Off we go!

After the relaxing days in San Gil, we set off for Villa de Leyva, reputed to be a village especially well worth seeing, with its little white cottages. It was actually lovely, but with a bit too much tourism for our taste. We did stay a few days, however, in order to have our brakes rewired since the brake force adjustment was defective, which meant that the rear axle brake wasn’t functioning any more. Fortunately, it was an easily reparable problem. Around Villa de Leyva, there is quite a lot to see, but most of it is exorbitantly expensive. As long-term travelers, we have learned to refuse to pay the high prices for tourists and look for alternatives to them, instead. In the fossil museum, there were kronosaurus bones at and countless ammonites, petrified fish, flowers and trees to marvel at. A little physical exertion also does no harm, so we took a short hike to the Cascadas la Periquera, where there are several smaller waterfalls at a lovely spot in the forest.

Our next destination was Muzo with its emerald mines, which led us into a completely different world and deserves its own blog entry <a href=””> </a>. After this very special adventure far away from the usual tourist pathways, we dove back into the masses of tourists visiting the best-known sight in Columbia, the salt cathedral in Zipaquira. Built into a salt mine, this is the largest subterranean church in the world, with the largest subterranean cross. The dark passageways are illuminated beautifully, and the rooms in the cathedral itself are filled with soft music. For us, the highlight came later, in the subterranean souvenir shop where the emeralds from Muzo are sold. There was a small, ludicrous replica of the village in one mining gallery  – what would the inhabitants and miners say if they knew that their lives and purpose in life were being sold this way to tourists not even 60 miles (100km) away?

It wasn’t until we saw the signs for Suesca that we remembered that it is one of the few places in Columbia where you can go climbing. So we didn’t hesitate and drove there right away! We were allowed to spend the night on a meadow which serves as the parking lot for more than a hundred cars with climbers who come here from near and far on the weekends. The area really looks very attractive for climbers. Since only the more difficult tours had been drilled into the rocks and Max had back pains, we decided to do just one morning of bouldering. Even so, after our long break in sports activities, we felt the athletic exertion in our forearms the next day. That same day, we drove up to over 9,800 ft (3000m) to look at the Laguna de Guatavita, where the legend of El Dorado originated. Carla marched up the steep pathway in thin mountain air valiantly and without complaining, while Robert preferred taking advantage of the motherly porter service. After a cool night at the high altitude, we drove down into the valley between the cleavage of the Andes Cordillera, where we were met by heat and humidity at full force in Armero-Guyabal.

Only very few people will know that the fourth largest volcanic catastrophe worldwide took place in Armero in 1985: gas eruptions made the snow melt on the volcano Nevado del Ruiz and generated a gigantic lahar (mudslide) which buried the city of Armero, about 45 miles (70km), killing about 23,000 people. Such a lahar had already destroyed the city, not just once, but twice, when it had been smaller, but the people had rebuilt it each time due to their unshakable faith in God, in the hope that their almighty Protector would not allow such a disaster to take place again. After the immeasurable suffering caused by the most recent eruption, no one has resettled there, and the name of Armero was passed on to the neighboring city of Guyabal (now named Armero-Guyabal).

After we had visited the remains of the city and had got a feeling for the extent of the catastrophe, we drove up towards the volcano, slowly, but steadily, in order to see what traces the eruption had left in the landscape. In the small village of Murillo, high above the volcano, we experienced yet another completely distinctive and original part of Columbia during our stop for lunch, with loaded burros, men in ponchos, colorful houses, and friendly inhabitants. The asphalted street ended there, and the especially bumpy track was a form of torture for us for the next few hours. The landscape made up for each bump, however: an awe-inspiring vastness, rare plants, and, of course, the impressive traces of the lahar at the point where it had begun. In the evening, from the place where we parked for the night at over 13,125 feet (4000m), we were able to have one more glimpse of the peak, slightly covered with ice, and see some billows of smoke coming from the momentarily once again slightly active volcano. Last night, we had been hot and sweaty with the temperature still close to 90°F (30°C), and tonight we had the lowest sleeping temperature so far, 48°F (8°C) since the mountain air was too thin for the auxiliary vehicle heating system (on the Orizaba volcano in Mexico, we had spent the night at a similar altitude with no problems). Thanks to our warm sleeping bags and family-cuddling (at some point, both children wanted to be up with us in our bed), we all survived the night without having to shiver. In order to chase away any remaining coldness in our bodies, we treated ourselves to a bath in the hot springs at Thermales del Ruiz the next morning. What a wonderful feeling!

Now we are in the heart of the coffee zone in Columbia and are amazed at how many plantations there are even just along the highway, which is suitably named “Autopista del Café”. After a few days of relaxation in Salento, we are rested and restored and ready for new discoveries and adventures in this many-faceted country.

Some private photos of the last few weeks can be found here.

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