We made a hasty retreat from Venezuela, a country that in our short time there deteriorated rapidly, Merida, the so called safe part even began to feel tense and with the riots becoming ever more violent and an incident that saw us lose our waterproof jackets at gunpoint we opted to pay for a ride to the border rather than risk anything else.
Our trip to the border wasn’t without incident, corrupt police demanding money and our driver having to take back roads the whole way, apparently the main road isn’t safe even for Venezuelans, hijackings are common. We were dropped off at the border and hit another problem, “bikes aren’t allowed through this border crossing” We knew it was closed to vehicles but had been told that we would be fine with bicycles, apparently you are only allowed to pass on foot. The fact that we were pushing our bikes had escaped this soldier.
We begged and pleaded explaining how we had no money left or time on our visa, we also told him we would carry our bikes as luggage if we had to. Finally with permission from some higher-ranking officer we were allowed to pass, a full baggage x-ray, no easy task for touring cyclist as we have so many bags and we were allowed to leave. Now to just get that exit stamp and we would be safe. Next problem, turns out you don’t get your exit stamp at the border like most places, oh no, in Venezuela you actually get your exit stamp from an office in the centre of town. Back into Venezuela it was! After 15 minutes of cycling around trying to find said office we were then sent away to get a photocopy of the exit form, paper is in short supply here along with food and basic medical supplies. With a photocopy acquired and the designated boxes filled and ticked we finally got the much sought after stamp and once again made for the border. This time we were able to pass through with ease and finally put an end to our Venezuelan chapter of the trip, not before one final problem mind! As we crossed the bridge that separates Colombia and Venezuela a barrier has been set up to prevent any vehicles getting through, this barrier however also hindered friendly cyclists. A quick drop, slide, push, pull, wiggle and kick the bikes were under and we were officially in Colombia. PHEW. We were welcomed with the biggest smiles by the Colombian military and overall friendliness. We let out a huge breath that we hadn’t realised we had been holding. Funny, 20 years ago it was Colombia with all the problems, now we couldn’t be more thankful to be here!
It’s a shame for Venezuela that one man can cause so many problems, at the moment the UK is divided over our decision to leave Europe but after being in Venezuela this really isn’t all that horrific position to be in.
Cucuta was our first stop and with it a supermarket, we were like kids in a candy store, this supermarket was fully stocked, after 2 months of struggling to find bread it was heaven to see full shelves. We spent at least 2 hours trawling the aisles making excited squeals at seeing food for the first time in two months. With the availability of food and our childlike innocence over what the monetary value was of anything we spent way too much and loved every minute of it. Our first evening in Colombia was spent feeling slightly ill after eating way too much of everything!
It was in Cucuta that we hoped to buy new waterproofs, turns out this city doesn’t have everything. Upon further research it turns out we wouldn’t be able to buy a decent waterproof until either Medillin or Bogota, not ideal as these are both a good few weeks riding away!
We left Cucuta excited and raring to go, I felt strangely naked not having a waterproof at hand, coming from the UK I have been brought up to always have a waterproof, even in the middle of summer!
Our first day in Colombia was a brutal awakening into what lay ahead. Hills, or should I say mountains! Mountains that were even more difficult after spending a month off the bikes while we learnt Spanish, my Spanish is still terrible by the way… We rode uphill all day and eventually after failing to find any flat land for a tent a man took pity on us and invited us into his home, we slept in his kit room and later learned that he has a friend currently cycling around Colombia; so take note any of my friends back home, if you see anyone with loads of bags on a bicycle looking knackered offer them some floor space or even a chocolate bar, I guarantee you will make their week!
The next day we left to carry on climbing, here we were met by another friendly Colombian who insisted we stay at his home for the night, we were going too slow to make the next 20km to the summit and it was too cold and wet for us to be stuck out. We accepted the offer and were treated to another example of Colombian hospitality, Jess has never eaten so much; food was being forced upon her as she was told “Eat, you need to be strong for tomorrow, big climb”
We rode out with our new friend who had agreed to ride to the summit with us so that we didn’t get lost. A few hours later and peaking at 3300m we said goodbye to our new friend and rode on into the rain, not having waterproofs really sucks, especially on downhills! The day was up and down until the last 50km which saw us take an amazing downhill into Bucaramanga.
Here we met our first official warm showers host and spent two days letting our out of condition bodies recover from the shock of all the uphill riding we had been doing! We also got advice on what route to take from here. It was here that we learnt that our old friend Jose, one of the two Brazilians we rode with in Patagonia, was also making his way through Colombia; it was agreed we had to try and meet up ride at least a day together if possible.
With a deadline to meet Jose and a route set before us we were off. Unfortunately, in true South American form Jose quickly realised he was going to be late to our agreed meeting point. That gave Jess and I ample times to go get lost on some Colombian backroads. Our first day out of Bogota saw us in the saddle for 12 hours, so much for taking our time! The route we had been given led us to Zapatoca, a mere 73km away. Only problem was the huge valley we had to cross to get there. With a road layout worthy of the Tour de France we descended down to a river before commencing the climb, our timing wasn't great as we were attempting this 25km climb in the midday sun. We slogged and groaned and eventually rolled into Zapatoca just as the light was fading, an amazing ride and one that had earned us another rest day with another Warmshowers host! Unfortunatley we have very limited pictures of this route as while in Zapatoca I managed to format my memory card...
We tore ourselves away from Zapatoca, a small town we loved, our warmshowers host herself had arrived and never managed to leave, she was from Belgium but fell in love and now lives in this small out of the way town. We left on dirt roads and the scenery was amazing, however with it came yet more climbing after, of course, we had made a decent to the valley floor!
If you ask any Colombian where to go, somewhere along the way Barichara will crop up, with time to spare we took a small detour and stopped by for lunch, although very quaint we weren't blown away with the small town, in fact, we preferred Zapatoca, something about all the tourists here spoilt it for us... With our fill of tourist stop done for the day we headed back to the dusty roads in search for somewhere to camp.
Often on our round about route, usually when trying to ask for directions, we hear "Por que? Es muy duro, es muy lejos" "Why this way? It's very hard, it's very far!" We try to explain that these harder and often out of the way roads offer so much more to us. One such road was leading to Duitama, a brand new highway had been built, 100km around the mountains and we could be there within a day or two, our road, a dirt track, used only by the farmers that lived and worked in the mountains we were riding into would take us a whole lot longer. We rode up a boulder field, laughing to ourselves at the route we had taken and second guessing ourselves on how we would descend if the road didn't improve. After what felt like hours of riding/pushing/bouncing up the road we spied an old farm sitting on top of a hill, we secretly hopped that this would be the top, however we knew full well we still had a lot of climbing still ahead of us.. We crawled to the gate praying to the adventure gods that the farmer would allow us to pitch a tent on some flat piece of land we had seen as we approached, The farmer saw our sorry state discussed with his wife and replied with "no, you can't camp...but would you like to stay in a room, we have plenty!"
We spent the evening being fed on oranges from his land and taking in the amazing surroundings we found ourselves in. When we asked if it was ok for us to use our stove he told us there was no need, his wife was already preparing our dinner. We later learned that this farm wasn't his, he only looked after it for the owner who lived in Bucaramanga, we weren't too bothered though, we were just happy to be sleeping in horizontal position rather than in one of the slopping fields! We left in the morning after once again being fed and loaded up with oranges, we were assured that the climbing was somewhat easier form here on out.
Our run of good luck with farmers continued and we managed to sleep in various fields and gardens along our backwards way through Colombia, we were also getting lucky with the weather, we seemed to be constantly running away form storm clouds all the way to Sogamoso where once again we took a day to recuperate with a warmshowers host, I was even given some Spanish lesson from their 3 year old daughter I don't think she was too impressed with my conversational skills however.
Some more short days and yet more friendly locals allowing us to camp in their fields and gardens, as well as some more 3000 plus meter mountains and finally we arrived at our agreed meeting place with Jose. Our route to this point although long and winding had been some of the best and most interesting riding we have done in South America. The hills are tough and by far the highest we have climbed so far but we have loved every minute, ok not every minute, I was pretty miserable on a decent in the rain but other than that it's been all good.
We may now be behind schedule but it was worth it; it was a pleasure to ride with an old friend again and hear his tales from the road. For 3 days we were a foursome again and it was just like being back in Patagonia all those months ago, all too soon though we said our goodbyes as we entered Bogota. Jose was to catch a flight to Panama to continue his ride to Alaska and we were finally going to get ourselves some waterproofs, sods law dictated that on this last day we would get truly soaked in a downpour that lasted longer than the average rain shower we had become accustomed to!!! Silver lining, at least it was our last day an not the first…
Turns out waterproofs are expensive, especially when the pound is so bad due to the whole leaving Europe thing but after the previous days soaking we were willing to pay over the top for decent waterproofs, we also knew we had some more high altitude passes to cross and we didn’t want to be there without something we could rely on to keep the worst of the weather out.
With our shopping spree done in Bogota and our brief ride with Jose over it was time to make some distance towards Ecuador. We now head towards Manizales and with it the world's longest climb. From there we pedal hard and head to Ecuador!!!
Danny and Jessica living the nomadic dream.