From Foreign Affairs Canada “Official Warning – Avoid All Travel …The presence of armed drug traffickers, guerrilla and paramilitary organizations, including the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army), poses a major risk to travellers. These groups continue to perpetrate attacks, extortion, kidnappings, car bombings, and damage to infrastructure in these areas. You are also advised against all travel to the departments of Cauca, Caquetá, Guaviare, Putumayo, Valle del Cauca…”
Well, where do you think we were headed?
After numerous rainy days and chilly nights in the mountains we were ready for a descent to a warmer climate, so we packed up from Salento early in the morning and made our way on fast, clean, if not categorically boring roads. We rode all day and ended up in the small village of Santa Rosa, known for its popular hot springs. We pulled our usual routine: park the bikes, and while I look for a place to stay, Jordan watches the bikes. Not unlike the other small, Colombian towns, we drew a crowd immediately upon entry including a very drunk but amiable fellow who insisted he was a tourist police that could find us a great place to stay. When I ended up in a dark hallway with no foreseeable exit with said drunk guy, it was time to turn back and move up the road. Just in time, too, because the actual police were in the process of asking Jordan to move our illegally parked bikes.
3 blocks later, in the central square, Annelies, an Austrian cyclist approached us upon parking our bikes. She and her husband, Hannes, have been riding their bicycles in South America for the last 2 ½ years. She directed us to their hotel, which had excellent parking facilities and was (sort of) in our price range. We were also approached by a nice man who ran after us for 3 blocks with my now-broken eye glasses in hand. Apparently, in trying to escape a parking ticket and a nice, drunk guy, I left my glasses on my bike. Both they, and I, were crushed.
We contemplated an early-morning hot springs, but in the names of budget and time, we declined. We were off to Buga – a suggested stop from Annelies, in the heart of Valle del Cauca. We started to notice more and more military presence as we headed south. In some stretches, we’d see 20+ military personnel spaced out along the road every 100m, or so. One hand with a machine gun, and the other one is giving a ‘thumbs up’. We took this to simultaneously mean ‘hello’ and ‘all’s well ahead’.
After being turned back from the mountain parks in the north due to impassable roads, landslides & outright road closures, it was our craving for some more interesting scenery that brought us to Popayan – the launching off point for 2 great dirt roads that would take us, criss-cross through Valle de Cauca towards Ecuador. We reached the ‘white city’ and, despite our own paltry hostel accommodations, decided to stay for 2 days.
All the buildings in the historical centre of Popayan are white washed, and though most have been re-built or repaired in modern times (much of the town was destroyed in a 1983 earthquake), Colonial architecture is very much evident and it might be the most impressive historical centres we have visited. We met up with Ian – our travelling buddy from Salento – and toured the town, surrounding parks and hills.
We were anxious to get to San Agustin and although it was only 135kms long, Google Maps insisted the ride would take us 7 hours. So, we met Ian for an early morning leave.
The ride was spectacular and so was the weather, thankfully. When wet, this road succumbs to washouts and landslides, not to mention it is very difficult to travel when a sloppy mess. The road cuts through spectacular scenery and hills as it winds its way south east. Despite its remoteness, it is a busy route for trucks of which, we were stuck behind many times on the single track route – sucking in their dust. Thankfully, a few villages dot the road… we took advantage of a small restaurant to let trucks get well ahead of us while we had breakfast. We stopped a few more times for the same reason. A few times we were lucky, and trucks let us pass on the 12, or so inches that separated their wheels from the ditch on the side of the road.
The dirt track ends at a small village just before San Agustin and as we cruised through the town, looking for the correct turn, who zooms up beside me, last in line? Our good friends, and super fast riders, Daan & Mirjam! They knew we were on our way to San Agustin and wanted, if possible to meet us there. But they were hundreds of kilometres north of where we started in Popayan. We fully expected to see them the following day. Daan made a sport of catching up to us… he confessed to asking the roadside workers (the road is being prepared for pavement – you should ride it before that happens) if they’d seen us. When the last response was ‘yes, 5 minutes ahead’ – they really twisted the throttle and, despite now being the butt of all their speed jokes, we were thrilled to meet up with them this way!
So it was 5 of us who headed into San Agustin for 2 great days of camping at Hostel Francoise. Coincidentally, if not unfortunately, San Agustin was in the middle of a 4-day, 24-hour celebration. We aren’t sure of what, but from our vantage point on the hill, where we could hear everything, we dubbed it the La Fiesta de Musica Mala (the bad music festival).
We spent a day doing nothing and a day exploring San Agustin and the mysterious ruins in the area; statues carved out of volcanic rock by an unknown pre-Incan culture between 100 and 1200AD. No explanation exists, but the statues look cool!
Since D&M are much faster than us (i.e. me) Jord & I left a day ahead of them to take our next road – back across the valley, but a much higher altitude on a road through the hilly countryside between Mocoa, Putumayo – south of San Augustin & Pasto, Narino – gateway to Ecuador, it is known in Spanish at the Trampolin de la Muerte (the Trampoline of Death) due to very rocky, very narrow, high altitude roads (read: sheer drops) that cannot fit 2 cars widths, never mind buses and lorries.
Not only did we get stopped by two military check points on our way to the road (for long discussions about our bikes and our trip – how fast does it go, how much does it cost, etc.), we got caught up in a long conversation with a crowd in Mocoa when we stopped to pick up bread & water, AND we missed our turn, adding 80kms round trip to the clock. Needless to say (though, I am saying it) we started the trampoline road at 1:30 in the afternoon, not the best plan. Google maps says this road takes 3 hours… people with experience say the full trip takes 7+ hours. In these parts, the sun sets at 6:30. You do the math.
‘Thrilling’ doesn’t really describe the ride for me. ‘Treacherous’ and ‘What did I get myself into’ come to mind. But that is because I’m novice to all these steep, gravel, and cliff-hanging roads. Jordan didn’t seem to mind a bit – and even questioned why I was riding so slow. (!!??). After numerous hair pin curves, waiting cliff-side for busses and truck to pass us and a few lumpy water crossings (thanks to Jordan, my bike made it across these, too) we came across a huge military installation complete with a bunker and 10s of military personnel perched on a mountainside outcrop. We inquired how long it would be until we reached the next town on them map – 3-4 hours we were told. It was already 3:30pm.
An hour later, we found ourselves in front of what can only be called a truck stop. It was a rustic home/corner store/bathroom spot on the side of the mountain with some space for parking – the only such space we saw all day. The owner advised us it would be at least 2 more hours (3 at my pace) to the next town. It was 4:30pm and there is no roadside camping on this track… none. So, we asked if it would be possible to pitch our tent behind their place and park our bikes along the side of the building.
The very nice people obliged and we proceeded to set up camp in their backyard chicken coop (this is literal, not metaphorical). We weren’t the only ones. A young family in a pickup truck going the other way asked for the same favour. They ended up sleeping inside the restaurant.
Speaking of restaurants, as luck would have it that they could also feed us dinner and breakfast the next morning. They were a very generous family of an elderly father with his adult daughter. This was their life – living on the side of a mountain hours from anywhere, with no electricity, servicing travellers and truckers with great home cooked food and some conveniences along a tough route. Such an honest living! I’m not sure we’d would be so inviting to complete strangers back home, it was a great lesson in hospitality.
The next morning, we made our way down the steep, narrow road for 3.5 hours to the city of Pasto, staying overnight on the mountainside turned out to be a good idea. We checked into the hostel agreed upon with D&M and they met us there a few hours later. Sadly, this would be our last night in Colombia.
We loved every second of our time in Colombia. We felt warmth from all the people we met in the north, on the coast, in the wetlands, in the mountains, in the ‘big city’, in the small villages and yes – even in FARC territory. We met no corrupt police or military officials, whatsoever. From our vantage point, the Colombian government has done a great job of securing the country – even if their methods are controversial (some say it is still a narco democracy… some say they should be talking to FARC not eliminating them…). And despite hearing distant gunfire on 3 separate occasions, it was distant – as in in the hills, we never felt insecure or unsafe. Not even for a second.
Visit Colombia! You will be so glad you did, and they will be so glad you did. You will feel special, you will become part of the fix, and you will see spectacular scenery, eat great food and have memories of a lifetime.