Sunday, 22 November 2015

A Week in Colombia

The lobby painting in the Hotel Panorama rather failed to capture the reality of its location above a busy junction but it had suited us very well and whilst the others set off in search of bike parts I dived in to the enormous market soon losing myself in a maze of narrow aisles where stalls were laden with produce and goods of every description. It reminded me of the souks of Morocco and thrilled every sense - it is always difficult to capture the atmosphere in a picture as I try never to be intrusive and of course stand out anyway as a fair skinned, white haired gringo.

 Eventually I emerged in to the approach road that thronged with horse drawn carts, old Ford trucks, well worn Japanese pick ups, barrows and trolleys all vying for space and caught up with the others who had sourced a sackful  of Suzuki spares after a trip to the mechanic's home.
We followed the Pan American north with the scenery changing as we dropped out of the hills but a heavy tropical storm soon had us pulling in as it was unpleasant and dangerous for Franco  to keep riding.The small cafe provided some respite as we took an early lunch - the owner's children and parrot seemed equally absorbed in a TV cartoon as we waited for the deluge to subside.

Later after some memorable roads sweeping through endless mountain ranges we approached the large city of Cali where some 20km short we pulled in to Lago Grande Resort. This was spread out over sloping land full of mango trees and comprised a number of villas, a reception and dining area and a few rooms in a separate block of which we occupied our usual four. Unfortunately they claimed that their internet was down and insisted on cash upfront so Franco was despatched to an ATM with Dave's card as we settled in to the comfortable rooms. Hot water is not provided as it is normally very warm and whilst by current UK standards it was warm the cold shower was still something of an ordeal initially.
After Franco's return we dined outside whilst watching an international soccer match before retiring for a good night's sleep although thin walls did little to obscure the snoring of one team member who shall remain nameless. The hotel's groundsman also decided to fill our adjacent outdoor water feature from 6am with a huge pipe that tormented already primed bladders - as it is almost an exact 12 hour day here year round the rhythm of life begins early and thus so did ours.

Breakfast was the usual eggs, bread and coffee after which Dave and Chris took to the pool and sun-loungers whilst I went off to look round the extensive grounds which contained rather surprisingly a large well kept dog cemetery - moving but also slightly odd given that the vast majority of the population have so many challenges meeting life's basic needs.

Later we took a rather tedious drive through the busy traffic in to Cali where we enjoyed a couple of beers, bought some souvenirs and dined out on a busy street - at one point a large brightly coloured chiva ( the local old fashioned buses) drove past with a loud but merry party in full swing on board and later we enjoyed good Colombian coffee in the large square. Amusingly when we got back to our supervised parquedero the Hyundai was surrounded by a hundred or so scooters, most of which the attendant had to move to enable us to get out for the slightly quicker journey back to Lago Grande.
Here the sleepy night watchmen at two separate barriers let us in and we slept well.

Not long after leaving the next morning we were stopped by the police at a routine check point and again they were very polite and friendly and we were soon on our way south following the PA through the remarkable mountain scenery. Most of the steeper slopes were planted with coffee as apparently it doesn't tolerate its roots being waterlogged.
Again every bridge and tunnel was manned by the military and we stopped at one for a photo opportunity as twenty or so Suzuki 650 bikes were lined up - an impressive sight.

 After a long hot day we pulled in to a long hot village for a break and decided to stay in Hotel Paraiso - somewhere the Trades Description Act has never shined any light whatsoever. Located behind an all night filling station we waited for ages for keys before effecting entry via the windows to find no hot water, towels or working fans - as it happens the heat was such that cold showers were a blessing and whilst towels and keys did arrive the fan was replaced with one that was too noisy to use. Don't wish to sound like a whinging westerner but these really are only the basics and the places could do so much better if only they made a little extra effort.

In the relative cool of the late evening I went off for a long walk and soaked up the lively atmosphere as kids played in the street, dogs searched for scraps amongst the refuse, small stalls churned out delicious smelling snacks and shop keepers manned their tiny shacks. Officers at the police post were very friendly, pulling over the occasional truck for a cursory inspection with the odd pair dashing off on their bright green Suzukis with the pillion always bearing a rifle.

Back at the room I had a pretty poor night's kip as although around midnight the adjacent bar finally turned off Colombia's largest loudspeaker the trucks rolled in for fuel all night, the cockerels were off from 3am and families living in the assortment of shacks were on the go from 5. The temperature never fell below 70 either so I was somewhat grumpy next morning - sorry chaps.

Our aim for the day was to cross back in to Ecuador but en route we left the Pan American which again despite its glamorous title was no more than an A road equivalent and at times less than that busy with the chivas full of people and luggage, lorries of all descriptions, overloaded buses and taxis, pick ups with families sitting astride goods for market, cattle and pig trucks and at intervals chaotic roadworks as the challenging terrain leads to landslides, ruptured roads and washed out bridges. However it was all fascinating and we made good progress with just the odd near miss as trucks and taxis refused to give way once committed to overtaking.

The reason for our diversion was to see Las Lajas properly and we were soon swaying gently in the capsule of a ski lift that would transport us across a deep river ravine to the stunningly situated church below. This sat on a bridge spanning the river and was an impressive sight - we enjoyed a couple of hours looking round and inspecting the museum before returning to the lift which has been open 3 years but does not appear on Google maps hence my Spot location for the day places me randomly in a field half way down the ravine's side.

A Colombian girl was grateful for a lift to the border where our immigration and custom's procedures went very well and we were soon in to Tulcan which is a rather busy border town but suited us as our other option lay a couple of hours away and would entail riding after dark for Franco.
The hotel located near the bus terminal was fine and seemed well finished and whilst my room was perhaps a tad tight it served a purpose. We walked over to a small cafe full of locals that did a set menu of ham soup and then a thin but tasty steak with rice and veg - five of us eating well for about £10. Ecuador uses the $ so it took some adjusting from the millions of Colombian pesos we had been working in.
An ice cream from a corner shop rounded off a good day before we all retired to bed - the basement disco failed to keep me awake this time - must be getting used to local ways.

The next morning I followed the stairwell up to emerge in to the unfinished top floor of the hotel and then the roof from which there were views over the workaday town - I also got a close up of the alarming power supply arrangements at the pole and noted that  two thin cables jammed in to a socket were powering a welder, scary stuff.
Breakfast in the same cafe was very good and we watched as the day's supplies were brought in by various urchins - gas bottles, baskets of bread, bundles of herbs and at a rough count almost a thousand eggs on trays.
Thus with the team refueled we stopped at a garage to tank up the van and bike - diesel again now costing 60p a gallon - before heading south once more for Ibarra where we are due to meet Mario the retired colonel who was heading up from Quito to join us for a few days.

Chris was troubled again with stomach woes and during a hasty stop in a simple food shack we sat and watched the world go by noting the subtle changes between the people and cultures of two different countries.

Down at Ibarra the Hosteria El Prado on the approach to town seemed inaccessible as there were cars and pick ups parked everywhere. It turned out that the local power company were putting on a big day for employees and their families with perhaps 200 people enjoying good food in a large marquee that had Ecuador's largest speakers on full whack. We were assured that it would all be over by 7pm and were shown to some of the best rooms of the trip so far - an added bonus was an excellent heated pool, Turkish bath, steaming sauna and jacuzzi which we all enjoyed ; a chance to feel really refreshed after a few weeks on the road.

Whilst I prefer the simple life in the van as a method of travel and accommodation I have always over the years enjoyed the odd night of luxury but would not want to travel as extensively as I have just moving from one hotel to another. In fact as we came in to town I had spotted the only evidence of any organised camping as an aire sign pointed down to the lake - a while back I had also seen a German plated T5 camper as well as a large Swiss plated expedition truck so clearly there is a fledgling 'camper' presence as well as the scattering of well loaded motorbike travellers we had seen.
With confirmation that Mario was en route but running late we dined in the excellent restaurant before turning in and are now awaiting his safe arrival.

Tomorrow we head for the coast and will probably be back to Cajamarca in Peru in a week or so before the return to Lima for flights home and no doubt a rude and wintry awakening.

Other photos available at this link

 and our progress here.

The recent glitch with the |Spot seems to have been resolved and was no doubt down to user error.

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