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.


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