In the Mountains, Out of Luck
My reprieve from the Andes was short-lived. Leaving the sugar valley, getting to Popayan was half-flat, half-climb. Almost no descents. A dip every now and then to break up what would've been one obnoxiously long climb into several smaller, but still difficult ones. I dunno which would be worse. Descending every now and then only makes you have to climb more in total, but it also gives a much-needed break here and there.
Halfway to Popayan, I stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom. I asked an attendant if there were a lot of mountains ahead.
"One. A fierce one."
Well, no, unless he was trying to say it might as well be one long hill, and it's tough. More accurately, there were a ton of them, all about 5 km long.
Thanks to this handy thing called internet access, I had found a hostel in Popayan ahead of time. It's a good thing I did. I had heard that Popayan is a beautiful city, but most of Popayan looks like any other run-down Latin American city. Had I not left the main thoroughfare in search of the hostel, I never would've found the small, pretty central area in town.
The hostel was a nice place, and cost about $11 to stay. Free WiFi and use of desktop computers! There were a couple retired guys there from Texas, and we made friends quickly. Bill and his friend (whose name I've forgotten, sorry!) even treated me to dinner at their favorite cafe! I hadn't had pizza since the fire station in Lampasas, TX, well over a month. Good choice.
Turned out this hostel is part of a network of hostels in South America. Paired with Hostelling International, I might be able to find several places like this from here on out. And since WarmShowers has become unreliable (RESPOND, people!), this could turn into a useful resource.
I'd been warned, more than once, that the road between Popayan and Pasto is dangerous, as well as remote. I wasn't too worried though. Common sense goes a long way, and I never travel at night. I'd just be sure to stay somewhere safe every night, hotels only, no camping.
The road was also incredibly hilly and under frequent construction. Often closed down to one lane each way, and I don't think they're so good at managing the traffic in those areas. More than once, I had to wait 20-30 minutes for the traffic to get past a one-lane area that was only about 100 m long.
While I was stopped at one of those, two guys on a motorcycle next to me asked a lot of questions about my ride. They started asking some of the questions that make me uncomfortable or suspicious, like "Where do you stay at night? You're alone? How much does your bike cost?" That last one especially really bothers me. When you ask that question, I automatically assume you're a thief, and I will end our interaction as soon as possible.
They also asked if I'm carrying a passport. I didn't like that either. But once traffic got moving, they went on their way.
At the top of a hill, I stopped to take a picture of the canyon. Just then, another motorcycle (motorcycles are more common than cars here) pulled up. Two guys were on it, probably both in their mid-20s. They asked a normal range of questions, where I'm from, where I started, how long have I been on the road. The guy on the back got off the bike and sat on the retaining wall in front of me, while the other one stayed to my left.
Just after I said, "I should go," and as I was putting my phone back in its pouch, the guy in front of me leapt to his feet. My phone already in its pouch, but before I could zip it up, he grabbed my phone and the dummy phone I was carrying in case I get mugged. It was only then that I saw the pistol in his other hand.
"What? Shit! OK," was everything I had time to say. He hopped back on the motorcycle, still running, and they zoomed down the hill I just climbed. Elapsed time: less than 3 seconds. It was only then that I realized the guy on the bike, to my left, had been keeping lookout to see when no one was coming. These guys knew what they were doing.
About 50 m later, I saw a house. There were people standing outside. I stopped.
"Two young men on a motorcycle take my telephone, with a pistol. Now."
They called the police for me and invited me inside, giving me a glass of raspberry juice. Ten minutes later, the police arrived, eight men on four motorcycles. They were covered head-to-toe in combat gear and carried assault rifles. Oh hell yeah.
The problem was, I couldn't give a good description. "Two young men on a motorcycle" describes practically everyone on this highway. I couldn't remember the color of the motorcycle, or the manufacturer; neither of those things seemed important until they were speeding away. About the only thing I was able to give them was they weren't wearing helmets (also ommon), one had a brown shirt and darker skin, the other had a white shirt and lighter skin. Still, I had some hope, because I figured they got held up at one of the construction blocks. The construction workers would probably stop traffic to let the police through, and that might be enough.
At least an hour later (after this incredibly kind family also fed me soup, rice, and beef), the police returned. No luck. So it's gone. I went to an internet cafe and alerted my dad to tell the phone company to lock my phone.
Coincidentally, that family had a daughter named Valeria.
Aside from not having a telephone, GPS, camera, internet access, email, all my maps, and the contact information for all my hosts for the next week, I was OK. It would be more difficult from now on, but people managed to do bike tours before GPS and cell phones. I could at least make it to Quito, from where I was already going to go home to Texas for a week. After that, everything would be back to normal.
After lots of construction and LOTS of hills, made it into Pasto without further incident and found the hostel I was planning on staying at. Internet access! I emailed all my hosts to explain the situation, and drew some maps by hand so I could find them in town. There are also places where you can pay by the minute to use a cell phone, much like an internet cafe. This should work out!
I had enough time in Pasto to explore the city a little bit. Some of the cathedrals were just incredible, especially from the inside. I wish I'd had my phone so I could've taken a picture. Same goes for the hills I'd been riding over. Oh well. There are more important things.