(More) hills, hospitality and heatstroke: Riding the back roads from San Agustin to the Tatacoa Desert

Things had been getting quite tough by the time we reached San Agustin. I’d been unwell since we left Mocoa, and both of us had been struggling with the heat and humidity, as well as the unrelenting climbs, that had made Colombia the undisputed home of the hardest cycling of our trip. And these continued, in earnest, on our ride further up into the hills to the archaeological complex at Tierradentro, and then down to the Tatacoa desert, right in the baking hot heart of the country. In fact, at any one time on this stretch (as well as in the couple of weeks that followed) either one or both of us was ill with something or other.

The beautiful scenery did help. This stretch had an incredible and diverse mix of patchwork fields, dense jungle, volcanoes, lakes and then the sandy, rocky desertscape – mostly under a bright blue sky. And we managed to get it mostly to ourselves by avoiding the main north-south highway, albeit at the cost of yet more climbing.

But what helped the most was the constant kindness and generosity of the Colombians we met along the way.

It began with the workers of a shoe shop in the town of Pitalito offering us to spend the night (we’d already paid for a hotel next door, unfortunately), and soon snowballed, with further invitations to stay with people in Tarqui (two lovely ladies on the village Plaza – one of whom had until recently lived in Belgium), Pital (a couple on a motorbike who flagged us down to invite us to stay on their farm), Inza (William, who we met in our pickup truck to Tierradentro and who spoke excellent English) and Garzon (Guillem, who stopped us for a chat on the road later returned on his motorbike to give us some a drink and some crisps each!)

When things like this happen I usually don’t like to take photos as I don’t want to commoditize the experience. But of course when it comes to writing the blog I wish I had! So I’m afraid you’re mostly stuck with more photos of beautiful scenery. But we discovered on this leg that there’s a lot more to cycle touring in Colombia than just the views.

1. San Agustin to Tierradentro

Though we were edging tantalisingly closer to the valley floor that splits Colombia along its north-south axis, we continued the climbing after San Agustin so as to visit Tierradentro, Colombia’s other archeaological site, after which we planned finally to drop down. While we were a bit disappointed with the statues of San Agustin – a site that’s supposed to be more interesting – the lure of getting back off the main highway and into another beautiful and seldom-visited part of Colombia easily won us over.

And it turned out to be a pretty good decision. After a short stretch on the highway we turned left, first passing through the (aforementioned) village of Tarqui, before joining a beautiful dirt road that led further into the hills, through dense forest and past small family-run fincas (farms), and where we found that rarest of rarities in Colombia – a secluded wild camping spot. In a country where barbed wire sales must make up a sizable proportion of GDP, this is no mean feat and (partially) explains why we’ve spent so many nights in hotels here.

The next morning the dirt ended and we completed the ride to La Plata – the jumping off point for Tierradentro – on a mercifully quiet climb up and over yet another huge pass, on a road clinging to the edge of a deep valley.

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Charlie modelling our watermelon slices in Tarqui. Presumably the ladies who invited us to stay with them did so as they felt a bit sorry for us!

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We managed to sneak through a gap in the barbed wire to reach this lovely wild camping spot later that evening

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The following day, on the beautiful dirt road from Tarqui to Pital

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At times, South-American style, the road just disappeared into a river

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Later that day we finished another exhausting climb – this is the view over to La Plata, where our bikes would rest a couple of days while we went to Tierradentro

The following morning we worked our way through the logistical minefield which was finding out from where and at what time the pickups left town (turns out we woke up three hours before we needed to) and found ourselves on another road clinging to the edge of a different valley that led high up into the hills.

At the end of the line was Tierradentro, a remote tiny hamlet set in a bowl beneath huge hills on all sides, making for some quality – if exhausting – hiking between the various sites. In reality though, it’s of limited interest to all but the most ardent of archaeologists. Unlike San Agustin which is famous for its statues, Tierradentro is known for its underground tombs, dotted around the local hilltops, which once housed the corpses of thousands of local tribespeople, but now which lie crumbling and empty. It’s possible to climb down into some of them for a better view, but there really wasn’t much to see. Although I did discover the excellent night mode on my GoPro – just the eight-odd months into the trip!

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On the steep hike up to the main tombs at Tierradentro

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The views were stunning, despite all those grey rainclouds

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The tombs a bit less so – this one was the best of them, with some ancient, if basic, painting on the walls

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And another one. These tombs were originally discovered with urns inside, each containing up to dozens of dead bodies. Unfortunately, they’ve all gone to some museum somewhere

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And that’s guess-who emerging from one of the 20-or-so tombs that all look pretty much the same

2. Tierradentro to the Tatacoa Desert

We headed on back to La Plata – spending part of the journey literally hanging on for our lives out the back of a pickup truck – and then rode down, down, and down some more to the Tatacoa Desert, Colombia’s second-largest ‘arid zone’ (it’s not technically a desert, as we discovered when it rained every day we were there). On the way we passed through the beautiful lakeside town of Yaguara – home to some of the best arepas in Colombia (trust me, that’s not saying much) – and some villages where we got our first sight of people playing tejo, the little-known national sport of Colombia that involves drunk men throwing metal discs at gunpowder. Seriously.

The ride was bloody gorgeous. I know I’ve written words to that effect in every post on here, but what can I say, I’m a better route planner than I am writer! Taking some inspiration from some of the many other (better) blogs about cycling in Colombia, we followed a route along some beautiful back roads passing by rolling green hills, volcanoes, lakes and, finally, the cactus-filled desert.

However before long we were close to sea level, and with the proverbial mercury on Charlie’s bike computer going well above 100 Fahrenheit, we weren’t feeling so good. The road into the desert, via the crossroads town of Villavieja, had no shade at all, and by the time we rolled into our campsite late that evening, we were both quite sick. Even the amazing on-site natural rock pool couldn’t help, and we were sadly both bed-ridden for the next couple of days. Much to the delight of the millions of sand-flies that had a banquet at our expense.

Still, we did manage to haul ourselves out of bed on one afternoon to see some of the desert’s unique scenery and colours, including some incredible red rock formations. Before getting some well-earned rest in a wonderful air-conditioned room back in town!

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Celebrating at the start of the huge downhill to the Tatacoa Desert

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Guillem from Garzon was the latest person to offer us a place to stay – unfortunately he lived about 50 miles in the wrong direction. Unbelievably, he returned about half an hour after this photo was taken to give us crisps and water. What a hero

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After turning off the main road, we were treated to some predictably gorgeous dirt-road cycling

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Through a land of beautiful green fields (fenced off, of course)

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Rolling hills

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And dramatic volcanoes

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Before we stopped for the night in Yaguara, on the edge of a lake-sized bulge in the Magdalena river. This was the view from our local bar-on-a-boat

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The next morning we ventured down to the lake to eat our porridge with a view

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Soon it was time for a mid-morning snack of chirimoyas (custard apples) and some other tropical fruits with names I can neither pronounce nor remember!

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And before we knew it, we were in the desert. This was some rare shade on an otherwise stiflingly hot road

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It was hard going as we turned onto the dirt road towards our campsite for the night

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But it was a beautiful evening

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The next day we mostly spent in bed being eaten by sandflies. On our way back to civilisation we passed the ‘Cusco Labyrinth’ – a bizarre, maze-like set of rock formations below the road

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All smiles – for the camera, at least!

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2 thoughts on “(More) hills, hospitality and heatstroke: Riding the back roads from San Agustin to the Tatacoa Desert

  1. Pingback: Colombia | Long Way Up

  2. Pingback: Taking on La Linea – from Desierto Tatacoa to Salento | Long Way Up

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