Manizales and the return to dirt

(Note: My laptop won’t charge so I’m posting this from my phone.  For some reason the photos are showing up in the wrong order. There may also be some odd auto-corrects I missed.)

I’ve never actually cried tears of joy. The other day, while biking at 4,000 metres in Parque Nacional Nevado del Ruiz, I welled up. It was the combination of the gruelling, six hour climb to get there and the sheer beauty off the mountains shrouded in clouds that did it. As I rode along, I felt so elated.

I’m in Salento right now, a quaint tourist town in the heart of Colombia’s main coffee growing region. I had two options to get here from Manizales – a one day cruise down Ruta 29 or a three day journey up dirt roads and into the mountains.

Let’s start in Manizales. I got a good vibe from the city of 500,000. It had big city energy but wasn’t as hectic.  My trip there was crushing so I spent my first day looking for a decent lunch and relaxing at the Kaleidoscopo hostel. I wanted to rest up for a planned day trip on my bike to Nevado del Ruiz.

The next day I was up early and jumped on my bike, which was completely unloaded. My initial plan was to go up the highway into the park, then down the old road out of the park to some hot springs. However, my Open Street Maps app showed a back road that would take me to the top of the pass so I decided to take that instead of the busy highway.

At first I was loving my decision. I rode out of the city on to a pleasant country road filled with mountain bikers. Then there was a gate, but lots of tire tracks went around it and a local said I was good to keep going. Slowly, the road narrowed and turned into a mellow double track. Then it went to single track.  Then it got steeper.

Then it turned into the most punishing hike-a-bike I’ve ever experienced. The track resembled a slick creek bed more than anything else. It wasn’t too bad at first but by the time I knew I should have turned around, I had reached the point of no return. No matter which way I went, I knew I wouldn’t make it to the national park. I kept going up, waiting for the views to open up. I also knew it would be easier –  and more fun (and safer) – to ride down the highway than go back down the trail.

So I continued to haul my bike up and over rocks and roots as I struggled to keep a grip on the greasy dirt. At times the track was so narrow I’d have to carry my bike on my shoulders and shuffle sideways so it wouldn’t get tangled in the jungle brush. I measured my progress in tens of metres. Once in a while the trail would pop out into a farmers field, but the clouds obscured most of the views. I had to scare away an angry dog and stare down a curious cow to progress.

Finally, after hours of pushing I reached a dirt road, which I followed to the highway at Letras Pass (coming from the east this pass marks the top world’s longest hill comb). I devoured a late lunch and as I got back on my bike the rain that I feared all day materialized. I put on my rain gear and proceeded to bomb down the highway, dropping some 1,700 metres vertical back to town. I went for a soak at some hot springs, then returned to the hostel for dinner and bed.

The next morning I debated my route options to Salento – the easy way or the hard way. I chose the hard way, determined to make it to Nevado del Ruiz after the previous day’s failure. My goal for this day was a modest 25 kilometres to a campsite a little closer to the park. It was a fairly mellow day, with only about 500 metres of climbing that afternoon.

Sunday would be my biggest climb of the trip. The campsite was only at 2,300 metres and I’d be going up to 4,000 metres in the span of about 20 kilometers. It was slow going as I sought to keep a steady pace to the top. I was able to get into a groove but occassionally the road would get impossibly steep, which was made worse by the fact the road surface would degrade in direct proportion to the steepness of the slope. When it got too loose amd rocky, I would get off and push.

Still, the return to these quiet dirt roads that meandered through farmers fields renewed my riding spirits after a couple of days of spinning my wheels at the edge of busy highways. The scenery got more and more incredible as I cycled upwards. The clouds flowed in and out of the mountains and through the fields, adding drama to the landscapes.

It took hours to reach the entrance to the park. The woman working there was extremely kind and offered me some aguapanela (a warm drink made from sugarcane juice) and bread. She warned me that the next section would be really steep, something I was bracing for based on the squiggly lines on my map and the cliffs that looked ahead. A bit more pedaling and a bit more pushing and I reached the top. My phone said I was at 4,011 metres, the first time in my life I’d cracked 4,000 metres.

I stopped to eat my last chocolate bar when two jeeps rolled past. I got a few cheers and was handed a bag of snacks, which I ate as I admired the view. I could see patches of snow on the distance, though the peaks of the glaciated volcanoes that make up the park were hidden from view.

I rode on, a big smile on my face. The clouds danced across the mountains opening one amazing scene after another. I reached a ranger station where the staffer greeted me and pointed me to a restaurant a few hundred metres away. There was several jeeps parked there while members of a Colombian women’s mountaineering club dined following their ascent of Nevado Santa Isabel. I joined them and debated camping there.

Two things stopped me. One was that stopping there would mean a huge effort the next day to get to Salento. The other was there was a hot springs with camping at the bottom of the mountain. In the end I was lured by hot springs.

I cruised down the road, losing altitude rapidly. The elevation profile showed a long descent followed by a climb and another long down. What wasn’t obvious was all the shorter climbs along the way. I was pushing my bike up one of these when a guy in a truck pulled up and offered me a ride. It was 5 pm and I still had 12 km to go.  I loaded my bike in the box and jumped on next to it. Thank God he showed up because there was a lot more climbing left. He let me out at the turn off to the hot springs and I cruised down the hill as it got dark.

Termales San Vincente turned out to be a busy resort packed with families.  Cars were parked along the road leading up to it and they were charging 85,000 pesos (about $38 cdn) to camp, including breakfast – about double what I expected. Without any other options, I grumbled and pulled out my credit card and payed up. I enjoyed a nice soak and cooked myself dinner before going to bed.
The next day was an uneventful ride along the highway to Salento. The highlight was pulling into Sanya Rosa De Cabal just on time for a parade that I think was celebrating the founding of the city. I stayed there a little longer than planned but still made it to Salento with time to spare.

It’s been a lazy two days here, relaxing at La Serrana, a wonderful eco-hostel/organic farm a few minutes walk from town. The extent of my activity has been wandering in and out of town for lunch. I’m about to take a mountain road to Ibague and I’ve been told there’s some hot springs along the way with a restaurant where I can camp for free. Hopefully that information is true.

The GPS track for this route can be found here:

Categories: South America tourTags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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