As we left Ibagué we started to descend in altitude and the lower we got the hotter it became. Our next tourist destination was the Tatacoa desert with its unusual geographical formations. The first stop after Ibagué was just outside of Rovira when we saw a sign for camping with a pool. We didn't know it at the time but this would be the first of 4 nights with a pool. This wasn't planned but the prices were too good to pass up in this heat.
We always carry snacks with us such as peanuts, cookies and chocolate bars to get us through the day and also as a reward for making it up particular steep hills. If our timing is right we usually stop for a big lunch in the villages we pass through. On one incredibly hot morning we stopped to munch on part of a chocolate bar leaving the rest for our next big hill. Well, I guess that big hill never did come because sometime in the afternoon I went into my handlebar bag to get my camera and found everything covered in melted chocolate. I did the only thing I could think of and started licking up the chocolate so as it not to go to waste, Jacklin just laughed. We haven't made this mistake since and have eaten our chocolate bars in the morning. Shortly after this, Jacklin stopped to buy some mangoes along the side of the road. So even though she missed out on the chocolate she scored her favourite fruit here.
We decided to ride a small dirt road to get to the village of La Victoria which led to a ferry crossing over the Magdalena river. On the other side of the river a fellow on his one speed bicycle told us to follow him to La Victoria and he lead us through tiny paths, rice fields and across creeks. He was true to his word and we arrived in this remote village about 20 minutes later. This is one of the smaller villages that we have stayed in but surprisingly it boasted 2 hotels with pools and there were no other tourists to be seen. By this time we were only a few hours away from the Tatacoa desert and the temperature certainly made us feel like we were already there.
We rode out early the next morning and the rising sun created a golden glow on the surrounding grass lands. We stopped in the town of Villavieja for breakfast and then continued into the heart of the desert. The Tatacoa desert is not actually a desert but a dry tropical forrest. It covers 330 square kilometres and it is not uncommon for it to reach 45 degrees. The cacti can grow up to 5 metres tall. We biked out to a restaurant/hostel that has space to set up a tent. It seemed like the perfect spot. There are quite a few hostels/ hotels in the desert as this is quite a tourist destination. We then rode down the road to a pool in the middle of the desert built amongst the area of the Hoyas. These are tall greyish formations that create a bit of a labyrinth to walk through. Apparently the pool, although artificial, obtains its water naturally from the desert (not sure how as it is so dry). We stayed until the sun started to go down and we made our way back to set up our tent. We found a spot on the edge of a hill about as far away as we could get from civilization. The only sign of life were the horses roaming the country side. The only draw back to to being so far away was the long walk to the bathroom in the restaurant. We kept the fly off the tent so we could gaze up at the huge starry sky. Our bags were securely tightened near our bikes to keep the scorpions out. So far we haven't found any extra unwanted passengers. The night was beautiful and we rose the next morning with the sun. We made our way to the Cusco area of the desert which is an ochre coloured maze of iron rich rock and soil that has been eroded over time to produce the shapes seen today.
Once we were finished marvelling at the desert we continued to ride South into another coffee region in Colombia. We hadn't met any other cycle tourists in our first 3 months and starting just outside of the town of Hobo we met our first cyclist and then we met another a couple days later and then a group of 3 the next day. It was nice to share stories and recommendations.
Jacklin had arranged for us to stay at a coffee farm called 'Finca Alcatraz', about 10 KM outside of the village of Oporapa. Being back in the coffee region meant big hills and hard climbs. We arrived close to where we thought the farm would be and stopped at a small snack shop. Jacklin asked the shop owner about Finca Alcatraz and he replied, "Ah, Wilfredo!" and Jacklin said, "Si, Si Wilfredo! Donde?" (Where?) The shop keeper produced a slight grin on his lips and raised his arm up with his index finger pointing to the farm. Our eyes followed his arm and then to where his finger was pointing and our hearts sank. The farm was close to the top of the mountain that towered above us. We should have known. The shop keeper phoned Wilfredo to let him know that his guests arrived. We sat in the shop keeper's shop with his family to wait for Wilfredo to show us the way to the farm. I was going to buy some drinks to support his store when his wife came out from the back with a tray and 2 glasses of a nut flavoured milk. They were such a nice family. Wilfredo arrived on his motorbike (not a pick up truck to put our bikes in like I was secretly hoping) and we rode behind him. It was no surprise when the hills reached 18% grade, but Wilfredo was patient and he waited for us at each corner. When we finally arrived sweating and out of breath, Wilfredo's wife, Yubely, welcomed us with fresh pineapple juice.
We had 2 options to stay on the farm, a room with a bed or self contained tree house which included a fridge, hot plate, sink and TV. We kind of hummed and hawed but I knew what we were going to choose and we were soon moving our bags into the tree house. We originally only planned to stay for 2 nights but our peaceful surroundings and the hospitality of Wilfredo and his family convinced us to stay for a third night. The view was magical and the birds were plenty. Wilfredo taught us about coffee tasting and we did a lot of slurping and spitting but there is much more to it than that. I can say that Wilfredo's coffee is one of the best that I have had in Colombia, it was such a treat to wake up to a cup of his coffee each morning.
So after 3 days of relaxing and enjoying premium coffee we moved on and continued battling the hills toward our next tourist stop, San Agustin. It was going to be 2 days before arriving and we camped on the property of a hotel in El Salto de Bordones which over looks the 400 meter high Bordones water fall.
The next day we started down a dirt road for about 10 KM which then turned to pavement and down about another 10 KM to the Magdalena river. The draw for tourists to San Agustin are hundreds of ancient statues and tombs scattered in the area. They range from 2000-5000 years old and most experts have varying theories of their significance and purpose. Since these experts can't agree on the statues I won't add much more information on them other than that they were very interesting to see. Of course every downhill comes at a price and we were soon climbing again to get to San Agustin.
The day after arriving we hired a guide and horses to reach the statues farther away from town. It was refreshing to be riding something but not having to do all the work. Both of our horses behaved for the most part, but my horse, Tepida, liked to cut off Jacklin's horse, Pepe, whenever they tried to trot out in front of us. The next day we rode our bikes out to the main archaeological park which was only a few kilometres away and we spent a couple of hours walking amongst the statues and tombs.
We are staying in San Agustin longer than planned because of a 3 day transport strike that is being initiated by a group of guerillas in Colombia. Normally this would not affect us because we are on our bikes but we would rather just lay low until it is over. We can't say enough about the generosity of people of Colombia and how safe we have felt here. So we will hang out here and rest our tired legs a little longer.