From Pereira we rode to the nearby Otún Quimbaya nature sanctuary and did a couple of guided hikes with Oswaldo who spoke good English. We stayed overnight and woke to a forest full of birdsong. We were very lucky to see Howler monkeys way up high in the trees and lots of butterflies and birds. Yes the monkeys get their name from their howl but they weren’t calling each other when we saw them. They are amazing to watch make a path through the treetops without hesitation. Oswaldo was very lucky to see a sloth the previous week so we kept our eyes peeled but nothing.
Moving on we took a steep, shortcut to avoid backtracking on the same road and continued in the Zona Cafetera. As we were kind of killing time before the soccer match we did a loop around the region stopping in Filandia, Cacedonia, and then stayed a couple of days near Buenavista at an organic coffee finca run by Don Leo and his family. We join a tour where he tells his experience of living through the difficult years with FARC and how so many, including his grandparents, had to sell their farms very cheap and leave the area to protect their families from abduction, rape, and violence. Finally about 7 years ago he was able to buy this farm and we wandered through the coffee bushes interspersed between various fruit trees learning about coffee production.
As we were walking along the roadway, Señior Don Leo pointed out a pile of bananas thrown to the side of the road and said that the farmer leaves them there for people to help themselves because these bananas aren’t good enough for the market - they were sure sweet enough for us.
Heading out from Buena Vista we started with many short steep hills up and a couple hours later we were looking down at the town we were heading to. Jerome comments that the church looks a lot like the one in Buenavista...hmm, wait, that is Buenavista. Darn it, we missed the turn off a few kilometres back and have almost completed a circle up and around the mountain. The turn off road was so small I missed it again going back - this should have been a red flag. As we started on this new route it quickly got narrow and smaller and steeper until we had to push the bikes and eventually it took both of us to push one bike at a time up switchbacks and then go back-and-forth to haul Jerome’s front panniers. According to the GPS we were still on the trail and near the peak so we kept slogging away until we got to a Y. I walked off to see which way agreed with the GPS and off we went, finally downhill but still unrideable. Then the GPS shows us in no man’s land, a ways off the trail, and there was no way we were pushing the bikes back up so we continued along. At least we could see we were heading in general direction of a road. Finally we saw the town of the Pijao off in the valley and a couple of dirt roads. We had hit another Y so Jerome goes off to see which way looks best. As soon as he is out of sight I’m swarmed by little black flies that brought back memories of tree planting. The problem is that I’m holding both bikes on a downhill ridge so my hands aren’t free to swat them away. I take turns balancing on one leg to use the other leg to rub off some of the little blighters but now my legs are on fire and I’m starting to wonder if Jerome has gotten lost. I’m envisioning what would happen if I let go of the bikes. Where they would land? How much damage? And then Jerome pops up from behind a hill. Bikes are safe. Off we go following livestock trails through scrub until we eventually see a fence and possibly a gate down the hill leading to the dirt road.
The gate is wired shut with barbed wire so we take off the gear and I climb over the barbed wire fence so Jerome can pass everything over then he climbs over himself. Yeah! Easy ride the rest of the way into town but all told it took us 6 hours to go about 16kms. Somehow that day we both missed the step of checking the GPS suggested car route in addition to the suggested bike route (we are using MAPS.ME the most).
That might have made us think twice about the route - lesson learned!
We spend the next day relaxing and then headed to Armenia for the pre-olympic futbol games. We took a taxi from the hotel and as we got closer to the stadium the street was lined with yellow jerseys for sale and lots of police including groups of mounted police.
The first game was Venezuela vs Chile and it was scoreless until Chile scored with 5 min remaining. Colombia was playing Equador next and by now the stadium was full and you could feel the energy of the crowd. They sang their anthem all out and went crazy when Colombia scored the 1st goal. Luckily there was lots to cheer about as Colombia won 4 - O and so the police weren’t needed in the end, much to my relief.
Next we were off to Salento which reminded me of Skagway, Alaska because it’s a cute, colourful town full of tourists and jewellery stores - a first for us on this trip. We stayed overnight and then started the next day with a steady 20km climb out of town on a reasonable dirt road towards Toche that went through a spectacular valley filled with tall wax palms that are Colombia’s national tree and the tallest palm. We took lots of photo breaks and eventually pitched the tent by a river along an even smaller side road just outside of the small town of Toche. A couple motorbikes went by but mostly it was folks on their horses along with their dogs who came over to check us out and say hi...and one quickly peed on the corner of the tent. Now we rush to greet them before they get a chance to get close to the tent! The next day we continued on the dirt road to Ibagué with another climb to start. It was a long 9 hr day to cover 63 km but we had lots of stops to chat with locals going about their business hauling milk, oranges, processing sugar cane into panela, and picking mangoes . The couple picking mangoes called out to see if we wanted some. I love mangoes so I wasn’t going to pass this up. Señor was ready to pour the bucket of mangoes into my pannier but mangoes are not light so one layer was enough. Mmm, they were so sweet.
Luckily Ibagué is a bigger city because the camera on Jerome’s phone has gone wonky and we are hoping to get it fixed tomorrow. Fingers crossed.
Our plan is to head south to the Tatacoa desert then over the next month to keep working our way to the border with Equador.