After our parents left us, things slowed down a bit and we began thinking more seriously about continuing our journey south. We still went on daytrips in the Land Rover with Santiago, but we spent more time at the garage sorting things out and online lining up the next step.
On one of the Land Rover journeys, we went out and found some old bridges made by some conquistadors. We managed to walk out in the river and climb up to the top of one of them.
The next big thing that we wanted to check off a list, other than crossing the border into Ecuador, was to climb the world’s highest active volcano, Cotopaxi, just south of Quito. It’s worth noting that not everyone considers it the highest active volcano. Many say it is Llullaillaco that holds that title, as it is much taller. It hasn’t erupted since 1877, however, while Cotopaxi has erupted over 50 times since 1738. So it’s really a matter of what one considers ‘active,’ and apparently there’s no consensus among the volcanologist community on that term, so I hold that Cotopaxi is, indeed, the highest active volcano on Earth. And whether or not that is true, it is a fact that it is the closest place on Earth to the Sun, so that’s cool.
As we contacted some of the companies that provide guides for the ascent up, we were told that we would have to pay for a five day journey that included three days of altitude acclimatization. This sounded foolish to us, as we thought we were at a high enough altitude near Pasto to feel OK at Cotopaxi’s 19,393ft peak. Additionally, it seemed strange for a company that gets paid whether the ascent is successful or not to care about our acclimatization so much. In my mind, at least, tell me the dangers and if I choose to go against your advice, just take my money and see how things go… right?
Anyways, we were told we were wrong, so we added another adventure to our Colombian experience by jumping on the newly fixed-up motorcycles and heading to Volcan Azufral, which is at about 13,353ft.
While this trip would accomplish the altitude goal set by the Ecuadorian climbing company, it was also a test for the KLR. Woodstock Harley Davidson helped us out a lot in getting gear together. A huge thing they did for me is put together all the parts to rebuild the top end of the KLR. They made the parts very affordable and the mechanic we had in Pasto was also very affordable, so I was able to completely rebuild the top end of the KLR for about $330. This was the first time I would ride it for an extended period of time, but I was hopeful.
We left later than we wanted to and realized that we’d be riding into the night to get to Azufral. As we rode into the night, the KLR felt good and I began to think that the days of KLR meltdowns were finally behind me.
Eventually we arrived at the Ecuadorian border and when approached by a man, the sort who takes it upon himself to aid those who are riding motorcycles across the border, asked us if we were going to Ecuador, we said ‘No.’ He looked confused as we turned around, and once we were far enough back into Colombia, it was our turn to look confused.
You see, there is a Lago Verde, which translates to ‘awesome, big green lake,’ inside Volcan Azufral. There are also Lagunas Verdes just a little ways across the border into Ecuador. We’d been heading to the wrong ones on the GPS and hadn’t really noticed until we’d arrived at immigration.
So we turned around and found a road that seemed to be taking us to the right place.
A little over an hour later, we found ourselves riding through a small town. I was looking everywhere for a sign that would point us towards Azufral. Turns out we’d missed the turn we needed earlier. If we’d just been paying attention it would be about 9:30 instead of 11:00pm.
I noticed a sign pointing the opposite direction we were going claiming that Azufral was just around the corner and to the left. I stopped and honked and Aaron circled back to where I was and we followed the directions. They led us to a small, dirt road blocked off by a police vehicle with four police inside.
Aaron rode up and had a talk with them. Essentially, they couldn’t understand why we wanted to get to Azufral in the night and told us it was much too dangerous to go there at that time. They told us to go into town and find a hotel, or, if we really insisted on camping, to go back around the corner and find an area of grass to settle on.
We thanked them for their advice and, upon leaving, promptly ignored it as we continued to search for the entrance to the park.
(At this point, Aaron decided to write some of the story, so read in his voice)
We had no intentions of spending the night in a hotel when we were so close on sleeping atop a majestic beauty of a volcano.
My GPS had the mount in its points of interest and the road that it was directing me to did not exist; in fact it was a carwash.
So I shot an azimuth and followed it until I saw a left turn that went straight up. We meandered through the eerily tranquil town while I tried to get us back on the pink line that shot through the monitor mounted to my handlebars. The climb became steeper as we came to the end of town. Our lights reflected of a big brown sign that read “Azulfral 15km.” We began the ascent up a dirt road that lead us up to 14000 feet and the registration office for the park that houses the Volcano.
We pulled in and began to set up camp on the edge of the parking area. Even with riding slow, getting turned around, and my little conversation with the police, we were ready for bed in well under 2 hours. It had just stopped raining and we were able to get some decent rest.
I woke to the sun cresting over a mountain and looked down at the clouds, a nice way to start the day. Nathan awoke and we began to break down camp. A few minutes in I heard the sound of a small motor bike approaching. It got closer and turned into our campsite, the parking area. He took off his helmet and we all exchanged ‘buenos dias’ and that was that.
The registration office itself was high enough to sleep at for acclimatization, but we don’t like to settle. It was our plan to sleep not far, and also not too close, to the green lake. Waking up in such a place would be grand: we would be higher up and not too close. because the fumes off the lake are not so good for you.
We had camp packed up and there was one thing left to do. When camping, I like to travel with toilet paper and baby wipes. We had neither. Not being familiar with the local flora I did not want to take any chances.
(Aaron’s writing ends here. Continue reading in Nathan’s voice)
So Aaron walked into the ranger’s cabin and asked for toilet paper. This then became a mini conversation that revealed our intentions of camping near the green lake. The ranger said that it is prohibited to do that, because of the toxic fumes.
Aaron now cursed himself for his toilet oriented forethought and wished he’d just resolved to use leaves. If we’d just left and gone camping, the likelihood that anyone would have told us we were doing anything wrong seemed very low, but now that we’d expressly been forbidden to do this, our hands were tied.
So we sadly trudged off up the 5km hike to Lago Verde with backpacks made intentionally heavier than they needed to be for the sake of training.
When we finally made the last turn and the green lake came into view, I sat down and took in the view. Aaron protested, because there was a group of about ten people we could see slowly gaining on us back along the trail a ways and he claimed that they were going to ruin all of our pictures.
We stayed at the lookout pavilion long enough for them to catch up, though, and they turned out to be good people.
In order to get to Lago Verde, you have to go down into the crater of Volcan Azufral. The way down is a bit sketchy. If it hadn’t been muddy, it would have just been long and steep. As it had rained recently, however, it was muddy, which meant that it was slippery and that your foot would occasionally get sucked into a deep spot and that the wooden barriers meant as steps to aid in the ascent and descent became dangerous obstacle to avoid in the case of a fall.
Once overcoming this obstacle, only a bit muddier than when we began, we were rewarded with some stunning views of a bubbling green lake. The sulfur emitted by the volcano turns the water green and warps much of the surrounding land to look white and even yellow.
The sulfur also makes the entire area smell pretty rank. The smell is kind of like, if you could imagine, fireworks made primarily with rotten eggs.
Most of the lake was quite cold, though.
After exploring the area, we got the stove out and cooked a nice lunch of spinach ravioli with veggies and tomato sauce. We didn’t have a can opener for the veggies, so unintended extra ingredients were bits of rock and sand from bashing the can against stones we found.
We made some new friends as we were sitting around the lake and were just settling down for a nap when it started to rain. At first it was light, but it quickly got heavy.
We grabbed our bags and started the climb out of the crater. It was much muddier now, so the ascent was a much larger physical feat than the descent. Additionally, the rain sort of dropped our morale and it was a bit cold, so things got miserable.
On the upside, halfway up I became too wet to care about getting any wetter. On the upsetting side, not long after that point, it stopped raining.
We reached the top of the crater and headed back along the 5km walk. There were several places next to the trail that had clearly been used for camping recently, which bothered us a little. Also, there were several tracks in the mud that made us feel unhappy about not being able to ride the bikes to the lake, but mostly, we just felt tired.
We finally arrived back at the cabin and we felt exhausted. We sat down on the porch and, with nothing too pressing to do, we just sat there.
It wasn’t long before all of our new friends were with us at the cabin. As they put everything in their car, they discovered that someone had left a light on and that the car was now dead.
We were then enlisted to push the car back and forth in a downward-sloping, gravel and mud parking lot. I think it’s safe to say Aaron and I were providing the majority of the propulsion in this scenario and that most of this force was going to waste.
They tried several times to get a push start in reverse. Aaron and I had other ideas for how to get the car going, but the whole language barrier thing made it a little too difficult, so we just kept pushing.
By the time we got it out, we were beyond spent. They thanked us and left and we sluggishly went about setting up the tent, because we could see it was going to rain again soon.
About an hour later, the tent was up and we were moving the bikes over to the area in the grass near the parking lot that we’d chosen for the night. When I started the KLR, clouds of white smoke came pouring out of several areas. We thought this problem was solved. In fact, over $300 had just gone into making this problem go away. But, apparently, nothing had changed.
So that made us feel bad.
Aaron decided we should have some soup, so he started the stove up just outside the tent. The rain was only just starting and we were very thankful that we’d beaten the weather and could be safely inside.
Just then, the park ranger came over and told us that it was about to rain.
We told him that we were aware of this.
He told us that we should stay inside the cabin instead of out in the tent.
Now, you might think that we would feel grateful and relieved at this offer, and we did… some, but mostly, we felt annoyed.
This park ranger just watched us set up camp for over an hour and, as we are about to enjoy the fruits of our labor, he decided it was ok to invite us in.
Anyways, we accepted and thanked him, but this led to us breaking down camp in the rain and all of our things that would have been dry, like sleeping bags and whatnot, got wet.
That night, we miserably sat in the dark, electricity-less cabin alone and felt defeated and exhausted. At one point in the day, we felt fantastic and energized from seeing a green lake and hiking 14,000 foot mountains, but now we felt awful.
It was dark and there was nothing else I felt the day could offer, so I decided the fastest way to make the bad things end was to go to bed. I said goodnight to Aaron and went to sleep. It was 7pm.
The next morning we decided that we needed to add oil to the KLR, hoping that the ride to Azufral hadn’t already done any damage, but we’d left some of our tools back at Santiago’s house, thinking this was a short ride, so I couldn’t open the oil filler cap. Also, when Aaron left to go get oil, he did it about an hour before anything in town was actually open. So we waited for the ranger to return to the cabin. He made a quick trip to find a larger wrench and we were on our way back to Pasto not long after.
When we arrived in Pasto, we got lost for about an hour crisscrossing the city. Aaron got into the bad habit of knocking the mirrors on cars as he weaved through traffic. He hadn’t yet become completely aware of the added width the bags made. [Aaron claims he was totally aware, but that he just didn’t care]
This small offense really didn’t hurt him at all, but for me; the guy riding behind, I got some dirty looks.
At one point, Aaron decided to run a red light immediately after pushing the right mirror all the way back on a taxi cab. When I tried to follow him, the cab driver got out and stood in front of my bike and held my clutch down as he shouted at me.
This was a crowded intersection with a captive audience. I tried running him over at first, but remembered that he was holding the clutch down. He was motioning to his mirror, so, after about 20 seconds of his rant, I reached over and simply moved the mirror back into place and said, “OK?”
This, apparently, was OK and he returned to his vehicle looking unhappy.
I thought about making a big scene or saying that it wasn’t me that did this to his cab. Or that I didn’t even know that other guy… but we were wearing matching riding uniforms, so I thought that’d be a hard sell.
Aaron was long gone at this point, so I pulled into the nearby gas station and waited until he turned back.
We did eventually find our way again and we made it back to Santiago’s house. From there we began planning our last couple of days in Colombia. We realized that before we could make any real plans, though, we needed to drop the bikes off back at the garage.
When we went back to the shop, they assured us that nothing was wrong with the KLR, it was just altitude and that we didn’t need to add the new oil. Over the next thousand miles or so, I’d again start to question if that was entirely true, but we took their word for it. We had a couple things tuned up on the bikes and were riding them again within a day.
Now we wanted to head to Ecuador, but the opportunity arose to give them one more test in Colombia, where we had connections and resources. The coming week was Holy Week, which meant that the children had the whole week off. Santiago and his family had plans to go to their friend’s pool house a little over an hour north of Pasto, in Remolina. In Southern Colombia, if you don’t like the weather, you just need to ride about an hour away and you can find the climate you want.
Near this pool house, we were told, there were some dirt roads we could ride to test the bikes. So we postponed our departure from Colombia and rode motorcycles with Santiago and his friend to Remolina.
On the way, we stopped at a very important place: the site of my accident. Two and a half years ago, near where I crashed, a very nice family allowed Aaron to put the damaged KLR inside their house and they kept it until he returned for it. We knew we would be passing by their house, so we bought some gifts and stopped by to say ‘hello.’
They were happy to see I was moving around alright and we had a nice little reunion.
The rest of the ride to Remolina was mostly uneventful. Before I could get in the pool, Aaron insisted that we ride the bikes down some dirt roads, so we were off. The ride wasn’t too long, but it was a bit more technical than I’d anticipated. The zigzagging path necessary to traverse the steep decline and the sharp turns were sometimes a bit rough, but we made it down to the river and back up in good time.
We enjoyed the pool and were heading back to Pasto after about two hours.
The ride back was proving to be about as uneventful as the ride there, until Aaron crashed.
Around one of the sharper turns, as Aaron was leaning fully into it, he noticed a 4’ by 18’ trail of oil in the middle of the road. The bike was out from under him immediately and he was sliding around on the ground on his back in a way that, for some reason, reminded me of a turtle waving its legs in the air when it’s been upended.
When he finally stopped sliding, I think what eventually stopped him was the chin guard of his helmet striking the ground, he seemed mostly fine. A few bikers behind us stopped and told us that we need to watch out of those sorts of trails of oil. Walking back and looking at it, it was almost like a trick straight out of a cartoon; like a coyote or mustachioed villain came and put it there and we’d be able to find them watching us if we’d just look behind a nearby rock.
We had dinner with Louis, my surgeon/Santiago’s brother and his family. We went out for pizza and met with some more of our Colombian friends.
The next day, we packed the bikes and left for the border.