Climbing to the edge of Colombia… via San Agustín, Mocoa & Pasto

Before I touched down on Colombian soil there was only one road I knew I was definitely going to ride, the route west over the mountains from Mocoa to Pasto. Considered an essential Colombian route by many, it’s proven very popular among cycle tourists of all tastes and persuasions. A three day ride involving roughly 15,500 feet of climbing over about 95 miles of mixed dirt and paved roads, some love the experience as much as others find it challenging. It came as no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The riding was much easier and the roads in much better condition than I’ve found elsewhere in Colombia. But perhaps the thing that really elevated those miles above being just another nice route ridden and South American bicycle touring box ticked was the company of my old touring buddy Jens.

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28 months and 11 countries since we last rode together, I set out from San Agustin with Jens

Jens and I first met back in 2010 on the Cassiar highway in Canada. Our paths briefly crossed again in Baja California before meeting up in Puebla, Mexico to ride together for a stretch. We ride different roads and have slightly differing approaches but our journeys still contain deep parallels. Where as I fell in love with an American, Jens has fallen in love with a Colombian and is currently living with her in Popayan. His lady friend Aura is lovely and with the necessary visas already under his belt there is no reason for Jens to cycle any further south. But he is a bicycle tourist and as I have discovered, when you start riding a bike long distances for enjoyment and adventure, it’s not something that’s easily given up. Angsty at the noisy road construction works outside his home in Popayan and feeling the need to stretch out the cycle muscles, Jens jumped at the chance of joining me on the ride over to Pasto. So, he rode out of Popayan, met me and Aura (who took the bus) for a couple of days tourism in San Agustin and readied himself for the rebirth of our Velo-Alliance.

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My route from Neiva in the north to Ipiales in the south

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Elevation profile from Neiva to Ipiales

Although easily the jewel in the crown of my latest leg of riding, Mocoa to Pasto makes up only a fraction of the 400 miles or so I’ve ridden since Neiva. The first three days out of Neiva were probably the least inspiring of my whole two months in Colombia. Riding highway 45 to Pitalito was the definition of utility. I was churning out miles like a zombie robot on a road thick with oil tanker traffic. The monotony of it got to me and started to effect my mood and interaction (or lack of) with local people. But there are always positives and in this case it was a clearer understanding within myself of why I have gravitated increasingly towards a connection with unpaved back roads.

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For the sake of time-saving I begrudgingly took the main highway 45 from Neiva to Pitalito

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A few miles out of Gigante my progress was halted by an over-turned oil tanker

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The slick operation to right the toppled cab suggests this is quite a well rehearsed routine

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Although probably my least enjoyable three days of riding in Colombia, the ride to San Agustin did still offer some beautiful scenery… here the Rio Magdalena a few miles before Timane

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From Pitalito the 20 winds up to San Agustin… once in town I rode up to Casa de Japones to relax with great views of the town and wait for Jens

Three relaxing days off in San Agustin was exactly what I needed. Staying in a Casa with no internet connection there was no temptation to add to these pages or scour the internet for route options. Instead I took the opportunity to read a book I have been waiting literally years to open. It was the right time to read Robert Pirsig’s 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It is a good thing that I’ve had Jens to distract me since, if I’d been riding alone I think my head would have exploded with thoughts.

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Jens with his lovely lady friend Aura, the reason he now lives in Popayan, Colombia

Hanging out with Jens and getting to know Aura in San Agustin was a lot of fun. San Agustin has become a popular tourist attraction mainly on the strength of its unique wealth of pre-Columbian archeology. We walked up the hill to San Agustin Archaeology Park, home to the largest collection of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America. Burial mounds and related carvings shed some light on some of the intimate relationships of life, death and cosmology inherent in some of the earliest complex societies of the Americas. Sadly much of the history and significance of the sculptures passed me by, but the site is beautiful and the carvings visually stunning in their own right. I fear I’m not very good at doing touristy things, my buzz comes from seeing contemporary people and cultures working, my angle is becoming increasingly anthropological.

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The San Agustin Archaeological Park consists mainly of hundreds of ancient stone statues… although usually funereal and related to death many of the carvings are quite cartoon like

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Steeped in spiritual significance and heaped with symbolism, the statues still remain emotive and characterful… this frog was a personal favorite

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It is the character and condition of the carvings that impresses, not their size

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This monkey was another favorite… he can be found on a forest walk that displays statues that have been reclaimed

Leaving Aura to bus back to Popayan, Jens and I zipped down the hill away from San Agustin and back towards the dreaded 45. Thankfully the couple of days to Mocoa were more inspiring than what I’d experienced of the 45 further north. Less traffic (although still loaded with oil tankers) a few climbs and the feeling of re-entering the mountains made the miles enjoyable again. They were also loaded with anticipation of what was to come.

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From San Agustin Jens and I head back to Highway 45 and start making our way up and over to Mocoa

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It’s a two day ride to Mocoa from San Agustin so we camp on a friendly families land

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The riding on this section of the 45 was many times more picturesque and involving than what I endured north of Pitalito

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I’ve become used to heavy skies and rain so the blue skies of our second morning towards Mocoa were a bit of a treat… here riding into San Juan

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But as ever the rain did eventually arrive and in a big way… we used this enforced break to fill our water bottles from the roof run-off

Losing time to a heavy afternoon storm it was dark by the time we arrived in Mocoa. After picking up supplies for the coming few days we forged through town to a night in the Casa del Rio hostel. The next morning we leisurely went about our routines before heading back through town. Mornings with Jens are a world apart from mine. I get up early, get ready early, get on the road early and get off it well before dark. That doesn’t happen with Jens, which makes for a surprisingly welcome change. The morning of a big climb I’m usually fully charged and raring to go early doors. It was nice on this occasion to take a more relaxed and non incidental approach. Having used my extra morning time to tune and prime the Shermster, team VeloFreedom was more than ready to escape the humid heat of the Amazon. Affectionately known as El Trampolín de la muerte (“The Trampoline of Death”) due to the regularity of vehicles falling off it into the abyss below, the road west over the mountains promised to take me back into the cold and open expanses of the paramos. I’d swap the heat and insanely itchy insect ravaged legs for a few days cold wet riding up dirt roads any day. Luckily for me this was that day.

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Riding back into Mocoa after a night out of town we passed the military parade grounds

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Jens will talk to anyone that asks… here distracting the military that are supposed to be guarding the soldiers on parade

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Leaving Mocoa we head towards El Pepino

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A few miles out of Mocoa we cross the Rio Pepino and start to climb… at first on pavement but very soon on well conditioned gravel

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It’s not long before we see the road ahead disappear up into the clouds

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Stopping for a Coke at one of the roadside restaurants Jens’ charm makes little impression

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Thick clouds swallow us for hours as we spin blindly uphill

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There were several streams needed fording… a skill Jens developed quicker than me

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When the clouds briefly cleared it proved refreshing to be able to see the road ahead

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Breaks in the clouds were like quick teases of the glorious scenery we could be seeing

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Against all the odds, at relatively high altitude, in cold cloud with persistent drizzle the candles at this shrine managed to stay lit… divine?

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One break in the clouds offered a fleeting glimpse of just how far we’d climbed… a genuine surprise… we were having too much fun just riding the road to really think about progress

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The first communications mast is a sign that we’re well into the final third of this first big climb… this scene was accompanied by loud music blasted out of speakers at the base of the tower for the amusement of two guys half way up painting it

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As we relaxed at the Mirador a lorry abruptly pulled up completely blocking the road… when the driver emerged he was so drunk he could hardly walk…. he managed to stumble over to the tienda selling beer and was duly sold one

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The owners of the Mirador cafe kindly gave us a room to sleep in for free… with the rain pouring down outside we felt like kings

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Next morning our steads patiently wait by the door to our lodgings

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The Mirador is shrouded in thick cloud as we leave to restart our climb

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There is not far left to climb and we’re soon celebrating at the top of the first of the four climbs that famously make up the Mocoa to Pasto route

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Before starting up the second climb we stop at a restaurant for coffee and cake… it takes a lot to impress these two, they see a lot of cycle tourists go by

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As the rain comes down we plod our way up the start of the second big climb

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Jens isn’t always this excitable… only when a much-anticipated restaurant comes into view

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With more recent miles in my legs I pulled away from Jens… those with keen eyes may be able to make out the speck of German cyclist on the road below me

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The second big climb conquered we celebrate on the summit with some synchronized double fist pumping…

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… then it’s down down down through San Francisco to a night in Sibundoy

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As we prepare to leave Sibundoy the next day Jens catches the attention of the local ladies

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From Sibundoy it’s about 14km easy riding to Santiago

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In Santiago Jens packs in cycling and starts a new life as an arepas chef

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Before climbing out of Santiago I stop for some fashion advice from an old guy in the park… he suggests less blue more red

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Climbing out of Santiago we leave the valley behind…

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… and wind a course all the way up into the paramos

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Eventually the road flattens out and…

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… we’re celebrating on the high point of the third climb

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We descend down under heavy skies towards the Laguna La Cocha

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Laguna La Cocha really is as magnificent and beautiful as the guidebooks say

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Making our way around the north side of Laguna La Cocha our descent comes to a halt in El Encano

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As we shoved calories into our faces in El Encano the sun decided to make a rare appearance

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It was 5 o’clock by the time we started a glorious evening ascent out of El Encano

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The dropping sun put a bit of icing on already glorious views of Laguna La Cocha

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We climbed up into the clouds until this communications mast and rather glum looking Virgin Mary signified the summit

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With the fourth and final big climb of the Mocoa to Pasto route in the bag we quickly indulged in some more impromptu synchronization before bundling ourselves up ready for the cold dark descent into Pasto

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On the way down I’m struck by the level of deforestation, quite unlike anything else I’ve seen in Colombia

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Our arrival in Pasto is greeted by this rather flashy fella

Arriving in a Pasto heavily Christmassed with illuminations I felt overwhelmingly alive and happy. The ride over had been far easier than expected and enormous fun. I love to ride solo on challenging roads but cannot do it constantly, I need variation. The mundane miles from Bogotá to San Agustin had provided the rest and reflection and now the ride from Mocoa had given enough of a challenge to re-engage my desire to throw everything into some more involving routes. Part of the perfection of the route we’d just completed over to Pasto was its balance. A couple of the climbs were long but the grades never too tough and the summits always feeling obtainable. The road was dirt from just after the Pepino river to San Franscisco but always in good condition and never arduous. With just a couple of short exceptions, the pavement from the valley all the way into Pasto ensured that the joys of unpaved riding were balanced with the speed and sense of progress gained from the black stuff. And the weather… Pretty much all the accounts I’ve taken an interest in of this ride report hours plodding through clouds and lots of rain. We had the same. But there was never hardship as the Laguna La Cocha always promised a slightly different weather system and the route is short enough not to worry about enduring a bit of cold and wet. Plus, with so much cloud and so much stunning scenery in the same place any break with always knock your socks off with the views it reveals.

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Before heading out of Pasto I take an early morning stroll around…

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… and find absolutely nothing to get excited about

I had been debating staying in Pasto for a couple of days before riding south through Ipiales to Ecuador, crossing the border on Christmas day. But waking up in Pasto on the morning of December 23rd I knew it wasn’t a place I wanted to stay. So as Jens readied himself to undertake the challenges of riding back to Popayan in just a day and a half to make a family dinner, I packed to head south to the Colombian border town of Ipiales. We said our goodbyes in the street and headed off in opposing directions, both firmly focused on the challenges of the days riding ahead.

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In Pasto Jens leaves me to start his race against time to get back to Popayan for Christmas… I continue south, climbing out of Pasto alone once again

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I take the Pan American highway from Pasto to Ipiales…

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… as far as the Pan Am goes this stretch is quite interesting to ride and scenic, but it’s still the Pan Am and busy with traffic… things didn’t look this tranquil for the last two hours climbing in heavy rain up to Ipiales

The Pan Am highway from Pasto to Ipiales is not so bad as far as the Pan Am goes. About 50 miles and with a sizable 6,650 feet of climbing involved it was enough of a physical challenge to maintain interest. Snaking through heavily deforested mountains unlike any I’d seen before in Colombia, it felt unmistakably like I was leaving one country and preparing for the next. Soaked from a couple of hours heavy rain and slightly surprised to find a normal bustling city where I expected to find the usual dingy border town, I rolled into Ipiales as planned. After an exhausting search I found a good deal on a nice room in Hotel Internacional El Nogal, my Christmas present to myself.

Today is Christmas day and I am sat alone in my windowless hotel room writing and reflecting over the past two weeks travel. It sounds lonesome but really I am strangely peaceful, happy and content. A new country lies just a couple of miles away, I have my sister coming out to ride with me in just 10 days and I have the most incredible hot shower in my room! Merry Christmas everybody…

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6 responses to “Climbing to the edge of Colombia… via San Agustín, Mocoa & Pasto

  1. Hey Nate, thanks for posting your route notes. We’re heading down this way starting on Sunday. Not looking forward to the hot, flat stretch on 45. If you had more time, would you have taken an alternate route? We’re considering a roundabout detour through Cali and Popayan and back down to San Augustin, but that would probably add about a week! Is Tatacoa really worth it for the heat? Several people have warned us that the stretch between Mocoa and Pasto is still un poco caliente, but it seems you didn’t seem to have any trouble. That’s reassuring.

  2. Hey, great report, I’ve been using your ‘intel’ for a while now and thought it was about time I said thanks, so err… thanks! I’m a fellow brit who’s some way behind you and depending on how many more off-road excursions lure me in I may one day catch you up… At which point the beer will be on me! Keep up the good work. Paul

    • Hey Paul, I’ve finally come back down to earth after some mad Peruvian business and have enough internet to thank you for your comment and links. Love the routes you’ve been laying down and look forward to the day you catch me…. that’s if you ever do… Peru is going to steal your heart and time! Good luck pal

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