Monday, November 13, 2017

Plains And Mountain Ranges

Greetings from Piedecuesta, Santander, Colombia. We’re currently staying with friends, Claudia and Carlos, in this small town about 15 miles south of Bucaramanga.

Piedecuesta sits at about 3000 feet. Its name means “foot of the hill,” and indeed it’s located just below the Mesa de Los Santos, whose top plateau is about 2500 feet above the town.
Carlos also flies RC gliders, and he and fellow pilots have located a slope site on the Mesa with very strong lift matching what we’ve experienced at Eagle Butte in Washington State on a good day; slope pilots world-wide know this means the lift is not just excellent, it's outstanding.
Terpel station camping
Terpel station camping/Tankstelle/acampando en Terpel/
But first things first: how did we get here from Santa Elena, the site of our last post, and how come it took us seven weeks to cover the mere 160 straight-line miles between there and here? — By having a general idea of a route but changing and augmenting it to adapt to new information, local situations, and personal whims.
Road work
Road work/Straßenbau/obra en la vía
From Santa Elena, we headed east and down the Cordillera Central to the Magdalena River. We wanted to “test-camp” at a newly-built gas station we had noticed in August while driving to Girardota from Bogotá. This new Terpel station is laid-out like modern Copec stations in Chile: ample room for free parking/camping away from the road, clean toilets and showers, and a small restaurant with wifi. Turns out that Copec and Terpel have merged, and more of these type of gas stations are being built. The only downside is, they can be noisy with big trucks coming and going throughout the night.
Beautiful road/schöne Straße/hermoso tramo
From there, we started heading south along the Magdalena River to drive some backroads to the small town of Apulo. Marcela’ family has a lot there they're selling and a good neighbor, Doris, at whose place we could park. Well, negative on that route: we encountered a complete road closure due to some bridge construction. We were told to expect a 1-hour delay, which later was updated to “at least four or five.” Never mind that we got this updated info only because Marcela pursued it, not because it was volunteered by the road crew.
It would have gotten dark, and we don't drive at night, so we turned around and found an overnight place west of the town of Cambao.
Armero, Colombia
Armero, Tolima, Colombia
Not trusting that the side road would be open the next day, we decided to detour on main highways. This got us to the site of Armero, a town devastated in 1985 by a pyroclastic flow following an eruption of the Nevado Ruiz volcano. Some may remember the news coverage about Omayra Sanchez, a brave girl trapped in the debris, who could not be rescued before she died.
Apulo Plaza
The slick new roads (about $13 in toll fees) got us to Apulo that afternoon. Apulo is a hot place. The climate takes getting used to, and cold showers and colder beer sure are welcome amenities there. Both were readily available at Doris’ place, and we stayed five nights, organizing yard maintenance for Marcela’s lot. It’s a level 8400 square-foot lot with water, sewer, electricity, and gas hookups in a quiet and desirable neighborhood a 20-minute stroll from the central park.
Cooling off/Abkühlung/Refrescándonos
From Apulo, we climbed up the eastern cordillera toward Bogotá. Where the moist warm air of the Magdalena valley abruptly meets the cold air of the Bogota savanna at around 8200 feet elevation, is a narrow strip of a unique cloud forest ecosystem. We spent the night right there at a place called Boca de Monte, the “Mouth of the Mountain.” Maybe it got its name because it's breathing fog?
It was interesting but cold up there, especially compared to Apulo, and the camping fee was steep. So we decided to head toward Villavicencio the next day. To do that, one has to first maneuver around Soacha, the southern-most expanse of the Bogotá metropolis. Once past this urban behemoth with its mad traffic, it's easy going toward Villavicencio.
Boca del Monte
Too easy, in fact. Villavicencio is the gateway to Los Llanos, the vast plains between the Andes and the Amazon jungle. The town lies about 7600 feet lower than Bogotá, and that drop happens in about 70 road miles. It’s like a sleigh ride down the eastern slope of the Andes; more so now, because Colombia is building a freeway with tunnels and bridges. Because on and off ramps for this “chute” are still lacking in many places (only locals know which dirt track off the freeway reaches the old road to their villages), the traveler gets channeled toward Villavicencio quite efficiently.
Villavicencio view
Villavicencio view/Blick/Vista
And so it happened to us, we reached Villavicencio a day earlier than planned. A three-day weekend was coming, and we were looking for a quiet place to avoid the traffic and noise usually accompanying long weekends. And we got really lucky: by chance, we stumbled upon the Hacienda Villa Luz. At this quiet place with friendly people, we had a beautiful campsite under Pomarosa trees overlooking Villavicencio and Los Llanos beyond; from there, the plains looked like a green sea stretching to the horizon.
We stayed six nights. The Pomarosa were in bloom, and a strong thunderstorm dumped part of the flowers on the ground so that we had a red carpet around the camper throughout our stay. There was room to fly my electric-powered glider next to the camper, and we went hiking with Manuel, the friendly manager. We also used the time to head into Villavicencio by bus. There we met Maria Isabel, Marcela's niece, and her family; the two hadn’t seen each other in about 40 years!
We also went flying with the Club de Aeromodelismo Villavicencio (CAV) at their field. German, one of the pilots, generously offered to pick us up. We always enjoy visiting flying sites and meeting pilots. We flew quite a bit, despite a lot of rain. The club members enjoyed watching an electric-powered glider, and we were grateful for them providing us with the opportunity.
Hacienda Villa luz
Vereda Mesetas, above/oberhalb/arriba de Villavicencio
On we went north-bound, Andes on the left, Llanos on the right. There was a lot of road work on this Route 65 with many construction stops. Under those circumstances, it’s good to not be fixed on a daily destination, because you never know if you get there before dark. 

At Aguazul, We took Route 62 up into the mountains again. We headed to Laguna de Tota, Colombia’s biggest natural lake, where we camped at Playa Blanca. Unfortunately, the place is quite run down, and it looks like it would be party hell on weekends. The lake and its surroundings are deceivingly beautiful, given the significant pollution problems which exist due to trout farming and agricultural runoff.
Pomarosa tree
Red carpet/roter Teppich/alfombra roja
In Duitama, we turned north onto Route 55. There too, we encountered a lot of road work. In the Paramo just west of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy at about 13000 feet elevation, Route 55 became a curving mud track full of bumps and holes. You know it’s bad, when even the trucks and buses crawl along. We needed two hours for this 12-mile stretch.

For the following weekend we made it to Cácota, a small Andean village at 7800 feet. This village hangs on a slope, and we were wondering where there might be a flat place to camp. We parked on the town square in front of the police inspection to find out. Here came Andrea, the police inspector herself. She said, let’s walk and have a look, I have some ideas.
Indeed, she knew a few spots, and one was a level concrete pad under a high roof and attached to a family’s home with access to a separate toilet and shower. Our camper just fit, and the family was happy to have us. Thank you, family and Andrea! We spent the weekend in Cácota, where they had a small fair on Sunday. 7-year old Carol Diana was our guide through the festivities. Thank you Carol!
electric glider over Los Llanos
Flying at/Fliegen in/Vuela en la Hacienda  Villa Luz
The weekend over, we headed to Piedecuesta, again a little quicker than we had anticipated. We took Route 55 north to Pamplona and Route 66 southwest to Bucaramanga. This route also features a clash of climate types where it starts to drop almost 7000 feet in elevation down to Bucaramanga. No sleigh ride here, it's all curves and serpentines.
We arrived at our friends’s place that evening, and we have been there a while now. We’ll go flying again at the Mesa, and then it's time to start heading north toward the Caribbean. We have friends there too, and they already know we’re coming.

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