Saturday, July 30, 2016

Perdidos en Colombia

The family that saved us
"Are you sure we're on the right path because we've been climbing for hours? Where the #@$& is the turnoff?!" exclaimed the habitually non-profane Natasha as she ground the pedals on her rental mountain bike. We'd been riding up an unforgiving steep dirt road for some time, maybe even hours, and were both feeling the effects of exertion and the increasingly thin air. 

"Don't worry," responded I with breathless and meek confidence, "we haven't seen any turnoff so far so it must be up ahead. Lets keep going." 

Yet there would be no turnoff. We would soon find ourselves lost in the Andes wilderness with only an hour and change of daylight left, miles away from the nearest habitation, and certainly hours and hours away from where we wanted to be. Indeed, we were lost. In very literal and profound terms, we were #@$&ed! 

But lets rewind... 

Colombia is one of those places that has long fascinated both of us -- the coastline, the volcanoes, the culture, its the total package for adventure seekers like us. So we carved out a 10 day block in late June/early July and excitedly headed there to start our vacation in Cartagena. Of course, our itinerary was jam packed with activities as it usually is. As a co-worker and friend commented, it wouldn't be normal for the two of us to have a normal vacation plan. 

Four days in Cartagena were a bit mild on the adventure side but every bit as exciting on their educational merit. Apart from learning about the history of conquests and eventual independence, we thoroughly enjoyed the culture and bustle of the old city. Wandering through the streets, we'd suddenly come upon a kids football game in full flow in the middle of a city square, resplendent with a cheering crowd and street food vendors. Another block away would be row upon row of local artists selling their craft. We spent most of our time just soaking all this in, eating yummy food, and escaping the stifling heat by devouring an unthinkable quantity of local popsicles. Race weight be damned. 

Cooling off in Cartagena
Pretty spectacular wall art

I want popsicle!
But four days of non physical exertion was about enough. Soon we boarded a plane bound for Bogota, the high altitude capital. Here, against all unsolicited advice of nearly everyone, we rented a car and started our seemingly perilous drive west into the heart of the coffee region. The plan was to spend a day and half acclimating to the high altitude in the local towns of Filandia and Salento, followed by a 3-day ascent of the snow capped volcano of Tolima at 5200 meters (~17,000 feet). 

Oh this was so tasty

Andres Carne de tres -- look it up, its an institution well worth the visit. Your stomach will thank you.
The drive lived up to its billing, although the journey wasn't even close to as exciting as that of a helpless passenger in one of many inter-city kamikaze buses we saw along the way. Eventually we made it to Filandia and after a magical overnight stay at a local finca (farm), we jumped across to Salento the next day. It was here that we had a free day and decided to rent bikes so we could go for a spin up the local hill. 

Salento from our hotel terrace

Normally, I'm pretty anal about maps and directions with GPS routes pre-loaded on my garmin and backup paper maps. This bike trip, however, was totally unplanned and I didn't have my garmin on hand. Instead, we looked up the local roads on google maps and found a nice loop about 15 miles long that climbed a dirt road leading out of Salento and then looped back to a parallel road that would bring us back to town. 

Only problem was that it didn't. In fact, no such loop exists. Google maps is about as reliable abroad as a monkey on crack, as we would later discover much to our chagrin. We bought a pack of potato chips and two water bottles and headed on up the dirt road. About 4 hours later we were still climbing! Maybe the altitude muted our collective brain cells, but somehow we made the incomprehensible decision to keep on going. Eventually, we reasoned, the road would descend and loop around back to Salento. Besides, the views were absolutely magnificent if not majestic. 

Road panorama with Tash in the middle

Screw directions, just look at this view!
Still happy
After nearly 5 hours of climbing, we finally reached the top. We would later be told that this was the top of the top, i.e. the highest point of any road in the region at nearly 13,000 feet of elevation. To put things in perspective, thats just 1,000 feet shy of the Rainier summit. 

This was the point to turn back and cruise into town at high speeds. Of course that was the rational thing to do. But not us. We were chasing the imaginary google maps loop. With no cell signal we were simply going by intuition, and quite frankly the aforementioned monkey on crack would have made a wiser choice than us. Of course, we took the plunge on the other side of the road. And plunge it did indeed! For miles and miles we enjoyed a rapid descent, captivated by the scenery that was unfolding in front of us. 

By now it was about 4PM and sunset was a mere two hours away. There were no signs of any connecting road, in fact, there were no signs of any human life nearby apart from the three motorcycles we encountered the whole day. So we stopped to assess where we were. Out came the iphone and google maps. Finally the GPS kicked in and showed us a million miles away from Salento. Confusion and shock set in. How could we have come this far, yet be so far away? 

Cows were about all we saw. But farmers must be nearby, no?! No, not really

At this point my rational brain took over. The only logical choice was to turn around and climb back up to the summit of the road and descend down the other end. This would mean climbing for many many miles to the cold and rainy summit and then a long descent in the dark. But there was no other way. It was too risky to keep going forward. 

It was here that Natasha took stock of the situation, assessed the fatigue in her legs and the food we had left (a few potato chips), and promptly began to panic. Within a few seconds, it turned into a full-on panic attack. Luckily, I managed to keep it together, barely hanging onto a flicker of sanity and hope. I kept talking to her and eventually we started moving back up the road we had just descended. Hunger and hypothermia were most certainly on the cards, but I reasoned at least we wouldn't die. Regardless of the outcome, this was going to be a long night... 

But then miraculously a motorcycle appeared with a young couple on it. Having not seen any sign of humanity for hours, this was indeed a welcome sight. If we were believing folks, this would be the turning point for a life dedicated to worship. But you know, it could also just be a random occurrence. Just saying... 

We waved the couple down and frantically explained our situation. My Spanish had long vacated me but Natasha is fluent so I resorted to rapid hand waving and pointing to my mouth and stomach while she conversed in a medium they actually understood. I imagine secretly they were laughing. Quite evidently they were amused and couldn't believe we had biked that far; after all it had taken them 3 hours to get to here from Salento on a motor bike! 

Without much convincing, they offered to help. They explained that they lived in a little village called Toche a few miles further on and that we were welcome to stay with them. The wife offered us her lunch and drink, which were much needed sustenance. They could have waved goodbye there and gone their merry way but instead they carried our backpacks and stayed with us the whole way to their village, stopping at every ascent on the road and then shining their phone torch on the road so we could see when it turned pitch dark. 

Our saviors

This was nothing short of a miracle and these folks were nothing short of angels. We pulled into their village and went past it to a dinky little shed that was their home. These folks were not rich, in fact they were one of the poorest families in their poor village. Yet, they had hearts made of gold. We thanked them and hugged them and laughed with them and to this day continue to stay in touch. They left a lasting impression on us. In today's world where a misogynistic racist bigot might become our president, good people still exist. You can find them in Toche. 

Eventually we made it back to our hotel in Salento after calling for someone to come pick us up in the middle of the night. We didn't get in till 2AM and collapsed of physical and mental exhaustion. Our 6AM departure for Tolima was most certainly off the table. 

Awaking the next day, we devoured two breakfasts each and took stock of the situation. Surprisingly our legs didn't feel terrible so we decided to give volcano climbing a shot. However, given that it was already 10AM we had to revise our goal to the slightly lower summit of Paramo del Quindio at 4800 meters (~16,000 feet). 

Normally I am not one to rely on guides for such trips, but the fincas we were to stay in for our 3 day trek only did business with the guides and the trail system was not properly mapped. Besides, after the previous day's experience, I was a bit empty on my suitcase of courage. So I relented. 

If the road to Toche was gorgeous, the hike up into the Paramo region was simply stunning. The pictures below do little justice to what we saw and experienced first hand. 

The first day hike was up to around 13,000 feet, the same elevation we biked, and it took us a good 6 hours to hike there from the trail head. The finca was quite bare but the food was fresh and quite delicious. We slept well that night. The next day was going to be a long one. 

Starting our hike with Camilo
Thats where we're headed (a bit to the right though!)

At finca #1 on day 1

This puppy was so so friendly. He wanted to come with me!
Up at 5AM, we enjoyed a quick breakfast and made our way up the volcano. The views again were magnificent. Turns out getting a guide was the right call as trails barely exist up here. In fact, much of the last approach to the summit is completely unmarked. We kept a steady pace going and managed to reach the windswept summit in good time. 

Summit of Tolima in the distance. We were headed close to it
Making our way up

Still climbing, now in the alpine zone
Nearing the top
Nearing the top 2

Shot from the summit. It was too windy to take a proper picture
Here is where part 2 of our fateful adventure happened. Yes, the mountain biking saga was only part 1! Now 16,000 feet is quite high and there is something called altitude sickness that afflicts many folks who ascend too quickly. I've been at altitude before and am generally a fairly strong hiker but this was the highest I'd ever been (Rainier is only 14,000 feet). Little did I know that I am prone to altitude sickness!  

As soon as we turned around from the summit to descend, a massive headache took over and as if on cue my stomach decided to throw a tantrum as well. Very soon I went from being chirpy to being sad panda. Another clue was that I wasn't hungry and didn't feel like eating anything. Natasha noticed this and asked what was wrong. Perhaps this brought me to my senses, albeit momentarily, and I explained what was happening and that we needed to descend quickly. 

So we wrapped up our lunch break and started heading towards finca #2 where we were going to stay for the night. Our guide was fantastic but didn't quite convey to us that the way down was completely and utterly unmarked, that is we had to bushwhack the whole way down. Normal me would love this and have a grand time. But altitude sick me carrying memories of getting lost on bikes wasn't having any of this. I was pissed and wasn't shying away from letting Natasha know that this was not cool. 

Luckily for us, we take turns freaking out. This time, Natasha was the calm voice of reason who kept me from losing it completely. After a few hours of picking our way through tree branches and tall grass, we arrived at the finca. We had been hiking for 14 hours. By this time I had a raging headache and didn't have any energy, physical or mental, left spare. So I excused myself and collapsed in bed with a few vitamin I. 

The thing with altitude is that you start feeling better as soon as you descend, and my experience was no different. I awoke from my slumber and felt instantly better. The next day I was back to normal and happily trekked back out to the trail head where we had started the hike. 

After a nice dinner and quiet night in Salento, we drove back to Bogota and despite getting stuck in traffic there for hours, managed to catch our flight back home in time. 

With a few hard lessons in the bank, we can't wait for our next trip!  

We may lose our sanity but being silly comes naturally

Friday, January 29, 2016

A Look Back at 2015...

I figured 2015 was going to be a fascinating year when I bumped into Natasha in January. Not many people share my sense of unconventional adventure and general loathing of the ready-made tourism industry. But she did and that was awesome. What made it even more special was how quirky we both are, like the time she launched into a monologue about her bladder on our second date. I was hooked.  

Here's a brief rundown of some of our year's highlights: 

Exploring Panama
Panama is such an amazing little country. Of course everyone knows about the Panama Canal, but what many people don't know is that the north of Panama is absolutely gorgeous. You have the Bocas del Toro archipelago just off the eastern coast and then you have beautiful mountains in the mainland, topped by the mighty volcano, volcan Baru.

Our plan was to escape the cold of February in DC and spend a week exploring these areas. Given our restless nature, we spent almost every night in a different place and experienced everything from scuba diving (it sucks in Bocas, btw) to ziplining in Bastimentos National Park (ton of fun), to climbing volcan Baru. We stayed in a bed and breakfast, an eco-resort, a regular hotel, and kid-you-not an actual treehouse.  

Arriving in Panama city
Our legitimate treehouse

Perhaps the most physically challenging part of our trip was climbing volcan Baru. Now you can google the volcano and find a million different tour operators who will hold your hand all the way to the summit or better yet take you up there in a jeep. The hold your hand "adventure" is also on the same jeep trail.

Not a chance in heck that I'd be caught dead on such a trail. Fortunately an alternative route does exist but is really difficult to find. After hours scouring google for information, I gathered some basic beta from the two people on earth who had decided to post about it online. Basically, you have to drive all the way around the mountain to the other side where an obscure trailhead marks the beginning of the hike. Its pretty clear why this side is rarely used or marketed -- just look at the elevation profile on the sign at the trailhead. The jeep route starts on the right and our chosen route starts on the left. They meet up at the top. Need I say more?

So off we went one bright early morning, a bit later than an alpine start given Natasha had spent the entire evening spewing her guts thanks to food poisoning. I offered to postpone or cancel but she's one stubborn girl and refused to be distracted by minor life inconveniences such as severe caloric depletion or dehydration. Food and water -- way overrated...

The trail was quite well marked and steady at the beginning but very quickly turned nastily steep and littered with volcano scree. We didn't really see anyone on the trail except for a few locals who were surprised to see us there. But I can easily pass as a local and Natasha speaks fluent Spanish so we ended up having some fun conversations. We were so glad we weren't on the jeep trail.

The going was tough but we kept at it and were soon above treeline and into warm sunshine. 

Here, the going got really tough as each step forward was followed by half a step sliding back on the scree and we struggled for handholds on the steep terrain. After what felt like eternity, we conquered the major steep bit and could see the summit and made the final few boulder scrambles to the top.
Summit Panorama
After a brief nap near the summit and some snacks that Natasha could hold down, we started our descent. Coming down was a real pain in the butt as we had no footholds and risked sliding all the way down the side of the mountain. But steadily we made it back to the car with some sore toes! Baru definitely belongs on the list of places to go but only if you climb the route we did. I have the GPS file handy in case anyone wants it.

Overall, Panama was great and we saw so much of it in just a week!
Two happy explorers

Pittsburgh to DC Bike Blitz
Recent Amtrak changes have made carrying bikes on trains much easier but back in May of 2015, there weren't many options. But there was one very attractive one -- the slow train from DC to Pittsburgh that allowed bikes on board. Well technically they provide these large boxes where you slide your bike in.

We wanted to ride from Pittsburgh to DC with panniers on bikes. This was my first real bike touring trip so I was stoked and happily carried most of our weight on my newly acquired rear rack on my self-converted old cross bike. Natasha was in charge of route planning and made a killer itinerary for us -- we really didn't want to do the conventional route of the GAP/C&O trail for several reasons. Chief among them were that everyone else does it so we should do something different, and also that riding on a rail trail is excruciatingly boring. Riding on an endlessly flat course with basically the same scenery (even if its great scenery) for miles on end just doesn't excite me at all. So instead, we charted out our own route on the road with ridewithgps. It was hard -- day 1: 72 miles, day 2: 101 miles, day 3: 107 miles. Did I mention the 20,000 feet of climbing?!

Undeterred, we boarded our train one long weekend in May. The train ride was long, I can't remember exactly how long but it was over 7 hours. But the train was nice and the seats were comfortable and we were pretty excited so it wasn't that painful.

Arriving in Pittsburgh around midnight
We had a hotel booked near the train station, which was convenient. The next morning after a hearty breakfast we set off initially on the GAP trail but with some road diversions just to add variety. The plan was to more or less follow this trail for the first day till Ohiopyle and then diverge onto roads completely. 

Merica, son!
On the GAP trail
We made it to Ohiopyle in good time and after a nice dinner settled in for a restful sleep. The next two days were going to be tough.

Indeed, the journey did not disappoint. Our planned route took us over what seemed like the continental divide with gravel roads and double digit gradients. Riding all of this with panniers took a lot out of me, as evidenced here:

Surprisingly, the next day both of us actually felt better and even a bit of rain did not deter us. Plus, my choice of bright yellow rain gear with a mushroom head provided ample entertainment for both of us. 

The plan was to ride past Harpers Ferry (where we had lunch) and then make our way to Point of Rock where we had a rendezvous with a friend who had graciously ridden out to accompany us back to DC. Man, the last few miles around Point of Rock are just excruciating. No wonder it has that name -- one bloody hill after another. To top it all it was 100 degrees out and we were boiling under the sun. 

Thankfully, our meetup spot was an icecream parlor and we happily scooped up some ice-cold calories before the last push home.

One of our many stops along the way. Notice my knee-high socks -- very fashionable indeed
Harpers Ferry
We rode the last 40+ miles at a pretty brisk pace and after an unwanted stop for puncture repair we pulled up to my house to end this epic trip. Here are two exhausted but happy cyclists:
Home. Finally.

Tour de France
Not the one you're thinking of but every bit as exciting, at least for us: Tash and Bilal do France

Wedding Bells in Mexico 
No, we didn't get married but it was Natasha's best friend's wedding. Marianna and Xavier were really nice and invited me to their ceremony as well and I was delighted to go as I've never been to Mexico. Another good place to practice my budding language skills plus I wasn't going to miss out on the chance to visit Mexico City where Natasha grew up.

The only downside of this trip was that it fell smack in the middle of cyclocross season and I was having a good time there with some top 10 finishes. But the last race I did before this trip I crashed and broke my rear derailleur so perhaps it was good timing after all.

Mexico City is huge! I guess the Spanish really like big things and the influence has stuck. This flag for instance, in the main city square, was humongous. The picture doesn't do justice but I'd reckon its as big as a house. 

Thats one ginormous flag -- lest you forgot you're in Mexico
Our timing was such that we hit the preparations for el dia de los muertos (day of the dead), which everyone in Mexico takes very seriously. Think Halloween but on steroids. We saw numerous intricate floats on the main reforma (main boulevard in the city) such as this one:

Of course, being bikers we utilized the local bikeshare and saw the whole city in a day. Thankfully we were out and about on a Sunday so many of the streets were closed to traffic.

After two days in Mexico City, we met up with the wedding party and headed over to the little town of Tepoztlan for the festivities. For the next few days we explored some local gems in the area such as a massive cave and some castle ruins. We also hiked up to the top of a local hill where a temple is located and found this massive tree along the way.
Inside the cave

And then it was time for the wedding. We clean up alright when we absolutely have to: 

But formal wear isn't really our thing so the evening quickly turned into this:

And shortly thereafter we were in our element:

What a fun wedding it really was! Mexico is great and I can't wait to go back there to explore some more. 

So there you have it -- 2015 in a nutshell. Of course there were numerous other happenings in 2015 such as a successful bike racing season, many fun training rides, and some interesting work travel. But its late and I'm tired so I'll leave you with this:   
Bike tour around France? No. Pittsburgh to DC in 3 days on bikes? Nope. Fun adventures in Panama and Mexico? Not a chance. Natasha's crowning achievement of the year was her successful cucumber harvest in the back yard. I haven't seen her this excited um ever!