Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Driving Madness

October 18th to 22nd

The plan is to leave Ubate, make a quick 30 mile dash to Zipaquira and spend the afternoon touring a gigantic underground salt cathedral. Plans change as we enter the main plaza and bump into ‘Carlos’. I ask him about cheap hotels and he turns out to be the most helpful person in the universe insisting that we accompany him on foot. The hotel room is not quite ready so we find ourselves in his living room meeting the family for coffee and biscuits while we wait.

The room turns out to be on the fouth floor which is tricky with our bikes and gear. Carlos takes it as a personal failure and steels himself to find us the perfect accommodation. The next one is not suitable for reasons unknown - I know not why as I never even got in the door! Carlos is on a mission now and strides confidently to his next candidate. He decides this is OK and I am glad he is satisfied as we unpack the bikes.

No time to shower, he insists on a guided tour and bolts from the building pointing out landmarks with one hand, greeting locals with the other. He seems to know everyone, and now, by association so do we. His local restaurant is now our local restaurant as we meet the proprietor and promise to return.

Apparently there’s no time to eat, as he’s already moving on towards the salt cathedral. He’s a really nice guy, but by now we are both starving and cold in our wet cycling gear and have to insist on returning to the hotel to change and get food. I swear I thought he would accompany us into the shower....

Like most Colombians we have met so far, the willingness to help out strangers is truly amazing. Carlos makes a couple of phone calls and is genuinely apologetic when he can’t change an appointment the following day so he can show us around Bogota and bids us farewell!

By the time we’re fed and watered it’s too late to make the most of the cathedral so we wander around Zipaquira instead. There are three huge plazas in this modest sized town; all with fine buildings, the central one with exploding palm trees like fireworks frozen in time....

The salt cathedral is in the third largest salt mine in the world with Canada in top spot; Poland second. It has been worked for hundreds of years originally by indigenous ‘Muisca’ indians who traded valuable salt over a wide area. Due to modern techniques, only 100 people work the mine today, mainly as demolition experts. To soak up a bigger work force someone had the bright idea of openening up the mine to tourists during the day. Miners only get to blow stuff up at night.

Hewn from giant rock faces are 12 massive carved representations of the stations of the cross. Deeper in the mine are three enormous man-made caverns containing a cathedral large enough for 8500 people. It’s incredibly impressive and there’s even a cinema with 3D videos explaining the geology and history of the mine....

The smaller chapels off to the side are atmospheric with dramatic lighting on the rock walls....

There’s an underground bar here for after services and as it’s so difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, there are ample shopping opportunities to buy locally mined emeralds and relieve yourself of any unwanted cash. An underground shopping mall - they have thought of everything!

From Zipaquira we decide to ride around the capital, Bogota. There is nothing we feel compelled to see there and the thought of riding into a city of nearly 9 million people, given the exhibition of driving skills we have seen so far fills us with a kind of dread.

So, Zipaquira, Chia, Cota, Funza and Mosquera. A series of small towns pass us by as we circumnavigate the city. Towards Soacha, the land climbs again past stone and gravel mines up the side of a steep sided valley....

Our decision not to brave Bogota traffic is vindicated as we see several incidents on this narrow, twisty road....

The truck infront is being overtaken by the white van when it pulls out past the roadworks. The white lorry coming in the opposite direction is being overtaken by the maroon coloured 22 wheelers which is being forced off the road. The smoke behind the white van is from his screeching tyres as he, the lorry and the 22 wheeler all skid to a halt to avoid a head on collision.
But only just!

Just beyond the ‘Do Not Kill Cyclists’ sign a bus takes the blind bend neck-and-neck with that transporter which brushes past Sue. 'Peligro’ means Danger - cos it’s a liquid bomb full of gasoline....

We see several such incidents and stop for lunch to calm down when we see some of the results being taken away to a scrap yard on the back of tow-trucks. Colombian driving is becoming a bit of a concern....

Incredible views though....

But not for long....

We crest the hill and all views, incredible or not, disappear completely. The world is grey and scary. Somewhere out there lurks a maniac behind the wheel, careering blindly into the fog. It’s not a comfortable experience picking our way back down the hillside as we desperately try to drop below the blanket of cloud cover....

Eventually the world reappears and we relax slightly. Then the world disappears again as heavy black storm clouds roll down off the mountain and it begins to pour. The rain is torrential and again, at this altitude it’s frrreeezing. Above a petrol station we spot a couple of rooms and I enquire within. My heart sinks when it’s only 15,000 Pesos (US$8). For once I really wanted to pay more as that would mean a hot shower, but it’s waaaay too cold to ride on and the roads are submerged and trecherous. There’s no food here either, but on seeing the state of us, the station owner kindly promises to ask her brother to bring extra for supper.

There’s nothing worse than an icy shower when you are already cold, but it does save on water! The stove comes to the rescue again as I make a flask of hot chocolate, and then leave it on to heat the room.

That rare pleasure that is unique to cycle tourists - putting on damp, soggy lycra the next morning and squeezing feet into sopping wet shoes. Lovely! Happily the day is warm and clear and the road winds on downwards towards the heat.

You can always tell when you have lost altitude as buzzing things start to bite. This guy is so interesting though that I swapped him a sip of my blood for the chance of a picture. It’s hard to begrudge the pretty ones....

Temperatures rise dramatically as we drop down the valley to affluent looking ‘Silvania’, an upmarket artisan’s town where the roadsides are lined with local handicrafts....

We climb away from the hills that Bogota sits atop....

Through the enchanted forest where the purple headed Tree Ents live....

On to ‘Fusagasuga’.
Fusa ga-sa what-a-guga??
What kind of name is that for a town?
What a waste!
A name like that should really be saved for some sort of epic, apocalyptic self assembling super weapon in a video game. Like a super bazooka! But bigger! And way more scary!
A Fusagasuga!
I would play that game!

Disappointingly Fusagasuga turns out to be just a stunning holiday destination perched along a ridge overlooking a deep canyon. Prices are out of our range starting at 70,000 Pesos for the cheap seats and rising sharply from there. Luckily there is a toll booth on the road and I have a hunch that a hotel just the other side would not be able to get away with such prices as the Bogota crowd would not pay to drive through the toll and check them out.

It proves to be spot on and suddenly, just 100 metres down the road we get an absolute steal for 30,000. There’s a balcony with views down the canyon to the river 600 metres below and best of all a private pool as no one else is here....

Oh yes! This all makes up for wet clothes and a freezing shower last night....


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