Colombia: Belén to El Cucoy

I picked up the bottle in the D8 tienda, which is like Colombian Aldi’s– put your own groceries in a used cardboard box after checkout. “Ron Viejo de Calandas” I wondered if it was some kind of brown aquaguardiente (aguaguardiente is like the national liquor, it tastes like licorice schnapps). Figured I’ll try it.

Back at camp I poured a little of it. Interesting, didn’t really taste like aguaguardiente but it did taste familiar. I wondered who Ron Viejo of Calandas is, maybe he’s like Jack Daniels of Tennessee.

I Googled Ron Viejo to see who the man was. Translate came up instead– “old rum”, not a guy named Ron. And that’s why this tastes like rum. Dumbass.

In Belén we spent a full day resting and walking around town with a dog who was not our dog who I named Scrappy, because he ate, looked like, and was scraps. He joined us for breakfast, then joined us in the park, then licked his balls, then came to dinner.

In between he got very protective and tried to eat a man that was walking across the square. I apologized, but also tried to explain to the man that this was not my dog, and explain to Scrappy that the man was not scraps and therefore not food.

The next day Scrappy came to breakfast again, but fortunately got distracted before we rolled away so we were able to make a clean break without leading him out of town. 

Signed photo of local and international cycling hero Nairo Quintana, he’s from a town pretty close to Belen.
Another dog that’s not my dog and also not Scrappy
Scrappy, manners need some work

Easy pavement out of Bélen down to Paz de Rio, a little mine town. There was a fair amount of truck traffic, but the drivers were all nice. Plenty of room when they passed and a friendly little toot toot on the horn.

Then a steady paved climb to Socha then Socotá. The longest section of pavement by far since we left Bogotá, it was kind of nice to just spin and get some miles in.

Then after Socotá at 7800′ we were back on dirt for the climb up to Jericó at 10300′. I saw a river on the map near the base of the climb and thought we might camp there, but it turned out to be off a cliff and about 300 feet below the bridge. No dice there, gotta keep going.

Wild camping is harder than I expected here– the main problem is just a lack of flat ground. There’s next to none of it in the mountains, and everywhere is mountains. And if there is flat ground and some water access, somebody already found it and built a house there about 300 years ago. For sneaking off the side of the road to sleep this is one place where a hammock setup might be nice.

The views on the road were incredible, but the sun was also getting into that late afternoon beat down angle, and I was starting to fry. But still another few thousand feet to climb. Squeezing sweat out of my helmet every few kilometers.

Roads are a little tight, you just gotta move over and let the trucks go by. They’re nice about it
Jericó’s church, a really cool one. Also check out those palms at 10,300′

Finally we make it to Jericó, longer day than expected. Fortunately there’s a little boarding house that rents rooms, it seems like the only other guys staying there are a garrison of Policía National. The Policía National are Colombia’s only police force, but they seem a little like having the National Guard permanently deployed.

Colleen and I walk up the dark street to buy a beer at the gas station, six truck drivers standing outside drinking give me a full on cowboy movie stare down, dust and diesel grease up their forearms, 11 eyeballs burning a hole in my face, one guy with a eye patch and a long ragged knife scar like a pirate (actually that’s a bum story the truck drivers had all their eyes intact so just 12 regular angry bloodshot eyeballs). Damn boys. Just looking for a beer and I’ll be on my way.

“Hola! Buenas noches!” I say. They kinda grunt and keep staring at me. I buy my beer and we scoot away.

“That was an uncomfortable gas station,” Colleen says.

“Yeah I’ll say.”

The next morning we make coffee in the room and pack up. Wet boot prints on the floor from the Policá guys showering and getting ready for their day of standing on the corner with machine guns. I’m not sure what goes down here but I get a funnier feeling than most places we’ve been through.

Halfway down the hill we run into a Canadian couple on bikes– first bike tourist sighting! We chat for a while and they clue us into another little road that traverses the mountainside and saves 500 feet of climbing. Sold.

And so glad, because the rest of the day is a mega steep push up to Chita.

A more hours of sweaty pushing then we’re in Chita, the town is setting up for a carnival. The place is packed. Police station is blocked off, fortified with pillboxes built out of sandbags. Damn, is that for the carnival or does shit happen here that I don’t want to know about?

We get a few empanadas then roll around to the hotels in town– full, full, full. There are little country buses parked everywhere, people streaming into town by motorcycle and horse. Everybody has gotten noticably drunker in the hour we’ve been here. All the stores have their sound systems cranked up and booming. There’s a guy swinging around a sack of Ron Bottles (which I now know to be rum bottles and not a person).

I think this is gonna be a good party! But sadly not for us, no place to stay.

We gotta roll, hopefully we find some flat ground this time.

Two miles out of town there’s an aquaduct/ irrigation ditch. I drop my bike by the side of the road.

“Lemme check this out real quick,” I say to Colleen and scramble up there.

It’s perfect! Flat, out of sight, water access. Awesome, not gonna beat that. We set up camp.

A major benefit of an alcohol stove, no fumes or noise so you can do weird bike tourist shit and cook inside with it. Hotels have tile floors 100 percent of the time so it’s fine (as long as you don’t light the beds on fire)
The illusive perfect campsite- out of sight, flat, and access to water

Try to get going early the next day, it’s the biggest climb of the trip, all the way up to 13,660′. That’s some thin air.

It’s a really straightforward climb though, not too smooth, not too rocky. Halfway up there’s a horse blocking the road.

“Hey, move! Go!” I yell at him. Nothing. Then I go “Chh chh chh!” and it’s like magic, he immediately steps off the road.

I try the same thing later with some cows. “Chh chh chh!” They part and open a path. Then with a chasing barking dog. “Chh chh chh!” He stops and wags his tail. I think I’ve unlocked the Colombian animal language.

We stop at about 12000′ for some canned tuna and cheese lunch. 12500′ and I’m starting to get nervous, the air is already pretty thin and another thousand feet. But it’s not that high, you’ve been higher, relax man. But it’s been years.

Then 13,000′. Now I’m fine. Suddenly the anxiety is gone, just some weird crap I built up in my head. I finish out the climb and wait for Colleen. Top of the trip, and second highest I’ve been on a bike, only behind the time I rode off the top of Mount Elbert in Colorado. It’s really cool up here– it’s like a sandy paramo, much more deserty than the other misty mossy paramos we’ve been in.

“Chh chh chh!”

Colleen starts down the hill and I snap another few pictures. I can see the glacier on Ritacuba Blanco way off in the distance, 17749′, the biggest mountain I’ve ever seen.

I start down, and see Colleen stopped up ahead. More bike tourists! Tim and Cassie from Montana, riding all the way down to the end of the world. We trade some road info, tell them about the fiesta in Chita and they opt to camp right where we’re at (it’s flat here).

Then Colleen and I take off, down the big descent to El Cocuy.

Empanadas, lunch of champions


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