Well, maybe not illegal, but I did go against travel advice of Germany, UK and the United States by using the roads and crossing in Putomayo, in South Eastern Colombia. Embassies advise against all travel in the region.
I didn’t do this lightly, and sought guidance from many sources over the preceding weeks, including repeatedly asking Police and Military. This area still contains members of FARC, the Colombian group that has engaged in so much violence in the past and is now engaged in the peace process (it’s now fragile following Colombia’s election of the right-wing President Duque, who has pledged to revisit the deal). Rebels are also on the Ecuadorian side, having been displaced by military action in Colombia.
I rode with Nick (the cyclist I’d previously met). Both of us preferred to take this road than to use the only recommended route, which follows the Pan American highway. The highway would also have been dangerous, given the heavy lorries that use it. We hoped there was a much smaller chance of being kidnapped by disenfranchised FARC soldiers than being hit by a lorry or dying of exhaust fumes. Whilst I would never advise anyone to contravene travel advice, I did feel comfortable doing it on this occasion.
Before leaving Popayan I visited the mountain town of Silvia. This was somewhere I’d been looking forward to visiting for many months, since reading of the weekly market where Guambianos (local indigenous people) come from the surrounding areas. It was hugely interesting, and I had some lovely interactions with the traders. They are notoriously shy about having their pictures taken, so I didn’t ask to take any portraits, but did manage to take some general pictures that show the traditional dress of black skirts for women and blue for men, together with the black hats or straw boaters that are worn.
After Popayan I needed to cross over the Puracé national park. This huge area (over 800km2) contains eleven volcanos and a rain forest and is perfectly preserved. To ensure it doesn’t become a tourist attraction, the authorities have purposely not paved the majority of the 80kms I had to travel to cross the park.
Thankfully I was able to relax the day before, by stopping early and taking a dip in the natural thermal baths in Coconuco. It was quite bizarre lounging in a pool with a water temperature of 38 degrees, provided by the Purace volcano, whilst looking at the hills.
On the way there I had met a bunch of Argentinians travelling on probably the worst equipped bikes for cycle touring I’ve ever seen. But they were in good spirits, and we had a fun half hour together, as I helped them with some tools to repair one of the bikes. One of the beautiful things about cycle touring is the interactions you have with people who are different from your usual circles (not many of my friends wear hats with the caption ‘F-You’)! Frankly, I was also relieved that we were able to communicate, given that Argentinian Spanish is notoriously difficult to understand.
Early the next day I set off to ride over Purace. The mostly gravel road combined with wind, rain, lorry traffic and incline, to make it a tough but exhilarating day.
After Purace I was lucky to have several more incredible days in constantly varying countryside. I went from mountains, to valleys, to jungle and rainforest. Simply glorious days in the saddle.
I also stayed in two very special places. One was a bamboo hotel built by the owners, and set on the side of a hill in the middle of nowhere. The area has over 200 bird species, and the owners have a small organic farm on the site. I was able to pick fruit and veg with them (including the biggest lemons I’ve seen in my life), which was turned into the delicious meals we ate. The family were typical of some of the incredibly warm and kind Colombians that I have repeatedly met on this trip.
The second place that deserves a special mention was a tree house in the rainforest (in an indigenous area). This place was completely cut off; you crossed the bridge from the road, and then trecked along a path. With no power or phone signal, it was incredibly relaxing, complete with the ‘natural shower’. From the property you were able to follow a trail in the jungle leading to an 85 metre waterfall. It was spectacular, but given I was looking from the top of it whilst on my belly, forgive the lack of a photo of the waterfall itself!
Only a couple of rides on from there, and I was in the border area. So it’s a very sad goodbye to Colombia, and hello to Ecuador.
Much love to all,