June 03, 2006 GMT
Visiting the Pre-Columbians

As our days in northern Peru wind down, Sho, Pat and I visit three significant pre-Columbian sites. Just north of Trujillo rests the remains of the largest adobe city in the world, Chan Chan. As the capital of the Chimu culture (circa AD 1100 to 1471), the adobe city spread over 28 square kilometers and held a population that varied between 60,000 to 250,000 people, depending on the era. The Chimu surrendered to the pesky Incas after eleven years of heavy badgering and threats to destroy their irrigation canals.

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When a Chimu king died, his palace was abandoned and another was built for the new king. By the time the Incas took over, nine palaces existed in Chan Chan. The adobe walls surrounding the royal palace were decorated with molded images of fish, condors, sea otters, pelicans, fish nets, the Southern Cross and other stuff. The image below shows a calendar record of many seasons, including years when El Niño came stalking.

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When a king died, usually around 40 years old, the cause of death was often because of a hemophiliac related condition. Strangely, Chimu custom dictated the king marry his sister. But not just one death occured when the MMWC (main man what counts) died. Accompanying the king to his grave was his primary wife, 90 concubines and the lead officials from each kingdom district. I assume that unhappy prospect encouraged everyone's best efforts to keep the MMWC healthy and happy. Not helping matters was all the heavy gold and silver symbols of office the old boy had to wear. Hence he was carried everywhere he went. No exercise, bad blood and married to his sister. Not a winning combination.

The adobe walls surrounding the royal enclosure were 8 to 10 metres high and two meters at the base. Constructed of sand, clay, sea shells and cactus mixed with water, the interior walls were then painted in rich colors of red, blue, white or yellow and adorned with silver and gold. Today much of the city has been destroyed by floods, earthquakes and rain, not to mention the rude intrusion of conquistadors and today's huaqueros (grave robbers). Still, it is an impressive site.

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After three lovely days in the sun at Huanchaco and visiting nearby Chan Chan, our trio heads north to the city of Chiclayo. Again, following a winning plan, we set up base in a comfortable but inexpensive hotel, park our bikes in the hotel's outer courtyard (within view of their watchful security) and grab a taxi for the next historical must-see. At their height around AD 1 to 750, the Moche culture were masters of art in precious metals, stone, pottery and textiles. Today it is difficult at first glance of the three crumbling pyramids to realize the grandeur that once was Sipán.

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What looks like some dirt hills turns out to be a grand set of handbuilt structures made of adobe bricks. Time has not been kind to the Moche heritage site.

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Excavations since 1987 have uncovered 12 royal tombs, each a treasure cache of funerary objects considered to rank among the finest examples of pre-Columbian art. The weathiest Moche tomb, that of El Señor de Sipán, contains a high priest clad in gold, silver, turquoise, lapis lazuli, copper and exquisitely woven fabrics. In the picture below, I am standing on the ceremonial pyramid looking down at the cemeterial pyramid. The metal roofs down there protect the excavated tombs from the elements, guards 24 hours a day protect the site from the huaqueros. Before the protection much of the stolen wealth was bought by North Americans and Europeans. In times past even foreign museums were a market. We can all share some blame for this permanent loss to the Peruvian people.

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As seems to be the fashion then, El Señor de Sipán was buried surrounded by his wife, a military commander, a boy, guardians (with their feet cut off), llamas (with their heads cut off), and a look-out man perched in an alcove above. Ceramic containers held a variety of food and materials needed to carry on business in the next life. Later we visit the world class Museo Tumbes Reales de Sipán in the little town of Lambayeque where the dazzling riches uncovered at the site are on display. Unfortunately we have to surrender cameras so we take mind pictures.

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The last in our triad of pre-Columbian cultures is a visit to the ancient city of Túcume (circa AD 1000 to 1375), 35 km north of Chiclayo. The Lambayeque people built 26 massive adobe brick pyramids here. The largest, Huaca Larga, measured 700 metres long, 280 metres wide and over 30 metres high. Obviously anyone in this part of the world with shares in Adobe Inc. were doing well in those days.

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Remarkably, much of what is known today about Túcume is attributed to the leadership and efforts of explorer-archeologist Thor Heyerdayl of "Kon-Tiki" fame. As Sho, Pat and I stand on a high cerro overlooking this incredible kingdom below, a 30 C breeze waves up at us from below. With the heat comes the scent of clay, the smell of 1000 year old history. What are now non-descript mountains heavily eroded with deep vertical wrinkles used to be a magestic and awe inspiring mega metropolis, that much is plain. Beyond the ancient city below, through the shimmer of mid-day, we can see vast fields of luxuriously green crops, the same rich fields that once fed many thousands still feeding many thousands today. I can't help but feel these elaborate cultures of ten centuries ago were doing as well or better than the Europeans I learned about in school. How could this much South American history have gone unnoticed or untold by our North American educators?


Posted by Murray Castle at 04:34 PM GMT
Street scenes

My life is divided between two main activities. Either Katie and I are on the road watching the landscape slide by or I'm in some interesting town checking out the sights. In this chapter, I will say little and let the pictures do the talking. Here are some of the visual stories that make life interesting here in South America.

The centrepiece of every city is the main plaza. Katie and I head there everytime we hit a new town. The centre of life in the evening, in the day the plaza is home to old men and shoe shine boys. My shoes have never looked better. For 30 cents, the young lads, often under 10 years old, make my riding boots and Rockports shine within an inch of their lives.

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In Peru and Chile, surrounding the main plaza, invariably called the Plaza de Armas (armas as in arms or guns), the most venerable churches and classest buildings were erected. Many of these lovely buildings are hundreds of years old.

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On just about any given day or occasion, a parade is likely to break out around the plaza. The reason could be military, religious, funerary or mildly political, as in a simple call to ban smoking.

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As commonplace as the plazas are the open air markets, many of which run every day. It's always interesting to see what the local region produces. Business is brisk and often has nothing to do with tourism. It is everyday life in America. The term America here by the way means North and South America. They take exception to the good folks from Estados Unidos (USA) considering themselves as The Americans.

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Down a typically narrow aisle, I come across a man selling jewelry whispered to me as being "original". Having just come from the tombs of Sipán, I recognize the items as the dangley bits from a priest's breastplate. So here is where some of the huanqueros ill-gotten goods end up. I refuse and explain my respect for Peruvian law. The vendador doesn't react with the least bit of guilt.

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Now here is a place Joyce would love: witch doctor row. Bottles and boxes large and small, llama foetuses, dried insects, herbs, spices and lots of non-identified items are all for sale here. Didn't see any bones or skulls but I didn't look really hard in case I found something that would haunt me.

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On the lighter side, I did see stuff I could recognize - and even put in my mouth without puking or turning into a toad.

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No town, North or South America, is safe without the likes of a superhero on guard. Chances of roboman or Witchdoctor Juan getting me are just about zero with Superman around.

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The next image tells the story of May 29th. After five weeks in Peru Katie and I enter Ecuador. Sadly we have to leave our compañeros Pat and Sho behind as they arrange transportation by sea or air to the USA:

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In Cuenca, a visit to KTM del Ecuador results in fast, attentive service guided by Willy Malo Jr. If Katie is happy, msc is happy.

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Posted by Murray Castle at 10:59 PM GMT
June 08, 2006 GMT
I go to the Baños

Going to Ecuador doesn't mean a mandatory trip to the Baños. Now I know what you're thinking: a trip to the baños is necessary everyday, no matter where you are. But I am talking about a different kind of Baños. This trip takes you to the town officially known as Baños de Santa Aguas, after the healing hot springs nearby. This is selfsame Tropical-Banff-with-No-Rules town that bills itself 'the Gateway to the Amazon'. Tour companies rule.

Perched within a deep river canyon on a shelf of land between the Rio Pastaza and the sometimes active volcano Tungurahua, Baños means living life a bit on the edge. In 1999, Baños had to be evacuated because Tungurahua, only 8 km distant, started venting big steam and ash. Since then things have returned to normal, normal meaning river rafting. volcano climbing, rappeling down waterfalls (huh?), hiking, biking, quading, dirtbiking or just plain drinking your face off in one of the zillion pubs/restaurants in town. No rules means cruising around town on your rented quad with your hair wafting in the wind. The Ozzies love it.

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Bloody hell! Another parade? OK drop what I'm doing, which is usually not too demanding, and find a place on the sidewalk to see what's happening this time. What are these clowns up to now? Oh, they are clowns. Now if they were just handing out cervezas...

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A bunch of us decide to ride bicycles down to the Rio Verde. It takes a half day of mostly coasting and sightseeing to get to the little town of Rio Verde.

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After a round of thirst quencing cervezas, a toy Toyota truck takes us back uphill to Baños. Cost per passenger, and we all chose to ride in the back, is $1.50 per hombre.

One of the things popular in Ecuador, don't ask me why, is barbequed guinea pig. Cuy as it's known around these parts, is bred for the spit. A closer look shows the cuys all have the same frozen scream on their faces. Maybe having a spit stuck up your butt about the same time you realize YOU are lunch....

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It takes four cervezas grande to help wash down the lunchtime grease. We all take a quarter although with five of us it is funny no one chose the amputated head. The cannibals, left to right are: Brian (UK), Simon Blackburn (UK & now USA), Shauna and Dave Taylor (Australia). Later that evening we wash the aftertaste down with another round or two. It is comforting to note there are lots of stray dog packs around town. Not that having dozens of dogs barking all night is great, but the silver lining is they haven't caught on as a "delicacy".

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On a dark note, days after leaving Baños, I talk to a man (Dave) about my age from Manchester UK. He is in Quito Ecuador trying to encourage officials to bring to justice the person/persons who murdered his wife in Baños. She was on a 3 month tour around South America and Baños was her last stop before flying to Quito and home. That was in January. Dave and his 22 year old son are getting help from the British Embassy but Dave reports the corruption and incompetence of local authorities initially slowed the investigation. After getting a change of jurisdiction, Dave thinks the good guy authorities now have the guy who did it and he is hoping they will get a confession. I saw a photo of his wife, Jen, on a Missing Persons bulletin the day before. Nice looking woman about 50. Professional nurse just doing something she always wanted to do. What a shame. So 99% of the time things go fine here in S.A., but that other 1% is true tragedy. This is one story that isn't urban myth.

Since I'm at the Gateway to the Amazon, me and Katie take a day tour down the canyon of the Rio Pastaza to Puyo, the town at the beginnings of the Amazon Basin. The surroundings are certainly jungle like. Everything looks impossibly green and tropical but not the hanging vines-and-snakes image I had in mind (watched too many Tarzan movies maybe). Still it is high 20's C and high humidity. While I ride it rains some but they are big warm drops. From my moving viewpoint I see the locals are growing bananas, sweet potatoes, maize, tomatoes, oranges, orchids, whatever they want. Long narrow greenhouses, high on the mountain slopes, align downhill at the same angle as the fall line. Strange. In Puyo, I see lots of one-man saw mills making orange crates out of beautiful hardwood (must be the easiest trees to find, I guess).

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Katie and I explore to about 15 km out of town on a lovely little dirt road and came across this brand new restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Has only a roof, no walls except for the kitchen. Time for lunch and there are big black cumulus building close by, so we swing in. From my table (winecolored table cloth with sheet of glass on top - very fancy, and white plastic lawn chair) I can see jungle in three directions. Rain cloud too, of course. Lunch is a bowl of freshly-dead-chicken soup and a 10 year old bottle of Coca Cola, US$2.00. When the rain storm moves on, so do we.

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Posted by Murray Castle at 02:21 AM GMT
The Quilotoa Circuit

From the tourist town of Baños it is time to head north to the Avenue of the Volcanoes. That and the Quilotoa Circuit are next on the list of stuff to see. The route takes me to Ambato, then north on the busy Pan Americana Highway, then west at the starting point, Latacunga. Rain showers chase me along. Disappointingly, the more than a half dozen giant 5000 and 6000 meter volcanoes along the 'avenue' are hiddened from view by the solid ceiling of low cloud.

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The first leg of the circuit is a lovely 2 lane narrow but paved highway leading west for about an hour and a half. It is only 75 km but the constant curves and climbing/descending along the mountainous contour lines keep Katie and I busy. At Zumbahua we turn north. With the asphalt now laying on sandier soil, the very real danger of wash-outs add another thing to watch for. Where the rains have undercut the base, huge bites of road are missing, sometimes creating a crevasse of many meters. Inattention to the road would lead to serious injury or worse. None of the sudden disappearances of the road are marked.

The reward comes at over 13,000 feet when we arrive at the volcanic lake of Quilotoa. Clouds swirl, the temperature at the crater's edge is less than 10 above and a cold wind blows. But the view is sublime. One can hike down to the azure water's edge in half an hour, and climb back in an hour in a half (the altitude takes its toll on climbers). Being in the piston-head frame of mind, I stand at the edge and just take pictures.

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Continuing the circuit, I head north off pavement and onto a soft dirt road. Katie snakes around in the deep powder-like dirt. It doesn't help a grader (a grader in South America!?!) has just worked the road over. Adding to the fun are steep dropoffs and more rain. Tell me again why I keep taking the road less travelled?

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The road gradually improves as the day wears on. Now, and thank heavens not sooner, my favorite mountain road compañeros show up. Camions and autobuses. True to form the drivers all have death wishes combined with the urgency to go as fast as possible, regardless of road conditions. Or the fact that smaller sized traffic might be occupying the road too.

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There are not many places to pull over and get the picture of the lifetime, but the snapshot below shows how the andinos live, whether they are in Peru or Ecuador. The crops are hand tilled and harvested. Blankets are spread out to thrash the sheeves. The seeds are spread to dry. The waist high sacks of harvest placed at the roadsign for camion pick-up. It is a simple life but a hard one. Clothes are still washed in mountain streams and hung on bushes or simple clothes lines to dry. For every one picture I do take, a 1000 National Geographic quality ones are taken in my mind. They are truly unique scenes and cultures to observe as Katie and I pass through in these few moments.

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Sunset is at 6:15. It is now 5:50 and I am not off the mountains and finished the loop. It has taken me all day to ride less than 200 kilometres. But now I must find a place to camp or stay within the next 15 minutes or face riding in the dark, surely a foolhardy thing to do. Light rain adds to the challenge. With no plan other than to stop and set up my tent in the next few minutes if nothing shows up, a town does show up like a miracle. Not marked on my GPS, the pueblo of Toacazo arrives in the windshield. A quick inquiry at the town's only service station has a customer leading me to an unmarked hacienda that occasionally takes guests. As darkness falls, I arrive at the beautiful log house of Ramiro Vela. I can stay even though the place is temporarily closed. Katie gets to park in the spacious dining room. Ramiro rustles up some crackers, cheese, tea and a beer. We are all happy. Through the night, from my cosy and dry bed, I can head rain falling on the roof of the hacienda. I fall back to sleep easily.

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The next morning, it is still raining. And now the final leg of the Quilotoa Circuit is cobblestone road. Katie finds it slippery when wet. We idle along in first gear, the shocks getting a workout too as we judder over a road surface of round riverstone.

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Rejoining the Pan Americana an hour later, Katie and I ride for Cotopaxi. the popular destination volcano (5897m or 19,347 feet) everyone raves about. Except today it is less than 10 C at 10,000 feet where I'm at and a cold rain is still falling. I realize to ride up to one of the world's most perfectly coned volcanos is to take a ride in the snow. Further, I will see nothing but the inside of the clouds. So, reluctantly, Katie and I head for Quito and a dry hotel room.

Posted by Murray Castle at 02:54 AM GMT
June 14, 2006 GMT
Colombian Green

I can't believe it! I've got water in the engine oil! Bloody hell, did that damn water pump seal start leaking again? As I stand here in the rain in northern Ecuador my disbelief spurs a quick memory flash back to sunny Arizona and February. The KTM boys in Tucson had replaced the seals and I thought that fixed it. Now here I am 1000 km from the KTM dealer in Bogota and more than 1000 km back to the last dealer in Cuenca, Ecuador. And will this God damn rain never end?

Luckily there is town nearby, the lovely Otavalo (pop 31,000). I was half thinking of stopping here for a few days anyways and take some guided eco-tours. Now the main priority is to consider my options and do it without Katie busily making a cocktail mix of oil & antifreeze in the engine room. My trusty Footprint Handbook of South America lists the Valle de Amanecer Hostel as " $12 to $20 night, includes breakfast, good restaurant, internet, comfortable rooms, hot showers, courtyard, popular." As Chris Brown would say, that's me! And a secure place for Katie. Besides, I like the hostel's name, Valley of Sunrise.

After the usual 20 questions asking directions, I find the place and it is great. The courtyard is full of flowers, hammocks strung like spider webs among leafy trees and decorative stonework to park on. Some of which is a little lost on me in the rain. Getting into the courtyard is a bit of a maze. Luckily Katie is relatively slim except for the Jesse bags. Like entering a fort, I swiggle Katie through the passage way from sidewalk and onto hotel property, then down a nicely sheltered boardwalk, edging between the rooms and bicycles chained to the handrail. Then a sharp turn into the courtyard. Watch out for the flowering shrubs, don't run over those, I think the owner is watching, probably with amusement. Now jockey between dripping trees, being careful not to strangle myself on a hammock.

After some email conversations with KTM Bogota, I decide the best thing to do tomorrow is travel on some 20 kilometers to Ibarra, a bigger town. The owner of Valle de Amanecer gives me the name of a good mechanic there, a Santiago Ipres. Too bad about the eco-tours but Katie comes first. The thought of water in the engine is like finding out I have a tapeworm.

In Ibarra the next morning I track down Senor Ipres. In spite of a ne'er-do-well shop he personally has an intelligent look and several enthusiastic mechanics, and as an added bonus, an everpresent crowd of fans. I barely get some words out of my mouth and his boys are taking parts off my bike right there at the curb. The fans crowd around to the point where I'm now second row.

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Whatever is lacking for tools and equipment is more than made up by industry, skill and enthusiasm. Before I know it Katie has the oil drained, inspected and refilled with a new filter (I have two with me). Incredibly, but much to my relief, there is NO water in the oil. The only explanation is the dipstick got water on it as I was checking it in the rain. Probably touched the side of the oil reservoir as I was withdrawing the dipstick. Whatever the reason, it is a great relief to know Katie is not running on agua. A makeshift ramp is thrown together to help bleed air out of the cooling system, a weird little quirk necessary for KTM 950's.

While all this action is going on, two reporters from the local paper La Verdad (The Truth) show up. Interviewed in their native tongue, I dazzle the two guys with my command of chipmunk spanish. Gracefully they decide they have enough information (he's Canadian and he is motorcycling solo back to The Great White North) and take a couple of token pictures. I suspect the look of wonder on their faces is more of disbelief than respect. Santiago's fan club are undeterred and far less judgemental. They continue to wisecrack good naturedly all through the entire operation. I can't help but like Santiago and his ever present amigos. I ride off to many "buen viaje's". Bonus too, I still have half the day to make some miles, even if it has started raining again.

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After spending the night in the Ecuadorian border town of Tulcan, I hit the Colombia border crossing early next morning with some trepedation. I am about to enter the land of guerrillas, kidnappers and drug lords.

My first encounter at the frontera is with a money changer. Holding a wad of bank notes thick enough to choke a herd of llamas, he explains the rate at the bank and what he is offering to exchange American dollars (used in Ecuador) for Colombian pesos. I listen. Geez, he's not bullshitting, I checked the rate myself the night before on the internet. OK, so I buy $10 worth of pesos, just to get me started. I've already converted my Ecuadorian pocket change into last minute chocolate bars.

Documentation out of Ecuador is even faster than when I entered the country. Next is crossing the bridge and entering crime ridden Colombia. Parking my bike where I can sort of see it among the crowd, I climb the stairs of the open air atrium and join a long slow line to see the single Columbian customs agent. A Colombian family behind me strikes up a conversation with me. The mother immediately calls her son over. As he joins her I note mom and son both have NIAGARA FALLS CANADA sweatshirts. He speaks English and has just visited his brother who lives in Hamilton, Ontario. At his mother's suggestion, Roberto leads me around to all the people to talk to and what papers to get photocopied. He has just saved me about two hours of fumbling around on my own. And true to his word, I am stamped, photocopied, data-entered on the computer and out of there before noon. Wow, for such an unstable country folks here sure are friendly and helpful.

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Almost immediately the landscape starts to change. The highway surface improves. The absence of ditch trash is as welcome as it was in Ecuador. The road contours along the Cordillera. The thirty story waterfalls are distractingly beautiful. Wow! It is so green and lovely here. I'm sure Ecuador is equal but I couldn't tell for low cloud and rain. At least here there is some blue sky and a view.

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The road to Pasto is a joy to ride. I stop lots and take pictures. The worry about crime and guerrillas starts to fade a bit. How could bad guys live here, it's too pretty.

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As I study the landscape, Katie brings me down out of the mountains and into incredibly green foothills. Often along the low ridgetops are lovely homes and estates. Hum, is this where Pablo Escobar lives? Sure looks awfully first world in some places. Does drug money pay for this excellent paved highway too? That seems illogical.

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As I travel northeast and to lower country, I also notice more of a negro population. I know Cartegena, in northern Colombia, was a favorite for the Spanish to deliver imported slaves. I note the spread in wealth. Not all blacks are poor but the listlessness the woman in the picture below portrays translates to a future without hope. At least this is what I imagine. I watch her for some minutes, pretending to fiddle with my helmet. In spite of the lush greenery around her, her life looks as poor as the dirt in her front yard.

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Next in this visual potpourri comes flowering hedges planted along the roadside. It is hard not to examine all this colour as it blurs past. OK, 'blurs past' might be a bit strong. I am only doing 60 to 80 kilometers an hour, but after a half-day of 20 to 30 in the mountains, this seems like light speed.

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Just to make sure I don't become too enraptured with Mother Colombia's glory, the all too common three-way race of oncoming traffic calls my attention once more. Really common is one truck passing another regardless of the double yellow line. That yellow paint is just a guideline for how much lateral clearance there is for passing, not a reference for whether it's safe ahead. I usually head for the shoulder if there is one, slow down if there's not. What is challenging is the three-way where a car does the double capture (more machismo points that way) by passing the truck that is passing the only vehicle in the correct lane. Six headlights coming at me to my one heading their way, well, you do the math.

Oh, and you notice the 30 km speed limit sign? Another guideline. Rule of thumb: double the posted limit and if you have a sprintin' machine that'll get you more before the next corner, do that. Business must be good in the brake shops.

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Given the driving habits this roadside Virgin Mother has to watch everyday has understandably brought her to drinking. Or at least at peace with sharing advertising space and alternative methods of obtaining serenity. Obviously, even Divine Mary condones a little Poker, which, as I find out soon enough, is the name of a popular Colombian cerveza.

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I do believe, after a day of playing dodge 'em, as I have done for the last 11,000 kilometers, it's Poker Time for this sinner too. I don't blame her for hiding in the shade. No point making it too obvious she understands the realities of latin american drivers.

Posted by Murray Castle at 04:45 PM GMT
Zona Cafetera

As I race the sun to get back to my hotel before dark I have one more little adventure for the day. I am in the Zona Cafetera, home to some of the best coffee grown in the world. After passing a jillion military and police checkpoints unheeded, I get waved over with an hour of daylight left. Not good. That is how much time I need to get back to Armenia. Not a good plan to be out on a south american highway after dark. Especially a south american highway in Columbia.

On purpose I have left all my valuables in my hotel room in Armenia thinking I'll be at minimum risk from robbers. All I have is my dummy wallet with invalid credit cards, a drivers licence and day money. Forgot the police love documents so when they stop me at 5:20 PM I have nothing to show them but my driver's license. Hopefully they won't notice that's a fake too. When I admit my error in judgement they are understandably incredulous that any buffoon would drive around Columbia without the mandatory papers.

All six of them discuss my crime at length. Then one walks over and asks what the GPS is and how does it work. I take my helmet off and they see my buzzed hair. What do I do for a living? "Yo fue un bombero", I answer. That seems to help. More huddling off to one side. The youngest officer comes over and asks am I travelling with an amigo that can get the documents for me? " No, yo estoy solo", I reply. As if to ease that embarrassment, he politely asks what the toggle switch is for on the cockpit dash. I tell him it is for the heated hand grips. That news requires everyone to gather around and consider what kind of country Canada must be that one would need such a device. More coptalk on the side. Luckily no one thinks to take 8 by 10 glossy pictures with circles and arrows and paragraphs on the back of each one. In the end, bless their hearts, they give me 2 hours to get to Armenia and return with the goods.

As luck would have it another police unit stops me 10 km down the road. When I explain their colleagues have already caught me in the act they laugh. When I tell them, "Yo estoy muy stupido", the jefe (boss) pats me on the back and lets me go. The adventure that ends the day actually ends late in the night what with all the commuting back and forth in the dark, in the rain and through several construction zones (all unlit). When I return we shake hands all around and as is the custom, greet each other with buenos noches. Very civil. I am treated again with respect but this time more like a friendly aquaintance. More chatting while each one looks over my papers then I'm wished a safe journey home.

The whole encounter serves me right but the boys in green could of made it a lot worse. My respect for Columbian police rises considerably. For obvious reasons, as with the military, photos are not permitted.


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The long day in the Zona Cafetera actually starts out quite brilliantly. After a refreshingly sunny day cruising along the ridges, I descend into the valley of the three departments (counties or municipalities) of Caldas, Quindio and Risaralda. The valley bottom is at 1400' asl, the coffee here grows on the hillsides around 5000 to 6000 feet. I find an unmarked dirt road leading up a mountain side, turn and follow it. Standing on the pegs, I pick my way along in first gear as the road switchbacks higher and higher. Then, there they are. Those are coffee plants, I'm sure of it. This is the first time I see my favorite bean in its natural state.

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The cafe finca, or coffee manor, is king in Zona Cafetera. Increasingly popular, Columbians vacation on coffee plantations here, the cafe finca jefes perhaps taking a page from their brothers in the wine cum tourism industry.

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Happy here too are the leafy banana palms. Squat, perhaps 15 feet high, the banana palm grows at the same altitude as the much shorter 6 to 8 foot coffee plant. As Katie and I climb an even smaller, single-lane dirt road lined with these treasures I notice many banana bunches are blue bagged. I forget to ask but my guess is the bags help perserve the nearly ready-to-pick bananas from insects and birds. Or is it from rain? Later I note when the bunches are loaded into a camion the bags are removed.

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My chosen mountain road is a business road for the coffee finca workers. It might be the main route up here on the cerro but it is too soft for a heavily laden gravel truck. The ever popular Toyota Land Cruiser is used to offload the gravel weight, one tiny load at a time. I wait while they shovel a jag into the Toyota.

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When I get to the top of the hill I find microwave and aviation radar towers. The radar tower has a staircase and observing platform. Service workers Antonio and Heime invite me to climb the 300 foot tower for the coolest view in Zona Cafetera. In spite of protests on my part that I am disturbing his lunch hour, Heime insists, puts aside his hot meal, and gives me the guided tour.

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The view from the top is awesome. So much biological fertility no matter which way I look. Everything grows. Is this the garden of Eden?

"Que pasa con son guerillas?", I ask. (In phonetic english, pronounced 'gerr-reeg-jes')?

Quietly, even though we are alone hundreds of feet off the ground, Heime says they are still about but not as bad as before. He suggests I don't follow my little mountain road further north.

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Katie and I descend from our 40 kilometre mountain side trip and head for home. Along the way, I just have to stop and get a picture where the vendors have set up shop on the road to Medellin. I can buy the ever present Coca Cola, tropical fruit, cigarettes - or cell time for 300 centavos a minute. That's about 12 cents a minute. If there is one thing that sells more than bottled pop it has to be cell phones. Everyone but me has one. Even fully kitted soldiers with dangling canteens, army helmets chin-strapped up and slung M-16s are talking on cell phones when Katie and I pass by.

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The ride from Armenia over the Cordillera Occidental, across the broad Tolima valley, and up the Cordillera Oriental to Bogota has to rate as one of my all-time favourite scenic rides. All on high quality pavement, the road varies from 1400' to over 11000' in altitude. More banana and coffee plantations, terraced mountains, waterfalls, ferns, near the top are big pines; in the valleys, black and white Jerseys on green pastures, vast expanses of tall sugar cane, roadside flowering hedges and overhanging acacias and eucalypts - all in rich Columbian green.

Hand in hand with biological diversity comes political and commercial diversity in advertising. Most blank walls, including abandoned buildings, have some large lettered statement. On this sign you can chose between a candidate for office or pollo asado. From the number of customers in the restaurants eating roasted pollo, I'd say the chickens are winning.


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Family run vendedors with bananas, fresh cut pineapple, coconut, papaya, mango, grape, oranges, etc line the route, and are especially popular at construction desvios (detours) and army checkpoints. The checkpoints seem to be every 10 to 20 kms. I have never seen so much military hardware, sandbag bunkers and automatic weapons in my life. As I pass by, car truck lids are up, the backs of camions are being inspected, dogs sniff at lumps of cargo. As a motorcyclist, obviously from out of country, I am always waved through by the boys in camo. Seems to me it'd be pretty hard to be a 'gerr-reeg-ja' along the Pan-Americana.

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I don't try any of the delicious looking fruit. As much as it is tempting, I have a rule about food from street vendors. Too bad because I do sympathize with the fact they are just trying to make a peso or two through honest if somewhat unprofitable and long houred work.

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I start out in sunshine early in the morning, climb through cloud back into sunshine, then more cloud and a chilly wind starting at 10,000 feet. The descent into the warm Tolima valley, at 37 C, makes the shade of overhanging trees a real treat. My riding gear is totally dry for the first time in days.

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As I climb the Cordillera Orientals to Bogota I am hit with another tropical rainstorm. The air turns grey, the highway has sheets of running water for a surface. Even the Columbian drivers slow down to a crawl. Katie and I bravely putter along. There is no place to hide and anyways the rain is likely to last for a while. So much for dry gear, although to be fair, my body never gets wet. This Dainese gear and Alpinstar boots, all with Gore-Tex, really works. My hands get wet but that's because the water runs down my sleeve and into my gloves. Not much I can do about that. Riding in tropical thunderstorms, another great character builder.

But Katie and I are happy. We get through the black zone and ride out into sunshine just before Bogota. Good thing. Seems all 6.4 million inhabitants are on this road with us. What a zoo! It takes two hours to get across town to the KTM dealer. Two hours of no-holds-barred traffic. I think I might be the one needing a 27,000 km service, not Katie. But we make it and we are safe and sound in Columbia's capital city. No sign of bad guys. So far just friendly people, beautiful women and, as it has turned out, Katie and I have saved the prettiest south american country for last.


Posted by Murray Castle at 06:48 PM GMT
June 21, 2006 GMT
Bogotá

Turns out that my entry into Bogotá's south end is through the most unflattering corner of this mountain city. The north end of town hosts modern highrises, shopping malls, broad streets and my destination, Extreme Machines, the KTM dealer.

At an altitude of 2650 metres (8700 feet) above sea level, Bogotá might be a megacity with many faces but its climate is pretty consistent. Mid 20's C during the days, teens or less late in the night. Nevertheless, during a full day's outing in June it's smart to take suntan lotion, a fleece and an umbrella. The fleece is needed because of Bogotà's proximity to the equator, sundown (and sunrise) happens at 6 ish, all year long. Frequent rain showers ensure it remains a city of green, as befitting the capital of a lush country.

From happy hour to bewitching hour one can sit at a sidewalk table at one's favorite watering hole and under the pleasant heat of a propane heater (that looks like a low street lamp), one can smoke Cuban cigars, drink interesting bebidas and munch on comida favoured by Colombianos.

Founded in 1538, Bogotà has as its epi-centre Plaza Bolivar and the historic district of La Candelaria. Surrounding the spacious plaza are many edificios antiguas of the colonial period. Shown below are the Catedral built just after the city was founded. Bordering the square are the equally impressive Suprema de Justica, Alcaldìa Mayor de Bogotà and Capitolio Nacional. Judges, ministers, the mayor, the President of Colombia and God. Good company sharing the view of Plaza Bolivar.

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Of course the churches and the plaza are popular places for folks to congregate. Oh, and did I mention my friends, the palomas (pigeons)? Caught in the spirit of socialization, they like to congregate too. Plaza only please.

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Since a serious guerrilla attack wrecked the Corte Suprema de Justica in 1985, there is an equally serious presence of military surrounding the President's Palace. The guard below allowed his photo to be taken, but only after he moved to the opposite side of the street so I would not get the Palace in the background.

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Equally on guard but hoping for a different outcome, the fruit vendor below sits patiently waiting for an invasion of tourist guerrillas. Rich, hungry tourists would be best. His chances are not good for competition is fierce and probably not one of the dozens of vendors are making a decent buck.

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My residencia manager at Hotel del Norte also volunteers to be a guia, generousity typical of Colombianos. Maricio García-Herreros leads me downtown on the efficient but confusing TransMilenio public transport system. At one of vendors plying the La Candelaria I am charmed to learn a person can buy one cigarette at a time, as Maricio demonstrates.

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To my mind Colombia is known for coffee so after a stroll through a basket and wood products street market, we find a coffee shop of oak tables with marble tabletops. The coffee is to die for, as Auntie Wally would say. The clear liquid in the shooter is aguardiente, a certified Colombian favorite. Tastes like annisette with a kick. Too many of those and I would be dying.

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Katie gets top quality care from KTM Colombia. Principals Carlos and Juan Vela have a modern, super clean and efficient operation. Mechanics David Posada and Sebastian Villegos do a great job of making Katie as good as, or better than, new. Katie even gets a thorough wash - and wax! Now that's service.

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An evening stroll downtown, because of the high security with police at almost every street corner, makes visiting La Candelaria caminando seguro (walking safe) and a delight. An evening rain shower glosses the Santander Plaza with reflections of night-time colours.

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Since Bogotá is nestled against the high cordillera to the east it has expanded everywhere else in the shallow basin of La Sabana de Bogotà. The photo below, taken from the peak of Monserrate, shows the heart of downtown, La Candelaria, and surrounds. A rain shower has just drifted through, a common afternoon occurrence.

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The forefathers didn't want a river running through so they paved overtop and called it Avenida Jìmenez de Quesada. Recently, when urban renewal plans were drawn up, city council had a change of heart. Now, in a tasteful design, the river shares the sunshine with the Avenida.

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Sharing the avenida with the rìo is the new transportation system adopted from Europe. The TransMilenio uses articulating buses with two dedicated lanes each way on an expansive network of arteries servicing all quadrants of the city. Maricio reports the reduction in traffic since the new bus system came online in 2001 is dramatically noticable. That's great because to my way of thinking, it is the only transportation system here that is recognizably organized.

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The TransMilenio paraderos (bus stops) are like C-Train stations, but simpler and more efficient. Just buy a credit card full of rides and scan the card at the turnstile. No cheating, no lines, no problems. Four to eight (you read that right) police officers, with handguns and bullet proof vests, descretely loiter about at each and every station.

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Posted by Murray Castle at 06:22 PM GMT
Road to Bucaramanga

I am on my way north to Santa Marta, port of call for sixteenth century pirates of the Caribbean. Catedral de Sal comes after 40 minutes on the Pan Americana. I am barely out of Bogotá.

In 1954 the miners at Zipaquira invited a priest to bless a little alcove altar they had built in their salt mine. The holy man was pleased to come. After the service, at a couple of hundred metres below ground, he suggested his fellow Columbians could copy an idea existing in a Polish salt mine. In that mine the workers had built an underground cathedral after the salt was removed. The Columbian miners agreed and set about building the Catedral de Sal.

They dedicated their new subtierra structure to Nuestra Señora del Rosario, patron saint of miners. After nearly 40 years the old cathedral was in such a state of deterioration a new cathedral was built. Opened in December 1995 the new salt church has 14 Stations of the Cross. We pass most of them on our guided tour to the Nave. The workmanship clearly demonstrates to me the continuing faith Columbianos have in the Catholic religion.

The image below overlooks the Nave in the main Catedral de Sal. Located some 180 meters below ground, the cathedral has salt columns three meters in diameter supporting an arched ceiling 80 meters overhead. The cross, ingraved 80 cms into the wall, is backlit. From the back of the room, some 150 meters away, the cross seems to float eerily in space.

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I decide to see more of the eastern spine of mountains known as the Cordillera Oriental (eastern cordillera). With peaks in the 5000m range, I know the road to Bucaramanga, my midpoint, will be twisty but highly scenic.

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True to prediction, the two lane pista follows every contour and ridge line. The vistas are superb. Combined with the twists and turns, this is a motorcyclist's wet dream come true. It takes me all day to make the 285 kilometer leg.

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Columbia's highways are generally in very good condition. Just good enough that Katie and I can hum along at 30 to 60 km an hour and trust the pavement on the corners.

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We could go faster but mucho camion tràfico and the occasional wide-load donkey/horse/campesino (farmer) sharing my lane keep life interesting.

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Flat tires are probably THE most common breakdown and road hazard. Trucks routinely run on bald tires. I know because I follow so many waiting for a chance to pass that I've started doing an informal study. And we know things don't go well when a vehicle loses control because of poor tires....

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What caused this rollover I don't know and didn't ask but the dust had hardly settled when I came around (another) blind tight corner to find this scene. Actually, it's a wonder I don't see this kind of excitement more often.

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Posted by Murray Castle at 06:22 PM GMT
June 28, 2006 GMT
La Cuidad Perdida (The Lost City)

Walk to the Lost City? Are you mad? Hike for six days over hill and dale in the midst of jungle/rain forest, trees with hanging vines, poisonous snakes, waist deep rivers, guerrillas and cocaine factories, fierce rainstorms and hot sun so I can see moss covered stone steps built in 700 AD then lost in the rain forest until 1975? Did I ask, are you mad? OK, I'll do it.

We start our tour from oldest colonial town surviving in South America, Santa Marta, founded in 1525. The Spanish originally founded this Caribbean town as the first staging area in South America for arriving conquistadors and slaves, and for gold and other precious metals departing for Spain.

It is a three hour drive from Santa Marta to the front ranges of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This massive and solitary mountain rises 5800 metres from the Caribbean in just 45 kilometers, a gradient only equalled by the Himalayas. Apart and away from Los Andes, this giant stands on its own. GoogleEarth it and you will be surprised.

Over the centuries, civilizations have cleared the tropical rain forest along the flanks of this 16,000 square kilometer mountain complex, built flourishing cities, lived well, then withered away for a variety of reasons, leaving the forest to reclaim the slopes once again.

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We are 15 gringos with one guide, three porters, and for the first two days, two mules carrying supplies. On Day 3 the mules stay behind because the trail and the landscape becomes too rugged. By Day 3 I am tempted to keep them company. Our first day involves a two hour switchback climb. Few of us are ready for that, especially me as Katie has been doing all the work for months now. Also, I note, I am at least twice as old as the next closest member of our tour. To keep my lazy mind off such unmotivating thoughts, I pause often to admire the landscape. I see ferns as big as ships' propellors, eucalytpus, banyans and the grandfather arbol of all, the towering 300 year old centenario, with dangling vines as thick as climbing rope. On the campesino cultivated land, banana palms, yuca, elechos, ceiba, pineapple and coca grows. The hills are steeped in greenery.

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At the risk of overstating my impression of Colombia, the countryside is fabulously fertile, thriving with every kind of plant life that calls the tropics home. Unfortunately, shaved sections of the front ranges clear cut for agriculture and livestock make the mountain slopes look like a dog with the mange. In stark contrast to the rich vista verde is the occasional hard steel reflection of a metal roofed home, perched along a ridge top. While I walk, sometimes I hear the sound of axes and machetes. It is a sad sound - more rain forest is being cleared.

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The lower 2000 meters of the mountain are also home to the Kogui indigenous peoples, direct descendants to the original builders of La Cuidad Perdida, the Tayrona. Of jet black hair and wearing clothes that look like off-white cotton sacks, they don't look a happy lot. They weave their own clothes, grow their own produce, and raise their kids, pigs and chickens within the pueblo.

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I offer the children candy, which they take shyly at first. After the first round goes well the oldest asks, almost demands, "mas". I ignore her and ask her young mother if I may take a picture. Not all Kogui speak spanish but she does and quietly agrees. There is deep sadness on her face. Advancing "civilization" has not been kind.

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A strange live-and-let-live relationship appears to be in operation on the slopes of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Spanish farmers clear the land and encroach apon the indigenous. Guerrillas operate nearby as do numerous cocaine factories. We learn this after some of our group pay to take a tour of a factory just fifteen minutes from our camp. The Colombian Army also have bases in these hills. The arrangement seems to be this: tourists like hiking to Cuidad Perdida, Colombia likes tourism so the Army provides protection. Part of our tour money goes to them. Another part of our tour money goes to the guerillas as protection money. Part of our tour money goes to the Kogui so we can pass through their lands. The Army appears not to harrass the guerrillas and vica versa. The guerrillas get the farmers and Kogui to make cocaine paste in the makeshift factories, with final production using acetone left to the guerrillas, as is marketing. We get the impression everyone knows what's going on around here but no one talks about it. Most importantly to us we are left unmolested. The photo below shows what the lowly coca leaf looks like unmolested.

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Our three camp bases, spread along the 44 kilometer hike, are pole structures with galvanized tin roofs, clay floors and no walls. Alberto, the cook, russles up cena (supper) and desayuno (breakfast) using a wood fire built on a concrete bench purposely made. The food, usually a variation of arroz y pollo (rice and chicken) is filling. A couple of two gallon pots, one of black columbian coffee and one of hot chocolate (real chocolate), continuously simmer at the back of the fire.

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From cross members running under the eaves, 19 hammocks are strung. The mosquito nets covering the "hang-matts" create an image of alien cocoons waiting to hatch. I don't sleep well. There is something about lying in a cloth ditch with a mosquito net against my face like a widow's veil that doesn't encourage sleep. One mistimed roll onto my side and I know I won't make the 8 second ride on my tropical rodeo. Because the hammocks are folded away each morning they have a musty damp air to them. The nights pass slowly as I wait for dawn like a still breathing cadaver. I must sleep some because I am not tired come morning. Another latin mystery perhaps, but I'm not investing in hammock stock anytime soon.

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By Day Three, after another two hour climb up a slippery clay singletrack, stepping over and around roots, rocks and deadfall I start thinking about the infamous Athabasca Pass that my friend Dave Clark and I hiked a quarter century ago. The phrase "only one man in a thousand..." keeps running around inside my sweaty head. My clothes are soaked in sweat. In fact, for 6 days I am wet from head to toe and only get reasonably dry in camp at night.

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On Day 3 and 4 we crisscross the Rio Buritaca seven times a day. The good news is the water is warm. The interesting challenge is the calf to waist deep current. Rather than keep changing from hiking boots to river sandals, most of us elect to just hike in sandals. Wet feet slipping within low traction sandals, combined with threading our way around river boulders as big as garden sheds, and picking our way along exposed goat paths above the river make our "time saver" a bit foolhardy.

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Rising from the Rio Buritaca inconspicously are 1200 stone steps leading to La Cuidad Perdida. The moss covered steps are steep and I must put my feet sideways on the narrow stairs in order to get a good purchase. The thought of tumbling down this ancient stone cascade keeps me focused on placing every step carefully. As in mountain climbing, I force myself not to think about what's below.

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Cuidad Perdida, known to the Tayrona people as Teyuna, is almost four kilometers at its widest girth and has 150 stone terraces within its 400 ha area. Linking the terraces, which served as level bases for the homes, are a complex series of staircases, stone pathways and perimetrical walls. Other terraces were used for warehouses, as ceremonial centres for the shaman or royality or for sacrificial (animal and human) purposes.

The stone map below, near the entrance to the city, is an accurate protrayal of the network of paths within the city and the rios and intercity trails beyond. Standing nearby is one of our porters whose energy astounds me. Carrying between 30 and 40 kilograms in a burlap-plastic sack with makeshift shoulder straps, he regularly outhikes even the 20-somethings among us. Then he, like his two colleagues, do camp chores long after we've gone to bed and is up with dawn's light to help cookie with desayuno.

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As we enter the city it is plain this was a most civilized place to call home 1000 years ago. The staircases in town are spacious, the terraces well thought out, water aqueducts channel the rain away from the platforms. The views up the jungle valley is magnificant, as is the view behind of the cascading waterfall. If you weren't on the Shaman's hit list, life would of been pretty fine up here at 1000 meters above sea level. Actually, depending on your place in the neighbourhood, the sprawling city offered choices. As the Teyuna real estate salesmen used to say, "you could be home now" if you lived in Lowerville at 950 meters. Those who had done well in oro and sal (gold and salt) stock lived in Uppityville at 1300 meters. The Shaman and his wife lived well up the mountain, like affluent West Vancouverites.

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Thatched roof family homes were built on the terraces. Depending on the era, between 1500 and 3500 Tayronas lived in Teyuna. Teyuna became La Cuidad Perdida about 1600 A.D. Cause of abandonment? Outside contact with the newcomers wearing hairy beards and shiny helmets brought about one of two unpleasant results. Either you were killed outright or you escaped and brought their deadly European diseases to the folks back home. Teyuna was eventually abandoned because the shaman and leading officials thought the unexplained dying meant the city was cursed.

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The reconstructed home below shows what Teyuna must of looked like. I notice even after the typical afternoon downpour the interior of the home is dry.

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Growing a variety of vegetables and fruits meant a need for mortar and pestle. Not many other artifacts are present but two museums back in Santa Marta have gold objects, ceramics, cloth weavings, funeral pieces and other interesting bits found in situ.

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In the midst of this historia antiqua we find camps of Colombian soldiers. Camoflauged tents store mortars of a different type, hand grenades are visible drying in the sun. From the lumps under canvas, I suspect they have other tools of destruction. The four Israelis in our group immediately recognize the main weapon, the semi automatic Galil 5.52 mm assault rifle, each soldier takes with him everywhere he goes, even if it's to shave by the little creek nearby. The weapon is Israeli made and indestructible. We are delighted when the soldier allows photos to be taken with his weapon. From the waving around of the gun barrel by members of our group, I for one become nervous with the whole idea. Note my non-issue vine belt to hold my pants up. Got a little carried away trying to save weight for the trip.

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Our camp at Cuidad Perdida is apart from the main soldiers camp but they do come over to bum cigarettes, chat, listen to World Cup football matches on a transistor radio and check out the chicks. Like most of the tourists they protect, the soldiers are in their 20's as well and very polite.

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I've got so many mosquito bites on my white legs I look like I have measles and small pox combined. All us white skinned folks look the same. I notice the guides wear shorts too but I don't see a mark on their legs. Hum.

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Our happy little group, not all in this photo, consist of 4 Israelis, 2 Ozzies, 1 English, 2 Dutch, 1 Belgian, 4 French and a Canuck. We bond well and never complain. Our guide, Omar, says he likes our kind of group. Even two of our group, dangerously overweight, make the trip without one unhappy word, although Omar has mules for them to ride when health and possible darkness are a concern. We even hike in a three hour tropical downpour that turns our singletrack into a foot wide river. The rain is so heavy on the forest canopy overhead it sounds like there is a waterfall nearby. We all get soaked to the skin but that's OK because the rain is warm and it was 38 C before it started. Besides, it keeps the mosquitoes down.

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After we make it back to civilization we head out for an evening meal together at a beach restaurant in the little cove town of Taganga. After the grub (no one orders arroz y pollo) we knock off four bottles of Ron Cabana rum, smoke a bunch of cigars and don't break up til 2 am. The restaurant ran out of rum.


Posted by Murray Castle at 03:43 PM GMT
 

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