Tuesday, March 4, 2014

El Trampolin de la Muerte!

For anyone cycling through southern Colombia, I just wanted to give my experience traversing the legendary "El Trampolin de la Muerte" (The Trampoline of Death).  This is the 77km (48 mile) unpaved road from Mocoa to San Francisco (Sibundoy Valley).  It is considered one of the most dangerous roads in Colombia, with over 500 deaths from drivers going over the edge.

If you look at Google Maps, like I did beforehand, you will see 2 roads going from Mocoa to San Francisco.  One has an insane amount of curves, which is El Trampolin, and the other is named SR10, which must be in the works because it does not exist (when I was finally coming down the mountain into San Francisco I did see construction of what appeared to be another road coming out of the mountains, which may be this SR10 in the future).  I asked the locals too and there is only one road you can take, El Trampolin.

Leaving Mocoa, you have roughly 10km of paved road until just after you cross Rio Pepino.  When you cross the bridge over the river, you take a right (there were police there at the intersection):

Maybe 75 meters after that right turn, the road turns to gravel and you begin El Trampolin de la Muerte...get ready to climb! (Mocoa is at about 600 m above sea level and you will get to 2300 m after the mirador)

From the point where the road changes to gravel, I climbed roughly 22km over about 6 1/2 hours (with stops for photos) before I reached the mirador.  There are some extraordinary views along the way:

And you will cross about 5 streams going over the road if your shoes aren't already soaked from the continuous downpour in Mocoa:

When you see a big cell tower (there is a bathroom here but bring your own tp, of course), you are a just few km from the mirador:

The police station & another tower when you finally reach the mirador:

Unfortunately, it was too cloudy to see anything when I reached the mirador.  There are a few little restaurants and tiendas to get food or coffee and you can choose to camp here if you ask the locals,  I talked to one tienda owner and he said I could go about another hour and ask the owners of a little place called Restaurante Loreni to camp there.

You have to climb another 30 min (a few km) from the mirador, reaching approx. 2300 m before you start your descent.  Here are Jon & partner, the owners of Restaurante Loreni (Google map gps coords are 1.070641, -76.774027) - I ended up putting my air mat & sleeping bag down on the floor of the restaurant.  I had dinner (5,000 pesos) & breakfast (4,000 pesos) there.

And the incredible views at sunset from just below the restaurant.  Above the clouds:

After a not so good night's sleep, I thought I had an easier 2nd day...not true.  The 2nd day was much harder for me.  This is what happens when you have expectations, the worst thing to have when cycling.  I figured, well I climbed over 6 hours to reach the top, there must be a lot of downhill.  You do to downhill for a little bit to roughly 1850 m above sea level, then start climbing yet again and actually go higher then the 1st day, up to 2750 m above sea level.  So don't get lazy that 2nd day!

Enough altitude talk, here's some more pics of the road:

And some really cool moss growing on the side of the cliffs:

Lastly, when you are finally descending towards San Francisco & Sibundoy Valley and you think you're in the clear, you get one more fast-flowing stream to soak your shoes:

The beautiful Sibundoy Valley:

All in all, I would highly recommend cycling this "road of death".  It's tough, but the views are unmatchable.  At no time during the 2 days did I think I was going to fall off the edge or have any close calls with vehicles.  There are a fair amount of cars & trucks driving on this road, but almost all with caution.  Enjoy the adventure!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

1 month cycling through Colombia

     I set out from Bogota on January 19th, 2014 on my new bike, having no idea what I was getting into...and excited as hell about it!

     I first went soaring down the Eastern Andes from Bogota (Santa Fe de Bogota) into the Magdalena River Valley, then north along the valley & up the Central Andes to Medellin; then south around Manizales, through Pereira in the Central Andes and back down into the Magdalena River Valley....to climb back up the mountains again.

     After 1250 km (800 miles) on the road, a highest peak reached of 3,250 m (10,663 ft) and a month full of very interesting & hospitable Colombians, I find myself back in the Central Andes, camping in La Finca Maco in San Agustin (a little southeast of Popayan - see map above).  The first day here I woke up to my body aching & head hurting, the first I've felt sick since Guatemala, about a year ago.  I man-handled my way up the mountain to get here, and the next day barely had the energy to walk to the bathroom.  Crazy how the body works.

The road into San Agustin (absolutely beautiful):

     I met fellow cyclist, Leah Manning, in la casa de ciclistas in Medellin, whom I rode with from there to Corcora Valley (approx 250k/155 miles.  She is a rockstar and has ridden all the way from Los Angeles., California, 9000km!  I learned a lot from her over the 4-5 days of riding together - keep on rockin, Leah.

She brought up a very good question one day.  If you're home and a complete stranger (a Colombian guy, for example) comes to your door and asks (in broken English) to camp on your property for the night - what do you say/do?  I know a lot of people back in the U.S. who would probably say no.  Here in Colombia, they don't even think twice about it.  They smile and say, "of course".  They then offer you coffee or water or fresh cow's milk or whatever they have.  Sometimes they even call their friend in the next town to host you the next night.  Unbelievable.  If I called my friends back in the U.S. to host a complete stranger for the night, I would most likely get the reply "Who is this person?"  Or - "I'm kind of busy - tonight's not really a good night".  I still haven't figured out what everyone in the U.S. is "busy" doing.  Hahaha.

     This hospitality is unparalleled anywhere else I have been in the world.  From the 2 1/2 months I have spent in Colombia, I am enamored with the people.  It's a culture of wonderful people who are easy-going, laid-back, quick to laugh, social, friendly, hardworking, musical and all-around happy-go-lucky.  They want to know how your experience in their country has been and how they can make it better.

     Unfortunately there still remains this worldly misconception that Colombia is dangerous and you will be harmed or kidnapped if you travel here.  Sure, there were problems more akin to this in the 80s & 90s during the Pablo Escobar days but they were not targeted at random tourists.

     The Colombia I have experienced is one of the most incredible countries on the planet and should be at the top of everyone's travel list.

To the people of Colombia: Gracias, gracias, gracias por todo!!!

From Caro in Bogota whom I stayed with for several weeks to the ladies here at the hostal in San Agustin who prepared me water with lime and baking soda to ease my stomach pain.  Thank you everyone.

I wish I had photos of everyone that has had a positive impact on my traveling here, every person that has let me camp on their property, the hospitable bike mechanics, generous police and everyone that welcomed me with a smile.  Here are just some of the Colombians who have made my travels unforgettable.

Caro in Bogota:

Lili in Bogota:

Julio in La Honda:

Juio's Friend in La Honda:

Francisco in La Dorada (he's actually Nicaraguan!):

Manuel & Martha in San Antonio Prado, Medellin:

Alex & family in San Antonio Prado, Medelln:

Luis, Edith, Isa, Maria, Sofia in San Antonio Prado, Medellin:

Dicson in San Antonio Prado, Medellin:

Jesica in Boquia:

Julian in Neiva:

Julian's friends - Cesar, Patty, Fernando & All.  BBQ for Patty's birthday!

Emilio in Tatacoa & El Dorado:

Esteban & Las Solteras outside of Tatacoa:

Mauricio & his 2 rugby players in Neiva:

Who knows what the next month will bring.  I should be crossing the border into Ecuador in the about 2 weeks or so.  In the meantime, I'll be riding "El Trampolin de la Muerte" in about 4 days, from Mocoa to Sibundoy.  It looks fun:

Sunday, February 9, 2014

US Citizen/American Trying to Enter Venezuela

I'm about 2 1/2 months to late on this, but better late than never.  This is my account of trying to enter Venezuela from Colombia at the Maicao border on 11/27/13 by way of bus.

I had been planning on going to Venezuela for months, but didn't know many people who had been so had little info.  When I got to Colombia, I met a few travelers who had come from there and had a fantastic experience with no issues.  I had also heard of people getting denied at the border but never actually met anyone first hand who had experienced it...so I was still skeptical. I looked all over the internet and checked the US site for visitors to Venezuela and saw no restrictions.

As such, I had to see for myself.  In preparation, I went to the Western Union office in Santa Marta, Colombia to change pesos to US dollars.  At that time the Venezuelan Bolivar (their currency) was suffering extreme inflation and was 60:1 to the US dollar on the black market (versus about 6:1 if you withdrew from an ATM there).  I then went to the bus station to buy a ticket from Santa Marta to Maracaibo.  The first bus company I spoke to actually had a printed sign that said for all citizens from the US, Canada & England, you need:

1. Proof of departure - printed copy of bus or plane ticket leaving Venezuela
2a. Documentation of Stay - printed copy of hotel reservations
OR 2b. Notarized Letter from a Venezuelan, explaining the relationship, length/place of stay and contact information of the host.
3. Passport...of course

The second bus company, Expreso Brasilia, had no such sign and said there were no problems, so I bought a ticket (Cost: 90,000 pesos or ~ $45).  There were no other "tourists" on my bus, just Colombians & Venezuelans.  We took off and headed for the border.  As we got closer to Maicao, I laughed as I saw Colombians on the side of the road selling gasoline from Venezuela in jugs and 1 1/2 liter liquor bottles.

By the time we arrived at the border it was night time, about 7pm and I was nervous as hell.  Everyone got off to get the exit stamp from Colombia and the driver told us that we need to walk to the Venezuelan side for immigration and he would meet us there.  When I got to the window for my exit stamp, the official informed me that Venezuela has been denying many travelers at the border without proper paperwork and, if I don't get in, to come back there.  All I had was a copy of a hotel reservation for 1 night so crossed my fingers.

I then walked to the Venezuelan side.  Mind you, at this moment, I had $700 cash in my shoe and the electricity was out in Venezuela so it was dark.  I was told by several people that this border is not the safest place to be & even met an Italian guy who had money taken from him by the Venzuelan police.  I waited my turn in line as the immigration officer handled everything by candlelight.  When I got to the window and gave him my passport, he flipped through, then pointed to a similar sign (as the one I saw in the bus station with the requirements listed above) and shook his finger, denying my entry.  I gave him the copy of my hotel reservation, then he got up to go get another official.  The second official looked at my passport and hotel reservation and also informed me I did not have the entry requirements.

I went back to my bus and told the bus driver, who then walked with me back to the immigration office to speak with the official.  He came out of the office with no luck, saying he could not take me any further and I would have to stay in Colombia.  I got my bags off the bus and the driver called some Colombian guy who walked me to a hotel across from the Colombian immigration office.  I went back to have my Colombian exit stamp revoked, ate some dinner, drank a beer and watched "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" on TV in my room.

The next morning I took a moto taxi to Maicao and got a bus back to Santa Marta (for only 30,000 pesos)

I'm not surprised that I was denied entry into Venezuela but am still bummed because I really wanted to experience it.  If you go, just have the proper paperwork and you should be fine.  I guess I could have tried bribing the immigration official on the Venezuelan side, but didn't.  If you want to be really adventurous, I met a guy from Morocco (while I was in Mica, Colombia) who had snuck into Venezuela because he had lost his passport.  He spent a few weeks there and loved it.

Lastly, if you're wondering where to get Venezuelan Bolivars on the black market, there were money changers literally at the border offering the going rate.  I had bought some bolivars from another traveler and exchanged them back into pesos at the going black market rate.  You can also exchange US dollars for bolivars at some hostels or just meet some trustworthy locals and exchange with them.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

3 days into Cycling through Colombia

I feel compelled to write a blog entry after 3 days of cycling in Colombia.  It's Tuesday, 1/21/14, and I'm writing this from the house of a very generous Colombian men, named Julio, in the town of Honda in the beautiful Magdalena River Valley.

Before taking off from Bogotá to cycle to Argentina, I spent 2 days riding around the city to get my legs warmed up and sort out how my stuff would be attached.  It's probably no big surprise that 2 days of training does very little when you're starting 7500 ft (2500 m) abovd sea level and going up/down through the Andes.  Needless to say, after 2 days of riding from Bogota, I've gotten pretty good at cursing the mountains as I walk my bike up them.

Here's a graph of the altitude change.  I've learned it fails to portray some 1,000 meter inclines while going down in altitude from Bogota:

My legs, lower back & butt are quite sore, BUT I've had an absolute blast.  I feel like a kid first learning how to ride a bike...with an 8,000 ft. tall mountain in my backyard.  The thrill of soaring down these mountains amidst motorcycles, cars & trucks is indescribable.  You've just got to try it yourself!

The first day I rode 90 km from Bogota to Villeta.  Why Villeta? Because it was the town I ended up in.  That's one cool thing about cycling - you end up in towns you would never think to visit.  I would have never attempted 90 km my first day but with the gracious altitude drop of almost 7500 ft, I made it.  I was absolutely spent when I finally got a hotel room & took a shower.  I laid on the bed for 2 hours just staring at the ceiling thinking, "What in god's name have I gotten myself into?  I love it."

I spent the next day resting in Villeta because I was having trouble walking straight and felt the need for my body to recuperate.  The following morning I took off early and thought I was ready to start off with a 1000m uphill ride, fresh at 6:45 in the morning.  About 20 mins into this ride, I was on the side of the road debating what to do when a couple from Seattle comes slowly but steadily making their way up the mountain like it's no big deal.  I'm thinking, "You're also doing this at this hour...here in Colombia??"

I managed to go 67 km that day, from Villeta to Honda.  For that initial climb, I did throw my bike in the bag of a truck and ride about 12 km up (passing the couple from Seattle who still managed to pass me again about 1 hour after that).  I was welcomed very warmly in Honda with the use of www.warmshowers.org.  This is a site for cyclists to post in forums and find hosts who are offering free accommodation/hospitality.

This is my first time using the site and I couldn't be happier.  My gracious host, Julio, who is also an avid cyclist, gave me a guest bedroom, clean sheets & towel & a delicious dinner of brown rice & beef tongue (it was actually very tasty!).  His friend, Carlos, met me in the town square when I arrived, took me to a great local place for lunch & let me into Julio's house before he got home.  Talk about hospitality from complete strangers!

Tomorrow I will be www.couchsurfing.org with a 33 yr old Colombian guy in La Dorada, then staying with another host from warmshowers in Medellin.  The world is full of such gracious people.  Thank you all.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sailing from Panama to Colombia

When traveling south from Panama to Colombia, you must choose a method to get past the Darian Gap.

If you are driving and need to ship your vehicle, you simply need to send an email to Tea Kalmbach @ tea.kalmbach@gmail.com.  She is incredibly helpful, friendly & quick to respond.  She will also find a shipping partner for you to share a container with.  It will cost you around $1200 to share a container with another vehicle.

Per Wikipedia, "The Darién Gap is a break in the Pan-American Highway consisting of a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest within Panama's Darién Province in Central America and the northern portion of Colombia's Chocó Department of South America.  It measures just over 160 km (99 mi) long and about 50 km (31 mi) wide."

Though people have successfully crossed through the gap by foot & vehicle, it's not something you just do.  If interested, here's a crazy story of 2 Range Rovers making it through this intense jungle in 1972:


Us more sane people must choose another method of travel:

1. Take a flight - unexpectedly expensive, other travelers I met paying in the ballpark of $330-$380 for one-way from Panama City to Cartagena or Bogota.

2. Take a speed boat or ride in a shipping container - one of the cheaper options I heard, more in the ballpark of $50- $100.  If you get dropped off right at the border, you will have to take another boat to make your way past the Darien Gap.  I never met anyone who actually did this but have spoken to travelers who tell me it's possible.

3. Take a speed boat with a stop in the San Blas Islands (4 days; 3 nights total).  The company is San Blas Adventures ( http://sanblasadventures.com) and you sleep on the islands in hammocks at night.  Please note with this option you are dropped right at the Panama/Colombia border and walk into Colombia.  You then say at a hostel the owner of the company runs on the Colombian side that night.  Price was $350 but you then have to take another boat and buses to get to Cartagena or the other main cities, which could run another $80-100 in costs plus a few days travel.

4. Take a ferry - I finally heard of a ferry actually running while I was in Panama City.  It's $250/person & takes 24 hours.  You can take bicycles, motorcycles & cars on this ferry as well.  All the info can be found at www.sanblasferry.com.

5. Take a chartered sailboat - A more expensive option with most charging $550 for 5 days/4 nights (food included) though a few were $500 or $530.  The plus to this option is that you get to spend a few days in the San Blas Islands of Panama and all food/accommodation is included.  (You can get it cheaper if you contact the captain of the boat directly!  See below!)

I went with option 5 because I wanted to experience sailing on the open sea and visit the incredible San Blas Islands (Kuna Yala).  Now, choosing this option opens brings up another big question - which boat?

I was given a binder of 30+ sailboats when I asked the owner of my hostel for a recommendation.  While hanging in Panama City, I heard stories of boats sinking, some captain getting drunk while sailing, some boats with great food, some with dorm-style beds, others with private rooms.  You ask everyone - but which is the BEST???  You can find a few reviews from past travelers, but there is no one stop shop website to make this decision.

By recommendation of my hostel (Villa Vento Surf Hostel), I ended up emailing a girl named Stef, owner of I Travel By Boat (Estefanía Gamarra, www.itravelbyboat.com
+507 6088-4815) in Panama City, Panama who provided me a calendar of all the boats leaving Panama that month:

Sailboat schedule from October & November 2013

The way it works for Stef as an "agent" is that she gets $50 of the $550 you pay (Some agents take $100 of the $550).  PLEASE NOTE YOU CAN SAVE MONEY BY EMAILING THE CAPTAIN DIRECTLY.  MY CAPTAIN SAID HE WOULD HAVE DONE IT FOR $450 IF I EMAILED HIM DIRECTLY (SEE BELOW FOR HIS CONTACT INFO)  I asked her what boats she recommended leaving in the next few days.  Here was her email response:

"Hey!  Swala on the 28th is a great catamaran.  French captain Bernard is super experienced and is a really really nice guy. He has endless stories of the many lives he's lived all over the world.  He departs from Portobelo and the trip costs $550. He'll take up to 10 guests. It costs $5 to get to Portobelo by bus.

On the 29th you have Corto sailboat, I also like it a lot because the captain is young (27) and super nice. He has his dog onboard and the ambiance is always cool and chill.  His boat is a monohull and he takes 8 guests. He charges $550 and departs from El Porvenir which costs $47 to get to.

These are my two best recommendations for departures before the 30th!!"

I went with Swala and had a phenomenal experience.  There were only 5 passengers so we each had our own bedroom, which is unheard of on these sailboats since most have 8-15 passengers.  You can contact the captain of my boat, Bernard, through his website:


Or by searching "SWALA sailing" on Facebook.

For more information and pictures of the sailing trip, please visit the San Blas sailing on my blog, coming soon...