Stone statues, waterfalls and death trampolines: San Agustin to Santiago

They say it’s the rainy season in Colombia and I believe it. Only, until a few days ago, it hadn’t affected my trip. I only got stuck riding in a torrential downpour once, and that was on pavement and was mostly downhill. Plus it was pretty hot that day, I was on my way to a hostel and had laundry in my sights. It wasn’t too bad. Other than that, I experienced some light drizzle and it rained frequently at night, but I somehow always managed to camp under a shelter when it did.

That changed the morning I started on the infamous Trampolin de la Muerte in southern Colombia, aka the Trampoline of Death, a road reputed as one of the wildest in a country full of them.

But first, let’s back track to the night I left Ibague. The night bus to Pitallito was as expected – there wasn’t enough leg room and I slept poorly as the bus sped down the winding road. My destination was San Agustin, formerly home to a society that was famous for its stone carvings. This meant a 30 kilometre ride and a decent climb into town from the bus statiom in nearby Pitalito before setting off to the archaeological park where the statues are located.

I’m torn on whether the detour was worth it. The carvings were interesting and the park museum had a good display on the cultures that created them. At the same time, I got caught exploring the area with a school group and I was exhausted from the lack of sleep the previous night. That and the next two days riding to Mocoa were the least inspiring of the trip and I wondered if I should take the bus the whole way.

The one upside to the stop is I met another cycle tourist at the hostel in San Augustin – William, a Bogota native who’s cycling to southern Brazil along a similar route to me, though he said he loved pavement, whereas I prefer dirt. He was leaving for Mocoa at seven the next morning but I wasn’t up for an early start after my overnight bus journey so I said i would try to catch him on the road, not expecting that to actually happen. He was gone when I woke up and instead, I cooked myself a nice omelet for breakfast and had a leisurely 9:30 a.m. departure.

The road to Mocoa was just a matter of grinding out the kilometres. It started flat (!!!), then climbed for 25 kilometres and 900 metres before beginning a long, periodically interrupted 25 kilometre descent. The highway was pretty quiet but the views weren’t as great as I’d grown used to in Colombia. I progressed slowly but surely up the climb, then flew down the descent. I couldn’t believe it when I saw William just ahead of me as we rode into San Juan de Villalobos.

I hung out as William tried to get the police to let us camp on their lawn for free. When that failed, we ended up at a hospedaje where he negotiated us a rate of 9,000 pesos for the night for a private room each. That’s about $4 CDN.

We set off together the next morning for Mocoa and I quickly found out why I was able to catch up. We climbed at a similar speed but I descended much faster. He also took more and longer photo breaks. After one long wait I said I was going to ride ahead. I told him where I planned on camping in Mocoa and to look for me there. The remaining 50 kilometres were uninspiring, only interrupted by a flat tire. 

I reached the Posasda Dantayaco around three and quickly settled into a hammock. I shared the place with a tourism film crew and that night we were treated to a show by one of them, though I really just wanted it to stop so I could sleep.

William showed up at the hostel the next morning (he slept at a cheap hotel in Mocoa) and we set off on a hike to the Cascada Fin del Mundo, along with the film crew. My plan was to do the walk in the morning and ride in the afternoon but the hike turned out far more beautiful than expected, so that plan went out the window quickly. 

The trail climbed through the jungle before reaching the river, where a series of waterfalls cascaded through three small valley, culminating in the Fin del Mundo – a 75 metre plunge off an overhanging cliff into the jungle below. There was a great swim hole, cliffs you could jump off, and a nice little restaurant. In the end, I spent most of the day there. When I got back to the hostel, I unpacked my bags and pitched my tent for a second night there.

I woke up early the next morning with the dream of tackling the Trampolin de la Muerte in a day. It was only 79 kilometres with 2,300 metres of climbing. No big deal, right? Mother Nature, and my body, had other ideas.

Not more than 10 minutes after leaving the hostel it suddenly started pouring. There was no warning; it went from a drizzle to a monsoon in seconds. I scrambled to get on my rain jacket and by the time I did the rest of me was soaked. I figured I would shelter at the next restaurant or hostel but I didn’t pass any for more than an hour. I kept pedalling until I reached the start of the Trampolin. There, I hunkered down at a restaurant and ate a second breakfast while waiting for the rain to stop. It was after 10 when I finally felt confident enough to get on my bike again.

The Trampolin started off like most Colombian roads, passing through a few small villages and by rural homes, with the inevitable chasing dogs. The first sign it was a little different was when I had to ford a creek that was raging over the road. My shoes were already soaked from the morning so I just waded right in. Then i watched while a few vehicles made the crossing.

As I pedaled higher, I could look up and see the road switchbacking up the mountain above me, disappearing into the clouds. The road wasn’t particularly steep or rough, but it was a long and consistent climb. Generally it was reasonably wide, but at times there was barely enough room for me and a vehicle. The worst were the Cootrans Mayo pickup trucks that shuttled people and goods along the road, and that couldn’t be bothered to slow down while they passed, even at the narrowest parts of the road. There was a few perilous drop offs and places where guard rails were non-existent, replaced by flimsy yellow tape that would flap in the wind. Numerous roadside shrines memorialized the hundreds of people who didn’t survive the journey over the years. It’s amazing to think this is the only road through these mountains in this part of Colombia.

It took a good four hours until I reached a military check point and the small restaurant that also fed the troops stationed at this remote outpost 1,400 metres above where I started. No sooner did I stop for lunch then did the skies open up again. The deluge didn’t last for as long as in the morning, but I was so glad to have shelter, as were the local dogs and chickens. At the same time, it was only 3 p.m. and I wasn’t ready to stop. I hoped to make it to another restaurant 12 kilometres down the road, but I also didn’t want to get caught in another storm, especially at this higher, colder elevation.

The rain stopped around four and I contemplated moving on. I waited because the people at the restaurant said there was nowhere to sleep past there. I listened to them, even though I’d read otherwise on the internet. Thankfully I did because not long after it rained heavily some more. I was provided a shed to sleep in because the usual spot for bike tourers was taken up by a litter of puppies. The shed looked pretty bleak and one of the local animals had left a prize for me, but after a bit of cleaning it was adequate. I ended up having a great night sleep.

The next day was grey and drizzly but fortunately the heavy rains held off. The road had turned to mud overnight and if it wasn’t muddy, it was rocky. I rode up and down, past numerous old landslides and then plodded my way up the final 600 metre climb, stopping frequently. My legs were toast and I struggled mightily to make it. And to think i had hopes of conquering another 1,000 metre climb this day.

When I finally reached the top, at a lofty 2,700 metres, I was treated to a fantastic vista of the verdant Sibundoy Valley. The road down to the town of San Francisco was fast and relatively smooth and next thing I knew I was enjoying lunch while people geared up for a parade. I watched as they danced and marched around the main plaza, then I got back on the bike and battled a headwind for 20 kilometres to the other end of the valley, while a road race took place around me. I got to Santiago, found a cheap hotel room (crucially, with hot water), went to the gas station to hose the mud off my bike, ate another standard Colombian meal (though this time with trout) and passed out knowing I was only two days from the border with Ecuador.

You can view the GPS track for this route here:

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