Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Southern Colombia

Pineapples in this part of the world taste about ten times better from the ones I've tasted back home  
Having finally escaped Cali I was keen to make some progress south after my extended stay in the city. I left early morning as I wanted to try and push for Popayan which was a solid days cycle away. Unfortunately as the day progressed the less likely it looked like I was going to make my target as I was feeling more and more run down. This was more than just the usual struggle of a first days back on the bike after a long break, believe me I'm well familiar with what that's like after my various stopovers. This was more the run down kinda feeling you have when you are not firing on all cylinders. Perfect timing, feeling fine on my few weeks off in Cali and on my first day back on the bike I'm sick. By the time it was getting dark I was weighing up whether to put on the bike lights and struggle the last 20 or 30 km in the dark. Thankfully I decided to call it a day. I wasn't too optimistic about the first house I approached to ask to camp in their garden as it had a big fence around with two dogs barking at me. I didn't have any choice but to try as it was practically dark and there wasn't many options. Yet again, the family were extremely welcoming and not only did they agree to me staying but even offered me a bed in a spare room that they had. This was a first for Colombia and couldn't have come at a better time considering my run down state. I needed a good nights sleep and got one after they gave me a big feed!
The next day after several photos of their novel decorations I hit the road for the last stretch to Popayan. It was a struggle and I was cycling even slower than my usual relaxed pace.

The lovely family who invited me in and gave me a bed when I needed it, not to mention a great dinner.

Their novel wall decorations made up of lots and lots of cigarette packs

Beer bottle tops, a novel way to re-use them

Thankfully I was less than 5 km along the road when I bumped into the incredibly friendly Alvaro who was out for a Saturday spin. I apologised for my slow pace explaining that I was a bit under the weather. He didn't seem to mind and even invited me back to his house for lunch. I ended up staying with Avaro and his lovely family; wife Rubia, daughter Manuela and their uncle for a week! I was in no position to cycle for a few day and as luck would have it I was after stumbling across one of the kindest families in Popayan, not only that but Rubiela was a nurse who worked in the local hospital. Herself and Alvaro brought me into the hospital for a quick check. I had been staying in a house during my last week in Cali with a girl who was recovering from dengue fever. Thankfully I didn't end up having dengue and just needed plenty of rest.

Myself, Alvaro and some of Rubiela's family

Central Popayan with all of it's white buildings


Alvaro testing out my mattress. Alvaro was one of the biggest (actually smallest) messers that I've ever met and kept me well entertained!
Adios amigos
Mountains getting bigger in southern Colombia

A week later I hit the road fully recovered thanks to the tremendous hospitality of the Muñoz family. I was slightly apprehensive as to what lay ahead of me for my last few hundred kilometres to the Ecuador border. This was because I had to try and pass "los Paros" which were the strikes and roadblocks that had been taking place in numerous parts of Colombia for the previous fortnight. They were the main thing on the Colombian news stations. I had been warned by Nicolas (the Argentinian Pan American cyclist) that they were not the most pleasant. The strikes were taking place in various areas of the country for different reasons ranging from miners rights, the low price of coffee and other foods, students and free trade agreements.

Not taking any chances with this police tank
Strong police presence on the road in southern Colombia
As I progressed along the increasingly quiet Pan American highway I did not really know what to expect. I passed a final police check point where there was no more traffic passing. The young police man asked me was I a gorilla after taking a photo of the police sign stating the road was closed. I clarified that despite not shaving for a few days that I was definitely not a gorilla but had occasionally been accused of being a monkey.. but never a gorilla. A few kilometers past the last police traffic cones at about ten in the morning I encountered my first "Paro" on the outskirts of Mojarras. There were about a hundred people including children with suitcases and bags sitting by the sides of the road. I made my way past them to an initial line of about eight young men with metre long sticks standing in a line blocking the road. They had most of their faces covered with clothes or the occasional balaclava. About 30 metres behind them was a larger group of about fifty or sixty men blocking the road. I introduced myself, told them what I was doing and asked them could I pass. They said nobody was getting through until 4 pm. Then I told a white lie, I said that I was cycling from Alaska to Argentina to try and get in the Guinness Book of records for the fastest time and therefore every hour and minute counted! Nicholas had managed to get through the week previous so I thought I'd try my luck, although another Argentinian cyclist heading north had taken a lot longer to pass and had been hit in the face by a rock at one of the blocks so I knew I had to thread carefully. Despite my supposed record breaking attempts they said that I would not be getting through until 4 pm. I wheeled my bike about 100 metres back from the front line and sat down by the side of the road resigned to the fact that I could write most of this day off in terms of cycling. This was my first roadblock and many more lay ahead.

No way through

As the morning progressed the two main Colombian television stations arrived along in their trucks and set up their large satellite dishs. Later on three white United Nations vehicles arrived along and some of them went up to the front and passed through on foot. I found out that one of the reasons that the UN was here was to oversee the release of two police officers who had been held captive by the protesters. Later on in the early afternoon to great fan fair two plain clothes police men were escorted through the mass of people blocking the road. By this stage of the day the crowd of protesters had swelled to a few hundred, still with sticks in hand and faces covered. The news stations didn't waste any time in interviewing the two police men. The interview went out on national television almost immediately. At this stage things got really interesting. Lots of the protesters had watched the interview in a nearby bar and didn't like what they heard. I am going on hear say but apparently one of the police men intimated that they were not treated well or that some of the protesters had FARC connections. The two policemen along with a few United Nations representatives were still conducting interviews when they were quickly surrounded by about a hundred protesters who had come across the line from the main group. They wanted to take the two police men back. This was all going on on the opposite side of a United Nations van from where I had parked my bike up which had been out of the way until a short time previous. What followed was about an hour of very intense negotiations between the relevant parties. At one stage a few of the protesters set some police uniforms and belongings on fire. Eventually it was agreed that the two police officers were free to go and suffice to say that the UN officials did not wait around and the three van tore off up the road with the police men with them.

The interview before chaos insued
Pouring petrol on the police mens clothes and belongings
.. and then they were set alight
As the afternoon progressed families with young children were being let through. One of the guys I had pleaded with to let me through earlier that morning and said that I should ask again. After a few minutes of back and forth it was agreed that I could pass accompanied by one of the protesters who at this stage had removed his face cover and seemed a lot less intimidating. I had a good chat with Miller who was the protester who accompanied me through the strike zone. He was probably in his early twenties and told me that around the town of Mojarras alone there were about 10,000 protesters. The barriers we passed included entire trees that had been cut down, the shell of a burnt out bus or truck, three individual metre wide by metre deep holes that had been hug into a bridge rendering it impassable in a vehicle. There was also lots of rocks and stones scattered on the road. We walked up through the town that had a kind of festive atmosphere to it and through to another road block about 15 mins walk from the first block on the opposite side of the town. I had initially wondered would it have been possible to cycle through a few fields and skirt around the road block but thankfully I hadn't done this as the entire town and surrounds were involved in the strike and blocks.

Miller, my escort through the police free striking town of Mujarras. As you can see vehicles could not pass. It was enough of a struggle with the two of us trying to lift my heavy bike over the tree!

Lots of various burnt out remains
Once through Mojarras the road was almost deserted. I was relieved to have my first protest behind me and was thrilled to be back cycling through some beautiful scenery with the road to myself. I wild camped by the side of a mountain that night for the first time in Colombia. The following day I passed about 4 more road blocks but was thankfully allowed to pass each one and there wasn't quite the same level of menace as at the first Paro. Once I made it as far as the city of Pasto I was informed that I should not have to pass any more strikes as they had been called off in the southern most provence of Narino. That was a relief as I must have later passed at least ten locations where there had clearly been recent road blocks with burn marks on the road, fallen trees and the road side crash barriers had been pushed roughly back into place.

A few beeps and thumbs up of encouragement from the passing convey from the red cross. Some of the very little traffic that passed. 
Obstacle course
First night wild camping in Colombia and the bugs ate me alive

Here a block, there a block

A deserted Pan American highway

Normally I time my border crossings to be in the morning or early afternoon but with all the uncertainty of the previous days strikes I was keen to get into Ecuador. At about 5.30 in the evening I crossed the border into Ecuador during a World Cup qualifier between Colombia and Ecuador. While I was getting my passport stamped on the Colombian side they scored a goal and the entire staff including security guards ran into a tiny office to see the goal. Ah the World Cup!

Ecuador line up for a penalty which they missed.
As I cycle south it is always interesting to observe the similarities and differences between the various countries. One thing I noticed that happened a lot in Colombia compared with Central America was that people give the thumbs up signal a lot. After a fantastic two months in this fascinating, diverse and colourful country Colombia gets two big thumbs up from me.

The fantastic extended Espana family where I stayed on my last night in Colombia in Pasto.

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