A Rollercoaster Ride Through Coffee Country
There’s a very good reason why Colombia boasts some of the globe’s best uphill cyclists. And that’s because you can’t pedal far in the biodiverse rich nation without finding yourself huffing up a steep pass with gradients that make you want to hurl your bike off a cliff.
Exempting the disastrous ride out of Medellin (read about it here), we’d continued to climb an average of 1,000m or more every day which meant by time we reached the quaint puebla of Jardin in the heart of Antioquia’s coffee country – just four days out from the starting point – it felt as though our legs had been whacked for months with a wooden bat.
In fact our daily mileage was scarcely topping 30km a day and our daily speeds were rarely reaching double figures. At this sloth rate of travel, it looked like we’d arrive in Ushuaia just in time for our 80th birthdays.
From Jardin the plan was to take two days to cycle just under 60km to the next town of Riosucio with our friend Richard Smith (you can read his blog here) along a mountainous dirt track before diving into the stunning Risaralda coffee region and eventually on to Salento and it’s world famous giant wax palm forest. Our route would take us on a rollercoaster ride down mostly backroads to what’s considered the bean production epicentre of the nation before tackling the final section of dirt/ stunning backroad brutality between Salento and Ibague. From there we hoped to be spat out in one piece on highway 45 for a beeline south along one of the nation’s two scorching hot valleys.
A walk in the proverbial park right?
As we geared up to climb the 1,100 metres over 20km from Jardin to a disused football field I mentally pulled on my big girl pants before putting the bike straight into granny gear for the steep crawl out of town. Within minutes sweat was pouring down my, well, everything, and casual walkers were overtaking me including one bloke who had a crutch.
If I’d had a shred of dignity left I would have cared but that was lost long ago after a bout of gastro in Tajikistan.
After just an hour of cycling black storm clouds began to amass and as the asphalt gave way to rocky dirt, big fat rain drops fell.
An amused looking soldier, perched on the side of the road, casually asked us where we were headed and when we answered “Riosucio” he visibly winced.
“La calle is muy mala,” he warned.
Yep the track was very bad. But hey, what Colombian secondary road wasn’t?
Just 10 minutes later the heavens opened to release a monsoon. We quickly threw on our waterproofs but no amount of Goretex in the world could withstand the equivalent of an elemental temper tantrum.
Ahead in the gloom a rustic tarp over some bamboo poles appeared and we threw our bikes down and ran for cover as the road turned into a river.
The gorgeous scenery was lost in a haze of mist and rain and all we could do was laugh and joke that if a bus turned up on this hell forsaken road, we’d flag it down and ask for a lift.
The fantasy bus never arrived.
There was nothing for it but to press on and for the next four hours we battled mud, sludge and slippery rocks along ascents that occasionally looked like sheer walls.
By mid-afternoon the mist and rain cleared leaving us with jaw-dropping views over green peaks and gushing waterfalls, but as late afternoon approached the black clouds returned and nearby thunder rumbled loudly.
We’d skipped lunch in a bid to press on, with the promise of a big dinner to make up for it, but we’d scarcely reached our rustic camp spot and thrown up the tent before the heavens opened again.
Ah well, breakfast then?
The sun was making an effort to break through the clouds the following morning and so we packed up the soggy tent and cooked up pasta before heading “downhill” to Riosucio. In fact the road bucked more than an overenthusiastic bronco with stretches of it so “mala” we were scarcely going downhill faster than we’d climbed up the day before.
By the time the town came into view our legs and hands were shattered and we made it to a cosy coffee shop for a pick me up before the day’s monsoon struck again.
As a river roared down the street I asked Scott and Richard: “Do you reckon it’s now the wet season in Colombia?”
“Yeah, I reckon so,” they muttered back drily.
Riosucio (which translates to dirty river) was a surprisingly charming little town given the name and as luck (or bad luck) would have it we’d arrived on Easter Good Friday. We’d expected to find chocolate egg hunts and giggling children running around on sugar highs but instead we were greeted with a scene that wouldn’t have looked out of place at a shame-inducing funeral. The townsfolk were dressed in black, the children were suspiciously silent and a morbid procession plodded through the town complete with a litter holding a plastic Jesus surrounded by a bunch of blokes who looked as though they’d taken fashion advice from the KKK.
Colombia is a strict Catholic country and it was clear they hadn’t favoured the western notion of religion with a slice of chocolate and alcohol.
From Riosucio the road ran again uphill through colourful banana and coffee plantations to the small mountain town of Risaralda.
It was hard not to gape in wonder at some of the most stunning vistas we’d seen yet on the hilly narrow road and while our legs ached after yet another 1,000 metre climb the mesmerising scenes were worth it.
We arrived smack bang in another downpour and quickly found our soggy hotel which seemed to serve as the local “hook up” spot for couples who needed to escape their families for a quick, ahem, hour. Richard scored a room that had been vacated just minutes earlier from an embarrassed looking duo but all the bodily functions in the world couldn’t have stopped us from hitting the pillow and sleeping like the dead.
Our slightly over enthusiastic hotel manager had promised the road ahead to La Virginia, via a little used back-way, was dirt but in fairly good nick (“no mud, I promise”) but just 8km into our ride the next day we discovered he was full of crap.
As the heavens again opened for their daily deluge our road turned into a swamp with the occasional landslide. At one particular spot the local road workers had turned up in an attempt to clear it and we were pleased to see they followed the same pattern as road crews the world over, one person doing all the work while 10 others stood around watching.
Some things are just universal.
By mid-afternoon our climbing was done and we whizzed downhill (on asphalt!) for a blissful 10km before ending on a blissful 5km flat stretch into La Virginia.
Like every lowland town, La Virginia was sweltering hot but after a soggy few days we lapped up the heat and didn’t even balk at the cold water hose or loo minus a seat that all the cheap “hotels” boasted.
For the first time since setting off in Colombia we were also due to take a main road to cut across to the mountain town of Salento, near the famed Cocora Valley which boasts the nation’s famous giant wax palms. A couple of days on asphalt at steady gradients would do us good, we reasoned.
Again, we reasoned wrong.
From La Virginia the road inevitably climbed another 1,000 metres up and while we had smooth asphalt the gradients varied wildly between rideable and swear-inducing while trucks and buses farted black clouds of carbon monoxide in our faces. It was also the kind of hot where the sweat doesn’t drip, it pours, and by mid-afternoon we were all in a haze of pain, just trying to reach the next goal of one kilometre until our destination – a marked campsite.
Cycle touring is definitely a game of mental endurance and so when I finally reached the campsite my legs confirmed that yes, I was done, and no, I could not possible have cycled even another 100 metres. But the campsite was shut – according to the very grumpy old bastard who ran it – which meant we had nothing to do but pedal on, uphill to find somewhere else.
I could have cried, but instead I mentally punched the caretaker in the face before wheeling my bike back onto the road. We’d reached a section of the state that was heavily farmed and somewhat upmarket which meant wild camping would be tough and so we reasoned a cheap hotel would have to be the next best thing.
I couldn’t face turning the pedals up the next uphill stretch and so I pushed at the pace of a walrus on land. It was just 500 metres but it felt like Everest.
The road to Salento continued uphill but another road (which was not in the right direction but was downhill and featured motels, according to Google Maps) veered off towards Pereira and so without a moment’s guilt or thought for the fact we were tacking on uphill miles to tomorrow’s ride, we set off downhill in search of somewhere to stay.
Some locals had told us just one hotel lay in the next several kilometres but when the Eco Lodge came into view our hearts sank. It looked posh – proper BMW in the parking lot and fancy staff posh.
We wandered tentatively in like nervous bums hoping for a break but despite our pitiful pleas the chirpy receptionist told us the cheapest room was 190,000 COP (roughly $60 USD and about four times more than we could ever afford to spend on a room). Scott and I looked at each other, wondering if maybe we could just cycle out of our way to the next city and score a cheaper place, but before we could waddle sadly back to our bikes Richard had whipped out his credit card and paid for two rooms.
“Consider it a birthday present”, he insisted. “Either that or a loan with a very reasonable interest rate” he joked.
What a darling!
We were shown to our very posh room with a very posh king bed and a giant shower with steaming hot water and a toilet with its very own seat!! What a treat.
After a big dinner we climbed into the bed with its fluffy duvet and slept like the dead – thanking Richard – the king of cycling compañeros – with all our hearts.
Salento lay just 28 (largely uphill) kilometres with another 1,100m climb in the mix and while it was nothing we hadn’t done before, getting on the bike the next day used up all my mental strength reserves.
Somehow five kilometres became 10 and 10 became 20 and after taking a two-hour lunch break at a truck stop to wait out the daily deluge, we were on the final uphill slug to Salento.
I could have kissed the ground on arrival and to celebrate a hell of a tough week we treated ourselves to juicy burgers and fries before contemplating the road ahead.
From Salento, which is perched on the edge of the Los Nevados National Park, we planned to take yet another brutal (but visually epic) back road through tiny villages and wax palm forests to Ibague while Richard would partially cycle main roads and take a bus to meet us at the other end. His thinner tyres had not held up to the dirt road slog and with his ribs still tender from the crash, he wasn’t willing to suffer again so soon.
Mind you, I wasn’t sure we were either but with the promise of some of Colombia’s most stunning scenery just around the bend (and a belly full of hamburger) I was willing to saddle up and give it a crack.