We were told it would be very difficult. They were right. It was 4 days of the hardest cycling that we have ever done, but it was also one of the most beautiful riding that we have done and would do it again.
Yopal and the Casanares plains were hot and humid at about 500 meters above sea level. We are now in Aquitania at about 3000 meters above sea level and the temperature is much cooler, almost cold.
We started the climb from El Morro where the heat really drained my energy. My shirt got soaked within the first 10 minutes of the day. I look over at Jacklin and unbelievably she is barely perspiring. She does much better in the heat. The road was rough and steep. There was hardly a part of the road that was flat. It kept going up and up. Our goal for the first day was to get to Labranzagrande. We rode about 28 KM in 6 hours and were relieved to finally roll into town. Labranzagrande is a small village with green and white buildings. The first few kilometres out of Labranzagrande were flat. That soon changed and it would be a couple of days before were on a level road again.
The scenery was spectacular with hidden valleys and soaring mountains and fast moving rivers. There were only a few trucks and motorcycles on the way and it sure beat getting back on the main highway with the construction and big trucks. Everyone was friendly and maybe a little bit surprised to see us cycling with all our gear on this road. After 5 hours of climbing our legs were starting to tell us to stop for the day. We knew we were not going to make it to Toquilla which was still many, many kilometers away.
We stopped at a la tienda (small store that sells snacks and drinks) that are constant along most roads but many had locked doors. This store had a horse and cow paddock and chickens and dogs running around. Jacklin asked a few of the fellas standing around if there was a place to camp nearby and they pointed beside the shop. We set up our tent beside the cows and the one horse. The elderly couple that owned the store were extremely nice. We cooked our dinner under their veranda and the husband was intrigued with our camp stove. We were able to communicate a little with each other throughout the afternoon in between their farm duties. Our Spanish is slowly getting better.
The next morning as we were packing up the husband came out with 2 cups of tinto (sweatened coffee) for us. Jacklin gave him one of our Canada pins and we said muchas gracias and goodbye. The road continued up and there was no way we would have made it much further the previous day.
The temperature started to cool off which was a relief. There were plenty of hills that we had to push our bikes up. Doing this is a much different workout than riding as we are using our upper body and legs. We would need frequent stops for a short rest to catch our breath and give our legs a break. A piece of chocolate and a drink and we would be off again. After 3 hours of riding, the road turned from rocks to smooth dirt which was a little piece of heaven. We were now able to ride without maneuvering around pot holes and rocks. The air was getting thinner and colder and our breath getting shorter the higher we got.
We finally made it to the top peak at about 3300 metres and were so happy. As tough as it was we would not have changed our route. We always love the quiet rural roads over the busy highways. From the peak it was down to Toquilla at 3000 metres.
Toquilla seems to be a bus/truck stop town as there were a lot of truck stop restaurants. We found the only hotel in town which was still under construction but they had a room for us which was barely finished. The rest of the rooms were still in concrete and bricks.
We had another choice of routes from Toquilla to Aquitania, the busy highway or a road like we had just finished riding. After talking to the manager of the hotel we decided on the rocky mountain road because of the views of Lake Tota as we ride into Aquitania. The road again was hard going but well worth. The clouds rolled in and the rain came down the closer we got to the top of the mountain. I welcomed the cool weather. We made it to the top at 3600 meters and the sun came out from behind the clouds and what a view of Aquitania and Lake Tota! We have not travelled that far in the last 4 days but it seems we have travelled to the moon and back. Our average speed has been a whopping 6 km/hr!
The main industry in Aquitania is agriculture, with green onion farms and trout fishing being the main source of income. 80% of the onions in Colombia are grown here. There were several onion fields being harvested as we rode down the mountain and we could smell their sweet fragrance.
We decided to find a decent hotel where we could rest our legs for a few days. We found one with hot water (Jacklin is so happy!) and nice clean comfortable room and wifi.
We found ourselves in a small one room museum this afternoon where 2 Austrians (the first Gringos we have seen in a while) were just at the beginning of a talk about the region by an enthusiastic staff person. The Austrians spoke Spanish and were able to translate what we were not able to pick up. Soon, during the talk the enthusiastic staff person was dressing us up in authentic clothing worn by the people in this region. It was all very interesting and fun.
We will most likely make our way to Mongui tomorrow after riding around the lake. Tota lake is the largest lake in Colombia but most of the ride to Mongui is downhill.