As a parting gift, when we left Ibagué Carol told us about a dirt road that would take us to our next destination, Salento. It was a dirt road, with a whole load of climbing, but we were promised it would be worth it. Everybody goes to Salento to visit the Cócora Valley which contains hundreds of wax palm trees, Colombia’s national tree. They take decades to grow and can reach heights of 50m! In Colombia these trees have now been protected by law. Our reward for taking the more difficult dirt road was the chance to see not hundreds but thousands of the wax palms lining the valley were riding through.
For two days we pedalled up and over the steep valleys on the sometimes very rough dirt road. We watched as the main road got further and further away, staying in the bottom of the valley, taking the long way around. As usual with the mountainous roads it was much more peaceful, we saw less than a handful of cars the entire time. There was one town along the way, but with very limited (and expensive) options for places to stay. Instead we carried on further, but when the rain started to pour down finding some shelter for the night became a little more urgent. As luck would have it we ended up at a trout farm just a few km out of town. The family that ran the place were really friendly and let us camp on their covered deck, sharing the space with their awesome doggos.
The weather definitely hasn’t been on our side in the Colombian mountains and the ride into Salento, through the valley with the palm trees was mostly done under a cover of clouds. Cooler temperatures are nicer to ride in, but it makes taking good photos a lot more difficult. The ride was similar to the one up to El Angel in Ecuador, we knew we were surrounded by the nature that we had come to see, but we couldn’t fully appreciate it a lot of the time. 50m tall palm trees are a lot more visible than the fraillejones though, so we still got to see how many of the crazy looking trees there are. Even under a blanket of cloud the valley was really beautiful, taking the hard road was, as usual, totally worth it.
We already had somewhere to stay booked for Salento, which is something we very rarely do, but it was really nice to arrive and go straight to our hostel rather than spending time looking around and comparing all the places. Even the quick ride through the center to where we were staying gave us idea of the town, it’s very touristy, as much as San Agustin, but it’s also really pretty! With colourful buildings, a lovely plaza, locals cruising around town on their horses, and the stunning backdrop of the surrounding mountains we could see why Salento attracts so many visitors. It was the first of 3 reportedly beautiful mountain towns that we planned to visit and it set the bar pretty high.
On our day off we had planned to visit the Cocora Valley with all the other tourists, but after a bit of consideration (and looking at pictures on the internet) we decided that we had probably seen a more impressive valley on our way here. If it had been blue skies, offering the chance for some more spectacular photos then we would have gone, but another day of dark grey clouds meant we changed our plans and stayed in Salento instead. A day of catching up on our digital lives, eating food, resting our legs and just generally enjoying the vibe of the town is sometimes exactly what we need.
Throughout Colombia we have naturally fallen into a bit of a routine while riding. Generally after 3 or 4 days on the bike, all of which normally contain at least one climb of around 1000m, we take a day off. Between the unrelenting Andes mountains and the temperature being way outside our comfort zones we’ve found these rest days to be necessary. We’ve also been planning ahead a lot more, creating a rough route to follow and anticipating how long it might take us. This is partially because we need to leave Colombia by plane, so tickets have to be bought in advance (more on that another time 😉 but also we found that when we had a plan through Ecuador it made it easier to keep focused and pushing on. In a way, not 100% winging it stops us from lingering around too much just because we haven’t decided on where we are going next.
From Salento our next destination was Jardin, but before that we had three days of riding with a few thousand metre climbs for good measure. However, for a change, we started with a long descent out of Salento and it was one of those rare days with little climbing so we covered 90km in record time. After a sweaty 5 hours of riding we treated ourselves to an afternoon off. Best. Decision. Ever! For under £5 we had a riverside campsite, two beers and use of the swimming pool. When the temperature is over 30 degrees C, this is exactly what we needed and it set us up well for the final couple of days to Jardin.
We had planned one day off in Jardin to ride the teleféricos (cable cars) up to the mountain viewpoints, wander the small town streets and soak up the atmosphere. The day started off well. We had a relaxed morning chatting to our hostel owner Carlos, also a keen cyclist, and Gustavo, another guest staying at our hostel to do some road cycling in the area before leisurely making our way to the first teleférico. ‘La Garrucha’ is like nothing we’ve seen before and probably never will again. Built by a local man in 1995 as a means to get across the valley (for his personal use), it is essentially a garden shed suspended by two steel cables and pulled up and down by a electric motor. After climbing into the shed with three other passengers, all of us squeezed onto 2 tiny benches facing each other we were shot out of the gate like a bullet from a gun. The cable car takes only three minutes to travel the 320m up out of the town and through a banana plantation, before arriving at a viewpoint overlooking the town. Jardin really is in a stunning location with mountains, banana and coffee plantations surrounding the small town and the terracota roof tiles contrast against all the natural green landscape. Jardin enjoys a temperate climate: not too hot or cold, reasonable levels of humidity and only a few biting insects, it’s almost perfect. If only insects biting was all we had to worry about…
We don’t do much exercise on a rest day but we thought, as it was so beautiful here, we’d follow the half an hour trail down from the teleférico which promised views of the river and a waterfall too. We’d only walked 100 metres when our plans changed considerably. The second house we walked past had a number of dogs in the front garden, normally not as issue as we love dogs and here in Colombia they’ve been pretty well behaved, but normally we’re on our bikes. We continued walking and before we knew it they’d ran out of the garden, under the fence and were barking at us pretty intensely. In a matter of milliseconds one of the dogs had bitten Steph on the back of the calf, twice no less, and in the time it took her to scream they had all legged it back into their garden and were nowhere to be seen. Wtf?? With nobody in the house and the gate padlocked shut we figured that nobody was home and maybe that meant the dogs were more protective of their house than normal. Annoyingly it meant that we couldn’t ask the owners if the dogs had been vaccinated against rabies and without being 100% sure, getting Steph to the hospital became top priority. On the plus side it meant we could ride the fun teleférico back down the hill!
On the walk back through town we spotted Gustavo and his wife Patricia eating a strange beige goo being sold from a street cart. We explained what had happened and straight away they were on the case, trying to help. Patricia rang her son (who’s currently studying medicine) and found out exactly what we needed to do, while Gustavo bought us both a beige goo treat that actually tasted like the inside of marshmallows after they’ve been toasted on the fire. For a couple of minutes it definitely picked our spirits up.
We went to the hospital where they washed Steph’s leg thoroughly for ten minutes and filled out the necessary paperwork before telling her that was everything she needed and sending her on her way. We weren’t happy with this. We had both had a full course of rabies vaccinations before leaving the UK but unlike other vaccines, these are just pre-exposure ones which only give you more time to get to a hospital where you need a further course of two shots after exposure (or suspected exposure), they don’t mean you are safe. The hospital staff didn’t believe this to be the case (even after we showed and translated the vaccination leaflet to them) and said Steph was fine because, according to the Colombian Medical Guide she’d already had the rabies vaccinations and her tetanus jabs were up to date. After a lot of discussion they went into their office to do ’something’ and then came out with a prescription for two rabies shots, three days apart and said we’d have to go to Medellin to get them. They didn’t have any vaccinations there and it felt as though they were just giving us what we wanted so we would go away. Great…
In contrast to the A&E staff Carlos and Gustavo were amazingly helpful and without them our day would have gotten even worse. Gustavo was from Medellin so he went out of his way to find out where we could get it there, even offering to drive us there himself and Carlos got on to his friend that worked in the hospital in Jardin (not the A&E department). We think it was just because it was Sunday that we had had so much hassle (Sunday staff 🙄), as his friend actually worked in the immunisations department and said that he had the rabies shot to hand. He would be in work on Monday at 7am. Less than 24 hours later and without any fuss he delivered the rabies vaccine in to Steph’s arm, told us to come back three days later and we felt relieved. Thank you Carlos, Gustavo, Patricia and the Madre Tierra Hostal (Colombian’s are great!).
The day was a whirlwind of emotion for both of us, but Steph was fairly distraught because on one hand she loves dogs and the other, one of them could have given her rabies. Very over the top, I know now but at the time it was a serious concern. Realistically the risk of contracting rabies in Colombia is very low and at least we had the foresight to have a full course of pre-exposure rabies shots. If we hadn’t, we would have had 24 hours to get a stronger dose injected directly into the bite and then another 5 shots in the weeks following. There is a worldwide shortage of the emergency rabies shot, which is a very serious problem if you can’t get it within 24 hours. We know of a cyclist that had to fly to Washington DC from Bolivia, luckily he had travel insurance! On that note, we’d recommend everyone gets the 3 rabies vaccinations before travelling to far flung places. It goes to show that even as a regular tourist walking on a well-trodden trail, you can be at risk of being bitten and at least the pre-exposure ones buy you more time.
After this sudden change of plans, we had three days to wait in Jardín between the jabs so we spent it cooking lots of yummy food in the hostel kitchen, wandering around the town (which we’d planned for Sunday and never got round to) and in Colombia Netflix costs half the price of the UK, so we treated ourselves and became real adults. £4 a month well spent! (Any recommendations for things we should watch on Netflix? We’re only 18 months behind on TV and movies!)
After our days waiting in Jardín we can confirm that it is a very pretty little town with a great ambience and chilled vibe. It’s also the first place we’ve seen a true cafe and bar culture, not just for tourists, but locals would sit during the day and night watching the world go by over a beer or coffee. The colourful tables and chairs spill out onto the plaza and most of the chairs that locals were sat on outside of the bars were leaned back against the wall, on their two rear legs. You’d get in to trouble at school sitting like that!
After the second and last vaccination on Thursday morning we were back on the road. After the two rabies jabs Steph is now vaccinated against rabies -just for this bite, as far as we know- and is back to being stress free again. We are both healthy, well rested and enjoying riding though coffee plantations. (Though the hills are a killer… a typical Colombian climb is seemingly gaining 1000 metres in elevation over 10-15 km, then descend and repeat. Ouch!).
It was another three days of riding as planned through the villages of Jerico and Fredonia, before reaching Medellin. We had heard that Jerico is a slightly less touristy version of Jardín and yes, it is definitely less touristed but the locals were still just as friendly and welcoming. We were comparing it to Jardin so the houses seemed less colourful and the plaza not quite as picturesque but I think if we had stayed there longer than one afternoon and night, or found a cheaper hostel, we would have had longer to appreciate it. The plaza was still filled with locals sat at cafes and bars, enjoying watching the world go by, just as they had in Jardin.
The ride to Medellin continued without anything else noteworthy happening. We had two big days with thousand metre climbs each day and boiling hot temperatures, the usual! We were relieved to reach Envigado before lunch, a suburb of Medellin where we would be Couchsurfing for a few days and then moving to a Warmshowers host for a few more. But more on that next time.
Que le vaya bien,
Ben and Steph