A back-breaking end along breath-taking back roads
There were just three kilometres left to the top. Three. Measly. Kilometres. By foot it would take just over 30 minutes, hell in a crowded mall on your hands and knees it would take under an hour. But at the rate we’d been going, pushing up 20 per cent dirt grades 10 miserable metres at a time, continents would drift apart before we summited.
We were smack bang in the middle of one of Colombia’s most jaw-dropping back roads that snakes its way from touristy Salento to the city of Ibague just over 100km away to the east and while the scenery was the kind adventure post cards are made of, the price was high.
It was hard to imagine that just two days earlier we’d been watching Game of Thrones in bed while eating chocolate. In fact it was hard to imagine we’d been anywhere else other than this “brutiful” road with its sweeping vistas and back-breaking climbs.
But with the daily traffic consisting of a few donkeys, a couple of motorbikes and a handful of cows, there was little do but keep pushing and hope to hell we could conquer those last three kilometres before sunset.
Just over 24 hours earlier, scarcely before elevensies, we’d cycled our way slowly and unsteadily out of Salento, waving goodbye to our buddy Richard who was wisely taking the bus to meet us on the other side.
The dirt road had been gaining popularity in bike traveller circles thanks to its epic scenes, lack of traffic and back-breaking gradients (we’re all a bunch of sadists) and we were keen to see just what this highly rated ride had to offer (you can read our trip notes at the end).
From our little guesthouse (Hostel Doña Iza) the dirt track veered conveniently off to the left and immediately began snaking its way uphill on progressively worse tracks. Smooth-ish dirt turned to rock and rock occasionally turned to mud with a thick fog shrouding what should have been a stunning vista.
By midday we’d scarcely covered 8km and by 4.30pm we’d finally made it the 20km through sheer force to the top, gaining almost 1500 metres in the interim to reach 3400 metres – our highest point in Colombia.
Just a couple of kilometres from the summit the road dipped down to reveal the gargantuan La Cabornara valley with thousands of giant wax palms straining towards the sky.
From there the plan had been to find the first available patch of grass to pitch the tent but with the road hugging a steep mountain-side with sheer cliffs either side and farmland taking up the rest, the sun began to set before we’d found a spot.
Just on dark a little river popped into view with a patch of grass and space for the tent next to it. Bingo. We threw up the tent, cooked up some pasta and were dead to the world soon after.
The next morning dawned bright and clear with statuesque palms framing a mountainous horizon and we slurped down breakfast as a farmer lead two mules down a path next to our tent with huge milk jugs strapped to their sides.
From there we hoped to cover just 27km to a roadside hot spring on a road that bucked and dipped while still forcing a 1000m climb in the mix. But by 11.30am we’d only just made it the 13km to the one-horse village of Toche – which was largely downhill. The mostly rideable gradients had buggered off in lieu of up to 20 per cent rises and troughs that were impossible to ride uphill and death defying in reverse. On two occasions we’d been forced to walk our bikes downhill in what was a first on our world tour. It was just too steep and rocky to negotiate safely.
In Toche we tucked into a “menu del dia” (the standard lunch dish of Colombia that consists of soup, meat, plantain and salad for a couple of dollars) before buying some pasta and carrots off the owner and pushing our way metre by metre up the near sheer cliff that snaked out of the valley. The midday sun was beating down and while the brutal climbs were occasionally interspersed by equally steep drops, the going was slow.
For eight brutal kilometres we pushed uphill in increasingly smaller increments while soaking up exquisite views including one snow-capped peak.
The scenery was impossibly green and filled with so much biodiversity that life seemed to ooze from every orifice.
The road wound its way up the volcano Cerro Machin, which last erupted hundreds of years ago, and by 5pm we’d neared the crater and the long sought-after hot springs.
They were empty.
Just a hose spewing hot water into the drained pool remained. We’d been looking forward to our thermal bath all day but rather than let an empty bath set us back we simply stripped off and stood under the hose for a makeshift shower.
We later found out a landslide had crashed into the hot pool just days earlier.
The only place to camp nearby was a patch of turf mere millimetres from the road opposite someone’s home and with no one around to ask and our options limited on where to stay we simply threw up the tent and hoped the road stayed quiet at night.
With an overenthusiastic rooster launching its sunrise album at 3am, sleep was hard to come by and so at 6am we bit the bullet, rolled out of our sleeping bags and prepared to hit the road.
There was still just over 50km left until Ibague and while a large stretch of it was downhill the usual 1000m climb awaited and knowing Colombia, there’d be a handful of 20 per cent grades thrown in the middle to test our mettle.
Slowly but surely the magnificent wax palms disappeared behind us, making way for steep plantations of bananas and coffee built precariously into the mountain sides with incredibly rustic homes perched every kilometre or so on the roadside. In the dirt outside toddlers played with puppies while women cooked stew over a fire inside the one-room shack. Many of the homes were scarcely enclosed with a rough outside toilet perched on the cliffside.
By midday our climbing was largely done and we celebrated with a sandwich overlooking the nearby highway that offered a paved connection from Salento to Ibague. With its muddy, narrow and impossible steep climbs and descents it was small surprise our little back road was largely shunned by all traffic save locals on mules and bikes, but just looking at the scores of trucks belching black fumes on the congested highway made me glad for every metre we pushed.
It had been undoubtedly worth it and already we were willing to place it in our top 10 rides of all time.
A gentle downhill run remained to Ibague and by mid-afternoon the shacks had given way to colourful fincas and the road had smoothed out as the city approached.
Like every heaving metropolis, Ibague was a chaotic, feral mass on its edges but as we inched closer to the centre it seemed to only worsen.
I’d just stopped to pull over and check my phone’s map when a taxi driver rushed over and asked us what the hell we were doing.
“This area is extremely dangerous,” he yelled.
“Where are you going!? Don’t go that way, you’ll be robbed,” he insisted.
The road to robbery also happened to be the main road into town and while his wild rantings rattled us, we didn’t see what other choice we had.
So we brushed him aside and continued pedalling into the centre. Entire buildings looked burned out and ragged locals wandered the littered road side looking like extras in the Walking Dead.
We were beginning to worry and when a long climb appeared in front of us, we ignored our protesting thighs to push as hard as we could to the top. We’d scarcely stopped again to get our bearings when a policeman rushed over, face full of concern.
“What are you doing here?!” he asked.
“This place is extremely dangerous, you’ll be robbed!”
I’d just taken my phone out again to look at the map when he quickly gestured for me to put it away. Apparently even with an armed cop looking over my shoulder my phone would be knicked in a heart-beat and so I tucked it into my front bar bag.
“Go straight to the central police precinct – someone will help you from there,” he insisted.
After repeating his directions, we set off feeling increasingly nervous but when we reached a large roundabout ahead we couldn’t remember if he said right or straight. And so we took a gamble and went straight.
We gambled wrong.
Again the road veered upwards with dozens of bedraggled men lining the street. As soon as they spotted us they seemed to rise us one, shouting and moving towards us.
Cold fear gripped me. I’d thought my legs couldn’t bear another climb but suddenly I found myself turning the pedals in a Tour De France esque race to the finish. Scott was lagging behind but somehow we both reached the flat before the masses could turn us into White Walkers. By this point we were hissing at each hysterically like angry geese wondering what the hell we were supposed to do.
Scott wanted to stop and check the map but hell would freeze over before I’d make myself a standing target and so we barrelled into a nearby gas station, sat under a camera and furtively pulled out the phone to see where we were (other than the Bronx of course). It turned out we’d overshot the police precinct by a few blocks and so we memerised the route and looped around via a different road. A policeman stood on the precinct corner and we rode straight up to him to ask for a safe hotel nearby. He told us there was one right in front of the station and we should beeline there.
With hearts pounding and minds reeling at what the hell kind of city we’d found ourselves in we quickly checked into the Hotel Issa (which was a somewhat upmarket sex hotel) and dived into the sanctity of the room.
Inside our love pad, a red and white adorned king bed took centre stage while a shower sat in one corner and a spa bath occupied the other.
“Score!” I yelled.
“Yeah! That spa will be perfect for doing the washing,” Scott gushed.
Despite Ibague looking like a place where the apocalypse had already happened, we took a day off in our love hotel to recover, used the, ahem spa bath, and wait for Richard to arrive by bus.
The next morning we cycled out of town hoping that a nice neighbourhood would pop into view but the scenes only worsened. On ramshackle buildings locals had graffitied FARC in multiple places in distressing homage to the terrorist guerrilla that wreaked havoc on the nation for years.
From hell’s anus we cycled a largely cruisy 90km downhill and flat to the tiny hot village of Saldaño. It was our biggest day yet in Colombia and it took less time to conquer than the 30km ride out of Salento.
But while the going was definitely easier we’d swapped cool mountains for one of the country’s sweltering valleys that beeline to Ecuador.
With just a week left on our Colombian visas we’d decided to make a quick dash for the picturesque Tatacoa Desert before flying us fast as we could towards the border with a couple of bus rides planned to get us there in time.
The next day we pushed out long miles in 40 degree heat that left you drenched in minutes and while the pace was quicker it was hard not to miss the mountains. But we’d be back among those unforgiving peaks soon enough.
Ecuador awaited and with it some of the steepest and toughest rides of the Andes.
Cycling from Salento to Ibague
- Total distance: 105km
- Total ascent: 4586m
- Access to water: Rivers and run offs line the first pass out of Salento with three major river crossings between the summit (20km from Salento) and the small village of Toche. Small runs off exist for the first 15km out of Toche with a hilltop school roughly 23km from Toche in the direction of Ibague a great place to fill up with a clean water pump outside. From the school there’s an increasing number of roadside homes and fincas including a small tienda roughly 15km down the road with the small town of Centro Poblado Tapias just 30km from Ibague
- Where to camp: Wild camping options are limited. If travelling from Salento to Ibague, the riverside camp 30km from Salento is a great option. The school is another good spot (roughly 53km from Salento) if you ask permission (they are very friendly). Otherwise there’s limited space on the roadside near the hotsprings. Toche also has a basic guest house.
- What to bring: Good rain gear, a water filter, warm clothes (you’ll get to almost 3400) a good camera and plenty of food with limited places to restock on the way. Note there’s no shop in Toche but you can buy food from the Restaurant Mirador.
- Tips and tricks: Even if you’re a speed demon, take your time! The scenes are gorgeous and the wax palm forests you’ll see en route will put the Cocora Valley to shame. Bring wide tyres and a sense of humour. You’ll probably have to push, a lot.