It’s hard to believe I’ve managed to remain in Colombia for almost two months now, a country I’d originally envisaged blasting straight through en route to more interesting places. After all it’s just a load of cocaine and coffee plantations right?
Not quite. In fact this black and white view (pun wholly intended) couldn’t be further from the truth, to the extent I’m now starting feel like a travel agent, constantly extoling Colombia’s virtues to anyone who’ll listen. It’s fair to say I’ve been well and truly sucked in by this land of chirpy people and frankly bewildering array of natural environments. It’s basically got it all; Caribbean beaches, snowy Andean peaks, Amazon jungle, rolling ‘Englishy’ countryside and, as I’ve recently discovered, even a desert. It’s almost like a preview of Earth, providing a quick taster of all the diversity on offer – an ideal ‘show home’ if you will for potential alien investors looking to acquire the planet.
The past two weeks have encompassed much of this incredible spectrum of landscapes. My route saw me descend from the mountains back into to the sweaty bosom of the lowlands and the Tatacoa Desert, before skirting the Amazon and climbing back into the Andes towards the Ecuadorian border, via the legendary Trampolín de la Muerte.
Following my fairly intense high mountain foray I was quite looking forward to some straightforward flatish miles down in the lowlands. Things however, didn’t get off to the best of starts (to put it mildly). After an easy 90km into the first day I was suddenly overcome by a wave of exhaustion, forcing me to clamber off the bike and basically collapse by the roadside. Not good. I completely blacked out for what I’m guessing was a minute or so, awaking dazed and totally confused. What on earth was going on? Was it heat stroke? Dehydration? Rogue virus? Had I been ‘roofied’ by the trucker at the last café stop? None of these made much sense; I’d felt fine ten minutes ago and had dealt with far harsher conditions before. Barely able to stand up, let alone get back on the bike, there was clearly no other option than to hail down a passing vehicle, which, given the quiet dirt road I was on, was easier said than done. Before long though I was curled up in the back of a friendly chap’s pickup bumping along to the next town, occasionally willing myself to stand up in order to vomit over the side. What a day this was turning out to be!
Having summoned the energy to find a cheap hotel and even barter the price down (it’s almost rude not to in Colombia), I spent the next 24 hours lying in bed guzzling rehydration salts and popping antibiotics (effectively trying to cover all bases in my medical wisdom). After a day though, whatever it was had thankfully passed, a bit of a relief. I could now put this strange little episode behind me, refocus and crack on southwards towards the Tatacoa Desert.
Tatacoa isn’t a desert in the strictest sense of the word, in fact it was raining when I first arrived, but it’s a stunning place nonetheless. After a couple of days of blackout free riding there was a surprisingly rapid change in scenery and before I knew it I was surrounded by cacti and enveloped by a barren landscape folded in an almost origami type fashion. Having located possibly the best campspot in the desert, I was expecting an evening of solitudal ponderings but was soon joined by a flurry of city dwelling weekenders. Not a bad thing and before long I was I being plied with burgers by a chap embracing BBQ duty in that manly fashion seemingly found the world over. The rest of the evening was then spent knocking back beers with two Colombian girls under the glow of a full moon. Things could have been worse.
Colombian hospitality really is something to behold and it certainly pulled out all the stops in this final leg. Like some weary pilgrim, the endless stream of food offerings flowed thick and fast. On more than a couple of occasions I was invited into a family’s house to share a meal and even stay the night, or other times simply being thrust a coke or bag of bread by a passersby. Coming from the reserved UK, this unabated openness could hardly be more of a contrast. In the face of the country’s fairly horrific recent history, where only twenty years or so ago you couldn’t leave your own town due to the threat of guerilla forces, this warm, upbeat culture could be considered surprising. Yet it some ways it’s a direct result; in the face of so much strife every slight positive is seized upon and amplified. They didn’t win the World Cup, they weren’t even that close, but their team’s performance is still talked about with gushing pride and reverence.
Years of being looked down upon internationally (largely due to a cocaine problem that ironically belongs to the outside world) have also left them with a bit of an inferiority complex. Seemingly there’s nothing they enjoy hearing more than the fact that you like the place and in particular the people. Typically I only get about a sentence into responding to the oft repeated “How do you find Colombia?” before they jump in with “…and the people??”. This is commonly followed by “What do people in your country think of Colombia?” before basically answering it themselves “They say it’s dangerous don’t they?”. Rightly they feel misjudged, but unfortunately the media doesn’t run with stories of friendly people.
From Tatacoa it was time for a few days of paved highway riding to project me southwards to Mocoa on the fringes of the Amazon Jungle. I had planned on making a detour to the gringo hotspot of San Augstin, famed for its archeological remains and quirky statues, but given what a lousy tourist I’ve become these days I decided it was probably best to give it a miss. In any case the Lonely Planet’s damning commentary was hardly the motivational boost I needed to justify the extra climbing:
The ancient sculptors never achieved a high level of sophistication; don’t expect King Tut’s tomb. Nor is the town of San Agustín particularly interesting – it is small and ugly and full of opportunists trying to rip you off.
Sounds bloody brilliant doesn’t it, which if the Lonely Planet is as factually correct as always it actually probably is.
After a day spent in Mocoa studiously catching up on over a weeks worth of the Tour de France, I was suitably pumped to tackle El Trampolín de la Muerte. This translates as ‘The Trampoline of Death’, which, as the name suggests, isn’t a nice country lane, rather a twisty dirt road clinging to steep mountain slopes as it winds it’s way 2200m or so up into the Andes. Revered in adventure cycling circles as legendary, in truth it’s not actually that hard and certainly significantly less perilous if you’re on a bike than in a truck with almost no clearance on some sections. That being said it’s a big slog nevertheless and watching torrential rain pour down outside I was feeling increasingly less up for it. I managed to delay my departure until a leisurely 1pm, by which point I’d convinced myself that if Alberto Contador could get back on his bike having just broken his leg, I could probably face a bit of rain.
Time for nobbly tyres and exclusive use of the granny ring…
Fording the odd stream (river?)…
And climbing steadily higher, passing regular reminders of those who didn’t bounce back from the trampoline.
Stopping occasionally to take in a fleeting cloud free view from safely behind the protective tape. If that doesn’t stop a truck plummeting to its doom nothing will.
On a road that’s etched into the mountain side camping spots are a few and far between, so I didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the offering of this little shack at ‘El Mirador’ as dusk was drawing in. A room with a view…
Along with entertaining company in the form of a couple of chaps manning one of the countless military checkpoints.
Two days and three more herculean climbs later, I’d battled through near continuous rain and muddy roads to reach the town of Pasto, a stones throw from the Ecuadorian border. A tough slog but the views, when they actually presented themselves, were worth it…
And made that well-earned cup of coffee all the more sweeter (along with accompanying lump of cheese).
I also had the pleasure of meeting Antonio, a sixty-year-old Colombian touring his homeland on his behemoth of a bike.
Now in Pasto, a town famed for its penchant for roasted guinea pigs, I’m readying myself for my much-anticipated departure from Colombia. Tomorrow I’ll be in Ecuador, yet another exciting new country to get my teeth into, promising more Andean adventures but with a more indigenous flavor. Of course I’ve already had the lowdown from Colombians, “Ecuador! Terrible place. Bad food, unfriendly people, Indians everywhere”, with the latter accompanied by a slit eyed gesture for extra effect. I struggle to suppress a smile in these conversations; I’ve heard it all before. It’s the fundamental rule of international borders; always distrust your neighbour no matter how fictional the evidence against them. Everyone knows the French smell after all….
Libano to Giradot: Once down from the mountains the Cambao to Giradot road following Rio Magdelena is a good option, almost no traffic and mostly paved with some well graded dirt sections. I ended up taking the road to Ambalema before linking up with this one via a vehicular boat crossing the river (bicycles go free).
Tatacoa: From the main highway to Neiva there’s a turning to the left signposted for Pata and Desierto de Tataca. This small road leads down through Pata to the river where you can cross on a small boat to link up with the dirt track leading to Villavieja. From here there’s a paved road leading a few km to the observatory and the desert proper, followed by a couple of km of dirt road taking you to various campsites and hostals. The favoured spot, myself included, is Penon del Constantine which is furthest away and reached via a track leading off to the left from the end of the aforementioned dirt road (it’s signposted). Although at 10,000 pesos for camping it’s not exactly cheap, but you do get access to their natural pool. Back at Villavieja a relatively quiet paved road takes you all the way to Neiva.
Mocoa to Pasto: The first 15km out of Mocoa are paved and relatively easy going, then the dirt road kicks off and it’s around 18km of climbing until El Mirador at 2200m ish. Whist still a a couple of km short of the top of the first pass, it offers a cracking view (as the name suggests) and is where the army checkpoint and a cluster of small shops/cafes are located. They’re pretty used to cyclists staying the night there, with one or two unused shacks available for camping. From the top of the first pass (35km from Mocoa at around 2300m) it’s a big decent, followed by a lot of up and down and ultimate climb to the second pass (69km from Mocoa at 2750m). There are only a couple of places to stop for basic food on this stretch and camping opportunities are limited. From the pass it’s a long (15km ish) muddy decent to San Francisco (2100m ish), where the pavement starts and the road flattens out. It’s flat for around 20km passing though a number of small towns the last of which being Santiago. At which point you launch straight into climb No.3, which is paved for the first two thirds then turns into dirt towards the top of the pass (3250m). From the top it’s paved all the way to Pasto, you descend down to 2800m past Laguna del Coches, then hit climb No.4 (3250m), which is by far the easiest, before descending into Pasto.