COLOMBIA, 7th-16th August 2019
We had a couple of possible escape routes from the predicament presented by my bad stomach and the limited amount of time we had left in Colombia. The first was to apply for an extension to the 90 days we were permitted to stay in the country. We could even apply for this online, and we did so from our Isnos hotel, but it would be at least a day before we would hear anything back. The other was to scrap the Trampoline of Death and go directly south to a different border into Ecuador that went down into the Amazon Basin and didn’t involve nearly so much climbing, or any trampolines. It was apparently a more dangerous route though, a former FARC stronghold with a fair bit of drug trafficking still going on. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it would also be hot and sweaty.
I felt a bit better after a good night’s sleep and we decided to get back on the bike. Without being certain of getting any extension we simply had to keep moving if we were going to complete the Trampoline of Death, which was still our preferred route, in time. The weather was better, we’d left the rain behind us in the mountains, and our modest goal for the day was simply to descend down 35 kilometres to Highway 45 in the east of the country and find a hotel. Despite this, in my weakened state it remained a big challenge, especially as there were plenty of uphills mixed in with the down. But I actually really enjoyed the challenge. With my body in bad shape it made what would normally be a relatively easy day of cycling into a big mental challenge, and big mental challenges are something I like. I even found myself perversely hoping that we wouldn’t get the extension and I would have to ride all through the mountains like this, pushing myself to my limits, testing what I’m capable of.
Along the way we crossed a river flowing down from the mountains and stopped to look at it. It was the Magdalena, the very same river we had followed out of Barranquilla on our first days cycling together in Colombia. Amazing to think that this water we were looking at would flow all the way north through the country that we’d been riding down through for the last two months, eventually passing out into the waters of the Caribbean.
I survived the day and we checked into a gas station hotel on the highway. The first thing we did was check our emails, but there was no word about our extensions. My stomach was still bad but I’d stopped taking the antibiotics and started chugging down probiotic yoghurts instead, and my other symptoms were improving, my appetite was returning. It looked more promising now that it wasn’t C-diff, and so we decided to skip any hospital visits and keep on pedalling.
The next day was a classic pass, a straight thousand metre ascent and descent down the other side. The highway was well paved but it was also delightfully quiet, and so I played podcasts all day and pushed myself to stay mentally positive despite the physical exhaustion. Only ten kilometres into the day a girl in her twenties who was standing at the roadside beckoned us to stop and invited us to come to her house for some coffee. We accepted and followed her over to a big, open house made of an intricate bamboo framework. Yessi made us some fresh Colombian coffee and we sat down to chat at the big wooden dinner table. She could only speak Spanish but in a way that made it easy to understand and Dea could certainly hold a conversation with her pretty well. Yessi had spent quite a bit of time travelling herself, mostly in South America, but also in Europe, and she showed us her Instagram profile, where it looked like she had a lot of followers. After a while her father came home and joined us. Yessi explained that he grows coffee on the hills nearby. It was good coffee too, and surprisingly it didn’t upset my stomach, which seemed to slowly be growing stronger.
Dea and I rode on up the rest of the pass, which only got steep close to the top. I struggled on this final stretch and had to dig deep to make it to the summit, where we encountered a military checkpoint. The young soldiers wanted to ask a few questions, mostly out of curiosity, which was not exactly what my exhausted self wanted to do at that precise moment. This apparently used to be a pretty active area for FARC and presumably they were here to keep the peace, but everyone we spoke to said it was very safe here now. Once their curiosity had been satisfied we were allowed to begin rolling down the other side of the pass. The downhill was fun on the good road. After 20 kilometres without barely a pedal stroke we encountered a bikepacker heading up the other way who was taking a break at the roadside. This was Sebastian, from Romania. He’d ridden up from Ushuaia and was nearing the end of his trip, but he would soon be heading to the Amazon where he planned to take boats. He said there were quite many passenger ferries and cargo ships that take people, which planted a bit of a seed in my mind. Later that evening, after we’d found a cheap hotel in the small town of San Juan de Villalobas, I did some research, and found that if we took the closer border into Ecuador, the one down in the Amazon Basin, we could then catch ferries all the way from there to halfway down Peru. It would take a few weeks, but the chance to fast forward around so many of the tough Andean mountains held a certain appeal to my tired body.
The next morning there was still no news on the extension, but great news from the hotel bathroom – my stomach was better. I was still feeling a bit weak, but I’d slept pretty well and now that I could eat properly again I was sure I was going to be able to cycle anywhere that we wanted to go. For the time being, however, the only way was south down to the town of Mocoa, where we would then have to make a decision about our route. And while the day ride down to Mocoa did involve an overall descent to just 500 metres above sea level, it also involved 1,400 metres of climbing along the way. But I had my podcasts and like the day before I simply ground out the kilometres the best that I could.
Along the way we stopped on a bridge to look at a waterfall when we were passed by a camper that immediately then pulled over. Out of it jumped Chris and Nadia, the friendly Austrian couple we had met way back in El Salvador. We all laughed at the coincidence as we caught up briefly on the bridge about our respective adventures since we’d last met, and our future plans. I found it interesting that they were not going to drive the Trampoline of Death, for having been told that the closer border was not really so dangerous, they had decided that they would take that. It reignited my thoughts on the potential benefits of the Amazon route.
Apart from that random encounter the day was fairly uneventful as we slogged our way through an interesting landscape of rainforest, hills, and landslides to get to the remote little city of Mocoa. Then suddenly we found ourselves in a noisy, bustling environment, a place that somehow reminded us more of some places in China than the Latin American towns we’d been to so far. We found a hotel and went out for dinner at a vegetarian restaurant. We were both so exhausted – Dea had now picked up a throat infection too – and we discussed our options. We soon ruled out taking the boats down to Peru. Even though it would technically abide by our bikes-and-boats principal it would still feel a bit like cheating, like taking the easy way out, and the Ecuadorean Andes weren’t something we wanted to simply bypass. Our other option was to take the closer border and then climb back into the mountains in Ecuador, but it would involve a lot of highway riding, and still felt like taking the easy way out. We were both in agreement, we couldn’t not do it now, we were going to take on the Trampoline of Death.
That evening we finally got a reply about our extension request, but unfortunately it was just to tell us that the system was broken and they couldn’t accept our online forms. We were going to have to get out of the country in one week, come what may. It made the Trampoline of Death route an even bigger challenge, but we were still determined to take it on. You just can’t get so close to something called the Trampoline of Death and then not take the leap.
Unfortunately I had a very bad night, for it was a weekend and there was a nightclub close to our hotel that kept me awake most of the night. So we decided to ease into the challenge ahead and just ride a short first day out of Mocoa. Leaving the town was horrible, on roads busy with speeding motorbikes, but by the time we reached the turn for the Trampoline of Death it had quietened down quite a bit. Now might be a good time to explain what the Trampoline of Death actually is, because the name, if I’m being honest is a bit misleading. It’s actually just a road through the mountains of southern Colombia that earns its name from the fact that it is narrow, winding, often shrouded in fog, and has steep drop-offs that have claimed many lives over the years. It is apparently the most dangerous road in Colombia, which certainly explains the “Death” part of the name. As for what the “Trampoline” part refers to, I couldn’t tell you. I can only assume it’s to try and take the edge off the “Death” part.
For the first few kilometres the Trampoline of Death did not really live up to its reputation. The dirt road was not in such bad shape and it climbed at a manageable gradient. There were a few places where the guardrail had disappeared down the cliffside to be replaced by yellow tape, but we certainly weren’t fearing for our lives. We stopped early at an abandoned school where we’d heard we could camp and it was perfect. We pitched our tent under a shelter that would protect us from the overnight rain, played a few games on the sports court, and even had a friendly stray dog to keep us company over dinner.
The weather was not great the following morning, but we knew that it rained a lot in these mountains and so we got on with it. The going remained pretty good. It was not excessively steep, just climbing consistently, and the rocky road surface could have been a lot worse. Even the narrow sections and places where missing guardrails were replaced with tape were not too bad. The only problem with the road was the traffic. There was more of it than we had expected, and a lot of it drove too fast for the conditions, around blind corners and without enough respect for this road. It left us with the sad conclusion that the reason so many people die here is not because of the road so much as because of the way that people drive on it.
In any case we climbed well, not wanting to stop as the rain had left us soaked and we would get cold if we did so. Our views were stolen from us by thick cloud, but it was amazing when we caught glimpses of things in the fog. “I think that’s the road up there,” Dea said, pointing up as a giant cliff silhouette briefly appeared, dark trees hanging off it, waterfalls tumbling down its slopes. Everything here was wet, every corner had water cascading down in torrents. We had to cross several rivers that flowed straight over the road. It was a real adventure. At one beautiful river crossing Dea crossed first and I indicated to her that she should get out the camera and take a photo of me as I cycled across after her. She pulled out the camera and off I pedalled, trying to keep close to the right side so the waterfall might be in shot. Clearly I wasn’t paying enough attention to what I was doing, and my bike got stuck on the rocks beneath the flowing water. With all forward momentum lost, I instinctively put my left foot down into the cold water to balance myself, but I lost my footing on the loose, wet rocks and realised that I was going to take a tumble. I’d rarely fallen like this before in my cycling career and never with someone watching, certainly never with someone watching and pointing a camera at me. Down I went, into the icy cold water. I picked myself up as fast as I could and righted my bike, pushing through the rest of the river to the laughing Dea, who confirmed she had caught my embarrassment in photographic form, photos I find myself obligated to share with you now.
The weather improved slightly as the day went on, and we got some great views back down of the road snaking its way up through the rainforest. Far, far below us we could even see the Amazon Basin. It really was an incredible place to be. We kept on plugging away at the seemingly endless twists and turns until we eventually made it to the top, having climbed 1,800 metres since Mocoa. After a bit of a descent we decided to make camp, a tricky thing to do on this mountain road. We managed to find somewhere flat, but it involved several trips carrying our gear down a hillside, and the ground was sodden from all the rain. But the negatives were forgotten when we sat and looked at the views that reminded us why wild camping really is the best.
Luckily it didn’t rain much overnight and we remained pretty dry inside the tent. After a big effort to haul everything back up to the road and a brief descent, we started on another 950 metre climb, which was actually well over a thousand as it was broken up by lots of downhills. There was less traffic now and I found myself really enjoying riding the Trampoline of Death. It was just a very cool experience to be battling our way along this rough road in the wild nature. So much of Colombia had been farmed fields, to be somewhere so remote and untamed was liberating, a true cycling adventure.
We did the climb well, although it got cloudy and wet near the summit, and the descent down the other side was fairly miserable in our wet clothes. But it brought us out into a wide, populated valley where a paved road once again appeared beneath our wheels. It was over, we had survived the Trampoline of Death!
In the middle of the valley was a town, Sibundoy, where we found a nice little hotel room for the night, and we wrecked it with all our wet stuff. We both felt completely exhausted from all our exertions, and so we went out to a restaurant for a big dinner, then got a takeaway pizza for dessert, before collapsing into bed. We both wished desperately for a rest day, but we had to keep moving to get out of the country, and another climb was waiting for us the next day.
On the plus side the road was now paved, on the minus it was raining again, as we took on our next thousand metre ascent. This one was crazy steep for long sections, worse than anything on the Trampoline of Death, and it had us both really struggling. The rain continued on and off as we left the farmland behind and once again passed through forested mountains. The nature was not something our tired legs could really appreciate though, as we crawled our way to yet another summit. Once again the descent in wet clothes chilled us to our cores, and it was a relief to arrive in a small town and find a hospedaje to recover, briefly, in.
It was raining again the following morning, and it was all getting a little hard for us to take as we set off up yet another pass. The rain did at least stop after a while, but high up on the pass the winds were extremely strong. It made the descent particularly tricky, as it threatened to blow us off the edge. Somehow we made it to down to a highway, a ring road around the town of Pasto, and began on the final ride towards the border town of Ipiales. This began with yet another climb, yet another pass, adding up to yet another day of more than a thousand metres of ascent. Still, our struggles were once again put in perspective by the sight of Venezuelan refugees clinging to the back of cement mixers as they too tried their best to head south.
Then after all this climbing came a long, sweeping descent, 1,500 metres down, on a good, paved road. It brought us to Pedregal, a crossroads town of murals nestled in the mountains where we found a good, cheap hotel to once again rest our tired bodies.
Having pushed so hard we were now relatively close to the border with two days to go and so we could have an easier day, which involved a mere 700 metres of climbing. There was not much of a shoulder on this highway, but there was a lot of construction holding back traffic that meant we had long periods of having the road to ourselves. And what a spectacular road it was too, carved into the side of a dramatic cliff, leaving us with a big wall of rock to our right and steep drops and spectacular views to our left.
We rode as far as San Juan, a little town where we once again got a cheap hotel. We went out for dinner and then sat in the town plaza and watched the people on our last night in Colombia, like we had done so many times throughout this great country. The people here in the south were different, their faces more Indian, their clothes more traditional. After looking at the exercise equipment in the plaza and noting how such things were everywhere in the world these days and yet we never saw anyone use them, we watched on as a family climbed on and began working out in their traditional thick shawls that covered all of their bodies but left their arms free to, in this case, work the cross trainer.
We left the hotel on our 90th and last day in Colombia, to be surprised by the sight of a bit of blue sky and sunshine. There was more climbing to be done, of course, another 500 metres up towards Ipiales, and the border to Ecuador. With a little bit of time to spare we made an eight kilometre detour out to an overlook of a church. It was built down in a gorge on a bridge and certainly did look very impressive, although not as impressive as the strength of character we’d shown to make an eight kilometre detour. The last couple of weeks in Colombia had tested us to our absolute limits and left us feeling completely exhausted. But we had done it, and as we headed for the Ecuadorean border we could reflect on a job well done. We had taken on the Andean mountains and we had won, we had made it through… just.
Now, I wondered, what were we going to find in Ecuador?