The loud rattling took me by surprise. I was used to my gear jostling around as I descended bumpy diet roads, but I’d never heard anything rattling in my spokes.
I was having a great descent down to the tiny outpost of Toche, flying past forests of wax palm trees, which are only found in certain parts of the Andes but were abundant around here. It was a beautiful valley, with farmers making a living harvesting the impossibly steep slopes.
I brought my bike to a halt and looked back to see my backpack hanging off the back. Then I realized one of my panniers was missing…
The day had started off innocently enough with me leaving La Serrana hostel at a casual 9 a.m. I was going back over the Cordillera Central, one of three branches of the Andes that run through Colombia. I knew I had a long climb ahead of me, but I was only planning on riding 50 kilometres that day, so I was in no rush. I was told I’d see more wax palms on this route than in the famous Cocora Valley, and that there was a free hot springs I could camp at on the way to Ibague. Works for me!
I pedaled through Salento and then up the long climb to La Linea – the 3,400 metre pass that lay above. The weather was nice, the road was in decent shape and the grade was perfect. I spun away, counting down the kilometres. I made it to the top in about four hours and found a nice spot to take a break.
After a snack, I began the rollicking descent. It wasn’t too steep or too windy so I could really open up at times. I only stopped to take pictures of the surrounding farm lands and the majestic palm trees that dotted them. One thing that amazes me about Colombia is the terrain people farm. Usually the steepest slopes are reserved for cow pasture, but in this valley a variety of crops were planted on even the steepest areas.
About eight kilometres into the descent I passed a guide who i’d met at the hostel the day before and talked to about my trip. I waved and said hello and kept going without stopping. A few switchbacks later, disaster struck – my right pannier, with all my camping gear in it was missing.
At first I figured it must have just fallen off but there was no sign of it on the road. I envisioned it bouncing off the road, through the barb wire fencing and down the steep sidehill, but that seemed implausible. I stashed the rest of my bags at the side of the road and started riding up. There was one spot I thought it could be – next to a big wax palm that was right next to the road a few kilometres above. I distinctly recalled stopping there to take a photo and leaning my bike on its right side. Maybe I jostled it loose in the process? What I couldn’t figure out was how I didn’t hear it falling off, nor did I notice a change in the handling of the bike.
I rode back up to the tree but there was no sign of the bag. I went back down and scouted the sidehill where I stopped but still nothing. By this point it was getting late and my only hope was the guide had picked it up. Given the time, I decided it was best to ride into Toche and try to track down the guide over the phone. The rest of the descent was punctuated by a few short steep climbs and a really steep and rough finish.
Toche is a two intersection town trapped in a steep valley where the only way out is up, but it did have a barebones hostel. I explained the owner my predicament and she offered to help. Except she didn’t have cell reception at the moment.
In the middle of nowhere Colombia, with my camping gear missing, unable to properly speak the language, and no real clue what to do I lost it. I broke down and started cursing myself for being so stupid, for not paying attention to my bike, and wondered what the hell I was doing, riding down these remote roads in a foreign country where I barely speak the language. I made a plan in my mind to hire someone to drive me up the road to look for the bag. Or if that didn’t work, I’d bike back up. I had visions of taking a bus to Bogota to replace my gear.
After my breakdown, my fortune turned. The woman who ran the hostel was able to track down the guide and confirmed he had my pannier. Why he didn’t just leave it for me to find I don’t know, but at least it was in a safe spot. The next morning I was up early to take a combination of jeep, bus and minibus back to Salento. It was a five hour journey and when I got there I found out the guide had a tour booked that was going through Toche and he was about to leave. So I could have avoided the trip, but on the plus side, I was able to get a ride back to my bike the fast way. When I was reunited with my pannier I broke out into a huge smile and did a little leap of joy. I then joined his tour back over the mountains to my bike.
I returned to Toche at around 3:30 and enjoyed a standard Colombian lunch – my first proper food all day. I then packed up my gear, determined to get to those hot springs I’d heard about. They were 10 kilometres away, up a steep hill and I made it right as the final light left the sky. The hot springs weren’t terribly hot, but they felt so good after a stressful day and a half. I pitched my tent under an unused shelter, and that night it poured, but I stayed dry.
The next day I rode the 50 kilometers to Ibague. It started off misty and drizzly and I enjoyed a greasy descent before climbing back up to make up all the elevation I had just lost. Then it was mostly downhill to the main highway, the road ending by passing through a series of tunnels a few kilometres before town.
Ibague felt like a typical mid-sized Colombian city. It wasn’t all that attractive but I did have a bustling downtown and a big market. I took my chances by going to a Chinese restaurant for lunch (it was really bad) but did succeed in finding some 96% alcohol for my cooking stove. I stayed at the only hostel in town where I met another bike tourer, Nick, who was waiting out the rainy season by teaching English. We traded stories and talked bikes and future plans. I got a ticket on a night bus to Pitalito so I could go to San Augustin to see a bunch of ancient rock carvings and speed up my journey south.
The GPS track for this route can be found here: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/20079538