Hiking the Camino Real: Part 2

We woke in Villanueva with every intention of leaving very early to beat the heat on the way to the bottom of the Chicamocha Canyon, but our breakfast place that we had lined up the previous night didn’t open until 745, so that set us back–we didn’t get off until around 845 or so and it was already getting warm. We loaded up on water (Sean at Macondo Hostel had mentioned this section was very remote and hot) and followed the trail to where it descends into the canyon.

Near the top we found a small tienda that had drinks, but only the beer was cold, so we had warm pop. There was another place right at the top advertising drinks but we did not check it out. The trail down the canyon was easy to follow, as usually there was only one way to go. We descended from 1450 metres to about 400 metres, and it got progressively hotter as the day wore on.

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About an hour from the bottom of the canyon  we pretty much ran out of water, and I started to get a little nervous. We still had a ways to go!  As we got down, we came across a stream and then a small river we had to cross. Although we could not drink the water, at least we could cool down and get wet, which helped a lot. But still, we needed drinking water and it looked like we were at least an hour from the town where we were going to stay the night. And then we turned a corner and saw this, which translates to refuge for walkers.

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Was it a mirage? Too good to be true?  No!!  We followed the signs to a refuge where hikers can stay the night in hammocks and where there is a natural swimming pool near the river at the bottom of the canyon. The caretaker who was there (it was presently closed due to flooding that had knocked out their water supply) allowed us to rest on the hammocks, sold us drinking water, and called ahead to his sister in the town of Jordan to arrange food and lodging for us!  It really was Shangri La!!  Rested, watered, and content we headed on and ate lunch at his sister’s house and stayed in another house (we paid for accommodation but it was unclear to me whether they took in guests regularly ).  Some pictures of Jordan :

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The next day we headed up the canyon bright and early (we bought our own breakfast the night before this time!).  The walk was stunning and, in the relative cool of the morning, it seemed to go much faster than the previous day. After about 3 hours we reached d the town of Los Santos , located on a very large mesa (like a plateau), and took the bus to my favourite hostel ever, The Rock Shelter. We had the honeymoon suite, and our room was built right into the cliff. The bathroom was open to the cliff side, so we had the most incredible views– even better than the views from the thunder boxes in Algonquin Park!
Here’s our room:

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And the view:

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The next day we attempted a hike across the Cliffside to a waterfall. We couldn’t get to the waterfall but we had a great hike anyway. We were amazed at the lushness found near the streams in this arid environment.
This was a stream where we stopped to get wet and get away from the heat.

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Note the orange trees.

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And here’s our first look at coffee plants. More on that later!

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Manizales has the best public transit 

Manizales is a mountain town in Colombia’s cloud forest coffee region. Along with buses and taxis and a bike share it has Metro Cable!

It takes only a few minutes to soar above the traffic outside the bus terminal and arrive in el Centro via an 8 person cable car. It is brilliant. And site specific. And fast. And comfortable. And offers stunning views of the valleys below. Jasper thinks we should have one to cross the Ottawa River. 

  

I also loved that the tickets – 1,500 pesos or about $0.70 Canadian – were made of hard plastic and could be reused. 

    
 The town is also lovely! I took some photos of the busy streets full of people for my friend Hans who was wondering where everyone was in previous street pics.

  
    

All the bike share bikes were out when we arrived, but we found some this evening on our way to a vegetarian! restaurant.  
  

Our street during the day….and in the evening.   
  The church is always open and busy.  
We love that the bike route sign is a dual suspension mountain bike! That’s definitely the right bike for these steep hills.

Sending best wishes from Manizales,

Kathleen  

In which several doomed cows fall into a cave

I sure didn’t know what to expect as we stepped on to the highway and walked towards a small dirt path. Maybe that was a good thing in the end but as nervous thoughts flashed through my head like jumbled up, badly proofread news headlines I sure wished I knew something beyond the fact that the water was fria (cold). My parents looked  kind of sheepish as they walked through the streets of Curiti in their-  swim trunks and polka dotted blue bikinis, it wasn’t something that we did everyday. We turned down the dirt path and followed our guide and his assistant through a couple of gates before stopping in a small clearing. Our guide handed out headlamps. As we fixed them to our heads, a budding sense of excitement snaked its way through my bones growing thicker and sprouting branches in every which way until I could hardly contain it!

Our guide had introduced himself as Ronaldo and he and his small, Jasper sized neighbour led us down a rickety metal ladder and into the Cueva Vaca. If any of you people know Spanish, you are probably thinking something along the lines of…

“Cow Cave??!? What a random name. Huh, I wonder if it has anything to do with Anna’s very strange title about doomed cows. Weird.”

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Well I guess I’d better explain before you complain. Apparently there used to be a couple of cows who lived in the region and sometimes the adventurous ones would go exploring and accidentally fall into the cave! Poor cows they must’ve been very surprised since it was awfully wet in there.

Anyways after the last person had stepped off of the ladder we splashed into the darkness. A small brave stream bubbled and babbled below us. Before long I took a small hesitant step into the water. Brrr. Yeah fria is a good way to describe this water. Soon everyone was splooshing and splashing through the ankle-deep stream, hopping up and over boulders and running their hands  along the narrowly spaced walls. Wow, as quickly as the darkness had un hinged its jaws and greedily engulfed us, the ceiling  opened up and we found ourselves in a large cavern. A barely audible squeaking noise was bouncing off of the smooth, snow bank shaped walls. Ronaldo angled his headlamp to the ceiling and caught several small winged creatures in its sharp cool light.

“Wow,” I murmured as I caught my Mom’s eye. Ronaldo said something in Spanish which I didn’t quite catch and then we countinued on after my parents had translated. After a few more minutes Ronaldo nodded to us and said that we would crawl a little to get used to the water. Gulp. At first I was hesitant, crouching and half hopping to avoid getting wet but stalagmites loomed out of nowhere threatening to impale me like a human shish-kebob so I reluctantly sank to my hands and knees and crawled along with everybody else. Standing up again I ran my fingers against the walls and picked up a little ball of clay.

“Cuidado” warned our guide as there were lots of rocks and it was very slippery. I dropped my clay and rinsed my hand in the stream. As we walked I looked up at the ceiling to see the beautifull stalagmites and down to see their friendly brothers towering out of the ground. It was an amazing sight. The ceiling sloped lazily downwards as if it was in no hurry to come down and meet us.
The walls opened their arms to embrace each other and we found ourselves in a small bowl shaped cavern. All of a sudden Ronaldo stopped. He reached into the water and pulled out a rough red rope, snaking around our feet in the murky water. As we stepped over it I peered behind our guide at the ceiling who had decided that the water looked like a very friendly person to come say hi to.

” Ahh, darn. Looks like this is the turn around point.” I thought to myself. There was no  other way to go. Unless…Unless we swam! Suddenly Ronaldo spoke, explaining in Spanish the we would grab onto the rope and pull ourselves under water for three  seconds and then he would knock on our helmet as a signal to put our heads up and take a breath of air. At this point my dad was really contemplating his parenting style. So of course he went first. About six seconds later Ronaldo broke the surface and I somehow ended up standing in front of him (don’t ask me how that happened). He grabbed my hand and I dove into the unknown propelling myself forward like a gazelle who senses the hot rank breath of the king of the jungle searing into their neck. I shot out of the water gasping and spluttering and nearly bonked my head on the ceiling that was just centimetres overhead. Boy it was claustrophobic over   there. After our assistant guide had come through making it look as easy as walking to school, we countinued on. Our heads poked up out of the water until the ceiling rose and the water sunk back to its rightful place.

Huge boulders were scattered here and there in slippery clumps. But that just made it more fun. As we got deeper into the huge cave another cavern opened up, the Crystal Cavern glittered with a hundred stalagmites adorned with droplets of water like small crystalline tiaras.

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A little further a huge elephants foot stalagmite hung in the air above us.

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After a couple more pictures I started shaking with cold and besides that was as far as we were going to go. Apparently the guides had gone for fourteen hours into the endless Cueva Vaca and hadn’t found an exit so far. We found a beautiful underground waterfall and then headed back through the Elephant Foot cavern, Crystal Cavern and Bushy Rock Plain.

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We were a pretty muddy sight when we finally got out if the cave but also very happy. Thank you to our great guides a beautiful cave!

Beautiful Colombia

   
    

We LOVE Colombia! We are so glad we decided to turn our two hour stopover into a three week visit. 

We have been visiting old Colonial towns like Villa de Leyva, which has a huge cobblestone downtown that is car free. 

   
    
   
We stayed at an exquisite Airbnb guest house there with a loft bedroom, piles of Spanish magazines and lemon and eucalyptus trees in the backyard. One evening a local school celebrated its anniversary with a giant parade which the kids loved.

We’ve been hiking and walking and meeting lovely people and learning lots of Spanish.

We’ve also enjoyed taking the bus. With convenient, economical service and spectacular mountain views, it’s given us a chance to see more of the country. Last night we took our first night bus – we left Bucharamunga at 6:30 pm and got into Dorodal at 1:00 am. Derek had the brilliant idea of using the pool at the hotel beside the bus terminal for the afternoon while we were waiting to leave. It was so relaxing and it helped the kids sleep on the bus. 

We were going to take a taxi from the bus stop in Doradol (and in  fact the bus driver offered to call us a cab and wait for it to pick us up), but it turned out the bus stopped about 100 metres from the hotel!

   
   
  

    

The pictures above are actually from San Gil. We had a fun caving adventure there which Anna Sierra promises to tell you all about.

Today I’m hanging out in air conditioning and doing a little shopping while I recover from the flu. Just like when Derek and I lived in Hermosillo, Mexico, we really need to up our fashion game to fit in a little bit with the well dressed Colombians. 

Derek and the kids are off in nearby Rio Claro park, doing some more caving and keeping their fingers crossed for a monkey sighting.

If anyone’s looking for a beautiful, warm and friendly place to visit, we highly recommend Colombia!

Sending all our best,

Kathleen 

Hiking the Camino Real in Colombia : Part One

We have finally found a way to do self-propelled adventure here in Colombia. Sean, the owner of the Macondo Hostel in San Gil where we stayed for 2 nights, helped us to plan a hike.  We are currently doing a 4 day hike, hiking from little town to little town, through the Andes, staying at hostels or hotels.  It has been fantastic.   Very refreshing to be back in control of our own transportation!  What we are hiking is called the Camino Real, and follows the path of an ancient roadway that was built in Pre-Colombian times and rebuilt in 1863.  It is basically a path with inlaid large stones. The route also follows rural roadways for parts as well, and some rough trail.  I was able to download a GPS track of the route from an app called Wikiloc, and that has been indispensable-we would have gotten lost without it. I used an excellent mapping app called OSM And to follow the gps track, and downloaded the contour lines and hillshading add-ons for the app so I could see what the route was like. 

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Screenshot of our hike on OSM And

On Sunday, Nov 8, we took a bus from San Gil to Cabrera in Santander Province.  This was a much longer bus than I expected because Cabrera is very small,and the driver stopped every 5 minutes or so so that he could drop off passengers, pick up his packages, drop off packages for people along the route, allow one passenger to pay his beer tab at a bar en route, etc. It took 2 hours to go 20 km. A very different experience from our previous bus trips in Colombia, which were relatively comfortable and if not super fast not slow either.  The trip did help us to understand what it was like living in this remote area without a vehicle.  The bus was very important.  So after 2 hours we arrived at the tiny town of Cabrera and started hiking up the mountain.

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Can you spot the snake in this picture?  It was very small

After a steep uphill the trail descends to the pretty town of Barichara –some say it is the prettiest town in Colombia.

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We stayed at the Color de Hormiga hostel,which was quiet and lovely. 

The next day we went to a beautiful sculpture garden in Barichara and then continued on the trail to the small town of Guane.

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After Guane and lovely nap in the main park (the kids say I was snoring) we continued on to Villanueva.

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After getting lost on top of a mountain and bushwacking a bit to get back to the trail our destination of Villanueva came into view and we walked into town.

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Villanueva is refreshingly off the typical tourist path, so we stayed at a clean, quiet and cheap Hotel called Hotel Miguel. We ate dinner at a cafe next door where the kind woman who ran the place made us special vegetarian plates and we all came away happy and fed.

Ciclovia!!

In the world of sustainable transportation, Bogota is famous for its Ciclovias, so I was really excited to experience 120 kms of roads closed to cars and open to people biking and walking. Having participated in organizing an open streets festival in Ottawa, I was really interested in what an ongoing weekly one would feel like in Bogota.

Derek has never met a mountain that he didn’t love and Colombia is full of stunning mountains.

Just before we started our trip, at our dear friend Beth’s beautiful wedding, we had a chance to catch up with Derek’s highschool badminton partner, Phil, who now teaches at a university in Bogota. With Phil’s enthusiastic recommendation, we decided to extend our stopover in Bogota from a few hours to three weeks. We knew we’d like to experience the Ciclovia and do some mountain hikes and we figured we could plan the rest of the trip when we arrived.

Biking during the Ciclovia was absolutely incredible! We started a few blocks from our hotel where the two express lanes on a highway were open for biking, running, rollerblading, skateboarding, etc. Express buses still used the middle lane and cars and motorbikes used the collectors on either side. This part of the Ciclovia was similar to riding on the closed parkway in Ottawa.

Along this part of the route there were frequent safe, supervised crossings where animators and police officers stopped traffic so people could cross the collector lanes to access the Ciclovia.

There was a lot of space here so more serious road cyclists (like Anna Sierra) who wanted a fast ride could get lots of exercise. Derek and I were still adjusting to the altitude and were riding at more of a strolling pace.

Following the advice of one of our friends at the hotel’s front desk, when we reached Calle Séptima, closer to downtown, we turned off. This area had lots of people selling all kinds of food and treasures in the street as well as performing, playing chess in the street and repairing bikes.

It was so much fun. And very inspiring to see how streets can be so full of life when they are closed to motorized traffic!

    
    
   
We ate fresh mango, fried plantains and loved being part of the stream of people enjoying a beautiful morning.

Xo

Kathleen