We spent 44 days touring almost 1600km in Colombia from Cartagena to Ipiales at the Ecuadorian border. Because there is no road from Panama to Colombia through the Darien Gap, we took a sailboat to Cartagena, a vibrant historic port city on the Caribbean. Founded in 1533 by the Spanish and the focus of wars and pirates, Cartagena today is an incredible mix of old colonial homes and plazas, impressive cathedrals and used defensive battlements. There are 11km of old stone walls surrounding the city topped with cannons and lookout points from the 17th century that we walked on today overlooking both historical streets and monuments and skyscrapers of the adjacent neighbourhood. Castilllo San Felipe towers over the city, an impressive fortress dating from 1536 that has been attacked many times but never penetrated. There are tall skyscrapers, a vibrant old town with colonial streets filled with fruit and vegetable vendors and leafy vines hanging overhead, local people hang out in old plazas listening to handheld radios, socializing and snacking on delicious street food. There is a storekeeper who feeds a flock of pigeons in his little corner store.
Vendors walk down the narrow streets selling fruit, vegetables and huge blocks of heavily salted country cheese. The corner store supermarket doubles as a bar to watch World Cup football games, which just started the day we landed on shore. With each goal, the whole store would break out in pandemonium with cheering and horn blowing. Colombia won 3-0 that first game and people took their celebrations to the street afterwards.
The ride from Cartagena to Taraza via Caucasia was over gentle, long rolling hills covered with farms and ranches. The lowlands are hot but scenic with the landscape covered with pastureland crisscrossed with well built fences and little farmhouses selling homemade cheese and honey, fresh veggies and blocks of raw sugar and bowls of luscious ripe mangoes. Horses stand tall in wide, open green pastureland while donkeys tied beside the road try to eat the grass just outside of their reach, apparently tastier than the grass within reach. I saw a cowboy lasso a big bull cow on the side of the road while his young son sat on a horse beside him. Milk trucks make their rounds, transporting metal jugs full of fresh milk from each of the ranches to the local cheese or dairy factories.
After Taraza, we entered the foothills but it was still relatively flat riding as the road ran beside the fast flowing, tan coloured river powered by gravity racing down a narrow green valley. We passed by numerous man-made gysers where people have fed a hose into one of the many waterfalls and streams tumbling down the mountainside to make truck washing stations. The towns felt very Wild West like with most men dressed as genuine modern cowboys. Their wide brim cowboy hats are made from black and natural coloured straw, a local handicraft this region is known for. The older men wear crisp buttoned up, collared cotton shirts of various colours while the younger generation tends to just wear old, grungy t-shirts. The men have a cotton scarf slung over a shoulder and often a many tailed leather whip swinging from their hip. People tend to wear black gumboots, the poor man’s cowboy boots I guess.
At restaurants on the outskirts of town, there are stables beside restaurants with many saddled horses resting in the shade. From the main highway, the little towns in the hills are connected by suspension bridges over the raging river and I think that outside of the highway, there are probably not very many roads and horses the choice mode of transportation. The little towns clustered along the highway have some hotels, restaurants, butcher shops, little groceries, amazing smelling (and tasting) bakeries and a fair amount of bars which complete the Wild West saloon feel playing Latin country music (think a Johnny Cash beat with a lot more accordian) loud while men and women drink beer all day. The bars were hopping when we passed the first one at 10am!
After Puerto Valdivia, the climb started. From nearly sea level at Taraza, we climbed up to 345m that night, mostly in the 8km after Puerto Valdivia. The next day was the spectacular climb from 345m to 2074m elevation in 30km! The view is breathtaking with green mountains covered in trees and pastureland, with many white ribbons of waterfalls cascading down them in the distance and mist curling around slopes. We climbed over one steep wall of mountain escarpments and saw Valdivia town (about 18km past Puerto Valdivia) and the next level of mountains. Valdivia looked like a fairy tale town from a distance perched ontop of a mountain with a large domed church in the middle and steep mountain escarpments surrounding it. Overall the road was very good and manageable the whole way eventhough a lot of our ride today was between 7 and 11% grading. There was this one short hill that was particularily steep and all of a sudden I felt an amazing boost. A boy was pushing the back of my bike and running up the hill, passing Bryan and bringing me to the more reasonable uphill section.
From Yarumal, it was a short bit of descent – the first in a while- and then more climbing to the top of the valley to ride over the cold, misty rocky ridge up at 2741m. It’s hard to imagine that just three days before, it had been hot to even contemplate pants and now I wished that I wore my leg warmers. Up in the high hilly plateau, it is like a Colombian version of Oregon’s Tillamook or even the Fraser Valley back home. There are dairy ranches everywhere and little farms selling fresh produce like sacks of red potatoes and huge squashes. We have been enjoying a lot of really good ice cream these days. Many of the homes are made from red brick as with the little churches in the towns on the way. Very quaint. We stopped at a large dairy factory by Santa Rosa de Osos that took in local milk and made cheese, yogurt and other milk products. They made panqueso, which literally translates to cheese bread. It looks like a flatish bagel but instead of a bagel with cream cheese, the cheese is baked into the bread so it is infused through the whole thing. It was so amazingly rich and delicious, especially warm right out of the oven.
We dropped around 1000m from Santa Rosa to Medellin. Our bikes were more suited to the tight turns winding down the mountainside with 6-11% downhill grades than the big trucks and we actually ended up passing some trucks crawling down the road. At the bottom, the highway becomes a busy six lane divided freeway heading through the narrow valley into Medellin. Out of Medellin, a side of hwy 25 was closed to traffic as an amazing, giant bike path since it was Sunday and cyclists seemed to come out in force.
We ascended from 1473m evelation to the heights of 2416m at Alto de Minas, nearly 1000m over our 40km ride the first day out of Medellin then the next day, we dropped over 1800m to La Pintada at 602m elevation back at the Rio Cauca. Afterwards, it was a slow and steady climb back up to 1692m elevation through river valleys and rolling hills through coffee country to Santa Rosa de Cabal, about 14km before the city of Pereira. It is really beautiful here as we follow rushing rivers through groves of huge bamboo and ride through dramatic hills covered with dark green coffee bushes covered with little light green and red fruit. We made our way slowly, checking out coffee shops, tasting the red coffee berries that can be eaten raw and spitting out the green beans, and enjoying the amazing homemade chorizo sausages that Santa Rosa de Cabal is known for. Santa Rosa is a great little town where elderly men sit around in the numerous coffee shops and the park by the white cathedral in the middle of the town passionately talking politics and life with each other. We went to the Termales de Santa Rosa, gorgeous hotsprings beside cascading waterfalls. When we got too hot from relaxing in the hot, therapeutic waters for hours, we would cool off in the beautiful 75m waterfall. Amazing!
We descended into the Valle de Cauca, a wide wide flat valley framed by the two rows of tall mountains covered with seas of sugarcane. There are trucks hauling five huge trailers full of sugar cane! We were riding down the highway when a group of local cyclists started talking to me as we rode. One of the cyclists, James, a carpenter who moonlights as a bicycle mechanic out of a little shop in his garage, ended up invited us to stay at his place in Tulua. We all hung out all afternoon, showing some of our pictures, chatting about the road ahead, going for a long walk around the city, getting ice cream and drinking beers on the sidewalk. The next day, we spend the night with Junior, our Warmshowers host in Palmira. He is a semi-pro cyclist who just won 2nd place in a mountain biking competition over the previous weekend.
We climbed out of the Valle de Cauca back into the highlands to Popayan over two days. The two rows of tall mountains don’t look as high anymore and the clouds hover closer to us. The hills are covered with little ranches and small coffee farms. People would dry coffee beans on tarps in their driveways. Popayan is a beautiful white colonial city where we stayed with amazing Swiss couchsurfing hosts, Frederic and Laurence.
From Popayan, we took a side trip by bus to San Agustin, a hippy town nestled in misty mountains known for its mysterious archaelogical treasures. We went on a four and half hour horseback riding adventure to some of ancient statues and tombs from the 1-9th century AD.
From Popayan to Pasto, the landscape became more wild and remote framed by dramatic mountains and scenery. Unlike the tamed hills leading up to Popayan covered with ranches and farms, the land here was dramatic with cutting canyons, steep escarpments and jutting peaks all covered with trees and sweeping grassland with a very wild and untamed flavour. The road was definately still in the process of being tamed with many parts under construction. There must have been half a dozen partial road closures where as cyclists, we would jump to the front of the line with the other two wheeled forms of transportation, motorbikes. The road would turn to gravel, often with a stream running down its potholed, bumpy, muddy mess, which is often the reason for construction in the area. The wild landscape also held other dangers here. The road from Popayan to Pasto is unfortunately known for FARC rebels and bandits and long periods between civilization and hotels. The FARC rebels are currently in peace talks with the government and also are reported to have largely given up using kidnapping and ransom to fund their movement but have rather moved into cocaine. Never thought that cocaine would make it less dangerous for us to travel here in Colombia! The bandits apparently are largely late-night workers so we were warned by a local cyclist that it wasn’t really a problem if you’re off the road by around 3pm and a cycle tourist who had just gone through recommended staying at hotels instead of camping on this stretch. We did both of those recommendations and had no problems at all in the whole stretch to Pasto.
As we descended into the desert valley between El Bordo and Remolino, we could actually feel the temperature rise. The empty hills covered with cactuses really reminded me of cycling in Baja California again. Remolino town at the end of the valley is nothing really special as a town but it was an oasis of restaurants, hotels and a gas station for mainly truck drivers…and cyclists… to spend the night. The climb up to Pasto started after Remolino and the next day was short in distance for us but all climbing up to Alto de Chapungo. The uphill was long and hot rising out of the desert valley but it was so beautiful. We rose up into the Cordillero Central mountains and at every turn, there seems to be a breathtaking view of the rugged ridges and peaks. It looked like a painting with rows after rows of mountains, each fading from a bright green in the forefront to royal blues in the distance. The Patia River winds through a narrow canyon far below us. As we rose in elevation, there were more people and small farms dug into the rocky mountainside. There would be dried yellow stalks of maize grown in rows among dark redish black volcanic rock.
The next day, we winded down for the first 14km from Alto de Chapungo and then up for all the rest to Chachagui on dramatic mountainslopes alongside narrow river canyons. It was a vast network of river canyons and tall monolithic stone peaks and escarpments covered in green grass and sometimes gravity defying farms. The climb today was very managable as the grade was steady and the scenery so scenic that you could loose yourself in it. What made it tough was the gusting wind. The canyons are deep enough that the air is hotter at the bottom than at the top so the warm air rises and then the wind wooshes in through the narrow river canyons….and at us riding on roads perched on its side. The strong winds sometimes swirl giving us a bit of a boost with a tailwind but most of the time, it was fighting against us as a super strong, hard to even pedal forwards, headwind. It whipped the sand and grit on the road and more freaky, little bits of rock from the cliff-faces above us into our faces as we’re forced to squint and pedal as hard as we could.
We made it to Chachagui and decided to call it a day since it was already around 2pm and we would not be able to make it to Pasto, another uphill climb, that night. As fate would have it, I got sick that night in Chachagui and ended up staying and extra day there to rest. On our final day of our ride in this section, we climbed about 22km in total up to Alto de Daza and then it was 10km downhill into the Artriz Valley to beautiful Pasto at the foot of the misty, active Galeras volcano.
We have had such an amazing time in Colombia and a part of us didn’t want it to end. We dragged our feet a bit in the last bit of Southern Colombia, spending two nights in Pasto, riding for two days to Ipiales and then spending three nights there volunteering at a local English school. Pasto is also nicknamed the Theological City, or City of Churches because there is literally a gorgeous cathedral on every corner. They all have different styles and histories as well from Gothic architecture to neoclassical to very ornate, Moorish influences. Out of Pasto was a 14km ascent to a ridge at over 3000m on the volcano which is very popular with local cyclists before descending for 25km until the small mountain town of Pedregal. The descent was beautiful because the mountains were covered in a patchwork quilt of farms. Ipiales is a misty city in the clouds at 2950m. In Ipiales, we stayed with Alvaro who has an English institute. We stayed for three days volunteering there helping teach and practicing English with the students. We meant to only stay one night in Ipiales before crossing the border into Ecuador but it didn’t take much convincing for us to stay three. In Ipiales, we also visited the gorgeous Sanctuary of Las Lejas, which is a Gothic revival style cathedral perched in the middle of a river gorge. It is a site of miraculous healing beginning in the 18th century when a deaf-mute child was suddenly able to talk and point out an apparition of the Virgin Mary on the rocks. Those who have been healed leave plaques of thanks that line the rock walls around the sanctuary. Needless to say, it is a very special site and the architecture is stunning with the bridge spanning the narrow canyon and the ornate cathedral clinging to the side of the cliff wall. We crossed into Ecuador across the Rumichaca bridge on July 26, 2014.
Cartagena to Medellin to Santa Rosa de Cabal to Palmira to Popayan to Pasto to Ipiales
June 11, 2014 to July 26, 2014
This section consisted of 44 days
Day 284 to 325 (of overall trip)
Total km travelled – 1576.5 km
Daily average – 56.3 km per riding day
Number of rest days – 16 days
Route – Cartagena to Sincelejo on Hwy 90 then Hwy 25 though Medellin to Supia junction, took the highway towards Manizales but actually bypassed it on route to Chinchina and Santa Rosa de Cabal byack to Cartago and Hwy 25 to Palmira to Popayan to Pasto to Ipiales
Weather – 16 days sunny, 5 days cloudy, 13 day partly cloudy, 4 days cloudy and drizzly, 2 days partly cloudy with rainstorm at night, 4 sunny day and thunderstorm/heavy rain at night
Accommodation – 36 nights hotel, 6 nights couchsurfing, 1 night warmshowers, 1 night “adopted” by a local cyclist who took us in