DAY ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTEEN
Popayán to Motel 10 km south of Villa Rica
Distance: 61 miles
Av speed: 11.4 mph
Moving time: 5 h 10
Trip time: 7 h 30
Today we treated ourselves to a morning off the bike, as we wanted to spend a bit more time exploring one of Colombia’s best-preserved colonial towns, conquered by the Spanish in 1537!
After a very enjoyable morning spent wandering the ancient streets, enjoying lots of Colombian coffee and posing with a lama in the main plaza we were back on the road and back facing the long heavy climbs that we have become so accustomed to in Colombia (although we wouldn’t have it any other way).
Knowing we had some big miles to make up we ploughed on into the night, calling it a day at 9 o’clock and very happily getting a cheap motel room meaning we could save time for an early start in the morning.
DAY ONE HUNDRED AND NINETEEN
Motel to La Victoria
Distance: 115 miles
Average speed: 14.2 mph
Moving time: 7 h 54
Door to door: 12 h 26
Despite the lorry full of cows next to our Motel window we actually had a good night’s sleep and were on the road early knowing that today was a rare opportunity to get in some big miles as we would be cycling through the Cauca valley which is mercifully flat despite being at 900m. This came as a huge relief after two weeks of relentless up and down, and after a breakfast of 20 croissants (!), we powered on without stopping, meaning we had already done 60 miles by the time we stopped for lunch at 1. For cricketers out there it was a huge relief to be finally not facing immense scoreboard pressure and by the time it was getting dark we had already cycled 105 miles, and all was left was to find a camp spot for the night.
The process of finding somewhere to spend the night for the majority of the trip has been fairly simple. If there is nowhere marked on the amazing app Ioverlander (worked much better down south) we normally just cycle down a dirt path, into a field or towards a river, and find somewhere hidden from any nearby roads. Frustratingly we struggled tonight with cattle farms stretching for miles and miles and very few options to take a turning off the road. After a fruitless half an hour we turned off the Pan American highway towards the town of Victoria and decided to ask at a house if we could sleep in their field. At first, the lady seemed unsure with two smelly cyclists but eventually said we could camp in a field with her cows. Relieved we began setting up the tent when two policemen on motorbikes turned up and asking what we were doing asked us to pack up and leave. A very strange situation as the lady had just said was happy for us to stay there! We realised afterwards that she had called the police when we were at the bottom of her garden thinking we were burglars or something and then realised we weren’t and said it would be fine to stay but the Police were still on their way. From the police’s point of view, it was not safe for us to be camping there/they didn’t want the paperwork and so instead they told us to follow them towards Victoria where we could sleep next to the police station.
The situation then got a whole lot weirder when we arrived at the police station, which rather than being on the edge of town was in the town square. We tried not to laugh as the policeman suggested we put the tent opposite on a small patch of grass in what will undoubtedly go down as the most bizarre place we have slept during this whole trip, even beating our night on the hard shoulder of the Ruta 5 in Chile. It was a Friday night and the square was heaving, with bars on one side, a five a side football pitch in the middle (with spectators) and a religious service on the other. After getting used to the strange looks as we set up the tent and proceeded to start cooking, it wasn’t actually too bad and the drunken locals eventually went to bed. We suppose that the Police just had our best interests at heart and thought we would be safest next to a police station!
DAY ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY
La Victoria to Belalcázar
Distance: 49 miles
Average speed: 9.7 mph
Moving time: 4 h 29
Door to door: 10 hours
Given the huge amount of town dogs running wild and the unforeseen monsoon that forced us to put the tent canopy on at 3am, we both slept surprisingly well and packed up early whilst bemused joggers and dog walkers waved Buenas Dias to us. We left La Victoria both in good spirits, knowing the finish line was in sight and also that we were going on a mini cycling holiday.
Not wanting to spend our whole time in Colombia on the Pan-American highway, we had decided when still in Peru that we would have enough time to go off road and explore the world famous Cafatera/coffee region where nearly all of the country’s coffee comes from. After quite a few attritional days with lorries whizzing past us it was such a relief to be off the main road and on a mini ‘holiday’ where we only had to do about 50 miles for the next three days.
Deciding to spend the night in the coffee village of Belalcázar, we were making good progress until our stomachs got the better of us in the town of Cartago and a biblical rain storm forced us to shack up in an ice cream parlour in La Virginia. After a few hours we realised the rain wasn’t going to stop and so began the 15km climb up to Belalcázar in the pouring rain and in the fading light. The road was steep and it was extremely humid but the views over the misty valley below us did not disappoint and it was just a joy to be on a traffic free road again.
As nightfall came we found a spot to camp on the edge of the village next to the 15th largest statue of Jesus in the world, struggling to put the tent up in the torrential rain but happy that we would be having a few relaxed days.
DAY ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY ONE
Belalcázar to forest 5kms on from Riosucio
Distance: 46 miles
Average speed: 8.6 mph
Moving time: 4 h 52
Door to door: 9 hours
We had chosen this route through the coffee region on the recommendation of fellow cycle tourers who said it was their main highlight from Colombia and today it really didn’t disappoint. Although we did have to battle through some early morning mist and rain, the sun eventually said hello and we were blown away by the beauty around us. This was the first time we had cycled along a ridge at the top of the mountain, meaning we could see lush green valleys to both our left and right hand sides, with coffee bushes stretching for as far as the eye could see.
Given we were on ‘holiday’, we were able to go at a slightly slower pace meaning the morning consisted of two enjoyable coffee breaks in the towns of San José and Risaralda. There was the added bonus that it was a Sunday and so the town Plazas’ were packed full of people, with the ladies in their Sunday best and the men oozing class in their cowboy hats. One downside was that the road, being a small dirt track, was either steep downhill or uphill, and we actually ended up having one of our biggest climbing days of the whole trip, culminating in a final 5kms in the dark on the worst road we have yet to cycle on.
DAY ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY TWO
Riosuccio to Jardín
Distance: 28 miles
Average speed: 6.6 mph
Moving time: 3 h 37
Door to door: 5 h 10
Having heard so many great things about the coffee town of Jardín we decided today would be a short day with only 30 miles standing between our lovely spot in the woods and the promise of a bed and clean clothes in Jardín. We were then finally able to have a bit of a lie-in, although Jim’s body clock seems so conditioned we were already up by 7 am!
We continued on the dirt track from yesterday, away from the villages surrounding the town of Riosuccio and high up into the Loro Orejiamarillo nature reserve. Deep gorges, waterfalls, tropical birds, parrots, pigs, ancient trees and only one car in six hours, the road really did have everything and will go down as one of our favourite mornings of the trip. We even met a dog who finally didn’t want to tear apart cyclists’ ankles and accompanied us for a mile or two up the road. That being said the road itself was pretty hard work, with a steep climb from 1500m climb up to 3000m, although we definitely weren’t complaining, instead just super happy we were on a traffic free road.
Eventually, we touched down in Jardin for 3 pm and spent the afternoon and evening wandering around the colourful streets, sitting in cafes with old men in cowboy hats and chatting to friendly locals.
DAY ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY THREE
Jardín to La Pintada
Distance: 70 miles
Average speed: 12.2 mph
Moving time: 5 h 30
Door to door: 8 h 10
Spirits were pretty high as we left Jardín this morning, equipped with clean clothes, full tummies and free from our Post Malone stench. The plan was to push on to Medellin so we could buy gas for our cooker, leaving us 70 miles a day for the final five days. As ever things didn’t quite go to plan…
The day started off well as we cruised downhill for 30 miles through breathtaking valleys and mango lined roads. Again, the Colombian people amazed us with how welcoming they were, and on two occasions cars even slowed down next to us to say hello and ask us where we were going. People as ever appear shocked when we say Cartagena, even though it is less than a week’s riding away now.
However, one of our favourite mornings/afternoons on the bike was then followed by one of the worst evenings of the trip, which is definitely in contention for number 1, despite there being some seriously stiff competition. After 50 miles we were on track to get to Medellin for a decent time until leaving the town of Bolombolo we discovered the road ahead was shut after a landslide! Saying goodbye to our chances of staying in the nice hostel we had chosen in Medellin, we were forced to turn back on ourselves for 15 miles before opting for the other road to Medellin, a total detour of an extra 60 miles!! Obviously there was nothing we could do and so we just got on with it, going late into the night to make up for the extra miles. To make things a bit worse it didn’t stop raining all evening and there were roadworks for pretty much the whole route. Eventually, we made it to the truck town of La Pintada, exhausted and with our spirits the lowest they have been for some time, finding a gritty hostel on the corner of the crossroads between two of Colombia’s busiest roads.
DAY ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY FOUR
La Pintada to Medellín
Distance: 56 miles
Av speed: 8.4 mph
Moving time: 6 h 45
Door to door: 11 hours
After last night’s misery in the rain and a pretty rough night at our motel spirits were fairly low. Not sure if it was either the prospect of a huge 2000m climb straight out of the door or the uncomfortable beds that vibrated every time a truck went past.
The good news was that this 30 mile climb would be our last major climb of this whole trip! It seems crazy to think the number of times we have set out in the knowledge that we will be cycling uphill for the whole or nearly the whole day and each time we have surprised ourselves at being able to deal with it. Of course, there is no option, we are cycling the length of the Andes, but there is something to be said in taking on such a painful endeavour having done it many times before in full knowledge of how much suffering it can inflict.
After four Tinto’s (small delicious cheap Colombian coffees) we both were ready for one last battle with the Andes. It was predictably relentless, as we climbed 1000m in the first 20km with the heat getting harder to deal with as the morning continued. Long straight roads packed full of heavy loaded lorries meant pretty miserable going but the views, slowly getting better with each meter gained, were enough to keep us inspired. The scenery in Colombia is enough to make any road beautiful so we really couldn’t complain. After huffing and puffing for six hours we finally reached the summit, giving each other a huge hug to celebrate the defeat of our last Andean nemesis before enjoying the 20km descent into Medellín.
Rather than two pints and a huge meal to celebrate the afternoon and evening was spent hunting for gas for our cooker and our particular type of disc brakes. As ever this proved far harder than we had hoped, and after getting lost in the red-light district (we didn’t mean to go there!) and failing in vain to find gas that would fit our cooker, it wasn’t until late that we got to bed, staying in the Laureles neighbourhood, knowing that we have some big mile days ahead of us if we are going to make it to Cartagena on time.