Crossing the Cordilleras (again): Westward Ho to Parque Los Nevados!


Villa de Leyva, Boyaca, Colombia.

After a very odd few days in Villa de Leyva (see previous post), I gathered my stuff and pushed Westward again. My goal: the enormous peaks of Los Nevados National Park and the city of Manizales. It would be no easy route as I was smack in the middle of the Eastern range of the Colombian Andes, and Los Nevados was in the next range over. I’d have to drop down nearly to sea level before climbing back up to over 13,000’.


Vegetarians would not have loved my first meal stop: Sutamarchan is known as the sausage capital of Colombia. Every business had 3-5 different kinds of stuffed sausages offered in a variety of combinations. Whereas the typical lunch plate I’d been enjoying would have a piece of meat accompanied by rice, beans, a plantain and perhaps a bit of salad — this plate was only sausages. My side of rice and beans were actually stuffed into their own accompanying sausage! Never before have I written that word so many times in one paragraph. Likely never again.


Arepas are one of the basic Colombian food groups. A corn-based pancake of sorts that is either fried in oil or cooked over a grill. Every area of Colombia has their own special preparation, some with cheese inside (YUM!). Arepas have become a main mid-ride snack here. Fantastic!


Lunch and ice cream in Raquirá. Another famed town in Boyacá department, but this place is all about pottery. As an amateur potter myself, I had high hopes of seeing people turning pots out on the street and small handmade craft studios. Not exactly… Raquira is the production pottery capital of Colombia as it turns out. Mostly high volume production that gets sent around the country, but the town square had a lovely assortment of hand-made clay statues.


This man in the center square stood at least 20’ tall!


Very festive buildings here in town.


Walking into the first pottery shop I saw, I realized how the town got its name: the shear quantities were quite impressive.


Then I found the back room… it was like entering that warehouse scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Arc. Never had I seen so many pots in one place!


And clay trinkets to boot.




After a quick meal I climbed up the steep mountainside on a tiny two track road, continuing on my route. I passed many small facilities mass producing pieces from casts.  Cool to see the pieces of the process: Guy digging the clay from the rich ground. Pile of coal to fuel the ovens. And finally, a whole bunch of clay piggie banks awaiting their new homes… 


 Endless climbs and descents through peaks and valleys as the route led Eastward.



My second day led me past a beautiful reservoir just outside of the city of Zipaquirá. Ample space for camping and bird watching, but the day was young and my energy still high. I pushed on.



 Zipaquirá. The largest population density I’ve come across in weeks.


Always take a moment to swing by the “plaza principal” and check out the main church. They’re generally gorgeous. Zipaquirá was no exception.


With hopes of finding a quiet campsite in the mountains, I pushed out of the city with enough food for dinner and breakfast. Meals are never that far away here in Colombia as it turns out, which works quite well for keeping a pretty light load on the average riding day.


 Remember that weird game I mentioned previously, a cross between bocce and darts with a little pyrotechnics thrown in for good measure. That’s Tejo, and there are playing courts EVERYWHERE around here!


 An extra 1000’ of climbing up a lone dirt road led me to the perfect little camp spot amidst a field of crops, overlooking rolling slopes as the evening light faded to darkness.


The following day would involve a large stretch of paved secondary roads. I saw a couple small groups of road cyclists. Then a few larger groups. Then a barrage of super geared-out time trial riders, grunting and wheezing as they pumped their way up the mountainside I was so gloriously descending. Road cycling is far and away the most popular form of riding here in Colombia, and Boyacá has produced some of the world’s top racers, including Nairo Quintana who will be racing in the Tour de France this year.


Turns out these guys were all competing in a short independent time trial on this sunny Sunday morning. I chatted with a few of the racers as they prepared to start their respective clocks. I calculated one guy’s bike at less than 1/6th the weight of mine. Noticing jealousy. Moving on.


Piedras del Tunjo. A strange geologic anomaly amidst the busy industrial city of Facatativá. With little trails meandering through the park, I took the chance to hit a bit of single track before continuing on.




Met another biker with the same idea, so we rode together through the park and chatted about Colombian politics.


Back to Colombian comestibles: The Colombian hamburger. There is rarely found a more invited meal than a burger and fries to compliment some long hours in the saddle. Luckily Colombia does not disappoint in this department. Burgers are generally enormous, covered in sauces, and the fries are fresh and tasty.


Final moments in the Cordillera Oriental (Eastern Range) before descending to cross the Rio Magdalena. I’d crossed this river just a month ago with Brian Taylor and his enormous monster truck of a fatbike, and was not looking forward to the accompanying heat and insect swarms.


The “beautiful” brown waters of the Magdelena river. Yep.


The first flat section of road I’ve ridden in many weeks, crossing the valley toward the Cordillera Central (middle range of the Andes). The enormous mountains in the distance are but the first row of hills I’d need to surmount before getting up to Los Nevados… exciting!


Another local Tejo court, this time in the sweltering heat of the Magdelena Valley.


Remember the “Armero Tragedy” of 1985, in which a volcanic eruption led to the death of 22,000 Colombians? I didn’t, as I was only 9 years old at the time, and I didn’t remember it being covered particularly well in US news. Now learning of the details, I was horrified:

November 13th, 1985. Volcan Ruiz, among the largest of Colombia’s glaciated stratovolcanos, erupted for the first time in 69 years. The extreme heat of the lava caused an unprecedented melting of it’s glaciers, leading to gigantic avalanches and mudslides down it’s river drainages, carrying dirt and debris at speeds above 60kph. Many had no idea that these “lahars” would have the momentum to travel the near 50 kilometers from the eruption site to the town of Armero, where its inhabitants were taken by surprise and over 20,000 of its 27,000 inhabitants killed. The true tragedy of Armero is that the Colombian government actually had ample warning time in which to evacuate Armero and a few other at-risk towns, but did not effectively distribute a hazard-map to the effected towns in time. The situation was complicated by a military coup in which a large group of governement officials had been held hostage by a radical Marxist group only a week before the eruption took place. Either way, it is commonly held that “Nevado Ruiz did not kill 22,000 people back in 1985, the Colombian government did.”

My route went directly through the disaster site of old Armero (the town has since been rebuilt a number of kilometers North down the Magdelena Valley, safe from future eruptioins). I spent some time exploring the grounds, learning about the history.


 Rolling off of the highway onto the main streets of old Armero (now overgrown rubble roads), I saw countless gravestones speckling the landscape. I surmised that the graves were placed where bodies had been discovered, or where homes used to be.


 A concentration of grave stones was located near the old town center. A sombre site to say the least.


The main street of Old Armero. Trees and jungle have reclaimed the human development over the last 30 years. I was struck by the idea that these remains were the first “modern day ruins” I’d ever seen. In my experience, most major towns or municipalities when struck by a major natural disaster are rebuilt, the old structures torn down and replaced by newer ones. But in Armero, the town was simply deserted. The energy of the tragedy was still strongly perceptible here.


The only remains of Armero’s beautiful central church, its steeple was recovered from the piles of mud and let stand to commemorate the disaster.


 I awoke at first light to begin the arduous climb from 600’ to the town of Murillo at 10,000’, only 50km away. It would take me all day, including a surprising amount of ups/downs during the climb…




Tree tomatoes growing along the hillsides at around 6000’.


It was a long slow climb, but with every hour of gained altitude the temperature dropped from blistering heat to a brisk breezy afternoon. Taking short pause at 9000’ to gaze out at the day’s accomplishment, I was only about 10km and 1000’ of climbing away from a super cheap motel and a (hopefully) warm shower.


Pushing off early from the sleepy town of Murillo, I hit the dirt road that would travel through Los Nevados National Park before dropping down to Manizales.

NOTE: There IS a dirt road turnoff before dropping down to the city whereby one can ride right next to Nevado de Ruiz and even drop down to Lake Otun. The section that passes Ruiz has been closed for some time due to moderate volcanic activity. That not withstanding a few cyclists have indeed ridden the closed road by crossing the locked gate during the cover of night (Nick Gault  and Cass Gilbert to name a couple). I was still considering the choice as I rode past the park entrance near Murillo…


First full view of Nevado del Ruiz as I approached from the East.


Arriving to the mouth of the Ruiz valley, I took a little detour to explore a small single track trail I noticed heading up toward the volcano…



While the trail seemed to peter out at some point, my curiosity only increased. I dropped the bike at one point and continued on foot, following up a small river drainage.


 And voila! a completely absconded from view 150’ waterfall! Curiosity and a little willingness to go the extra mile so often pay off!



The whole area was surrounded by beautiful little waterfalls, the rocks colored so richly by the sulfur and volcanic sediment I assumed.


The sights just got better as the day progressed. Crossing a site of a recent fire, I had assumed that the paramo was not particularly flammable: lots of rain and the soil is like a sponge. Plus the frailejon plants seemed too far apart to be able to catch one another aflame. But here it was, lots of charred plants.


Around a corner I hit a healthy frailejon (forest?). Such a gorgeous texture both up close and from afar.


 Laguna Llorona (weeping lake), with an enormous waterfall behind it in the distance. I could see that the road would be passing just above the waterfall… excited to get up close to it!


 Amazing texture of the rock walls along the roadside.


Second open view of Nevado de Ruiz. Looking up at the billowing smoke clouds emerging from it’s mouth, I could do nothing but stop and stare. Looking down, I saw so many beautiful loose rocks, I decided to make a few rock cairns. My style of graffiti. The kind where you attempt to ADD to the beauty of a place by intentionally rearanging what was already there.




It was getting to be ludicrous. This 2km section of road was so full of insanely stunning views. I stopped every few meters as some new feature would emerge from around a corner.


The colors of the cliffs, combined with the endless waterfalls, and the scale of the whole thing was just impossible to capture in a photo. Believe me I spent hours trying!



Standing on the edge of that enormous waterfall I saw from Laguna Llorona. Had to be at least a 300’ drop. The kind of sheer drop that makes my ankles get tight and my stomach ache.



It was getting late and I had high hopes of getting to some fabled hot springs a few kilometers up the road. I took in one final view of the insanity and continued on.

Arriving at the location I’d marked for the hot springs on my map, all I saw was a long windy road leading down valley away from the main road. Luckily there was a little house at the top of the road, out of which a woman came and kindly answered my questions. Indeed the hot springs were down there. I’d need to drop about 1000’ of elevation I’d worked so hard to gain, but hot springs are hot springs. You just have to do it.


1,000,000% worth it.  As I rode down the long windy rocky road, I could smell the sulfur. Looking to my left, I could see the steam coming up from the quite loud river. Could it be that the hot springs were actually a full on hydrothermal river???

YES. Yes they were.

I found a flat spot, perched directly OVER the river. As in there was a natural land bridge under which the hot springs flowed. I threw my tent up and frolicked down to the water. It was intensely hot, but there was a perfect pool downstream that was just barely bearable to enter. Luscious. I returned to see all the steam had condensed on my tent fly.


 Words cannot express what it feels like to sleep OVER a hot spring river, looking up at a cliff to see the nearly full moon emerge from a dip in the rock face just as the Nevado de Ruiz faded into the night sky behind me. Certainly a night to remember. 



My extreme luck with clear weather the day before was made even more lucid when the clouds rolled in the following morning. I imagined some of the views that must have been possible on a clear day here, but felt no FOMO (fear of missing out). Yesterday was too perfect.


A new, weird plant at nearly 14,000’. No idea what it’s called, but it was beautiful!

Moments later, I found myself staring down a fork in the road. To my left was the entrance to the “closed road”. To my right, the road leading almost 7000’ down to the city of Manizales. I was low on food, but could conceivably make it through the closed road loop with what I had. But, I’d have to wait around for about 16 hours until about 4am the next morning in order to cross the road with the right timing to ride as the sun was coming up. Then I came to realize that what I really wanted was to see some human beings, have a big hot meal, and enjoy a city for a day or two. The adventure of the closed road was mostly attractive to my ego, proving to myself (and perhaps some others) that I was hardcore and would choose the tough route. When I became aware of this it was easier to let go. Finally, the intense thick fog and threat of imminent rain in the air solidified the decision.


Down I rode, following the same “downhill mountain bike” route I’d ridden with my sis and brother in law only a few months ago. Much more fun on my own bike, even with all the gear.


7000’ below I entered the bustling city of Manizales, in search of food, lodging and a good bike shop where I could get some much needed maintenance done…

Where I Rode: 

Day 1: Villa de Leyva —> Sutamarchan —> Candelária —> Raquirá —> Guachetá

Day 2: Guachetá —> Ubaté —> Sutatausa —> Simon Bolivar —> Cogua —> Zipaquirá —> Laguna Pantano Redondo

Day 3: Laguna Pantano Redondo —> La Pradera —> Subachoque —> El Rosal —> Facatativá —> Chuguacal —> Vianí

Day 4: Vianí —> Cambao —> Armero Tragedy site —> Armero Nuevo/Guayabal

Day 5: Guayabal —> Libano —> Murillo

Day 6: Murillo —> El Reposo —> Aguas Calientes

Day 7: Aguas Calientes —> Hotel Termales de Ruiz —> Manizales

One Response

  1. Dan
    | Reply

    Fantastic Post Scott! Love catching up on your epic adventure….

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