Dashing Around Danger: Cali to Mocoa

5/17/2016

Cali, Colombia.


The time has come. I must push on from Cali after two wonderful weeks here. The plan: cross the central Andean mountains yet again to check out some remote archeological sites, then head South to a small Amazonian village known for its plant medicine ceremonies. Then cut back across the mountains, for the 4th time, across the famously dangerous Trampolin de la Muerte, heading for the Ecuadorian border. Here goes!

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I was surprised how quickly I made it out of urban Cali given the immense its immense population. Nonetheless, within 20 minutes of leaving my centrally located hostel, side roads off the highway were progressively more dirt. The final, odd sign of city life before a full transition to farmland: ENORMOUS DANCE CLUBS! Yep, about a solid kilometer of continuous back to back, department store-sized buildings but instead of reading “Costco” or “Walmart”, they read, “Citron Disco Club”, “Can Can” and many others. I guess noise ordinances within the city limits have pushed the big clubs out here so they can operate at all hours of the night without police control. Curious…

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Then it was open farmland again, re-crossing the Cauca valley in order to climb back up into the central cordillera of the Andes. This would be my 3rd crossing of this particular Andean range here in Colombia. No wonder it’s taken me so long to progress South, I just keep zig zagging East and West! Once at the foothills of the cordillera, I turned off the highway at a small, grimy industrial town called Corinto. From there I’d found a road on Google Earth that would rapidly climb from about 3000’ to 13,000’, and cross directly in front of one of Colombia’s last snow-capped peaks: Nevado del Huila. At 17,000’, Huila is Colombia’s 3rd tallest mountain. I was excited to climb up to a high lake, perhaps spend a full day alone staring up at that gorgeous peak. But my plans changed.

As I reached the outskirts of Corinto and was in final preparation to begin the long climb up to Huila, a shirtless man rode up behind me on a clunky old bike. He asked where I was riding and how I was getting there. Upon explanation of my plans, he shook his head and finger at me, strongly warning me against continuing along that route. He said there was an extremely high level of guerrilla presence along that road. The only people who go that way are familiar with the guerrilla groups, all others are either turned back (if they’re lucky) or attacked. After he shared a recent story of multiple policemen who’d been brutally murdered along that road, he had me convinced. I turned back onto the secondary highway looking for another way up to Huila feeling very lucky that he’d seen me pass and chosen to follow me in order to bid warning.

The next option for climbing up to Huila was a tiny town called El Palo, about 20km down the highway. Pulling into the dilapidated town square, I asked a woman selling some fruit about the route up to Huila. Same reaction. Kind of a, “you’d have to be an idiot to ride up that way by yourself” kind of look. Of course, in typically gentle and slightly subdued Colombian linguistic form, she shared that my planned route was like to be “un poco complicado” — a bit complicated. I came to realize that “complicated” and “fucking dangerous” are synonymous here. Good to know. I redirected away from Huila. Sad to miss the opportunity to see the gargantuan peak, but glad to be directed away from “complications.”

The highway carried me South along the Cauca valley past Quinamayo and a super tiny and cheap roadside hotel. Room with dinner for about $6USD. Hard to pass up, especially given the particularly humid and mosquito-filled air in the valley floor. While the power was out the entire night, I enjoyed a lovely candlelight dinner and was pleased to rest easy behind a screened-in window.

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My re-route would cross the cordillera a bit further South, to the sweet hamlet of Sylvia. The moment I entered the town bakery, I knew I was in an interesting place. Women and men alike wore bowler hats, bright blue and fuscia capes. The men wore a type of wool skirt rather than pants. Evidently these were the indigenous group known as the Guambia. They lived together on protected land just up the mountainside from Sylvia, and had become an attraction for intra-Colombian tourism with their bright clothing and unusual customs. While I’d planned to continue much further that day, the Guambia piqued my interest enough to veer off course and explore their village.

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Part of the Guambia cemetery. Above-ground tombs lined the steep hillside above the entrance road.

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Local Guambian boys. I asked them why they weren’t wearing the traditional dress. They all laughed at me, saying they only wear it to school and when their parents force them to. Of course. The mix of old and new.

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 They boys explained the peculiar architectural style I’d been observing in larger buildings on the way into the village (this picture is of the high school). The multi-tiered, yurt style depicts the traditional hats the Guambian people wear (not the bowler hats, but another very flat, straw-built hat). Not sure if the hats match the buildings or vice versa. Also not sure what the shape represents. Hard to get an answer outta these kids!

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Back in Sylvia, I asked a few locals about my planned route through a small village of Totoró in order to reach a famous archeological site known as Tierradentro (roughly: inner earth). They told me that road was impossible to get through, as there had been enormous land slides rendering it impassible. Of course my mountain biker ego kicked in, assuming that there is no landslide I can’t just carry my bike over. Different reports got me confused about the state of the road, one man stating there were as many as 30 slides of varying size, another saying as few as 2. Hmm…. maybe I should re-re-route?

The police told me I could take the high mountain road past Guambia, but it would add at least a day of riding. Plus there had been a recent report of two touring cyclists who’d been robbed along that road. Hmmm…. Either risk getting stuck in a landslide or risk getting robbed…

I chose landslide.

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Despite the landslide warning, the road generally seemed pretty clean. Okay, there were remnants of a big slide early on, but it had been cleared enough for a lane of traffic. Perhaps it would all be okay? Likely just a few slides blown out of proportion.

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Okay, that too. With every curve in the road, I’d see larger and longer slides, but all had been cleared enough for traffic to pass.

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The slides didn’t just cross the road. They engulfed it at times, for up to 1/2 kilometer. Road crews had their work cut out for them! That mucky, gravelly, tree-trunk-filled sludge stretched the length of the highway for quite a while. Indeed I’d have been pushing the bike quite slowly had the roads not yet been cleared. I was later informed that the road had just opened that very morning. Lucky!

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Looking up valley at the source of one slide.

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Then it got messy… Road crews were cleaning up from horrendous enormous landslides while simultaneously trying to prepare the route for paving. A wet sloppy mess for about 15km. Needless to say I don’t know whether I was more covered by the mud or the looks of extreme confusion by workers as I rode by.

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 I dropped into the small town of Inzá for a quick meal before heading to Tierradentro. Long, fun and fast dirt road to a raging river. Nice.

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 Tierradentro. A collection of underground tombs found in the 20th century lining one particular mountainside in the central cordillera. There is little known about the people who built these tombs, their lives or customs. Only that they predate any indigenous groups that have been studied in the area. Each tomb (between 10 and 30’ underground) could be entered through an elaborate staircase. Some spiraling, some alternating steps, all interesting…

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 The tombs were decorated with ornate geometric paintings, the columns marked with faces along their crests.

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To see all the tomb sites, it’s about a 15km walk round-trip. I suggest walking the route counterclockwise as you save the most beautiful site for last!

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Panoramic shot of the dense cloud/fog layer that was contained within the valley to the right, while sunny billowy clouds allowed clear views off to the left. The trail dividing the two.

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Final set of tombs atop a high ridge. While all the other sites were maintained by guards who accompanied me through my explorations, this site was unmanned.

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The solitude, the silence. Perfect places to explore acoustics with my penny whistle. I was gifted a full hour alone in a tomb, uninterrupted, enjoying the rich resonance.

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Hiking back down to the park entrance, enjoying silence and sweeping gorgeousness.

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After a day of tomb raiding, I rolled on along the dirt roads toward my next archeological destination of San Agustin. Supposedly a funky little town with a good supply of off-the-beaten-track tourism, I hoped to find some interesting travelers there. Along the way I was greeted by a number of gorgeous grandfather trees.

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There is nothing flat in Colombia. After various steep summits and descents out of Tierradentro, my day ended with an  ENORMOUS steep climb 15-20% grades straight up a ridge to gain approximately 3000’. According to the locals I asked along the way I could have taken a slightly easier route, but much much longer, adding an extra day. Always curious about the ‘hard’ way I was well-schooled.

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 What? There are Tapirs here? Well I didn’t see any. Too bad.

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Serendipity. These are the moments that renew my love for open and unplanned travel. The way things just work out right when you need them to, but only do so because you didn’t have a plan.

Just over the summit of that beast of a climb, I noticed it was getting dark. Due to recent heavy rains, all the ground was soaking wet and quite muddy, with few spots clear enough from dense vegetation to set up camp. Of course moments later I saw this sign. Of particular interest to me was that word atop the map legend: cabaña. Maybe there was a ranger there who’d let me camp?

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Slice of heaven, exactly at the right moment. No ranger. Nobody. Just a big sign on the door that asked visitors to pack out their garbage and keep the place clean. I had my own little mountain cabin for the night! If I’d been carrying enough food I’d have considered staying an extra day, but alas hunger drew me down the mountainside to the nearest source of eggs.

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After yet another day of endless up and downs, I made it to San Agustin. At the suggestion of another biker, I rode up into the hills past town to the famed backpacker hostel Casa Nelly.

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Greeted by Harry, a transplant from Northern Colombia who’d been working at the hostel for years, this place had a great vibe. Quiet, friendly, and a good flow of interesting travelers. I ended up staying 4 nights to explore the area.

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 Day ride to the gorgeous Magdelena canyon.

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Arriving to a beautiful clifftop overlook, I saw someone had written their name, “Kenneth” in the bits of orange peel they’d eaten. Reflecting on human kind’s bizarre need to mark their passage to beautiful places with their name, I was struck by how off put I felt at Kenneth’s inscription. I chose to spell out another word in it’s place. In Spanish, “BREATHE…”

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Turning around to climb back up the long staircase I noticed a beautiful, grand carving in the stone behind me.

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 … And another!

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 I took my own advice and paused atop this gorgeous valley to smell the air, watch the clouds drift, just listen. And “respire”.

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“El Estrecho” — The Narrow. The powerful Rio Magdelena which originates only about 30km upstream from here reaches North across the entire country only to empty into the warm Caribbean waters. This is the most narrow point of the river, a wild experience to see all that water funneled into a canyon only about 10’ across. Must be pretty deep.

I was later invited to join a rafting tour down the Magdelena and asked if rafts passed through the narrows. The guide said mostly only very advanced kayakers, but it’s been done… looks dangerous for sure. But fun!

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 While at Casa Nelly, I met my first other bike tourer in quite a while, Raimon. He’d been traveling for 3 years so far, having ridden from his home in Barcelona to Shanghai, then flown to Alaska to ride South to Ushuaia. With lots to talk about, we made plans to ride together to the Ecuadorean border.

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San Agustin to Mocoa.  The road was generally smooth pavement with the occasional enormous landslide. Par for the course in this part of Colombia during the rainy season.Raimon wasn’t quite ready to leave San Agustin yet so we agreed to meet in the next city and ride the famed Trampolin de la Muerte together, a rocky cliffhanger of a road that would carry us back toward the border crossing to Ecuador.

I arrived in Mocoa in the late evening, progressing to the only hostel I could find, the Casa del Rio, about 5km South of downtown by a beautiful river. 

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While in search of some plant medicine ceremonies (see next post for much more on this), I took a hike to a huge waterfall, El Fin del Mundo (The End of the World). The long muddy hike up into the mosquito-filled jungle was quite gorgeous with monkeys in the trees and sweat on my brow. 

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Beautiful little warm-up waterfall and swimming hole on the way to Fin del Mundo.

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This was all I could fit in the camera lens. Not sure the full height of these falls but I’m guessing over 300’. I didn’t want to get close enough to the edge to find out!

Coming up next: Two Years on the road, ushered in by shamanic ceremony…

Where I Rode: 

Day 1: Cali —> Corinto —> El Palo —> Quinamayo

Day 2: Quinamayo —> Piendamó —> Silvia —> Guambia —> Silvia

Day 3: Silvia —> Totoró —> Inzá —> San Andres

Day 4: Tierradentro

Day 5: San Andres —> La Plata —> La Argentina —> Cabin outside Oporapa

Day 6: Oporapa —> Saladoblanco —> San Jose de Iznos —> San Agustin

Day 7, 8, 9: Around San Agustin

Day 10: San Agustin —> Los Cerritos —> Bruselas —> Mocoa

Day 11: Fin del Mundo falls

5 Responses

  1. David Grossman
    | Reply

    Hi Scott,

    Curious about your time around Tierradentro. I got a bit lost on a reservation there in 2012. The local people basically took me into custody, threw my bike on top of a Jeep, tossed me inside, and hauled us out to an army garrison in Belalcazar. Before transferring custody of the stupid gringo to the Colombian Army, they told me the FARC had been asking if anyone had seen the gringo on the bike, and they didn’t want to be held responsible if something “unpleasant” happened to me.
    All because googlemaps says highway 37 still connects to Cali. (It was destroyed by a massive and quite deadly landslide in the late 20th century. Has never been re-opened.)

    I’m really happy you are still pedaling, and still loving it.

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      Wow David! Your story sounds like what mind would have been if that dude hadn’t stopped me. Seriously Google Maps, you need to update some of your beta!!! I have two other friends that almost just made the same mistake. I actually might write them to explain the potential danger they’re putting people in…
      Hugs to you David! Hope we meet someday!

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      Just wrote some feedback to GoogleMaps about this error. I suggest you do the same so no other cyclists are put in danger.

  2. Andrew
    | Reply

    super padre.

  3. Batya
    | Reply

    Yes! to that San Juanico Song and all that richness and all those strong high notes.
    And then 2 water vidoes to boot… beautiful, all of it.

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