Location: Solento, Colombia
After the unexpected trauma of sailing to Colombia, we needed a couple of days to recover in Cartagena. Rather too much drinking was involved and by the time we arrived by bus in Medellin to resume cycling, boats – and indeed bicycles – were becoming a distant memory.
Nestled dramatically along the bottom of a wide mountain valley in the foothills of the Andes, Medellin looked fresh and inviting. It was strange to think that this was supposedly ‘the most dangerous city in the world‘ back in the 1990s when drug lord Pablo Escobar was still cavorting around. Now better known as the ‘city of eternal spring‘ for it’s mild climate, it seemed like a very cool place to live and is probably our favourite city in Latin America.
We couldn’t hang around for long though. Our friend Monty had flown out from home to join us for just two weeks of cycling so we had a schedule to keep. Fortunately, we still got to experience some of Colombia’s famous hospitality when Andres, a local bike mechanic we’d met, came to our hostel the night before we left. He brought pie made by his wife, a Colombian football shirt as a present, and took us out in his car for a Saturday night tour of the town. It was a great welcome to South America.
The next day – as is the case every Sunday in Medellin – one of the city’s main roads had been cordoned off for outdoor pursuits, so we followed it out of town at a leisurely pace, weaving our way through an erratic procession of joggers, rollerbladers, and fellow cyclists.
The plan after Medellin was to leave the highway and take a semi-dirt road on a five-day ride south, through a quiet part of Colombia’s coffee growing region. The conditions for cycling were ideal. Sitting in a rare geographical sweet spot between 1500-2500 metres altitude, this part of the country is high enough to be well clear of the infernal, insect ridden rainforest zone, but still low enough to be lush and green and warm at night. It’s one of the few places I’ve ever cycled which can be described as both ‘epic’ and ‘pleasant’.
As such, this first week was supposed to be a kind of gentle warm up for Monty, but it was a bit tougher than expected on account of the mountainous terrain. The surrounding hills looked too steep and inaccessible for people to make much use of them but when night fell, lights could be seen twinkling from shacks and farmsteads on every slope, peak, and ridge. Clearly the land was too fertile for any to be wasted, so every scrap was carved up into patches of coffee, bananas, and other edible greenery.
As far as cycling was concerned I don’t think we encountered a single stretch of flat road on the whole route and our average daily distance dropped from around 90km to 55km as we spent most of each day huffing and puffing up long climbs, or stopping to take photos of the spectacular views.
Suitably flat camp spots were like gold dust. Our usual late afternoon request to locals for a ‘lugar para acampar‘ (place to camp), had to be switched to a more urgent sounding plea for ‘cualquier tierra plana‘ (any flat land). Even then there was much head scratching before we were directed to little hillside perches for our tents.
Every 20 or 30 miles during the day, we’d get to a sleepy old colonial town, which was always a treat after a few hours of slogging through the surrounding countryside. Most had beautiful central plazas filled with benches and flowering trees, often with somebody selling delicious cups of thick, freshly mushed up tropical fruit drink out of a big see through tank. At only 20p a cup, we felt almost obliged to down as much as possible before rolling off to the old buildings around the plaza, in search of somewhere to sit and scoff empanadas.
For the second part of our Colombian jaunt with Monty we wanted to make a covert cycle into Los Nevados National Park, a foreboding mountain plateau, rising thousands of metres above the surrounding countryside, and home to Colombia’s most notorious volcano.
Nevado del Ruiz last erupted in 1985. It wasn’t a big eruption but it sent a cloud of ash and rock down the National Park’s eastern flank at 60mph, virtually erasing the town of Armero and tragically killing around 23,000 people. At the time, scientists and authorities were accused of doing too little to prevent the disaster, so when fresh seismic rumblings and puffs of ash started coming out of the volcano in 2012, a large part of the park (the most beautiful middle bit around the volcano) was immediately closed to the public and has remained so ever since. Unfortunately, the only road through the park runs right through the closed area, across the slopes Nevado del Ruiz, which is why our trip would need to be covert. Incidentally, we’d read about two other cyclists who had recently evaded the park rangers and made the trip so we knew it was possible, and apparently not dangerous.
From the nearby city of Manizales the volcano towered above us, some 40km to the south east, although most of the time it was obscured by clouds. For two days we studiously ignored it and instead undertook an intensive programme of relaxation, involving large meals, light walks, and a visit to the cinema. We also made tentative enquiries at tour companies (without disclosing our true intentions) to gather information about the National Park, its ranger stations, and the volcano. By far the most useful intel came from a local mountain bike guide who told us exactly what we needed to know. He (who shall remain nameless for his own protection) drew us a detailed route map and reassured us that the main gate was not manned at night and could therefore be snuck through if we got there early enough. Most importantly, he was also confident the volcano was currently safe, despite the ongoing closure of the park.
We set off on a bright sunny Sunday morning and just as in Medellin, one of the city’s main roads was closed to traffic and filled instead with sweaty, exercising people so once again we joined them and rolled peacefully out of town. Before long we had escaped into open green pasture and an hour after that we were on a small dirt road heading steeply up through a valley of thick cloud forest.
It was very pleasing to see just how quickly a big noisy city could turn into quiet uninhabited nature. As the afternoon wore on we expected to pop back out of the woods into the open country above the tree line, where we could find a nice campsite. But, at 3000 metres as night fell, there was no sign of a break in the trees so we had to make camp right by the road and hope that we wouldn’t be squashed by any maniac drivers in the night.
In the morning we continued up the valley after a breakfast of fruit and boiled egg sandwiches. When the forest disappeared we carried on into the upper part of the valley with wispy clouds rolling up from behind periodically shrouding us in a cool mist. There were a few scattered dairy farms, then one unexpected last bastion of civilisation in the form of a hot-spring spa hotel (where we couldn’t resist a quick dip). Then we were into the shrubby high altitude ‘Paramo’ ecosystem, scattered with tall alien-looking centuries old frailejon shrubs (below).
That night we camped hidden behind a hill, near to the National Park entrance at a chilly 4000m altitude in amongst the Paramo, and I was delighted to finally be able to use my cold weather gear – leggings, hat, gloves, and buff – which had come over 10,000km all the way from Canada without ever having left my panniers. For dinner we ate the heaviest remaining items from our supplies (pasta, onions, pesto, sausage) so as to be as light as possible for the final assault the next day, and went to bed early.
As mentioned, it was crucial that we arrived at the entrance to the park whilst the rangers were still asleep so we set our alarms for 2am and nervously packed up our things by torchlight. We got to the gate at about 4am and everything was silent and still. Around the dirt track leading up to the gate was a cluster of wooden cabins, one of which we though must be the rangers’ living quarters because inside we could see the flickering light of a television.
Slowly and quietly, we went to open the main gate for vehicles but to our horror it was locked so we had to take off all our luggage and squeeze through a narrow pedestrian gate to the side. Fumbling in the dark, we made a number of clumsy noises which could have got us caught but after what seemed like forever we got everything through and crept on with our bikes until we were out of earshot.
Celebrations were short lived because the way on was very difficult and cold. Monty had a lighter more mountain bikey set-up so he fared better than me and Emily who made painfully slow progress, having to get off and push our bikes for most of the way (steep and sandy!).
When dawn broke at around 7.00am we were in a breathtaking elemental landscape – the most incredible of the trip so far. It was still very chilly though and I realised I couldn’t feel the toes on my left foot so I stopped and massaged them until they woke up. The road’s high point was at 4700m on the slopes of Nevado del Ruiz, only 13km from the gate, but it was almost 9am by the time we got there.
That was the difficult bit done. Although we were quite low on water and Emily was getting a bad headache because of the altitude, we were in high spirits. It was warm now, the scenery was sublime, and we only had 20km of downhill to ride before coming the other side of the forbidden zone. But then disaster struck. As we were standing right at the top of the pass, ready to start rolling downhill, we heard the high pitched buzz of a motorbike engine coming behind us. We were busted, the rangers must have seen our tracks on the sandy dirt road when they got up and now they had caught us up.
The motorbike overtook us, blocked the road and a ranger got off. Looking pretty pissed off he introduced himself as Fernando and demanded we return back down to the main gate straight away. We refused, playing dumb about the park closure, and begging to be allowed on to exit the park in the direction we were already heading. Fernando got on his radio and told us to wait. We hoped he was perhaps trying to help us but this was not the case. Within 30 minutes we were joined by more rangers, their utterly infuriated boss, and three soldiers with machine guns. The young soldiers started happily taking snaps of the scenery on their smart phones and certainly weren’t threatening but even so, it was clear that there would be no more discussions and we were presently frogmarched back down to the gate.
It was so frustrating to have gotten so close before being caught. Another 10 minutes and we would have been too far down the other side to turn back. But at least we had made it to the top. Unfortunately, we had more trouble in store. The Park officials were hellbent on confiscating our bikes as punishment for our transgressions and had a huge dusty old book of rules and regulations that apparently gave them the right to do so. We spent a long afternoon of arguing about whether or not, and for how long our bikes would be impounded. Clearly, we were in the wrong but we didn’t want to lose our bikes so we couldn’t back down. There was talk of embassies, lots of implausible claims that we didn’t know the park was closed, and a couple of conversations with officials in Bogota. By late afternoon, everyone was thoroughly exhausted and it was agreed as a compromise that we would leave our bikes there for 24 hours, sign some sort of confession, and buy entrance tickets to the National Park (even though it was closed). The two very nice policemen who had been patiently adjudicating between us and the rangers helped us back to the hot spring hotel where we spent the night before returning for our bikes.
In the end, we did kind of make up with the rangers, which was good. We agreed that Colombia was a lovely country with friendly people, and promised not to say bad things about them when we got home. And I believe they will now be installing a lock on their pedestrian gate to prevent any more nocturnal ‘mix ups’ from happening in the future.