Relief filled our minds and bodies as we finally dipped into noticeably cooler weather in the mountainous region of Central Colombia. The inescapable heat of Central America followed us to the northern coast of Colombia with consistent temperature lows in the low 80’s and highs in the mid 90’s. Humidity amplified the heat greatly and often we found ourselves struggling to stay comfortable at night. In Central Colombia, we experienced lows in the high 60’s and highs in the low 80’s with almost zero humidity. Although we were told it was the rainy season, we experienced nothing more than a sprinkle every now and then and the clouds helped keep things cool. However, when the clouds parted, the intensity of the sun at high elevation quickly reminded us that we were very near the equator.
Our first planned stop aside from a quick overnighter since leaving Santa Marta was San Gil. To get to San Gil, we drove nearly 200 miles through the jungle before we began rising to the mountains. The mountains rose quickly south of Aguachica offering an incredible view of the flat central valley. As we neared San Gil, the mountains grew increasingly larger and spreading further creating enormous drainage valleys that dwarfed nearly everything we saw in Central America. The best way to describe this area was that it is simply big country.
San Gil offered us the first view of the change in architecture from the coastal regions. Terra cotta roofs capped nearly every building in the city and the majority of the old style buildings had smooth adobe walls. It was very similar to what could be encountered in Tuscany. The city wasn’t overly appealing and there wasn’t one spot to be had for parking our oversized truck so we explored the narrow streets as we drove up the incredibly steep streets the wrong way with a thwarted attempt to turn down another street the wrong way. Realizing our truck simply didn’t fit in this city, we headed to our camp spot for the night two miles south of town.
Outside of San Gil, we stayed at Fogatas campground. The owners were incredibly friendly although we weren’t able to understand much of what they were saying as we are still trying to sort out the Colombian accents. A parrot named Laura entertained us with her squawking for hours and the owner mentioned that she often roams the campground on foot. Hilarious!
While at Fogotas, we met some fellow overlanders, Gerard and Cecile from Holland and France, respectively. They explained that they traveled through Europe for two years in their large expedition camper and have been exploring South America for three years! Although a little unsure, they seemed to think they would spend about two years in Central and North America then ship to Russia or Malaysia from there. Gerard seemed to indicate that they planned to travel for nearly fifteen more years. Incredible! They are paragliders and set out with the intention to paraglide in every country in the world although there are few that have not been possible. Our visit was very inspiring and they are certainly some of the most interesting folks we have met on the road.
From San Gil, we began driving towards Villa de Leyva which is a small pueblo famous for its terra cotta roofs and whitewashed buildings that are consistent throughout the valley. Coming from the north, the road was fairly slow going as we climbed in elevation and the roads turned to gravel as our route was far from the main highway. When we topped out at the gentle pass overlooking the valley, we were in awe as the magnificent valley flanked by mountains on all sides and dotted with small villages appeared before us. We found a place to park for the night above the village on the side of the mountain that offered us a wonderful view of the sunset and beautiful city lights shortly after. In the morning, we took off hiking to the mirador from our parking spot which gave us some badly needed exercise and even better views of the town below. Following our hike, we explored the beautiful cobblestone streets enjoying the sights and sounds as well as the healthiest looking street dogs we have seen on the entire trip. They were all so happy and two of them saw us coming as they wouldn’t let us pass until they got a good scratch and followed us for a while longer!
Midafternoon, we left Villa de Leyva and drove to salt mining city of Zipaquira just north of Bogota. We arrived at the Salt Cathedral which is a Roman Catholic Church built inside the remnants of an old salt mine. The church is the second Salt Cathedral as the first was built inside a mine too close to the surface and surface water eventually dissolved the salt in the rock causing it to collapse on itself. The new church was built in the early 90’s and was incredible to see in person. As we entered the mine, the first fourteen individual shafts were used as the stations of the cross and eventually ending up at the cathedral itself nearly 1km later. The different colored lights made the walls, ceiling and floors of the mine change as the colors changed. After a corny light show and 3D movie, we learned that the cathedral occupies only a very small amount of the original mine which gave us an eerie feeling knowing that miles and miles of additional tunnel surrounded us completely empty and totally dark.
It was nearly dark by the time we emerged from the Salt Cathedral and we ended up staying at a truck parking area for the night. As we began pumping the jack to lift the roof on the Alaskan, only the smallest amount of pumping action actually lifted the roof and took nearly 100 pumps to raise the roof. We had a problem. Normally, it should take about 30-40 pumps to raise the roof so we knew it was time to replace some O-rings on the jack which creates a complete mess as hydraulic fluid ends up getting everywhere. In the morning, I decided to try to replace just one O-ring that is easily accessible and doesn’t require removing the entire pump and we lucked out. After replacing just one O-ring, the jack worked as it should and only took about fifteen minutes to fix. Now, with the camper back in good operating order, we set out to try our luck driving through the heart of Bogota during rush hour!
Bogota has a population of nearly seven million people. It is seemingly more spread out than other large cities we had driven through in Central America but some areas were just as densely populated. We couldn’t come up with a good plan for visiting the city and many places we found on iOverlander suggested that parking in the city for the night may be dangerous so we ended up just driving through on our way to some waterfalls located on the south end of the city. Traffic was very backed up and the manual transmission was a pain to drive in stop and go traffic, but we emerged on the south end of Bogota two hours after leaving Zipaquira and arrived to see Tequendama Falls.
Tequendama Falls may be the largest and most beautiful falls we had seen to this point. As we arrived at the falls, the rolling hills essentially fell off several hundred feet and the road skirted right along the edge of essentially negative drop off areas. We thought the road could give way any second and were happy to find more stable looking roads just ahead of us. The one thing that is difficult to see from the photos is that the water is nearly black and foam fills the river above and below the falls due to heavy pollution from Bogota. The smell from the water was very noticeable as we drove to the falls and as we looked at it from a distance. We hope the City of Bogota does its part in restoring the cleanliness of the beautiful river and falls, but it certainly has a long ways to go before that will happen.
We left Tequendama Falls and began driving a south westerly direction towards a small highway that would eventually take us to the north and, eventually, north west towards Medellin. The small country roads slowly meandered along the mountainside through small town after small town. The views from our perch on the mountainside were incredible as the enormous valley below was nearly 3,000 feet lower and nearly 30 miles across. We began a steep descent down a road that was quickly becoming overgrown with vegetation which we discovered was due to the bridge being closed to all traffic except motorcycles. The motorcyclists behind us stopped and asked where we were going and showed us a different route in order to avoid driving back through Bogota. We thanked them for their help, turned around and began driving further southwest towards Girardot. As we arrived in Girardot, we were feeling a little tired having been driving for five hours but only covering 75 miles since leaving Zipaquira. We located a camp spot and began driving due north only to find that the entire road, from Girardot to Honda (30 miles) was under construction. Many times we had to wait for 30 minutes or more. As the sun began to set, the construction workers began heading home allowing us to drive right through six or so additional places where we would have been stopped during the daytime.
In the morning, we continued heading north towards Puerto Triunfo, just east of Medellin. We stopped at Hacienda Napoles which is a theme park located at infamous cocaine drug lord Pablo Escobar’s former estate. The park has dozens of different animal species from Africa imported by Escobar many decades ago and we learned that this area of Colombia has the largest hippo population outside of Africa! After discovering the tickets were only for the waterpark and safari type experience as opposed to a museum, we decided not to visit but we did get a photo of Escobar’s airplane used to smuggle cocaine into the US for his first time.
These guys were riding on the back of a semi truck protesting something. We couldn’t make out the message on the Colombian flag but it was interesting to see.
Near Medellin, we stopped at El Penol which is a huge piece of granite that rises straight up out of the ground. Think Devil’s Tower with stairs and micheladas at the top! The stairs leading to the top zig zag 30 times up a natural crack in the rock. Each time we looked over the the edge, we were overcome with a bit of vertigo and we couldn’t help but convince ourselves that the stairs were on the verge of collapsing. Nevertheless, we continued to the top, finally reaching stair number 730 and were rewarded with an incredible view of the lake filling the valley below. The lake looked like a spiderweb as it wrapped around the base of each little hill creating miles and miles of shoreline. Countless vacation homes dotted the hills in the area making it obvious that this is a playground for residents of Medellin. It would have been wonderful if it could have been preserved in its natural state as a national park, but even with the homes and infrastructure, this area is certainly one of the most beautiful places we have ever been.
The town of Guatape near El Penol was a nice place to explore. It is one of the most colorful towns we have seen in Colombia.
Following our visit to El Penol, we headed into Medellin which, fifteen years ago, was incredibly unsafe due to gangs, drugs and corruption. We will share our experiences in our next post!