Colombia – Part 3: Climbing

The final chapter! We are climbing the Andes twice, crossing a desert and make our way to the border of Ecuador

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January 2019

🚴🏻‍♂️🚴🏻‍♀️ Chinchiná – Pasto (1000km) -> Route

Cream! It must have been the cream. There was a lot of it on the dry cake we had eaten the day before. It had to happen at some point, but food poisoning certainly wasn’t the way we had imagined our start into the new year. Early in bed, we luckily recovered enough to cycle out of Chinchiná in the early morning hours on New Years Day.

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No people or cars in sight, the streets towards Pereira belonged to us.

Shops and restaurants closed for the holiday, Pereira reminded us of a ghost town, with only the town’s homeless people on the streets. Unsurprisingly there was some interest in us and our bikes, but once at the hotel, we were warmly welcomed, our bikes safely stored and after successfully hunting for some food, we had a good night sleep.

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We pushed the next 70km to Salento, a small village that has become a focal point for tourists visiting Colombia’s famous and absolutely gorgeous coffee region. Instead of heading straight into the village we met with our friends Juan Pablo, Lucie, her sister Georgia and partner Shaun at a small finca some 15km further into the mountains.

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Pablo had built the finca mainly using Bamboo some years ago, produced and sold his own coffee and allowed small groups to stay over, allowing for a very personal experience of the coffee region. We learned about the production, tasted the coffee and went for a walk in the evening to see the region’s hills bathed in a golden red sunset.

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The next morning, we got a head start and cycled back to Salento. We had arranged to meet up again with our friends for a hike in the Cocora Valley. A short drive away, the valley is famous for the world’s largest palm trees and the gorgeous mountain views.

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Jan also was excited about the hummingbird sanctuary mid-hike, which turned out to be a bit of a tourist trap.

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It was a very welcome diversion from cycling and the idea to continue the next day wasn’t appealing. It was time for a (slightly delayed) Christmas holiday! We set up camp at a campsite outside town beside the river, which came recommended by Aleja, our Spanish teacher in Santa Marta. The sheer amount of hammocks, the restaurants serving Trucha (Trout) fresh from the river and the absence of tourists was so irresistible that we ended up staying a full week.

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We read our books, went on little hikes and didn’t touch the bikes once!

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Saying goodbye wasn’t easy, especially knowing that we were about to cross the Andes. West to East, we had to climb roughly 3300m on an unpaved road, before descending into the town of Ibagué. The weeks before we had heard about this road, one of the toughest ones of the whole trip, but the views were said to be worth it.

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Luck didn’t seem to be on our side… We climbed out of Salento on the muddy gravel road into wet clouds. The higher we climbed the thicker the fog became. The temperatures were dropping and so was our mood. But, once we made it over the top at 3400m, everything changed. The fog never made it to the other side and gradually the visibility got better until the sun broke through and opened up on the most stunning landscape we’ve seen so far.

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Cows, palm trees and green hills as far as we could see. After over 11 hours in the saddle, we made it to a trout farm near Toché, where we settled down for the night. The first half was done, it was time to celebrate with home cooked fish.

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The necessary early start the next morning was impossible. Our host made us gourmet fresh trout for breakfast, and we filled the time taking photos and making arepas for everyone.

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Over breakfast, we decided to prolong our route by taking a slight detour to a volcano instead of joining the easier main road. This, of course, was again on a steep unpaved road. With tired legs from the previous day it was a fight to get the kilometres done and in the afternoon we had to admit that we had bitten off more than we could chew. Between some telephone towers, we found a flat patch of grass, popped up the tent and postponed the remaining kilometres.

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The next day we flew into Ibagué and stopped at a pressure wash to get the accumulated mud off before continuing to meet our Warmshowers host Carol. She offered to host us for two nights, giving us the opportunity to explore Ibagué and its cycling community. Little did we know that our “rest day” would be so eventful.

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Together with Carol, we set off early, without panniers but uphill. We found out that this was the preferred route for local cyclists and as it was Sunday, there was no shortage of fully geared out groups in shiny jerseys. The whole experience was really enjoyable and reminded us of Ciclovia in Bogota. Only with more stops for food and fresh fruit juices.

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We returned midday. Carol told us about the only way to relax after such a trip – her apartment block included a swimming pool, jacuzzi and sauna!

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This was a far stretch from struggling over muddy roads merely 48 hours earlier. After relaxing it was time for the next event. A birthday party! Being half wild card, half special guest, we took a photo with the birthday boy and enjoyed the arequipe cake. Thanks, Carol, for this eventful special day.

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Shortly after leaving Ibagué the next morning, our jackets were stored deep in the panniers as we entered one of the hottest regions of Colombia, the Tatacoa desert. Framed by two mountain ranges this area is famous for its unique landscape, switching Colombia’s lush green for rocks and sand with plenty of cacti in between.

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It is not as big as one might expect and neither as deserted so we were able to stay in a restaurant with a group of palaeontologists before entering and cooling off in a pool after the first day of cycling.

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Aside from that, it was just wild horses, the stars and us.

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We continued South for two days before turning West to climb to San Augustine, a small town famous for it’s surrounding archaeological sites. Stone carvings and figures by indigenous groups, dating as far back as 1900BC have been discovered here in the past one hundred years, giving a fascinating window into a world long gone.

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This region is also the birthplace of five important rivers for South America stretching in all four cardinal directions. One of them being the Magdalena river – at who’s delta we’d started our Colombia trip many weeks before.

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A number of the sights are not accessible by car and too far by bike or foot, leaving only one possible alternative: horseback!

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In San Augustin, we camped in the garden of Manuel, made friends with other campers, cooked and drank tea. The time melted away and before we noticed almost a week had passed again. Camping in Colombia was dangerous.

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After getting some fresh bread from a German baker we’d met in town, we set off South towards Mocoa. Two long mountainous days lay ahead. It was green, wet and over 2000m to climb, so we raced a few kids on bikes.

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We arrived in El Fin del Mundo (“The end of the world”) at a relaxing hostel where we camped on top of a fish pond.

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While waiting out the rain and gaining strength for the big climb on El Trampolín de la Muerte, (“The trampoline of death”) we had time to visit one of the big waterfalls of the area, Ornoyaco, and reunite with our Colombian bike friend Javier, who we had met a few weeks prior on the road.

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It stopped raining and we took the chance to begin the 2000m climb on a dirt track into the mountains.

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The trampolín is famous among cyclists for its breathtaking views, bumpy road and unpredictable weather. The road crosses the Andes in South Colombia for 140km, climbing a total of over 5000m.

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Halfway up the mountains Jan’s saddle screw snapped and we had to improvise with a flimsy replacement screw from the front racks. Those problems of course happen when there is no shop anywhere close.

The constant play of sun, clouds and thick fog, while cycling along waterfalls and through rivers, stopping for the next stunning mountain view, make it a very unique experience.

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Camping opportunities are few and far between, so we ended up pitching our tent in a cafe owners home one night, the next in a school.

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The next morning the kids were very interested what weirdos had slept in their storage room and we were enthusiastically waved goodbye from the only classroom.

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Halfway through, we reached the Sibundoy Valley, a welcomed flat stretch at 2800m altitude, where we stayed at the farm of an indigenous community activist and ayahuasca shaman. Together with his kids, we fed chickens and chatted away until falling tired into our tent at 9 pm.

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After a short climb the next day, we passed the Laguna de la Coche, Colombia’s second largest glacier lake – twelve kilometres in length. Unfortunately, bad weather only allowed for a glimpse and we hurried to a Hospedaje to escape the biting cold rain and wind.

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Sure we had missed this sight, we hurried to Pasto, where Tulio from Warmshowers and his family welcomed us in their home. We could have not asked for anything better. We showered (hot water!), ate and rested. After the past days in the cold, it was heaven.

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Not only did they help us with bike repairs, taking us to 8 different bike shops until we found the correct tyres, but it also turned out Tulio is running the only Diving School Centro de Buseo Marlin in the area. Would we be interested to go diving in the Laguna de la Coche? Duh…

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After the dive in the refreshing waters and the recording of some testimonial videos (in all 3 available languages) for the diving school, it was time to catch the dinner. The freshest Trucha yet! Muchisimo gracias!

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Our Spanish testimonial: “Acabamos de busear en laguna de la cocha.
Fue una experiencia muy especial! La compania es muy amable, professional y como familia. Nosotros recomendamos centro de buseo marlin!”

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With a heavy heart, we left this wonderful place and family to head towards the Ecuador border. What a perfect way to end our time (almost 4 months) in this beautiful country. From the amazing cycling culture to the hospitality and honesty of the people, we enjoyed every single day. Many of the negative stereotypes of the last decades are untrue – we had the pleasure to see a warm, welcoming and gorgeous place, which we hopefully can visit again.

10 thoughts on “Colombia – Part 3: Climbing”

  1. Faszinierende Bilder, ein grossartiger, berührender Text! Ich habe verstanden , dass Ihr dieses wunderbare Land Kolumbien lieben lernen musstet! Weiterhin gute Reise Euch Beiden.

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  2. Hi Jani und Lucy, wunderschöne Bilder! Sind jetzt auf dem Weg nach Australien. Werden dort Landrover fahren, tauchen und Freunde besuchen. Bis bald
    Iris und Sven

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  3. Hi Jan and Lucy, so nice to read your blog! We met you in the Tatacoa desert (I think I took the photo with the both of you in it) where we were strolling along with 2 guides. Afterwards we passed you in a car but surely you did not see us… What a great trip you had to the beautiful country of Colombia! We also were charmed by the place and its people. Our trip ended less pleasantly with a hospital stay in Cartagena, but that is another story and has nothing to do with Colombia. I am curious to see how you will fare in Ecuador and more southern places. Have a wonderful time! Greetings from Johannes and Frieda from The Netherlands.

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    1. Hey Frieda & Johannes! It was lovely to meet you and good to hear that you enjoyed your trip in Colombia. We hope all is fine after the visit at the hospital.

      We are currently in the mountains of Peru and enjoying the many climbs. All the best to the Netherlands!

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  4. Hallo Jani und Lucy, wieder sehr schöne Bilder von Euch, besonders von Galapagos.
    Wir sind vorgestern aus Australien zurück. Tauchen war fantastisch. Haben Haie, Riesige Rochen, fette Sepias und Schildkröten getroffen, very exciting!
    Sind auch (selber) Cessna geflogen, und sind mit unserem Offroader durchs australische Outback gefahren. Haben auch einige wenige Radfahrer gesehen. Die sahen allerdings bei 40 Grad Hitze und Staub nicht sehr glücklich aus.
    Was meint Ihr mit Last Chapter in eurem Blog? Und wo seid Ihr am 23. April?
    Grüße, Iris und Sven

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    1. Das klingt ja super. Wir haben uns zwei Tauchgänge in Galapagos geleistet und eine Schule Hammerhaie gesehen.

      „Last Chapter“ war nur der letzte Teil unserer drei Blogeinträge zu Kolumbien. Wir planen noch ca. 6 Monate unterwegs zu sein. Mitte April vermutlich in Peru, vielleicht gerade noch in Ecuador wenn wir trödeln. Wir bleiben aber in Südamerika. Das australische Outback heben wir uns für einen zukünftigen Trip auf 😉

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  5. Ein super spannender Blog! Habe gerade alle drei Kapitel zu Kolumbien gelesen. Super, starke Leistung und noch stärkere Waden:-)
    Eine Frage, wie lange habt ihr für die Durchquerung von Kolumbien gebraucht? Und braucht ihr auch warmshowers?
    Ich würde mich über eine Antwort freuen.
    Schönes biken wünsche ich euch.
    Lieben Gruss aus Curitiba, Brasilien
    Susana

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    1. Hallo Susana und danke für deine Nachricht 🙂

      Alles in allem haben wir so um 10 Wochen gebraucht. Haben allerdings viele Ruhetage eingelegt. Reine Fahrzeit war ungefähr die Hälfte – um die fünf Wochen.

      Wir sind bei einer Handvoll Warmshowers Hosts untergekommen. Alle super nett. Meistens in den größeren Städten, wie Pasto, Ibague und natürlich Casa del Ciclista südlich von Medellín. Bei den meisten Feuerwehrwachen kann man auch umsonst übernachten.

      Lg aus Peru!

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