We managed to get out of Bogota with very little trouble and started a huge decent down to 300m. It was from here that we decided rather than take the main road we would take a smaller road that ran directly parallel to what we had planned, what’s the worst that could happen?
This road was the best worst decision we could have made. Ok so it wasn’t the longest climb in the world, but it was a hell of a lot tougher. Our smooth tarmac road quickly turned to boulders and our expected 3600m peak was surpassed, we topped out at 4200m. On route we became friends with a road maintenance truck that was also heading to Manizales, they were even taking the same amount of time we were. Their job for the next two days was to take photos and survey the road for damage from the volcano, in the end we proved too fast for the workers, either that or the road was so bad they had too much surveying to do. The road in typical Colombian form was brutal yet beautiful. We were cycling past volcanoes so I guess the road and weather conditions do make sense. The higher we climbed the worst the weather got, soon we were riding through rivers and eventually it felt as if we were actually riding in the river. We encountered very little traffic, the locals here still use horseback to move goods around as the road isn’t suitable for trucks and motorbikes, I would argue it’s barely suitable for bikes but at least the horses leave a considerate amount of space when overtaking! After a full day of riding uphill in horrible conditions we were graciously given shelter by a farmer in his potato shed, we pitched our tents shivering, cooked and turned in for our highest night yet, 4100m!
We awoke to find the rain had passed but we were still very much in a cloud. We donned wet socks and shoes and climbed into our waterproofs, happy we had splashed the extra cash to buy decent ones. Before long the weather turned again, this time sleet and hailstones, well we might as-well give the jackets a real test! It wasn’t long before we realised we had conquered most of the climbing and now seemed to be traversing around the mountain/volcano enjoying brief spells of downhill. These downhills were no faster than our climbing due to the road conditions mind.
We finally descended out of Los Nevados national park and hit tarmac once again, from here it was all downhill. One last route choice error saw us taking a road that we hoped would avoid us having a small climb into Manizales, as a consequence we were thrown back onto boulder roads rather than a smooth strip of tarmac we could have been riding.
After what felt like forever we emerged from the forest trail we had descended on with numb hands but to oxygen saturated air, funny how under-rated breathing is... Our route had been a whole lot different than we had expected but one that I definitely don’t regret, the scenery was amazing and even though we couldn’t see Nevado del Ruiz we were always aware of its dominating presence as we climbed towards its peak.
We now realised that we were a little behind schedule so opted to keep to the main road in order to get some big days in our legs. We made good progress, helped by the huge downhill from Manizales, and within 4 days we were once again venturing back into the mountains. We pushed big on our final day deciding to spend the night at some hot springs we had been told about. We peddled hard, battling tired leg and a failing mental state, we were on our 9th day straight of tough riding and we were really beginning to feel it, the idea of arriving at camp and being able to sit in some hot springs was the much needed motivation to get us up the ever worsening road. We arrived to be told it would be 60 000 pesos to camp and enjoy the hot springs, not the 15 000 we had been expecting to pay. With heavy hearts, and legs, we turned around and retreated to find a suitable field to pitch our tent. No matter how tired we were not willing to pay that much to camp. Luckily a small shop was happy to let us put our tent in their garden for the night, no hot springs but we were entertained by a very inquisitive little girl who didn’t seem to understand why our home was made of material!
The next day saw us climb and climb and as always seems to happen in Colombia the road once again went to nothing more than rubble. With an excruciating slow pace and sideways rain we must have looked a real sorry state for at the top of one of the climbs a truck pulled over and offered us a lift to within 20km of our final destination. In the last 10 days we have turned down no fewer than 3 offers but it was here in the wind and rain, worrying about whether or not we would find a spot to pitch our tent for the night we gave in.
The last 5km into San Angustin were straight uphill but we met enough road cyclists on the way who kept us motivated with their cheers and woops. One man even asked if he could ride Jess’s bike, which she was more than happy to offer as that meant she would ride his lightweight machine, however, he couldn’t even get started, the weight was too much for him. In hindsight learning how to ride a fully loaded touring bike on a 10% gradient wasn’t the best idea!
It was also in the last 2km that a cyclist stopped and offered us a place in his hotel. He promised to meet us before the top, he was going to the bottom and back again and seeing our pace was confident he could do it before we could make it to town. With the added motivation of impressing yet another cyclist Jess turned on the pace and as the heavens opened once more we rolled into the town ahead of our new friend. We took shelter in a petrol station and waited for him to catch us.
We were hoping to stay in a Casa de Ciclista in San Angustin however we were informed that the farm had been sold and no longer opened its doors to wet tired cyclists, lucky for us the cyclist we had met was true to his word and acted as a personal tour guide through the streets to his front door. Now that's a great service...
We finally trundled into the hotel, cold, wet and tired, when a crazed man came running through the rain splashing through the puddles with little regard, turns out he and his partner are also cycling, coming from Alaska, and we are the first cyclists they have seen in South America, in his excitement at seeing us crawl past a bakery they were in he chased us down for a chat. Our hotel host invited us all in for coffee where we spent the next hour chatting about each other’s journeys. The owner of the hotel also explained how he wanted to make his place somewhere cyclists would come to, he offered us a discount and spoke about his own cycling experience. It is always nice when you arrive to a hotel and they don’t bat an eyelid at our filthy muddy bikes and our soaking wet bags. We now plan to spend a day or two recovering before we make for the Ecuadorian border!
We took a day longer resting in our hotel and with it waved goodbye to 4 new friends. The crazed Austrian man (who turns out isn't crazy when he's not sprinting down streets in the rain) and his wife joined us in our hotel as well as a couple form Canada, we promised to do our best to make up the distance and ride the famous "el Trampolin de la muerte" together. With fresh legs we managed to make the distance up in the first day, I think the 4 other cyclists had gone slow to allow us to catch them, still, we felt pretty good with ourselves for smashing the distance and now becoming a touring group of 6.
In Moccoa the Austrians had been told of some waterfalls that shouldn't be missed so we opted for one more rest day before we hit the notoriously tough tramplin road and with it went to check out some waterfalls at 'Fin Del Mundo' national park. With yet another rest day in our legs and the bonus as riding as group of 6 we were ready to face our challenge.
The 'Trampolin de la muerte" started out gentle but wet. This stretch of road is known for its horrible weather so it was to little surprise that we were getting wet so early on. Slowly the road deteriorated and with it came our first river crossing. Jess was first to tackle the obstacle and if it weren't for a submerged boulder she would of made it across successfully. Unfortunatley said boulder stopped her in her tracks causing for a rather damp foot, and lower leg.. I was then up, learning from Jess' mistake I took a different route and navigated the torrent without putting a foot down, however, the river was so deep that it didn't make much difference to how dry my feet where. From the opposite bank we watched and cheered as the rest of our merry party made their own attempts at getting across, and just as Jess and myself, all ended up with wet feet. From this point on our luck with the weather changed, maybe the adventure gods were satisfied with how we had risen to the challenge of the river crossing and rewarded us for after a rather long lunch stop, we found a perfect shelter, not easy when there are 6 of you, the rain had subsided and the sun was starting to make an appearance. For the rest of the day we rode through breaking clouds with the ever changing vistas appearing and reappearing. It was here that we realised why this road was so spectacular. With the nicer weather our pace slowed, every bend offered a photo opportunity that couldn't be missed and before we new it we were in a rush to find somewhere to pitch our tents before the sun dipped below the mountainside.
As we slowly climbed we spied some phone masts that promised to have at least some flat ground and although boggy we were able to pitch our tents in an almost horizontal position and enjoy the last of the suns rays as we cooked our evenings meal.
The next day all norms and standard operating procedures had returned. It was wet and damp. We packed and saddled up ready for a rather different day on the bikes. The more we climbed the wetter it got and eventually we couldn't get any wetter. It was tough going, luckily riding as a 6 meant there was always at least one person to raise moral and keep our spirits from dampening too much. Lunch was a disappointment as the restaurant we had heard about, with a promise of a hot drink, was closed. The only ones who didn't seem to bothered by this was the Canadians, they took to showing off some of their dance skills to warm themselves up.
Our day continued in much the same way, the unrelenting rain, the tough road conditions, and the ever changing emotional state. This road was showing its true colours and at times everyone of us wondered why it was so famous among cycle tourists. Was it sheer bravado and being able to say yes we were tough enough to do it, machoism if you will? Was it for the off chance of days such as the previous one where the views were spectacular? Or are we all, as cycle tourists, just slightly saddistic in the fact we like to earn our reward and get that rush at the end of some tough and challenging route? I can honestly say if it was only Jess and I on the route we would have probably taking the first car to offer us lift, being in a team, none of us could abandon the others and so we pushed on.
Just as hope was fading and we were resigning ourselves to a long slog in the dark we came upon small town where we were offered a classroom to camp in. Again for most normal people this would not have been anything to get excited about, we were sleeping on the floor in a room with more than one broken window, but for this bunch of soaked and cold cycle tourers it was just as good as any hotel.. The small shop even offered home cooked meals, something Jess and I declined, a few too many nights in a hotel meant we opted to go budget and cook for ourselves while the others gorged.
The next day dawned not bright and sunny but there was a definite lack of rain, we dressed in cold damp kit and carried on with the previous days climb, moral slightly better after a warm(ish) nights sleep. Within 4 km we had done it. We were at the top of the final pass and from here it was down to warmer, and hopefully drier, climates and also tarmac.
We descended to a town called Colon and here we stopped to warm up in some of the hot springs, we were also able to make use of their function room to try and dry as much of our kit as was possible. Im not sure they knew what they let themselves in for when they offered the 6 of us the use of the room. Maybe it was the fact that we had fully taken over this room that, with a little sweet talking from Phillip, and a small extra charge, they allowed us to remain there for the night. With good wifi and ample room to hang tents and clothes once agin we were in cycle tourists heaven, I did feel slightly sorry for the cleaners that were going to have to deal with the aftermath of our stay however.
After spending 5 days with our new friends it was time to say goodbye, with our timescale a little tighter than the others we needed to put in some bigger days and so off we set hoping to be in Ecuador within 3 days. The route didn't let up and before we knew it we were crawling our way up one of the longest, steep climbs we have done to date, everything was screaming at us to stop and wait or the others but on we pushed. Eventually, after 3 long days we made it. We rolled up to the border control and locked our bikes under the watchful eyes of the Colombian police. from here we were to queue and spend the next 2 hours waiting in line for our exit stamp.
Our time in Colombia has been amazing, I would go as far to say it has been one of our favourite places to cycle, ok joint favourite, the Carretera Austral still holds found memories for us. 6 weeks has passed and with it some amazing backroads and some new friends, it's nice to be back on the main cycle touring route and hopefully Ecuador will be just as good!
Danny and Jessica living the nomadic dream.