Loco Colombia

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At long last I reached Colombia but it was with mixed emotions that I crossed my ‘final frontier’ in South America. I felt sad that my time on the continent was coming to a close. I was excited though to experience Colombia for myself after hearing amazing stories from other cyclists. Exceptional hospitality, stunning landscapes and beautiful women tended to be the gist of it. Of course this counters the widely held perception of a dangerous country full of drugs barons and insurgent guerrillas. The last time I heard contradictions this strong (between perception and reality) it was about Iran and I still regale everyone I can with tall tales from that wonderful country.

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After a couple of days scaling mountains and eating more than a dozen fruits I have never seen before, I reached the Sacred Valley of Sibundoy. My friends Cherry and Jo (from the casa de cyclistas in Ecuador) had put me in touch with a local family there. The father, Benjamin, is a priest and a shaman – a really interesting character. The family are proud of and celebrate their indigenous Kamsá roots. Two other cyclists, Robin and Daina, were already staying with the family when I arrived together we made a motley crew.

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Cuy (guinea pig) is a delicacy in the region of Nariño, Colombia. Having missed the opportunity of trying it further south in Peru, I asked if we could cook it. The whole family jumped at the suggestion. What I hadn’t realised is that we would buy live animals and kill them ourselves. So when three cute little guinea pigs turned up the next day I was a little surprised. A fire was started and huge pot of water boiled on it. Harold, one of the sons took the first two animals and broke their necks by pulling the back feet away from the head. He offered the third one to me. My initial reaction was that I didn’t want to kill it but I decided to immerse myself in the experience. Besides, wouldn’t I appreciate the meal more and have more respect for the animal if I engaged in the whole process? It was the first time I had ever killed what I intended to eat (if you really think about that it’s actually very strange). Next the eyes were popped out and the blood drained. Then the hair was plucked and they were cleaned in the boiling water. Finally the innards were removed – I sat and watched Rossario (the family’s mother) do this with surgeon like precision.

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Having been left to marinade overnight the following day we put the three cuy onto a giant spit and BBQ’d them for an hour. The meal was served with corn and rice. I was given a rib, an arm and a little clawed hand. The meat tasted different to any other I have tried and though I would not rush to have it again the experience was unique. Benjamin devoured every last part of the animals, even the heads, claiming they were the best part!

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The Andes run like a spine down the length of the west coast of South America. In Colombia though, the mountains splits into three distinct ranges: the oriental, the central and the occidental. The Valley of Sibundoy sits on a plateau in the central range but the road I was to take north through Colombia runs through the valley between the central and occidental ranges. In order to reach this valley I first had to cycle the Trampoline of Death.

Not quite as scary as it sounds but every bit as dramatic, the Trampoline of Death is a 45 mile, unpaved track carved into the side of a mountain. The ‘road’ is on average just a couple of meters wide with precipitous drops and for the most part no safety barrier – earning it its enigmatic name. Due to the nature of the road, accidents and landslides are not uncommon. It all makes for an exhilarating ride. It took me the whole day to make it over the two passes at 2,800m and 2,200m respectively. When the rain and fog receded I was graced with exceptional views, particularly after the second pass. For as far as I could see there was a sea of green broken only by a few thin strips of gravel road. Intermittently I could see the road several kilometres ahead and many hundreds of meters below where I was cycling. I was treated to a sumptuous sunset but the giant orange orb sank too fast for my liking. Unable to reach the town of Mocoa before nightfall I camped on the porch of one of the few houses I passed. The Colombian woman cooking dinner in her kitchen looked unfazed by my road weary state and overloaded bicycle welcoming me to camp outside her front door.

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It took three days of very sweaty cycling and one long mountain climb for me to reach the small town of Gigante. On arrival I was welcomed in by the Bomberos (firemen) and allowed to camp in their station. I met Diego, a keen local cyclist who took me out for dinner with his wife and invited me to visit his coffee finca (farm) the following day, an offer I happily accepted.

After enjoying a day at Diego’s picturesque finca and cycling through the surrounding mountains, he invited me back again to share an asado (BBQ) with his family and friends. Another kind offer I was only too happy to accept. The next morning, having spent some time at the finca picking coffee and learning about the process used to prepare and roast the beans we tucked into a meaty feast. After eating we made guarapo; a drink that comes from unrefined sugar cane. We put the cane into a grinder to squeeze out the juice which we then sieved and served with fresh lemon. It was delicious.

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I had long been looking forward to camping out in the Tatacoa Desert. An area characterised by striking formations of reddish-orange clay carved out by thousands of years of erosion – reminiscent of the Turkish region of Cappadocia. The desert enjoys a privileged geographic location close to the equator with perfect atmospheric conditions and a complete lack of light pollution which make it one of the best places in South America to see the stars. Despite the area receiving very little precipitation the day I was there it was cloudy and raining, scuppering my chances of seeing any celestial bodies.

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To get back to civilization I had to take a lift in a canoe and then ride some single track before finding the road heading north. After two more, long, hot days in the saddle I reached the city of Ibague where a local called Carlos and his family had agreed to host me. I was welcomed in by Carlos, Beatriz (his mum) and Tiena (his sister) and spent the next few days being spoiled. Carlos and I went out one night to see a musician, later some of his female friends attempted to teach me to dance to salsa. The result was…amusing. After three great days I had to say goodbye to Carlos and his family as I set off to take on La Linea (the line), a steep mountain climb.

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