Taking on La Linea – from Desierto Tatacoa to Salento

After quite literally hitting rock-bottom in the Tatacoa desert, we were now on our way up. A lot. In the next week we would be climbing around 3,000 meters to the border of Quindio state via La Linea, one of Colombia’s most famous and steepest paved climbs – and the second biggest of our trip – before an equally breathtaking descent down the other side and into Colombia’s famous ‘Zona Cafetera’

If you’ve read my last blog (hello, mum) you won’t be surprised to hear that this wasn’t so good for our health. By now it was like a long, drawn out game of Russian (Colombian?) Roulette with one of us seemingly selected to be ill on each day. Fn: I know how annoying it is reading rambling reports of other peoples’ poor health on their cycling blogs (trust me, I must have read them all) but I really don’t have much time to edit this for content, so there.

1. Climbing to Ibague

After our recovery day under the air-con in Villavieja we continued reluctantly back to the highway, as there aren’t a whole lot of roads in this region. To get there, we took the dirt road out of town to the north, which was another amazing gravel road/path winding through the desert and out towards the more verdant countryside to the North with no traffic, and just a handful of small hamlets en route.

Unfortunately, just as I was reflecting on how great all this riding was, I looked behind and noticed that my £200 jacket (the most expensive item of clothing I owned by far) had fallen off the back of my bike and was now somewhere in the middle of desert. Cue a rush of blood to the head and a decision to turn back the way we’d come to look for it, while Charlie headed on to the next town to wait for me. I returned, four hours later, sans jacket, but having had quite the adventure, including taking a couple of canoes across the Magdalena river (to cut down on riding time).


The spectacular dirt road leading away from the desert


We had no-one else for company…


…except a lot of vultures, these ones scavenging over some carrion at the side of the road


We would be climbing those hills in the distance pretty soon though!


But first we had this crazy road to do. It wasn’t clear why such a quiet road would need a tunnel to be bored through a hill, but hey, it was pretty cool


Later on, this is me returning alone to try to find my missing jacket. I didn’t find it, but it was fun to sample the local public transport

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And here is the last known sighting of my expensive jacket – precariously hanging off the back of the bike. Not sure how the photographer didn’t pick up on that 😉

In her infinite wisdom Charlie had paid for another room with AC in my absence, and had also bumped into a German cyclist – Jonas – who was taking a similar route to us, but all the way to Alaska. I think it’s fair to say Jonas was travelling in a rather different style to us – I’m not sure he’d stayed in a single hotel in Colombia, preferring to ask people to camp in their gardens/petrol stations along the way. Anyway we decided to cycle together towards the city of Ibague, at which point we would be turning different ways. It was fun cycling with someone else for a while, and we were sad to see him go when we reached the town of Payande and looked for somewhere to sleep, and he carried on to the next friendly family’s garden.

It turns out we all made bad decisions. We later learned that Jonas had to cycle well into the dark after no such friendly families materialised, before sleeping at a highway gas station. We on the other hand were stuck in a town that turned out to have no room at the inn(s), so we rocked up to the local police station to ask for help. After about an hour of them helping us (in vain) to find somewhere, they asked us to hand over our passports and in return put us up in the superintendent’s bedroom for the night! And to top it off the lucky police chief had a huge outdoor terrace, where we slept out under the stars, before the short ride to the big city the following morning.


More dirt-road biking on the road towards Ibague


We met Jonas later that morning, and cycled with him towards Payande

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God knows how he doesn’t keep taking people out with that stick he carries on the back of his bike – or get taken out himself!


Where we slept in the local police station!

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A collector’s item in Colombia – a cycle lane that actually goes somewhere useful – in this case to Ibague, where we would rest and recover before the next big climb

2. La Linea

After two days of lying down and eating £1.50 pizza slices from the takeaway van outside our hotel, we were ready for one of our biggest challenges yet – a 2,000+ meter climb in just 50 kilometers over ‘La Linea’ – one of the continent’s biggest paved ascents, over which lay Colombia’s famous coffee region.

We set off early – at around 7am, far earlier than I can get up for work back at home –  to find that the road was beautiful, and fairly quiet but for some cyclists in full Tour de France getup trying to emulate their national hero Nairo Quintana. Then came the faint roaring of a lorry behind, followed by a convoy of trucks, cars and motorbikes all jostling to overtake, as even this, one of the busiest roads in Colombia, is only a single carriageway. This pattern continued most of the way to the top – that is, until at one point we squeezed past a lorry that had got stuck in the middle of the road and was blocking the traffic on both sides, and suddenly, the road was all ours!

The ride wasn’t actually that tough, probably owing to the eight months of strenuous, high-altitude climbing we had in our legs. But as you might have guessed, one of us (this time Charlie) suddenly had to stop with another bout of illness, luckily right outside one of the very few hospedajes on the road. Unluckily the place was horrible! But it did cost us a quid a night each so we weren’t complaining.


On the beginning of La Linea – and Colombia’s unofficial Tour de France team was out for the early-morning climb


The road was beautiful, but not photogenic, if you get my drift. At the premature end to day 1 we stopped outside this hospedaje-cum-billiards hall


This was our three quid (total) room for the night – looking a little more like a prison cell. The mattresses didn’t even fit on the floor, and god knows what that stain was.

Not to worry as we slowly did the remaining few hundred meters the next morning to reach the top around 24 hours after we set off. This felt like a pretty major achievement, at least in part due to the amount of cars that had been beeping their horns at us on the way up and shouting encouraging things at us – it was a bit like running a marathon at times. But there was little time to celebrate as some smart ass (ahem) had the idea to skip most of the descent and instead to turn off onto a country lane to take a more direct route to Salento, where our latest den of convalescence awaited us.

This ‘road’ was very tranquil and picturesque but as Charlie was still sick I found myself having to push her bike up some of the steeper bits. So we were both pretty happy when, just before dark, we turned into the La Serrana hostel and pitched our tent in their garden, overlooking the beautiful rolling hills that stretched out in every direction.


Looking back down the valley from near the top of La Linea. My ‘photos of green hills’ penny jar is getting very full


Thanks to a lorry getting stuck in the middle of one of the very tight switchbacks on this 8-10% gradient road, we had the road mostly to ourselves on the second morning


And after about eight hours’ riding over two days, we finally made the 2,200 meter climb to the top


We’d be going all the way down there somewhere


Or not. We/I checked the map again and decided to turn off the main road, on what was marked as a ‘track’, that took what looked like a more direct route to Salento, I believe Charlie was faking that smile


In parts it really didn’t resemble a road


But it sure was beautiful. After eight and a half months of this, we’ve learned that we can pretty much cycle on anything with our touring bikes. So we do!


Pushing Charlie’s bike up the final lot of hills meant I didn’t have a free camera hand. But together we made it to La Serrana hostel on the outskirts of Salento, and picked this beautiful spot for our tent, making it almost worth the 15 quid price tag


This is the view back towards La Linea – it sure isn’t flat around here!


One thought on “Taking on La Linea – from Desierto Tatacoa to Salento

  1. Pingback: Colombia | Long Way Up

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