It Never Rains But It Pours

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Sunday, November 26, 2006

It seems that DC3 has decided to throw a hissy fit! Perhaps because we've come the last 12,000 km in four months without a single visit to a workshop except for regular maintenance, she feels she's not getting enough attention. Well, hopefully she's had enough tender loving care in the last ten days to last for quite a while. After getting the water pump bearing replaced with very little hassle, and eventually a nice new set of rear shock absorbers fitted in Bogotá, we thought we were all set to go. But no, little Missy DC3 had other plans. After another three days of TLC from the VW specialist mechanics at the 'MultiWagen' workshop, a new transmission seal was installed to cure the ATF leak and the motor given a thorough check-over and tune up.

After one final evening with Santiago and Camila sharing a Swiss fondue, a good bottle of wine and more travel yarns, we were eager to get back on the road. The next morning we headed out of Bogotá down the precipitous western slopes of the Cordillera Oriental and then south along the Rio Magdalena valley. Our plan was to visit the intriguing pre-Colombian statues around the remote southern town of San Augustín, with a side trip to check out the unique ecology of the Tatacoa Desert. Of course, we didn't reckon on DC3 having other plans! Only 200 km after being declared fit and healthy, she suddenly didn't sound very well at all. Running on three cylinders, with her motor wheezing and coughing, and a very significant loss of power, she decided that she was in urgent need of a few more caresses from a friendly mechanic. We rapidly came to the conclusion that heading further south was not a sensible option, but the question was whether we could make it back up the 6,000 ft climb to Bogotá. We decided to err on the side of caution and head back to the nearest city en route to the Zona de Cafetera - only about 100 km and a climb of 1,000 ft - and trust our luck in finding another decent workshop.

Ibagué is a rather nondescript commercial centre, and not somewhere that we would ordinarily have bothered stopping in to explore. However, by noon the next day we were on fairly intimate terms with the seedier side of the city where most of the garages and workshops seemed to be located. Our luck held, and after the obligatory two-hour lunchtime siesta all three of us were ensconced in the mechanical facilities of Ingeniero Bernardo Bucheli, the local VW guru. The problem this time proved somewhat elusive, but a systematic examination of the ignition and fuel systems finally tracked it down to a defunct fuel injector on the #1 cylinder (you know, the one that's quietly hiding away underneath the air filter). We may be overly suspicious, but it did strike us as somewhat of a coincidence that the fuel injectors had been thoroughly checked and cleaned only two days ago. Not unexpectedly, the necessary spare part was not readily available, but with a little bit of ingenuity a similarly rated injector was modified to fit our needs. We also managed to get a small crack in the exhaust fixed and fitted the second fuel filter that supposedly had been replaced in Bogotá. Once again we were ready to roll, keeping our fingers crossed that this was the last in this particular string of mechanical problems.

Having now lost over a week whiling away our time in various workshops - and keenly aware that we have a shipping appointment to keep in Cartagena later in December - we reluctantly decided to shelve our plans for the trip to the south, and instead head further west to Colombia's famed Coffee Zone. This time we faced a very steep ascent up and over the 10,000 ft La Linea pass of the Cordillera Central and down into the Cauca Valley. Although less than 100 km, the trip took almost four hours as we took our place in line behind the grinding transport trucks and played cat and mouse with everyone else trying to take advantage of the few passing opportunities on the steep and winding road. The stunning mountain views that we had been promised unfortunately failed to materialize due to heavy cloud cover - it is, after all, still the middle of the rainy season. The final descent of some 5,000 ft in less than 20 km to Armenia filled the air with the pungent odour of everybody's severely overheated brake pads - including ours, even though we had come down rather cautiously in first gear. And what were those ominous grinding noises? Surely it couldn't be us - we just had a complete and rather expensive brake job done in Venezuela, only 2,000 km ago - or could it?!

We think even DC3 was a little miffed at having yet another trip to the garage - this time to 'Frenos Colombiano' - to investigate the cause of the noises and the splattering of brake fluid on the front tyre. We were not too pleased to discover that our front disc pads were totally finished - worn right down to the rivets - and one of the caliper cylinders was sticking badly. So much for last month's brake job in Guanare! We are more confident that the three hour job by Roberto will stand us in good stead for a while longer this time.

After all the trials and tribulations of the past couple of weeks, you might expect that we would be feeling a little disheartened. On the contrary, we have again been quite bowled over by the beauty and hospitality of this part of Colombia. We spent three days camping and thoroughly enjoying the tranquil environment at 'Hotel Bambusa', about 20 km south of Armenia. This meticulously restored hacienda is the latest project for Santiago and his father Diego, and we found it really difficult to drag ourselves away, especially from the culinary treats conjured up by Zoraida. The property is a paradise of exotic plants and flowers and home to a wide variety of birds and butterflies. The surrounding estate is a large-scale banana plantation and cattle grazing enterprise, on very fertile lands. We bounced down the muddy tracks with Diego on his four-wheeler, as he answered our barrage of questions on the intricacies of banana production - not a crop that we are too familiar with, except sliced up on our breakfast cereal.

Yesterday we travelled a short distance across this verdant valley for a day's visit to the Parque Nacional de Café. This is Colombia's version of a Disney-style theme park, and is stunningly located on a ridge in the valley with panoramic views across to the mountains - once again, disappointingly cloaked in thick cloud. Most of the 52 ha site is tastefully dedicated to telling the story of Colombian coffee (the most important export after the other more infamous 'c' crop), but of course there are the not unexpected amusement park concessions in the interests of keeping the younger set entertained. The coffee plantations are well laid out, with information on different varieties, agronomic management techniques, harvesting, processing and marketing. Displays set in architect-designed buildings have information on everything that you ever wanted to know about coffee - but were afraid to ask. The surrounding gardens are painstakingly maintained, and highlight the many tropical plants that share the same habitat as the coffee. We were particularly impressed with the extensive groves of the giant Guadua bamboo, which are common in this area and provide such an amazingly versatile construction material. A twice daily show extolling the virtues of the hard-working coffee growers in an energetic extravaganza of dance and colourful costumes is well worth a visit, but we'd recommend you skip the singing orchids show. What you mustn't miss is some time out for a visit with Juan Valdez, and a real treat of a cup of this amazingly aromatic beverage!
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