Diomar showed me around the village, which didn’t take very long, and we visited a friend of his – a very nice lady who gave us warm milk fresh from the cow and, presuming I was an affable invalid with no understanding of what food was, showed me potatoes, spring onions and maize, repeatedly pronouncing the name of each, despite me already having said it.
“Ah, so you grow spring onions too?”
“These are spring onions. SPRING ONIONS”
Once it got dark we went back to the cabana. I gave him an English lesson, teaching him the essentials like regular verb conjugation and the difference between horses and houses and he showed me a salsa track called “Londres” (Oh, it’s a banger).
After a solid night’s rest and a hearty breakfast I set off early, hoping to make San Agustin by nightfall. I rode for a while on the unpaved road that runs through the paramo, an ecosystem unique to Colombia and Ecuador.It reminded me a little of the British moorlands, chilly and damp with a palette of browns and yellows, albeit with these odd plants called frailejones dominating the landscape. Before too long I entered the national park which, while lush and green, was kind of like cycling through a tunnel with little to see apart from the walls of undergrowth that flank the road.
I bumped into Diomar on the Mazamorra bridge who was checking in with the police checkpoint there. The police were curious about what I was doing and the chief, keen to exert some authority, ordered me to put my helmet on, presumably due to the non-existent traffic and flat, safe road. I took it off as soon as I got round the corner #firstworldanarchists.
Another 20km and I emerged from the park to be greeted by a paved road which wound downhill for the best part of an hour. The chilly highlands eased into a tropical valley before eventually giving way to the more typical Colombian countryside as I entered Huila. I grabbed a well earned beer in Isnes and shortly found myself skirting the breathtaking Magdalena river valley, at the bottom of which was the turnoff to San Agustin, which lay cloistered up in the mountains a mere 5 km away.
Those 5km were the hardest I’ve ever ridden. The road goes straight up the whole way and such is the difference in altitude that San Agustin has a separate micro climate to that of the valley. I ripped my shirt off and thanks the unbridled power of pure, concentrated swearing I was able to slog my way to the top. Once in town I found a budget campsite and lay there in a state of exhaustion watching 2 little dogs mercilessly bark at a horse. Does that constitute bullying?
San Agustin is nice enough, if a little touristy (the majority of which seem to be either old couples or hippies) but everyone really comes here to see the archaeological site which lies 3km to the west. Diana came down from Bogota to visit and we spent a very pleasant weekend together looking at all the funny statues with gnashing teeth and wide eyes, swimming in waterfalls, eating Italian food and drinking too much.
We stayed at the lovely Casa de Nelly which rests on a hill a kilometre from the town and with its beautiful garden, cabanas, family style home cooked meals and roaring fireplace felt more like a writers retreat than the usual backpackers. The only downside was trying to find the bloody place in the dark when half-cut at 2 in the morning.
As I was about to set off south for Mocoa the owner of the hostel offered me some friendly advice, telling me of a shortcut through the hills to save me riding an extra 10km on the main road. What he neglected to take into account was how much harder it is to traverse this unpaved mountain road on a fully loaded touring bike. It was actually a nice scenic little route, but I’ve spent the last 3 weeks cycling through similar scenery and as I emerged sweat soaked 2 hours later onto the main road south I had the distinct feeling I hadn’t saved any time at all.
Also a bug flew into my mouth and stung my throat. That was fun.
What followed was a steady climb for 20km, the road shadowing the prodigious river Magdalena up to it’s teeny tiny source. After a lunch of smoked trout I bumped into an Indian bike tourer who was 13 months into his trip from Ushuaia (and whose name I don’t know how to spell). He informed me, much to my relief, that I was only 1km from the top and was due a hefty ride down to Mocoa which stands as a gateway to the Amazon at only 700m above sea level. True enough, 1km later there was an army checkpoint marking the top of the hill. I got chatting to the soldiers, all of which seemed fresh off the teat, with only the officer looking a day over 20. The three younger ones were all very nice but the senior one just wanted to know how much all my stuff cost and how many ‘hembras’ (women) I’d been with. I assured him that I had a slew of chicas waiting for me in Mocoa and made my excuses.
On the road down the jungle backdrop of the Amazon opened up to my left. It was quite a sight to see, especially in that weather: the enormous, dense expanse of undergrowth heaving through the mist. Then the rain came and I buckled down and rushed for the nearest town where I spent the night at a surprisingly decent budget hotel.
The next day was a largely pleasant 68km downhill through the sunshine into the sweaty jungle region of Putamayo where I stayed in its capital, Mocoa. I got a good nights rest in preparation for the legendary route that awaited me the following morning: El Trampolin de la Muerte, or in English THE TRAMPOLINE OF DEATH.
Practically all of the cycling blogs I’ve read mention this infamous road, most considering it a must-do for all bike tourers, while one even describes it as the worst 80km of his entire trip through South America (and he did it the easy way). It’s a very narrow unpaved road that undulates it’s way between the departments of Putumayo and Narino, so called for its precipitous cliff edges and the accidents that inevitably ensue. That said, it’s a lot less dangerous for cyclists than for motorists and the views are said to be incredible.
As a lifelong fan of death trampolines how could I resist?
Things didn’t start of well. Everyone had told me that it would definitely take me 2 days to tackle The Trampoline but optimistically (or stupidly) I thought I’d have a go at doing it in 1. I woke up at 5am and by 6 I was ready to go. Just before I loaded up the bike I decided to pump up my back tyre – after so many punctures I’ve become a bit like a footballer coming back from a serious injury, dodging challenges and constantly fearing a relapse. In literally 5 pumps I somehow managed to rupture the inner tube right by the valve, rendering it useless. With only one backup with some stupid moon-valve that I couldn’t work out how to pump up, my plans to leave early were in tatters. By the time the bike shop opened and I’d replaced my tube it was 10 and all my early morning piss and vinegar was down the drain. I very lethargically set off knowing I’d have no choice but to camp by the first pass.
For me uphill cycling is much like long distance running. I start off and that first burn is awful. My initial reacion is to wave the white flag and find the nearest source of beer and ice cream. This goes on for a little while and then I gradually find my rhythm. After about an hour I get into the groove and enter a strange, almost meditative state that’s enjoyable in spite of, or perhaps due to, the pain. Then at the end of the day I’m treated to a cocktail of post-workout endorphins and the satisfaction at having overcome a big ol’ hill.
It took me a long time to find that groove on the Trampoline of Death. For one the quality of the road truly is abysmal and having come off the back of 3 days of paved downhill
descents it was a shock to the system. I stopped at pretty much every tienda to have a little drink and a chat and spent about an hour reading my book over lunch. I was delaying the inevitable. At around 1 I properly got going and it was gruelling stuff: sweaty tropical heat, endless steep winding switchbacks up into the mountains, my feet soaked from fording rivers. Eventually I got into the swing of things and the higher I got the more spectacular the views were, Mocoa shining like a jewel in the valley below. The rise in altitude cooled me down and I entered the realm of the clouds, the peaks looming above like some kind of jungle Mordor.
Some shopowners let me set up camp just short of the first pass on a flat patch of concrete between 2 buildings. The second I put up the tent the heavens opened and the rain continued all night. Being well versed in idiocy, I hadn’t bothered to bring a proper groundsheet and by morning the bottom of my tent was soggy to say the least. Luckily nothing important got wet but a lesson was learnt. In case I’d forgotten I was in Colombia the shopowners started blasting out reggaeton at full volume at 5.30am. These mountain folk don’t mess around.
Once over the first pass there was a brief downhill into the valley, before the endless uphill grind commenced. Much of the road lacked barriers, or the barriers ominously veered off the edge hinting at past accidents, sometimes confirmed by the memorial shrines built into the cliffs. I must say I never once felt in any danger cycling The Trampoline but I can see where it gets the name ‘cos if I were in a car or a bus I’d have been absolutely cacking it.
Just as I was about to run out of food a Dutch couple pulled over to chat to the strange cyclist man. Apparently they’d just been wondering if anyone was mental enough to cycle on this ludicrous road and, lo and behold, yours truly appeared. They very kindly gave me a little feast of snacks to keep me going, having assured me that, no, I wasn’t close to the end and, yes, there was a lot more uphill to come. Cheers guys!
About 4 hours later some roadworkers assured me that I was only 1km “maybe 800m” from the second pass. I thanked them profusely, feeling like the German soldiers in sight of Paris in WW1 (yes, I’ve been listening to a lot of military history recently) and before i knew it I was bumping my way down into the valley of Sibundoy, The Trampoline of Death all but conquered. Hurrah! In retrospect it was bloody lucky that I blew my inner tube cos I never ever would’ve beaten this beast in 1 day and more than likely would have been caught in the storm with nowhere to camp. You never know what worse luck your bad luck saves you from.
Overall I’m torn on The Trampoline of Death. It’s exactly kind of road you romantically envision finding on a South American bike tour: sheer drops, rugged mountain-hugging roads and striking panoramas of the Andes and for that I love it. But it also beat the shit out of me. I’m definitely glad I did it but I think I’d file it under ‘character building’ rather than say… ‘fun’.
Next stop: Pasto and the land of volcanoes: Ecuador.
Tunes: Hamilton The Broadway Musical, Pinegrove – Cardinal, The Hotelier – Goodness, Howlin’ Wolf – Moanin’ In The Moonlight,
Reads: Keith Richards – Life, Ernest Hemingway – Men Without Women
Route: San Agustin – Mocoa – Sibundoy