Thursday, 17 July 2014

Zipa / Suesca - rock climbing with a pinch of salt

The plans for the next 2 days take us out of Bogota, so we pack a few essentials into our day packs and lock the big bags away at Cranky Croc, who don't seem to mind as we book in to stay there again when we get back.

Another lengthy Trans Mileno journey takes us back to Portal de Norte, the main regular bus station, and we join the mammoth queue for Zipaquirá (Zipa). The little buses go quite regularly but with only 30 seats on each this could take a while. However we soon learn that the first people in the queue pile on for the seats, then the bus crawls down the line looking for people who don't mind standing up for the journey - we're not fussy, so we manage to queue jump massively.

The reason some people would rather wait for another bus soon becomes clear - the journey would be fine if seated but standing up its a bit of an ordeal, as we're thrown around a variety of twists and turns. By the time we arrive in Zipa, enough people have got off en route that we have seats, and soon we're the last ones on the bus. The drivers helper waves us in the vague direction of the town centre, and off we go.

Zipa is a pretty little town, and worthy of more of a mention than it gets in our Lonely Planet. It's not that there's a lot to see or do there, it's just a nice little town with a few quaint shops and cafés that hasn't been touristified yet. Lunch is some fruit from the local fruit market and some "broasted" chicken, although we forego the fried potato chunks that apparently turn this into a full meal.

We walk up the hill to Zipa's main attraction, a salt cathedral built into an old salt mine up to 180m underground in places... stopping for a childish giggle on the way up:

There's a variety of tickets options to choose from (all with written explanations in English and Spanish), and after some discussion in the lengthy queue, we go for the cathedral + miners tour + brine museum (what?!).

Being there on a weekend (not something we think of at the moment) meant that it was jam packed with "local" tourists, so the first half hour was a bit of a farce of queuing up behind people taking photos on everyone's phones, then photos with a smile, then no smile, then zoolander poses, then selfies... move it along people! But once we'd worked our way past the crowd and got deeper through the tunnels into the cathedral, it really was spectacular.

If you want to read more about it, check here:, but we'll just go with the pictures...

The miners tour was good but would have been better if we understood what the very informative and apparently hilarious guide was saying. Despite the ticket information being in English,there was none to be heard in the church! CP got to dig for some salt and somehow managed to find popcorn to eat, 180m underground!

We're running out of time for the brine museum (for shame), and with extra travel needed to make it to Suesca (our bed for the night), I poke my head in to see if it's worth it. It's entirely in Spanish, so we decide it isn't, and CP forces our museum passes on some bewildered (but grateful, we think?) old ladies as we leave.

Back at the bus station in Zipa and we're directed to a bus which will take us towards Suesca... actually halfway towards Bogota, but that's the only way to get there, then wait at the side of a big roundabout peering out into the road to see when the Suesca bus is coming through. It sounds like it would be a bit sketchy, darkness falling, us standing at the side of the road waving at traffic at it swerves past, but we're pro's at this now, so it's no surprise to me that when the bus does appear, it's standing room only and barely that. It's farcical enough that a little old lady sat nearby offers to take my backpack, so that I can concentrate on staying upright rather than worrying about turtling myself into randoms. Gracias!

CP has been in comms with Hugos rock climbing tours for the past few days, actually in comms with Jennifer as the Hugo is "out of town". Not such a drama, although he is a bit of a hero in the LP, with 15 years experience as a climbing instructor, he's apparently the best there is. Anyway, Jennifer picks up us from the plaza in Suesca, a very small town which barely extends beyond said plaza. She has a friend to drive us back to her house where we will spend the night before making an early start at the rock climbing adventure.

Dinner is not included in the deal so having visited a very local store that is definitely not used to tourists coming in looking for the ingredients of a fine dining experience, we manage to fashion a makeshift dinner from sardines, spaghetti, onion, garlic, and couple of other bits that are in the kitchen - not a bad effort at a traditional putanesca.

We're also introduced to the other residents of the house - Chico, a dog that is larger than me, and Gagato, a feline diva named after Lady Gaga and the Spanish for cat (gato).

We're joined by Gagato for the night, CP generously giving up part of her side of the bed for our new friend, and Chico tried to get in on the act at 1am but he's ejected as soon as he climbs on the bed, mostly because he takes up the entire bed.

The following morning we wake up to see that it's raining, which Jennifer tells us is not good for climbing... but we're going anyway. First she has to sort out the kit, starting with the shoes, which is a problem as the biggest size they have is a 7 or something. How is that possible, in 15 years of running climbing tours no one has required a normal size shoe?? I'm concerned...

A taxi is called and we're on our way, stopping off at the climbing store to hire some sensibly sized footwear for about $3. We arrive at the rocks that we will be climbing and both CP and I are trying not to show that we aren't entirely comfortable with this, although the walk to "our" rock felt like a death march...

Jennifer rigs up, and is about to start free climbing this vertical face when she lashes a quick double-8 knot (a what?), and hands me the ropes to assist with the belaying. My previous experience is limited to dicking around on the climbing wall during the Everest Challenge a few years ago, so I have to tell Jennifer that I don't think I'm the man for the job...

It's ok though, we move on to a less ridiculous looking section of cliff face, and this time Jennifer talks CP through the belaying process before spiderman-ing her way up this wall leaving a safety rope pegged in which we will rely on later.

With Jennifer out of earshot a conversation ensues between CP and I:

CP: Are you alright?
RD: What?? Are YOU alright? Do you have any idea what you're supposed to be doing witht that rope?
CP: Yeah... I'm holding it while she climbs.
RD: *blank*

OK, so at this point my concern is that maybe Hugo is on holiday, Jennifer is his assistant, and not wanting to turn business away has agreed to take us out climbing, but maybe isn't supposed to be doing so, and is out of her depth with a couple of climbing noobs. Her English is only marginally better than our Spanish, and I really only know how to argue about stuff or take the piss out of people. How is she going to explain wtf we are supposed to do when we're 30 metres up a rock face clinging on with a couple of fingers and a pair of ropey leather slippers?

Meanwhile having finished the setup climb, Jennifer rappels down the wall with CP largely doing nothing but saying "si" with a token "yeah I'm holding the rope...".

By now I'm convinced that something dodgy is going on, all the signs were there, the English speaking Hugo is "away" replaced by a not very English speaking Jennifer, we can stay at the house but there's not really any food, there's a car at the house but we're getting taxis... we should have bailed on this a long time ago.

CP will climb first, this is her stupid idea, she's the pro having done it last year in the blue mountains with her dad, so clearly she will lead the way.

Having successfully made it to the top of our section (and then trying to go further, bad CP!), it's my turn. FS - we're actually doing this then?

Success, first climb conquered! I'm still not convinced by the whole thing, but we're doing it! Climb number 2 will be using the same safety ropes but taking a harder route, and despite some slips and a lot of poor technique from me, we both make it. At this point I'm glad to have lost about 5kg since we started travelling as there is less of me to haul up a cliff face.

So 2 climbs down, and we're actually happy with the whole thing - it's not as slick as we'd expected, but Jennifer is more than competent enough for us, and we're having a good time. If at this point she told us that was it, time to go home, I'd feel like we'd had a good experience. CP of course, wanted more.

Climb number 3 awaits, same ropes, but another increase in difficulty. CP is strapped up and ready to go, when it starts raining again, so we unclip and shelter under the rocks for a while. It's at this point that one of us (probably CP) says "soooo... where's Hugo, is he on holiday?"

"Actually... Hugo is dead... yes"

What?! Holy shitballs!

I'm picturing Hugo falling while freeclimbing some epic section of this mammoth rock, but Jennifer goes on to explain in patchy Spanglish that he passed away about a month ago, in his sleep from an unknown heart condition, aged just 36.

Bombshell. Bit by bit Jennifer tells us more, although CPs Spanglish understanding somehow misses the fact that Jennifer was of course Hugos girlfriend. There are other complicating factors such as an ex-wife and a child from many years ago, but essentially, Jennifer, having also been Hugos assistant is maintaining the business as best she can, and in emails to people will say that he is "away" as to tell the whole truth by email would be a little difficult. Aaaand suddenly everything makes a bit more sense. We talk about this development for about 20 minutes before someone notices that the rain has stopped and we can climb again.

In a way, I'm glad that before we knew the true story, I'd already decided that this was a decent activity, so I can be comfortable that I'm not just saying that out of sympathy like "isn't she doing well, less than a month after her partner (professional and personal) has passed". We suspect that part of the reason that Jennifer appears to be coping as well as she is, is because the climbing industry is like it's whole own community here, with everyone helping each other out. Lots of different business but with maybe different target markets (from novice through to expert), and a common sense of just wanting others to climb.

Climb 3 is the hardest yet, and CP does pretty amazingly to get halfway up, before running out of holds, which isn't a problem I face as I don't make it anywhere near that far. Let's park that one and move on!

That sense of everyone helping each other out is evident for our next climb - having exhausted the 3 possible routes on our section, we swap with the group climbing on the neighbouring area. This one has some sections that initially look impossible to us but somehow we both manage to pull ourselves over the trickiest bits and reach the top.

The final climb of the day is mental, almost impossible (for us) just to get started - after about 15 minutes CP has made it past the first section and disappears out of sight. She doesn't quite make it to the top but it's a very impressive effort, applauded by the group of much more experienced climbers that have paused to watch. They're still watching as I spend a solid 20 minutes sweating and swearing about a metre off the ground, trying to manoeuvre myself in ways that just aren't natural in order to get enough leverage to propel myself over the start of this bloody climb! Another slip... and I call time on this sorry effort. Poor technique by us rookies means that it's too much strain on the arms, while the better guys monkey their way up looking almost effortless in comparison.

But, with 5 climbs attempted, we're pretty pleased with our efforts, very happy with Jennifer as our guide and instructor, and very much in need of a decent meal and a partial viewing of another football match in a local eatery before we head back to Bogota...

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