Sunday, October 10, 2010

Into the Abyss

Sept 25th to 27th

San Gil is a mere 94 kilometers (59 miles) away - child's play.... except that the 'Chicamocha Canyon' lies between us and it. Chicamocha is a beast - a vertically walled, 1500 metre (one mile) chasm in the earth resembling the scar from a mighty axe swung on a godly scale. The road to San Gil drops dramatically from top to bottom and then winds tortuously up the other side.

Initially we climb away from Bucaramanga from around 1100 metres (3650 feet) up to the canyon rim at around 1500 metres (5,000 feet). At this kind of altitude, the temperature has become more comfortable and you can attack the climbs with a bit more energy. That said, we know we have to drop to a more tropical 550m (1800ft) and then climb back out of the abyss. That is a job for the cool of morning so we decide to make it a two day ride; stopping on the canyon floor.

Our first view of the drop before the road loops back on itself and heads off into that cleft....

Watching the suicidal overtaking by coaches and wagons on totally blind bends is sobering and I vow to just ride faster than anything else on the road to stay out of trouble. Annoyingly it starts to pour with rain at this point - ensuring that my brakes are too wet to work and I now have no choice....

So follow 10 miles of continuous downhill through stinging rain. It all gets a bit lively lining up the bends and trying to scrub off speed with waterlogged, useless brakes. The weight of our bags just conspire with gravity to keep on pushing and it's a hair raising descent!

It's all over in a blur of speed! Then the gradient shallows and the rock walls rear up around us and we are suddenly close to the bottom....

By chance there is a newly built hotel just before the bridge that crosses the Chicamocha river and we have dropped 1000m (3300ft) in the blink of an eye. It is noticeably warmer on the canyon floor and we have the treat of an early stop in an air conditioned room for just US$12. In contrast to much of Central America, Colombia has been a pleasant surprise in that there seems to be a certain pride in finishing buildings off. There are far less protruding bits of steel and wire to gouge or incinerate yourself on and some things even get painted. It's funny what you get used to, but that kind of stuff feels like a luxury!

Disappointing as it was to see the canyon under grey skies for the descent, we are fortunate to wake up to clear blue skies for the climb.

Atmospheric tendrils of water vapour rise up from the river as the day begins to heat up and the dawn sun just clips the top of a rock wall two thirds of a mile above us. It's 6am and there is a full moon in the blue sky and it's a perfect day to ride....

A 500 foot long bridge crosses the choppy brown water of the Chicamocha and then the road angles sharply upwards. The canyon rim above us on this side is at 1850m (6,200ft) and it's gonna be a long haul. Here the canyon runs North-South and we climb the eastern wall - meaning we are going to be in deep shadow until we crawl out into the sunlight at the top....

This is great news as it's pretty hot in direct sunlight. It also creates some dramatic lighting that changes throughout the climb - this is shaping up to be a good day!

Again it's a bizarre combination of hardy cactus more suited to the long, parched dry season happily growing alongside large-leaf plants suited to a seasonal rain forest. Each type of vegetation represents the extremes of Colombia's annual cycle.

I love a proper climb! None of that wishy-washy, indecisive undulation rubbish. If you're going to climb, you just want to go up! I hate all that up-a-bit, down-a-bit messing around. Chicamocha is a proper climb, complete with 'high penalty for failure' drops off the edge over a (very) low wall....

Contrary to the insane overtaking we saw on the descent, the climb is treated with respect and trucks and cars for once, give us, and each other a bit of space.

We chug away - bottom gear grinding and the river falls away turning from a wide torrent into a distant trickle....

Higher still and the road starts to look like a narrow track and we look down on the clouds....

21 kilometers (13 miles) later and 1400m (4600ft) higher we finally drag ourselves from this deep rift in the land. Sue seems rather pleased with herself....

And why not - you can just make out 'Pescadero' village where we overnighted waaaaay down below her arm and we are even looking down on the five foot wing span of black vultures....

The gradient evens out a little and you can feel the change as different leg muscles begin to get used. It's been a reasonably tough climb, but just jaw droppingly spectacular. That changes as we round a corner and it's suddenly all gone a bit 'Disney Does Nature' as we hit the entrance to Chicamocha National Park....

We stop in the car park for a water break and a sandwich. Locals stepping off the gondola that rises in smooth mechanical luxury up from the valley floor stare at us like we just landed from Mars, but in keeping with most Colombians we have met so far, they are keen to chat and are warm, open and friendly.

Everyone here is either a keen cyclist or knows someone who is - most people cycle for leisure or transport. We play guess the weight of the bike and a couple of the blokes always try and pick mine up - usually without success. People are always cool when you say that you cycled all the way from Canada, but stare in open amazement when you tell them you are going to Bogota next - just 200 miles away.

We think it's all over but there are more climbs to do yet....

And there are other stunning gorges to ride past....

A two day ride turns into three when we see another place to stay right at the top of yet another awesome ravine....

I can't imagine what it would cost to stay overlooking this in Europe, but again we get a private room for what is becoming the standard price in Colombia - US$12. Food in the restaurant next door is more expensive than normal - US$5 for soup and a steak dinner!

It's only 20 miles or so into San Gil, so we break the next day up with a couple of stops. It's great that you can even think to stop and look at stuff on the way. In the torrid lowlands, we were always clock watching and fearing to delay as the temperatures soared. Altitude has it's benefits. First stop is at the 'quaint' little colonial village of Curiti where we haul our bikes into the back room of a restaurant for some lunch....

The second is at 'Pozol Azul', a lovely series of babbling water falls for coffee....

The ride from Bucaramanga to San Gil must go down as one of the more spectacular rides we have done, probably since Guatemala..... well, maybe with the exception of the tougher crossing of the Continental divide in Panama. We are starting to feel that we are getting to the Andes proper now and this is just a taste of what's to come....

Can't wait!


Daniel said...

...and this is just a taste of what's to come.
For sure!! Hey, Manizales is not that far from Bogota and it is totally flat ;)
(I spent the night down the valley at the "Balneario" near the river with a nice cool pool.)

Sween in SAmerica said...

Hey Daniel - good to hear from you.

I think we will 'make a detour' to Manizales after Bogota. We never head in straight lines anyway ;)

I heard about Nevados National Park and the 5500m+ peaks are calling to me.... Is that your idea of flat???

Hasta la proxima vez amigo!!

Daniel said...

... by the way, team altitude score is 6310m (Chimborazo, Ecuador). That's the goal ;)

Hasta la proxima tambien, amigo.

contrabland said...

I did warn you! Not a lot you can do to avoid the climbs in South America though, at least this one was paved. Hope your trip is going well, we're just about to hit Bolivia - Peru has been amazing but it has been bleeding our wallets dry so it'll be good to be somewhere cheap again. Good luck!

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