Friday, May 29, 2015

Snowy Peaks, May 24th-29th

El Cocuy-Guican-Guacamayas-San Mateo-La Uvita-Boavita-Soatá-Susacón

May 24th
We´re both feeling a bit under the weather today, partially because we couldn´t sleep last night due to a giant party underneath our window.  Colombians love their loud music. Thus, we decide to stay one more day in El Cocuy before heading up to higher altitudes. Rest day!
At night we have a typical Colombian dinner at our hospedaje. Here´s the menu:
Soup with made with oatmeal, scallions, potatos, big beans, and bits of beef that I avoid and try not to think about.
Main plate with lentils, boiled plantains, a boiled potato with a tiny bit of tomato sauce on top, rice, and an egg for us instead of sardines.
We´ve found Colombian food to be pretty basic and tasteless, but filling.

May 25th
We sleep well and wake up early to begin our climb! Out of town we start to go up immediately.  Luckily the road surface is far better than we expected. Muddy, with rivulets and bumpy rocks in places, it still presents challenges, but mostly it is composed of smooth, gray sand.
El Cocuy below

Our country road

We climb and climb. Amazingly, at 12,000 feet we are still surrounded by farmland, and there is more above us! The treeline here is much higher than anywhere we´ve been in the US. I try to imagine a cow grazing on top of our favorite Southern California mountain, San Gorgonio, at 11,500 feet. All morning it has been cloudy, and slowly it begins to rain.  At this elevation, it´s actually cold! Instead of being uncomfortable, we rejoice in feeling cold for the first time in ages!
Sometime around 11 am we reach our turnoff from the main road, and stop to ask if we can leave our bikes at some of the cabins there.  Unfortunately. no one is around, so we decide to bike up the side road and see what we find. Luckily, the surface on this road is relatively smooth, and in no time at all we reach the Puesto de Control. This is theoretically where they would check that we have paid our park entry fees, etc. but no one is around and the door is locked. We ride past. It´s also worth noting that we reach a new record for elevation biked: 13,100 feet!
It´s not far to the first little hospedaje where we meet Luis and his dog, Hable Do. Only a few words into our conversation, he rushes inside to prepare hot chocolate for us. As the rain clouds begin to clear, we enjoy a lovely lunch of avocado cheese sandwiches, and of course, lots of hot cocoa. Luis shows us his maps, tells us about himself, and agrees to keep an eye on our bikes while we are gone hiking.  We feel good about leaving them here.
Excited for the mountains, we pack what we need in our backpacks and set off. 

At first we hike along the road, then the road ends and we start to follow a trail. It's mostly flat, so we can talk and enjoy the view.  After a little while we turn left, and begin to hike up into another river valley. This valley has steep sections with pounding waterfalls alternating with flat, marshy sections filled with frailejones.  You might be wondering, what are frailejones (fry-lay-HONE-ace)? They look very similar to yucca plants; imagine a Joshua Tree with one stalk, extremely fuzzy leaves, and bright round yellow flowers.  Possibly the best part of this area? The water in the streams comes straight from the glaciers and it´s good to drink without purification.  We drink lots to stay hydrated at this altitude.

Big clear lakes

Finally we reach a point where the valley begins to close off, and we are surrounded by mounds of rocks.  Here our trail turns and really begins to climb. Since it's the end of a long day, and the air gets thinner with every step, the going is very slow.  I rest every few minutes. Finally we reach the top and see a sign for our camping area. And wait, what´s that? El Pulpito del Diablo and the famous Pan de Azucar are right there! We can't be more than a 30 minute walk away from the snow! I didn't realize how far we had come up.
Our first glimpse of El Pulpito and Pan de Azucar
The cozy tent

So completes a rather epic day, with biking, hiking, and a total ascent of around 6,000 feet.  We´re camping at 14,700 feet tonight!

May 26th
The morning dawns chilly and cloudy.  We wander around a bit and discover that it´s clear enough to see the lakes in the next valley, obvious remnants of the glacier that still lingers on a far peak. Around us, the landscape is barren and windswept, strewn with boulders, and dotted with frialejones. We haven´t seen anyone since we left Luis's place yesterday.
Not every day that you wake up with a view like this

You have to love the high altitude plants 

After breakfast cozy in the tent, we decide to make our way up towards El Pulpito del Diablo. There are still some clouds floating around, but the sun is out, and it looks like they´re blowing through. It´s slow hiking with the thin air and freezing wind. 
The windswept approach 

Eventually, we reach the snow line at around 15,800 feet, the highest elevation either of us has ever been! The massive, reddish black, streaked and striped wall that is the Pulpito stands stark against the misty clouds. Pan de Azucar is just to its right, a gentle, friendly looking peak draped with a snowy glacier.  
At the base of Pan de Azucar 

On our way back, we see some other people hiking up.  In fact, there are lots of people! We learn that this is a popular trip for people to make from Bogota.  It´s the closest place to go if you want to see snow! Most people appear to be ridiculously unprepared for the mountains, wearing jeans and carrying shopping bags.  When you live in a city, it must be hard to know what to expect up here. At least Colombians are out and enjoying their country´s natural places.

After lunch we have some time to relax, read, and paint before we begin our trek down. Luckily, the climb down is easier and faster than the way up.  
Some beautiful flowers

Just before we reach Luis´ place, we are rewarded with a spectacular sunset that lights the valley on fire. Dinner is peaceful and yummy with more hot cocoa.  As we get ready for bed, the stars start to come out, and the Milky Way blazes across the sky.

May 27th
We wake up early with the rooster and the dog but end up leaving late.  We have to repack all our stuff and do some bike maintenance.  Our bikes did not enjoy all the wet mud they went through on the way up here.
Bye Luis!

The plan for today is to bike the horseshoe shaped road that connects the two mountain towns, El Cocuy and Guican. Since we´ve already been to El Cocuy, we figure we might as well go see Guican.  Plus, the road winds along at 11,000-12,000 feet right at the base of the park and its huge snow covered peaks.  How could it not be beautiful? Well, it doesn´t turn out quite as we expect. Even though the morning is clear and we have a great view of three of the snowy peaks, clouds move in, and gradually we lose sight of the tall mountains.  Instead, our road travels through high elevation farmland, past rushing streams and small houses with dogs that run out to chase us.  

A cool bridge 

High elevation farmland

The most accurate depiction of the mountains that we found

The road condition deteriorates until we are riding over large, loose rocks on a track that barely resembles a road.  It´s past lunchtime when we arrive, exhausted, in Guican.
Why would you ever paint a church like this? 

In the afternoon we bike a short distance to the next town down the valley and then take a long break to enjoy some food. After our break, neither of us feels like biking much more, so we ask at a few farm houses to see if we can camp in a field. At the third place they say yes. It's clear that we have found a good spot.  We have a wonderful view of the valley, the two dogs are small and don´t bark, and the household is run by two friendly ladies who invite us to have breakfast with them the next morning.

May 28th
We wake up and realize that we are covered in ants. AKK! How did they get into our tent? Closer examination reveals that they have eaten their way through the tent floor, creating about 100 tiny holes in the process.  It appears that they were trying to get at some of the bread we had with us; the small loaves are literally swarming with the little black creatures. At least they didn´t bite us.
We do our best to get rid of them, and get our stuff together.  Then it´s time to enjoy a breakfast of corn potato soup and arepas, thick fried flour tortillas.  The ladies who live here, Orelia and Ladis,  spend their time making beautiful baskets out of the grasses in the area and then selling them in town. We are both amazed by their talent. Before leaving we also spend a bit of time with Fabian, Ladis´ son.  He´s learning English in school, so we do what we can to help.
Thank you again to Orelia, Ladis, and Fabian for welcoming us into your home!
Orelia, Ladis, and a half completed bowl

Back on our bikes, we begin an extremely mountainous day.  We spend all morning climbing up about 3,000 feet, then we descend into a river valley and spend all afternoon climbing up another 2,000 feet. Along the way we pass through various cute little towns with ornate churches and central squares, and eat a lot of fresh baked bread from the local panadarias. Our road is paved in parts, unpaved in others. Neither of us can understand why you would only pave parts of a road. If you´re going to all the trouble of bringing the paving equipment up into the mountains, doesn´t it make sense to just pave the whole thing?
Our day ends with an enormous descent. The road is so steep, and the next valley so wide, it looks like we are about to drop off the edge of the world.  We see other cyclists out on the same road; looks like this hill is a popular local cycling challenge!
When we reach the bottom, it´s already getting late, so we decide to ask to camp at a small restaurant. The people say it´s fine for us to stay, so we find a nice spot where all noise is drowned out by the large river. Dinner is couscous with a ton of fresh veggies that I purchased for less than $1 today!

May 29th
When we wake up, large black vultures are everywhere.  It seems that they like to hang out here by the river. One of them attempts to steal Danny´s bowl. We pack up and head out quickly.
Immediately we begin to climb, and climb, and climb. We continue to go up until it´s 12:30 and we decide that it´s time for lunch.  After eating, we´re both tired and feeling a bit under the weather again.  Biking in these mountains is spectacular, but not easy! We decide to look for somewhere to stay in the next town.
Unfortunately, the next town only has a small hospedaje that is way above our budget.  We´re about to leave when the friendly owner shows up.  When she sees that we are young people on bikes, she lowers the price of the room to $22 a night. So, here we are now in our own cabin, complete with private bathroom, wrap-around porch, kitchen, and fridge.  

What a beautiful cabin!

The lovely lady who owns this place also lets us use the washing machine to clean our clothes, has loaned us her computer to type up our blog, and brought us water, fresh fruit juice and beers. What a wonderful afternoon it has been.
If you´re ever in Susacon, Colombia, we definitely recommend staying at La Violeta.

El Cocuy: Getting There and Park Info (by Danny)

1) Trails and Park Info
The park entrance fee for foreigners is COP$52,000 as of May 2015, and you also must buy rescue insurance at COP$7,000 for each day that you will be in the park.  The park office will give you a useless paper map with a ridiculously large contour interval (good thing you have rescue insurance!); see below for some other map options.  
About the trail to El Pulpito:
- Luis at Hermanos Herrera is really nice and apparently charges much less to camp than at the end of the road at Sisuma.  
- There is one wild camping option on the trail at El Alto del Conejo, which is just below the snow line. There are no bathroom facilities there.  Water can be found in many clear pools and streams coming off the glacier.

2) Towns and Roads Around the Park
The trailheads are accessed from the 43 km destapada (unpaved) road connecting the towns of El Cocuy and Guican.  We biked from El Cocuy, elevation 8,900 feet, up to the turnoff towards El Pulpito del Diablo, the highest point in the road at 12,600 feet.  The climb was steady and gradual, the surface easily rideable even in the rain.  The side road to El Pulpito is also rideable, though we walked some steep sections when our wet rim brakes didn't feel like doing their job.  After Hermanos Herrera, the side road gets rockier towards Sisuma.
After hiking, we biked to Guican.  This section of road was noticeably rougher than the other side and included many steep ups and downs, in contrast to the steady grade from El Cocuy.  It took us all morning to reach Guican.  Although many people told us that the road is now paved from Panqueba to both Guican and El Cocuy, the Guican side had much rougher pavement and many dirt/rock sections.  The road to El Cocuy, al contrario, is smoooooth.

3) Roads to Panqueba
There are two options to get from highway 55 to Panqueba, 2 km after which the road forks to El Cocuy or Guican.  
Option 1: Capitanejo to El Espino.  This road has some tough sections near the bottom, but after entering the canyon and turning upriver, the surface improves and takes you gradually up to El Espino, right before which the road becomes paved and stays that way for almost the whole way to Panqueba.  Beautiful scenery and no traffic.  There's one tiny town between Capitanejo and El Espino.  This road isn't followable in Google Maps, but it's in Open Street Maps and is pretty self-explanatory once you're on it.  In Capitanejo, ask anyone for directions to Cocuy or "el nevado." 
Option 2: Soata to Boavita to Guacamayas. Much better surfaces, lots of small towns, and a whole lot more elevation in the form of two big passes.  This route is mostly paved with few rough sections (locals may proudly tell you it's all paved; don't listen to them) and has moderate grades with slightly more traffic than the route from Capitanejo, though still very little.

A picture of the map in the El Cocuy park office

The road is the gray line on the left.

These are hardly good enough quality to navigate from; feel free to contact me if you would like the full-size files.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Bucaramanga to El Cocuy, May 18-23

Bucaramanga-Piedecuesta-Los Curos-Guaca-San Andrés-Málaga-Capitanejo-El Espino-Panqueba-El Cocuy

Excited to leave Bucaramanga and reach higher climes, we packed up quickly, thanked Angela for her hospitality, and hit the road.  Getting out of the city was even better than getting in a few days before, the good roads evidenced by all the cyclists out and about.  After a nice descent and a climb, Tam got a flat tire, and while changing it she realized that the nut on the quick release lever had rusted to the skewer (basically we could only loosen the wheel a little bit).  Luckily we were still able to remove the wheel and fix the tire, so we were able to continue.  In our limited bike experience, we weren't sure if this was a big problem, necessitating our turning around, or not.  Settling on "not," we pedaled to Los Curos, where we turned off our trafficked road and into cycling paradise: hello, mountains!  The distance between Los Curos and Malaga is about 35 km as the crow flies, jut a few hours' ride on flat pavement.  The road connecting the two, as we would soon see, is about 120 km and takes eight hours by bus.  It would take us days.

Up and up we went on our quiet road, the air feeling fresher and the views looking better with every pedal.  The road was cut straight into the mountainside, the smooth pavement fading into dirt after about 10 km of climbing.  

Construction crews are attempting to pave the entire distance but so far have only done the parts that would be most susceptible to landslides.  Every so often, we would round a corner, excitedly see a sign announcing the beginning of pavement, ride for a short while then hit dirt again.  Having expected all dirt, we were excited to get any pavement at all.

About 100 meters beyond this "INICIO" sign, that tiny white spot on the left of the picture announces "FIN DEL PAVIMENTO"

Reaching the first pass around 2,200 meters (7,000 feet), we decided to camp rather than descend back to the heat and another big climb.  Finding a spot proved tough, as there was little flat land anywhere and most of it was owned by the construction company.  An eager local kid showed me around, and we finally set up above what I can only presume to be a water tank.

Though it rained all night, the road surface stayed solid, and we descended to the tiny town of El Tope then began to climb right back up.
Tam rounding a corner on the descent

The path was built to circumnavigate the Cañón del Chicamocha, a deep cut in the earth that we wound around, now finding ourselves on the opposite wall, yesterday's path clearly visible on our right.  Even cooler air and better views greeted us as we ascended, ample rewards for constant focus to avoid rocks and the inevitable pain and soreness in our legs.  Clouds built up around us throughout the morning, always managing to shroud the peaks but not us, adding another wonderful element to the expansive landscape.

Construction crews were clearing this landslide before they sent us through and the bus got stuck. In One River, a book I read recently, author Wade Davis tells of his four day wait for crews to clear a landslide on a similar road in Colombia.  We only had to wait about thirty minutes.

After a seemingly never ending climb, we topped out at about 3,000 meters, just under 10,000 feet.  A new valley spread before us, our view reaching the floor a vertical mile below and the impressive peaks around, the highest still a vertical mile above.  We immediately began our descent down into the valley and its towns of Guaca and San Andres.

To reach the bottom took us hours; we stopped numerous times to let our hands uncramp and rims cool, finally crossing the river at the bottom.  Around 5, happy to stop the bumping for the day on this trocha of a road, we set up camp in a family's backyard.  As has happened before, we had to wait for the permission of the señor before getting permission.  I am so happy that traditional gender roles are not the norm everywhere.

By 5 am, around first light, people at the house were up and about, and I woke up fully feeling the effects of not resting with an impending cold.  But out we went anyway, stuffy nose and all, hoping to at least reach the top of the next pass before calling it a day.  Things didn't start out auspiciously: about five minutes in, one of the bungee cords holding my ukulele managed to lodge itself between the rear spokes and the cassette, creating a seemingly impossible problem.
I have no idea how it got like this.  The wheel and dérailleur didn't seem to be damaged, so we set about removing it, and finally pulled it free with a lot of finagling.  No harm done, phew!

The ascent was steeper than that of the day before, the road bumpier and tougher to ride on.  Nothing more of note happened, except that we collected our first observation as volunteers for Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC)!  The organization seeks to gain scientific data from the hard-to-reach places that thrill-seekers visit.  We'll be submitting information on the roadkill we see.

Around mid-afternoon, feeling feverish and tired of all the steep, rocky uphill, we set up camp around 2,800 meters, or 9,000 feet, in a cow pasture with one of the most gorgeous views, well, anywhere.

Sleeping in a cool, quiet place must have been therapeutic, because I woke up feeling much better than I did the night before.  We completed the pass, descended a bit, then climbed back up to over 3,000 meters, about 10,100 feet. From the top we could see the next valley, the towns of Malaga and Miranda filled with dollhouses and connected by a tiny ribbon of road.  Starting the descent, the air was invigoratingly crisp, and as we flew downhill, the wind whipping by us, we could feel it warming up.  The jutting promontories of the valley, no more than tiny topographic bumps when seen from above, suddenly loomed above us, as much in the sky as we had been moments before.

Malaga's dollhouse church is a lot bigger when you're standing in front of it.

After an hour of descending, it was hard to believe we could go down much more before reaching the ocean, but still down, down, down, the air now hot, cacti all around, striated cliffs bare in the sunshine rather than covered with a lush blanket of obscuring greenery as they had been before.  At the bottom was the Chicamocha River, which we followed downstream, down, down, still down, an hour turning to three or four until we turned at a confluence in the river and started following the new river upstream, trying to remember how to turn our stiff legs.

We stayed at a little hospedaje in Capitanejo then, the next morning, pointed our wheels towards the snowcapped peaks of El Cocuy.  The road continued to follow the river and immediately redefined the worst road we had ever biked.  
I wouldn't be surprised if this bulldozer ends up in the water later.

It was a lot like technical mountain biking at times, rocky and steep and slippery in parts but certainly rewarding with no traffic, just us and the road and the river surrounded by an odd mix of ferns, bromeliads, mango trees, and cacti.  We met the swift Nevado River and began following it upstream, its canyon's walls narrowing as we ascended and the road surface improving marginally once we escaped the sandy, lowland desert.  

The only traffic: baby goats

A few hours of climbing got us to the town of El Espino, where we set up camp in a field.  By now, after pushing herself hard physically and mentally for the past few days, Tam had caught my cold, so she went to sleep early while I played some ukulele, watching the mountains and then the stars through the mesh of our tent.

An early morning and some more climbing took us to El Cocuy, the doorstep to the nearby national park of the same name.  We'll be spending the next few days in and around the park, biking and backpacking, of course.

To make sure she would be warm enough (and stylish enough too, of course), Tam bought this fleece ruana, the centuries-old precursor to the Snuggie.  Everyone here wears them, and you can too!  Here's how: find a blanket, cut a hole in it, and put your head through the hole. Voila, ruana!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Weak Substitute For A Blog Post

We´ve been off exploring the mountains of Santander, Colombia, so we haven´t had internet for a little while.  Tonight we´re in Capitanejo, where Wi-Fi doesn´t seem to be an option, meaning we can´t add pictures to the blog. Rather than post a simple narrative, we´re saving the real blog post for later.  In the meantime, we have a solution for what you can do instead of reading our blog while you should be working: listen to the Undisclosed Podcast, the follow-up to Serial.  Just make sure you don´t have anything you need to do in the near future when you start the first episode.

The next few days will be spent in El Cocuy National Park, again likely a place without internet, so look for a post in a week or so.

El Cocuy,

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Colombian Hospitality, May 15-17

Pelaya-Aguachica-San Alberto-Limites-Bucaramanga

A little later than usual, due to the drumming of rain on the roof waking us then soothing us back to sleep, we found ourselves back on the saddles, pavement ahead and storm behind.  Straggling wisps of grayish clouds hung low over the ever-bigger mountains, accentuating the contours of the rumpled slopes beyond.

The morning was cool though still gelatinously muggy, and the construction from the last few days continued, meaning we still had more room to ride than we knew what to do with.  Riding on a closed road meant our smooth pavement wasn't groomed for travel,  punctuated at times by rolling mounds of dirt and open pipes, you know, just to keep things interesting.  I'll gladly walk around some pipes if we can avoid the trucks!  Soon, however, we didn't have a choice.  The road split, one way to Bogota and the other to Bucaramanga, and our bike lane turned into a steep, narrow, curving mountain road that sometimes looked like this:

And sometimes looked like this:

Climbing up bit by bit, up and down, up and down, we eventually arrived at the top, 2,500 feet, in the early afternoon.  The air was noticeably cooler here at the town of Limites, situated right on the line between the departments of Santander Norte and Santander.  Among a few small restaurants was a cheap hospedaje, and we chose to stay there.  While getting out our wallets to pay, however, we realized that we had only 12,000 pesos, roughly $5, which we would need for food the next day.  Embarrassed and apologizing profusely to the hotel manager, we asked if he might know of a place we could camp, and he immediately ran behind the hotel to his parents' house.  The parents, Javier and Elsa, welcomed us in like family, showing us a place to set up and making us some scrambled eggs with avocado.  Another son, Jhonatan, showed us around the farm in their backyard: five different varieties of bananas, four varieties of orange, numerous avocado trees, cacao, and a number of fruits we didn't know.  This is guama:
We had already eaten most of it when I took the picture. You eat the mushy white part and spit out the "almond" inside.

The family then offered a shower in one of the rooms of the hospedaje, and while you're at it, they said, "just go ahead and stay there!" We were set on sleeping in our tent, actually excited to do so in cool weather for the first time in awhile, but they insisted.  So we ended up in the hospedaje anyway.  Even better, we were able to meet this wonderful family and spend the night chatting and looking for ripe cacao fruits to extract the raw beans and suck out the flavor. 

Elsa, Jhonatan, and Javier

Buzzing with positivity from the influence of our wonderful new friends, we began the next day with almost 15 km, 10 miles, of descent.  Some thigh-burning climbs and more cool descents brought us to the outskirts of Bucaramanga, where we started our final climb up to the big city.  Usually the push through the outskirts of big cities is trafficked and rough, but even though this approach was up a big hill, it wasn't too bad.  

In the city, we rode on bus-only streets and avoided much of the traffic, finally finding what we were looking for: a big supermarket. Heading soon into the mountains, we would need to stock up on dense, calorie-rich foods, the sorts not found at your typical little mercado. Tam went in while I waited with the bikes, and came back out an hour later laden with huge, heavy bags, and laughing because there was no way we could carry all of it in our bags.  We set to packing while I introduced her to my new friends; waiting outside a supermarket with a loaded touring bike always wins you new friends, and these guys were eager to demonstrate their English language capacity by singing The Doors and Guns 'N Roses.  

Bags full and with an extra bag over my shoulder, we headed to the residence of a Warmshowers host we had contacted. To our surprise, the address was a fancy apartment building.  I can only imagine what the security guard must have thought when we asked for Angela. Sure enough, however, we were in the right place, and Angela welcomed us up to her fancy apartment high above the city streets.
The view from the apartment

Another cyclist showed up the next morning, and the four of us spent the day walking around Bucaramanga and eating delicious food.  In the afternoon, Tam and I took a bus to the mall to find a new phone cord, and were surprised to find three shiny floors of fashion, technology, and lights.
 It was nicer than any mall I have seen for a long time, nicer than many malls in the U.S, a big change from what we've seen so far in the rest of the country.
Open-air mall

Tomorrow we'll be heading south out of Bucaramanga and east into the mountains toward Parque Nacional El Cocuy.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Beating the Heat and Food Issues, May 11-14

Mompox-Guamal-El Banco-Tamalameque-Pelaya

The alarm woke us at 5:30 am from a deep sleep in our air-conditioned haven in Mompox.  It was early, but the morning is the only bearable time to bike.  Today, however, we hit snooze, and then again, and again.  Waking up for good around 8, neither of us had the slightest desire to leave.  Instead, we spent the day reading, figuring out gear issues, playing ukulele, and making delicious food.

The next day, we actually got up with the alarm, at 5:15 this time.  When the low temperature for the day is 81 degrees, there's only so much you can do, but the morning turned out to be pleasant.  We even got a nice surprise: we were expecting dirt roads, and over 40 kilometers were paved!
This smooth surface enabled us to go a good distance before noon, so we decided to stop for the rest of the day in the small town of El Banco.  Holing up in our hotel room was pretty unadventurous, but we did take a walk to confront one of our biggest challenges so far in Colombia: the market.  Tam mentioned food in the last post, but here's my take.

Like in Central America, food is widely available here.  The tiny towns, of which we pass through maybe four per day, always have a restaurant and a little store, and the bigger towns, maybe one per day, have numerous larger "supermarkets."  With fresh vegetables, rows of stocked shelves, refrigerators, and more, these markets look appealing at first glance, but after walking around and ending up back at the front with an empty basket, the allure fades.  There are a lot of raw foods and a lot of highly processed foods, but little in between.  Because we've been fortunate enough to have a choice, and because of our knowledge of the profound effect food has on health, we've learned to really appreciate good food.  If it can be avoided, I would rather not eat white bread with 37 ingredients (can we even call that food?), and we can't realistically cook beans, pasta, rice, or flour.  So we've been thinking creatively about what to eat, and we've come up with some solutions:

1) Eat out.  Restaurants are everywhere, and a full plate of rice, beans, cheese, yucca root, fried plantains, eggs, and/or veggies costs the equivalent of $2-3.  None have menus, so we just go in and tell the lady who runs the place what we want.  Sometimes we have to try a few before finding one that can serve something without meat.

2) Make giant salads. Usually canned beans here have some sort of pork added, but we found one store that had a few dusty cans of garbanzo beans on the shelf.  Score!  We've been adding them to mixed veggies, corn, and rice from a local restaurant, and finishing it off with peanut butter (we still have some from Costa Rica!).

3) Sprout lentils. Since we can't cook beans, why not sprout them? Keeping them alive while biking has presented some logistical challenges, but we ate our first somewhat successful batch the other day and we're trying our best to make more.

4) Lower our standards. Crackers with palm oil? Okay, I guess. Canned corn with added sugar? Fine. Jif peanut butter? I'll take three. Pork-rind potato chips flavored with MSG? Never.

5) Build a soda can stove. It hasn't come to this. Yet.

Water has also been a challenge, since our SteriPen is on the fritz and we can't drink the tap water (not even the locals drink it).  Here's the solution:
6 liter bag of water.  In the upper right it says "the perfect size for the whole family."  We go through two per day.

We got on the road again before 6 the next morning, biking fast to make miles before Father Sun began roasting the earth. In spite of some rough dirt sections, we made good time, the Magdalena River to our right, a flat road ahead, and absolute tropical greenery everywhere else.  
The Rio Magdalena from a bridge

Eventually came into view, for the first time, the Andes Mountains!  They're not called that here, but coming north out of Ecuador, the formidable range splits into three, leaving its dizzying heights behind and eventually trailing off into lowland forests and plains. Though we were to spend a few more days in the lowlands and foothills, seeing the Cordillera Oriental looming above, barely visible in the haze, affirmed that we were really here in South America, home of the great Andes!

Soon we joined highway 45 heading south parallel to the peaks, and the day just got better from there.  A massive construction effort had paved the new other side of what will soon be a divided highway, but for now, we had the whole two lanes to ourselves!  
That's right, trucks.  Stay outta my enormous bike lane.

Stopping in the town of Pelaya for an early lunch, we decided, like the day before, to call it a day.  Better to rest, think, and prepare to leave again early re next morning.  And play ukulele, of course.

With our giant bike lane continuing and a thick layer of clouds blocking the sun, the kilometers fell away beneath our wheels. This was the coolest day we had had in awhile; at 10 am, an info sign showed 29 degrees, about 85 Fahrenheit.  The riding itself was as before: farmland, flats giving way to rolling hills, hazy mountains rising on our left.  Again we stopped around noon in a little town and had some time to hang out for the rest of the day.