The familiar comment through most of South America from southbound cyclists was ‘Just wait to you get to Colombia, it’ll blow you away’. I mostly wrote the comment off because so many of those cyclists had come through Central America, and I knew that few of the countries further North were likely to have provided the grandeur and isolation of the South American Andes.
I assumed that their first taste in South America had probably left a huge lasting impression, and that myself, after riding almost a year and half across the continent would probably have a slightly different point of view. How happy can you be to be proven wrong. The riding through the southern part of the country offered wet challenges and beautiful, mostly unused roads. Throw in a few oddities like strangely placed deserts, add some great coffee and top it off with the unbelievable hospitality of the more Northern province of Antioquía.
Travelled: ~1,700 km
Frontera to Pasto
Mostly when I’ve crossed borders so far in South America, they’ve been pretty dull affairs in terms of bureaucracy involved. Sometimes I’ve managed to find a bed for the night in the border post, and mainly the borders I’ve crossed have been sleepy enough for the migration officials to take a more than keen interest in what I’m doing and where I’ve come from.
The border crossing to Ipiales was a different experience. The process was simple enough, no fees to pay, no multiple windows to visit, but the queue rolled out the front of the post, around 3 corners and ended back past itself after circling the large building. I waited almost four hours in total and had to schlep my bike up a few flights of stairs just to get the stamp. My entry was marked with a large Colombian smile from the chap holding my passport and I ended up in Ipiales after dark searching for a nondescript abandoned gas station where I had been promised a bed for the night after contacting someone through a popular cyclist hospitality website.
Ozkar had a rustic room out the back of a parking garage where he hosted cyclists, and as he showed me the place he told me that I would need my headlamp, and warned me to cover the hole in the door when I slept otherwise the rats would get in. Not the best place I’ve put my head, not the worst. I stayed a few nights to rest and then hit the main road to Pasto in a gentle drizzle which continued through most of the morning.
The day of riding was a long 90km and crossed a few mountains en route, but I teamed up with a swiss cyclist for a piece of the day and again rolled into Pasto after dark to search for another warmshowers host. When I entered the Dorys’ house I was greeted by 5 other cyclists already staying with her for the annual Festival de Blancos y Negros. I’d met two of the cyclists 6 months earlier in Bolivia and the reunion was short and sweet.
I only stayed in Pasto a little while to have a look around the festival, and the whole thing was completely chaotic. Essentially the carnaval lasts one week and culminates in a few days where the locals don black and whiteface to celebrate the different cultural histories of Colombia, it was impossible to walk through the place without being flourbombed or having oil smeared all over your face.
La Trampolín de la Muerte
Colombia’s death road drops into the jungle from the Cordillera Occidental and is a beautiful trip lost on green mountain slopes and with very little traffic. Occasionally you’d see cars and trucks littering the valley floor below as a reminder to check your ego and take your time. On the backside of the pass I spent the day weaving through stationary trucks who had been waiting on the mountain a few days for landslides to be cleared and allow passage. It was no problem on bike however and I stopped frequently to chat and drink with the local truck drivers, and occasionally had to take my shoes off to get knee deep in rivers which had flowed over the road.
Desierto La Tatacoa
Down in the valley between the Cordillera Occidental and the Cordillera Central you’ll find a small desert that seems completely out of place amongst the lush green mountain ranges. Desierto La Tatacoa sits proudly by itself absorbing the glow of a billion stars above and bathing itself in absolutely serene silence.
Despite the blisteringly hot and horribly humid environment, I sweated through the night before heading onwards to Colombia’s coffee rich areas to work up a well needed caffeine buzz.
Every self respecting city dwelling Australian would rightly look forward to this place. Colombia’s coffee growing region is a coffee nuts dream, and since a lot of the best coffee from Colombia is export only, it’s one of the few places in the country you can reliably buy it.
The ride from Ibague to Salento was a gruelling 120km of seriously steep and bendy roads, I opted for the old road which was unpaved and was the sort that put some hair on your chest. Darting through small mountain villages it dropped down and then made you climb back out over and over again, but provided empty roads and roadside hot springs for your effort. I camped on local futbol pitches and quaint local schools before the last ‘all or nothing’ climb over to Salento. The last 8 km I gladly accepted the offer from a local jeep driver who threw me a rope and dragged me the last part of the climb wakeboard style.
Salento is an odd place, beautiful for sure and chock full of tourists, it had me wondering if people were there to absorb the beauty of the place, or because it had tourism infrastructure, or because they read about it in a book or listened to a friend swoon over it. I’ve been through countless villages just like it locked into beautiful green mountains but without the tourism dollars at work the places were run down – does this make it nicer? More authentic? Do other people see it the same way for the natural beauty in those places? Or do they lock onto the dusty villages and declare confidently that it’s a dump?
Whatever, I stayed a few nights, caught up on what was happening in the world and spent money on coffee, no regrets.
The rest of the Eje Cafetero was a similar experience, though I was able to find small and unused roads to take me between the main tourist hot spots. I dropped way down into the valley one more time before climbing my way back out to Medellin, on the way sucking up some seriously swell Colombian hospitality in the form of free lunches, chicha de coco and cold water from just about every passerby that saw me – little did I know this would become the experience in Antioquia.
Antioquia and Medellín’s Casa de Ciclistas
If I hadn’t found that famed hospitality of Colombia before Antioquia, it was delivered by the truckload by the time I got to Medellín. I struggled to ride some days as every local seemed to invite me for coffee, by the time I reached the famous Casa de Ciclistas outside of Medellín, Manual and his wife Marta made sure I made room for a bit more local smiles as they welcomed me warmly into their house and I took up residence for a week.
What a place they have there! Any cyclist who passes by will never know what they missed out on, not just having your own self contained hut to rest in, but the incredibly warm welcome by Manuel. It’s a hard place to leave. I spent the first night resting my legs and the next night was taken out to the family finca north of Medellín to drink in the sunshine and scotch and to swim and laze around the pool. Over the week a few more cyclists rolled through including Jonas, who I rode through a lot of Ecuador with and would head North with me through a large part of Central America. We left Medellín and slept on a coffee farm the first night before again rolling into Manuel’s finca to sleep in a bed for a change. Along the way we navigated through a newly opened horse track called La Fila de las Arboledas, which ended up being a highlight in Antioquia and gave us a technical decent through communities that have probably never seen westerners use their road.
The Northern part of Antioquia felt decidedly more sketchy but the continent ended with a sunset swim and camp by the Caribbean before we negotiated our way by boat to Capurganá to try and figure out how we’d pass to Panamá.
Colombia’s Caribbean Coast and the way to Central America
Capurganá is one of the last villages before crossing the border to Panamá, and has a strong Afro-Colombian thing going for it. Jonas and I spent a few nights there asking about boat passage North before ultimately finding friend’s in a group of Colombian’s with a boat heading that way. Alfredo and Ever offered to take us for $80, less than half what we were expecting to pay, and we set off expecting we might be in Cartí that evening.
The sea was big, I don’t know what’s normal for that part of the world but given our captain thought we might make it across in a day I figure it’s normally a little calmer than what we experienced. We ended up spending 2 and a half days at sea watching our bikes get beaten to hell and constantly covered in sea water, each night we would pull into small Kuna communities on the San Blas islands and sleep for 9 hours before doing battle again. It was a good feeling to finally step off the boat in Panamá and wash to bikes, though I’m sure they’ll rust to pieces eventually as a result of the boat trip.
Antioquia absolutely represents the highlight in Colombia for me, there was barely a day that I spent without laughing with locals, sharing a beer or coffee or meal and marvelling at the consistency of good, kind people in the world. This is an area that barely 25 years ago was one of the more volatile places in the world.
Manuel and Marta from the Casa de Ciclistas in San Antonio de Prado are some of the warmest and friendliest people I’ve met, and you’re missing out on something special if you ride past Medellín and don’t stop in to say hello.
There are lots of good options for this one, I seemed to find some great places to sleep down at Desierto La Tatacoa but the reality is it wasn’t so difficult to find places to sleep through most of the country. My favourite spot is in the picture below, which was a bit close to a river for comfort, but I really needed a wash and it was super hot. I found it on quiet backroads on the way to Ibague.
And so that’s it, the end of a continent. I always figured I’d try and get this far and then decide if I’d had enough, and the answer I now know is that of course I haven’t. There’s a few more opportunities to get better at Spanish (which is quite ok now), and Central America has prepped the beans for me. Further North!