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It Even Rains In The Desert

It even rains in the desert

Crossing the Andes once again. My first crossing of the Andes went pretty good. There’s quite a few interesting things to see back on the other side so I decided to cross once again. This crossing was supposed to be quite a bit harder. More narrow, more steep, more holes. So nervous once again I started. The road is indeed very steep and narrow. Trucks can’t take the tiny curves in both directions at the same time so locals try to organize the traffic hoping for some coins being tossed out of the window. This means driving is very slow with loads of stops. You can see that a new road is under construction, there are signs of new bridges and tunnels everywhere. Only it looks like it has been under construction for at least 10 years. Also without all the curving up and down the mountain the slope of the new road will be even steeper, so I guess the current road isn’t that bad after all. When you think you can speed up once you’ve reached the top, you’re wrong. The trucks also have to be slow on the way down driving on their engine brakes and the road is still too curvy and narrow to overtake. I planned to camp near the town of Ibague. There are a few campsites in the hill across the big road from town. The first spot I reach clearly doesn’t want any campers asking for 4 times the price of other campsites with only a toilet and a cold shower. So I head on through the narrow mountain road to get to option number two. I can’t find anyone there except for some angry looking dogs that prevent me from walking in through the gate.  Now for option three my GPS send me back to the main road but the road I was on would also get there so why not follow that one? Well, that road became a dirt road, it started raining and it was very steep. It was also too narrow to turn around so I had to continue. One hill took me at least 5 attempts because it was sort of a mudslide so I decided to call it quits and take the next option down to the main road. I ended up in the parking lot of a swimming pool for still way too much money but it was getting dark and I was getting tired.

Water filled and bat infested tunnels

The first of the interesting sites on this side of the Andes is the Tatacoa desert. And after all the rain I thought a hot desert would be a good idea. My GPS says that the last 40km to the desert will take me 2 hours. I was wondering how that would work but the dirt road did a good job. However this was a very fun dirt road not very steep and nicely dry. Loads of great open views reminding me of northern Canada. At some point the road leads up to a very tall, very dark tunnel filled with water. A sign tells me to follow the tunnel to get to the desert. I scout the water depth which is fine, there is however an increased risk of getting covered in bat guano. I honk a few times to let any people on the other side know I’m coming and there I go. The funny tunnel is followed by a funny not too stable looking bridge and after that another tunnel. After the 2 hours I drive into the desert and at the first camping option next to some awesome red rock formations I see Renzo and Mary’s green VW parked. I drive by to say hi and end up camping there too with the beautiful view. It’s finally hot and dry. I’ve been missing this for the last few weeks. Later in the afternoon a Dutch couple on bicycles show up. We have dinner together and I offer them a ride into the mountains for in a few days.

Tatacoa desert

Did I say I thought the desert would be dry? Wrong! In the middle of the night I wake up to the noise of intense rain. I pull the roof of the van down and hop outside to close my awning. There’s loads of water streaming underneath my van but it’s streaming away from the canyon so I think I’m safe. The next morning we all get out of our vans and tents and look confused at what happened. The water only got through the top 3 cm of the desert sand. This now changed into some very heavy, very sticky red clay. A walk to the toilets meant the soles of my flip flops were 2cm thicker and 2 kg heavier. Everything that was outside is now dirty and muddy. Renzo, Mary and the Dutch couple head out while I decide to stay another day. Once the sun comes out everything dries pretty quickly. At lunch time a small goat shows up at my van and wants to take a look inside. This happens all the time with pet/guard/stray dogs but they somehow all know that they’re not supposed to get into your car (I guess they probably get beaten a lot). However, little goats don’t know about this rule so I had to toss him out of the van a few times. After lunch it looks dry enough for a little hike down into the canyon. It’s a pretty cool labyrinth with loads of big birds and goats. Some bits (especially uphill out of the canyon again) are still covered in the sticky red clay which makes for extra adventure. Back out of the canyon the road looks good enough to drive a bit further into the desert to the so-called gray desert. The first bit of the road is indeed fine, but very quickly it turns a bit muddy. The fact that my tires have no profile anymore because of a layer of sticky red clay doesn’t help either. So for parts of the 20 min drive I’m more drifting and sliding than actually driving. It sometimes takes a few seconds between turning the steering wheel and the van actually going sideways. Luckily it’s flat and the roads are empty so I’ll just use it as practice for bad roads to come. I don’t get stuck and manage to get to a great camp spot with wide views. It’s on some grassy rocks so I guess I’m fine in case it starts raining again.

Tatacoa desert camp 2

So without the rain I was hoping for a quiet night. Wrong again! In the middle of the night I wake up to a loud noise and a shaking van. Turns out a cow walked into the van in the dark… Today I’ll pick up the Dutch cycling couple, Jantien and Jan Willem, in Neiva and together we’ll head up into the mountains to Tierradentro. It’s the same way up and down the steep mountain and so no fun to bike. The meetup in the mall is a bit tricky because it turns out that this mall has two cinemas (our first meeting spot) and two coffee places with the same name (our second meeting spot). But we manage to get out of Neiva and into the mountains. The views in the narrow valleys are beautiful but the last 20km of road is really bad. It’s a combination of dirt roads, construction site detours and fresh landslides that make it an interesting drive. Loads of single lane blind steep uphill curves where you have to honk and hope the other side waits for you. When we finally get to Tierradentro we stay at a tiny hospedaje run by a very old man.

The next day it’s pouring rain. The sites to visit are spread out in the hills around the village. Steep muddy uphills. So we wait. After lunch it has cleared up enough to start the hike. In Tierradentro there are loads of underground tombs from pre-colombian, pre-inca times. It is a UNESCO site but it is not busy at all. Today only two other tourists visited the site. There are a few groups of tombs in the area. When you get there a security guy opens the doors to the steep stairs going underground. It’s all so empty and remote it really feels like you’re discovering the places yourself. We only manage to visit half the sites before we run out of time. On the walk back to our hospedaje, Jan Willem collects all kinds of vegetables for our dinner. When we get back the old man asks us if we need a room and is slightly confused when we tell him we’re already staying here.

Tierradentro tomb

The rain from the last two days has not made the road back down better. But luckily we are driving down now which makes it much easier on the van. I drop off Jantien and Jan Willem and head further south and back up into the mountains to the next archaeological site of San Augustin. I camp in the beautiful garden of a hostel. It’s actually sunny and warm here. So time for a day off to get my Dutch SIM card to work so I can use Whatsapp and online banking again. This involved a complicated plan where my dad had to use my new replacement SIM card in the Netherlands while I was chatting with a helpdesk person from the phone provider. But it worked!

San Augustin statue

Another sunny day. Lucky me. San Augustin is located at the Rio Magdalena canyon. Again, spread over the whole area are pre-colombian, pre-incan archaeological sites. This time they are statues of people and fantasy creatures. I hiked from site to site through the countryside filled with little farms and nice views. The last site only has one ‘statue’ (more a figure carved out of a rock wall) but is located at the edge of the steep and deep Magdalena river canyon. From here you can see at least 4 waterfalls than fall down over more than 100 meter into the river below. And it keeps being sunny… This trip is good! Luckily I knew nothing about the problems coming in the next few days…

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