We had arrived in Colombia during their wet season and we were getting a real mix bag of weather. Decisions had to be made, after studying the weather forecast and talking to locals we decided against going to El Cocuy National Park, but that left us unsure as to what to do next. When we looked at the map everything we wanted to do was way further south, too far to drive in one day. As luck would have my friend Jeremy, who puts on one of the gnarliest 100 milers in the US, messaged me saying how much he had enjoyed the Salt Cathedral when he had been in Colombia 7 years ago. Another look at the map and it was settled we were off to Zipaquira.
The guide books make the Salt Cathedral sound like a cheesy tourist trap, and it is, but it’s also impressively beautiful. We timed our arrival with just missing the English tour and got spend 45 mins wandering the grounds above the salt mine (called the Salt Park) before we were finally taken underground. The salt mine was originally founded by the Muisca people in the 5th century BC. Then mining started in 1801, the original cathedral (so the minors could worship without having to leave the mine) collapsed in 1990 so what you see today is essentially a tourist draw. It’s still really cool though. Different artists came and sculpted 14 different “Stations of the Cross” and then there is the cathedral and many other salt carvings. Our group lost interest when we were taken to the worlds “deepest” cafe and then dropped off in the “exit” gift shop. We just found the stairs and headed out.
We were planing on parking in a parking lot just below the cathedral, but when we got to the Hulk we could see he’d been sick. A quick ask around and we were not able to find a local mechanic still up open (it was 5pm) so we parked up for the night and went in search of dinner and wifi so we good freak ourselves out all evening with what was wrong with the Hulk and how much it would cost us. Despite that preoccupation the town of Zipaquira is really quite cute.
When we woke the next morning the Hulk had only thrown up a little overnight, and when we checked the oil it was still showing full (if not a little over full). We decided that we had no choice but to head into Bogotá and find a mechanic. I really wanted to avoid driving in Bogotá, as the navigator it can be really stressful in big cities, one hesitation or mumble of “um” and your driver is barking at you. The mechanic was great and assured us that the Hulk was ok but that the seal on the steering fluid was cracked and we had too much oil. Dan knew that Panama service was too good to be true. Anyway they were able to replace the seal and we were on our way – through Bogotá. The good news is that there is so much traffic you’re never moving fast enough to miss a turn the bad news is you’re driving with Colombians. They have been some of the worst drivers yet, Panama City was bad but just in the city, Mexico was organized chaos, Colombia is just chaos.
Two hours and 40 km later we were finally leaving the city behind (with only 5 or 6 near misses) and eventually found ourselves on a narrow bumpy road to the Tatacoa Desert. The desert is actually a tropical dry forest and it feels like being in Utah. We camped at an observatory that night, but it was just our luck that is was cloudy. Next day we drove around taking in the sights but the weather was still overcast, we had to use our imaginations to envisage what it must look like in the changing sunlight.
We pressed on to our next location and were treated to blue skies while visiting Tierradentro. This ancient site is renowned for the underground tombs surrounding the town of Inza. The scenery is stunning and the tombs are pretty neat too. After our walk an ‘eccentric’ local managed to find the only four gringos in town and ply us with aguardiente (it means fiery water and it’s strong and gross). Everytime I tried to leave he’d say “one more, we must drink to the end of the bottle”. Finally the bottle was done and I tried to go only to find he’d pulled another bottle out of thin air, I pleaded drunken illness and Dan swept me away. Aguardiente is something you need only one shot of, ever.
Next stop was San Agustin. This archeological site boasts pre-Colombian statues and another good walk.
Our next stop was Popayan, a colonial town that we did not like. There was something that just felt off, it was pouring rain and there were so many people and it just didn’t seem all that pretty. So we pushed on and next day we headed to Pasto.
On the windy mountain road we had our first encounter with a traffic accident, everything we’d read about Colombia was that if you’re in an accident you must stop, don’t pull over, don’t move until the police come. Thankfully we were not involved but the transport truck vs. motorcyclist collision happened just as we reached the bend, there happened to be some men working at the side of the road, so they flagged us to stop and told us the was an accident and we had to wait for the police. We could see the truck facing us but we couldn’t tell what it had hit as that was hidden around the bend. The next thing we know cars are piling up behind us and instead of sitting patiently on theirs cars they all scramble out and walk right into the scene and start taking pictures! Colombians are really nice people, but this just shocked us. Curiosity got the better of us and Dan finally went to take a look, he didn’t have to look long before he came bolting back to the car “I think the truck hit a motorcyclist” holy crap, the medical professional me was half way to the back getting the first aid box when Dan told me there probably nothing I could do, and he was right when we looked closer a piece of the rider was stuck on the side of the bed of the truck. My stomach turned, how could people be taking pictures of this? Videos? The worst part was that they hadn’t even covered his body in the road. Eventually the police arrived and they conducted their investigation thoroughly and what I felt, quickly. At this point people were bored of the dead guy, so their attention turned to the weird gringo truck at the front of the queue. We played chess and tried to ignore what was going on around us, clearly this was a blatant culture difference. (Although I’m sure I’d be shocked at an accident scene anywhere these days, and maybe I’m just too sensitive). We lucked out when our direction of traffic got to go through the one lane that was now clear first and we made it to Pasto, late, in the dark and it had now started raining. We found a hotel, went to bed and decided we were ready for Ecuador.