22 February 2014

Salento to Libano via El Nevado Ruiz: Riding into thin air

After four days off in Salento, we were more than ready to get back on the bikes. Martin was not, so we said goodbye to him with plans to meet again near Bogota in roughly a week's time. We had a late start leaving Salento, but that was okay, as we had planned to split the 90km to Manizales over two days. After a fun descent and a short climb in the heat, we were back on the main road, which fortunately was not too busy and had a decent shoulder.
A great shop specialising in dairy products on the way from Salento back to the highway
Soon afterwards, we came across Gary and Mandini as they were resting on the side of the road. They're from Mexico, had recently started their tour in Bogota, and were headed for Brasil to see Mexico in the World Cup. They were sporting self-made trailers complete with suspension.

Gary and Mandini, heading to Brasil for the world cup

Homemade trailers
We carried on through Pereira, which was quite busy with traffic, in hopes of finding somewhere to put the tent up. It turned out there is quite a climb to Santa Rosa de Cabal, with the highway built high above the land surface. It was spectacular, if tiring! At the top of the climb we asked if we could pitch our tent a rest area off the main highway, but they said no so we carried on on the descent to Santa Rosa, where after a bit of searching we were able to get a really nice hotel room for 25,000 COP ($13 USD). Although we would have preferred to camp, it was nice to have a comfortable place on the night before Alberto's birthday.

Riding through the sky to Santa Rosa

The common area of our hotel in Santa Rosa del Cabal - we could hardly believe it was the cheapest in town
The following day's ride to Manizales was short, but tough, with a long climb to get to the edges of the city and then an even steeper climb once in the city itself. Close to Manizales, we had a welcome distraction in the form of Alexander, a local kid who saw us pass by and jumped on his bike to find out what our story was. He was faster than us on the climb! 

Alexander kept us company on the climb to Manizales

Marking our route on the map
Upon arrival, we got in touch with German, a Warmshowers host who lives in the outskirts of Manizales, and headed up to his house, a tough 300m dirt-road climb from the city center. German made us feel very welcome and convinced us that it was smarter to spend a day seeing Manizales and doing our shopping and prep for the ride into the mountains, and then to leave early the next day, Sunday morning, when the traffic would be calmer.

Just chillin' out in Manizales with German
Pausing to take in the views (and catch our breath!) on the way up to German´s house
German and his friend Carlos rode with us a short ways out of Manizales the following morning, and then we were on our own for the long climb from 2200m to 4100m. Well, we weren't really on our own, as the road was full of other Sunday cyclists who passed us and our fully-loaded bikes easily, but often stopped to talk.

Saying goodbye to German and Carlos, ready to start the climb

Alberto models his birthday present to himself, a new jersey

We surprised ourselves by reaching the turnoff at La Esperanza at 11am. We had already climbed 1300m and were 800m above where we had slept the previous night, so we knew we didn't want to climb too much further. We were feeling the altitude a little after a few weeks at lower altitudes. We took a long break for agua panela con queso at La Esperanza and then set off in early afternoon to find a place to camp. After another 500m of climbing we stopped to ask permission in what must be one of the highest schools in Colombia, at 3800m. The family in the house next door let us in, with our promises that we would be out before 8am when 22 children would arrive for their lessons.

The school even had running water that we could use, and a convenient covered area to cook
The following morning was bright and sunny and we took our time on the road up to the entrance to the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados. After the turnoff to the park entrance (we didn't go in because it is expensive, a dead-end road, and anyway it wasn't open that day!) the road turned unpaved, but still in pretty good condition for being at 4100m. We were enjoying the solitude of being up in the mountains, even if the clouds had rolled in, obstructing the views.

Attempting to use the self-timer for our first clear view of the Nevado del Ruiz
Second time's the charm
The Nevado del Ruiz is one of the more active volcanos in the world, it smokes pretty much consistently and there are restrictions on how close you can go to it
We reached the tienda El Sifon, the turnoff to the hot springs at Aguas Calientes around noon and made a somewhat ill-considered decision to go check them out on the bikes. We descended about 300m on a rough dirt track and put our hand in the water which was incredibly hot – we would have
had to keep going even further to find water at a more comfortable temperature if we wanted to swim. But as it started raining while we were down there, we decided it was best to turn around. The track was practically unrideable on a loaded bike, so after over an hour of pushing we were back where we started, and it was raining harder.

The hot springs looking inviting; actually they were a bit too hot
Ready to push the bikes back up the 300 m hill. The steam comes out of the stream on the right
We attempted to press on to Murillo, but about 5 minutes of descending convinced us that with the wet road we couldn't go very fast, and with our wet clothes we weren't going to last very long in the chilly high altitude air. So we turned back to the tienda where the shop owner Maribel took pity on us and offered her bodega full of potatoes to put up our tent somewhere dry. She had an adorable son who we spent most of the afternoon entertaining (or maybe he was entertaining us) as we tried to dry out and warm up.

Drying out and setting up camp in the bodega
Sebastian helps me put up the tent
The rain cleared in the evening and we were treated to a beautiful sunset

The morning once again was clear, which meant great, up-close views of the Nevado del Ruiz. We spent longer than we should have enjoying the morning sun at El Sifon, so that by the time we were on the road again it was once again starting to get cloudy. The road condition deteriorated significantly as the road descended, although the road remained stunning. When the pavement arrived 8km earlier than we were expecting it, we were overjoyed.

Morning colombian coffee before the ride
Clear views in the morning. Tienda del Sif'on, where we spent the night on the left.
Beautiful views all around, not only of the Nevado
Great views of the Nevado and Sebastian's great company kept us in El Sifon longer than we intended to be there

But the ride down to Murillo was tough, though spectacular
A quick descent to Murillo for almuerzo and we were looking forward to an afternoon off and a hot shower in Libano. On the descent we encountered three Colombian cyclists who were headed up to the Nevado on a short tour from Chia, near Bogota. One of them was a member of BiciChia, and told us to get in touch with a friend of his who could host us in Chia. So, upon arrival in Libano we did just that, and made plans to head in the direction of Chia next. 

Members of BiciChia on their way to Nevado Ruiz

Route notes:
- Salento to Manizales: The road is straightforward, with a decent shoulder. Traffic is heavy in Pereira, but it's not too difficult to cross the city.  There is a tunnel on the climb to Santa Rosa which is a bit sketchy. From Chinchina there is an alternative to the highway, a quiet road via La Siria and El Tablazo. It was nice and quiet, and a local cyclist told us the climb was easier than on the main road. 
- Manizales to Murillo: The road to La Esperanza is the main way from Manizales to Bogota and several locals told us it can get very busy with traffic. We decided to do it early on a Sunday morning and had no problems. The road from the turnoff at La Esperanza is paved all the way to the entrance to the national park (although the IGAC maps mark it as unpaved). From here the unpaved road is in okay condition for the rolling section through El Sifon, then deteriorating as the descent starts. We wouldn't recommend doing the route in reverse without suspension (and ideally a lightweight setup). The sign at the turnoff to the national park entrance is accurate; it says Murillo is 40km away - but the asphalt starts again 8km before Murillo. The unpaved rolling section is about 17km long and then the descent starts.
There are three fincas very close after the turnoff from La Esperanza where we were told you can ask to camp. There are also a couple of buildings that appear abandoned, the school where we stayed, an official (and expensive) campsite at Laguna Negra, and of course the Tienda El Sifon. There is another tienda after El Sifon on the way to Murillo and then, lower down, there are more fincas again. There are also plenty of place to wild camp once you get on to the unpaved sections, and plenty of water throughout the route.

- Murillo to Libano: Fast and fun descent, the only thing you have to watch out for is the road surface occasionally breaking up a bit, which can be sketchy if going at high speeds.

14 February 2014

Popayán to Salento, via Cali: Entering the coffee region

We departed Popayan in a merry group of five, having found Martin, who we knew from Tumbaco, in Popayan also. Having been advised for one last time to stick to the Pana for security purposes, we made for Cali, some 140km away.

The Pana was rolling and we made fast progress, despite Martin breaking a spoke in the morning and a long stop for lunch in a restaurant and pineapple farm (yummy pineapple juice with lunch!). The progress was so good that we eventually decided to push on to Cali directly in one day. The outskirts of Colombia's second biggest city were hectic, both for the traffic and for the number of cars and motorbikes pulling up alongside us to ask us what our story was!  

How can you not stop at a restaurant that has this display outside?

Flat road, group riding, and a wide shoulder help us cover 140km in a day 

 After crossing about 80 per cent of the length of Cali we arrived in the barrio of San Antonio. With all the stress at the end, plus 140km in our legs, we were tired when we arrived just before sundown and decided to take a day off to see Cali. Irene and Alle decided to continue on though, so we said goodbye to them before our day of some mild sightseeing.

Cali is very hectic on the main roads...

But the roof terrace was an oasis of calm as we said goodbye to Alle and Irene

We didn't have particularly high expectations of Cali, but it turned out to be a nice city. San Antonio has a quiet colonial charm while the main area is more hectic with plenty of street vendors and interesting architecture. We filled our afternoon by laying in hammocks on the rooftop terrace at our hostel and cooking up a taco feast to eat al fresco.

Cali had a very tropical feel in parts

And a colonial aesthetic in others

The view from the hostel roof terrace wasn't bad either

A day off was all we needed though, so the next morning we found ourselves battling the Cali traffic again as we headed out of Cali and off of the Pana for the first time since Pasto. Our route was a flat, small road following the Rio Cauca, which gradually got less busy as we moved out of Cali's sphere of influence, and then got busier again as we got closer to our destination for the day, Buga.

We arrived in Buga quite early in the afternoon and were able to enjoy an afternoon walking the streets of this very nice colonial town, my favorite of the trip so far. Buga gets a fair number of Colombian tourists because its church is a site of pilgrimage, but few foreign tourists. It was delightful. In the evening we had pizza and microbrewed beer at the Buga Hostel cafe, a nice European treat.

Buga's charming architecture stole my heart

After a disappointing first try in Ipiales, we tried the Colombian specialty of arepas again in Buga with much better results. Now we're hooked!
From Buga we had a bit longer on the Pana, but with a wide shoulder and light traffic we couldn't complain too much—it's just that the sights of a major highway get monotonous after a while. In Uribe, we turned off the Pana for some rolling hills on a truly excellent road, followed by a tough climb in the afternoon heat to Sevilla. For some reason I coped with it better than the boys, for what must be the first time ever!

One of the nicest roads of the trip so far... a breath of fresh air after so many kms on the Pana

On the way to Sevilla a bridge had been downed leading to an impromptu feet washing.
We tried for a while to find a place to put up the tents, but eventually gave in and settled into a hostal where the owner could count on two hands the foreigners who had visited in the last year. She was rather intrigued at Martin when he asked to use the roof to cook dinner on his stove and later brought her neice up to see him at work.

While doing errands in the morning before leaving Sevilla Lucy was offered a cup of coffee from the pharmacist!

From Sevilla we enjoyed a mostly descending morning, before a short climb left us feeling out of sorts in the heat. We pushed on regardless, hoping to reach Salento with a good amount of daylight left, when a guy pulled up next to me in a motorbike and started to ask me questions. This is something we have become accustomed to on Colombian roads, but these questions were different. He led with, 'are you Irene?' No, but I know who she is! Turns out that Nando is a host on Warmshowers (like Couchsurfing for cycle tourists) and Irene and Alle had emailed to see if they could stay with him, but he hadn't received the email in time and was feeling guilty about it when he saw us pass, so he jumped on his motorcycle to chase us down!

He invited us back to his restaurant for lunch, and after a bit of hesitation (it was already behind us) we decided to go. What a great decision that was! Nando and his wife Lisa are incredibly welcoming and they own a hospedaje and restaurant where Nando is the chef. We decided to stay the night, and even got to go for a swim in his pool! But even better than the incredibly generous facilities was the food. It was definitely the best food we have had in South America, and for quite some time in Europe as well. I restricted myself to a ladylike one portion, but Alberto and Martin each ate two, it was so delicious! If you find yourself anywhere near Calarca and you don't stop at the Asadero Combio, you are making a big mistake!

Relaxing at Nando's hospedaje... a.k.a. cyclists' paradise
The next morning being Sunday, Nando and Lisa accompanied us on our short ride to Salento. We departed at 7am and saw so many cyclists on the road, it felt like the South Downs on a Sunday morning. We took an unpaved road for most of the way, arriving in the town of Boquia which again, was like the Peaslake of Colombia. It was great to see the cycling culture of Colombia. We had agua panela con queso and said goodbye to Nando and Lisa as they headed home, while we headed up the stiff 3km climb to Salento.

Early morning ride to Salento

Making friends with cyclists as we go
Martin enjoys the dirt riding into Boquia

Just some Sunday cyclists at a cafe stop

Arriving in Salento, we settled in to one of the ubiquitous eco-hostels for some days off. We could pitch our tents for a low price, which was nice after so many nights in a row sleeping in beds! Salento is a very cute town, and the second most popular tourist destination in Colombia after Cartagena. It's a nice place to relax, but after a few days off we were itching to get back on the road and a little off the tourist trail.  Next stop: Parque Nacional Los Nevados!

Salento's Calle Real - very busy on the weekends, but cute every day of the week

The view from our hostel outside of town isn't bad

Coffee growing... the red ones are ready to be picked

Harvested and dried coffee beans, before and after roasting 
Route notes:

- Popayan to Cali was pretty straightforward on the Pana, initially a bit rolling, then totally flat. The last stretch, as seen on our route page, was a dual carriageway with very little shoulder and all sorts of traffic. Best done in the off-peak hours. Cali seemed to have some cycle lanes that went South to North and viceversa, if you can take them. 

- Cali to Buga: There's a less busy road that avoids the Pana to the North of Cali, via Yumbo and Yotoco, and then gets progressively busier as you approach Buga.

- Buga to Salento: We left Buga on the Pana, to then take the secondary scenic road from Uribe to Sevilla, Caicedonia and eventually Calarca, near Armenia. This road is mostly paved, although there's a small river crossing and a section where there's a landslide which will oblige you to push the bike for a while. Plenty of small roads and trails that will take you to Salento once past Calarca. We made a right near this latter town, then went on a trail parallel to the river Boqueron to Boquia, which avoids almost 300 m of climbing on the Pana. The trail was wet but perfectly doable on thick tired bikes.

04 February 2014

Ipiales to Popayan: Hot and hotter

Riding in Colombia began with a stiff but short climb to Ipiales, the main town just across the border from Ecuador. We had an afternoon off there, doing grocery shopping and route research, and the following morning we set off North to Popayan. We were pleasantly surprised by the much cheaper supermarket prices compared to Ecuador.

Riding the back roads past Pupiales
 We turned off the main road out of Ipiales in order to avoid the Pana, instead heading for the hills of Pupiales, Gualmatan, and Iles before an incredibly fun descent back to the Pana. As always, the riding is more fun off the Pana but we had a big climb ahead of us so decided to stick to the Pana where the climb would be gentlest. In the late afternoon we briefly considered setting up camp at a school, before deciding it wasn't quite as hidden away as we'd like, and we set off the 5 more kilometers to Tangua, where we were able to camp next to the roadside restaurant / gas station complex. It was especially nice of them to let us camp for free even though there was a hospedaje there – but we fancied a night in the tent (even if it did turn out to be a rainy one).

Iles' church in the main plaza was a nice sight

The 1000 m of descent towards the Pana afforded incredible views of the mountains

Surprisingly low traffic on the Pana on our way to Tangua

Camped by the gas stations
 The next morning the climb began again in earnest to Pasto. It took a few hours, during which time we spotted some cycle-tourist-shaped dots in the distance. Upon cresting the summit we found Irene and Alle from Holland talking to a construction worker about their route. They started in Buenos Aires five months ago and are headed North through Central America, so for the moment we are on the same route. 

And we were four on the descent to Pasto (picture courtesy of Alle)
Our newly formed foursome descended to Pasto where we visited the IGAC foundation which is famous amongst cycle tourers for its high-quality maps of Colombia. Each couple bought a copy of the Mapas de Ruta and we headed into the main square to get cash and get our bearings. Maybe it was being suddenly a bigger group, or maybe Pasto is just that kind of place, but we immediately began attracting attention. People were coming up to us to ask about our trip and shake our hands left and right. A reporter with a handheld camera even came over. After some initial questions they decided to film an interview with Alberto – as he has the best Spanish! The channel was Telenoticias, if anyone sees the clip please do let us know!

Four gringos on bikes in Pasto's main square are sure to attract a lot of attention
Eventually we were able to make a getaway in a break in the questions and we headed out of Pasto, stopping for lunch (and more questions from locals) on our way out. Soon the four of us were back on the Pana, busy for the 9km climb, but then quieter as we started to descend again. In the town of Chachagui we decided to call it a day, asking the police where we could find a place to stay. They left their post and took us around to various places until we found a nice one (with a swimming pool!) for COP30,000 (around $15 USD) per room. Unfortunately it was pretty cloudy and getting towards the end of the day so we didn't swim. Later we learned they also allow camping on their lawn – should have asked!

Some long tunnels are to be found on the road 25
The following morning our team of four enjoyed a beautiful descent on the Pana. Probably 30km long (though with a little climb in the middle) and full of some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. We knew we were in trouble at the bottom of the descent though, when even the breeze our bodies created as they moved at speed was just hot air.

Alle, Lucy and Irene making progress on one of the numerous long and steady climbs
 We stopped in Remolinos for lunch and to fill up on water, which was lucky because it turned out there was literally not anything for the stretch between there and Mojarras. We managed to buy water from some women at selling at one of the obras (roadworks) where we had to wait for a few minutes – the prices exemplified exactly why they call it highway robbery! The plus side was that there was very little traffic, shocklingly little for being the Pana.

A local cyclist joined in for a few km

Down at 600 m, in the middle of the day, it was baking hot and there were not many shades
 After hearing from other cyclists how safe Colombia is we were surprised that several locals warned us to stay on the Pana and not to cycle into the evenings. It turns out that there are heightened security measures in the run-up to the elections on March 9 and that the section between Remolinos and Mojarras is considered a hot spot because it is so empty. At any rate we followed the local advice and had no problems at all.

We arrived in Mojarras at around 4pm but there was no hospedaje, although there is one under construction. Though some locals offered that we could camp in their football field, we decided to carry on to the next town. Just before El Estrecho we came upon a hotel campestre at the roadside. For COP15000 (USD $7.50) we got a small, hot room with a fan and a cold shower, and beautiful views across the river valley. 

View from the hotel campestre near El Estrecho

Just chilling out (picture courtesy of Irene)
We had a nice talk with the owner of the hotel who told us about the history of the area and how much things have improved in recent years. He said he believes FARC will sign the peace treaty with the Colombian government this year, and how much safer they all have felt recently – although of course not wanting to be complacent.

Rolling hills after El Estrecho
We attempted to beat the heat the following morning with a 7am start time, but it didn't work. It was already hot and only got worse as we headed along the valley floor. Fortunately it was finally relatively flat so we were able to keep up a bit of speed which helped create a breeze. As we were resting on the side of the road we were passed by Ben, a French cyclist headed south for a few months. After chatting with him for a little bit we were on our way again and shortly into the town of Piedrasentada where we had lunch. 

Still plenty of construction on the 25. The upside is that it forces the taffic to bunch up leading to long stretches with no traffic at all!

El Bordo, on the way to Popayan, had a very noticeable and friendly (at least to us) army presence

Ben, heading South to Ipiales, Ecuador and Peru
The climb up to Rosas began in earnest after lunch. Our maps and Alle's Garmin had a significant difference of opinion over how high the climb would take us, with the maps saying close to 2500m and the Garmin saying 1700m. We hoped the Garmin would be right. (It was!). Riding the steep sections at the start of the climb in the 2pm heat was not a smart decision and I started to feel concerned about my levels of hydration and heat. We told Irene and Alle to carry on and that I would try to catch a pickup truck to Rosas. But a few minutes' rest, followed by a short cycle up to a roadside shop with cold drinks, and a longer rest, and I was ready to try again. The climb improved significantly and the later hour meant there was a bit more shade on the road. We kept at it and eventually rolled in to Rosas just before 5, about 45 minutes after Alle and Irene.

Fruits for sale on the roadside... very tempting

Rural colombia
After a good night's sleep we started our short day's ride to Popayan. A 300m descent and a 300m climb saw us back where we started, altitude wise, and then it was just a few hours of rolling hills away. We stopped in Timbio for some delicious jugos naturales (fresh fruit juices) and some not-so-delicious hamburguesas. Soon we were rolling in to Popayan where we found discounted rooms in a hotel near the main plaza and settled in for a day off.

Arriving in to Popayan

View from our hotel, ready to explore Popayan
Iglesia San Fransisco in Popayan
Route notes:
  • Ipiales to Pasto: heading North from Ipiales you soon find yourself in the countryside, on to the town of Pupiales. From there on, the road was very quiet and running roughly parallel to the Pana. The profile was very rolling all the way, but beautiful. Past the town of Iles, there's a long descent, half of which was paved, the rest towards the Pana was unpaved but perfectly rideable, yet not at high speed. The views from here were fantastic, and at times I felt I was flying. The Pana near Tangua has a wide shoulder for most of the way, and the traffic was surprisingly light for us, used to the South East of England standards. From Tangua to Pasto is always uphill, but on a gentle gradient, then a fast downhill into Pasto.
  • Pasto to Popayan: despite our will to stick to secondary and dirt roads, we ended up following the advice from all the locals who suggested we stay on the Pana (the road 25) until Pasto. It is mostly quiet or very quiet except around bigger towns. Of note is that the section from Remolinos to Mojarras is totally empty, very hot and with rolling hills, so bring plenty of water and try to cross it in a day unless you intend to wild camp along the way.