Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Another unexpected weekend - festival in Villa de Leyva
After lazy few days around San Gil and Barichara our next destination was the capital city of Boyaca district – Tunja. We’d already spoke with German, our host in Tunja and he told us that there is a Gastronomic Festival in Villa de Leyva next weekend and if we make it on time, we could go there together. We love festivals, (like all cyclists) we love food even more and Villa de Leyva is supposed to be one of the most beautiful towns in Colombia, so it couldn’t be a better plan for weekend. We had a glimpse at the elevation chart of the road ahead and there was a big hill before Tunja, but the first 100tish km was sort of rolling and pretty much staying at the same altitude. It looked doable in 3, maximum 4 days… we should have analysed the chart better. As we very quickly realized the hills were surely rolling but at a killing grade 9-11% (a small digression: someone one in Mexico told us that the national road must be built so that the hills aren’t steeper than 6%, because trucks cannot make it. Wrong! They should see Colombian trucks; I’m amazed with them! They can make any hill). These, plus temperatures 
'The Hill'
reaching 40C, caused that after 45-50 km we were not able to move any further. And there was still this ‘Hill’ ahead; the more closer we were getting to Tunja, the more often people were telling us stories: that this hill is one of the toughest in Colombia, that is part of national cycling race, because not only in 55km the road goes 1500m up, but there are some steep climbs, sharp turns and what’s the worst – it is on high altitude (the peak is over 3000 masl) where there is far less oxygen.
On Friday afternoon we arrived to the bottom of ‘The Hill’ and, after all those stories, we doubted if we could make it in one day. But it would be a pity to miss the festival, mmmmm…food! So we made a quick decision - we were just by the town called Moniquira, it was 4pm, 60km to Tunja; we decided we’ll be there the same evening - by bus, our bikes had to stay in Moniquira. We went to the bike shop to ask the guy if he could help us with storing the bikes over the weekend. He called someone who knew someone in the council and in less than an hour our bikes were safely locked in local sport centre. We very lucky to meet this super helpful people over there. We grabbed what was necessary and at 5:30 we were on the bus to Tunja. Why we didn’t take our bikes on the bus rather than coming back on Monday morning to cycle ‘The Hill’? We believe that if you take another transport once, it’ll be easier to do it second time and even easier to find a pretext for the third time etc. There is always an excuse – wind, rain, hills, heavy traffic, dangerous area… and there are some cyclists who travel this way, but for us there is always a manner to cycle whatever is ahead. That’s the part of the adventure and the more you sweat, the more you appreciate it.
We arrived to German’s flat and Raul excited about the festival started asking:
‘So how this is going to look like? We could have some food there? There’ll be some stands?...’
German answered: ‘Well, surely we can have some food there and we can look at the stars…’
‘Look at the stars?’
‘Well, I guess so, it is an Astronomic Festival.’
‘Aaaaa….astronomic! I understood (g)astronomic when we were talking on the phone’:)
I was equally happy; I love star-gazing as much as I love food! And however it wasn't what we expected and even the star-gazing wasn't successful, because it got cloudy in the evening we had fun and interesting weekend. German showed us little treasures of Boyacá, that otherwise we'd never visit. Like all those tiny and pretty colonial towns hidden somewhere up in the mountains or down long and bumpy dirt roads; by far my favourite was sleepy Iza, where one side of the market square is lined with cakes and puddings stands.
Delicious! I had a sample of every single one and that was a mistake, because I couldn't decide which one I want! We strolled down streets of Raquira and Nobsa, lined with local hand made products – pottery and woollen goods; in that places I'm glad I travel by bike, otherwise I'd buy too much; but if I think about Colombian hills, I buy nothing. The next day we went for a ride along the biggest lake in Colombia (and lake at the highest altitude I've ever been to – 3015 masl) – Lago Tota. Beautiful, scenic ride and beautiful lake. This area is also 'the kingdom of onion'; wherever we looked around there were onion fields stretching until the horizon. :) And actually, the weekend turned to be gastronomic, maybe not festival, but definitely, feast. In Villa de Leyva German invited us for lunch to a restaurant specialized in contemporary local cuisine, them the deserts in Iza, hand-made ice-cream and a taste of local chorizo and meat cooked in typical for this region way – very slowly over a bonfire.
And on Monday morning we jumped on the bus back to Moniquira, we picked our bikes and we faced ‘The Hill’. And it turned out to be much more pleasant ride than the previous 100km of ‘rolling hills’. Long, but steady climb and very beautiful views.
So since midday on Tuesday we are officially ;) – by bike – in Tunja.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

An unexpected weekend in El Playon
Our plan was to make those 95 km uphill from the low lands, which end in San Alberto to Bucaramanga in 2 days. A very hard climb, the road winds constantly up and down so that you gain several hundred meters in few km and then go downhill to loose it all, and then again more climbing and more downhill; the average grade for the hills is 6% -10%. After an exhausting day we arrived to El Playon, for us just a dot on the map perfectly located half way to Bucaramanga. I went to the city hall to ask if they have any space where we could camp for a nigh and they told us that we could camp in the sport hall, so we went there and, I have to say, they were super helpful they open a small room, so we could sleep under roof and even let us use the shower - there is not a better thing you could offer to a cyclist after a whole day sweating.

Once we settled down two guys from the council came to see how we were doing, the web master Ivan and journalist for the city-hall, Javier.

Ivan invited us to have dinner in his place; we accepted, we love to meet locals and spend time with them. When we were having dinner they offered us to stay a couple of days so they could show us around and see how we like El Playon. They are just starting to promote the town as touristic spot and they are full of ideas. The main attractions are the waterfalls that we were supposed to go and see on Sunday with the team from the City Hall that was going there to take pictures of them for their web. On Saturday we were invited to go to the nearby Balnearios (restaurants by the river where you have access to swim) and then to a finca which grows heliconias, super beautiful tropical flowers. The plan sounded great! To be invited by the council to the best places of this municipality just to give our opinion and see if we enjoyed or not as a tourist. Good plan!

The Saturday run smoothly, swim in the river in the local Balneario, had lunch and then we went to visit Don Agapito, great character who grows the famous heliconias, those flowers are breath taking!

Sunday, the big day! The plan was to go by car with more people, but in the morning Ivan explained me that they could not find any transport so we will go just the 4 of us with moto-taxis (regular motorbike that can carry one passenger). Ivan has one motorbike so they will need to rent just two to take us up to the mountains where the walk to the waterfalls starts, in San Pedro. It takes more than 45 minutes riding uphill to San Pedro to start walking, our guide, Don Paolo and his friend were already waiting for us it the path straight away, because so the walk was also new for Ivan and Javier so all of us we were super excited. The waterfalls are seriously beautiful, the first one called Salto del Indio the highest, over 30 meters, an easy walk but then to go to the other 2 the difficulty grown severely; our guide had to use the machete to open track and set rope to climb up or down, pure jungle. Each waterfall has its unique beauty with astonishing locations, magic corners within the jungle; it took us over 6 hour to reach the finca of our guide, none of them Ivan or Javier did this walk previously so we weren't fully prepared, tired and hungry - that's how we arrived to the finca maybe 40 minutes after our guide :) 
When we arrived the food was almost ready, plenty of food for the exhausted tourists. What a lovely lunch prepared for all of us by Dom Paolo’s wife, Thank you Senora!

It was starting to be late so we walked back to San Pedro to meet our moto-taxis. But we arrived too late and they were already gone; our hosts tried to call them, but they didn’t pick the phone, I guess they weren’t bothered to do this long ride up again on their Sunday evening. It wasn’t until after 3 hours of waiting (with hope that they will maybe come) and frenetically looking for some guy from San Pedro who would ride us down, until they encounter one. Only one, which meant we had only two motorbikes and 5 people. The plan was to go Ivan and one of us in one motorbike and the other 2 in the moto-taxi (regular motorbike). Quickly Javier came and told me ‘I go with Ivan and you two, because you are slim, go with the moto-taxi’ we said fine, of course a bit more risky but who cares after 3 hours waiting. When we arrived unfortunately something happened that spoilt the day, the guy from the moto-taxi asked me for an awful amount of money and none of our host from the council stood up to pay for the fee so I had to pay it, this money would last us  for a week in Colombia. It was weird! Sometimes people acts in a way that surprises us, the whole thing of coming to us with the idea of promoting their village and see how we like it and at the end finished the day with this gesture it has left a bit of bitter taste in our memories of El Playon.

Anyway all the best for those guys and its project of promoting El Playon