Losing Our Bearings

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Sunday, November 12, 2006

It's been a long time since we've hit a really good campsite. We certainly scored a bullseye in San Gil at the 'Cajasan Guarigua' just west of town. It's an inexpensive family-oriented recreation centre in a very tranquil rural setting, with extremely clean facilities and friendly staff. Using it as our base for a few days, we explored the surrounding area and got our adrenalin rush on the white-water rafting trip. San Gil is a busy market town perched on the very steep slopes of the Rio Fonce valley, and is quickly developing as a thriving eco-adventure tourism centre. The Annual Equestrian and Agricultural Fair was an added attraction the weekend that we were in town. There was a real festive buzz in the air and it seemed that the whole town was out parading on their horses in their finest cowboy outfits. The fairgrounds were packed, and firework displays and parties in the plaza continued late into the night.

After five days we somewhat reluctantly packed up the van and headed back out onto the highway. Even though it was a Sunday there was considerable traffic on the steep, winding roads of the Cordillera Oriental, including heavy transport trucks grinding their way through the mountains bound for Bogotá. It made for some "interesting" driving as convoys of cars and pick-up trucks built up behind the eighteen-wheelers with everyone determined to pass once there was a blind curve that was not quite as severe as the last one. We witnessed some very "close calls" but luckily everyone managed to squeak through, sometimes with only inches to spare. All the rural towns that we passed through seemed to be having fiestas and were full of day- trippers out from the city to enjoy the cleaner air and quieter pace. Finally we were able to turn off the main drag at Arabuco, leaving the traffic behind as we took the dirt road up into the wooded hills of the Iguaque National Park. We were soon up into the clouds at an altitude close to 9,000 ft, making our way on muddy roads through isolated forest in the pouring rain.

We dropped almost 2,500 ft down through a lush, green valley to Villa de Leyva, a colonial town stuck in an 17th century time warp. Most of the buildings are whitewashed and have dark green trim, topped with timeworn clay tile roofs, set in a grid of cobblestoned streets arranged around the large, wide-open plaza. There are a plethora of restaurants and artesania stores as the town is only about 150 km from Bogotá and is inundated at weekends and holidays with visitors from the capital city. Unfortunately this has resulted in it becoming a very "cutsie tourist mecca" at these times, and as we were arriving during a long weekend we found it very congested and not too inviting. However, once we had settled ourselves into a grassy campsite very conveniently located near the centre of town, we were able to relax and wait for the hordes of visitors to head back to Bogotá. For the next few days we wandered the streets in peace and quiet, and hiked the surrounding hills with wonderful panoramic views across the valley. In a remote area we stumbled across an army training exercise, with soldiers bathing and washing their clothes in an open pool - they paused only long enough to call out friendly greetings and wave us on our way. Another time we discovered the Hotel Duruelo, in a very attractive setting overlooking the town. We were invited to explore the lovingly tended grounds and gardens and shelter from the sun in shady courtyards and colonnaded walkways, and were tempted to stay for a couple of days as an extra-special treat. Maybe next time!

The area surrounding Villa de Leyva is full of interesting places to visit - archeological sites, prehistoric fossil remains, and even rather incongruously an ostrich farm. We particularly enjoyed a mid-day visit to the nearby village of Ráquira. This is a really funky and colourful spot, noted for its good quality ceramics and pottery, but even more so for its eclectic displays of ponchos, baskets, wind chimes and hammocks in artesania stores around the plaza. After we'd sated our appetites for 'shutter-bugging' we sat at a nearby food stall enjoying our egg & veggie empanadas, and chatting with the school kids on their way home for lunch.

One thing we really have not enjoyed on this trip is hearing unfamiliar noises emanating from somewhere on DC3. Nasty noises of unknown mechanical origin! Usually we have managed to track them down, determine what the problem is and get it fixed. Early on in the trip we were plagued with broken muffler brackets which made 'orrible noises as the engine vibrated. Later on we had trouble with our shocks being beaten to death, especially when they came adrift from their rubber bushes on some of the horrendously rough back roads of Peru and Chile. For the last little while we've occasionally been hearing a nasty rattle from the rear end of the van, but had been unable to pin it down to anything specific. Nothing seemed to be obviously loose, yet it didn't sound like the ominous deep-seated knock of a major engine problem. When we were camped at San Gil we decided to get to the bottom of it and spent some time crawling under the van, looking for anything that might be causing the noise. We adapted a long screwdriver as a stethoscope and listened to various places as the engine was running. Finally, we nailed it down - a nasty grinding noise from inside the water pump. Apparently the failure of this bearing is not uncommon in the Vanagon wasserboxer motor, and is usually easily rectified by replacing the complete pump unit - that is, if you're close to a good mechanic back in Canada. Here in the mountains of Colombia it's a different matter all together. We're hoping that the bearing will hold out until we reach Bogotá, and then we'll be looking for a good workshop there and starting a search for a replacement pump. If we can't locate one locally (rather unlikely, as the Vanagon was never officially imported into South America) we'll be in touch with our Vanagon Guru in Almonte, Frank Condelli, to see if he can come to our rescue once again. Probably a good time to buy shares in DHL!

ps. We've added some video footage of the white water rafting escapade to our last TravelPod entry - join us for a few adrenalin packed seconds!! (best viewed with Quick Time Player)
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