Towards Alto de Letras: Bogotá to Mariquita

Bogotá is one of the most bicycle fanatic cities I have ever seen. Every Sunday is Cicloviá, when major roadways around the city are shut to car traffic and many thousands of residents come out to enjoy a car-free pedal. On Wednesday I joined the Gonoraider’s for a nighttime ride at a pace that would be arrestable in the U.S. The 50 or so riders were strong and fast and stopped for nothing, expertly weaving past cars and buses and barely slowing for red lights. It was rare and incredible fun, even though I lost the group early on when a car cut me off in a traffic roundabout. If you’d like to join them, which you should, they meet every Wednesday at 7:30 outside of La Carrulla on Calle 85 (in Zona Rosa). Be warned though, they are extremely fast; bring a helmet, front and rear lights, and prepare to pedal like mad. Despite its lack of good bike lanes, Bogotá has an outsized proportion of bike commuters, due mostly to the traffic and the very poor quality of the Transmilenio, Bogotá’s public transit system, which I swear is managed by 5 year-olds or a flock of turkeys or some other group whose strength is in exhibiting gross incompetence. Anyways, Bogotá – like many Colombian cities – has a vibrant biking scene that you should explore one way or another!

Cycling Colombia Bogota to Mariquita
A feline farewell from my Bogotá couchsurfing host’s cat.

My legs were feeling a little rusty after my time in Bogotá and a week in Cali visiting with friends. From el centro, I went up Carrera 14 I then took a left onto Calle 80, which eventually took me out of the city (note to other riders: there’s a bike path that follows Calle 80, but when you see Calle 80 bridge over something follow the road instead of the bike path – you’ll save yourself some frustration). After an hour or two of riding on flat, the road began to climb. It wasn’t steep or long but my legs, coated thickly with inertia, struggled to make it up. After maybe 4 kilometers I made it to Alto el Vino, which marked the beginning of a long, 2-lane highway descent that continued until La Vega.

Alto El Vino Bogota
About to tip out of the bowl that encircles Bogotá and on to the other side.

In La Vega I stopped for lunch, and was joined by a bizarre cycle tourer who I’d passed on the descent. He spoke in tangents about the bi-annual “conferences of leading intellectuals” that he had attended four times at the “vortex of energies” along the equator in Ecuador. Entertaining another person’s wild theories is all well in good, but with time ticking away and Guaduas, my objective for the day, still many kilometers away, I made my excuses and continued on.

After La Vega, the heat got extreme and the terrain slightly more rolling. I was more beat up than I should have been when I reached Villeta – the town before Guaduas – at about 3:30. I was feeling optimistic, but as I refueled on liquids in una tienda the people there pointed towards the mountains that I was perhaps subconsciously determined not to notice and told me about the climb “muy duro, muy duro!” ahead of me.

Alto El Trigo beat me up. It was long and steep where I wasn’t expecting anything long and steep. It was hot and I was in no mood. The traffic was worse than anything I’d seen previous, long lines of cars and tractomulas spewing black smoke up the narrow and winding road. About two-thirds of the way up, I felt rain and heard thunder in the distance; a perfect pre-text to stop at the ramshackle hopsedaje that had just come into view. I went to ask about a room and the proprietor, an ancient, wrinkled woman sweeping the floor, essentially said that the room wasn’t made and that I should keep going to Guaduas. I tried to convince her to let me stay but she was having none of it. Chastened, I continued up.

Alto El Trigo, Guaduas
Maybe a fifth of the way up Alto el Trigo, a perfect hell. What you see below is humidity concentrate (and within that, the vacation town of Villeta).

After much more climbing and a couple false summits, I reached a largeish truck-stop looking settlement with lots of hotels and restaurants. Thoughts of stopping again crossed my mind, but it became evident that the entire place was without electricity, and a night without food or a shower was a risk I didn’t want to take.

I pushed on, though it soon became clear that I’d reached another false summit; the road continued up or flat for another 4 or 5 kilometers. By the time I reached the promised downhill, it was dark out and raining torrentially. I pulled on my rain jacket, flicked on my lights, and proceeded to descend the 15 or 20 kilometers into Guaduas. It wasn’t quite as dangerous as it seems, the cars going at my pace or slower due to the slippery conditions. By the time I got to town, around 7, I was soaked and shivering like a cat dipped in an ice bath. Everyone else was in shorts and T-shirts – Colombians wearing shorts being a sure sign of a place that is truly hot – but even after showering and drying and putting on all my warmest clothes I continued to shiver for another hour. Still, it felt great to have made it the 130 kilometers from Bogotá, and even better to devour a hot meal. Guaduas is a calm, pretty little town – supposedly the birthplace of Simon Bolivar’s wife – and I’d highly recommend spending the night here instead of Honda if you’re debating between the two.

The next day I got a late start, my body protesting what I had put it through the day before. My plan was to make it to Fresno – about a third of the way up Alto de Letras – but the heat between Honda and Mariquita was some of the most intense I have ever experienced. Colombians call the Magdalena Valley the ‘pressure cooker’ because of its extreme heat and humidity, and I think that description stands up to scrutiny. By the time I made it to Mariquita and sat down for lunch, I had no desire whatsoever to continue on. I’m glad I didn’t. Mariquita, like Guaduas, is a beautiful and cheerful little town, and is the fruit capital of Colombia (mangosteens are born here). Fresno, in contrast and as I would find out the following day, has no charm; it feels dodgy and thrown together, and has a quality that repulses visitors.

Ibagué to Líbano

After a very pleasant week in Ibagué with the Gallo family, I conscripted Tom, the boyfriend of one of my hosts, into riding with me to Líbano, a small town that’s a launching point to Murillo and the high, snowy mountains of Colombia’s central range.  Tom had very little riding experience and an atrocious bicycle; the wheels were warped, the riding position was way too high, and the suspension non-existent. Riding it felt precarious; you knew from the minute you swung on that this bike was out for catastrophe. And this after an extensive tune-up.

Cycling from Ibague to Libano
Tom, his eyes shining with unwarranted optimism, as we set out from Ibagué

Undeterred, we left Ibagué at a very leisurely 3 P.M. with the intent of arriving in Leridá, an easy 60km away and a good jumping off point to begin our climb to Líbano. Our ride began as a long and gentle descent into the hot, hot heat of low-elevation Colombia. The mountains looked drier, the coffee plants gave way to cattle ranches, and an overturned tractor-trailer founted out free eggs to passing motorists.

Overturned egg truck means free eggs!
Overturned egg truck means free eggs!

Eventually Tom’s lack of fitness began to shine through, and we called the day early to rest in Venadillo, home of the world’s largest pig.

An enormous pig, escorted by motorcade and child
An enormous pig pushes its way through town escorted by motorcade and child.

The next day we started riding, breakfasted in Leridá, and fueled up on liquids at the crossroads to Líbano. The climb starts in the former town of Armero, where 20,000 of its 29,000 residents were buried by fast-moving mud slides when the volcano that sits 30 miles above, Nevado del Ruiz, last erupted in 1985.

The climb started steep and hot and Tom alternately rode, walked, and despaired that he would never make it. I gave him some time to find his rhythm, but inwardly I agreed; at the pace he was going, he wouldn’t make it before nightfall. Aside from his bike and his lack of conditioning, Tom had the distinct disadvantage of having lived in Líbano for a couple years, and was thus all too aware of how much further we had to go. About 5k up, he gave up on the climb and, serendipitously, a passing truck spotted his level of doneness and offered him a lift up. We agreed to meet in Líbano’s central plaza.

Mangos found by the roadside make for a sweeter ride.
Mangos found by the roadside make for a sweeter ride.

Funnily enough, after Tom left the slope leveled off and the temperature cooled down a bit. It did feel long, but not that difficult relative to other climbs in Colombia. What made it all the better were the mango trees that left their delicious bounty on the side of the road. During a water stop at a small store, the owner gave me free blackberry juice and one of her patron’s, evidently a mangosteen farmer, gifted me several mangosteens, which I had never tried before and which now hold the highest of positions in my fruit rankings.

Cycling to Libano
A mangosteen fresh from the farmer’s pickup. A weird, wonderful fruit.

Going higher and higher into coffee growing territory, I rounded a bend and there sitting on a bench was Tom! The truck hadn’t been going all the way to Líbano, so he’d had to do some more riding to make up the difference. At this point we were close; we had a downhill and then a short but steep uphill remaining. We finished together and I was impressed by Tom who, even with his truck assist, had still come more than 100k in two days with no preparation and on a bike a clown wouldn’t venture to ride. More impressively, he later made it back to Ibagué, a long 120k, in a single day.

The last, steep stretch into Líbano. Tom relieved that it's over.
The last, steep stretch into Líbano. Tom relieved that it’s over.

 

 

Armenia to Ibague: Riding La Linea

Colombia is a country of enormous climbs, but three in particular stand above the rest: La Linea, Alto de Letras and Alto de Minas. Approaching from the south, La Linea was my first run-in with the Big Three. It’s the shortest amongst them – only 13 miles – but also the steepest, rising some 5,500 feet and topping out at nearly 11,000′.  Colombian’s refer to it as ‘La Reina’ (the Queen), which as best as I can tell is an acknowledgement of its toughness.

The climb began in earnest in Calarca, a town that abuts up against Armenia. There’s a roundabout and a gas station and a kilometer marker that says ‘7’ and there you see the road begin to incline upwards. From the bottom you can see high into the mountains – too high – and this causes despair and breaks into the steadiness of cadence. It isn’t too steep, however, and the road is wide and beautifully constructed, surfaced with lustrous pavement and painted with bright, assuring lines.

Pavement, mountains, sky - the three constants of La Linea.
Pavement, mountains, sky – the three constants of La Linea.

The road continues like this for another 10 kilometers or so, winding through coffee country and then ranch land, the mountains and the vultures in Colombia’s always dramatic El Greco sky keeping a constant company.  It’s tough, but manageably so. What – you begin to wonder – is all the fuss about?

It’s then that the road gets steep, very steep. It looks like you’re just headed up a short section of steep, an single hill, but this steep will be with you for the next 10 km. The near-9% gradient, combined with the mounting altitude, pushes you off your bike in great gasps. The kilometer markers become a particular kind of torture, a hyper-awareness of how much distance remains and of how each 100-meter gain comes only with exceptional pain and disorientation within time.

IMG_2586

The mountains, though, get bigger and more beautiful, more dramatically framed as you reach an elevation on par with the clouds. Passing motorists shout and honk their encouragement, and somehow this helps you keep going.

Near the summit, cycling La Linea

 

In the distance you see the trucks that have been passing you moving on a more or less flat trajectory and this gives you hope; the end is near. With the altitude, however, the last couple kilometers before you can catch up with your line of sight are the toughest of all. You rest every 500 meters, every 300 meters, as often as you need to to keep forward momentum.  Finally there’s a paradero which can only signal one thing; the summit.

La Linea at the summit
La Linea at the summit

Pull on a jacket because it’s cold and windy and maybe wet, and begin the descent. This is a dream descent, the kind where you go rocketing past cars and tractor-trailers with enough speed for the change in climate and ecosystem to be palpable. It’s an endless descent, and even when you think it’s over in Cajamarca it will continue to go down, down, down – with a few interspersed kilometer-long climbs – until you’re almost in Ibague. At that point you will have to climb again, about 5 kilometers, but after La Linea it’s easy, a rabbit to a grizzly bear, a mole to a hill.

 

Popayan to Cali

A brief post for benefit of other riders: I’ve heard of some riders breaking this stage up into two days, but it’s entirely possible in one. Don’t, however, be deceived into thinking that it will be an effortless day of descent and flat.

The first 70 or so kilometers consist of up and down; lose some elevation, gain it back, repeat. At some point you’ll properly descend into el Valle de Cauca and from there, other than maybe a kilometer of climbing after the main descent, it’s completely, blissfully flat. You can blast right past Santader de Quilichao, past the sugar cane fields and the yellowish falcons (supposedly some of the only birds of prey that hunt and hang out in groups) and end right in the middle of Cali.

IMG_1456

 

Cali has a bad reputation and I was a little nervous arriving but, having since spent 4 months there riding around at all hours of day and night, I can attest to its relative safety. Take the first major road eastwards (Carrera 100) and you’ll wind up on Calle 5, one of Cali’s principal arteries and quite safe for riding. It took me about 8 hours to get to Cali, with an hour for food built in there somewhere.  Stay for a few weeks in San Fernando or San Antonio (Alexa at Calle 2 #4-73 often has free rooms at 300.000/month) and takesalsa classes at Son de Luz and El Manicero!

San Agustin to Popayan: Lies and Optimism

Cycle Colombia San Agustin to Popayan Trucks
A nasty and narrow road with just enough space to squeeze by a truck

One of the things I enjoy most about endurance sport is the psychological strife that accompanies it. To continue on towards your destination means facing down a slew of thoughts, emotions, and sensations that try to stop you in every way that they can. The pain in your knee, the terrible knowledge of how much longer you have to climb, the exhaustion and exasperation and hunger that come with said climb never ending. The only control a cyclist has is in how they react to the things they think and feel: suffering begins when one starts to tell a story about a thought or feeling that has come to be regarded as something fixed, essential, and eternal.

San Agustin Colombia Skier
Evidence that ski racers existed in Pre-Colombian times. Many of the statues in San Agustin are imbued with goofy smiles.

Colombia, then, is an interesting challenge because of the way that Colombians communicate the future. Expectation can be a powerful force for someone cycling a long distance, and in the beginning I would calibrate my efforts according to what people said I had in front of me. In the same way that one doesn’t feel they can possibly do a single push-up past the number they’ve set for themselves, I would start to seriously flag after I’d ridden the number of hours or kilometers that people had said I had to ride. The difference in Colombia is that many Colombians are, in the nicest way possible, totally full of shit. Instead of giving an answer that matches physical and temporal reality, Colombians will very often tell you something that is meant to present the best possible circumstance at that very moment. They are trying to encourage you and make you happy, only in a way that discourages and engenders unhappiness.

La Casa de Francois San Agustin Biking
The bike resting up at La Casa de Francois before a long day of climbing

Riding up a long pass, a car load of people pointed at a nearby switchback and said, “That’s the top. After that it’s an hour of descending and your done.” The true summit was many switchbacks and more than an hour away; the descent was two hours long. Climbing towards Pitalito, I was told that, “after San Juan it’s puro bajando, all downhill”. I passed San Juan, and continued to climb for another 32 kilometers. “Ya va a llegar, you’re almost there” I have heard on many occasions, always hours away from anything that could be conceived of as a destination.

Cycle Colombia Biking from San Agustin to Popayan
Almost there? Yeah right.

 

So it was that I left San Agustin for Popayan without any thought or worry about how far I had to go or how much I had to climb. After a steep and roaring descent down from San Agustin, I began to go up comfortable in the knowledge that I could conceivably be ascending for the entire day.

When I stopped to chat with people on the side of the road, I found that I’d lost the impulse to ask questions about the road ahead. In fact, I turned the tables, joking with people that, “It’s only a couple more kilometers to Popayan, verdad?” knowing full well that I had more than a hundred kilometers to go. You won’t trick me this time Colombia!

Paramo Cycling from San Agustin to Popayan
The paramó, a high-mountain environment that exists almost exclusively in Colombia.

As I went higher and higher (the road climbed for 42 miles and for around 6,500′) , the other edge of Colombian communication began to reveal itself. Bumping around on a dirt road and dripping wet from the steady rain, passing cars honked and shouted encouragement. A truck pulled up, unsolicited, and offered me a ride. A bus had fallen halfway off the bank but a party atmosphere prevailed, the passengers reveling in the roadway and posing for pictures with the bus.  A gentle mist glided between the jungle-clad mountains, and the yellow-hued paramó, and a large raptor with black and white colorings wheeled overhead.

Cycling San Agustin to Popayan
Revelry outside a stranded bus

For the second time, my cargo rack shook lose a screw, this time pinching the brake and making it nearly impossible to turn the wheel. I limped into the most beautiful valley I have yet seen in Colombia, paramó and gentle streams surrounded by wild mountains and shadowed by Volcán Puracé, and attempted a repair job with the help of an older Colombian man who spoke in sing-song.

Volcan Purace San Agustin to Popayan
Volcan Purace, rising over the Paramo at 15,600′

We met with little success, and I continued on for another kilometer until I reached an Army checkpoint. There they offered – in a possible breach of authority – to stop a truck for me and get me a ride to Popayan.

Leaving the checkpoint, grateful to the soldiers and their magical stop sign
Leaving the checkpoint, grateful to the soldiers and their magical stop sign

Despite having reached the final descent after eight hours of hard-won climbing, the bike was unrideable and I gratefully accepted. The road had very little traffic, so I stayed there for almost an hour, the sun drying me out and the volcano looming elegantly. The soldiers claimed that nothing interesting had every happened at their checkpoint; no skirmishes, no arrests, not even a single confiscation of something illegal, which I found somewhat hard to believe. They were well-armed with Israeli-made Galil assault rifles, and also claimed that they never got bored or did anything to entertain themselves, despite the total lack of traffic for them to road block and question. They were a shy and boyish bunch, but eventually I managed to chat and tease them into amiability.

Popayan in the back of a pickup
In the back of the pickup with a bunch of plantains. An excellent way to travel.

A pickup finally approached, and the troop leader held up his stop sign. After a brief conversation, I was thrown into a truck bed full of plantains and off we went. The driver raced down the windy mountain bends, pushing the limits of tire adhesion on every corner and gunning past slower vehicles (which was every vehicle). In the back and with a fantastic view of the peaks towering overhead, it was a rare and wonderful thrill.

Note to cyclists: The ride from San Agustin to Popayan is 11-12 hours.The road is paved for a while, then unpaved for a lot longer, then paved again for the last 45 kilometers or so into Popayan. Rainy weather is a strong likelihood.  Leave early so you have time to stop at the Thermales Aguas Tibia in Coconuco (hot springs). Expect a sustained mild-moderate climb from the turn off for Isnos until somewhere around kilometer marker 69.  From there you’ll encounter some fairly serious ups-and-downs until around kilometer marker 40, when the route starts its descent to Popayan with much more conviction. If you need to visit a bike shop in Popayan, the best ones I could find were located on Calle 13 with Carrera 8 (best way to get here is to follow Carrera 8 to Calle 13). They sorted out my rack/brake problems for 4.000 pesos. 

 

Petroleum and the FARC

Las Mulas on their march north
Las Mulas on their march north

All the way through the Putumayo department of Colombia and on into Caqueta, las mulas – tractor trailers filled with thousands of gallons of oil pumped out of the Amazon – rumble ceaselessly north along Route 45.  The oil did move by pipeline, but constant ruptures caused by FARC attacks – literally hundreds a year – kept the pipeline out of service the majority of the time. The trucks represent a strategic diffusion: the loss of a few doesn’t force the whole machinery of extraction and transportation to a halt.

Tanks! The legacy of Plan Colombia
Tanks! The legacy of Plan Colombia

 

The first I saw of Roler Torres was his red smartphone, which hovered against the background of his jungle camouflage as he stood texting on the side of the road. Assault rifle slung across his shoulder, the 22 year-old from Bogota was lamenting his girlfriend’s decision to leave him (Colombian men in the south have an expression, revealing of a can’t-be-bothered fatalism, that goes like this: “brakes and women; you never know when they’re going to go.”) He spoke disdainfully of Mocoa – “what a hole – there’s nothing there” – and with greater excitement about the discotecas of Pitalito, the larger and supposedly more cosmopolitan city to the north. Roler was one of the hundreds of troops deployed in roving patrols along the highway to insure that a good percentage of the mulas made it to their final destination. He claimed that he’d been involved in many, many skirmishes with the FARC, though it was difficult to discern truth from youthful bravado.

Through three states, accompanied faithfully by these tractor trailers the whole way through
Through three states, accompanied faithfully by these tractor trailers the whole way

While the northern part of the Putumayo district that I rode through is relatively safe, the southern part is a different story. The former president of Colombia, Uribe, saw his father killed by the FARC, and did everything in his power to mercilessly eliminate them. With the help of American-supplied smart bombs and nefarious, government-equipped right-wing paramilitaries, Uribe succeeded in pushing the FARC to the borders. From the margins, they disrupt the petroleum industry, terrorize villagers (they issued a “Coexistence Manual” stipulating 46 not-to-be-broken commandments), and wreak havoc upon the environment. In July, 23 petroleum tankers were forced spill their product into the Amazon river basin. This and many other attacks have resulted in the equivalent on 14 Exxon Valdezes in the Colombian Amazon.

 

Pasto to Mocoa on the ‘Trampoline of Death’

“It is better,” the guy in the bike shop said, “to take two days for the ride to Mocoa.” His sentiments were echoed by the owner of the hotel.  Yet still, at 5:20AM in the morning, I woke up to the sound of my alarm ringing, full of optimism and bluster and absolutely intent on sleeping in Mocoa that evening.  At 5:25AM, after hearing the pitter-patter of rain on the roof, the siren call of my bed lured me back to, as it reasoned in whisper, ‘sleep another hour or so and let the rain pass.’

Mocoa, the capital of the Putumayo district and the ‘Gateway to the Amazon’, sits 84 miles and 4 high mountain passes away from Pasto. The route descends for a full 15,000 feet and ascends (as I found out later) for 8,000. The first half of the road is paved, but the second is rock, mud, and gravel, with steep drops into the abismo on one side and hulking, landslide-prone slopes on the other. The road is barely wide enough for one car, and contours along the mountains in a long series of blind corners. The ‘Trampoline of Death’ moniker comes, presumably, from the long fall to the bottom after motorists misjudge a corner or are swept off in a cascading derrumbe. Many, many crosses and shrines lined the way.

Cycling Pasto to Mocoa
Melisa, the aspiring boxer

At 8:00AM I rolled out of Pasto, stopping briefly to tank up my water bottles. The vendor behind the counter of the panaderia was an 18 year-old female boxer, who had moved to Pasto from Medellin with her mother to pursue her fighting career. Melisa stood at 6 feet, and asked if everybody was tall in the US (I pointed to myself as evidence to the contrary). She had a fat, wounded lip from being punched in the face while sparring and, while she had hopes to be a contender in Colombia, didn’t think she could compete with the Cubans or the Puerto Ricans.  She had two ideas about the US, first that it was hyper violent (an effect of our cultural exports. Apparently there is also a monthly television show in Colombia summarizing all of the United States’ most gruesome crimes from the month previous), and second that people walk around without acknowledging one another or having any awareness of their surrounding environment. This she heard from a friend in Canada.

 

I rode over the first two mountain passes under a heavy rain made cold by the 11,000 foot altitude of the paramo, the treeless plain that comes before the snowline. By the time I got to the Valley of Sibundoy, my fingers were stiff and my face pale and chattering. The valley is the shortest point across the Andes – 70 miles – in all of South America, and thus has served for thousands of years as a point of exchange for goods and ideas passing between the Amazon basin, the Andean plains, and settlements along the Pacific. It has, according to the renowned and fascinating Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Schultes, the highest concentration of hallucinogenic plants anywhere on the planet.

Cycling Pasto to Mocoa
Pure cloud forest on the waning Andes

From the valley the road turned to dirt, and ascended for a difficult two hours. The summit and the descent were astounding.  In this intermediate zone between the Andes and the Amazon, the mountains towered on all sides, impossibly steep and thick with cloud forest. The road was a narrow ribbon that stretched far down the valley and had no apparent end.

After a couple hours of descending and a break to fix a flat (couldn’t have done it without you Chad Jacobs!), I arrived at the final climb.

Sunset descent into Mocoa
The sun sets over the wilds

Latin Americans have many fine qualities, but realism about time and distance are not amongst them. After about an hour of going up, and with the light fading, I ran into a carload of people from Cali. “You’re almost there!” they said, “The top is just ahead – right there! – and from there it’s only an hour of descending into Mocoa!” The sun set over a glorious view of the Andes puddling into the great, flat expanse of the Amazon river basin, and I was convinced I would make it.

End of the Andes, beginning of the Amazon
The Andes end, the Amazon begins. Getting really dark.

At this point I should have learned. Another hour of climbing brought absolute darkness and no summit. I filled up my water bottle from a stream and tried to purify it but, alas, my SteriPen UV water purifier was broken.  It was 7:30 and the sky was black and brilliant with stars. I knew that if I continued riding, I wouldn’t make it till 10 (a passing trucker had given me a more realistic estimate). Not relishing the thought of a long descent on a bad road without light, and seeing the approaching lights of a pickup truck, I stuck out my thumb and hitchhiked into Mocoa.

First Day: Ipiales – Pasto

Ipiales – the kind of town that bureaucrats fear being relegated to.  Little in the way of nourishment beyond the Huge Four (pizza, hamburgers, sausage, and, of course, chicken) and with none of the sophistication and ambition that pour through the streets of Bogota. It’s the kind of town where the same ancient and gray Mazda hatchback with a thudding sound system will pass a diner 4 times as he eats a medium pizza.

I left the hotel on my bicycle at 8:00 AM, two hours later than planned (snoozing was all too easy to justify after the previous day’s long bus ride). From there, I rode a few miles south to the border with Ecuador, as it only felt right to start from the southernmost point I could reasonably reach.

The border with Ecuador
The border with Ecuador

The border was unremarkable, here’s a picture.

A view into Ecuador
A view into Ecuador

Afterwards I started the climb on Rte. 25 (the Pan-American Highway) towards Pasto, my destination for the night. After a little while, the road began to descend…and descend and descend! From a peak altitude of more than 10,000 feet and for the next 25 miles, I had a joyous downhill, with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, with their long waterfalls and cultivated verdance. The road was in perfect condition, without a pothole in sight (what’s your problem Vermont?) and with arcing switchbacks that took me to the limit of the bike’s handling abilities.

All descending
All descending

Eventually I arrived in the town of El Pedregal, elevation 4,500 feet. Little did I know that I had bottomed out; most of the remaining distance to Pasto – about 35 kilometers, would go up.

Only steeps
Only steeps

I huffed and puffed and struggled my way up to Tunga, about 12 kilometers distant from El Pedregal. A man in a pickup stopped and gestured and laughed before speeding up. A pretty girl pushing a stroller told me “Ya va a llegar!” (not true). A teenager on a motorcycle asked if I had seen any police and, when I shook my head more in perplexion than response, gleefully motored away.

Climbing up from the road visible below; nowhere close to the top
Climbing up from the road visible below; nowhere close to the top

 

Eventually my pedal fell off. It hadn’t been properly screwed in and, after a spell of asynchronistic movement, it pattered down to the pavement. Miracle of all miracles, I was directly in front of not one but three mechanic’s shops. The first mechanic, emerging from a dark tin shack perched on the edge of a cliff, was entirely unhelpful. His tools were scattered like ruins, and it looked like he hadn’t had a client volunteer themselves to his services for a long, long time.  He shook his head in bemusement.

The next shop had five mechanics inside, the principle of whom spoke in sing-song Spanish. They all crowded around the pedal and argued passionately about the best way to proceed. Eventually, and at the behest of the singing mechanic, a wrench was produced and the pedal secured tightly enough to the bike to get me to Pasto. I thanked them profusely and continued on.

I had one sketchy encounter with a drifter-looking guy on the other side of the road. He turned around, looked at me, bent down, broke a piece of glass, and kept a long shard in his hand. The only way up was through, so I gave him a hard stare (humans, like tigers, are reluctant to attack what is looking at them) and, with a big adrenaline boost, bolted past in a high gear. Success!

At kilometer marker 72, the road finally began to descend. At this point I was back up above 10,000 feet, so I stopped to throw on a jacket and document my favorite kilometer marker.

The best kilometer marker
The best kilometer marker

The rest was a victory descent into Pasto. I found a cheap but good hotel with the aid of a friendly motorcyclist, and celebrated with a large and carnivorous dinner.

The next day I brought my bike to the best bike shop in Pasto, Bike Tech (http://biketechmtb.com/ Carrera 36 No. 12-52 Panamericana). In 15 minutes and for a reasonable price, they had swapped out the offending crank shaft and put on some better brakes (the ones that came with the bike had a train-like reaction time). They were very friendly and gave me some good advice on my route. I highly recommend them to anyone passing through Pasto.

Bike Shop Pasto
Saviors – Bike Tech in Pasto

TCarrera 36 No. 12-52 Panamericana