As I made my way further south in the Central Highlands the roads became better, traffic lessened, and army checkpoints less frequent. The road wound its way along the mountains through small villages and towns. I was aiming to get through the remainder of central Colombia, reach Popayan and from there push towards Ecuador.
So I didn’t dawdle much on this section. I was already behind on my schedule, in as much as I had a schedule at all. I avoided most of the big towns in the area as I made my way across the hills.
It was less forested here and both the scenery and climate reminded me of my native Ireland.
Towards the end of the day I made it down to the sweltering plains of the Cauca Valley, which I had been following on and off since before Medellin. Here, for the first time in Colombia, the roads opened up to wide, four lane highways, and I saw police radar traps for the first time since the US. Not that I was breaking any land speed records, but I needed to keep an eye on my speed for once!
The heat really picked up as I descended further into the Cauca valley. The pleasant temperatures of the mountains were left behind as I moved into the sweltering lowlands. A few hours after passing by the coffee farms up in the hills, I was riding through the sugarcane plantations of the valleys. I didn’t know this so much from observing the landscape, rather it was the numerous road trains carrying the sugar beet that tipped me off. From behind they gave same profile as a truck, until I overtook and saw that the “truck
” was made up of multiple trailers!
All in all, it was a fairly uneventful ride. In fact I’m struggling to write anything interesting about this stage of my Colombian interlude. It was pleasant, but slightly boring riding.
That was until I got to Villa Rica. I arrived at the outskirts of the town right around lunchtime and debated whether I would I go into the town center for lunch or just eat at one of the roadside places. I chose the latter as I wanted to get to the city of Popayan before nightfall.
When I went into the restaurant I knew something wasn’t right. Normally roadside eateries in Colombia are boisterous places, with music blasting through the speakers at concert level volume and the clientele screaming over the din. Here everyone was subdued and glued to the the television.
A bomb had exploded outside the police station in the town center, just two miles away and twenty minutes before, killing six people. I don’t know what to say about this tragedy. I’m glad I didn’t decide to go into the town centre. I felt awkward being a tourist while so much suffering was happening a couple of miles away, but what could I do? I was here now and might as well carry on.
It was a subdued and somber lunch, after which I got back on the road. Almost straight away there was an army checkpoint that had been hastily set-up after the Farc terrorist attack. In the light of what had just happened, there was none of the friendliness and good humor I’d previously experienced at Colombian checkpoints. They went through all my luggage with a fine tooth-comb, checked all my documents and then told to me to park the bike, hand over the keys and answer “a few questions” while they called in my details into immigration. They quizzed me on where I was going, where I was coming from, and what was I doing here in the first place. It was understandable under the circumstances, I suppose that they would interrogate me. Fortunately for me I was able to point them to this very blog to back up my story and the questioning became less intense after that.
Fifteen minutes later a commandant handed me back my keys and documents. He said I was free to carry on. He told me there were going to be several checkpoints down the road, but he had radioed my details ahead so I wouldn’t be delayed too much. As long as I showed my passport there would be no more inspections. He also warned me that under any circumstances not to stray off the main road as the area was “hot” right now and they couldn’t guarantee my safety if I detoured on the back roads.
On paper this was a very tense situation to be travelling through, but for some reason I wasn’t too worried. Sure, I didn’t stop to smell the flowers after that and was nervous about the checkpoints up ahead, but I also figured that the remaining miles to Popayan would be highly secure with all the checkpoints. I just had to worry about the traffic more than anything else. The road went back up into the mountains and rainclouds loomed.
True to the commandant’s word, I was basically waved through the next few checkpoints, in spite of the heightened security, and arrived at Popayan, my overnight stop.
Popayan is known as “the white city” for its whitewashed colonial center. There were a lot of hotels and coffee shops, but bizarrely there were almost no places to eat in the city center. Being a university town, there were more photocopy shops than you could shake a stick at, but good luck trying to find a nice (or any) restaurant! None the less, it was a relaxing place and I enjoyed walking around the city center taking in the sights.
Up to now in this country the people were either of European or Afro-Caribbean origin. I was now getting into the foothills of the Andes, as evidenced by the climate, and people’s dress and appearance.
Next up was the final leg before Ecuador, and maybe the best of my time in Colombia.