(120) Incredible Columbia
Arriving in my last country in South America and being Columbia was so exciting. It had been a while since I had really wanted to explore on my own and it felt great. The only worry that was on my mind was that I was getting behind. Looking at the map I could see that once I had left Medellin in the north there would be little in the way of towns, hills or anything making me think that it would be a good place to get my head down and enjoy the south. I had been excited about Columbia for a long time and didn’t want to miss anything. After a little research I found out about the church at las Lajas and decided I would make my decision in the morning.
Wednesday 26th August
Having slept well and a day off I was reluctant to get up as I was so cosy in bed but with the church to go and see I pulled myself out of bed and went out to have breakfast. Still unsure how long it would take to go and see the church I wasn’t sure if I should just give it a miss and get going. Once I returned to the hotel thinking I’d had quite a few days off already part of me wanted to get going and make up time but I knew I would benefit more from stopping. I set out around 10am and I made my way to where the collectivo’s were and waited for one more person to fill the car, once full we made our way the 3miles to las Lajas where we dropped deep down in to a gorge to the entrance. From here I made my way down the steep grey stone streets to the church that appeared before me,
It was incredible and in a way hard to believe it was real. Feeling happy and relaxed with no time scale I just enjoyed looking around and taking in this magnificent building.
(The inspiration for the church’s creation was a miraculous event in 1754 when Amerindian Maria Mueces and her deaf-mute daughter Rosa were caught in a very strong storm. The two sought refuge between the gigantic Lajas, when to Mueces’s surprise, her daughter Rosa exclaimed “the Mestiza is calling me” and pointed to the lightning-illuminated silhouette over the laja. This apparition of the Virgin Mary instigated popular pilgrimage to the site and occasional reports of cases of miraculous healing. The image on the stone is still visible today.
The existence of a shrine in this location was recorded in the accounts of friar Juan de Santa Gertrudis‘s journey through the southern region of the New Kingdom of Granada between 1756 and 1764. The first shrine was built here in the middle of 18th century from straw and wood. It was replaced with a new, larger shrine in 1802, which in turn was extended and connected to the opposite side of canyon with a bridge). An extract taken from wikipedia.
Once satisfied I had looked around I set off again back to the centre of Ipiales feeling pleased I’d stop and made the effort. With the rest of the day to spare I decided to fit the Orange urbanshell covers that Amanda’s brother in law makes to my panniers. Even though I have Ortlieb panniers that are waterproof when they get wet it encourages condensation to form on the inside getting things wet inside the panniers. I found by using these cover would not only stop this happening but along with being extremely visible they would also prolong the life of the panniers from the damaging effects of the sun which had already taken its toll on them and I just wished I’d known about them from the start. With the shells fitted I had time to check emails and hear from home which is always nice. With a trip to the steak house planned it had been a good first day in my 29th country and couldn’t wait for what lay ahead
Thursday 27th August
Feeling refreshed after day off I packed my things and went out for breakfast. I knew I had a climb at the end of the day but should have a descent into Pasto to finish with. By the time I had returned and brought my things down to load my bike it was around 9am.
The really steep dirt road out of the city
I got going dropping a little out of the city and reached a short climb out the other side. As I left the outskirts I passed army checkpoints with soldiers lining the road with machine guns. Everything felt relaxed and so rode on dropping down into a deep gorge.
The road down through this narrow valley was stunning
It was an amazing descent with the odd climb and got lots of waves from many guys on their road bikes all different ages and sizes. It was really great to see so many out enjoying their nice light bikes but I was a little envious. After around 20 miles I spotted two cycle tourists again with the female in front. I did think good on her for being so strong and stopped to chat. They were from the north of Spain and had been on the road for 3 years. They had hardly any stuff and wondered again why I had so much.
We chatted for about 40 minutes before we wished each other well and I descended the last 3 miles to the town. Knowing I had a 16 mile climb ahead it was a good time to stop for lunch. Even with it being a little early I knew the climb would take several hours and didn’t know whether I would find food ahead. A couple on a motorbike pulled up outside and stopped. The guy was British and the girl was Canadian and were great to chat to along with hearing the English accent. I left the town by 12.30 and dropped to the bridge passing even more military check points which felt good to see so many and made it feel safe. Once across the bridge I started the climb which was at a nice gradient. I slowly climbed out of the valley and just kept climbing.
Looking up at the road ahead
I took it easy and after a couple hours I was still feeling strong. I was climbing at around 400 metres an hour and if I kept it up I should reach the summit by 3,30pm. Feeling good with strong rested legs I continued to climb passing many guys on bikes in their way down. Reaching the summit by 3.30pm felt great and so started the 8 mile descent into town. With spots of rain hitting me as I descended I wondered if I would get wet but managed to avoid it as I reached the town. Having just received a recommendation from Joe and Lizzie I rode through the town to find the right street.
As I drew closer to the centre a guy on a mountain bike stopped to ask where I was going. I explained I was looking for a hotel which he said he would take me to but first he wanted to buy me a cheese bread. We made our way to a seller where I had one along with a hot chocolate.
This hotel must have been stunning in its day
Took me ages to work what it was on the table 🙂
It was so kind of him and so set off to the hotel where we dropped our bikes off and he showed me around town. Needing to go to his fathers birthday he had enough time to show me a few sights along with a display of models for the January carnival. I was taking into a building where the inside was filled with colour.
These would be people dressed up
This would be a huge Truck thats completely covered
They were all models but were what they would look like on the day. They were incredible and so well made and the thought of seeing these for real was overwhelming and made me want to return in January. It was amazing he had shown me this stuff other wise I would have just gone to see the landmarks and missed it. We headed back where he collected his bike and said goodbye. Needing a shower and food I headed out to grab something in town. I was loving Columbia more and more and couldn’t wait to see what was next.
Friday 28th August
With the shutters closed to the outside world I had no idea what time it was. I checked my watch to see it had already gone 8.30am and I hadn’t breakfast yet. I went to the bakery next door where I sat and had a coffee and a small meal while I watched the Vuelta bike race on television. I could have stayed there all day and watched it but knowing I had a couple climbs I set off. The climb pretty much started as soon as I left the city and headed east. The wind was strong slowing me down and in places almost brought me to a standstill.
As the rain fell it cooled me as I was hot and knew I would over heat if I put a rain coat on. After 10 miles of climbing I reached the first summit at 3,550 mts and started the steep 5 mile descent to the town next to the lake. Being midday I stopped at a friendly cafe and asked if I could eat. With fish the recommendation I sat and ate my soup followed by trout, rice, chips and salad, all washed down with two cups of blackberry juice. It was amazing and the family were so friendly. While I was there I got chatting to a lovely Belgium couple who were interested in my trip. When I came to pay the owner told me the couple had paid before they left. It was an incredible gesture and felt so lucky. I thanked the lovely family for my dinner and started the next climb out of the village.
The lovely family that owned the restaurant
With the wind still strong I slowly climbed the 600 metres over the next pass. As I neared the top the Tarmac disappeared and turned into a hard sticky mud that slowed my progress. I reached the top to find the road was being worked on and had to wait for it to be cleared.
Climbing in the mist and rain towards the pass
It was cold on the top and with the road being so sticky I didn’t need to use my brakes on the first part of the descent. As I dropped out of the clouds the steep green scenery appeared in front of me and the road turned back to tarmac. It was amazing and so as the bends weaved in and out of the tiny inlets so did I. With a perfect descending gradient that wasn’t to steep I could relax and enjoy the ride which felt amazing.
Climbing past some settlements making the most of the fertile soil
As I waved at people so they waved back with a smile making me feel warm and very welcome. As I dropped towards the valley I passed a young lad on a race bike where I shouted and waved. I continued on and was soon joined by the young lad and so we chatted as we rode towards town.
This young lad was so nice to ride with
He was a keen 13 year old lad on a nice road bike and was out for a spin. It was so nice seeing him obviously enjoying himself and I enjoyed his company. He rode with me all the way to Sibundoy where he lived and helped me find a hotel. It had been a while since I’d ridden with someone on a road bike and oh how I missed the riding style and how light the bike feels when riding. With it only being 4pm I relaxed and had a shower before wondering around what I thought was a small town that ended up much bigger. After ten minutes of walking and not seeing the end I turned around to get food. Tomorrow I had another climb and the infamous Trampoline del Murto road which is similar to the death road in Bolivia but this one is still being used as a link between Pasto and Mocoa and it was busy.
Saturday 29th August
Waking early to get over the pass and descend the Trampolin del murte wasn’t a great idea after hearing the rain beating against the roof. Deciding to wait it out I lay in bed for another hour waiting for it to ease. I packed my things and thanked the owner setting out on to the wet streets and out of town.
The road to Saint Francisco was flat but seeing the mountains rise up it in front of me shrouded in dark foreboding clouds it looked more like in penetrable fortress then a mountain pass but still I rode on to what I knew I was a long climb.
Heading towards the hills and the death road
Unsure of the exact road as I had two on my map I was pointed in the right direction by two guys on a motorbike. The road soon turned to dirt and started to climb steeply. It was hard and slow going with the mud slowing me down even more and I finally reached the summit around 12.30 after climbing a little over 700 metres. The road although narrow was good to start with and as I slowly dropped into the gorge below the scenery became more impressive. After squeezing through I small gap between the hills I started to climb on the south face of the mountain slowly getting higher.
As the river dropped away below the difference between the valley floor and the road was becoming even greater. As rain clouds moved in it wasn’t always clear how far the side of the mountain dropped away but only just being able to hear the river below I knew it was a long way down.
The cliff often over hung the road with little room for even the trucks
As trucks passed I could see there was little space for me let alone other cars. There were breaks in the clouds and rain which helped see what was around but with such heavy rain the real issue was land slides. There had been so much rain it was now a real danger and soon I was stopped by a car to say the road ahead was blocked ahead because of one.
The thin line of the road just visible in the mist with the sheer drop off the side
Having already dropped over 1000 metres I thought I would continue and see for myself. As the rain got heavier I could see little over the edge but in places I was quite pleased that I couldn’t. The cliff over hung the road in many places giving me a little shelter from the rain and any falling objects.
The road behind that cut through the jungle on the way to the drop offs
The road ahead as it got steeper
As I continued to climb I was starting to wonder when I would start the descent to Mocoa. I turned the corner to see all the vehicles that had passed me on the road were now stuck on the road ahead. I squeezed past them one by one and came to the six foot high landslide that blocked the whole road.
With the ground moving slowly under foot I wanted to cross as fast as I could
With a few people moving stones it was going to be a long time before anything happened so using the small narrow track created by people climbing over I pushed my bike up and over hoping it didn’t move. From here it was only 1 km to the summit where I was greeted by a few people one of which invited me into a small cafe to have a coffee and a crispy ball with potato, meat and veg inside.
As the cloud lifted it left a glimpse of what lay around me before closing in leaving me wondering what lay around me liked being on an enchanted road
One of the many cool trucks trapped on the road and showing just how bright my urbanshell covers really are.
Not having had any dinner it tasted amazing and knowing I was at the top of the last hill was even better. I set off down through the misty jungle to see glimpses of the road way below me. I couldn’t believe how steep the mountain was and how the road seemed to be at time almost last on top of each other.
Three roads built above each other just visible through the mist
One of the many river crossings on the way down, with this van only just making it across
At times had no idea where the road was taking me, then to see it through a clearing in the canopy
You may be able to see the truck in the middle making its way around this spur
As I dropped I cleared the mist and crossed several deep rivers that crossed the road. With my brake blocks almost warn out I needed to stop and change them. With my hands cold it made it hard to grip the small parts and dropped a couple bits into the gravel. I was so annoyed and could have done with out it. I searched and searched but with no sign I then had to dig out my spares box that was buried deep in my panniers. After half an hour of precious light my blocks were changed and could set off once again and try and reach Mocoa.
Popping out of the clouds into the Columbian Jungle
As I got lower the road became less steep and was soon back on tarmac. By this time the light was fading fast and would still be riding well after dark. Putting my lights on I road along the now nice smooth tarmac getting ever closer to the town. After weaving through the street’s I reached the town square and was pointed to a hotel. All I needed was a clean bed, a shower and some food. I was shattered and didn’t hang about. I was soon fed and laying in my bed with tired legs and judging by the map I had a full day tomorrow.
Sunday 30th August
Even though I had slept well I still woke late after a long day. According to the map I had 104 km to Pitalito but when I put the town into my GPS it was 82 miles (130km). Needing breakfast I went next door for my usual fried eggs, bread and coffee and by the time I was ready it had already gone 10am and knew I wouldn’t make the town. As I made my way out of Mocoa I stopped to speak to two mountain bikers. They offered me a drink which was amazing and ended up with them for about 45 minutes. With time moving on fast I got my head down and started the climb and descent of numerous hills.
Just had to take a picture of this little one
The sound of the jungle was incredible and so intense in places. After one climb and being almost 2pm I stopped at a restaurant in a tiny village. It was good to stop and refuel but I had hardly covered any miles. I soon pushed on again dropping slightly and then started to climb.
The country side was just incredible
The humidity was so high it was making me sweet so much my eyes were stinging as it dropped off my eyelids. With the afternoon broken by the odd short break to grab a drink and chat to soldiers I was starting to make good progress. I would pass the odd water shoot that was directed out onto the side of the road giving me a good chance to soak my head and wash my arms.
There were a lot of these houses on the side of the road
Having stayed dry for most of the day only having had the odd shower that helped me cool it made the riding pleasant but with the light fading I reached the top of a climb to see a village in the valley below next to the road. I dropped for about ten minutes reaching the village and found a restaurant. Knowing it would save me time I stopped for tea and the guy asked where would I sleep. I said I had a tent and didn’t know. Looking concerned he said there was space at the restaurant which was perfect as the light was almost gone. As I wheeled my bike in from outside the heavens opened and it continued to rain constantly. I couldn’t believe the timing and was quite glad I wasn’t camping. The owners kids were lovely and while we chatted I was playing with their four year old boy tickling him in his ribs when he farted. This was followed by the three boys falling about the floor in hysterics. It was good to see them laugh so much all be it about a fart which is funny to boys around the world. I had done what I needed to for the day and had somewhere nice to sleep. Although I was tired it would give me chance to have an early night. Something I hadn’t done for a while and desperately needed.
Monday 31st August
After a slow day yesterday I knew I had to get on the road much earlier but hearing the rain beating on the roof and being so warm and cosy I left it a bit before I dragged myself out of bed. Sleeping at the restaurant had its benefits as I loaded my bike I could order breakfast. The family were lovely and I was grateful for how they had looked after me with perfect timing being out of the rain. I was on the road by 8.30am and made slow but steady progress.
Saw this on the side of the road which I thought was cool
As I continued to climb and descend the rain started but was just enough to keep me cool with out getting soaked. As I dropped to another river crossing I crossed the bridge and onto the next climb when my bike disappeared below me throwing on to the ground and sliding along the Tarmac. Apart from a grazed knee and sore hands all was ok and was pleased I wasn’t going fast or being followed by a car. I knew the sides of the road could be slippy but the middle had taken me by surprise. I continued to climb with a sore knee and finally reached the summit where there was another military checkpoint. I stopped to chat and were nice to talk to.
These vehicles looked so cool
Although these guys were easy to spot a mile off I couldn’t see the guys chatting across the road in the jungle
With it being pretty much down hill to Pitalito I took it steady and enjoyed the ride. Stopping for lunch at another family restaurant I decided I would head straight for San Augustus. It was a little further on but would mean a full day off tomorrow. Reaching the junction I turned west and started to climb steadily. The scenery had been stunning and the sound of the jungle so intense. I was really enjoying Columbia and although it was hard going it was worth it. Knowing I had a climb a head I picked up some fresh oranges ate four of them and started the steep climb out of the valley up to the village.
As I climbed I passed this waterfall that dropped off the edge
The scenery was amazing
With rain coming up the valley I pushed on and knew I was going to get wet but it didn’t matter. My clothes would get a pre wash and it was wasn’t cold enough to matter. In fact it was perfect on such a steep climb being so low. Reaching the town just after 4pm gave me time to find a hotel send my sister a birthday message and grab some food. With a day off tomorrow I booked a tour to see some ruins and went for a beer with a dog. Yes a dog that seemed to think there was something in my bag for him. I did enjoy his company but being soaked though I think he also wanted to dry himself and it’s good to know I’m good for something even to a dog 🙂
Tuesday 1st Sept
Waking up early for the tour I popped next door for some breakfast before making my way to the tour office. On arrival the lady told me the sights were closed and she didn’t know why. Not really knowing what to do she said our group could still see he other natural sights that were on the same route. Agreeing to do this we headed off in the jeep and picked up a few others before heading out of town. It was a shame we couldn’t see the sights but what we did see along with a narrow gorge, a few water falls and some old tombs was great.
This river was flowing so fast
It was good to see what we did but I could barly keep my eyes open in the jeep. The driver must have thought wha a waste but between the towns I saw the same views on my bike and with the luxury of a warm car with fresh air coming in through the window it was only natural.
Having had a full day out I headed for the supermarket to get ingredients for a pepper steak dinner which once finished was amazing. washed down with a couple beers I headed to bed for an early night and ready to see some more sights tomorrow.
Having to make my own way out to the sights which were on the outskirts of town I went for breakfast and sat watching the rain fall. Picking up a few snack the rain stopped and waited for a collectivo to pick me up. I got chatting to a local guy who worked in a train station in the uk and told me one would be along in a couple minutes but then offered to take me himself for about 40 pence on his motor bike.
The statues were incredible and beautiful all feeling a story of a different time.
These sights here and around San Augustin contain the largest group of religious monuments and megalithic Statues in South America and stand in the wild, craggy landscape. These works of art show the creativity and imagination of the northern Andean culture that flourished from the 1st to the 8th century covering large areas of land via walk ways to elaborate burial chambers.
Even though many were disturbed long ago many of the building techniques have been unharmed.
It was incredible walking from site to site and see the many different statues and I was surprised at how many there were.
Fading fast as the day went on I headed back to the entrance and back into town. Planning on being back on my bike tomorrow I a little sorting to do before I could relax. Tomorrow was going to be tough as I was heading over the pass and back down into Columbias central depression and on to Popayan
Thursday 3rd Sept
Having been in the town for two days it was time to leave. It had been nice to stop but I seemed to spent a lot of it a sleep. I said goodbye to the lovely owner and descended out of town. Needing to drop 400 metres to the river was a little annoying seeing as I had to climb higher the other side but I was feeling rested and strong. Deciding to put some music was a good idea.
The climb towards the pass
Listen to some tunes made me relaxed stopping me from pushing on to hard to begin with. With black clouds moving across the sky I wasn’t sure if I would get wet so pushed on anyway hoping for the best. I climbed past a small house with a couple dogs going mental at seeing me and a cat laid beside them not even bothered to lift a whisker.
This cat was so chilled
It did make me chuckle and so I climbed ever higher towards the pass. Seeing a restaurant at lunch time was perfect and went in and got chatting to Colombian guy. It was great to chat but when he came to leave he told me he had paid for the both of us. It was incredible and I couldn’t get my head around how nice everyone is. As the day went on I slowly got closer to 3,000 metres but with the road climbing then dropping I knew I was in for a long day. Passing a truck the driver stopped and told me it was dangerous on the road at night due to gorilla activity. I thanked him and rode on hoping I would reach somewhere by dark.
It was becoming slow going with the road also being wet
With the road now dirt and very bad my going was slow and I couldn’t see anywhere good to camp. The jungle was so thick I would need a chainsaw to get anywhere near it.
The further I went the thicker the jungle got
Keeping my eyes peeled for anything away from the road I continued to slowly climb and descend along the narrow road. It wasn’t bad going but as I moved further west the road became wetter with a thick layer of mud on the surface. I knew I was getting covered but being now dark I could only see what was ahead. Although the mud was thick and it was dark the thought of gorillas didn’t worry me. Whether it was because it was so cold, wet and muddy I’m not sure but I did think if I was a gorilla I think I would have a night off.
I’ve had to lighten this photo as it was close to dark so you can see how thick it was becoming
Struggling to feel my fingers I put my jacket on and started to descend. I wasn’t descending much but I was ticking off the miles. A guy stopped to see if I was ok and I shock his hand which was so warm. He immediately commented on how cold I was and said I must get in. I asked how far the next village was to which he said 2km. It was perfect and thanked him for his kind offer. I followed his lights into the distance and soon reached the village. I was soon shown to a restaurant, a place to sleep and leave my bike for the night which was amazing. With a very basic room sorted. All I had to do was eat and wash in the freezing cold water. I’d been looking forward to camping but with everything so wet I was pleased to have a bed and not have to dry the tent in the morning.
Friday 4th Sept
After a long day and a cold night on a bed harder then an arctic winter then needing to get up to add my Thermarest to the bed to make it more comfy I woke to a cold day with mist vapour coming from mouth. It was still really early but it didn’t stop the buses from sounding their horns for what felt like forever and the large trucks struggling up the hill with their laboured engines. I got up around 9am and put my bike out side the restaurant so I could have breakfast. With the sun out I knocked off the worst of the mud and set off to Popayan.
Descending from the pass going past this old volcano
I had around 30 miles to go on what I thought would be Tarmac but soon returned to dirt. Having been told about a thermal spring I rode for about 18 miles when I arrived at the gates. A guy let me in and for £3 could use all the pools. I was soon in my trucks and dipping into the first pool which wasn’t the eye wateringly hot pool we had in Ecuador but was warm enough to take the chill off the cold wind that blew. I then thought I would access the next pool via the long man made waterslide which by the time I reached the bottom I was pleased to still be concuss. Before leaving I had to try it again but a little faster to see if it felt safer.
The stunning setting of the thermal pools with the slide of terror 🙂
Realising it didn’t I relaxed in one more pool before getting changed and set off down the hill. Although it was mostly down hill the climbs felt hard and was pleased they were short. A truck over took me to which I sat in behind as the road by this point had gone back to Tarmac but it was a bad choice. Hitting a pot hole full on I managed to hold my bike but not with out my pannier coming off. Luckily still attached by a carabiner I stopped and fixed it then set off again for town.
Arriving in this beautiful white city was amazing
I reached Popayan by 1pm and headed for a hostel I had been told about and checked in. It was a perfect place to stay and with a food festival going on it was perfect timing. I headed out to see what was on offer sampling the many delights on offer, once eaten I took my time wondering the streets which were all white and beautiful before I returned back to the hostel to relax.
This piece of art was on one of the walls in one of the many white side streets
As the afternoon went on I returned to grab some more good at the many stands and enjoy the evening before returning to rest. It was a beautiful town but I wanted to get further north. Cali was over 100 miles north and if I could get there in a day and a half or even a day it would give me time to look around before heading to the coffee plantations. Although yesterday was long and hard it had given me an easy day today and time to relax.
Having survived the death road and the pass back over the Andes I would now be on a good highway. I knew it wouldn’t be as interesting but with only major highways heading north to south I had very little options. I was pleased with what I had seen so far in Columbia and having only seen a small portion I was excited about what lay ahead.
Thanks for reading xx