Crossing into a new country is normally an exciting time. You always have the minor hassle of actually doing the paperwork and getting the stamps but so far we have never had any problems and we are usually underway with renewed excitement pretty quickly. The border between Ecuador and Colombia was a little different. For us the process was much the same as any other border, but for any of the hundreds of Venezuelans waiting to cross it was undoubtedly a more anxious time. Knowing that all of these refugees were fleeing from a country that is rapidly running out of food and medical supplies, all while their dictator of a president lives the high life was heartbreaking. The huge Red Cross and UNICEF tents hammered home just how bad things are getting.
Sadly we didn’t get much of a chance to talk with any of the Venezuelans because we were tourists and were ushered to the front of the queue to be dealt with as soon as possible. Possibly for the best. How can you tell someone in that situation, “We are just here for an adventure, for fun”? We cant imagine what it would be like to have to leave your country without knowing when or if you could return. There were many families with large sack trucks or wheelbarrows carrying literally everything they had left while they slowly made their way to a new country in search of a more stable life. Worse than seeing all of the displaced Venezuelans was knowing that these are the lucky ones, the ones that have got out and have a chance to start something new while the tragedy in their home country continues to exacerbate.
So the day had started on a very sombre note, but we actually finished our ride somewhere that had quite the opposite feel to it. The church at Las Lajas is built on the site where supposedly a miracle occurred and a mother’s lost daughter was brought back from the dead. There has been a shrine in the location since the miracle occurred but it has been rebuilt and updated several times in the last couple of hundred years. The current church was built in the early 1900s and while relatively small it is quite beautiful. Set deep into the canyon and straddling the river in the bottom many Catholics still make a pilgrimage here to seek their own miracles. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and there were plenty of other visitors there, both tourists and church-goers.
Covering many of the walls around the church are plaques put there by people thanking Our Lady of Las Lajas for a miracle or favour they have received. We managed to find one from just a few days before we were there, so she’s obviously still doling them out. The church itself is impressive but it also houses a museum of pre-Colombian artefacts within its lower levels. Showcasing the pre-Colombian art, history and culture of the region it was interesting to look around.
Despite being less than 10km from Ipiales, the border town, we had been advised by other cycling friends to stay the night at Las Lajas as the church is lit up at night in a neon light show more likely to be found at a fairground than a church. This turned out to be great advice and wandering down to the church for a second time that night was equally as enjoyable as seeing it in the daylight. It also helped that the place we had been recommended to stay was great. The Casa Pastoral is a religious centre/spiritual retreat that is mostly used by people coming for events down at the church. There was nothing on when we were around so we had nearly the whole place to ourselves and it was super peaceful.
From Las Lajas we headed into the Colombian Massif, to the city of Pasto. While not a very touristy place it is where cyclists heading north need to decide which mountain range they wish to follow, Colombia has 3. It’s around here that the Andes splits into 3 mountain ranges, like 3 fingers pointing north, unsurprisingly known as the western, central and eastern ranges. We headed for the valley between the central and eastern cordilleras to take in a road known as the Trapolin de la Muerte (Trampoline of death). With such an amazing name we knew it had to be a fun ride.
Unlike Bolivia’s Death Road, the trampoline is still actually used as a road, meaning we would have traffic to contend with. It turned out not to be a problem though because despite the road being very steep and narrow in places the trucks that form the bulk of the traffic are moving so slowly its pretty easy to avoid them on a bike. The ~65km of rough dirt road drops from 2770masl all the way down to 670masl with a lot of undulation and precipitous drops along the way. As we descended from the top the temperature steadily rose and the vegetation became ever thicker, signs that when we reached the bottom we would be on the edge of the jungle region of the country.
Along the way we met a German couple, Tomas and Karen, that were travelling in their camper van. They had stopped for lunch on a rare wide section of the track and they shared some tea with us while we swapped stories from the road. Admittedly the camper van life is probably a little more comfortable than the bicycle life but going down that road I would much rather have been on my bike. Every time vehicles from opposite directions met one of them would have to reverse until they found space to pass. With hundreds of switchback turns and normally a huge perilous drop to the side I cant imagine it was a huge amount of fun, unlike riding it on a bike, which was great.
Until that point we had spent all of our time around the Equator in the mountains. It was only when we arrived in Mocoa, the city at the bottom of the trampoline that it became abundantly clear how hot it is here when you aren’t at altitude. The heat and humidity were pretty intense, as was the dense jungle encroaching on every space as yet unpaved by man. We decided to do a hike out to a well known waterfall known as the Fin del Mundo (End of the world). Even though this area isn’t the real Amazon basin rainforest it was a chance for us to get a bit further into the jungle, an experience we have yet to have on this trip so far. We saw monkeys swinging in the tree tops, birds and butterflies of many different colours and strange insects that I wouldn’t be able to name. The noise of the insects was incredible, the tropical jungle really isn’t a quiet place!
The Fin del Mundo was pretty touristy but it was also awesome. The river flows over the edge of a rock shelf and the water cascades 80m down over the sheer drop. Once the park rangers have strapped a harness onto you you can crawl right to the edge to look over into the abyss (though it is a very lush and green abyss). Steph was really not a fan, even lay on the ground looking over the edge brought on some minor vertigo.
With our little detour to the jungle done we began our trip north once again. One thing that has been noticeably different in Colombia in comparison to Ecuador is that there is very little on the road. Towns and villages are further apart, and there is hardly anything between them. We imagine the terrain has a lot to do with this, the abundance of steep valleys and canyons all wrapped in dense tropical jungle makes finding places to build very difficult. But Colombia’s history must also play a part in this. Until a decade ago the Farc were still active throughout the country, and this along with the previous ‘Narcos’ years pushed regular people to the cities for safety. Colombia’s recent history is fascinating and it’s something we want to speak more with locals about as we head north. For now though we have plenty of peaceful roads to take us there.
Que le vaya bien,
Ben and Steph