02 May 2014

San Agustín to Lago Agrio: taking the less travelled road to Ecuador

We ended up spending five nights in San Agustin, and could have easily spent longer in the town if it wasn't for the looming prospect of our visas expiring. There were many things to see and do, and even at the height of Semana Santa festivities it was still a really nice place to hang out. For some reason, we seemed to arrive in San Agustin at the same time as many other travellers that we had met along the way, making for a nice social element. We even got a chance to hang out with Martin one more time!

San Agustín as seen from the Palo Alto finca

La Chaquirá carved rocks

Unfortunately, the former casa de ciclistas in San Agustín is now closed....

A bunch of travellers with a common interest in cooking can only lead to yummy dinners

The mysterious tombs of the Alto de los Idolos

One last chance to meet up with Martin, next Paris-Brest-Paris or Salzburg
We never seem to be at our most efficient when we leave a place we have been for a few days, so our first day out of San Agustin was more of a half day. We retraced our tracks to Pitalito and then continued South on route 45, much quieter now, although the little traffic there was still in the form of big tanker trucks. We had a quick lunch in Bruselas, coffee capital of the Huila Department, before starting the gentle (for now) 1000m climb that would take us a good portion of the next day as well.

The department of Huila is big on coffee growing, and this is a drying facility for coffee beans

The road 45 becomes quieter and very scenic after Pitalito
With rain starting to come down at about 3:30pm, we started looking for places to camp, and eventually asked at the home of the Trujillo family, about halfway up the climb. They started out saying we could camp, then suggested we sleep inside on the living room floor, and by the end of the night they offered us a bed instead! They also insisted that we eat dinner and breakfast with them. Sr and Sra Trujillo were just headed out to Pitalito for the night but their adult children, especially Mary and Nancy, were running the ship in their absence. Mary and Nancy, both young mothers, were fascinated that we didn't have any children. The house had 14 people living in it, of three generations, and had a warm and bustling atmosphere that we really enjoyed being a part of for the night.

Unfortunately, our plans to get an early start the following morning were scuppered when we discovered that Lucy's GPS unit had been stolen off the bike in the night (the bikes had been in the living room). To make a long story short, it took about three hours for one of the boys who lives with the Trujillos, although not related to them, to fess up and tell us where he had it. In the end, it was probably the most painless way possible to learn a lesson about keeping our belongings safe, and it doesn't change the wonderful experience we had with the Trujillos.

One more example of the great Colombian hospitality - the Trujillo family hosted us for one wet night 40 km out of Mocoa
Putumayo welcomed us with lots of rain, until the border with Ecuador
But Colombians don´t seem to mind the rain, and they protect against it in style
So we set off into the late morning, now worried about whether we'd make it to Mocoa or not. The terrain was more rolling than we expected, but with great views to keep us occupied. Near the end of the day it became clear that Mocoa was still too far away, so we asked permission to sleep in a school near the roadside in the tiny settlement of El Dorado. It was raining off and on, so we were grateful for the covered area where we could cook a quick dinner. We settled in to the tent at around 9 pm and soon drifted off to sleep.

At 3:30 in the morning we woke up to a heavy rainstorm and the sound of male voices all around us. Before we had time to figure out what to do, one was addressing us. “Who's in there?” said the voice. Alberto poked his head out, in the pouring rain, and saw dozens of men in uniform with guns and backpacks all over the schoolyard. “We're two foreigners travelling by bicycle,” he said timidly. “We asked permission to camp here for the night”. “Oh, okay, it is the national Colombian army” said the voice. “You guys rest then”. It was a bit hard to rest while we watched the shadows of guns move across the tent and listened to the sounds of the group getting ready to sleep for a few hours. We hoped they were the army and not the other side! 

By 5:30am it was starting to get light and both us and the soldiers were packing up and getting ready to get on with their day. By the light of day it all felt much more comfortable, and we chatted with the soldiers about our camping equipment and our trip. The soldiers were all gone into the hills by 7am, and by 8am as we were packing away the last of our things, the children arrived for school, none the wiser about the excitement that had taken place overnight.

A quiet and comfortable school to spend the night in...

...that at 3:30 am became occupied with half of the Colombian army getting ready for a few days training in the selva

After two days of more adventure than we bargained for, we worried we were behind schedule to get out of Colombia before our visas expired. We decided not to camp for the remaining nights in Colombia to avoid any more unplanned delays! It rained all day, but after experiencing the heat of Huila Department we had developed an appreciation for the rain at low altitudes. It kept us cool, and we put in a long day to Santana to get back on track with our visa.

One of many river crossings in Putumayo

Out of Santana, the road isn´t unpaved for 25 km

But once again, we were fascinated by the scenery of the road to the border

The 45 road will, one day, be completely paved all the way to Ecuador
We were unsure what to expect of the roads the next day. We had been asking about the road conditions towards the border since San Agustin, and had heard everything from it being 100% paved to basically unpaved with a few paved sections. In reality there was quite a bit of pavement, but the unpaved sections were in terrible condition, making progress sometimes painfully slow. Later, the road was mostly paved, but the steep up-and-down hills put us to the test. Nevertheless, we made it to our target of La Hormiga, and found a nice and cheap place to stay for our last night in Colombia.

The piranha soup (or one of its brothers!) Alberto had on the way out of Santana was delicious

One of many random sections of paved-unpaved road on the 45

The final 25 km to the international border crossing with Ecuador had one of the finest pavement of our Colombian journey

And also, some open air schools
We lingered La Hormiga in the morning, reluctant to leave Colombia after three wonderful months, but knowing it had to be done. After a gentle morning's ride to the border, the formalities were very quick as the border was virtually empty. Then it was another quick shot on the perfectly paved roads of Ecuador to Lago Agrio, the centre of the oil industry in Ecuador, where we spent the night.  

Unfortunately, oil companies rule in Putumayo, Sucumbíos and Napo regions

The not-so-busy international bridge. We made it to Ecuador with 2-days left on our tourist visas!
Our 3-month Colombian journey ends, but hopefully will be back for some more in the future
Lago Agrio, a city built around the 60s by the oil company Texaco, had a modern but nice church
Route notes:

- San Augustín to Mocoa: the road 45 is now paved pretty much all the way to Mocoa, carries less traffic than the upper sections closed to Neiva, and is really scenic. We noticed that the heaviest traffic, mostly oil trucks, is condensed in the early morning hours, at around 4 pm, or between 7-10 pm. There is not much in the terms of villages, but a few small shops will provide the basics, as well as options for camping.

- Mocoa to Santana: paved all the way, except some sections around villages. Traffic gets lighter in this section, and we did not encounter any other problems. Ask the locals for the latest security info - we felt it was a perfectly safe area, at least during daylight, with a fair amount of army settlements in between, and a constant flow of colectivos and small buses. There´s a fair amount of small villages along the way, as well as plenty of camping options in schools.

- Santana to the border with Ecuador at San Miguel: the first 25 km out of Santana, on the road 45, were unpaved and a bit rough, but perfectly rideable on tourers. After the town of Yarumo, the roads becomes unpaved for 5 km, then on and off paved to Valle del Guamez. From there to the international bridge, it was mostly paved. The passport check takes place 3 km past the bridge, in Ecuatorian soil, and was totally empty and much more relaxed than the bustling Tulcán-Ipiales crossing. 


  1. Lucy- did you eat the piranha soup? I imagine you guys have both been getting pretty adventurous eating on the road. Can't wait to hear about Ecuador!

  2. Hey Hannah! Lucy´s tried ceviche de camarón y encocado de pescado (fish in a yummy coconut sauce, reminiscent of a Thai curry, in a way!) but remains not so adventurous when it comes to weird-looking fish...