It seems that my camera memory card has become a fairly reliable barometer of how much I’ve enjoyed a ride on this trip. A full memory card usually means I’ve been inspired – invariably by exploring back roads, discovering small villages and towns and meeting lots of locals. If however all I find are a few dutiful but lame snaps of us standing in front of something vaguely touristy, then chances are we’ve relapsed (or occasionally been forced) into “destination” riding mode: busy highways, big towns and minimal human interaction.

By this theory, my near-empty memory card would suggest that much of our southerly Colombian leg from Valle de Cocora down to Mocoa fell into the second category – or “auto-pilot” as I’ve come to call it. It’s not that didn’t have its moments: the stunning walk to visit the tombs at Tierradentro; a night spent with a wonderful campesino family high up on the Páramo de las Delicias; and the impressive statues of San Agustín were all highlights. Yet it just didn’t quite inspire us in the way that most of our riding in Colombia up until then had.

Firstly I think we chose our route badly, opting to head south through the Cauca Valley instead of crossing towards the Magdalena through the Nevados del Ruiz. You’d think that we’d have learned by now that although valleys and coastal plains might mean flat and fast, for us they also usually mean hot and tedious.

Then we managed to time our passage through the departments of Cauca and Valle del Cauca just as the FARC were dusting off their guns from the Christmas ceasefire, and things got caliente (“hot”) in the very Colombian sense of the word. The minor road that we were planning to take through the foothills to avoid Cali suddenly became a focus for FARC activity. Then the alternative route took us towards Puerto Tejada, a town where cars were stopping in the road to tell us that we were “guaranteed” to be robbed, and we eventually succumbed to a 30km police escort. We didn’t feel at risk at any point – especially by the FARC action which was all targeted at the police and military – but it did represent a distinct change of atmosphere from the carefree riding we’d enjoyed further north.

Perhaps it was also just because we could sense the end of our time in Colombia finally closing in on us. I guess after six  months in this captivating country, an anti-climax of sorts was inevitable. But I think as much as anything it was because – in our heads at least – the last few weeks have felt like they were just leading up to this famous road from Mocoa to Pasto.

Nicknamed El Trampolín de la muerte (“The Trampoline of Death”) because of the regularity with which bus and car drivers seem to manage to drive over its precipitous drops, it is equally famed in cycling circles as a tough but essential part of the Colombian touring experience. Fortunately for us, the Trampolín lived up to its hype, restoring our enthusiasm for the road and filling that empty camera memory card.

Over the course of just 155km we pedalled from the steamy edge of the Amazon up to the misty páramo of the high Andes. It felt like a fitting end to our Colombian experience, encapsulating in just a few days the incredible variety and contrasts of this wonderful country.

James

Hornoyaco waterfall, Mocoa, Colombia

Before setting out from Mocoa, we spent a couple of days camped out with the monkeys and toucans in the garden of the friendly Casa del Río hostel. In between the rain, we found a way through the mud up to the spectacular Hornoyaco waterfall…

Swimming at Hornoyaco waterfall, Mocoa, Colombia

…where we didn’t need much persuasion to dive in and enjoy the best power shower I think we’ll ever have.

Buñuelos in Mocoa, Colombia

We set out early from Mocoa with the best of intentions – at least until I spot these buñuelos by the road. If six months in Colombia have taught me anything, it’s that cold, old buñuelos are best avoided – but fresh, hot ones like these are not to be missed. Cue a second breakfast – we might need the extra calories, I reason…

Cycling out of Mocoa towards Pasto

The first 15km out of Mocoa are paved and smooth, with only the looming mountains in the distance giving a hint of what’s to come…

Beginning the climb out of Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

…but soon the pavement ends and the dirt begins, winding its way gradually up into the forest. The gradient is steady at least, and the surface good – better in fact that many of the other dirt roads we’ve ridden elsewhere in Colombia.

Carrying bike on river crossing, Mocoa to Pasto

After numerous rodent attacks in the US, the undersides of my front panniers now resemble colanders; they gave up being waterproof a long time ago. This calls for some lifting over the numerous streams to try and at least keep some kit dry.

Lorries passing, Mocoa to Pasto

Despite being single lane in many places, this is the main route between the departments of Putumayo and Nariño, and so sees a fair amount of traffic. This leads to some interesting reversing manoeuvres…

Lorry on bend between Mocoa and Pasto, Colombia

…and calls for some precision steering on the curves. Unfortunately, not everyone quite makes the bend…

Roadside cross, Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

…as the roadside shrines attest – this one from just last year.

Cycling from Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

A few glimpses of where we had come from below, and then the clouds and mist roll in and unleash a vicious rainstorm, drenching us. This is where the climb really helps – keep pedalling, and you will keep warm.

Cycling from Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

You know you’re getting near a pass when the communication towers appear, looming ominously out of the mist…

Mirador, cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

…and sure enough we emerge out of the clouds at a mirador, complete with police station and a huddle of cafés. We order soup to warm up, and a few minutes later our new cycling friends Mike and Karen arrive – they started in Canada back in 2011 and we had camped together in Mocoa.

Mirador campsite, cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

It’s still early and we have only come 35km, but we are cold and wet, and the police tell us we will struggle to find anywhere flat to camp until much further ahead. The friendly café owner offers to clear a deserted building for us to camp in. We don’t need much persuading, and squeeze in the tents.

Mirador view, cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

Late afternoon reveals an incredible view from our perch: a duvet of cotton clouds nestled over the Amazon, nudging against the edge of the Cordillera Central. We make friends in the little community of police, cafe owners and roadworkers. The police tell us how in 2002 this zone was home to some fierce fighting – apparently the guerrillas managed to blow up the police station three times. I spend much of the evening translating Adele’s “Someone like you” into Spanish at the request of one of the roadworkers – all good practice…

Cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

After a good night’s sleep, tents are packed and bikes ready to roll.

Cycling Mocoa to Pastro, Colombia

Our new foursome sets off…

Cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

…around steep hairpins as the mist closes in again.

Cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

A local on a motorbike stops for a chat – note the slight difference of clothing between cyclist and motorcyclist. It turns out he is a cyclist too, and – as so many times before in Colombia – he passes us his contact details, making us promise that we will come and stay with him next time we are here.

Cycling Mocoa to Pasto

A brief downhill respite, past danger signs helpfully warning us that the road is narrow (just in case we hadn’t noticed), into gullies…

Cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

..and along narrow ledges. Spot the cyclists!

Cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

Photos just don’t do it justice, but this section of road is truly breathtaking, clinging to the side of the mountain through seemingly untouched cloud forest. A long, steep climb which seems to go on forever…

Cycling Mocoa to Pasto. Colombia

…before finally sweeping down towards the Valley of Sibundoy. Clearly sensing our elated mood, this is when a rogue dog decides to jump out and give Bedders a nasty bite on her leg - our second dog bite of the trip after my encounter in Costa Rica.

Cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

Fortunately we both had our initial Rabies shots before we left home, and so we just need to find someone who can give us the two booster jabs and a course of antibiotics. We get lucky – the local hospital in Colón has the vaccine and even better, won’t charge us.

Dog bite, cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

And so we leave Karen and Mike to continue towards Pasto, while Sarah heads for the hospital with some trepidation…

Rabies jab, cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

…where the jab is delivered with a typically Colombian smile from Ruby the nurse, and received with an impressive grimace from Sarah. Thank you Ruby for your help!

Cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

The next morning we decide to ride on towards Pasto, from where we’ll be able to catch a bus back to Colón in a few days time for Sarah’s second jab. It’s a tough climb out of the Sibundoy Valley through the rain, with only overhanging triffid-like plants hinting at the páramo beyond the mist.

Hojaldra, cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

Morning snack: it might not look appetising, but when you’re cold and wet this hojaldra (sweet dough fritter), served with queso (soft cheese)…

Agua de panela, cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

…and steaming agua de panela (hot sugar cane juice) really hits the spot.

Cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

Finally we crest the pass – sadly I was too slow to catch Bedders turning round and making a very rude gesture at the hill behind her as she came over the top – and then it’s downhill…

Laguna de la Cocha, cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia|

…until the Laguna de la Cocha comes into view, looking suitably moody in the mist.

Naturalia restaurant, Laguna de la Cocha, Colombia

A tip from our Medellín friend Carlos sends us in search of a restaurant called Naturalia

Trucha, Naturalia restaurant, Laguna de la cocha

..where we tuck into the local speciality, trucha ahumada (smoked trout). It is truly delicious – by far the best we have eaten in Colombia. Stuffed, we gratefully accept their invitation to set up our tent on their balcony.

Cycling Mocoa to Pasto, Colombia

The next morning it’s a short climb up to the pass – guarded by a slightly moody looking Mary in a sombrero – followed by a beautifully long descent into Pasto. The next day we take a vomit-inducing minibus shuttle back to Colón for the second Rabies jab, realising just how grateful we are to be travelling through the Andes on two wheels instead of four.

Cycling Pasto to Ecuador

From Pasto, it’s a beautiful rollercoaster ride on the Panamerican towards the border…

Las Lajas, Colombia

…with just enough time for a detour to visit the sanctuary of Las Lajas, perched dramatically across a ravine outside Ipiales. Our last night in Colombia is spent in a convent with the nuns, emotions whirling at the prospect of leaving a country which after six months has become home to us.

Cycling Pasto to Ecuador

The next morning we cross, and Ecuador awaits – its patchwork fields are at once strange and yet reassuringly familiar, looking for all the world like a high-altitude version of the Yorkshire Dales. You never know, they might even have Yorkshire pudding…

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7 Responses to “Riding El Trampolín: Mocoa to Ecuador”

  1. anna Says:

    Me, too. Lots of photos means good times. No photos means a touch of drudgery.

    Happy pedalling in Ecuador!

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  2. Gayle and Mark Says:

    Yikes, got a bit hairy there for a while, and we don’t mean James’ beard! Glad you’ve stayed safe and sorry about the rabies shots. Amazing scenery photos though, so glad the final few days In Columbia were memorable and look forward to heaing and seeing what Ecuador will bring… Lots of love from the Wharton clan xx

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  3. Andy Says:

    One of our most memorable rides in that part of the world. So beautiful, Waiyeng did it in a pick-up and stil loved it.

    I echo Sarah’s sentiments re those last two hills before Pasto…

    Lots of similar ahead in Ecuador.

    Andy

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  4. Caliche Says:

    Muy bien, que bueno es leerlos…veo que disfrutaron la ruta, jajaja, abrazo J, Beso S !

    [Reply]

  5. Margy Says:

    all looked a bit grim to start with!!!!! sorry about the dog bite, lucky with the jabs though! Not so warm where you are I think! all well here, getting the odd warmer day and occasionally a little Spring sunshine!!! Spirits are rising a little as crocus & Daffodils appear, the lambs won’t be far away too!!!!!!
    A very dear friend died a couple of weeks ago & I felt it badly, my age too, also Mum’s anniversary coming up this week, a bit grim! However the girls cheer me so come on the sunshine!!!!!Keep safe & lots of love Margy xxxxxxxx

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  6. Ma and Pa Says:

    Great to read this – not sure about the FARC whoever they are and shooting at policemen and blowing up police stations! Hope Ecuador delivers as great an experience as Colombia and that the road is kind. Please be careful. Bit concerned that texts and e-mails may not be getting to you. Replied to your latest text but not confident you have received. Love and miss you millions! Ma and Pa

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  7. Jorge Iván Ballesteros Toro Says:

    S&J que buenas palabras. Cada día que pasa, Harold, Lina, Dorancy y Jorge, pensamos en Ustedes. Nos imaginamos el viaje y les enviamos buena vibra. Su humildad, sin lugar a dudas, merece nuestro respeto, aprecio y saludo. Los mejores recuerdos y la mejor alegría en el recorrido que sigue. En bici la vida es más alegre.

    [Reply]

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