I’m currently in the border town of Impales, getting a few things sorted before heading across into Ecuador tomorrow. Its a bittersweet feeling heading south as I’m excited to see what the roads of Ecuador have to offer but I’m sad to be leaving behind my favourite country of the journey so far. Colombia is an extremely difficult country to cycle across with its huge mountain ranges lining the horizon in every direction. But its rewarded me with stunning views and amazingly kind-hearted people and I’ll be sad to see the back of this cycling crazy country.
After cycling the huge detour across the northern coastline of Colombia, I was now ready to head south towards the mountains and the capital of Bogota. There was still some reasonably flat(ish) riding to be had, so I put the foot down and averaged over 200 km’s a day for the first 4 days. The heat at times was unbearable, regularly hitting the high 30’s. Fortunately Colombia is stocked up with refreshing drinks of all kinds on every corner. Huge vats of natural juices, from fresh watermelon smashed into a juice to Salpicon, a sweet mix of fruits mixed up into the most refreshing drink I’ve ever tasted. The only time I really couldn’t handle the heat was camping out at night, where the temperature seemed to never get cooler and my tent became a Swedish sauna.
In the town of Bosconia, I made the rather talented move of leaving behind the ridge pole for my tent. When there’s only 3 poles for a $600 tent, it turned out to be quite a pricey mistake for a tiny pole. I realised 225 km’s down the road when I set up for the night and by then the mountains had started to appear, I hadn’t the motivation to cycle back for it. $60 later and the new pole’s on its way to meet me somewhere in southern Ecuador. I hope. My cable for the rear derailleur snapped the following day but luckily I carry spares so I had her fixed up and back running for the next day. The bad luck of having the cable snap meant I got to stop the night in a tiny Colombian village in the jungle with some typically fun and social Colombians, who insisted on buying me dinner for the night.
The climb onto the 2,600 meter high plateau which Bogota sits on was a long and challenging one, with one climb lasting 51 kms through an incredible national park, winding its way through a huge valley. I had a place to stay for a couple of nights with the fantastic James and Fer, who I’d met along the road in Mexico. Unfortunately Fer was away on business, but James took me out both nights for incredible food. A few kilos heavier, I set my sights south again, working my way out of the city along the fantastic cycle paths running the length of the city. Colombia is a cycling crazy nation, with middle aged men and women squeezing into full lycra and looking ready to take on the Tour de France on every length of road I’ve been on. There are well stocked shops in every city, with the cheapest good quality parts I’ve ever come across and friendly mechanics who are always happy to fix bikes for free (enthusiastic and kind but not always the most talented).
Heading south is where I really began to fall in love with Colombia. The roads got higher and steeper but the scenery just continued to become more stunning. The food and culture changed completely, with more native communities and mountain towns. The prices also dropped considerably the further into the mountains I travelled, with one hotel for the night costing me just 8,000 paseos (around $3). This is where I heard about the Trampolin de la Muerte (Deaths Trampoline), one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Also going by the name of Trampolin del Diablo (Devil’s Trampoline) and my personal favourite, ‘Adios mi Vida (Goodbye my Life), this road was built to move troops during the war with Peru and has claimed the lives of thousands over the years. In 2011 alone, over 500 people died, due mainly to the steep cliffs and constant landslides. Guard rails line the majority of the 66 km route now, however it’s still hardly as safe as a pillow fight on a bouncy castle.
For two days prior to be starting the route, the area had seen some heavy rain. The morning I woke up to start the climb was the heaviest so far, with huge waterfalls springing up along the roadside, and the slippery conditions making the rocky road even harder to climb up. My rear wheel slipped on the rocks constantly and I was averaging a very slow speed. On the plus side I was having a very intriguing race with a local snail to the top of the first pass, with the result in the end too close to call. The first 10 km’s of the climb, whilst very wet and difficult, were hardly what I’d consider to be dangerous. I had no gaps to leap across and I hadn’t fallen to my death yet. As I circled one steep turn that all changed in an instant.
There had been a rather large landslide where a ford in the road had been and the water was now extremely fast flowing and the crossing had become very dangerous. There were rows of cars and trucks lining either side of the crossing as they had no way of turning round on the extremely narrow road. I waited with everyone else for about half an hour before one brave driver finally took the plunge and decided to have a go at crossing it. With the water covering his bonnet, he eventually made it across, becoming the catalyst for everyone else to take a deep breath, get back into their vehicles and attempt the crossing. For me it was a slightly more difficult situation, as I had to wade across the fast flowing crossing, knowing if I slipped over I could be swept over the edge. When it was my turn to head across, I gulped down a couple of milo bravery biscuits, picked up my bike (as the water level was too high to walk the bike across) and began to wade across. The water level came close to my waist as I struggled across the 20 metres or so, weighed down by my heavy bike and slipping on the rocks below. A nice local on the other side waded in to help for the last few yards and I was safely across. He told me there would be a few more crossings along the way, however ‘mas pocco’ (smaller). There were 7 more, some man-made and some the result of the heavy rains, however nowhere near as deep or fast flowing. I made my way up, 23 kms in total for the first pass, along thin, winding roads, which are far safer for a cyclist than the trucks and cars, which had to constantly back up to edge past each other along the perilous route. One pass down and I was descending back into the clouds for a short stint, before heading back up through the mountains for a second pass along the short road.
The rain was hammering down and landslides littered the route from the previous few days. I’d been told this was one of the most beautiful roads in Colombia, however I was struggling to see anything in the mist and whenever I brought my camera out my bag would get soaked from the rain. I average between 150-200 kms a day normally, but this 66 km route took me till 7.30pm that night to finish. Heading from south to north, the route just continually climbed and I thought it would never end. I finally reached the top of the second pass at 6 pm, it took me an hour and a half to descend 10 kms down the rocky road. My arse was red raw from the horrific chafing my soaking wet clothes had caused along the way (apologies for putting anyone off their dinner reading this). Safe to say I was very happy to escape the cold that night and dry out all my clothes and kit.
The next day was more climbing over yet another pass through the cold wind and rain. The temperature at the top was a balmy 6 degrees, quite the difference from the late 30’s I’d been moaning about only a few days before. I dropped into a huge valley and the city of San Juan del Pasto. As I was sampling a local bakery (no surprise there) I got chatting to a local who told me his friend was a keen cyclist and would have no problem hosting me for the night. That night I stopped at Emmanuel’s place, whose family just so happened to own a bakery…my idea of a dream house. I spent the whole night practising my Spanish and gorging on fresh bread, which has now led me to this border town and the gateway to Ecuador. The route here was more stunning valleys, mountains and towns and one final majestic find in an incredibly beautiful church deep in the valley of Las Lajas.
Colombia has been amazing, but also a massive challenge, with constantly climbing roads and valleys, taking me to breath sapping heights and through both extremes of hot and cold. Its been a little taste of what’s to come, cycling through the world’s second highest mountain range. The body is feeling good if not a little tired at times. Donations are still coming in, with the total still ticking over, all be it a little slower than in previous months. Thank you so much to everyone who has contributed in some way so far, its kept my legs going and the spirits high. Whilst I’ve loved Colombia, it’s been a massive challenge to take the long way through and it’s all for a worthy cause. If reading this inspires you in anyway to contribute, however small to bringing some happiness to children with far greater challenges facing them, please follow the link below and sponsor a mile today.