Saturday, October 2, 2010

Of Cattle, Cargo and Climbs

September 5th to 16th

Teganga is a strange mix. It used to be a tiny fishing village until it was discovered and the hoteliers and restaurateurs moved in en masse. Now it is an odd mix of gringo hostels, scuba diving schools, traditional fishing and rubble strewn street. The whole thing is surrounded by crumpled, emerald green mountains and the beautiful bay is dotted with tiny boats. Picture perfect....


We manage to secure an air conditioned apartment for a steal at US$18 and meet up with our Stahlratte shipmates to sink a couple of beers.

We finally leave after 4 days and hit the road. It's 565kms (350 miles) to our next stop, 'Bucaramanga' and the going is flat for the majority. We do have to backtrack and re-run the gauntlet of Santa Marta traffic first though, and inevitably we get lost. Following an early, 6am start it's a little frustrating to lose time, and the day heats up savagely. After an hour lost battling insane driving and slowly going mad to the sound of constantly blaring horns we finally emerge onto the right road.

Accommodation is once again scarce. We were lead to expect rooms at petrol stations every few kilometers, but we saw just two places in 300kms between Cartegena and Teganga. The road to Bucaramange begins in similar fashion, so after just 60kms in nearly six hours when we do finally spot something, the temptation to stop proves too strong. A bird in the hand and all that.... and risking another 60kms in this heat to find something else would be crazy.

The 'hotel' is a trucker's stop with a huge cleared patch of dirt for the 24 wheelers and there is a restaurant attached. It's an absolute bargain at $12 for a western standard motel room with air conditioning. The restaurant is similarly good value at $4 for a two course soup and steak dinner. Cyclista heaven!

The ride is strangely dull - flat pasture land with cattle grazing for mile after mile. You could be forgiven for thinking you were back in England such is the lack of anything 'tropical'. Once this whole area would have been rain forest, but it has all been cleared for Colombia's huge dairy and beef industries....


We do see one 'island' of trees with a family of howler monkeys and a couple of blue gold macaws but otherwise the only thing tropical is the heat. Once again we slip into the routine of dawn starts and midday finishes.

Once we are a couple of hours drive out from the ports of Baranquila and Santa Marta we do begin to encounter Colombia's fabled oversupply of accommodation and the number of truck-stop hotels multiplies. Unfortunately so does the volume of traffic. This is the main route between those entry ports, and Colombia's capital 'Bogota' and the sheer amount of building supplies and consumer products on-route hints at a different Colombia beyond these cattle ranches.

We are yet to see it and the days merge into endless miles of the same; occasionally broken up by the geometric regularity of the palm oil plantations. Mercifully there is a screen of trees along the road side which shields us from the intense heat of the sun...


The only other distractions are the frequent toll booths. Travel is expensive with petrol close to US$4 a gallon and toll prices high. Costs are in COP (Colombian Pesos at around 1800 to the dollar)....


Motorbikes and cycles pass through on their own lane, unmolested and uncharged.

In common with the ride along the coast, much of the lower lying land is waterlogged from tropical storms and heavy afternoon showers. The same musical accompaniment of a frog's chorus follows us for hundreds of mile inland....


Huge dragonflies zig and zag in displays of incredible showmanship. They hover just before your nose, matching pace with our moving bikes before twisting and zipping off at speed. In bright colours of vivid crimson, apricot and cobalt they resemble gaudy bi-planes, dog-fighting in miniature. They are far too slick to catch on the wing and I snoop around their landing zones to capture them in repose....


Another dawn, another cattle ranch swathed in the mists of last night's rain storm....



Another day of that sweltering thin line of grey tarmac vanishing off into the distance....


Bucaramanga is getting closer, but that is the only thing that does seem to change.

Over dinner in one of our regular truck stops we get chatting to a driver delivering a consignment of huge steel pipes for the petroleum industry. He explains about deadlines and distances. It's about a thousand kilometres (625 miles) to Bogota and hauliers are expected to make the journey in 28 hours. It's a tall order when you consider that 600 kilometers are through the mountains and Bogota is 2800 metres above the sea level ports. Many of the hotels charge in four hour blocks - time for drivers to catch a quick nap before racing back along the route. Clearly drained, with red rimmed, tired eyes he explains how drivers try and get ahead of the game on this 400km stretch of flat, straight road. It explains some of the near misses we have had with wagons passing within inches of us at warp speed.

Insane overtaking is the norm and we see several results of when the gamble doesn't pay off.


Patched up wagons get straight back in the game so as not to lose time. We see a coach with it's entire front end missing on one side - still happily carrying passengers. There are several cars crabbing along sideways, their chassis clearly bent with tyres squealing in protest. We are lucky to have just missed this one as the traffic suddenly stops in front of us.....


The sign reads 'No more stars on the road' and ironically there is one right in front of it. Each marks the spot of a fatality and they are a several-times-daily sight. Some have the tiny white outlines of bodies painted inside, representing the number killed and are a grisly reminder.


Mostly we ride under the blazing sun, occasionally we ride in the rain. One massive overnight storms fails to let up with torrential rain and inches of standing water still on the road by morning. Visibility is down to nothing and we lose a day.

Another dawn....


Another cattle ranch....



And finally after Aguachica, we start to climb and the land changes. With 160kms (100 miles) to go we leave the flat pasture behind and the air mercifully cools a degree or two. Now there are bends in the roads and the traffic is forced to slow down around us. No longer are the wagons roaring past us: now they are grinding up the hills as laboriously as us and they give us plenty of room as if their straining engines makes them appreciate our efforts. We have finally earned our place on the road!


It has taken us nine days, but at last Bucaramanga is in sight. We also are in the sights of a long lens as I spot a photographer at the road side. He flags us down and shows us credentials - a reporter from 'La Vanguardia'. We conduct an impromptu interview at the roadside and he promises that 'maybe' we'll make the following day's paper.

We only go and make the front page....


Fame at last! In this cycle crazy country, interest is high in all things bici and there is a buzz around the hotel staff as word of our exploits spreads. I have never experienced (very minor) celebrity status before. Sue considers dark glasses and a fake mustache if she is ever to walk the streets anonymously again....

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