A Motorbike on Train Tracks?
Trip Start Sep 09, 2006
113Trip End Aug 18, 2010
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Well, safe from rogue attacks, but not from semi trucks and minibuses overtaking each other on the narrow single lane passage, narrowly escaping metal on metal head on collisions. But hey, that's road travel in South America...Andean highways, slow trucks, impatient drivers, diesel fumes, motion sickness, kids stuffing their faces with treats and snacks, kids puking treats and snacks into plastic bags, etc.
The region itself is quite significant in terms of climate, ethnicity, and the Colombian economy. Remarkably, it receives some of the largest amounts of rainfall on the entire planet...6 meters per year! With a population largely made up of descendants of African slaves, its culture remains distinct from the rest of Colombia. The region´s isolation has enabled the people to retain much of their African heritage. Though poverty is widespread and most towns including the principal city of Buenaventura consist of upaved streets and wooden shacks. Buenaventura itself is the country`s principal Pacific port, handling as much as 80% of the country's coffee exports.
However, our destination wasn't the large port city. Instead, we chose to set out for San Cipriano, a little known, tiny, and isolated village set deep in the jungle off the Cali-Buenaventura highway. Hidden deep in the tropical forest, the town of less than a 1000 people is set 15km from the nearest road and the only way in is by railroad...but there's one small glitch, no train! Remarkably however, the locals have overcome this minor inconvenience and devised a way to transport passengers and cargo up and down the railway by means of motorcycle power. The so-called rail cars, or "brujitas" as they are known as (meaning "little witch"), are motorcycles with a wooden platform fastened to the side of the bike. The platform holds passengers and their cargo and has 4 small wheels that roll on the rails. The motorbike's front wheel sits neutral and anchored to the platform, while the rear wheel sits directly on the rail and generates the driving force. Ingenious indeed, and the little witch looked like she might be a rather thrilling and fearful ride!
After some tough bargaining, we arranged a ride from the town of Cordoba off the highway into the village of San Cipriano on the brujita. A misty rain had blinded the sun so we dawned our rain coats, threw our bags onto the platform and jumped on with intense fear and excitement. Our driver reved up his cycle and in an instant we were speeding through the Colombian jungle at top speed getting completely drenched, and screaming from the shear thrill of it all.
What a ride! The perspective we were witnessing was unlike that of any other train ride we had ever been on. The glass walled coaches in Sri Lanka, the clanky metal death trap through the Sudanese desert, or even the efficient, complex rail network that connects all of India have been phenomenal experiences in themselves. But none lend themselves the same perspective as the little witch. The narrow turns, tracks a few inches under our feet separated by a just a few inches of wood, the wind colliding with us head-on, the friction between the rubber tire and metal rail, and the sound of a motorbike shifting gears as we are propelled into tropical rainforest all blew our minds.
The entire ride took about 15 minutes and we entered the rustic village roughly 6km from the start. We had such a great experience, that we decided to grab a return trip from the village a couple of nights later...this time in the dark. Interestingly enough, when two brujitas meet in opposing directions there's always a short argument between the drivers to determine who should lift their contraption off the tracks to make way. Eventually the one with the least cargo on board has to suffer the inconvenience, and muster up the strength to lift the beast up and return it back onto the tracks.
We spent the next couple of days in the village and got to know some of the locals and explore some of our natural surroundings, particularly some jungle trails and a wonderful river. The village itself is completely inhabited by a friendly community of African desendants. There are a few restaurants and some cheap accomodation in wooden buildings. Bare bones and basic was what we would experience here, where electricity, running water, and 4 thin wooden walls are the only things that separate you from a camping experience in the jungle. It's times like this that we are most fond of, as it gives us a bigger understanding of how simple we can live and how appreciative we are of the comforts and luxuries back home. It's also times like this that our mosquito net becomes our best friend, preventing jungle crawlies from infringing on our slumber in the night.
Awakened every morning at 5am by a proud and obnoxious bullfrog inhabiting the ravine outside our room, we took the opportunity to wander around the village, and stroll out into the surrounding area to get to know the jungle. Here we would meet strange insects and armies of leaf cutter ants, interesting plants, and even caught site of a colorful parrot. And on one occasion we stumbled upon a pristine swimming hole at the end of our walking trail and jumped in to cool ourselves off and dunk our heads under the waterfall that fed its resevoir.
On our last day we took the opportunity to rent some rubber tubes from our hosts and hiked 30 minutes up the trail out of town to an entry point in the main river that eventually runs by the village. For 2 hours we floated lazily downstream on our tubes through emerald waters under large overhanging trees, whose vines we could grab as they hung from tall branches and drank from the river. It felt like a jungle boat ride in an amusement park where the sounds of birds and other creatures filled our ears in surround sound, minus the $89.95 price tag. We'd propel ourselves with our hands and feet through the calm flows and drifted from bank to bank, induced into a perpetual state of happiness as we knew of no other moments as peaceful as this. And every now and then we'd be pulled out of our tranquility when a section of rocks and rapids would approach us and dare us to pass through. It was quite a thrill maneuvering our rubber tubes and being propelled rapidly, spinning in all directions until we were once again floating in calm waters.
Completely water logged by the end of our river adventure, we made it back to the village, had a couple of beers by the railroad tracks and watched the moto-brujitas cart their passengers in and out of town throughout the evening. A local man provided us some company and informed us that there actually is a cargo train that passes by the village once a week. To prevent an accident with the brujitas, the drivers use their cellphones to communicate between villages and inform each other when the train passes in order to clear the tracks. We even watched an ancient form of the brujita roll by us. And the man explained that the "palanka" as it is called was used way long before motorcycle brujitas were invented. The human propelled cart is pushed along with a pole in hand similar to the gondola boatmen in Venice.
We left the village of San Cipriano a few nights later, on brujita of course, flagged down a minibus and returned to the highway towards our next destination, all the while sad to once again be moving on roadways instead of rivers and railways.
NOTES FOR THE TRAVELLER:
- Travel from Cali to Buenaventura (12 000pesos, 2.5 hours), tell the driver to let you off at the town of Cordoba. A little kid will come running up to you to direct you down the dirt road from the highway to the train tracks that run to San Cipriano. On the way out, a short minibus ride to Buenvaventura from Cordoba costs 1500 pesos. From the port city you can head back to the interior and continue north or south.
- Brujita one way from Cordoba to San Cipriano costs 3500 pesos if you can bargain like a Colombian. If not, the return trip costs 10 000 pesos for "estranjeros" (foreigners).
- The friendly Hotel David is at the very end of the single dirt road in the town (18 000 pesos, double bed). It is the best option. They also serve pretty good meals (order the fish) for dinner for about 6000 pesos. You can rent inner tubes here as well (3000 pesos, half day). The river ride is safe, just load up on sunscreen. Bring some drinks along in a bag and tie it to the tube.
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