Illegal border crossings…..

Well, maybe not illegal, but I did go against travel advice of Germany, UK and the United States by using the roads and crossing in Putomayo, in South Eastern Colombia. Embassies advise against all travel in the region.

I didn’t do this lightly, and sought guidance from many sources over the preceding weeks, including repeatedly asking Police and Military. This area still contains members of FARC, the Colombian group that has engaged in so much violence in the past and is now engaged in the peace process (it’s now fragile following Colombia’s election of the right-wing President Duque, who has pledged to revisit the deal). Rebels are also on the Ecuadorian side, having been displaced by military action in Colombia.

I rode with Nick (the cyclist I’d previously met). Both of us preferred to take this road than to use the only recommended route, which follows the Pan American highway. The highway would also have been dangerous, given the heavy lorries that use it. We hoped there was a much smaller chance of being kidnapped by disenfranchised FARC soldiers than being hit by a lorry or dying of exhaust fumes. Whilst I would never advise anyone to contravene travel advice, I did feel comfortable doing it on this occasion.

Before leaving Popayan I visited the mountain town of Silvia. This was somewhere I’d been looking forward to visiting for many months, since reading of the weekly market where Guambianos (local indigenous people) come from the surrounding areas. It was hugely interesting, and I had some lovely interactions with the traders. They are notoriously shy about having their pictures taken, so I didn’t ask to take any portraits, but did manage to take some general pictures that show the traditional dress of black skirts for women and blue for men, together with the black hats or straw boaters that are worn.

After Popayan I needed to cross over the Puracé national park. This huge area (over 800km2) contains eleven volcanos and a rain forest and is perfectly preserved. To ensure it doesn’t become a tourist attraction, the authorities have purposely not paved the majority of the 80kms I had to travel to cross the park.

Thankfully I was able to relax the day before, by stopping early and taking a dip in the natural thermal baths in Coconuco. It was quite bizarre lounging in a pool with a water temperature of 38 degrees, provided by the Purace volcano, whilst looking at the hills.

On the way there I had met a bunch of Argentinians travelling on probably the worst equipped bikes for cycle touring I’ve ever seen. But they were in good spirits, and we had a fun half hour together, as I helped them with some tools to repair one of the bikes. One of the beautiful things about cycle touring is the interactions you have with people who are different from your usual circles (not many of my friends wear hats with the caption ‘F-You’)! Frankly, I was also relieved that we were able to communicate, given that Argentinian Spanish is notoriously difficult to understand.

Early the next day I set off to ride over Purace. The mostly gravel road combined with wind, rain, lorry traffic and incline, to make it a tough but exhilarating day.

After Purace I was lucky to have several more incredible days in constantly varying countryside. I went from mountains, to valleys, to jungle and rainforest. Simply glorious days in the saddle.

I also stayed in two very special places. One was a bamboo hotel built by the owners, and set on the side of a hill in the middle of nowhere. The area has over 200 bird species, and the owners have a small organic farm on the site. I was able to pick fruit and veg with them (including the biggest lemons I’ve seen in my life), which was turned into the delicious meals we ate. The family were typical of some of the incredibly warm and kind Colombians that I have repeatedly met on this trip.

The second place that deserves a special mention was a tree house in the rainforest (in an indigenous area). This place was completely cut off; you crossed the bridge from the road, and then trecked along a path. With no power or phone signal, it was incredibly relaxing, complete with the ‘natural shower’. From the property you were able to follow a trail in the jungle leading to an 85 metre waterfall. It was spectacular, but given I was looking from the top of it whilst on my belly, forgive the lack of a photo of the waterfall itself!

Only a couple of rides on from there, and I was in the border area. So it’s a very sad goodbye to Colombia, and hello to Ecuador.

Much love to all,

Stuart

 

40 thoughts on “Illegal border crossings…..

    1. Hi Sue. A collage of calculated risks – love it! I did a lot of calculation on the risk of the border, and pretty sure I made the right decision. Ecuador is proving pretty awesome, after a shaky start. The first night was in a really grotty town near the border with decidedly unfriendly types about. But as soon as I got clear of there, the views and the smiles have been in plentiful supply! Always lovely to hear from you, and sending you lots of love, Stuart x

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    1. Hi Rachy B (you’ll always be a ‘B’ to me – sorry!). Yes, it is pretty spectacular here, and more than living up to my expectations. And thankfully the legs seem to be holding up so far. Hope all good with you and the clan, and sending you all much love, Stuart x

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  1. Hi Stuart, Ive been following your blog with fascination and amazement. You have been cheering up my commutes into London, and I often gaze out of the window comparing the delights of east London to your awe inspiring photos…! Keep the updates coming, it brightens my day!! Stay safe, Matt

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    1. Hi Matt. As always, great to hear from you. With your Spanish and your personality, you’d have a great time here too – the people are amazing and the roads superb (well the views, if not always the surfaces). Funnily enough, I had dinner with a French motorcyclist last night, and was thinking how much you’d enjoy riding here. I’ll do my best to keep brightening things for you! Hope all good in the City, Stuart

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  2. Stuart,

    Ecuador is the best direction. Big problems with Venezuela and its borders as you are probably well aware. Brazil has moved troops up to the north to deal with Venezuelans crossing the border in huge numbers.

    Safe riding.

    Roger

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    1. Hi Roger. Indeed, it’s a huge issue here. It was another factor in favour of using the smaller border crossing, as the other one is currently struggling to cope with the numbers of refugees. So far I’ve only seen compassion from Colombians in respect of the situation, which is good as it’s not getting better any time soon. Venezualans often approach asking if you want to buy some of their worthless banknotes as a souvenir. The signs from Argentina aren’t good either in respect of their currency problems. Stay safe wherever you are too please, Stuart

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    1. Cheers Dave – praise indeed coming from you. Really do enjoy using the Fuji – it’s a great piece of kit. I’ll certainly be making a little book for myself when I’m done. Can envisage myself sitting in front of a fire in future reminiscing about ‘the big adventure’ 😉 Cheers buddy, Stuart

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  3. Great post!! More brilliant photos. Extremely interesting reading too! Was just thinking this morning that I hadn’t heard from you and wondered how you were getting on through Columbia. Glad you are safe. The first photo of this post is awesome as it set the scene for me wanting to read more!!!! Really looking forward to the next one!!!!

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    1. Cheers Simon, glad you’re enjoying. It’s certainly far more fun to write than anything I used to pen at work 😉 The Silvia market presented a bit of a challenge with pics, given their nervousness around the camera, but I was really pleased with that shot too. Ecuador is proving to be great so far too – lots of friendly people and, again, spectacular scenery. And steep hills! Best to you both, Stuart

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    1. Hi Gitti! Ja klar pass ich gut auf mich auf – will schliesslich nach Deutschland zurück kommen 😉 Hier gibt es wirklich viel zu geniessen. Ich kann mein Glück kaum glauben, dass ich diese Möglichkeit habe auf dieser Art diese Länder kennenzulernen. Hoffe bei dir allet jut, und schicke eine große Umarmung zurück, Stuart x

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    1. Hi Shira – questions are allowed, but afraid the answers are boring! The shower shot was taken by a guy that has been riding the same route as me for a while. I don’t make a habit of asking guys to photograph me in the shower, but this seemed worth making an exception for! 😉 The road shots are taken by using an interval timer on the camera. I stand it in a suitable place, then it starts taking pics at 1 second intervals until I get back to it to switch it off. So for every photo like that, there are loads that get deleted. Hope all good with you, Stuart x

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  4. Hi Stuart, Thanks for letting me into the blog. This is so reminiscent to my South American adventures many, many years ago…except no bike. The peoples of S. America are so warm and human. I recall with amuzement their camera shyness….you must give them a gift as the camera takes their souls away. My favourite trecks were in Bolivia….ohhh for the thrills to come at 15K ft. altitude. How you manage to pack your weather range of clothing on a bike.

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    1. Hi George – it’s my pleasure. Glad you’re enjoying it. You’re right – the warmth and friendliness is legend. On the less travelled roads, at least 1 in 3 of the cars and lorries that pass give you a wave or a honk. As for the camera, not come across anyone who thinks it takes the soul yet – guess they’ve got used to it a bit. I can understand why the indigenous people in Silvia don’t like it – some people are a bit daft when it comes to thrusting a camera in someone’s face. I hope that I’ve got sufficient clothes with me for the cold. That’s one of the reasons why I’m carrying so much luggage – clothes for the cold, as well as camping and cooking gear. Haven’t had to use any of that stuff so far! Sending you and Gerda much love, Stuart

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  5. Hi Stuart, die FARC hatte auch eine Reisewarnung rausgegeben: Bitte nicht entführen, bring den ganzen Laden durcheinander, vor allem bei den Frauen :-). Alles Gute beim Überqueren des Äquator und viel Spaß auf der Südhalbkugel. Hast Du schon Tango gelernt?

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    1. Hi mein Lieber! Ja, die Warnung hatte ich auch gelesen – es ist eine gefährliche Zeit im Friedensprozess für Kolumbien. Es wäre so schade, wenn es doch wieder kippt. Ich denke ich bin die gefährlichsten Ecken schon durch – die nächste große Gefahr wird sein in den Weinregionen in Chile und Argentinien mit dem Fahrrad rumzufahren – ob ich nach Probetrinken noch lenken kann? 😉 Tango werde ich hoffentlich in Buenos Aires lernen – nach Patagonien habe ich vor da etwas Zeit zu verbringen. Euch sende ich liebe Grüße, und freue mich schon auf das Wiedersehen in Berlin, Stuart

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  6. Dear Stuart, I have been so enjoying living vicariously on a bicycle through Columbia, you must be sorry to say goodbye to what is obviously a very charming country. In London now, waiting for Belly, Philippa and Derrick to arrive tomorrow. Happy cycling, I hope it continues that way it has begun. Caroline X

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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    1. Caroline, so glad that you’ve been enjoying. I was indeed sorry to say goodbye to Colombia, but have no doubt that I shall return there. It’s a very special place. Glad that you’ve all had the chance to get together. I gather London went well, and imagine the Portugal leg will be just as good! Much love to you all, Stuart x

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    1. HI Petra, and as amazing as they might sound in my descriptions (and thank you for the compliment re the writing), I can’t even begin to do them justice – I’m having an amazing time. Hope all well with you in the Netherlands, Stuart x

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    1. Hello lovely, glad that you’re enjoying them! I think you two would love it out here too – such incredible places. Sending you lots of love from Ecuador (where it seems to be even hillier than Colombia!), Stuart x

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  7. Hi Stuart,

    I have just caught up on your last few blogs which have been really and truly wonderfuI – your journey reminds me of a leadership presentation I attended back in 2005 when a verse was read out from the poem,”The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost…

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

    That, my friend, is what you are doing. I truly admire your humanity, kindness and compassion for others. Thank-you for sharing your journey – and as Sir Clive Woodward said – “People are more important then plans.”

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    1. Alan, as ever, great to hear from you. Thanks for the poem – that just about sums it up really. I’m certainly grateful that I have the opportunity to do this. And as for the kindness and compassion, I can’t even begin to return as much as I have received from people here. I hope that your plans are shaping up nicely too, and that those fabulous people in your life are all settled nicely back to Blighty. Best, Stuart

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  8. Hi Stuart, I’ve been following you for a bit at the advice of my son Matt M. Really impressed with your adventure and photos. Stay safe and keep the pics coming. Stephanie (my wife) and I are off to Southern India next week to do a bit of exploring ourselves.

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    1. Stephen, thank you so much – glad that I’ve got more Mountfords on board! Enjoy Southern India, it’s a remarkable place, and much less fraught to travel than other parts (I was lucky to work in India for a while). You’ll certainly have no shortage of photography opportunities there! Best wishes, Stuart

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  9. Wow Stuart. I’ve finally logged onto your blog after you resent me the link.
    It brings me so many wonderful memories of my amazing 6 month backpacking trip in 1991. Popayan & Silvia were two of the places I visited on my two month visit of Colombia. Colombia blew me away by its incredibly friendly & hospitable people, the diversity & beauty of its geography & of course the music & dancing.
    I travelled on local buses & kept staying with local families I met. Your experience of the scenery from your bike takes it to another level. Love seeing that tree house and thermal spring. Fills me with bliss and an expansive sense of freedom to see your photos & read about it. What a great record you’re creating of all your experiences to treasure

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    1. Hi Sarah,

      Sorry for late reply. Yep, Colombia clearly hasn’t changed then – it’s still incredible. I’ll do my best to keep recording, but might start getting tricky to get internet once in the wilds of Patagonia! 😉

      Lots of love,

      Stuart

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  10. My thoughts are with you……all the way ! thogh with some reservations about biking on gravel roads and the up-hill stretches…..G+G

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    1. Thanks George! Yep, as you can read in the latest post – the uphills can be challenging, both in the normal and then somewhat surprising ways when you hit the roadworks. Literally 😉 Hugs to you both, Stuart

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  11. Stuart, very sorry for not communicating for quite some time. We went to Berlin with an Hungarian friend. It´s always great to be there. Don´t forget – the city is waiting for your return. And not just the city!!! Your reports are always great and we do love reading them and enjoying your fantastic photos. We hope your are fine and are looking forward to your next exciting story.
    Best wishes and kind regards from sunny Germany
    Jürgen and Illy

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    1. Hello you two – and no apolgies required! Don’t worry, I won’t be forgetting about Berlin. As much as I’m loving my travels, I know I’ll also be excited to get back to Berlin, whenever that is. Much love back to sunny Germany from a currently cloudy Cuenca! Stuart x

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