Ooops, I trashed my trailer… the ride from Popayan was somewhat ‘intense’… If you are reading this and planning on coming down this way on a bike then the road from Popyan (or rather Coconuco) to San Agustin is something maybe you should really only attempt if you are really up for some punishment and are sure of the strength of your bicycle… it’s mountain bike territory really, and there is no real option for breaking the journey. There is a “long way round” on decent roads of about 3 days that will bring you to Pitalito north east of San Agustin.
So back to the ride then.. I left Popayan around 10am Tuesday morning feeling very lazy with a plan to just trundle the steady 30km to Coconuco, the last place to be able to spend a night before heading over the mountains towards San Agustin. I was there by midday, it’s just a dusty one street town, but interesting because of it, in a beautiful setting with a narrow waterfall cascading down a cliff, must have been around 2000ft or so, behind the village. People were nice as usual though sometimes in such a place I feel a little guilty, some of the younger folk must hate being in such a place while I can sit there and think “yeah, this is nice” and then simply bugger off whenever I like….
I rolled out of Coconuco at 7am Wednesday morning just as the sun was rising over the mountains, the heat was pretty intense that early though the track climbed so steeply things cooled off pretty rapidly and it was rather pleasant to ride through the spray of a big waterfall by the roadside at one point.
The road from Coconuco to San Agustin is bad….. really bad. It is only 120km but it climbs more than 2500m and even a 4×4 takes many hours to make the journey. The road was/is the worst I ever ever toured on, worse than anything I saw in the Himalaya and certainly for any sustained stretch… let alone more than 100km. My max speed uphill was only 5-6km/hr and technically it was quite difficult because of the loose rocky surface & big holes. About an hour up the road a truck came past, the driver stopped and got out just to say “hello, welcome to Colombia, what was I doing?” and to shake my hand… This keeps happening, it’s fantastic for boosting spirits (not that they need it here).
The road climbed for another 40km but the gradient lessened after about 25km so I could reach the heady speeds of around 8 to 10km/hr on the still bloody awful track. I had climbed from the hot subtropical valley through more open terrain, to high altiplano and eventually as I moved further east into thick cloud forest. There was one collection of shacks (Paletara) about 35km from Coconuco, a pretty desolate place on the altiplano with a few “FARC” slogans scrawled around… the people were fine though. There was a little cafe so had some coffee and stale bread there and ate a packet of biscuits from my own supply.
The altiplano was great, I do get a kick out of being in remote, exposed places on my bike, scary but exciting at the same time. Despite being generally on the level the going was pretty tough because aside from the rough track there was s trong headwind plus of course the altitude (4300m I think) I was doing maybe 10-11km per hr max on this bit.
The cloud forest was the richest and most dense I have seen, an impenetrable wall each side of the track… sadly it lived up to it’s name and the weather came in thick cloudy, cold and wet… very wet! The rain turned the track to really mucky clay, very very slippery over the rocks and holes (some around 2 feet deep). It was like that for another 4hrs or so, as I started to descend, still couldn’t go faster than maybe 15km/hr max…. (but still faster than the few trucks I passed ), the time passed quickly enough as I was concentrating so hard on my line through the rocks and holes. The bike was fine (I had let tyres down to around 30psi to help with the surface) but just as I was thinking how tough the trailer was it broke…. At first it looked like just the one-inch webbing tensioning straps for the luggage mesh and supporting structure had snapped so kind of jury rigged a repair with wire and zip-ties. That was a messy job… everything was lagged in mud, and of course as is always the way it was still lashing down with rain…………… Noticed also the mesh that holds the bags had broken in a few places… but didn’t notice the real damage till after I arrived, somehow it all held together for the rest of the day (more on that in a mo).
The track continued to descend for about 4hrs, my arms and shoulders were killing me (glad I kept up with the pushups..) by the time I arrived at a village called Isnos after about 100km of suffering (but it was brilliant really… :o). The road was still bad heading into the village, I was riding at the same speed as a pickup with two guys sitting in the back so had a conversation with them while we were moving which was rather funny. Stopped briefly to check directions to San Agustin and one old guy insisted on squeezing the muscle on the back of my leg… “muy fuerte..!” Anywhere else I would have run a mile I think…
From Isnos it stopped raining and got hot again, the final 20km or so of asphalt to San Agustin was pure heaven… and nearly all downhill (still… :o) except the last 5km were steep uphill from the Rio Magdalena… that really sucked – I was hungry, dehydrated etc etc. I stopped at a house by the road and the bloke and his wife came out to talk, gave me water and sent me on my way with cheery waves. I rolled into San Agustin after 10hrs on the bike (though 9hrs riding time), crusted with dirt and sweat. Felt great to have made it though, everyone here has been kind of suprised I guess that I did it on a bike :-)
Yesterday was meant to be my recovery day but in the end I spent much of my time running around… I took the trailer and bike down to the river to scrub so I could work on it…. I was lucky the trailer held out to get here, it is hard to describe but it has two tensioned struts each side of the wheel that connect to the webbing to support the load… when the webbing broke these were overstressed…. the moment I lifted the bags out they finally gave way… 2 thick carbon struts. I didn’t realise the struts were carbon as they are inside a webbing sleeve, they should have been spring stainless steel really though it was never meant for full-on mountain biking so it’s my fault. There is nothing I can do myself to fix it so I have left it with a mechanic here in town for a few days to see if he can do something with steel rod. It only needs to get me to Bogota really which is good road apparently. Found out also how crap my netmaking skills are when repaired the mesh with some good rope I bought here in town… shocking really for someone brought up by a fishing community…
Heard today there was some guerilla activity up there recently (not sure how accurate that is tho), but then how can you be a target on a bike if nobody knows you are there, and certainly nobody normal would expect a cyclist to be up there.
I will stay here a few days, I am staying at a lovely finca (El Maco) just outside of town and San Agustin is a great, friendly little place with loads of beautiful countryside around, as well as a decent smattering of pre-Colombian relics. It is some of these I have been wandering around this morning. There are more in the surrounding area so tomorrow I make a day trip on the bike I think. No rush to get to Bogota about 5 or 6 days riding away. The temperatures down in the Rio Magdalena valley reach 40 degs apparently, some of it is true desert (the Tatacoa) so I am excited by that but viewing it with some trepidation too. all good fun! Not worried by the trailer, I always figure something out, even if I have to rig the bags as slings over the top of the wheel and tie it all together with rope.
There is just one thing wrong with Colombia, the beer comes only in little bottles… and (Ok, two things then..) the people are so nice you will never want to leave.
p.s oh yes, I met another cyclist today.. yay! Spanish chap on his way south from Bogota, nice guy. He’s been on the road for 14 months…. ! He was planning on getting the bus to Popayan as his bike was much more of a dedicated road machine, probably sensible….. Anyway, you can meet him – his website is here.