Foam, flour and water: cycling Ipiales to Cali
Colombia had been the one country which everyone had warned us about. Drugs, violence and kidnaps: it has received its fair share of negative press in recent history. But instead we arrived excited, having heard great stories about the generosity and friendliness of Colombians from cyclists we’d met on the road.
Crossing the busy main border from Ecuador with a military helicopter buzzing overhead, we were absorbed by the Colombian preparations for the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Ipiales hosted an incredible carnival where men dressed up in women’s clothes to prance along the street performing skits before impressive cardboard effigies were paraded, later to be burnt in the streets. A few fireworks were thrown inside to keep the crowds firmly on their toes.
On New Years day, we took advantage of the quiet roads to start pedalling through country number nine of our journey. Our first impressions were good. We got lots of thumbs up from drivers, whilst families enjoying garden barbeques waved as we descended through a valley with stunning waterfalls appearing from seemingly nowhere.
The kindness continued the next day as we were invited by a café owner for a breakfast of strong Colombian coffee and freshly fried doughnuts. Her generosity was perhaps driven by a sense of pity for the climb we faced after crossing the military-guarded bridge at the bottom of the valley. Fortunately, the thick, lush and, importantly, tall vegetation eased our slow progress by keeping us in the shade whilst mentality assisting by hiding from sight the road ahead, which towered above our heads.
In Pasto, capital of the Narino province, we arrived on the first day of the Black and Whites festival and were fortunate to find a hostel. The week-long celebration dates back to a tradition of slaves and their owners swapping positions for a day and painting themselves with boot polish and flour. The sight of a couple of tall gringos was too much temptation for the revellers, including one who emptied a full can of foam into my face. We couldn’t imagine the same thing happening back in Peckham, but it all appeared to be in good jest and people were enjoying themselves.
We left the mayhem behind with an ascent, where we met a group of teenagers out for a day ride to a town 30km away. Towards the top we couldn’t help feeling for them as an almighty downpour started. Cosy in our excellent Gore Bike Wear rain gear, we passed them taking shelter as best they could under a tree. We descended in the misty rain from 3,000m to 800m, where heat became an issue and we found ourselves hiding from mosquitos whilst two chickens tried to eat the cheese empanadas out of our hands.
It was as if we had entered a new world altogether, with scenery reminiscent of Hawaii’s steep, green mountains. We had another long climb where we were joined for the last couple of kilometres by two young brothers on their bikes. They enthusiastically named more England footballers than we could recall ourselves. Football across South America is a religion with the English Premier League in particular being very popular. It brought a smile to our faces when we heard ‘Frankie’ Lampard from a 12-year old Colombian who we could barely converse with otherwise.
We stayed in a small village hotel for just £4. We could forgive the presence of large cockroaches on the walls just so we could shelter from the rain, which had started up again now we were back at altitude.
In the past few months, we had been hearing of the unusually high rainfall and consequent landslides in the mountainous areas of southern Colombia. We bore witness to this the following day, as despite being on the country’s main road, there were frequent long section where rockfalls had reduced the traffic down to one lane.
That night we stayed in a cheap petrol station hotel in the small village of El Estrecho and were intrigued by the Caribbean influence with an abundance of exotic fruits. The target was to reach Rosas the following day which turned out to being eventful all in itself.
I must have eaten some bad meat for lunch the day before, as I woke up with a bad stomach. We’d identified the colonial town of Popayan 45km away for a day’s rest and I didn’t want to stay in a cramped, damp room in Rosas, so we set of anyway. The bad road surface of the first 10km downhill sent needles through my stomach. Weak and keeled over clutching my stomach on the kerb, looking up at a 12km climb, I was worried about having to give up and get a lift. A couple of sugary drinks helped give me a short term boost and podcasts helped me zone out enough to crawl slowly up.
Relieved to reach the top, after battling through another bought of heavy rain and some extreme gradients where sections of the road had slipped down the mountainside, we still had 25km of up and down to reach Popayan. Moods was buoyed by the arrival of our French cyclist friend, Joel, – who we’d last cycled with in northern Peru – who caught us up on the road. For the past few days he’d been receiving updates from the locals about two English cyclists ahead of him, and had put in some long days to catch us up.
Popayan was entering wholeheartedly into the spirit of the black and whites festival. As we reached the whitewashed city centre we found ourselves in the middle of a one-sided flour, foam and water fight that saw us white from head to toe. It took a couple of rejections before a hotel took pity and ushered us into their courtyard.
The day off to recharge the batteries couldn’t have come at a better time and I felt invigorated by the time we left on Sunday morning. Leaving against a contraflow of cyclists in a race, we couldn’t believe how many Colombians were out for weekend rides. For once, we felt like the majority as we headed out onto the Panamerican towards Cali.
From Popayan we dropped down towards the pancake-flat Cauca Valley. Our expected easy day turned out to be harder than we thought, as although we dropped down to 1000m we climbed up and down hills all day.
The next day we entered the valley and for the first time since southern Ecuador the road was flat. The hilly, winding road was replaced by wide dual carriageway through sugar cane fields that was reminiscent of being in Florida. Interested soldiers at a checkpoint left their shade to hear Laura explain our trip. They couldn’t believe how far we had come and rolled about laughing at the weight of our bikes. We flew along towards Cali where we were glad to be stopping for a few days of rest.
The Colombian tourist-board uses the slogan ‘the only risk is wanting to stay’. After a fantastic start to our cycle trip around South America we were beginning to see their point. The hills and the rain had made things interesting, but all that was overshadowed by the fantastic welcome we received from people everywhere we went.