Dear blog friends, Colombia is beautiful, almost unreal country. We really don’t know where Gabriel Garcia Marquéz was sitting when he wrote his books, but for us, the magical realism could have been easily born right here. On the road from Ibagué to Salento.
I’m writing these lines on the hostel terrace in Salento the day after we got here. The experience was so strong, that I can’t hold it from you a minute longer than necessary.
There’s two options how to get from Ibagué, Tolima, Colombia to Salento, Quindió. Main, paved highway or dirt side road. Guess which one we picked. Our choice was 100km long and climbs over a 3340 masl. pass in Colombian Central Cordillera. Before reaching that point though, you will loose the hard earned altitude several times and need to start all over.
Which apps do we use to plan a route?
And so we started in Ibagué, where we spent few days at Jason’s and Brandon’s place. We booked first night on Airbnb, just to be offered to stay longer for free if we wanted by the end of the day. We just clicked and really understood each other. Who wouldn’t stay with a view like this. What’s more Tom hurt his foot the night before we wanted to leave by stepping on a metal rod sticking out of the bridge.
As usual, we set out from Ibagué around noon a still had to get some stuff from town. After few uphill kilometers on the highway, what’s more in reconstruction, so with a narrow shoulder, we could take a breath again after we turned to the side road to Toche.
The road led us through couple of tunnels and small villages in the steep hillside. The incline was quite pleasant, if that can be said about inclines and we didn’t have to push the bikes. This day will forever be carved into our hearts and stomachs – homemade lentil spread with chapatis from the Indian restaurant in Ibagué for lunch! You may find it funny, but this kind of high cuisine is rare for us. What’s more Colombia let us down by absence of refried beans in the stores. So we’re trying and make even our lunches upfront now.
We followed the road cut into the hill side. Looking down is only recommended for those who can handle the heights, it can easily give you some vertigo. About an hour before sunset we stopped and asked for some water at small finca. Señora gave us all the water we needed plus really good Lulo juice. Colombia is full of hospitality and super nice people. Even the village dogs gave us easy time, other than one neurotic chihuahua who attracted two rottweilers. Those guys were super friendly though, but try and keep your cool when it rushes towards you trying to sniff your leg… I almost fell from the bike.
Asking locals about a suitable camping spot in this kind of difficult terrain is really necessary. We were pointed towards a small shop few hundred meters up the road. The owners let us put up the tent right next to the pool table on their roofed veranda. All three local dogs kept tight guard the whole night. The shop worked like a local hub, gas station and kids commuting to school from other villages left their bikes parked here. Water here in Colombia is not potable from the tap (only in big cities like Bogota, Medellin, Cali… is safe to drink tap water) so we either filter, boil or use drops to disinfect it. In the morning we thanked the owners, gave them our old head torch, which I’m sure they’ll use, and set out.
Starting from 1800 meters we slowly kept cutting away the elevation up to 2400. Only to ride all the way down again to where we started in the morning. Phoebe and Lolo were running with us and we’ve noticed, that local dogs react much better when they run off leash. Probably they look more normal to them, not like some aliens with bright orange harnesses bound by a rope to those other weird creatures on funny bikes… We were starving because we didn’t want to eat until we reach the hot springs where we planned to stop anyways.
Few kilometers before the hot springs, we noticed the first gigantic palm trees. Only a few and afar though. What got us more interested was the Tolkien’s like scenery along the road. Trees covered in silver moss hanging down from branches. They call them Barba del Viejo here – the old man’s beard.
We finally made it to the hot springs by half three. It’s literally a concrete tank/pool filled by a pipe which brings hot water from further up the small valley. The pool just freely overflows and small stream runs right over the road. We’ve already noticed the warmth radiating from it when crossing it. It was the best reward to dip in the warm water. And we finally ate some proper food!
We had one hour of light left. We decided to push as far as we can get. The road got steeper again, but we could already see some houses on the other side of the valley. We’ll try to ask around there! One of the buildings was local primary school and we found Andrea there. She runs a small kiosk and only internet connection in area every afternoon after school. She invited us to stay by their house for the night. Later we met rest of the family as well – husband and two sons. From him we found out we basically camped in the crater of still active volcano Cerro Machín about 2400 masl. There were palm trees and hundreds of fireflies around. And a little bit of smoke rising from the top of the mountain… And at night, at night it was cold. And we could see our breaths in the light cones of our head torches! Finally a country for us.
It was drizzling when we set off in the morning. We said our farewells to Andrea and left a small Bluetooth speaker for the kids (in the meantime we replaced it by a smaller and lighter one, but this one could still be put to good use). 7km downhill was waiting for us, with some short climbs, towards the village of Toche. It’s the only larger village on the road and of course has to lie down at the bottom of the pit again – 2000 masl. We resupplied, including dog food, as we saw we won’t make it to Salento that day.
The toughest part was right ahead of us. Steep steep 3,5 km of which I had to push most of and we climbed 450 vertical meters. This portion could possibly challenge infamous Guatemalan climbs, although we didn’t have to push both one bike at the same time. On the top we were rewarded by a great view of the palm tree forest. The road kept on traversing the hill side, up and down, up and down. On the left there was a view deep into the valley always present and the palms on both hill sides. One time in the clouds, five minutes later bathing in soft sun light, only to disappear in the fog again. Magical. Hard to believe it to be real at times. Essence of magical realism alive. Right there and then.
We finished the day in 2500 masl. (coming down from 2800), by the river which we had to wade to reach our desired camp spot. We used the river water for cooking that night and following morning and are still here, without excessive number of toilet visits, or rather visits to the bushes.
How does a regular day of a cycle tourist look like? Find out here!
Day four or the winning day
We made good effort waking up in the morning and actually got out of the tent shortly after the 5:30 alarm. Local farmer surprised us while we were eating breakfast when he suddenly emerged with two horses on a small path from somewhere up the valley. He brought down, or rather one of the horses brought the farmer and the other horse carried down 2 big canisters of milk. He then waited for a truck to pick them up. It kept us thinking about how much work and effort it must take to get those canisters down here and we are still wondering how much he might get for those few dozens of litres. Especially in case the truck belongs to a giant in the market supplying big supermarkets. I hope for the sake of all small farmers in Colombia that we’re wrong, but it probably isn’t much at all…
The last 10 kms towards the pass in 3340 masl awaited. After few initial switchbacks we made it to the hill covered with tall palm trees. Unforgettable sight. We enjoyed the moment, took some photos and even let the drone fly towards the sky but it was time get into the saddle again. It was cloudy and with the increasing altitude we started to feel the cold whenever we stopped. Phoebe and Lolo wanted to make friends with the cows few times, but those had their own agenda and couldn’t care less. We’ve met two groups of cycling tours. Truck loaded with people and bicycles. Drives them up, shorter downhill bike ride to the other side of the pass to have a picnic with the view. They load the bikes again, drive back up and enjoy the long downhill from the pass to Salento. Why not. And they gave us bananas. We probably didn’t look too fresh anymore.
During the ascent it rained couple of times, sun showed up few times and into the finish we were accompanied by a chilly wind. This kind of weather is on one hand nice, because it’s not too hot, but when the wind picks up and you’re still wet, it gets really cold very fast. Putting on another layer might be tricky though, because with this level of exercise you start boiling in matter of minutes.
The final kilometer, spiced up by an argument about drone, or rather lack of communication (he wanted to take some more footage, I had enough listening to the annoying buzz of the machine) and we were there. Where the road suddenly turns downhill. Up in 3340 meters. For us it meant two things – we can finally the lunch we deserved and then enjoy the long downhill to Salento.
And we would have enjoyed it more, if only the surface would have been better (the road is noticeably rougher on this side of the pass). All our bones rattled and Tom will really need to check all the loose screws on the bikes. But we were happy we went the direction we did. Our downhill was mainly hidden in the forest, not much views and only very few palms. Probably less steep (as it’s all steady uphill) but there’s almost no “rewards” until almost all the way up where the scenery opens up a bit. We’ve met a couple from Netherlands who cycle around Colombia and were already on the way back to Bogota. We parted little bit in a rush as the thunders we heard from far away, started getting closer. When the delays between the lightning and the thunders got uncomfortably short, we took shelter by the house of local family. Señora even brought us some tinto. Colombian coffee, usually not very coffee-ish, but still dark brown and super sweet. But in the times like these, with lightnings all around, tinto is all you need.
During the few final kilometers the bikes and trailer turned into mud sculptures once again. Already on second try we found a place where they had space (Saturday) and accepted Phoebe and Lolo as well. And so I’m sitting on the terrace of Hostal Girasoles, finishing this post and enjoying this view.
Colombia is beautiful country, friends. If all that’s crossing your mind is Narcos and Pablo Escobar, read again how many people helped us out and look again at those pictures. So far Colombia left a deep mark in our hearts. And I suspect it’ll only get deeper and deeper.
And if you don’t have enough of beauty of this place, head here!