It was, all of a sudden, a beautiful sunny afternoon when we completed the border formalities and crossed into Colombia – a far cry from the incessant rains of our last week in Ecuador. We only had a short ride to do before stopping for the day, and the scenery was gorgeous as the road wound its way along the ridge of a deep valley, overlooking layer upon layer of rolling green hills as far as the eye could see.
On a more prosaic note, we had to climb those bloody hills the next day, so we made sure we got a decent rest in Las Lajas, the home of the (locally) famous sanctuary of the same name. Built right into the rock face at the bottom of the valley, the 100m-high church was built in the early 20th century on the site of a former shrine, and is a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture. Ok, Wikipedia told me all that – but it was pretty impressive!
Our evening in Las Lajas gave us the chance to test out a few of our assumptions about Colombia – and most of them turned out to be right.
- First, and most importantly, it’s much cheaper than Ecuador. Especially for accommodation: while most cycle tourists seem to be perfectly happy camping in peoples’ gardens every night, we like a little bit of comfort (‘little’ being the operative word), so finding a convent-turned-hotel offering a double room for six quid a night made us very happy, and meant more money for beer!
- Which brings me nicely observation number two – the beer is much better (and cheaper) than the terrible national swill in Ecuador. Although confusingly, the main ones in both countries have the same name: ‘Club’. If they ever both make it to England, go for a Club Colombia, you heard it here first.
- Third, the food is, unsurprisingly, still really bad. Our first evening was spent eating deep-fried corn before indulging in a meal of soup, fried chicken and rice. Sounds not-so-bad you might think, but that’s pretty much all you can get anywhere in the evening. And the bread is probably the worst on the continent (and by extension, the world) – so much so that almost everything in the bakeries is filled with cheese and topped with sugar to actually make it taste of something (something still very unappetizing).
- Fourth, and finally, the coffee is awful. Yep, we didn’t really see this one coming. But it turns out that Colombia exports almost all of its good coffee beans, leaving the locals with a slightly bitter, usually lukewarm drink called ‘tinto’ that’s made from the ‘second-class’ beans that no-one else wants (including, as we later learned, the ones that have been mostly hollowed out by worms that live inside them. Nice.) An alternative, if you want to drown out the faint coffee taste further, is to order a ‘cafe con leche ‘(literally: coffee with milk; actually: milk with a tiny amount of filter coffee). My Italian friends would die.
The fifth thing we learned about Colombia very early on is that it is incredibly hilly. I’ve moaned in this blog before about how steep some of the cycling has been (I know, cry me a river) but Colombia has definitely been the hardest country so far. The Andes split into two north of Ecuador, with a very deep valley in the middle, and all the interesting stuff on one of the two sets of hills – meaning we spent most of the first few weeks crossing mountains at about 5mph to try to see everything.
And that’s what I’m going to tell you all about next!
Part 1: Las Lajas to Mocoa
Our first crossing of the Colombian Andes took us from Las Lajas up and over the famous and spectacular ‘trampolin de la muerte’ (trampoline of death’) road and down to the jungle town of Mocoa.
‘Up and over’ and ‘down’ are euphamisms. To reach Mocoa from Las Lajas we had to:
- Climb 300 meters to the main road
- Drop 1,000 meters to the valley floor
- Climb 1,500 meters to the next pass
- Drop 650 meters to the next valley floor, and the city of Pasto
- Climb 700 meters to the next pass
- Drop 450 meters to Laguna de la Cocha
- Climb 450 meters to the next pass
- Drop 1,100 meters to the Sibundoy valley
- Climb 600 meters to the next pass, at the top of the trampolin de la muerte
- Drop 900 meters
- Climb 500 meters to the final pass
- Drop 1,800 meters to Mocoa
All in the space of 250km. And in just four (very tiring) days. Phew!
The ride was beautiful, of course. After the gruelling huge main-road climb up to Pasto, a city most memorable for being full of coffee shops that didn’t sell coffee in the mornings or evenings, we turned away from the northward-heading traffic and instead took a right towards the beautiful Laguna de la Cocha, a huge lake nestled high in the Andean foothills. The main settlement here is a very kitsch touristy town mostly built on stilts, that bizarrely somehow doesn’t actually overlook the lake. However, just a few kilometers along the shore there are some secluded more upmarket hotels with uninterrupted views right the way across it.
You can guess where we chose to stay! But you judge me too soon, friends – as luck would have it, the beautiful Hotel Jardin del Lago let us camp in their garden overlooking the lake, for free, as long as we bought some fried local trout for dinner. We didn’t need much convincing.
Upon leaving the lake behind we climbed again to cross the remote border between Narino and Putumayo states, where it begain to piss it down with rain. Although we were supposedly in Colombia’s dry season this would become an almost-daily occurrence, although this time we were fortunate enough to be right next to a small roadside shrine with just enough space inside for the two of us to huddle together. Luckily there weren’t any devotees around.
When it cleared up we had an amazing, huge descent ahead of us into the Sibundoy valley, a huge bowl carved out of the mountains that marks the end of the tarmac and the beginning of the ‘trampolin de la muerte’ road that traces a deep valley across the Andes.
The trampoline de la muerte (literally, ‘trampoline of death’), is a spectacular dirt road winding its way high through the mountains above a deep gorge, and is presumably named for the manner in which vehicles that inadvertantly don’t stick to its crumbling, narrow surface plunge down to the valley floor below. The road has sadly taken hundreds of lives over the past few years, and while it now has crash barriers most of the way along, there is still more than a sense of danger (for motorists, mainly) on some of the tighter corners, and some of the barriers had some ominously large dents in them, or had disappeared over the edge altogether. For cycling it’s an incredible adventure, and there were no shortage of cycle blogs by people who’d done it and were raving about the road.
The trampolin has an enormous amount of climbing and descending on a pretty dreadful gravel surface and it took us about 12 hours to make the 50 miles to Mocoa where we arrived, pretty shattered, well after dark. This may partly have been because we were stopping to take photos every 5 minutes, but at least that means some material for the blog!
Part 2: Mocoa to San Agustin
We didn’t actually stay in Mocoa but in a hippie hostel out of town near the ‘fin del mundo’ (end of the world) waterfalls. I’m pretty sure that a large proportion of the total number of dreadlocks in Colombia at any one time can be found draped in the hammocks there. As well as an even larger proportion of the total number of huge, multicoloured spiders, which were hanging only just above head-height from almost every fixture and fitting in the hostel. And don’t even think about climbing the trees!
We took a well-earned rest day here. Although in keeping with our definition of ‘rest’ this involved getting up early to do the two hour hike up the steep and difficult jungle trail to the waterfalls. Sweaty, muddy and downright exhausted by the time we reached the top, we were quite taken aback to see hordes of families and schoolchildren splashing around in the plunge pools, and even moreso when we came across a big restaurant built into a nearby cave. God knows how they get their supplies in!
Nicely rested (I think not) we turned north and began heading into Colombia proper.
The next couple of days were spent cycling on a wide, newly-paved road that leads all the way from Ecuador to Bogota. Sounds kind of boring, huh. Except this one had almost no cars on it at all – in fact, there must have been more soldiers scattered clandestinely throughout the trees at the side of the road than vehicles actually on it. We later learned that this area was one of the final strongholds of the Farc – who had only very recently signed a peace agreement with the government – and that this road still doesn’t appear on most paper maps of the region.
Strangely the presence of a lot of heavily armed men in full camo gear wasn’t very scary, mostly because they were so very nice! One of the high points (literally) of this exhausting, sweaty climb was at the very top when a young soldier at an army checkpoint summoned us over, only to present us with a gift of a huge pineapple.
The massive climb coupled with the heat, humidity and probably our terrible diet made me quite ill on the way up, but with no settlements on the road save for one tiny hamlet with a bar and a few chicken shops, we soldiered on even slower than usual. And somehow we managed to make the obligatory huge climb up and over the mountains, and then back up again to San Agustin just two-and-a-half days since leaving Mocoa. San Agustin is Colombia’s premier archaeological sight, and although that really doesn’t say much, it is beautifully situated in the rolling green hills above the majestic Magdalena river, and seemed a perfect place to spend a few days recovering from the travails of the last couple of weeks.
After a whole day of torrential rain during which we mostly lay in our tent wondering what the hell we were doing (here, and in general), the sun came out, and so did we. San Agustin is most famous for its thousand-year-old statues, found by archaeologists mostly at the entrance to the many tombs scattered around the present-day archaeological site. Almost nothing is known about the civilisation that built them, meaning the on-site museum wasn’t exactly riveting, and the quality of the statues and carvings was equally a bit underwhelming, but they definitely had good taste in tomb locations, as the views from the different sites were pretty awesome.
After three beautiful days (and one crap one), we had to reluctantly leave the relative paradise that was San Agustin. The food was some of the best we’d had since Lima, and it’s one of the few genuinely live-able places we’ve been on our trip (in my humble opinion). But we had to move on: the next leg of our journey would take us over yet more hills to Colombia’s second-most important archaeological site (get excited) before dropping all the way down to the Tatacoa Desert in the middle of the country, which would actually be FLAT!