During my trip back home, I managed to replace a few things that had taken a good battering so far on the trip. That included the 35L dry bag that I use to store my tent and sleeping bag which had reached the point where it was only mildly water resistant as it had so many holes, the bell which had lost one of it’s sides back in Cancun, my laptop battery which lasted barely more than 90 minutes instead of the 6 hours originally, and the sunglasses that had been crushed in a train door a week after getting them. I also picked up some tubing to replace the electrical tape that been wrapped around my racks in a futile attempt to protect them.
I took a couple of days off back in Bogotá, mainly to get everything organised – attaching the tubing took the best part of 6 hours – and then set off towards Venezuela on the Friday. There seemed to be two options to head to the border town of Cúcuta, the busy road that would go past the cathedral of salt, the outdoor capital of San Gil, and a very pretty canyon, before arriving in Bucaramanga or a much quieter road that would go past a famous battleground and then some other places I didn’t really know anyting about. I went with the quieter option and left Bogotá with the idea of riding about 90km.
Being in the morning, most of the traffic was coming into the capital so there were only a few points with traffic jams. I stopped on the edge of the city for a rest and was accosted by a group of fans in Colombia shirts, there was a crucial world cup qualifier against Ecuador that night, who saw me reading on my Kindle and figured it could take pictures. I explained how it was for reading books, but I had a camera and could email them the photo later if they wanted, but after taking the picture they decided they needed it much faster than that and so vanished for 20-30 minutes trying to copy the images off my SD card.
Any time I got to a climb, I felt the lack of riding in the previous month in my legs. It made for a day that seemed quite long, so I broke it up with a good few rests. That included a long lunch break, and also stopping to watch a festival in Chocontá. I made it to Villapinzón in time to watch Colombia beat Ecuador in a World Cup qualifier with a group of soldiers in a bakery. After the game I went to the fire station, located on the main square, and gave my normal introducion only to be met with a response in English. Lucho, the captain there, was from Chile and spoke quite well. The fire station was very small, and he wasn’t sure if there’d be space, but he invited me in to watch the next football game, featuring Chile, drink some tea, and talk.
I ended up staying the night there and getting to meet not only his two sons, Christian and Christopher, but also his wife, Iris, who was also a firefighter. Before they arrived, there was a call and so I went out with Lucho to attend to a motorbike accident. I wasn’t sure of the details, Lucho told me that he doesn’t really ask that many questions as his job is to get the patients from the scene to the hospital in Chocontá, but the woman ended up having to go to Bogotá, I think for a brain scan.
In the morning, as Iris was from Venezuela, I was treated to Venezuelan arepas, slightly different than Colombian ones, and didn’t end up leaving till past 9am with two people riding with me. Christopher, Lucho’s 12 year old son, and Yovani, another fireman, both wanted to come along. Chris’ bike only had a single gear, but he showed lots of heart to ride with us as far as he did, even though he had to stop a good few times to get his breath on some of the climbs. After Chris left, Yovani and I rode along the main road towards Tunja and we were met by a friend, Consuela. The three of us rode together up the first two of the four climbs to get to Tunja, and passed a lot of policemen, especially at the toll booth, a result of the recent farmer’s protests that had seen the road closed for over a week, and had meant that there were so many police and soldiers in Villapinzón the night before.
The road to Tunja passed through Puente de Boyacá, the most important battlefield from the fight for Colombian independence. There is a giant statue of Bolivar there, as well as a memorial to the British legion who Bolivar ‘credited the victory to the British Legion declaring that “those soldier liberators are the men who deserve these laurels”‘. It looked like a pile of rocks on a lump of concrete, so I asked the nearby security guard if it was meant to represent something. He spent the next 15 minutes explaining the history of Bolivar and Santander, seemingly without breathing, but managed to completely avoid answering my question at all.
Tunja’s main square is more similar to that of Mexico City than most other Colombian ones, as it is a large open square, only broken up by flags and the obligatory statue of Bolivar. I stopped for lunch and got the very-German-looking local speciality of sausage and, the local crop, potatoes. While in there, another customer went outside a few times to inspect my bicycle and then before leaving turned to me and said “agua” while passing me a small cycling water-bottle. I guess he figured that I spoke no Spanish.
The rest of the ride, to Duitama, was much faster as there was a lot less climbing. I got there after dark and went to a shop to call Jose, my Warmshowers host. Most shops in Colombia offer minutos, minutes for those who don’t have phones, a very useful thing! I rarely speak on the phone, and so I passed the phone to the lady in the shop to arrange things for me and she told me that Jose would be there in 20 minutes. The owner of the shop and her husband, now knowing something about me, took an interest in my bike and started asking lots of questions, one of them being if I wanted a coffee, to which I obviously said yes and was given a coffee and empanada. Lovely people. After the 20 minutes, Jose turned up and we went back to his house for a pleasant evening relaxing.
I had been thinking of staying just the one night in Duitama, but when I woke up I was told that I should at least stay that day, a Sunday, so I accepted. I got shown around the city, introduced to many family members, bought a new USB charger, and taken to a family birthday party for a 3 year old called Marie Jose. Those are the wonderful experiences that are so much easier to have when you use things like Warmshowers or Couchsurfing, a real insight into local life rather than just walking round with a camera and a guidebook. The only downside was the assault on my stomach as every person I met tried to give me food and I ended up breakfasting three times, lunching twice and being given various other snacks, showing just how good a day it was.