Colombia: Feeding the addiction

The Americas

Chapter 22

A new country, a new continent.  After seven months in Mexico and Central America we were keen, perhaps slightly desperate, for some mountain therapy.  No problem here, with the Andes, the worlds longest continental mountain range, commencing their 7000 km march south along the western edge of South America. 

And with a new country comes a whole range of new experiences.  The most immediate is the food, and the first days are filled with exploratory forays as we apply the trial and error method to determine our diet for the next month or so…

We discovered early on that buñuelos (fried dough balls made with white curd cheese) should be eaten fresh & hot, preferably straight out of the pan …
Served with tinto (strong sweet black coffee) they are a Colombiano morning ritual & quickly became ours too

A sugary combination of guayaba (guava paste) & caramel – one of these bricks will power both of us up a mountain climb …
Forget the tomato, cheese & avocado tortillas – now we are into the carb-heavy ‘comida corriente’ or standard lunch. A post-lunch rest is generally required to digest the combination of soup, rice, beans, salad, meat & fruit juice (all for $1.50 – $3)

And so we headed off, Ed summing up our first day on the road as ‘this is the friendliest ride I’ve ever done!’ Perhaps it was the holiday feel as we were swept up amongst dozens and dozens of cyclists … couples, big bunches, riders out motorpacing, mountainbikers, and locals ambling along.  We were waved in to join a group for a drink at the top of one climb, flagged down by a couple who just wanted to say hi and take photos, and received countless waves, honks and shouts of encouragement.  

Colombians are REALLY friendly.  Stay a night in a small hotel and you’ll be farewelled with coffee, handshakes, hugs and a photo session.  Our (bad) Spanish is getting a real workout as everywhere we stop we get to explain our journey, jobs, marital status and family situation.  The bike trailers attract a lot of attention here and I’ve often given a quick demo of the attachment system when we’ve stopped for a break and an audience has gathered for a closer look.  

A lunch stop & new friends on our back route south of Medellin.
Causing a small town traffic jam as one local came over to greet us.
Overnight camp with a friendly couple on a tiny & precipitous dairy property in the hills south of Medellin – fresh creamy milk straight out of the cow for breakfast mmm …

Not the usual bike sign – and kind of out of sync with the strong road cycling culture in Colombia.

Leaving Medellin we took a route that winds through the mountains and a series of small towns south to Manizales.  Turning off on to dirt roads we climbed through steep emerald green farmlands, passing small dairy landholdings – typically just a dozen or so cows.

First impressions – neat & pretty farm houses, basic but brightly painted & decorated with flower baskets & pots.
Horses haul the milk urns up to the road for collection by the milk trucks
It rains a lot here – an overnight storm made for some muddy sections, but the road was well built & in good condition …
Except for the frequent landslides which are ubiquitous along Colombia’s mountainous roads
Every so often we’d arrive in a small but vibrant and colourful town …
Where we would usually head to the town plaza for a tinto & snack at a little cafeteria …
And watch the comings & goings of daily life

We quickly settled in to a routine of ascending to each ridge-top town, plummeting down to cross a river, then commencing the next climb.  And repeat.  

The ups …
And the downs

Plenty of old vehicles still plying the back roads
Including the lumbering ‘chiva’ trucks.
In the afternoons we’d roll into town & find a basic ‘hospedaje’ close to the plaza for the night …
Or be invited home, as we were by Jairo in the town of Pacora. With his family away, we settled into his sons’ room, happy to escape the pouring rain.

Afternoons spent admiring poncho & hat combinations

Colombia is a major supporter of the worlds caffeine addiction with an average annual production of 11.5 million bags of coffee beans.  Cycling through the coffee region we noticed that coffee plantations often included lines of banana trees separating the plots of coffee bushes.

The hills are a patchwork of coffee plants & banana trees
From the bean …
… to the classic Colombiano coffee machine …

… to the cup

The city of Manizales was a bit of a shock after the peace of previous days and we quickly moved on towards Los Nevados National Park.  The road into the park was clearly popular with local mountainbikers …

Including these effervescent ladies who pulled up for a quick chat & roadside selfie session
As we climbed the vegetation gradually changed …

The jungle thinning out …
Different birds
Until we emerged into open country …
And the high altitude grasslands of Colombia’s paramo
A beautiful ride, with the mountains playing hide ‘n seek through the mist …
Teasing us with glimpses of a landscape covered with frailejón plants – a perennial species of the sunflower family
Before the clouds closed in again

Bouncing our way back down into farmland we arrived in the tranquilo village of Murillo for the night, enchanted by its buildings brightly painted in vertical stripes, and the ever-changing variety of ponchos and hats …

Friendlier than they look when posing for a photo
Wandering the streets of Murillo

It’s all in the colours – Murillo
The long & scenic descent to the Rio Magdalena …
Past the gum trees, reminders of a far-off land

As we descended from Murillo we diverted to see the remains of Armero.  When Nevado del Ruiz erupted on November 13th 1985, the town was engulfed by mudslides (lahars) triggered when volcanic material melted the mountain’s glaciers, creating a torrent of debris that killed over 20,000 of the town’s 29,000 inhabitants.  The tragedy is widely thought to have been avoidable, with forecast warnings ignored and communications impaired by a severe storm.  Many residents stayed in their homes as instructed, and were unaware of the impending disaster. 

All that remains of the town cathedral – the small dome from the top of the tower
The region is dotted with graves, often grouped together where families had sought shelter in their homes

The temperature rose as we descended, making our way south and towards the Desierto de Tatacoa.  This is a bit of an oddity in a country so close to the Equator and something of a tourist attraction for Colombianos.

Heading towards the Tatacoa Desert
We bumped into Swiss couple Sabine & Martin heading in the same direction …
The landscape looking more like Mexico than what you’d expect in Colombia
Red rocks and cacti – Colombiano style
Some steep descents meant a quick brake pad replacement in the town plaza at Villavieja

Leaving the Tatacoa Desert we made a quick dash down the main road to reach San Agustin, famous for the pre-Colombian archeological sites near the town. Figures and tombs carved from volcanic rock are evidence of an ancient culture, but little is known of their significance.  Sites include numerous artificial mounds, terraces, funerary structures and stone statuary – indicating that these were ceremonial places of pilgrimage and ancestor worship.

Early morning climb up to San Agustin
Carved figures guard the tombs at San Agustin Archeological Park
And some more recent artistic expression in San Agustin town
San Agustin wall art

Leaving San Agustin we headed to Mocoa and the start of Colombia’s notorious Death Road – ‘El Trampolin de la Muerte’. Heavy rainfall and flash flooding earlier this year caused widespread damage and killed over 330 people when mudflows inundated riverside neighbourhoods around Mocoa, with the destruction obvious a few months later.

Damage to bridge and housing along the river in Mocoa
We were less concerned with bouncing off the ‘Trampoline of Death’ road into the valley below than we were with picking our way across the rubble of sharp rocks and loose stones …
Weaving our way through the mountains up dozens of hairpin corners
The road was built in the 1930s & is responsible for hundreds of deaths from both vehicles toppling off into the valley & the landslides that regularly block the narrow & precipitous route
Dozens of waterfalls cascade across the road …
… which climbs to a pass where a few rough buildings are clustered next to a police checkpoint
And a basic ‘restaurant’

After descending to the sealed road at San Francisco it was easy to think that the worst was over … not so, as the road reared upwards at particularly cruel gradients to yet another pass.

Climbing above the clouds
Stopping for lunch on a sunny verandah gave us a perfect roadside view of a passing street parade ….

With numerous sporting clubs & local community organisations represented – including the smallest of firefighters …
Up at the high point overlooking Laguna de la Cocha and it’s not hard to tell who arrived by motorised transport …

After a brief stop off in Pasto to stock up on brake pads we made our weary way towards the border… detouring to visit the spectacular basilica church across the canyon at Las Lajas.  The church is built against a rock wall, which was where a woman and her deaf/mute daughter heard and saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1754.  Since then it has become a popular pilgrimage site with a series of shrines eventually replaced by the present church constructed between 1916 and 1949.

Worth the detour – the very impressive Las Lajas sanctuary
Gothic revival detail at Las Lajas
A popular pilgrimage spot
And our somewhat reluctant departure from one of our favourite countries …

With one eye on the calendar, it’s off to Ecuador.  We plan to follow a recently created dirt road route across the country – the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route (TEMBR), but need to keep moving so we don’t miss the limited weather window for riding in the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca further south …

Until next time,

Rubber side down

Ed & Gaye

5 comments on “Colombia: Feeding the addiction

  1. Oh my goodness do you ever have my interest piqued to go see Columbia. Our cruising friends all loved it when they went by boat but most never did Inland trips.
    As always thanks for the great updates. What an incredible adventure. Love watching from the sidelines. Cheers

    1. Hi Debbie, Colombia was a pleasant surprise, especially after reading the Australian govt travel warning which is pretty negative. The people were lovely & it is a very easy place to travel, we would definitely recommend it.

  2. Oh no. I was hoping to live vicariously through hearing about how you just managed to get out alive through the middle of a drug war. Shows you what you get from reading the Department of Foreign Affairs website. Did you meet Nairo Quintana’s mum? Sou da great. Hell, you could almost have talked me into getting off my butt and coming along.

    Enjoy Ecuador

    1. Nairo’s Mum is under police protection after his disappointing TdF … apparently he fuels his rides with panela (dried sugarcane juice) but it doesn’t seem to work for our climbing legs?!

  3. As usual, great photos and commentary! Loved the Colombian coffee machine. It is definitely a cycling crazy country as I watched Miguel Angel Lopez win yesterday’s stage of La Vuelta! Looking forward to your report from Ecuador ????

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