Apart from the horror of destroying several motorbikes (slight exaggeration), Colombia was starting to be one of our favourite countries. The long anticipated Andes were turning out to be spectacular and (luckily for Loz) the gradients to get up them weren’t overly terrifying either. Our Spanish is slowly improving, the coffee is wonderful and Colombians LOVE cyclists. Another plus for us was that cycling through Colombia coincided with the Giro d’Italia, Colombian Niaro Quintana was vying for the Maglia Rosa (leaders jersey) which only added to the cycling fever and madness of it all.
One particular day we were trying to make up some time and push down the PanAm, it was getting near ‘cafecito’ time and was there a single coffee selling looking hut in sight? No. Rain started and we detoured into the next town for our afternoon coffee fix, unfortunately the only place we found didn’t even serve coffee. Pah, call yourselves Colombian?! However after sitting out the rain while sipping on ice tea we got back on the road. We had only been pedalling for less than a kilometre when on the horizon loomed a service station, not just any service station but our favourite service station. A Terpel! Ok, pulling into the equivalent of a Road Chef might not sound like everyones oasis on the horizon but you have to remember, standards have dropped. Even though we had just stopped moments before, Terpal’s had coffee and peanut butter snickers! We had to stop again.
We parked our bikes, burst into the air conditioned haven, ordered everything then sat there gorging ourselves like animals trying and failing to be civilised. While we were feeding a gentleman called Pacho came up to talk to us, he had studied in Cambridge, cycled his bike to Paris (from Cambridge) and loved Britan*
*This is an absolute win for me, normally Herbie gets all the home country affection, it goes something like this…
“You’re from England, oh, Brexit.”
“You’re from Ireland, wow that’s so awesome my ancestors are from Ireland too, maybe we’re related – I’ve kissed the Blarney stone, no wait for it, upside-down!”
Meanwhile I go and drown myself in the nearest puddle while singing ‘God Save the Queen’
Pacho loved the UK, he loved London. My chest swelled with pride (not literally, sorry Herb) and we spent some time chatting about all things British. After a while chatting and probably sussing us out to make sure we weren’t complete hobo’s Pacho invited us to stay with himself and his family in Cali for the weekend. We hadn’t planned on going into Cali so we swapped details and promised to let him know after we’d had a few hours to think and chat about it. Off we went on our merry little way, staying in a hostel that was conveniently also a brewery. Over a pint we discussed our options and ultimately came to the conclusion this trip is all about meeting awesome people. Maybe it was fate there was no coffee in the first place we stopped, maybe the pull of a peanut butter snickers was trying to tell us something. One thing is for sure so far, every single person we have had the pleasure of meeting and staying with on this trip has been an absolute highlight, we’re going to Cali.
We spent the net day following a hand drawn map Pacho had given us, leading the way to his garage located in the north of Cali. We really had no idea what to expect but were slightly baffled when we pulled up to an immense looking building with one single door and those one way windows you can’t see into.
“No, you knock”
“Is this the right place?”
“Yes, just knock on the door will you”
“What if we never come out again, shall I send a SPOT signal?”
After a minute of bickering we eventually summoned the courage to knock and the door was instantly opened by a lovely smiley lady who had probably been watching our antics through the one way glass for the last few minutes. She knew exactly who we were and we were briskly ushered inside where our bikes were replaced with glasses of ice cold water.
Pacho’s garage turned out to be a little piece of paradise for anybody who loves cars or engines. You need a bullet proof Range Rover? Pacho is one of three people in Colombia who can get one for you. Need your boat restoring? No problem. How about an original Porsche Speedster? Yep, one of those too. I think Herbie thought he’d died and gone to heaven. After ogling all the beautiful cars for the afternoon Pacho took us to his home to meet the rest of his family. His wife Claudia who is basically a model and his two wonderful children Juan Camilo and Mariana. All of whom are completely bilingual which made our time with them a lot less embarrassing than might have been the case.
It was decided that the next day while everyone had jobs to do they would take us to their country club where we would be able to relax for the morning before heading up to their mountain cabin for the weekend to enjoy time on the lake. Yes, you read that right – Country club – Mountain cabin – Lake!
I can’t describe how much fun we had that weekend hanging out with Pacho and his family. They treated us like old friends and we had to keep pinching ourselves, ‘are we really here, is this happening to us?’ It also became a slight running joke over the weekend that Herbie will say ‘yes’ to anything.
‘Would you like a go on the jetski?’ – Yes
‘Knee board?’ – Yes
‘Another beer?’ – Yes
‘More steak on the BBQ?’ – Yes
‘How about the quad bike?’ – Yes
‘Salsa dancing?’ – Yes
We even managed to meet both Pacho and Claudia’s parents who again treated us more like relatives than strangers. I’m not sure if luck, fate, an act of god or whatever you like to call play a part in our lives. I am afraid I am not qualified to answer that one, but I do think if you open yourself up to opportunities 9/10 you will not be left disappointed.
Pacho, Claudia, Juan Camilo & Mariana we know we’ll meet you all again sometime, maybe even in London?! Until then stay safe and big love from us!
Leaving Cali we were on an absolute high, pedalling south again and headed in the direction of the ‘trampolin de la muerte’. In order to get to the starting point we had to cross the mountains from Popayan and through the national park of Natural de Purace. We set off early knowing it would be a tough old day and figured we’d just get far as we possibly could and find somewhere to camp once it got dark, as from reading other blogs most people take two, sometimes three days to cross. We spent the first 2.5 hours covering 27km, the road was steep but manageable, the tarmac was good and there was little traffic. After a coffee stop we mounted up again to continue upwards, we climbed and climbed over 3000m into the most beautiful of landscapes. The traffic was almost non existent and it was thrilling being on our own seeing glorious waterfalls and mountains as far as the eye can see. We stopped in a village where many cyclists choose to spend the night before tackling the rough road the next day. It was only lunch time, yes we had already been cycling nearly 5 hours but the plan was always to ‘wing it’ somewhere in the wilderness.
The tarmac stopped and we encountered some of the worst road ever, it was bone shaking, there was no obvious way through the potholes, it started to rain and a 2l water bottle that had been strapped to my panniers disappeared. Great, we were now low on water however there were plenty of waterfalls, we had a filter so figured we’d still be ok. The clouds descended and the vegetation got thicker, the next three hours were pretty uninspiring, cycling through the rain in a dark corridor of thick vegetation full of potholes and gravel. This is not what I imagined a National Park might look like, distances were hard to judge as everything looked the same, there were no views, just an occasional passing moto. I’d have had more fun spending three hours on a watt bike in a shed, at least it doesn’t rain inside a shed! Three hours of pedalling later and it was starting to get dark, I made the mistake of suggesting to Herbie we find somewhere to camp. The response came back something like ‘Where the f*ck are we gonna camp Loz?!’ I knew he was right, there really was nowhere, you couldn’t walk off the side of the road it was so dense, finding somewhere to put a tent was impossible. I wanted an excuse to stop though, we’d been pedalling nearly eight hours in the mountains, my bones were rattled, my rear mudguard had broken and I was exhausted.
Almost as if the road gods heard our pleas within another 3km the vegetation started to thin out and some tarmac appeared. Beautiful tarmac. By this point we were heading downhill, it was dusk and we figured we’d make it to the next town. 15 minutes of glorious descent we came upon a small village. We could camp here? Stupidly we both agreed the next town was only 15km away. It was all downhill, the road was good and we’d be able to find ourselves a hot shower. Downhill we descended until the road gods punished us for our foolishness. The tarmac disappeared. We were left with an awful dirt road, 12km from town and it was dark. Back to boneshaking and just as I thought it couldn’t get much worse I felt something tip the balance of my bike. I looked back to see one of my rear panniers on the ground. A day of bone shaking terrain had loosened all the bolts in my back pannier. The pannier clips were still attached to my bike, the actual pannier bag was gone. The three bolts that attach the bag to the clips had disappeared, fortunately I had an array of bungees and was able to strap the pannier on top of my other pannier and pray the same thing wouldn’t happen on the other side. Over 9.5 hours of pedalling and boneshaking later we pulled into town, it had been our longest day on the bike even though we had covered less than 70km.
Having had such an ordeal the day before we decided to head to San Augustine and a hostel highly recommended by bike tourers. It was only 20km away, yes there were a few hills but all paved and we had all day to get there. It was all going incredibly well until we took a wrong turn in town sending us plummeting down a steep cobbled gradient. With no choice but to turn round and pedal back up that’s exactly what we did, it was back at the top a motorbike appeared out of nowhere, I say ‘appeared out of nowhere’ in reality I had my head down fighting my way uphill in my lowest gear and didn’t look up until I got to the t-junction. Herb had pulled out ahead of me and I wrongly assumed I could do the same. I stopped for the motorbike and instantly remembered I’d forgotten to oil my right cleat. In the rain it always gets really stiff, no good remembering that now, I was already 45degrees into an embarrassing sideways face plant unable to get my foot out my pedal. I instinctively put my right hand down to brake my fall, which landed awkwardly on a cobble and there I was humiliatingly sprawled underneath a full loaded bicycle in the middle of town. Of course being on the ground I was able to wrench my feet free and was pulled up by three gentleman who jumped out to help me. Being British I insisted I was fine and hurried over to where Herb was stood painfully watching my ineptness.
“Are you ok?”
“I think I’ve broken my hand”
Not usually one to jump to conclusions, I’ve fallen off a bike a lot recently and usually end up with some sort of scrape or another but this really hurt. My hand was in agony. I’ve also broken bones as a grown up and know the type of pain.
*I broke my fibula a coupe of years ago and ran around on it (marathon training) for a week complaining there was something wrong while Herb told me to stop being a wuss, until a physio sent me for an x-ray.
Now, I have no idea if my hand was / is broken, all I know was that it was incredibly fat, painful and bruised for a few days. We do have insurance, but the nearest hospital was miles away and the best they might do for a scaphoid would be to splint it. Instead we took a day off and tried to make sure I fell off left for the foreseeable future.
For the above reasons we decided not to cross the infamous ‘trampolin de la muerte’. Another two days of mountainous unpaved road with sheer drops and a renewed fear of falling off filled my with dread. We decided to head the ‘flatter’ route towards the much smaller San Miguel boarder into Ecuador. I say ‘flatter’ because it avoided an unpaved mountain pass but did include endless unpaved mini mountains that were only 50m or so ascent but there were so many of them we were still averaging 800m ascent a day, plus we were back nearer sea level and the Amazon so it was HOT. It was on our final day in Colombia that I was again bone shaking along a rough road, I was way behind Herbie and going so slowly as at this point was still refusing to clip my feet in on anything other than tarmac. A passing car pulled alongside me and as the blacked out window rolled down a small girl of about 5 leant out and handed me an ice cold, bright red gatorade. She smiled at me, the car didn’t even stop and I was left stood in the middle of a shi*ty, dusty road clutching my beverage, utterly speechless but convinced that Colombia might just be one of the best countries in the world.