Colombia 2010

A holiday to Colombia was Steve's idea  - he wanted to find the "Lost Raspadura Canal" in the Choco Province as quoted in Humbolt's report   after he had been to Colombia in 1904 on his travels. The canal is not technically "lost" as an expedition by Sergio Mosquera found it and actually put a video on UTube in 2009 but Steve has (as always) a bigger plan! 

As a payoff for me to accompany him (as I'm not too fond of reportedly dangerous, wet, hot and full of mosquitoes places) I suggested that some of the holiday could be spent trekking at altitude. So the tickets and one hotel in Bogota were booked. Other information was very hard to come by - there is a national Parks Office and Website but on the areas we wanted to go the links led to nowhere. Bus timetables / emailing people / even telephoning people led nowhere too so we really did go with not much idea of the safety, infrastructure, floods (as seen on news), etc.

Once we arrived (jet lagged but also at 2470m affected by altitude) we spent 2 nights and 1 very hectic hard day in Bogota. Waking the next morning we were both having the same thoughts; "this might not be going to happen". Steve voiced his first as I had decided not to say anything until it actually wasn't happening as I knew how disappointed Steve would be. BUT we got up and got on the bus to Medellin - the 1st leg of our journey towards Choco - the rest is history as described below... 

Colombia Photos




Photo no's


Arrive Bogota airport - 18.40

The flight was good. Via Madrid where we spent 4 hours but we had the emergency exit seats and so lots of leg room. Got a taxi to the hostel (Platypus Hostel) through a barrage of road works and traffic. Walked just round the corner for empanadas - fried pasty type things with either meat or cheese. Steve asked around the hostel about Choco area but everybody else seemed to be going to Cartagena in the north to the beaches.  



Woke up early and so were having breakfast (hot chocolate, fried/scrambled eggs and bread) at 7am.

Task 1 - took a taxi out to the bus station which was huge and had no information boards and so in our very basic Spanish we were asking for Medellin (but pronounced Medihin). Eventually after many "no's" we found the right company and bought 2 tickets for 6am the next day.

Task 2 - ask about buses to El Cocuy - once again we had lots of "no's" before someone helpful showed us the right bus company and we got the information "daily, 7am, 45,000$.

Task 3 - buy gas for our stove. We had an address so got another taxi to the area and walked about a lot before deciding that the shop didn't exist anymore. Luckily we had another address and so on chance as it wasn't too far we decided to try that. Yes they had it 22,000$ each (about 10) so we had a shock as in UK its less than 5 but bought 4 (2 per day) for our planned hiking trip.

Task 4 - get back to hotel! This wasn't really a task but made itself so as all the taxi's we flagged down wouldn't take us. Our bodies were saying it was "bedtime" and not wanting to walk 5km through areas we didn't know the day suddenly felt very hard. I was trying to figure out the bus numbering system as there were thousands of little buses coming passed, all full to bursting but wanting more passengers. After about 15 minutes a very nice couple stood next to us asked us where we wanted to go. We showed them, they flagged a taxi, no it won't go, they didn't understand why but flagged a bus down, squashed us on and gave the passengers instructions as to where we should be ejected off! This all worked very well. I followed our route on a map and so when we got ejected we knew roughly where we were. Back to the hotel for a lie down!

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Bus to Medellin 9 hours

Up at 5am (the norm in Colombia) and off on a bus. We had bought supplies as we didn't know what sort of bus we were on. It was an air conditioned big bus and stopped about 3 times for food etc. The route was down, along a valley then up. The valleys were fast going with good roads while up/down mountains was rough, potholed with many landslides and often dirt roads. Took the Metro to our hostel. Medellin seemed more upmarket and full of students drinking and going to Cartagena. No-one knew anything about Choco - even the hotel staff.  


Bus to Turbo 8 hours

Up at 4am, bus at 6am. Walked to Metro and it felt quite safe. The bus was a small 20 seater, with opening windows. The road to Turbo (on the north east coast) started off ok, but soon degenerated into one of the worst roads we ever went on. 12 hours later and very battered we arrived at Turbo. Found the friendly "Hotel Florida" and welcomed by the owner who insisted that if we wanted a boat we must go right now (before shower!) and buy a ticket. So off we went. That was no problem - boat 6am next day. We noticed the town was much more lively and the people more dark skinned that Bogota. We had a very good meal of chicken, plaintain, rice and then it was to bed early!  


Ferry to Quibdo 8-10 hours

Up at 4.30am. At the ferry place by 5am. Then a very long wait. We had befriended a Colombian called Nasta, also going on the boat who spoke impeccable English and we learnt a lot of history and culture from him. There were 2 boats going - 1 had a cover (not ours) and ours. The problem was the floods. The extra water in the river meant that the boats needed more fuel but also they couldn't get to the fuel depots. The result we had about 5 large drums of diesel at the back of the boat.

Eventually we set off at 300 miles/hour or that's what it felt like!! Across the top of the open sea we all got drenched and I was glad of our ponchos! There were lots of police/navy checkpoints but they are all very friendly and chat away to the locals. We also stopped at villages but they were all flooded and so we couldn't have lunch. During the afternoon we caught the other boat and so a race was had - see video. This was quite exciting except when going round corners when the  water would come over the sides of the boat!

Later in the afternoon the boat really speeded up - it was only as it got dark we realized why..... they don't have lights so avoiding large floating logs becomes harder! The lights of Quibdo came into view in the distance and then what did we hear but putt, putt, putt as the engine died. Lots of shouting, swapping of pipes to other (also empty) diesel tanks and then out came the mobile phones!! We were drifting backwards at an alarming rate and even using the seat backs as oars didn't curb our drift; just sent us round in a circle. Unbelievably they had phoned for help and in about 10 minutes another boat appeared and a tank of diesel was heaved onto our boat. We were soon back on course and arriving in Quibdo.

It was now dark. Having read only bad reports about Quibdo we quickly set off in search of a hotel. Marching along I think we passed a few in our haste but came across the Hotel Darien. Very friendly, nice rooms and very welcome. Nice shower then out for chicken and rice.

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Canal / Quibdo

Task 1 - to find out whether it was dangerous for us to go looking for the Raspadura Canal. We tried asking the hotel owner; it took a while to explain what we wanted and she couldn't explain her answer. Then she said "one moment" and went out. On her return she handed us a phone. On the other end was Heiver; an English teacher. We arranged to meet. Heiver was brilliant - he rang the police and they said it was fine for us to visit Raspadura. He had two friends from Holland (Floor and Marijn) who were students doing a thesis on displaced people and an English student (Carlos) who would like to come with us. We all met up and Heiver arranged a taxi/bus to take us. Once in Raspadura village he asked around for us until someone knew of the canal. Then we walked along the roads through the gold mines looking for it. We went for about 3km and came across a very blue lake. It was very hot. A truck came along and Heiver asked them. Luckily one guy knew all about it and we had walked passed it long ago. The truck driver offered to take us back which was great fun!

Once at the start the guy then told us all about it and where it started, finished etc. The middle section, where the water was collected in reservoirs and the canal was at its thinnest, has been destroyed by the gold mining however both ends can still be seen. He showed us the Pacific end which is currently being used by loggers and their horses to drag timber from the forest. Steve was in his element!! We paddled along it for about a km until we got near the chainsawing. Not knowing which trees were coming down next we thought it better to retreat! By this time it was getting late and so we didn't go off looking for the Atlantic end but saw the river going towards the village as we walked back.

Steve took loads of photos but they really just show jungle. The video's are much better. A very big thank you to Heiver, Carlos, Floor and Marijn.

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We decided to have a relaxing day although as vibrant as Quibdo is there's not much relaxing going on. We walked round the markets, met up with the others for lunch and took photos.  


Buses to Bogota 24 hours

The road to Medellin is apparently the worst in Colombia so we took a bus to Pereira - now on our way back to Bogota. It was the usual - nice fast flat roads in the valley bottoms, then grinding to a halt as you climb to 2000m or so. Looking at the map a 1:100,000 it would sometimes take us 1 hour to move a cm! Its a good thing the scenery was amazing and we lost count of the number of landslides we lumbered over in the bus. 9 hours later we arrived in Pereira. There we decided to catch the night bus to Bogota. You get used to long hours on buses and as everyone is so friendly there is a real community on board! Bus left at 7pm. This bus turned out to be ice cold, air conditioned, with no opening windows and a kamakasi driver. Once again lots of mountain passes but this time we were in the dark and fog so no view. Travel sickness soon spread throughout the bus. I held off quite well but once I had started that was me finished. 1am we had a food stop and I staggered off for a bit of stability! That helped and afterwards I got some sleep. 6am we arrived in Bogota!  



Task 1 - while still in the bus station buy a bus ticket for tomorrow to El Cocuy ! That done taxi to hostel. Task 2 - shop for hiking provisions. I made a list and tried to find the stuff on it. It was mainly rice, tomatoes, sausages, tea, coffee, what I call "day food" - biscuits, snacks etc. The bag was very heavy but I didn't think we had enough. We packed up our 60ltr rucksacks and were in bed by 8pm!  


Bus to El Cocuy  12 hours 2860m

5am on the bus. A nice small one with windows! However the bus was only half full so we had to drive around Bogota with the conductor shouting out the door to attract more passengers - this surprisingly works! He also let all manner of "street sellers" on the bus peddling everything from peanuts/mangos through tacky watches/purses to the more sophisticated "talkers" who somehow managed to persuade people to buy what looked like a few pebbles on a string! Once full we set off at a good pace along the valley. We had covered half the distance by 10am - looking good I thought. Then we hit the dirt roads over mountain passes and it took a further 8 hours to reach El Cocuy. Found a very nice hotel and then some very nice empanadas.  


  El Cocuy

Acclimatised to the height by walking round the low lying hills around El Cocuy. We got our permit (32,000 C$) where we were given a photocopy A4 map in black and white. I copied stuff onto it from our books and tried to distinguish paths, roads, rivers and contours - now all the same colour! We also bought more food! We estimated our rucksacks weighed 16kg and 18kg but we'd never hiked for 7 days before ! We met up with an Italian/Brazilian guy also hiking and planned to set off together the next day! We noticed that the whole town was painted in white / light green and all had the same flower pots with geraniums in hanging from the balconies. It looked very smart. Also at 5am a brass band walked round the town playing and setting off fire crackers. That was the wakeup call! Apparently they did it for the 12 days of Christmas. 224 to 335


Hike to cabana 9 hours 3700m

We decided instead of getting the "lechero" (milk truck) we would walk up to the cabanas. This seemed a good idea but was a very hard day as it was 21km climbing with heavy packs. But I think it was good training! We arrived at the park then stopped at the first cabana sign. There was no-one around so we pitched our tents. The family came back and were very pleased to see us. The owner said "did you see the sign?" which was new and he was obviously proud of. +1300m -95m 338 to 372


Hike to Laguna Laguinillas 4000m

This was an easy day. Not much distance 7km and hardly any climb. It still took us 5 hours with stops at a couple of cabanas for hot chocolate. Camping by a lake Steve spotted what could be an aqueduct running round the hill and so we walked round to find the source which was a glacier melt waterfall. That night was cold -2C in the tent! But beautiful with a full moon. +320m -200m 384 to 418


Hike to Laguna de la Plaza 4300m

We got into a routine of being up by daybreak (5am) as the cloud came in about noon with any rain falling in the afternoon. Setting off it was cold and we soon spotted mules coming up behind us. It was our cabana owner going to collect hikers from the Laguna Plaza. He soon caught us and trotted off in the distance. This day was 2 climbs totalling 700m with a steep descent in the middle. The scenery was changing from green to rock and was very stunning. It was nice coming over the passes and having a new view laid out in front of you. Got to the lake in 5 hours, set up camp and went for a walk round the lake. +700m -485m 427 to 471


Hike to Laguna Del Panuelo  4350m

This day took us around the lake, down a green valley, up and over a steep pass, contour round to climb another pass before dropping to camp at another lake. The climbs were quite steep but we were getting into a rhythm now with our poles. Got to camp in 6 hours - 10km, +500m -485m. 476 to 504


Hike to Laguna de Avellanal 4200m

On this day our books had described a route staying at 4000m along a plateau that sounded good. The alternative was dropping into a valley at 3200m and climbing back upto 4000m. It was the day that we were going over a glacier apparently however when we got to the pass there was a sign that said the glacier had retreated 10 years ago - so the ice axe and crampons stayed in the rucksacks. It did snow on us though and the clag came down so it felt just like home! Having found the cairns round one lake we looked for cairns leading to the left where the plateau was. We saw some the other side of the stream about 100m up a very steep climb (especially with packs). But we thought "that must be the way" and scrambled up and over a ridge where we hoped to be looking across a plateau. Nope - another ridge and then what could be a plateau maybe!? As it was now warm and we had been going for 3 hours we had some "day food" and studied the rubbish map. By my altimeter we knew we were at the right height and not being one to give up we decided to plough across the hillside and see. This we did. Steve had a spectacular fall, breaking a pole (the alternative would have been his wrist) and giving us a fright. After that we reached the cliff side. There was no path, no one came that way anymore, but it was the plateau as described and so we followed it. Its about 1km wide with about 8 lagunas on it (3 shown on map) , lots of swamp interspersed with ridges of rock that lead out onto the cliff (which abandons you 800m above the valley). We spent 4 hours winding our way along it. The views down into the valley were amazing and it was nice to be "exploring" as such. But after a while its also nice to see the next camp! Then we spotted the next camp but to get there we had to cross a huge swamp. This took us 2 hours and we arrived at camp after 9 hours! 12km +645m - 575m 507 to 539


Hike to Laguna Grande de Los Verdes  3900m

An easy day! Just two cols to cross then a long descent to the lake. The scenery round the lake was much greener than higher up. There was also a farm and cows grazing on proper grass! We had a very cold bathe in the glacier stream, nice Expedition Food meals for our Christmas dinner and were i bed early as this was the only day it rained properly from 8pm onwards. 5 hours, 8km +450m - 840m 540 to 556


Hike to cabanas at the base of Ritacuba Blanca

Then halfway up Ritacuba Blanca

We woke rather wet and soggy so now that tent is relegated to "dry" conditions! I packed it all up wet wanting to get off to the promise of proper food at the cabanas. We walked upto a col and then a very long descent to the road. Then along the road to cabanas where we had lovely chicken and rice with hot chocolate. The last couple of days we hadn't had enough food and I was waking hungry at 2am so this was lovely. Our hiking friends joined us - we had been seeing each other at camps along the way and we said our farewells (and were given lots of Mountain House food!). 5 hours, 15km +550m -665m

Then we decided to set off up Ritacuba Blanca to camp before attempting it the next day. This took us 4 hours but we missed the camping place and so had to descend 400m back to it. Not clever! We were very glad to reach the camping place and had a wonderful dinner! +950m -415m  

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Hike up Ritacuba Blanca

It was very very windy overnight but not rainy and the porous tent stood up very well to the wind. It was very cold too but we were warm enough. -5C inside the tent! We set off at daybreak and soon reached the snowline where we put crampons on and got the ice axes out. We had been warned of cravasses and not having any experience were nervous. Prodding both sides as we walked with me in front we progressed up the ever increase gradient of snow. About 100m from the top it looked decidely steep and worrying but I thought just do 20m at a time and stop looking at the huge point looming in front of me! After crossing one dodgy bit ie. soft snow that alternated from my left side to my right we paused at a col. The wind was very strong but straight at us which is better than sidewards on. We had arrived at the steep bit! I panicked a bit when I couldn't get purchase but Steve suggested front pointing (but I don't have then on my crampons) but the action was better. We progressed upwards. All of a sudden I was looking down a deep crack, I squeaked. Steve said "what", I said "it's the cravass". It went straight across the whole ridge - there was nothing for it but to take a big step over it! It was hard ice either side and held solid. Steve followed and then we were there, Brilliant views, the wind had dropped, neither of us had a head ache and so we sat for a few minutes, took photos and rested! +875m -885m 6 hours

Back down we went, careful over the dodgy bits but without the wind it was easier. All the way back to camp passing day trippers going to the snow line on mules. Another great feast, packed up the tent and then a long tiring descent to the road. We thought "we'll walk to town". On the map it was given as 11km - but thats "|Colombian" km. 5 hours later after trying to flag transport but there was very little on the road we were resined to a very long walk as we could see the town but it was miles away. Then our luck changed. A very nice man in a 4x4 asked us if we wanted a lift. I was so happy to be sitting down! We must have stunk after hiking in the same clothes for 7 days !

Arriving at Guican he dropped us at the bus station and we caught a bus to El Cocuy arriving at 6pm. Lovely hot shower, lovely food, lovely bed!

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El Cocuy

We spent the day resting and watching the Christmas activities. The army were helping to erect the stage, food stalls were setting up and there was an air of festivites. We had booked the overnight bus back to Bogota and so had until 6pm. We also saw 3 horses being led to the market area and so followed them. There we watched a man ride one - it didn't look like they had been backed as it wanted to throw him off. The atmosphere was very serious and quiet. We determined that he was a buyer and trying the horses out. We left the market to get some dinner but later saw the man riding a motorbike while leading the nicest horse through town!

It was a shame when we had to leave as the celebrations were just getting going. They were a bit hard to understand but entertaining!

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The bus absolutely flew along - it was impossible to sleep on the mountain roads due to the rocking and we got to Bogota in 9 hours Yes at 3am! Knowing we wouldn't be able to get into the hostel until 6am we sat in the bus station drinking coffee! I also purchased some very nice "quava cake" to take home. At 5am we got a taxi, arrived at the hostel, were able to take a shower and then went for breakfast. We spent the rest of the day shopping and bed at 8pm! 731 to 762


Fly home 20.20

Herman - the owner of Playpus - invited us for lunch which was very nice. He had been to the Choco area and was very interested in our travels there. Then taxi to airport about 4pm and back home! My quava cake got confiscated at Madrid airport for "looking like it had cream in it". Apart from that a very pleasant flight and seemingly very short at 8hours and very comfortable after we had got used to bus journeys!  


Arrive home 15.05