to draw the birds in close. They seemed to be accustomed to snacking in close proximity to people. When we were in Central America I spent many hours stalking the motmots trying to get a photo when they were on a tree instead of a power line. Now that we were in Colombia they were posing for pictures five feet from our truck. Motmots weren’t the only birds readily available for viewing in Jardin. There is also a place where you can go and see the Andean cock-of-the-rock. A woman who is lucky enough to live right next to a lek has opened her home to strangers for a couple of hours each morning and afternoon. Of course, it costs a wee chunk of change but it is totally worth it. She had built little viewing platforms right where the male birds like to hang out competing over who has the best plumage. We arrived just before the afternoon opening hours (neither of us are too keen on early morning activities) and got to enjoy the birds with very few companions. Once a family with three squawking children arrived we boogied on out of there. Coincidentally, so did the birds.
Our next stop was at an organic coffee farm. We were expecting to be able to sleep for free if we took a tour of the farm. When we were halfway up the road to the farm we were met by a man in a silver pickup truck. He pulled over to let us pass or so we thought. Then he jumped out of his truck, zipped his pants (?), and rushed to my window. He very excitedly reached in the truck to shake our hands. He grabbed my face and planted a kiss on each cheek before I could properly flinch. With the level of exuberance he was exhibiting, I expected to smell alcohol on his breath. Nope, he came by that ebullience naturally. Turns out we had just met the proprietor of the farm we were headed to. He spoke a mile a minute when he gave us directions to the proper gate to go through to find his farm before he hopped back in his truck and headed further down the road. We picked up enough key words to make it there. We were greeted by his wife and kids… and eight (!) friendly dogs. For reasons we never quite grokked, there was no power while we were there. They invited us to camp in the yard being careful not to let us park under the palm tree that had a habit of shedding huge fronds. We asked about a tour for the next day and they were vague and noncommittal. Our hearts wouldn’t break if we missed out on a coffee tour but we liked the idea of using it to secure free camping.
When we awoke the next morning, I peeked my head out of the tent to see Javier (exuberant owner) step out onto his porch accompanied by most of his dogs. I was halfway down the ladder when he saw me. He raised his arms in the air like he just scored a touchdown and cried, “Coffeeeeeee!!!!” This was my kind of morning person. Before we could properly wipe the sleep crust from our eyes we found ourselves set up on the balcony off of their living room with cups of coffee in our hands, binoculars around our necks, and geriatric cats on our laps. Somewhere between coffees number two and three Javier disappeared. His wife, Ana, just kept on brewing. By our fifth coffee, we had given up on the tour and packed up the truck to head out. We hoped to “pay” for our camping with the purchase of some of their delicious coffee. As we were saying goodbye to Ana, Javier reappeared with a young French couple in tow. Javier thrust a walking stick in each of our hands and thus began our tour. We started in a little pavilion they had set up on their property where Javier explained the process of coffee production. We got to taste ripe coffee berries. At his farm they produce honey coffee too. This is coffee that skips the washing stage after the fruit is removed from the coffee bean. Apparently, it takes longer to dry and is thus worth the additional cost. Next came the nature walk part of the tour. The first stop was to admire Javier’s marijuana bush in all of its blooming glory. He explained to us that Marijuana is legal in Colombia as long as you don’t sell it. Also, you have to be Colombian. Next, we snaked our way through his heliconia nursery. He didn’t deal directly in the flowers but sold the stock to landscapers and the like. We saw more heliconia than we could shake our hiking sticks at before we descended into a bamboo forest that lined a river. We hiked for a couple of hours before popping back out of the forest near his cow barn. By this time the day was getting away from us so we opted to skip having lunch with Javier. We bought some expensive honey coffee and headed out with (hopefully) enough time to get to our next camp spot before dark.
We made it with at least twenty minutes to spare. We camped next to a swimming pool at an event space where they were just cleaning up from a wedding over the weekend. We were treated to a beautiful view of city lights from the town of Imbague down below. It was a nice pit stop for a peaceful night on our way to our next destination, the Tatacoa Desert. All we needed to do to get there was cross the middle range of the Andes. No biggie. Near the top of a pass we caught the attention of the police and got waved into one of the checkpoints. Usually we are just motioned to pass on by but not this time. The police du jour looked to be still in their teenage years. They were very thorough. They went through all of the compartments in the cab of the truck, probed into our road shower, smelled the air in our tires, and pulled all of the miscellaneous bits out from under our seats. I did get a little nervous when they got to the bear spray. I explained that it was for defense against bears (osos furiosos). They asked me if I ever used it on Scott. At that point they ascertained that we were not a threat to national security (only ourselves) and let us go on our way. From there it was all downhill. Literally. The desert was at the lowest elevation we had been for weeks.
Unbeknownst to us, we took the back roads into the desert. We drove for hours on tiny dusty tracks through open range cattle country passing through tunnels and dry creek beds. We were shocked when we came to a paved road and informational signs for tourists. We were having flashbacks of driving through the empty deserts in Baja and wanted to find a desolate spot to wild camp. We found one little track that was supposed to lead to a great 4×4 “road” through the desert. We were in disagreement if it was a road we were following or a livestock trail. It had probably been years since anyone had driven it on four wheels. So that is how we found ourselves in relative solitude in the Tatacoa Desert. We ended up staying out there for two nights enjoying the warmth and quietude.
Because the air is so dry there it is famous for stargazing. We took advantage and played with some star photography. It is always a challenge because I don’t try to figure out the night settings on my camera until after dark. Anyhow, we had some fun with long exposures. On the second afternoon, I was making some tortillas (thanks to Baja flashbacks) when we saw a man riding a horse in the distance. It seemed like it took a very long time for him to get to us. We smiled and waved and “hola”ed but he remained stoic until he was right upon us. When he reached our truck, he climbed down off of his horse. He was not five feet tall. He was not 100 lbs. He could not talk. He could only whisper and even that sounded like it was a struggle. Through hand motions and hoarse whispers, he let us know that we were camped on his land and he was not okay with it. We apologized and told him that we would pack up and go right away. He pointed to his closed eyes and nodded. It was his way of telling us we could sleep here tonight but we needed to giddy up and go come morning. So that is what we did. It took us a couple of tries because I thought the “road” that led us there went through to another actual road. No, it just led us to the home of the stoic cowboy.
We did eventually find our way out of the desert and up into a beautiful lush town called Gigante. We drove up into the hills to a new glamp ground that was being built. They had teepees you could camp in overlooking the valley below. They were still working on finishing the restaurant and bar and bathrooms and cabins and pretty much everything except for the sweet lookout spot. It was a platform made of vines in the shape of an enormous hand. It was quite fun to stand in the palm a giant hand. They also had a nice nature trail through the banana and coffee fields that lead up to a massive dreamcatcher and beyond to a mirador at the top of the hill. It was pretty fun and I’m sure it will become a popular stopping point once they complete construction of everything.
From Gigante, we had a series of uneventful days crossing Southern Colombia to get to a region called los llanos. We were heading deep into the middle of nowhere. The town was called La Macarena and it is the jumping off point to visit Caño Cristales. Most people make this trip in a tiny airplane from Bogota. Only us crazy people drive. Not too long ago it was considered too unsafe to travel the roads to La Macarena. The region was controlled by guerillas and unless you were trafficking illicit goods you just didn’t go. Now it is safer. The only reason you wouldn’t drive is that google thinks it takes 8.5 hours to go 100 miles. We made it in around five hours. It would have been faster but we were stopped by military checkpoints every 20 miles or so and they were very bored and really wanted to chat. Only one of the checkpoints seemed to have any function. They took our passports and recorded our information in a log book. It was a pretty and bumpy, dusty drive. We could see remnants of the native vegetation tucked between pastures. Large trees stuck out like oases in the savannah. For the most part, this land had been completely cleared for livestock. The only life we saw out there was soldiers and cattle. Eventually we made it to the end of the road at the tiny town of La Macarena. A nice family let us camp in their backyard outside of town. We were about to set up our tent when I noticed half a dozen kids grouped together staring at us. We get stared at a lot but their stare was more intense. Then I saw the soccer ball and realized that the family had given us permission to camp in the soccer field. We opted to tuck ourselves a bit further out of the way and leave the field open for the kiddos.
The town of La Macarena was rough. The ubiquitous town square was a combination of modern lighting and decorations but the structure was crumbling. It was clear that they did not have a crew of people in charge of sweeping things up. It was the most unkept town we had seen in Colombia. It was really willy-nilly whether the roads were paved or not. It felt like a town that has its struggles. We walked around for quite a while not seeing any tour agencies to help us get to Caño Cristales. It seemed weird but then again 99% of the tourists come in on packaged tours from Bogota. There wasn’t much of a tourist industry because most of the tourist dollars were spoken for before they even arrived. People came in with everything down to their meals prearranged. Eventually we asked in a hotel and they called someone to help us join one of the tours. Boy-howdy they were expensive. I have suppressed the memory of how much we spent on visiting Caño Cristales for the day. It was very expensive. The more affordable day trips to other attractions were $90 per person. We didn’t do those. The draw of the Caño Cristales are these tiny aquatic plants called Macarenia clavígera that only grow in the river a certain time of year. They are a beautiful red color and when you take into account the reflections of the sky and the color of the stream bed you can see a rainbow of color in the river. It took a couple of days to get on a tour that had space for us so we just explored the town and chilled out around camp. At one point I was preparing a soup in our pressure cooker and had gained quite an audience of neighborhood kids. They were mystified how I could make a soup without meat in it. Just vegetables? They were even more enthralled with our silverware tote. Chopsticks were the favorite. They all took turns trying to pick things up with them and did not believe for a moment the people in China don’t use forks! We used some of our spare time to watch the obligatory film explaining how we needed to behave to protect the river. We were not allowed to wear sunscreen, lotion, bug spray, or anything of that nature and we were to wear sensible shoes. Thirty minutes of warning later they gave us a wrist band to show that we had been educated. The only bummer about the place we were camped was that our truck was parked right next to a tree that was favored by the chickens. Every morning around 3am the rooster would start crowing directly outside our tent window. When evening would fall and the chickens would go to roost in the tree it took all of my self-control not to shake them out of the tree in revenge for the early morning wake ups.
Tour day started with a boat trip up the river to meet with a pickup truck that drove us deeper inland. When the truck dropped us off at the first of many snack bars we had all of our bags searched for contraband sunscreen and we were ready to go. Our tour group started the hike off with some light calisthenics and a hand-holding group prayer. We followed our guide through the scrub brush for about an hour. She spent most of the time talking on her cellphone. Eventually, we got to the river and we got to see what we had come for. It was really stunning. The colors changed with the intensity of the sunlight shining on the river. We got to wander and take pictures for a bit but then we had to keep moving. Our guide wasn’t much for dilly-dally. We walked along some really beautiful stretches of the river with great views of the colors in the water. Finally, all of that sunscreen abstinence paid off and we were able to swim. The water temperature was perfect. It was crystal clear. I could have floated there indefinitely. Scott and I got hungry and busted into our bagged lunch they provided. It was veggie fried rice and fried plantains wrapped up in a banana leaf. It was really delicious. We had jumped the gun on the lunch thing so we ate ours without the benefit of the cutlery that the guide was toting. After the swimming hole we headed over to another snack bar. There we could buy warm beer and coffee. We spent way too long there. Then we hiked through a cow pasture to another swimming hole. It was also lovely. On the way back, we spent too long at the same snack bar again before cutting through the brush to the first snack bar of the day to catch a ride on a truck to the boat back to town. Overall the river was worth it. I definitely could have done with less gratuitous stops at the refreshment stands and had more time swimming and looking at the pretty colors in the water.
After we got to visit Caño Cristales we decided to head out of town before anyone could talk us into another expensive tour. So, we retraced our path through los llanos, said hello to our friends at the military checkpoints, revisited the cheap stopover hotels where camping was unavailable and were finally back on our path south. A little lighter in the pocketbook but not regretting any of it.
The next stop on our southward journey was a town called San Agustin. The draw here is an archaeological park with charismatic petroglyphs. The entrance fee to the park was too much for us. The guys at the hotel where we were camping told us about a place where we could see a petroglyph for free. Now that was more up our alley. That place was called La Chaquira and consisted of a long trail down to a viewpoint overlooking some waterfalls and one petroglyph. The price was right. Our hosts at the hotel expressed some concern about heading south from there. They told us that we were going to be headed down a road called the Devil’s Trampoline or the Trampoline of Death. Hmmmm. We were oblivious. Our Spanish is still not that great and to make the point our host pantomimed our truck flipping repeatedly for a long time before smashing to bits on the ground. We decided to do some research before just driving on down. Our research revealed one more name for the road. Adios Mi Vida (Goodbye my Life) Also, that the road has over 100 hairpin turns in about 45 miles and is likely to be impassible after heavy rains due to landslides. Cool. That sounded doable to us.
But first we needed to go visit the Fin Del Mundo. A waterfall called the End of the World. It is located in a town called Mocoa. We stayed at a hostel there that allowed overlanders to camp for free. In return we just needed to buy breakfast from them. The hostel was right next door to the trailhead to the Fin Del Mundo. Strangely enough we had to sit down to watch a video about safety at the waterfall before we were allowed to hike. They don’t allow people in the park after noon. We arrived at 11:55 am. They showed us their watch and told us we were very lucky. We had an escort through the first ¼ mile of the trail as it went through indigenous land and they didn’t want us wandering off trail. When we had been escorted far enough the guide pointed for us to keep heading down the trail and then he radioed ahead to warn other staff to expect us. It was like this the whole way. Walkie-talkie security making sure we behaved and kept walking the proper direction. When we got to the waterfall we were at the very top. Once there, they put us in full body harnesses and tethered us to the ground. Then we had to/ got to lay down on our bellies and peer over the top of the fall. It was pretty cool. Giant bright blue butterflies flitted about and it was a slow day at the end of the world so there was no rush to get out of the way for somebody else. On our way back out we stopped to break the rules and feed the fish. They really like bananas. The trail was beautiful and slippery. I fell on my butt once on the way in and twice on the way out. I’m getting better at not breaking my fall with my spindly wrist.
Back at the hostel we had to decide whether or not we were going to drive the Trampolín the next day when we leave to keep heading south. Weighing on our minds was that our brakes had been making that noise that tells us it is time to replace the pads for a few weeks. So, we had to decide if it was better to drive it with failing brakes or brakes that a stranger just fiddled with. That was counting on us being able to find a willing stranger to fiddle with our brakes. On a Sunday. We decided to sleep on it. During the night the rains came and didn’t let up. They were torrential. It wasn’t until after our breakfast that it lightened up enough to put away the tent. We were mid pack-up when the hostel owner came over to get us. It was monkey feeding time! There was a whole troop of squirrel monkeys congregating in the hopes of scoring some delicious plantains. The proprietors had chopped the plantains into small pieces and we got to hand feed the monkeys. I’m usually not one for futsing with the wildlife but we were offering healthy appropriate snacks and they were really cute and I had no problem feeding bananas to the fish the day prior so it must be okay to feed the monkeys. Apparently, I will lower my moral standards when the wildlife in question are cute and like bananas (yes, the fish were cute too).
Once we were done feeding the wildlife we finished packing up and headed into town to see if we could find someone who does brakes on a Sunday. We were very lucky. We found a shop that advertised brakes that looked open. Turns out they only sold parts but they sent us two doors down to a mechanic shop. They motioned us in, jacked up The Joan, and got to work. Our new brake pads are blue! Parts, labor, smiles, and everything ended up being $23 USD. So cheap! Now that we had our brand new bright blue brake pads we were ready to tackle the Trampolín del Muerte!
We might be a little jaded when it comes to driving crazy roads. It was bad, but not overtly so. The road was very narrow. For the majority it was only one lane. The corners were blind. The drop-offs were extreme. The landslides were numerous. The giant oncoming dump trucks were intimidating. The thing was that it was a great experience! We were all on the same team. Team Get to the Other Side Alive. When it was safe to get around one of the big trucks they would wave us through. When anyone saw oncoming traffic in the distance they would start looking out for the pull-outs to wait for them to pass. Right of way went to uphill traffic. It had to be that way. The opportunities for vehicles to cross paths were short-lived. If traffic stacked up it would be impossible for lines of cars to pass each other. The wide spots were few and far between. Traffic had to flow or it wouldn’t work. So, we were all on the same team, helping each other get to the other side alive. It was great. I miss the comradery. Most of the roads in Latin America are a rogue affair where everyone looks out for themselves.
Once we made it to the other side of the Trampolín, we had a series of nights in grim hotels in grimy towns while we readied ourselves to leave Colombia. I could elaborate on the crappy Chinese food or the jerk who promised us morning coffee in the hotel lobby three times without ever following through, but why? Soon we will be in Ecuador and I promise it will get interesting.