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.


  1. Belated Happy birthday Alberto!
    Sitting here with gin & tonics in hand in front of the woodburning stove and enjoying your blog.

    Keith & Sarah

  2. Hi Sarah and Keith! Glad you´re enjoying it from the depths of the Invernessian winter! Gin, tonic, the woodburning stove and your great company bring back very good memories. What´s next on your to-do touring list?