Beyond Medellin and on to Ecuador: the rollercoaster cranks up another gear (if rollercoasters have gears…)

El Retiro – La Pintada – Filadelphia – Manizales – Chinchina – Santa Rosa thermals – Salento – Calarcá – Cajamarca – Rovira – San Luis – Saldania – La Victoria – Villavieja – Desierto Tatacoa – Nieva – Gigante – Santa Ana

Leaving Medellin after a restful week of urban living with Bruce and Jess, we were on route to the hills to the east of the city to look after 3 dogs for a couple of weeks. Luis and Nicole were off to the States and needing someone to take care of Lea, Clooney and Carmen at their house in the countryside.

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Lea in a rare moment of calm

We were made really welcome by both people and dogs, and it was quite a change from Medellin, a lot cooler with more rain, and for us, quite isolated. A great change, though probably it was a little too long a stay without a particular purpose and I (Matt) did go a bit Jack Nicholson now and again. It was a lovely place to spend some time however and it’s well worth a bit of an experiment with dog – or house-sitting. We did various walks with the dogs, and a day trip to the wonderful Guatepe. Carmen was an unofficial dog guest and after something of a fight with Lea and Clooney, decided enough was enough and disappeared up the hill to her other house. We also were gifted next-door’s pet rabbit, dead, by one of the hounds. So, a dog down and a rabbit up, the animal kingdom was an interesting place to be.

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Guatepe, impressive staircase going straight up

From our country finca we were heading South towards Ecuador, with an outline plan to hop over the Andes to the Rio Magdalena south of Bogotá, see various fun stuff on the way and then hop back over to the Colombia-Ecuador border close to Ipiales – apparently the only safe place along the entire border if you believe the government advice…

First stop was El Retiro, a really pretty and slightly ‘retro’ looking town, busy with both local tourists and a few gringos. From here we had our first long, dirt-road hilly hiding since Baja, and added some rain just for fun. The route was almost all rideable, pretty quiet though slow, and it was becoming apparent that we probably needed to load Zoe’s bike a little differently to help on rocky downhills. Eventually after taking a morning to ride about 30k, we topped out on a ridge high above two valleys near the town of Versailles, which was really spectacular and felt “high” for the first time.

From Versailles a long, long sweeping descent to the valley floor took us to one of Colombia’s ‘truck stop towns’, La Pintada, and a night at a mostly deserted hotel with one swimming pool and more than one cockroach. Still alive the next morning, we had a nearly-flat ride along the river, big quiet roads, a few gravel/road-works sections and plenty of jungle to look at. Turning left over the river brought us a 20k climb up to Filadelphia, a small mountain town with incredible views and the comedically named (in English anyway) Hotel Las Mellyz (say it quickly), quite appropriate for sweaty cyclists. No gringos here, with people and dogs all equally friendly.

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The tranquil hills of Colombia

The city of Manizales was the next stop, along a variety of road surfaces, beautiful weather and scenery, and gentle grades both up and down. Cultivation was everywhere so it wasn’t remote in the mountains, but fantastic touring country. Manizales itself was busy and not exactly charming, and our arrival wasn’t made easy by an Edwards/garmin screw-up taking us down a long hill and yup straight back up it again in busy traffic. The Kaleidoscopeo hostel however was an oasis, and even had two other bike tourers to chat to. Not the quietest couple of nights, but fine.

After a rest day, travels re-started with another epic downhill and the best coffee I’ve EVER had, in a small town cafe. Surrounded by coffee plantations we rolled to Santa Rosa and up into a long valley, more dirt road sections and finally the Santa Rosa Thermal Baths, camping out under a hostel (sadly still having to pay a bit) and spending the afternoon in the ‘termales’, hot water pools and less-than-hot waterfalls. I taught a reticent small boy how to jump into water (as long as his mum was there) so I feel I have contributed something…

Rested and thoroughly clean, and accidentally riding another ‘Ciclovia’ in Pereira, we had a long and increasingly damp climb up towards Salento, topping off the day with a short, steep, down-to-the-river-and-up-again-why-don’t-they-build-a-nice-bridge section. Salento is definitely a tourist town and a lovely place to stay, with all sorts of day-trips on offer, including the Cocora valley, famous for it’s huge palm trees and hummingbirds. We had a very muddy, hilly walk and a jeep ride, returning to the hostel Tralala which was a good bargain though not conducive to sleep. Like, dude, seriously, there are other people in this room.

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Corcora valley, right on the tourist trail but peaceful and with really weird trees 🙂

To Calarca the next day, via the biggest breakfast either of us has even seen, and dodging a bit of rain before starting La Linea – 25k straight up, then over the Andes, towards Ibague. This is a major truck route, with tight corners meaning long queues form both up and down, and with occasional roadworks too it would be an annoying drive. Not so bad for cycling, not entirely pleasant but not too steep in general and the you-go-I-go for the lorries meant the traffic was not constant, and we could stop and wait for lots of vehicles to pass, then have the road to ourselves for a while. The last 4 or 5 k were properly in the fog and murk, which cleared the moment we started to descend down towards Cajamarca, a busy little place with weird alarms going off in the night, and weird burgers for tea 😋 .

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Trucks and murk, up La Linea towards Ibague

Starting the day halfway down a shallow descent is always great, and the roads were still busy but with clear patches and we spotted quite a few Terminator-looking soldiers hiding out under trees. The state and federal police here are in plain sight quite a lot, the army it would seem have been taught hide-and-seek more effectively as they are spotted under trees and in the shade. They also have proper big guns and more expensive-looking sunglasses. They still all get a wave though and mostly smile back too. We also passed a very enthusiastic protest march, average age I reckon about 18, on foot to Bogotá 200k away, to protest Government abuse of power.

By the afternoon we dropped into the outskirts of Ibague and a fantastic nearly-flat and quiet road towards Rovira. The scenery was stunning, the weather just right, and NO TRUCKS for the rest of the day. Really enjoyable after some more ‘intense’ cycling just to pootle along. At Rovira we had a very cheap Hospedaje and ate out pretty well. Sleep was still a little elusive as we were back on the valley floor in high temperatures.

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Finally some quiet, truckless riding and gently downhill to the Magdalena river valley

Over next day’s breakfast we managed to have something of a disagreement about various things, not very nice and no doubt made worse by a bit of fatigue. It happens occasionally and is a part of life on the road. Normal and expected, and harder to deal with on a cycle tour when all sorts of factors are influencing our little human brains all the time. Without really resolving things particularly, we headed off down a dirt road for a tricky morning of difficult riding, rain, and both of us not feeling particularly happy with life.

Things improved in terms of cycling anyway during the day, the road condition very slowly got better, the scenery was still amazing and we also were accosted by some VERY nice people as we struggled up a hill – offering beers and a nice chat, even food and a place to stay if we wanted it. We had a beer and the chat but passed on the sleep offer as it was pretty early in the day. Eventually getting back onto tarmac made things a little easier and the very very gentle downhill, on smooth roads with no traffic, in the afternoon sun was fantastic. We arrived in San Luis and had much comedy trying to find a room for the night, circling the Main Street maybe 4 or 5 times following well-meant but wrong directions. Literally had a friendly couple do synchronised pointing in completely opposite directions to the same place 😆 . Eventually someone took pity on us and guided us on his motorbike to the right person to speak to, and we found a big, clean apartment to ourselves for about $10.  We’d only intended to stay one night but Zoe woke up with that nasty ‘get out of my way I need the toilet’ feeling which only very slowly eased off during the day.  Eventually she decided the ‘situation’ was manageable so we packed up for a short, flat 20k towards Saldania, now joining the main route south from Bogotá.

A night in, overall, the worst hotel on the trip so far, was not ideal and Zoe’s insides were not on top form, but things started to improve the next morning and the riding on south was easy – temperatures high but pretty flat, good shoulders on the road and plenty of wildlife to spot.

We were heading for Desierto Tatacoa, an isolated section of desert and a bit of a tourist attraction.  The route meant riding on dirt roads which were in pretty good condition if quite hilly, and needed a bit of mountain biking skill here and there. It’s always slow going on this terrain and we stopped for the day at La Victoria, finding a quality hotel, still not expensive, and having a decent night’s sleep which both of us needed. It’s a shame not to be camping out as much as we’d hoped here, but even with a well-ventilated tent it’s just not an option a lot of the time in the valleys and lowlands.

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Starting to the ride into Desierto Tatacoa

Tatacoa was a great place to visit, the kind of low-key tourism where everything is easy, neither the locals or the tourists seem to be exploited, and we had a nice over-night back in the tent for a change as the temperature is markedly lower at night here. It is a really odd enviroment to suddenly come across the rock formations at Tatacoa.

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Late afternoon in Tatacoa


On to Nieva then, not quite a city but a large town, on great roads with very little traffic. We did some scouring of bike shops, trying to find a way to re-distribute weight on Zoe’s bike with a front rack/panniers, but these are it seems not required in Colombia and we lucked-out despite some really great help from very friendly shop staff. Not in England would someone cycle off to another bike shop, twice, and return with kit options, as well as offering you a coffee while you wait 😊.

After Neiva the valley started to narrow and we found ourselves on some longer climbs alongside the Rio Magdalena, as well as a couple of big reservoirs and views back across towards the mountains. Stopping in Gigante at another very quiet hotel, the owner’s son was nice enough to walk me to the local veg market, and as the the only non-Colombian in town, and a blond one at that, I was the object of some attention.

The next night at Timana wasn’t remarkable, the cycling still pleasant though with long, sweaty hills and reasonable truck traffic. We had fun at a tinto stop with some dude selling salsa tunes on memory sticks, such an enthusiast he could barely keep still. On route out of Timana at another little cafe we were treated to a tour of the owner’s guava-sweets factory, an incredibly sugary, sticky, humid half an hour. They pretty much mash the most sugary fruit they can find, add a load more sugar, squash it and eat it. Buzzing slightly, we passed through Pitalito on route to San Agustin, enjoying flat valley roads to start with before the 5k climb up to San Agustin, one of the steeper hills so far.

There was also our first actual dog-contact, sort of non-aggressive we think but a small tooth hole did get made in Zoe’s pannier, and irrespective of the dog’s motivation or the size of the hole, it’s a pretty unpleasant experience having a barky mutt attempt to tip you off a heavy touring bike. Dogs are a fact of life for cyclists, and we’ve tried various things to manage them.  Only two things seem to work – a small air horn, which we had in the states, which confuses them sufficiently for a few seconds to make them stop chasing/barking pretty much. The other is to slow down, and shout. If necessary, stop and get off and keep the bike in between you and the hound.  If we see a wagging tail along with the barking we’ll try to make friends, if no wagging tail we just shout at them and this seems to work.

San Agustin is not really on the road to anywhere for most people, but it’s very well visited due to the hundreds of ancient statues and rock carvings, in the town and the valleys around it, made thousands of years ago by… well, literally nobody knows.  Some kind of civilisation existed here and vanished. Which is pretty cool really. We had a great couple of nights in the hostel Casa de Nelly, just out of town, incredibly well-looked after and very quiet. Horse-riding and seeing loads of old stuff – you get the idea. A really great place to visit, and again definitely full of tourists but everything done in such a relaxed way that the impact feels low, benefit high, and no one feels taken advantage of.

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Swapping transportation for the day, San Agustin. Smile and perhaps a slight grimace, horses do not have Brooks saddles

Re-tracing our steps down hill (🙌🏻) and back to Pitalito, avoiding any pesky dogs, we slowly picked up a long climb up and over a pass down to San Juan de Villalobos. This was a really nice ride, not easy but quiet roads and a fantastic descent, shallow and fast. We’d both also miscalculated the hill and it was about 5k shorter than we’d thought, which Never Happens. Over breakfast the next day we had what turned out to be an important conversation… a local truck driver had all sorts of information on our route, and on the basis of just this we changed our route into Ecuador entirely. We had been planning to reach Mocoa, then turn right and ride the infamous Trampolin del Muerte – a long, long dirt road, not in good condition and incredibly dangerous for cars and trucks, stunning and remote but hilly and a real challenge with unpredictable weather thrown in. This takes you west over the Andes and drops you out eventually back onto the Panamerican route south towards Pasto and Ipiales – and what nearly everyone says is the only safe border crossing.

We stopped listening to ‘nearly’ everyone long ago and try our best to get all the info we can – and the best kind is up to date and local. This guy was the epitome. Talking about the alternative, crossing into Ecuador and reaching Nueva Loja, had been out of consideration for a while just because almost everyone, cyclists or not, seemed to go for Ipiales as the only viable option. The UK and US government warn against all travel to this area. It’s even bright red on their map of ‘places never to go’. It seems to be a mix of mostly historic – and some current – FARC activity on the Colombian side, and some equally violent guerilla fun and games on a smaller scale on the Ecuadorian side. To us it was entirely reminiscent of Mexico. Totally horrendous things do happen here, for some people it is dangerous. Three Ecuadorian journalists were kidnapped and killed in nasty ways close to the border not long ago, and the Colombian government took out the guerilla leader blamed for this ‘as part of an operation’ about 3 weeks ago down by the seaside. So it can be bad, no doubt. But everywhere? And for everyone? No. Nearly everyone, local or tourist, is just doing their own thing and is quite safe and unmolested.

Having been assured that the situation was currently peaceful for the most part, and weighing up various options, we decided to take the road less travelled and follow local advice. This would, we discovered as part of planning the route, also save us over 5000m of climbing before the border, keep us off the often-busy Panamerican, save some tricky mountain biking on the road of death, and still feel quite adventurous too. Win! And exactly the sort of choice you don’t tell your mum about until afterwards.

From Mocoa via a night in Santa Ana, the riding was quite mixed, with some dirt road sections and undulating riding, but nothing too long or steep. We were also treated to our first big view of Amazonia, which comes into view over the top of a hill and just goes on and on and on. Monkeys and various bird noises to go with it, really did feel like the jungle. There was a bigger military presence here too, we passed various bases and there was a reasonable amount of helicopter traffic, so there was that odd balance of (very) minor anxiety and reassurance. Outside of the small towns life looked harsh for people here, subsisting and living in really basic houses in what must be a difficult environment. We still met only friendly people, interested to have a bit of a chat about where we were from and so on.

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Totally bonkers birdlife, skirting Amazonia

The border crossing in to Ecuador I found an intense experience. It was straight-forward though a little slow in terms of admin, and the real impact was in seeing and talking to Venezuelan migrants – and/or refugees, depending a little on your viewpoint – who had travelled mostly on foot some for hundreds of miles. It was deeply humbling to witness. Mostly young people, some with small children, with no idea where exactly they were going to end up or what was going to happen. I found myself genuinely angry and emotional when faced with the real situation, about people who take advantage of these human beings for political gain. I don’t know the answer to the problem, or it’s origin, and it’s not simple, but to capitalise on desperation is so cynical it’s hard to believe.

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Some tough travelling dudes. And me.

Anyway, we made some temporary Venezuelan friends and with a little back and forth between officials with passports etc we were off, into Ecuador and more of the – mainly – unknown….If you are still with me and reading this I should say thank you ☺️ this post is particularly long, I’ve have been putting it off for a while!



One thought on “Beyond Medellin and on to Ecuador: the rollercoaster cranks up another gear (if rollercoasters have gears…)

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