May 16 to 31, 2010
I woke up gasping. With panic welling up inside, I frantically unzipped my sleeping bag and sat up in the tent. I tried to calm myself by taking a few deep breaths, but it didn’t help. I still felt like I was suffocating – like my sister was jamming a Star Wars pillow over my face and trying to kill me. It was unnerving, but eventually, I was able to catch my breath, calm down and get back to sleep. Roz and I were camped at 11,000 feet at a hot springs a few hours away from Manizales, Colombia, and I was experiencing one of the effects of high altitude – panic attacks! Other effects include the inability to sleep and excessive urination. Roz and I experienced all three that night and emerged bleary-eyed from our cold tent the next morning. Despite the lack of sleep, we felt pretty blissed out. The lush green mountains around us were shrouded in mist and there was a stillness in the dawn that was soothing to the soul. The place won top marks for atmosphere. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday so by the time Roz and I were finishing our third cup of coffee, two big families had arrived and were checking out the pools. Well, one pool actually because the other pool was empty for cleaning. That meant that pretty soon many fleshy beings would be jockeying for space in the confines of a single urine-scented concrete tub. It was time to move on.
Once we packed up Yuki, we took a different route back to Manizales which, while shorter by an hour, was a dirt road full of muddy sections. These sections were slippery, but I was able to get through without using four-wheel drive. As I was congratulating myself on my excellent macho driving skills, a scooter roared past me in the opposite direction. The driver, a middle-aged woman in a skirt, expertly maneuvered the scooter up the slick track without a hiccup. To add insult to injury, on the back of the bike was another woman, AND two kids! Talk about a buzz-kill to my Paris-Dakar race car driver fantasies. Luckily, the gorgeous terrain made up for the slap to my ego and I was able to drive on, albeit, a little humbler.
(ROZ: Speaking of motorcycles, even though they’re prevalent throughout Mexico and Central America (as a cheap means of transportation, not as an expensive recreational vehicle), Colombia had the most we’d seen yet. It also won our informal contest of “how many bodies can you get on one small two-wheeled vehicle?” – FIVE. Yup, we saw a guy riding a motorcycle with a small 5-year-old up front on the gas tank, and his wife on the back with a child on either thigh. But don’t worry, the dad was wearing a motorcycle helmet!)
Back in Manizales, Roz and I found the Base Camp Hostel in the old part of town (http://www.guatemalavolcano.com/base-camp-hostel-colombia.html). We had met the owner, Victor, the week before and were keen to check out his new place. Perched on a hill with stunning views of the valley below, Base Camp was a nice joint to get a few things done. First off, I had to recover from a stomach ailment. I don’t know if I ate something bad or what, but I spent a whole day sleeping, (when I wasn’t running to the bathroom) and watching films on the ‘puter. But thanks to Roz’s motherly nursing (“What the fack is wrong with you now?!”), I recovered quickly and got back to work. (I’m kidding of course – Roz was a sweetheart.) My prime mission was to find a storage container for our truck’s roof. Yuki, our Suzuki Samurai, is a pretty small trucklet so the back is jammed full of shit. Shit for cold weather. Shit for hot weather. Shit for eating, shit for sleeping and yes, even shit for shitting (says I, holding up a folding shovel and two rolls of toilet paper). The remedy to this shituation, I thought, was a box for the roof. It had to be waterproof, lockable and fit the roof rack. And it had to look cool. I looked into industrial containers, pizza delivery boxes and even a Thule box I found locally for $400 before I decided to get a box custom-made instead. Victor was a great help for this when one day, he took me to a local metal shop and, using his excellent Spanish, explained to Freddie, the shop’s owner, what I needed. I got a quote for $150 and after a beer of contemplation, told Freddie to go for it.
We had a week to kill before the box would be ready so Roz suggested we visit the coffee region south of Manizales. As a coffee addict, I gave her a jittery thumbs up. We said good-bye to Victor and Carolina, the lovely co-owner of Base Camp, and hit the road southward bound. Near Santa Rosa de Cabal, we stopped at a hot springs spa, but decided to return after the weekend when the prices were cheaper (couple of tightwads, ain’t we?). We carried on through the big and ugly city of Pereira where a squeegie kid (of 30) spat at Roz’s window when I told him I didn’t want his service. Actually, I barked “No” at him like a dog and I think it scared him so he retaliated with spittle. Regardless, he was a little shit. South of the city, we pulled off the highway and took a quiet road towards Salento, where we soon found a hidden gem of a campground called Monteroca (http://www.campingmonterroca.com/). The creation of Jorge, a former geologist turned campground artist, Monteroca was a sprawling, naturally-landscaped property with large camping sites. Jorge was as unique as his creations and it was a real treat getting a tour from him of all his “hospedajes exoticos” – beautifully detailed tent structures, each with their own unique theme, such as the Hippie Hilton (self-explanatory), Safari (African-themed, complete with tiger-skin rugs) and Media Noche (with glow-in-the-dark stars and planets on the ceiling). As fantastic as each tent (and treehouse) was, they were bigger and pricier than we needed, so we picked out a lovely camping spot, pitched our tent and took advantage of the huge, sheltered communal kitchen, covered hammock area and bathroom block (complete with a roof-less, hot water shower.)
We had a lovely few days camping there and checking out Jorge’s other enterprises, which included a boa constrictor pit, a rock and meteorite collection, and a recreation of Simon Bolivar’s bedroom (Bolivar was the Venezuelan leader who led the revolt against Spanish colonial rule in the early 1800s). Jorge’s place was also a great base to set off on day trips and explore the surrounding area. We spent a day walking around the cute town of Salento, poking our noses into their artisan shops and eating a delicious trout lunch at the jazz-playing, funky Barroco restaurant. We spent another day in the Cocora Valley, home to Colombia’s national plant, the wax palm, which is the tallest palm tree in the world and the only palm tree that can live at 7,000 feet. We had a great time hiking in the rain up the valley near Las Palmas, accompanied by a lovely (uninvited) black lab and surrounded by lush green mountains covered with towering palm trees emerging through the mist. Trippy man! The best part of our stay at Monteroca was meeting up with a fellow travelling couple we met six months earlier in Alamos, Mexico. Trish and Mike are travelling from Colorado through South America with their adorable brown lab, Chettie, in a four-wheel drive VW van – very cool vehicle (when it’s running – tee hee – sorry Mike!) Check out their blog at http://www.southwestytravels.blogspot.com. We had a great time catching up and sharing stories of the road.
Before we left Monteroca, Mike and Trish told us how to find an even better hot springs than what we had originally considered. (In case it isn’t obvious, we’re kinda hot for hot springs.) Following their directions, we found the Termales San Vicente and rented a room (it was the same price as camping – go figure). That night and following day we had a hedonistic, hot-springing time exploring the many diverse pools. They were all wonderful, but our favourite was the “guest only” pool built of river stone next to a giant earth bank. It was a magical place and we had it all to ourselves – oh yeah baby (cue Barry White song). We also enjoyed their “turcos”, natural steam baths built of rock that were covered with clear plastic roofs and had hot water flowing from the springs under the floorboards to keep the rooms nice and steamy. Kind of cool in that they were always on. Before we left, we hiked to some nearby falls with a guide and two other guests. One of the guests was a Colombian-born Canadian named Cristobal who works in Vancouver, across the street from where Roz once worked a few years ago. Small world, eh?
Thoroughly relaxed, we left the hot springs and returned to Manizales where metal shop Freddie told us the box wasn’t ready yet. The paint wasn’t adhering to the metal in the cold weather so it would be another day. One day became two, but finally, the box was ready. Except that it wouldn’t fit in the roof rack. It was built a hair too large. Freddie pounded the box and rack with a hammer until finally, the box slipped in. With a sigh of relief, we thanked the crew, paid Freddie and hit the road with something every married man wants – a second box. Cuz he’s married and his wife buys stuff so he has to have a box (ideally two) to put the stuff into. You know what I’m saying. (giggle)
With a final good-bye wave to Manizales we drove south. Past Pereira where I didn’t get to “accidentally” drive over a certain squeegie person. Past Cali, a place so big, it took us a half hour to get through it. And past Jamundi where we pulled over and asked a municipal cop for directions. We were looking for a nearby park entrance, and even though he tried to help us, it soon became clear that he had no idea where this park was. As the sun set behind the mountains, it also became clear that we had run out of light and we still didn’t know where to spend the night. Fortunately, a helpful Colombian walked by and suggested that we check out a place down the road called Club Telcom. We thanked the cop and the passerby for their help and, a few minutes later, found the large resort intended for Colombia’s phone company employees. We talked to the friendly caretaker, and since we were just spending the night and moving on first thing in the morning, he didn’t mind if we camped on the grass. For a few dollars, we had a secure place to sleep, bathrooms and a cooking area. Best of all for Roz, we also had a mother/daughter duo of gentle labs that came to our camp for love.
(ROZ: Speaking of dogs (squirrel!), I was pleasantly surprised to see so many big, healthy dogs in Colombia, rather than the scrawny, dirty street dogs we’d seen everywhere else.)
The next day we rolled into Popayan, a tranquil town known for its whitewashed buildings. Bright and pretty, but kinda quiet. After checking out a few hotels, we settled on a cute hostel run by an even cuter Scottish couple, Tony and Kim, called Hostel Trail (http://www.hosteltrailpopayan.com). I asked Tony about the security situation around San Agustin, which had a park there we wanted to check out with hundreds of huge, pre-Incan stone statues. The 100-mile dirt road was sometimes dangerous to travel because it was located in the FARC-stronghold of Cauca, scene of recent guerrilla skirmishes with the Colombian army. Tony said the road was generally safe now, but because national elections were being held that weekend, it was better to stay off the road and avoid travelling altogether. Elections are common times to blow stuff up or murder people in order to remind the politicians that there are still rebels in the countryside. We decided to heed his advice and stick around for a couple of days.
(ROZ: On the flip side of how NOT to travel to South America, we’ve learned that it’s usually a good idea to listen to the wisdom of the locals when they have first-hand knowledge about something, such as: potability of water, conditions of roads, current political climate, security concerns, etc)
On the night of Colombia’s national election, we walked around an eerily quiet Popayan looking for food. Occasionally, a car full of young, chanting Green Party supporters would pass by, honking their horns, and we’d give them a big wave back. Eventually, with the help of a nice lady who could see we were lost, we found a restaurant that was open and that was blasting the election coverage on its TV. As we munched on food with a few local patrons, we watched the status quo candidate (Santos of the Party of the U) take the biggest percentage of votes and surprisingly, a Green Party candidate (Mockus) take the second highest share. It was amazing to watch a Green Party candidate taken seriously enough to grab 2nd place in a national election – something unimaginable in a U.S. or Canadian election. Go Green! (I say, hopping into my truck.) Because Santos didn’t get over 50 percent of the votes, there would be another election between him and Mockus in a few weeks, but for our purposes, we were clear to travel. A day after the election, we were back on the road.
When we left Popayan for San Agustin, Roz and I totally screwed up. Two hours into the mountains near Coconuco, I realized that I had forgotten to fill Yuki’s gas tank. Similarly, Roz had forgotten to make sure we had enough money to travel. We didn’t. Undeterred, we decided to explore the area with what little money and gas we had and fill up our tank and wallet the next day (if we could find a gas station and ATM). Our low-gas travels took us through the highlands of Purace National Park to a former hot springs. It had been a popular place thirty years ago until one day, the hot water turned cold and the people stopped coming. Funny how cold spring spas never took off. Pretty as the springs were, the water and air were freezing so we headed back to Coconuco to find hot springs that were actually hot! We settled on the indigenous-run Agua Hirvienda, and their cute, but cold cabins. By the end of our weird day, Roz and I were hungry and a little grumpy with each other, but once we ate, calmed down and made up, we were ready to check out the pools. Two weeks ago, I was gasping for air, but now, I was sighing with relief. I was laying in a hot tub with my sweetheart in my arms (and a cold beer in my hand), and not far away, I had my shit in a steel box. I was in heaven.
END OF PART 22