78. COLOMBIA -Colombian mountains

We were still on sea level and although there were a daily afternoon shower at the area of Valledupar it was still unbearably hot during the day. But we were heading to the mountains and today we can reach the foothills or even further up of the Andes. So we set off early in the morning.

Very soon after started driving we were stopped by the police for a routine check “where we’re going, coming from etc.” the When we said the name if the town -which was about 300km the police officer said it was 8 hours drive. We were a bit surprised so double checked the name of the town and the number of hours he mentioned. Didn’t really understand why it would take such a long time but when we were done off we went.

Soon we found out why. It was over a 100km roadwork and if we ran in to the red light it was 10-15 minutes wait to get going again and the traffic was extremely slow due to the roadwork trucks. A few hours later we only done 50-60km. The fact that Colombian roads a heavily dotted with Peaje’s (Tolls) didn’t cheer us up either. Despite the extraordinary delays everyone still has to pay the full price which is not far off, if not more at some places, than in France. And the heat was unbelievable.

That day we hardly make any progress so stayed at another roadside family restaurant. They were very friendly and the food and beer was cheap though the night was awful. Very hot and lots of bugs, plus we weren’t the only ones squatting there. Trucks were arriving and leaving all night and their engine were rumbling just a couple of meters from our heads. Not as fresh as I wanted to be in the morning we headed off early as we were expecting more roadwork ahead.

At this point I was so ready for fresh cool air. I really had enough of airless hot temperature where we have been in since El Valle, Panama and that was over 2 months, day and night. So without stopping we were pushing on to get to the mountain by the end of the day.

After the whole day and very tiring one lane mountain drive with thousands of 30 ton trucks we arrived to a full facility truck stop. It might sound horrible but this was actually a very nice place surrounded by gorgeous lush green hills, fresh chilly air. They had truck wash facilities, a petrol station, a truck shop with all sorts of beauty for John’s biggest joy, a small hotel and a little cafe with wifi and the friendliest staff. They tucked us away to the back where it was quiet, peaceful and lovely view of farm lands.

The next day we got Burt washed top to toe, especially because we never washed him plus we just came from the salty aired beach and it was the perfect place to get rid of the salt. Also had a simple welding done a few kms form here by a very nice guy who’s workshop was specialized in stainless steel welding which exactly we needed. It was a small job but we ended up chatting for a while and it got too late in the day to move on so we decided to go back to the truck stop and stay one more night.

The next day we set off at a reasonable time. We had a couple of things lined up ahead of us to visit. Depends which one we make it, after learning about Colombian’s road now. It can be extremely slow. Sometimes in the early afternoon hours we rolled in to the big city of Medellin. This was one of our interest points but it was still “too early” in the day to park up we just decided to carry on.

Of course by the end of the day we were in the middle of nowhere and finding very difficult to find a quiet spot off the road. Every square meter seems to be private land so there was no way to go, at least nowhere where it was public and OK for us to park up and relax.

Back in Central America, when we met traveller we were forever hearing “wait until you get to South America! Vast lands, camp opportunities everywhere etc…”Surely they weren’t talking about Colombia.

However what Colombia has is its very friendly and helpful people. As half-expected we weren’t even near where we wanted to be by the end of the day so we found ourselves a family ranch by a river where we stayed. Lovely people who as soon as I just asked if there was any land nearby we could park up for the night opened their gate and said “of course, right here. No problem”.
They had lots of animals, particularly roosters, about 15 of them. Man, they all set off screaming at 5AM and didn’t stop until we left the next morning.

At this point we were off the highway on a much scenic road. It was stunning and driving through very pretty mountain villages and small towns was lovely too but it was painfully slow and bumpy. Around the afternoon hours we finally reached paved road again and were close to Manizales, another big city what we were intended to visit if we could. Again, somehow we stuck on the ring road and the next thing we knew was that we passed town and were back on the highway. It was silly again, but somehow we both were getting very tired of endless days’ driving and a little uninspired for adventures of finding a spot in a city -which can be stressful and difficult when you’re up for the challenge in the first place.

Not far from south from Manizales we knew that there’s an area of hot springs so our aim was to get there by the end of the day. A couple of more hours driving later plus driving through a small town with tiny narrow streets we finally arrived at a thermal spa thingy complex where we were welcome to park up for the night. It was a gorgeous lush green area with beautiful view and super lovely staff. It was about 5PM and after we parked up we got ourselves tickets to the hot pools. They are open till midnight and from Mon-Wed the ticket is half price which was a bonus.

Inside it’s beautiful. A wide stream snaking its way down walking along it on a path and through several footbridges then arrive at the top where there’s an astonishing fresh, cold water waterfall and that’s where the hot pools are and the restaurant, cafe, hotel and all facilities are. It was extremely relaxing and lovely. We stayed for a few hours and after that we had a very good night sleep. We decided to stay one more night, spend the day at the pools and catch up with emails etc. It was so needed.

The second morning we thought we should move on. We wanted to visit the National Park north of here where there’s a snow-capped volcano. Although one of our guide books (few years old) advised that the volcano erupted a few years back and then they closed the park. We just hoped it is open for hikes again so we headed up north. Which meant driving back up to Manizales then towards east. There was a more “scenic” road from Manizales to the park entrance. Also this area was known by its hot water springs so we thought if we won’t make it to the entrance till tonight, we can always stay at one of the thermal places.

We drove pass a couple of thermal hotel places but they were extremely crowded and small for as anyway. We still had a couple of hours till dark so pushed on. The road changed from lovely smooth paved surface to gravel then to muddy, narrow road with huge water wash-out holes. One side is either thick forest with branches hanging far too low for us, or a solid cliff and the other side is a deep drop that makes you not want to look down. Plus we had a poor horse stuck in front of us running. Felt sorry for the horse but for about 15 minutes there was no place for him to move so just kept running in front of us.

At one point in a bend there was a massive hole that lead in to the void down the drop where Burt’s right back wheel didn’t make it. It was a heart stopping moment. We got out and looked at our options. We didn’t want to leave it for luck so we dropped the two heavy spare wheels at the back to help the weight, got the two sand ladders down and created a “bridge” over the gap, and got the shovel out once again and got myself under Burt to make sure there’s enough clearance and we were ready to try. Either all these things together or, as John said, the sand ladders would have been enough did the job. Johnny gently drove Burt out of the trouble. The ladders certainly gave the needed traction to the back wheels and we were out! I was so relieved. I think we both were but John is much cooler than I so he wasn’t screaming with joy as Burt lifted out of the dip.

I was still shaking but very happy and grateful for Whatever it is that added to our lucky escape. Once again we were talking about Burt’s capabilities as being a road vehicle not an off road one yet can cope with this situations. Although this definitely was his limit.

We had a few more kms ahead of us to the last thermal hotel and we were going very slowly. We had two more hairy moments with similar holes on the road not giving enough space for a wide vehicle like ours so we jumped out, made a plan and very carefully, having half an inch each side made it through.

By the time we got to the hotel I was a wreck. It was 3400 meters elevation and the temperature was near 6-8C. All I wanted to park up then get in to a hot water. It is such a remote place so no surprise that they not just had no guests but the staff went home already too leaving the cleaning lady and her husband on site. Eventually we negotiated a reasonable fee with them for using the pool and the facilities.

Finally we were in the water, Wow! A sign outside of the pool said the water temperature 40C and said that take it very slow to get in. It was burning hot! But step by step we could make it in. Also the water extremely rich. Very smelly with a sour, salty, irony taste. It sure felt fantastic.

The next day we found out that just a 2 km above here towards the park entrance (which was only 12-15 km from now) was a perfectly paved road to the highway! We had a wonderful short drive up getting higher and higher until we reached the park entrance at 4100 meters. Only to find out that there’s an Orange 3 code, because of the volcano’s activity and there’s no hiking allowed at all in the park. For a pretty peppery price we could’ve gone in to jeep with a guide who would’ve taken us to snow line and back in two hours but it seemed very high price for us, plus our point has been to hike. We missed walking so much and haven’t done it for at least 2.5 months. Despite the very nice guide at the entrance, we were very disappointed. There was no place to park up here, although it still was morning so wouldn’t even wanted to as there’s nothing to do here so we decided to move on.

Disappointed, frustrated and somewhat deflated we left. We haven’t really planned just yet what’s next as we thought we will be in the park for a few days but we headed towards Bogotá as ultimately that is our route. John was annoyed with himself not planning “properly” or ignoring the “the park might be closed” warning in the book. But I think it is part of the deal. This is not the first time we found something closed, not existing anymore etc. In return we found wonderful places in remote areas, off the beaten track. Places that no one would’ve guessed and we just stumbled in to them so I just thought it was one of the “you lose once, then you win more” Of course the tiredness and the fact that we almost lost Burt the day before didn’t help John feeling down so we just set in silence while we were driving toward the capital city.

Next, Bogotá…


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