Since entering Colombia a few weeks ago we have been following one of the two main tourist routes, through Pasto-Mocoa-San Agustin-Tatacoa Desert-Ibagué. This route has mostly followed the valley between the central and eastern mountain ranges and is surrounded by nature. It has constantly changing landscapes; densely forested mountains, jungle, desert/savannah and back to mountains, with tourist sites every few hundred kilometres. The other popular route between the central and western range is Pasto-Popayan-Cali-Manizales-Medellin which follows the PanAmerican highway, has bigger towns and cities and goes through the ‘zona cafetera’, the coffee growing region of Colombia. We will eventually see parts of this area as we head towards Medellin.
We’ve noticed that the tourist infrastructure is in a few specific places with little between them for the regular tourist (we only see the in-between places because we travel a lot slower!) It feels like outside of the several tourist hotspots tourism is really in its infancy with people only just starting to realise that there is money to be made from travellers and tourists. Most hostels we have stayed at have been catering for locals rather than gringos with money, which is good for us because they’re simple and cheap. We wondered if this is because of Colombia’s recent past and the reputation of being a ‘dangerous’ country for tourists. But to us it’s felt much like the other South American countries we’ve visited: safe, friendly and welcoming.
The availability of such cheap accommodation has meant that nights spent in our tent have been much fewer and further between than normal. We spent days riding in the rain in the south of the country and as we have come north we have spent days riding in baking heat. Being able to stay somewhere with a shower and some respite from the weather at the end of each day has felt like a ridiculous luxury, but it’s not breaking the bank so its great! Yay, Colombia. Staying in towns has also given us lots of opportunities to see the local way of life in Colombia, in places that tourists rarely frequent and with chance to practice our Spanish. From the street food carts on every corner, to the upbeat music and relaxed outdoor drinking in the plazas, the vibe in these Colombian towns has invariably been sociable and good-natured.
After Mocoa we cycled for two days, solidly uphill, to San Agustin, a small town up in the hills famous for its interesting burial mounds and stone sculptures. This was the first proper touristy place we’ve visited in Colombia with hostels that cost more than double what we’d paid so far (we’ve been paying around £5!), fancy looking restaurants and souvenir shops lining the main road. We had an idea where we might stay from checking out the reviews online but we thought we’d look at one or two other options on the way though town just to compare prices (plus the one we were looking at turned out to be up a big hill!) It’s good that we did, we found a hostel for 30,000 CLP (£7.40) per night for a double room with en-suite and use of a kitchen, plus as guests of the hostel we were offered a Jeep tour to some of the other arqueological sites in the area for a greatly reduced price. Winner!
The main San Agustin archaeological park is a 3km walk out of town (typically uphill) and even at 9am the heat was fierce. We’ve been feeling very British since arriving in Colombia, wishing it was warmer when we were in the cold, drizzly mountains around Pasto but then complaining about the heat as we’ve dropped down into the valley! After walking to the park the first thing you see once inside is the museum which tries to explain the who, what and why of the archaeological site, but it also happens to be air conditioned.
The museum was interesting and factual, with information in both Spanish and English. We learned that the people who lived and were buried here are a bit of a mystery with very little information about them. Historians have been theorising about them ever since the graves were discovered in the early twentieth century. The thinking is that the ‘San Agustin Culture’ as they have become known have inhabited this area since around 3000BC and from about 700BC they built the structures that can be seen today. The stone carvings and tombs have been cleaned, maintained and reconstructed for the tourist park, but they have been restored to their original positions after years of looting and grave robbing took place.
The San Agustin people lived closely alongside the natural world, evident on the carvings which depict man with animalistic features, such as sharp teeth and cat-like eyes, and with other natural phenomenon depicted such as the sun, moon, lightning and rain. It was an interesting few hours looking around the different grave sites and wondering who was buried there? Who were the stone carvings of? (the person buried or a God/protector maybe?) And what kind of religious or spiritual rituals were they for?
The San Agustin entry ticket also included two other sites within 30km of the town, too far for us to cycle and visit in a day, so when Colombia (that was the tour operator’s name!) offered us a 4×4 tour for 1/3 off we thought it was a good excuse to be regular tourists. We were picked up at 9am from our hostel and taken to various sites throughout the day. We both like the idea of a tour but don’t like to be told where to go or how long we have to look at something while someone talks to you, so luckily this tour just drove us to each location and we had a set time to spend there, but we could spend it how we wanted. We’re so used to this on the bikes, having no set time to be somewhere because we are our own transportation and can go wherever, so it was funny being driven around in a jeep. It was fun sat on one of the small fold out benches in the back of a pickup truck with a retired German couple though!
It was an action packed day seeing two waterfalls (one of which is Colombia’s highest), two other archaeological sites and the Estrecho de Magdalena. This was right at the end of the day and we were both feeling tired, but it was actually one of the best stops. The Magdalena is one of five major rivers in Colombia that start in Huila Province and the Rio Magdalena runs all the way up the country to the Caribbean. We will see a lot more of this river as we continue cycling north. The Estrecho de Magdalena is a point where the river has carved its way through a very narrow gorge, creating crazy rock formations and some incredibly powerful rapids.
Leaving San Augustin we followed the main R45 highway for three days to Neiva, a reasonably large city which like most Colombian cities wasn’t touristy at all. As far as tourists are concerned it is only a stopping point between San Agustin and the Tatacoa Desert. For this reason there was just one tourist hostel in Neiva which is actually way out of the main centre but near the university and was surrounded by cheap restaurants and tiendas (small convenience stores). It made the perfect base for a rest day, catching up on some healthy food (making good use of a proper cooker and a blender!) and speaking to other tourists.
Like all of the other travellers we met in Neiva when we left the city we headed for the Tatacoa desert. Unlike everyone else we cycled 50km in scorching heat, past plenty of campsites and hostels with swimming pools to find our own little patch of desert for the night. It was actually our first wild camp in Colombia! Due to the topography of the country, and the return of fenced-off farmland finding places to wild camp has been pretty difficult up to now, so paid campsites or hostels have been our usual stops for the night.
The desert itself is beautiful, it’s split into two different looking areas called the red area and the grey area (can you guess why?) With wind eroded rock formations and a much more arid landscape than we have seen so far in Colombia it made an awesome detour from the otherwise flat pavement road heading north. We had heard people say that it’s actually a savannah, not a desert as it isn’t hot and dry, but hot and very humid. I can’t say I actually know the difference, but either way the heat was incredible. It reached 38c in the day, which according to the hostel owner in Neiva is ‘fresco’ with temperatures often getting above 45c! At night it dropped to a more manageable 25c, and we were treated to views of a spectacular electrical storm in the skies overhead. With amazing forks of lightning and thunderclaps that you could feel in the ground beneath your feet, but not a drop of rain! It was also a full moon night and it would have been a great night to just sleep outside and watch the storm… except for the millions of biting insects that want to feast on any patch of skin you leave exposed. Soulless assholes.
Tatacoa desert is fairly small, only 330km^2, so the next day of riding took us out of the desert and back onto the road north. It was a quiet gravel road for the most part but we did meet 2 farmers on their way to plant something in the fields closer to the river. They were amazed by our trip and told us that we didn’t have to go as far as we thought on the gravel road, there was a small ‘boat’ that could take us across the river in the next town and from there we could rejoin the road. After the heat of the desert we were keen to get back to a more pleasant altitude so we took their advice and cracked on up the road.
Everywhere in Colombia that we have been so far, bar the ‘desert’, has been so green, even more than in Ecuador. In the south there was a lot of dense forest covering every square metre of the steep sided mountains but from San Agustin onwards there has been so much agriculture. Everything seems to grow here in Colombia and we have ridden past fields of corn, rice, and fruit (mangoes, bananas, guanabanas, anon (like a chirimoya) and pineapple). We’ve also seen a lot of farming machinery and tractors, some of which is very old but well loved! The way to our next destination, Ibagué, followed the Magdalena river before heading back into the mountains. Because of the perpetually sunny climate in the valley, and the abundant supply of water from the river, farming was more prevalent here than anywhere we have been in Colombia so far.
Another thing about Colombia that we’ve noticed is that there is a huge cycling culture here, almost as much as football was in Argentina, volleyball was in Ecuador and Mate drinking was in Uruguay! Sunday is the day when every cyclist goes out, often in a huge group and even with support vehicles, from parents on mopeds to actual cars with spare wheels and bikes on the roof. We’ve also seen more cycle tourists than we did on the road in Ecuador, mainly from Colombia and Venezuela, even one with a dog in a trailer. This gave Steph some ideas!
Through WarmShowers we had arranged to stay with a couple of cyclists when we arrived in Ibagué. Carol and Willy were great hosts and we spent a really lovely weekend with them. They are both involved in various cycling clubs and as it was the weekend they were obviously going out for a ride on the Sunday. We were invited along to what we thought was a regular Sunday ride, but actually turned out to be an organised event out to some local waterfalls. There were hundreds of riders going! It was a 6:15am start and a ~45km, mostly downhill, ride out to the Payande waterfalls. The weather wasn’t really on our side, with constant cloud cover and intermittent rain showers, but that didn’t stop the cyclists diving straight into the pools at the waterfalls en masse, Ben included (obviously).
The ride back to Ibagué didn’t overly appeal, as it was nearly entirely uphill and mostly following the road we took into the city just a few days before, so when Willy offered to ride back and get his car then come and collect Carol and ourselves we were happy to accept. We spent the time having lunch in Payande town and relaxing in the plaza until our lift back arrived. After a quick stop for ice cream on the way we arrived back in Ibagué around mid afternoon. To round out our relaxing afternoon we then spent a while relaxing in the jacuzzi and sauna that was in their building. It doesn’t get much better than that.
After a great weekend we were ready to get back on the road. Our next destination was another tourist hotspot, Salento. More on that next time.
Ben and Steph