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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…