I’m not some fanatical fan of Miyazaki movies but, as was the case with El Hobo earlier in the trip, when I saw the name Totoro on the map I felt it was my duty to visit. So, after a couple of hours of bumpy roads I rolled into what turned out to be (surprise surprise) a very typical Colombian village. Not a catbus, nor even any catbus graffiti in sight. After some salchipapa and a surprisingly decent piece of fried chicken I went on my way.
An hour later I was in Popayan where my friend Tam resides. We were roommates during our SENA orientation in Bogota exactly this time last year and I marked this anniversary by spending a few days at his hacienda on the edge of town.
Meet the 3 least threatening dogs in Popayan
Having entered through the giant Jurassic Park style entrance I was greeted to a beautiful old colonial building, all high ceilings, pink walls and arching verandas – a curious slice of times gone by situated only 2km from the Popayan city centre. The owner, Maria Teresa, warmly welcomed me in and told me some of the history behind the house which dates back over 400 years and, along with surviving the 1983 earthquake, has hosted Colombian and Spanish gentry alike.
Tam turned up shortly and after a little catch-up he gave me a bike tour of the city. Popayan is, for obvious reasons, known as the white city and is renowned for having birthed 17 Colombian presidents. I instantly took a liking to its colonial charms and a climate that veers between tropical and temperate depending on its mood. After soaking in the panoramic views (and a beer) on el morro and eating the best tamale of my short tamale-eating life, I accompanied Tam to his class at the university where I gave his students a half-arsed explanation of my trip. We went for Friday night beers with his students and Tam’s Aussie guests, who were renting one of the rooms at the hacienda, culminating in the attempted cultural exchange of psytrance and salsa. They didn’t get very far.
The next few days were a blissful respite from life on the road: early morning jogs to pick up breakfast and workout at the parque de salud, helping out around the hacienda chopping down weeds, exploring the seemingly endless grounds that stretch up into the hills past rivers and an army base, showering in the ancient outdoor chorro and drinking, smoking, watching documentaries and lazing around in the hammock.
Maria Teresa also has a finca (a little farm/estate) about 20km north of the city and, Tam, being somewhat of a renaissance man (and dressing like one too) on top of his university job and running 2 businesses has bought a few dairy cows and set about rejuvenating the farm, selling milk and cheese to local shops. On Sunday afternoon we rode down there on our bikes, stopping by a local lake for a swim in the rain en route. The finca itself is a pretty little 70s-styled cottage looking down on a valley where acres of raw farmland reach down to the river. We went for an explore and rounded up the cows before sundown. One of the cows seemed a bit edgy and when walking her back she sprang loose from the grip of the farmhand, charging towards us in the dark. At the last moment she changed direction, bounding off into the shrubbery and sparing me the ignominy of being trampled to death by a cow 3 weeks into the trip.
After milking a cow for the first time in my life (like tugging off a putrid sock full of pus) we set off home armed with only my red backlight to guide us down the pitch black country paths. What followed was undoubtedly the weirdest half an hour of cycling I’ve ever had: moving at about 3mph to avoid crashing into rocks, the red light clasped between my teeth rendering my immediate surroundings like a 70s Italian horror film, Tam floating in the distance like a ghostly Indiana Jones. We arrived home at about 10pm utterly exhausted and passed out shortly after. (Note: will add photos of the finca later)
And so, after 5 great days in Popayan I said my goodbyes to my excellent hosts Tam and Maria Teresa and headed yonder towards San Agustin, with only a mountain range in my way. Cheers guys!
By this point I was a goddamn well-oiled cycling beast machine, so the road up to Coconuco, while tricky, wasn’t the absolute death of the soul it would’ve been 3 weeks ago.
It was here in Cocunuco that I met The Most Hated Dog In Cauca. I emerged from my lunch-hole and, unprompted, this dog came over to me. I like dogs and this was a nice dog so I didn’t really think anything of it. I don’t believe I petted it or showed it any special attention, I simply got on my bike and tried to ride off.
Only I couldn’t.
The dog kept standing directly in front my my wheel and then barking and nipping at my ankles if I tried to pedal. I thought it was funny at first but it got old. Fast. I pushed my bike towards the edge of town, thinking the dog would soon get bored and wander off.
Only it didn’t.
Have you ever shown a glimpse of kindness to a crazy/weird person at a party only to be rewarded by them clinging to you like a deranged limpet for the rest of the night? It was like that except the only kindness I’d offered this dog was not shouting or throwing rocks at it. It also soon became clear that, on top of my own simmering hatred, every single other dog in town positively despised my new sidekick. They’d come running from miles around to bark, growl and chase it, meanwhile he’d saunter away undaunted, brandishing his gormless doggy smile (apparently he reserved all his barking for me). I’d unwillingly befriended the town pariah.
Me and The Most Hated Dog In Cauca reached the edge of town and despite the best efforts of some school kids (humans hate him too!) he was still clinging on. I tried to wait him out but 10 minutes later there he was grinning up at me. At this point I got properly annoyed and started shouting at him and spraying water. The shouting did nothing but the water bought me enough time to get pedalling. And so the two of us headed off up into the mountains together.
After 20km of relentless climbs there was a long descent. “Now’s my chance!” I thought, and set off at breakneck speed down the hill. The Most Hated Dog in Cauca went into full Usain Bolt mode trying to keep up but soon he faded to but a dot in the distance. At last I was free.
But then the road flattened out and turned into a climb.
And the dot got bigger.
Next thing I know, he’s back at my side. Bastard.
At this point I just gave up and resigned to the fact that we were attached for life. We’d venture together through field and farm and, like Dogmeat in Fallout, he’d be my loyal companion throughout my trip. I even gave him some food.
Eventually we arrived at Paletara, a cluster of houses and shops, where I was due to meet up with Diomar Castro, a former colleague of Maria Teresa, who was stationed as a park ranger here. Coincidentally I bumped into him right away and he led the way to his ranger hut. On the way, The Most Hated Dog, unsurprisingly, drew the ire of the entire dog population of Paletara (in the 3 hours prior I’d wager we’d been chased by about 50 dogs, no exaggeration) and got into a particularly vicious scrap with a big nasty one, of which he came out the worse for wear. As much as he’d pissed me off I felt fiercely protective of him at this point and chased the other dog away. He followed me up to the hut, nursing a limp. Poor little guy.
Diomar instantly set about cooking us up a nice dinner, all the while refering to me as “joven gringo” (young gringo). Rather than asking me to camp outside and weather the 3000m cold, he said I could have a room for the night and to make myself at home, even giving me a traditional poncho to keep me warm. Over dinner we chatted about learning English, Brexit, and my new dog companion, who cut a sorry figure sitting outside in the cold. Being a healthy specimen we deduced that he must have an owner waiting for him back in Coconuco and decided the best course of action would be to send him on a truck heading back that way. And so, having found a local driver and using myself as bait, we got him aboard and, after giving me a farewell nibble on the leg, I waved goodbye to The Most Hated Dog In Cauca.
I wonder who he’s annoying the piss out of now.
Next Stop: San Agustin, Mocoa and The Trampoline of Death
Tunes: Lots of podcasts
Reads: George Macdonald Fraser – Flashman and the Tiger
Route: Silvia – Totoro – Popayan – Coconuco – Paletara