Colombia Diary — Thursday

Before my trip to Colombia, when I was back home looking at a guidebook and pondering where to go, I hatched a partially formed plan to visit the Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy. However, apparently you need to apply for permission; and it requires a bunch of hiking; and once I had spent a day driving around in Colombia it was clear that Cocuy would be a five or six hour drive. So I looked around for something closer and decided to visit the Parque Nacional Natural Sumapaz, which is about a two-hour drive south of Bogotá. The day started out overcast. Here’s the view of Monserrate from my hotel window:

My hotel window faced east toward Monserrate and the church at the top.

I drove through Bogotá on Avenue NQS, which I had finally googled the night before. It stands for Norte-Quito-Sur because “The avenue is formed from the union of three old avenues, Avenida Ciudad de Quito, Avenida Novena, and Autopista Sur.” Here’s a gigantic flying roundabout for the TransMilenio where NQS crosses Calle 6.

An overhead roundabout reserved for TransMilenio buses.

A couple of decades ago Bogotá gave up on the idea of ever constructing a subway and instead ripped up the center lanes of several wide avenues to build the TransMilenio network, an extensive set of reserved bus lanes with subway-like stations. I never had a chance to ride it since I spent all my time outside the city, but apparently it’s been a huge success. It was a huge pain for me, for reasons I’ll elaborate on later, but if you know what you’re doing it probably doesn’t bother drivers too much—though it obviously wiped out quite a few lanes formerly dedicated to auto traffic. More on that later too.

I turned south on Avenida Boyacá and passed through Ciudad Bolívar, one of Bogotá’s famous mega-slums.

Ciudad Bolívar, definitely not a place you want to wander around at night.

Apparently the city has taken to painting its slums. On Google Maps this apartment block is all just plain brick, but when I passed through the apartments were all painted in various bright colors. Does that help anything? I don’t know, but I suppose it doesn’t hurt.

I exited south at Usme, drove through Usme Centro—where I found a cat—and then continued toward Sumapaz, another 45 minutes away. The road is very nice and smooth until you hit the sign telling you that you are entering the park. At that point the pavement disappears and turns into a seriously potholed gravel road. You need to pay attention to your driving here, but it’s not something you need a four-while drive for. Just drive slowly and swerve around the potholes.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This was my experience on a day when there had been only a little bit of recent rain. If you visit during the wet season, you should probably be pretty careful about visiting Sumapaz in anything less than a big Jeep.

The upside of all this is that, at least when I was there, the place is completely empty and you just drive in. There’s no fee and no appointment needed or anything like that. You just drive along the road and pull over whenever you want to see something. Sumapaz is alleged to be (a) one of the largest moorlands in the world and also (b) within the moors, one of the largest system of paramos in the world. According to my dictionary, a paramo is a “high treeless plateau in tropical South America.” That doesn’t sound especially moorish to me, so maybe I’m a little confused about this.

Sumapaz is not a Yosemite kind of park with breathtaking vistas. Rather, it’s a park that rewards a slow look and careful study. It is grandeur on a micro scale. About a mile in, for example, small lagoons form alongside the road. These lagoons are about 10 feet by 30 feet and if you step out to look closely at them they will take your breath away. They look like a master Japanese gardener spent years crafting an exquisite tiny world.

I’m almost reluctant to post a picture because it simply doesn’t do justice to these natural wonders. And I’m saving the best one for later. However, this should give you at least a sense of what I’m talking about.

A tiny lagoon fed by a tiny waterfall in Sumapaz Natural Park. This entire thing is about 20 feet on a side.

So if you go to Sumapaz will you be able to see this? Probably not. It was a product of the day and the recent weather—a bit of rain but no deluges—and a month from now it will look completely different. I found some of these locations on Google maps, for example, and the lagoons weren’t there. They were just dry patches of moss and cactus. If you go, you’ll most likely miss some of the beautiful things I saw, but you’ll make up for it by seeing beautiful things that I missed.

Earlier in the day the sun had come out, but by the time I got to Sumapaz the weather had turned overcast. It looked like this the entire time I was there:

A typical view of Sumapaz on an overcast day.

At this point I assume I’ve passed from the moors to the paramos. About half an hour into the park there’s a little store, and the road is dotted by houses and small farms. I continued for about an hour, but when it started to rain I took that as a sign to turn back. It’s just too hard to keep the camera lens dry when the rain is sheeting down at an angle blown by the wind. On the way back the rain eventually subsided and I saw this:

A small watercourse off the side of the road in Sumapaz.

On the way out I saw lots of cows, dogs, and one cat. I got back to Usme Centro around 5 pm and decided to stop since it was early and I had plenty of time. Usme Centro is a small, dusty little town, full of donkeys and small shops. It has half a dozen butcher shops, all of which sell roasts that are spectacularly large and delicious looking.

A couple of butcher shops in Usme Centro. Check out the size of those roasts.

There was also this at the south end of town just before I got back to my car:

A “traditional” Chinese restaurant in Esme Centro.

Now, I admit I’ve never been to China, but this sure doesn’t seem very authentically Chinese to me. I guess it’s one of those fusion dishes I hear so much about.

I left Usme Centro around 6 and thought I was in great shape timewise, but the gods always punish hubris and I was soon to suffer for my arrogance in thinking it was early and I had “plenty of time” to get back to my hotel. You see, it turns out that when you’re going northbound on Avenida Boyacá there’s no exit ramp to NQS. After a good 20 minutes of wandering around with the help of Google Maps I found the right set of surface streets to get back on track. Unfortunately, I was not paying enough attention to the road and overshot my offramp by about 80 calles. Once you’ve done this it’s not easy to turn around, but eventually I did and made my way back to Calle 19. Smooth sailing now, since I had driven this exact route the day before and knew precisely what to do.

Hah! What I needed to do was turn right on Carrera 5, but Thursday is apparently shopping night or something, and Septima Carrera is closed to auto traffic. There’s nothing special on Carrera 5, but it does connect eventually to a street that connects to Septima Carrera, so it was closed off too. My reaction is not suitable for a family blog, but I had no choice except to inch my way through the traffic to Carrera 4 and turn there instead—even though I knew I couldn’t get to my hotel parking structure from Carrera 4.

But I did anyway. The parking structure is a right turn off Carrera 4, but you have to go the wrong way on a one-way street to get there. So I did. It was only a hundred feet or so, so I checked for traffic and gunned my way to the driveway. All told, I had wasted a good two hours with this stuff, which is why I ended the night by getting takeout from McDonald’s—a double cuatro con queso but sin queso for me. Go ahead and mock me. But I just wanted something quick to eat back in my hotel room while I started packing for the flight home on Friday.

NEXT: Should you even bother trying to drive a car in Colombia? It depends. Then the trip home.

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