‘Corocora’, our red Suzuki GZ 150 motorbike that had taken us so reliably from the eastern plains of Colombia all the way to the Pacific and back, crossing three Andean ranges and various climate zones, navigating potholes the size of craters and off-piste dirt treks successfully, was now heading out of Yopal and into the mountains.
Climbing curve by curve into lush tropical foothills, here and there allowing a final glimpse of the endless plains behind us that meld with the horizon somewhere in the distance, we set out on our Sunday research trip. Our destination: A stone bridge up in the East Colombian highlands from where a route leads to the remote village of Labranzagrande and eventually back to Yopal, our hometown.
Since we have a cycling tour coming up, A. needs to make sure he knows the route inside out when guiding the tour next Sunday. And I am secretly a little jealous of his exhilarating bike ride from highlands to lowlands. But not too jealous. I’ll be guiding a wildlife safari by jeep in the East Colombian savannas in the meantime. It’s all adventure and in this very moment of my life with the cool Andean highlands just two hours from our doorstep and the hot open savannas just twenty minutes away, I can say that life is good. It’s far beyond anything I could have ever imagined life to look like.
It’s been quite a ride and a ride against all odds at times, but now I am slowly starting to see the light at the end of a long tunnel. We are reaping the fruits of hard work and of a lot of stubbornness, too. I could call it dedication, but cross your heart, let’s call it what is: pride, foolishness, stubbornness. In short, the perfect ingredients to start an enterprise.
And so here we are, riding a red motorbike that – I am going to be honest – looks fancier and more expensive that it actually was and that was our reward paid to ourselves for two first hard years of starting a business. A business that skeptics had called “foolish” (“you throw away a safe career, a prestigious job title, for turning into a tour guide in one of Colombia’s least visited regions in a city that has been hit hard by the economy (oil crisis)?”) and those who didn’t know better called “exciting”, “promising” and congratulated us. There are also a range of people, including clients, friends, journalist friends and family, whose support and positive attitude have been overwhelming, marvelous and just touching, and I cannot thank them enough.
There were some derails – hey, that’s life! – and some u-turns and some unexpected turns, too. All working in favor of us eventually, a few merry angels guiding us into the lush Eastern Andes this Sunday on ‘Corocora’, setting out to explore, discover and somewhat also to unwind from hours spent in front of the computer screen, making calculations, sending proposals and answering queries.
After a good two hours we reached the bridge: A stone construct over a vivid stream and nestled into barren green hills that for a brief moment recall a scene from the Scottish Isle of Skye.
Sun broke through dark grey clouds and dipped the hills into an over-saturated green, so green, that we had to squint.
The air was thin. We were on 3000 meters above sea level and soon a terrible headache would knock on my forehead, similar to a “brain freeze” or ice cream headache. It would stay there for about half an hour straight while passing through the most enthralling sceneries and I would try to ignore it. How can you pay attention to a nuisance like that, if you’ve got views like these?
There were so many details to take in: Poncho and hat wearing elderlies on benches before adobe houses, pigs sunbathing before farms, chickens roaming, horsemen on stunning steeds, hidden lagoons, views of rivers like silver lines cutting through shades of green, and birds hopping into puddles of water and back into the dense forest, a forest of ferns, lichens, gnarled trees and mossy grounds. The clouds were projecting their shadows onto the immense landscapes and alternately dimming and illuminating the scenes. We were stunned.
Albeit we would be organizing the bike tour for a well-known travel agency, this was hardly the tourist trail. Not only did no proper road lead to Labranzagrande and from there to Yopal, it was also a region that only just recovered from the consequences of Colombia’s long conflict. We reached Labranzagrande over a pretty bridge frequented by weather beaten horsemen and horsewomen with cowboy hats. The mix of grey clouds and bright sunshine projected a rainbow onto the grey sky, a colourful arch to complement the lush green that surrounded the antique mountain village with its white washed colonial houses and green painted window frames.
The town was in Sunday mood. Couples and families crossed the central park before the church, holding hands or having an ice-cream, there was a football match in the little pitch in one corner of the park, which half the village attended under loud cheering, and the beauty queens – every village in Colombia annually nominates a beauty queen – were riding on horses around the park, the village’s teenage boys casting them stealthy looks.
We stopped by a helmed young soldier no older than twenty and fully equipped with a machine gun, on which he rested his hands while talking to us, the gun’s metal tip pointing at me – never mind. Whether the area is safe we wanted to know.
If he was only seeing his chance to play brave and impress us or if it’s really true, I may never know. He tipped at his helmet and told us that those were necessary here. Bullets flew from the surrounding mountains, normally targeted at cattle to provide for the terrorists’ troops, which still hide in the mountains, their last refuge of a constantly shrinking territory as the Colombian government successfully navigates towards peace agreements with leftist rebel groups.
We thanked him for the information, that he delivered unable to hide a smirk and with a slightly swollen chest, proofs of his young pride of bravely serving his country. A simple lunch and an ice cream later we were on the road again, heading south into green hills, curve by curve, crossing streams and cliffs over bridges and through picturesque gaps and tunnels in the rocks.
As the sun set and the clouds started rolling down the hills, catering for the perfect atmosphere, we were almost back home in Yopal, or Yopalito, our little town in the Colombian lowlands at the base of the Eastern Andes, which I see different with every trip I take away from it and every time I return.