Setting the Tone for South America: Capurgana to Girardota

3/8/16

Capurgana, Colombia.

At long… long last, I have arrived in South America. Words cannot convey the excitement I feel about this piece of land. Somehow it seems that all I’ve ridden, all I’ve experienced, all I’ve learned, has been in preparation for being down here. There has been a tingle in my throat every time I’ve thought about actually arriving here, and now it’s here. One big part of my plans for this continent is re-asserting some long forgotten practices of self-care, both for body and spirit. The trick is creating a structure that is specific yet flexible, and with it goals that are similarly flexible so as to minimize the ‘all-or-nothing’ mentality with which I’ve approached self care in the past. That mentality has often led to giving up quickly when I don’t completely meet my perfect expectations.

I’m trying to see every day as a new beginning, with potential for growth, for learning, and for change. Simultaneously I’m trying to avoid letting that perspective lead to a “tomorrow can be a new day” mentality. That one that lets me not take responsibility for my actions today because I’ll start fresh in the future. It takes advantage of hope in order to feed my addictions of procrastination and avoidance. But in this very moment lays the potential for a new choice, and that brings hope that I can shift some negative patterning with consciousness.

Another goal is to turn towards my fears and anxieties. To sit with them and learn what’s behind them in order to understand the unconscious power they can have over my actions. A new friend, Michael Ackerman of Bikepacker Magazine, asked me after our interview a while back, “Are you riding towards something or away from something?” That question has echoed within my thoughts many times during this journey, and I’m not sure I ever fully thanked him for asking it. I have come to realize that during my final months in Central America I had shifted very strongly towards the “riding away from stuff” camp. Lots of fear. Fear of stopping this journey. Fear that I’ll never be able to find a sustainable way of living that brings contentment and peace. Fear that I’ll never find a romantic relationship again. Fear about money management. The list cascades onward. All these fears serve to strengthen the prison walls I end up living within. The most significant is the fear of feeling my own fear. That’s the one that keeps me from ever reaching out to touch the walls to see if they’re actually there. I believe that’s the most important place to start. And so it begins once again… familiar, but as if the first time.

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I spent 3 days at Hector’s House with Philip and Nici as Philip nursed a severe flu that attacked him upon arrival. Unfortunately the flu turned out to be pneumonia! I considered crossing the bay with them over to the port town of Turbo, as most travelers do, but felt a calling to explore a different route… During my Darien Gap research, I discovered some GPX routes (routes for my GPS device) created by someone who’d hiked a lot of the coastline South of Capurgana. When combined with some limited map data from Open Street Maps, I had a feeling I could actually ride/hike my bike quite far South along the coastline. Luckily another guest at the hostel was an older farmer named Pepa. He lived about 20 miles South and was getting ready to walk his mule back down there in a few days. After picking his brain for a couple hours, I had first hand knowledge that I could indeed make it all the way to the Southern coastal town of Unguia by land. But it would not be easy: there would be multiple sections of very rough, steep terrain, various river crossings, and other challenges. Luckily there would be plenty of little villages in which to resupply if needed.

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 Luckily Pepa told me that the hardest section of trail for the route was just a few kilometers outside of Capurgana. So I spent an afternoon scouting it with the bike unloaded, just to make sure we were on the same page about what “steep, technical, and very difficult” mean. The path started as a fun single track through jungle following a river upstream. Then it turned and went straight up. Steep and muddy with a layer of large loose rocks over it, doused with a final topping of dried leaves to camouflage the rocks and limit what little traction there was. 

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Other sections were extremely narrow mud-tunnels dug deep over generations of mule travel between local towns.  But all in all, it would be passable. Just slow going. I returned for a final relaxing day around Capurgana before setting off.

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After giving Nici and Philip a goodbye hug and hopes of seeing each other a bit further South, I set off on the trail, this time loaded up.

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As suspected, the narrow mud passages were the hardest part as they were just wide enough for mules to walk through single file, not wide enough for me to stand next to my bike to push it uphill. Plus the pedals recurrently dug into the mud on both sides…

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The work carried with it some awesome payoff: single track down through jungle and eventually big open farmland. Perfect combination of smooth flowy sections with some technical sections to break it up. Yes!

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 The trail eventually met up with a motorcycle route along a river valley leading all the way to the next major town of Acandi. Many cattle gates slowed the flow for a while, but I eventually started following two guys on a motorcycle and we hop-scotched holding the gates for each other, chatting along the way. There are no cars anywhere along this Northern section of the coast, so all the roads need be only wide enough for motorbikes. Perfect for me!

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After Acandi the route climbed up over a mountain pass then dropped steeply back down to Playona (big beach). I’d heard from Pepa that the leatherback turtles (called caná locally) were starting to lay eggs, and tonight would be a new moon, exactly perfect timing for seeing them. Plus, Playona was the most popular nesting ground for leatherbacks in the region, so chances were good.

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 One of the reasons I still ride with a very wide front tire (29×3.0) is for occasional beach riding. I knew Playona was about 12km long and there was no inland route around it. Shouldn’t be a problem, I’ll get to ride the beach for a while! Not so. The narrow beach was still soaking wet as the tide continued to drop, leaving the flat part of the beach unrideable. I relaxed into the opportunity this presented — A long calm walk along a gorgeous, empty beach. It would be my last time around any beach for a long time as I’d planned to stay high in the Andes through the rest of South America.

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A few kilometers down the beach, I came upon a grouping of small cabins, and a sign, “Fundacion Mama Basilia” — A turtle conservation group. I still had plenty of energy left in me to continue on, but took a hint and walked in. The manager warmly greeted me with a cup of cold water. In moments I agreed to the very cheap camping fee and set my tent up to rest through the afternoon. Turtles lay their eggs at night you see, so I’d be waking up around 11pm to join a man in search of some turtle mamas doing their thing. We’d be gathering their eggs and transplanting them into a guarded area to protect them from poachers, then they’d be re-released after hatching. 

After I set up my tent, the kind manager returned moments later with a bowl of rice, fresh cheese and cooked yucca. Just because. I was lulled into an afternoon siesta to the crashing sounds of the rough Caribbean Sea. Not bad at all. 

I awoke to a flashlight shining through the darkness and a man telling me they were leaving right now to patrol for turtles. I was assigned to join a pair of local guys who were in charge of protecting a 2km stretch of the 12km beach. We wandered up and down the beach through the darkness, at times sitting on some piles of driftwood to wait. After a long 2 hours of wandering, we came up on what looked like a huge rock on the beach.

Then it moved… and breathed, with a deep, slow, labored breath. Holy shit, this was a leatherback, and a big one. We quickly turned our flashlights to red, as the bright light could easily scare this big mama off and she wouldn’t lay her eggs. Of course, no photos were taken.

Her shell alone was a good 6’ long and 4’ wide. Her head was as big as mine. She was working HARD to drag her way up the steep beach to find the right place to lay her eggs. We cleared any obstacles we could to make it easier for her, and watched her profile arduously ambling uphill in the dim cloudy light. Watching an animal perform instinctual behaviors is magical. How she knew where to dig her hole. How she used her rear fins/feet to carefully scoop up the sand and place it to either side, taking turns from left to right. One of the guys jetted his hands into the hole while she was in between scoops to help her along in the process. Luckily since she was faced away from the hole, she had no view to see what he was doing, so didn’t seem to be effected by his presence. He placed a large plastic bag in the hole under her behind, and then… the eggs started dropping. It was like watching popcorn pop, where at first it’s the odd kernel, slowly accelerating to a frenzy. In mid flow, 3-4 eggs would drop at a time. All in all she laid 152 eggs, more than any of the workers had ever seen a turtle lay. He carefully pulled the bag out of her hole with eggs intact, and helped her cover the hole. Moments later, with another heavy breath, she began her descent back to the water’s edge. We returned to the foundation where we dug a big hole in what looked like an adult sized sand box with piles of sand in rows, marked with numbers. We gently opened the bag into the hole, covered it, labelled it, and called it a night. Wow.

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I left Mama Basilia’s full of eggs and inspiration from the previous night’s experience. After riding the remaining 8km of long beautiful beach, I followed my gps track inland, through some rural farms on a fun, windy single track trail. The very few families I did see while passing their tiny ocean-worn homes seemed utterly confused about how I got there, with a bicycle. I reached one house in which a very large, strong man stopped me, telling me the trail did not continue the way I was going. It was unclear if he was upset that I was on his land, or if he was just trying to help me out…

He told me to sit down while he walked over to ask somebody a question in a nearby shack. I was a little nervous. Out here in the middle of nowhere, anything could happen. Nobody knew I was there, and nobody would be the wiser if I were to get ‘disappeared’. Moments later, a woman walked out of the house and handed me a huge plate of fresh yucca and plantains, followed by an AMAZING hot chocolate. Okay, this is going to work out just fine. The whole family eventually came around and we chatted for a little while until the big man came back.

He was genuinely concerned that I wouldn’t be able to get through the way I was going. And for good reason as I discovered. He pointed me to where the trail continued and I thanked the family for their amazing hospitality as I pushed the bike on down a rough narrow path into the jungle. Then the path went up. Straight uphill. Loose, sandy dirt made for nearly impossible going, causing many backslides on my slow ascent. The descent down the other side wasn’t any easier.

At a certain point, the trail forked 3 ways. Not good. I heard the man say something about a place called Napu, and later saw a sign that marked my path as going that way. So I I was definitely on A trail, but it was getting rougher by the moment. Insane climbs through 5 foot deep rutted dirt tracks with no room to stand beside the bike makes for extremely slow going, especially when it’s the aforementioned straight uphill grade. I’d almost reach a less steep section to regain my footing, then slip on the loose terrain and fall backward, ass over tea kettle and start again. Then there were the spider webs. Not sure what the species of enormous spider is that had a thing for weaving webs across the trail, but they were about every 5 feet. Definitely not much foot traffic through here!

Eventually my gps track lead me along a rough rocky slippery river bed. Ankle twisting was imminent, but luckily avoided. Good thing, because there was now NO sign that anyone passed through here, ever. All signs of a trail were gone, just this damn gps track to guide me. The track was odd though, like the gps signal was not very accurate. At times it would have me in the river bed, at times, it’d be 50 feet up the steep river bank. In time I just chose to follow the general gist of the route.

 

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When I the stream suddenly disappeared over a steep ledge, things got intense. Oh shit. It cascaded down an approximately 60 foot embankment of rock riddled with huge downed trees and debris. There was NO WAY I could get the bike down it without rope. To both sides of the cascade was extremely steep and thick jungle. Having already stumbled through a number of those enormous spider nests, with spiders intact, I was not looking forward to any part of this. Unfortunately I’d already been pushing through the river for 3 hours at this point, and it would take me at least until dark just to get back to the big man’s house.

Fuck. Okay. Deep breath, and move forward.

One thing I can say for sure: I am extremely glad I didn’t get rid of that machete I picked up in Chiapas. I hacked my way through the thick steep jungle, at times losing my footing on the deep bed of fallen leaves. I’d fall and slide down 5-10 feet only to catch myself and the bike on a stable tree root in the hillside. At various times the only way ahead was to leave the bike and scout the safest route for 20-30’ then come back for it. There was more than one moment in which I thought, “This is completely insane. I’m in way over my head here…” Following that with a long deep breath, I’d continue on. About an hour later I made it to the bottom of the embankment. It’s a miracle that nothing was damaged during this crazy process. The above photo is the only record I have of the insanity that was that day’s terrain, taken from the bottom of the embankment looking up. Somehow feels just right that it’s completely out of focus. Times like those just don’t inspire me to pull out my camera to cherish the moment. It’s just about survival.

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Eventually the river let out into the sea, where by stroke of grace I found a trail again! Unfortunately that was far from the end of the challenges. 2 more hours of insane rutted climbs and descents, interspersed with hair raising 8” wide trail that hung over the a cliff’s edge into the sea. No false moves would be permitted.

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THEN things got weird. The trail widened eventually and smoothed out. It let out onto a soccer field and eventually wiggled into the town of Triganá. I guess this is the fancy vacation town along this stretch of coast as all the sudden I was surrounded by fancy b&bs and stunning cabins overlooking the blue-green water.  Get me back to the jungle!!

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 Another super fun stretch of single track along the coastline eventually turned inland after the small settlement of San Francisco, where it widened into a gravel road. Moments later I entered the coastal town of Titumate, just as the most brilliant colors of dusk enveloped the evening sky.

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I stopped to grab a snack from a barbecue stand and took a load off. It would be another 40km on the gravel road to my final destination of Unguia, but that would be for the next day… so I thought. Upon hearing my plans to take a boat directly from Unguia up the Atrato River to Riosucio, he told me there were no boats that did that. I’d have to take a speedboat all the way across the huge, rough waters to Turbo, then take another boat all the way back across and down to Riosucio. NOT what I wanted to hear after getting confirmation from at least 3 other people that I could get the direct boat. Sigh. He called his friend in Unguia just to confirm and yep, not possible. He suggested I take the 6am, once-daily speedboat from Titumate the next morning, because I could catch the boat to Riosucio immediately after that and be there by mid-day. Hard to let go of the last 40km of riding, but due to boat schedules I’d have been waiting around Unguia for 2 days to leave.

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I slept out on the boat dock that night, and awoke to people walking around, preparing to catch the 6am speedboat. Packed up the bike and waited for it to arrive. 4 hours later, it did. Not much bigger than the boat I took took across the border, I was VERY nervous about the bike getting damaged in the rough waters. Plus, the captain was in a huge rush from being late, so no time to discuss best options for rigging the bike. He rested it on top of some other people’s bags and I crossed my fingers.

Every. Freaking. Bounce…

….Of the boat launching airborne off one wave and slapping down onto the next, injected morose thoughts of another frame break, another forced period off the bike. God I hope not. Luckily only a couple small plastic parts were damaged, nothing critical.

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The boat pulled into the dense, scummy  port town of Turbo an hour later. Streets packed with people, all trying to sell me on a ride to somewhere.  I’d missed the boat to Riosucio by 2 hours due to the delay. That meant staying the night in the dingy crowded hellhole of Turbo. I looked around the busy streets with all the cars, trucks, buses, motos, and pollution. It greatly deepened the appreciation for the coastline I’d just enjoyed. NO CARS at ALL. Some motorcycles but nothing like this.

I just couldn’t do it.

On a whim, I hopped on the bike and followed the highway South. I also just couldn’t risk another boat ride with it’s incurrent damage due to impact and salt water. Riosucio would have to wait for another day. As usual when it comes to deciding NOT to do something, I was tormented. FOMO (fear of missing out) was strong in that moment, and it took a lot of strength to focus on JOBI (joy of being IN).

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Luckily, moments later my tormented decision faded into the horizon, with some help. I noticed a cyclist was riding very close behind me on the highway for a while, and eventually I turned to ask him he needed something. He began chatting me up about my ride and my plans as I rode along, him trolling along by my side. It was actually nice to have a little buffer from the traffic and some nice conversation simultaneously. After about 10km of road, he offered to buy me lunch at his favorite road-side eatery! A mathematics professor at the local university, he didn’t have a big social life and cherished the opportunity to make a new friend. He even rode another 20km alongside me after lunch to keep chatting. Another point for Colombia — you’re pretty awesome so far.

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Even the signs for bike awareness have archaic full suspension mountain bikes on them! Colombia — 2 points and counting!

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The long, straight highway was dead flat for the first 70km out of Turbo, then the hills started appearing. Is this the the very beginning of riding through the Andes???

I passed a large bridge over a slow river, and decided to jump in for a quick cool off. Down below, I encountered a local family with the same idea. After a short conversation they shared that they owned a dairy farm a kilometer down the highway, and I MUST stop in for a glass of fresh milk. Not wanting to be rude (and loving the idea of fresh milk), I accepted. Upon arrival they greeted me with a chilled cup of milk that had come out of the cow that same day, and a big plate of yucca. Amazing! I luckily remembered I’d still been carrying a big blue tarp to cover the bike for the boat crossings. They happily accepted my gift as well, given one of their farm structures had some leaks. Everybody wins!

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Passing a small indigenous village along the highway. Amazing structures.

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Yep. The hills got bigger and bigger as the kilometers stretched on…

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Those hills turned into mountains…

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Gorgeous mountains.

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During a long 2500’ climb I caught up to Juan, a Colombian cyclist who was touring the whole country by bike since Bogota. Look closely: he’s riding a single speed. And that little backpack: that’s all he’s carrying. And he’s out for 5-6 months. Jesus, I’ve got a lot to learn. Juan left a month ago from Bogota and has since covered a ton of miles through some amazing terrain. We rode together for the rest of the day as his gearing limitation seemed to match my weight amplification.  Amazing was when we rolled into a town to stop for the night, he immediately walked up to some people at a nearby cafe and moments later they were handing him some small bills. Turns out he left his home with ZERO money and has managed to eat and sleep each night purely by the donations of locals. Very interesting to see how many people offered him cash without reservation! Probably helps that a nice hotel room here can easily be found for $5USD.

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Juan and I rolled out together the following morning, but I quickly pulled ahead due to the long sustained climb and his one gear. It felt weird to not wait for him, but then again we’d made no commitments to ride together. I waited for him at a rest stop for a while and had second breakfast, but no sign of him. I hope the rest of his tour goes great!

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Atop another long steady climb, overlooking the peaks and preparing for a super fun screaming downhill on curvy paved mountain roads.

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I dropped into the famous colonial village of Santa Fe de Antioquia. One of the oldest towns in all of Colombia, it stands out amongst its neighbors with it’s classic Spanish architecture and beautiful old churches.  While crashed at a cheap hostel, I heard from a new friend named Brian. A Boulder Colorado native, he’s been cycling North since Ushuaia Argentina, working his way home. We met originally on a dirt road while I was visiting Colombia with my sister in December. Luckily we stayed in touch, and he was just about 80km South of me in the enormous city of Medellin. I had no intention of riding into the urban behemoth of Medellin as I was just getting riding again and didn’t want to get caught up in a city. Luckily, Brian was going stir crazy from a Spanish class he’d been taking and ready to hit the road. We decided to meet in a small town Northeast of the city and ride together for a little bit until he needed to cut North.

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 Luckily a little time on Google Earth and I found a dirt route out of Santa Fe that would connect me with Brian in a small town called Girardota. The one catch: I’d need to climb about 8-9000’ over the central range of the Andes to meet him. I woke up early and got pedaling.

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Looking down at the wiggly dirt road I’d been riding all morning, it’s amazing to see how much elevation you cover in a short while.

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Impressive. In 40km (about 25 miles), I’d climbed just under 7000’. Still lots more to go!

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As I reached the highest points of the range, the dry open land turned into rich, lush farmland.

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Yellows and browns turned into glowing greens as I got into dairy country.

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 Small colonial town of San Pedro. I’m starting to realize that much like Mexico, Colombia is big on having disproportionately large churches for their small towns!

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Final descent out of the central Andes into Girardota, past dairy farms and ranches.

Detailed route list (I will try to attach a gpx file of my entire route for public use): 

1. Capurgana over the mountain pass to the river trail to Acandi. There are a few forks in the trail up around the pass, just stay straight-ish and stay on the widest trail.

2. Acandi to Playona. Ask for the route, but essentially ride past the airport and take your first major left and follow it over a pass. Take a left at the fork to the beach.

3. Playona to Trigana

4. Trigana to Titumate

5. Titumate to Turbo via boat ride

6. Turbo South on the highway to Santa Fe de Antioquia

7. Santa Fe to San Pedro

8. San Pedro to Girardota

Notes for other cyclists/travelers of the Bahia Uraba section out of Capurgana: 

1. You CAN actually travel on land all the way from La Miel in Panama through this entire route and beyond Titumate to Unguía. You’d still need to get a Panama exit stamp in Puerto Obaldia then take a boat to La Miel. From there it’s a big staircase to hike your bike up and over to Sapzurro, then a trail down to Capurgana.

2. The really rough section of trail between Capurgana and Acandi is only about 2-3km long. It took me about 2 hours. I did in in dry conditions and there was still some sticky deep mud in sections that was completely destroyed by horse hooves. Extremely rough and slow going. I’d reconsider this route if it’s recently rained a lot. The steep section only gains about 200 meters to the summit, so it’s hard, but short.

3. Once you’re down on the river trail to Acandi, it’s non-technical single track and dirt road all the way through to Playona beach. A couple steep spots and plenty of river crossings though.

4. From Playona you’ve got about 14km of beach riding. Some of it is rideable but the narrow beach prevents riding in sections without getting your bike covered in salt water.

5. From the end of the beach you’ll have a bit of fun single track then a huge section of very tough unrideable trail all the way to Trigana. I think I took a wrong turn at the sign to Napú, and if you took a left instead of the right I took it might allow for less intense up and downs, also avoiding pushing along the creek for so long and avoid scaling down a 60ft embankment.

6. As far as I know, this entire route is pretty safe as of March 2016, based on local information. I rode it alone and didn’t feel unsafe.

7. I found out in Titumate that you can’t get a boat directly from Unguia to Riosucio. Given some specific reasons, I took a boat direct from Titumate to Turbo with plans to take another boat the same day to Riosucio, but some equipment got damaged on the first boat ride convincing me to just ride South from Turbo and save the cash and time. If you do it, make sure the boats are running. The 6am boat from Titumate SHOULD get you to Turbo in time to catch the 7:30 boat to Riosucio. Mine was 3 hours late.

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