With the winter beginning to saturate the Pacific Northwest we went looking for any place not cold and not winterized, and Colombia wound up at the top of our list. Cursory research and confident speculation revealed that the country would be an alpine jungle paradise brimming with an unending supply of fresh fruit, “A”-level coffee, and miles upon miles of the road less traveled—and for the most part we were right. We were going to ride in Marquez’ land of Magical Realism, and we’d be cycling through centuries-old towns founded by empires and exploited by other empires. We’d pass through ancestral fincas serviced by serpentine roads in the midst of crumbling back into nature and down seldom-traveled cow paths lost to the mist of the cloud forest. Note to mention that our crew was tight! With all this at our disposal all we needed was a route.
Cycling is big in Colombia, and more than a few Colombians have moved up the ranks to challenge for podium positions at the highest of levels of bicycling competition. A competitive cyclist needs to be comfortable in the mountains. Whether you’re climbing or descending, being able to excel in steep terrain is an essential part of winning big bike races. It follows that to get good at this business, it helps to have mountains around to practice on. Colombia is great at mountains, it’s world-class. It geologically well-endowed with three main ranges (called Cordilleras) harboring peaks nearly 18,000 feet high, that branch out from the Andes in the southwest corner of Colombia and transect the entire country in three tight rolls of sky scraping rock. In between the cordilleras the elevation nearly drops to sea level. The mountains rise and fall like a set of waves rolling across the top of South America into the Pacific.
Amazing terrain with huge potential but Mars has amazing terrain too and we needed a route. After working with a friend of a friend who ran a local guide business it became very clear that what most people wanted out of a bike trip in Colombia is far different from what we wanted. Our rambling, self-supported, sleep-on-the-side-of-the-road, push/carry/drag your bike if needed approach to cycling has yet to really catch on with your typical Colombian cyclo-tourist.
“We wanted to ride our AWOLs on unseen backroads through washed out ravines, we wanted jungle and Joan Wilder, we wanted angry mountains and rowdy compañeros.”
Fortunately we had assembled a crack team to take part in this trip, and one of the many perks of assembling a crack team is that you also get a crack collection of crack team contacts.11other known perks include sharing tanning tips, coffee snobbery , riding bicycles, telling jokes, eating snacks, looking good in photos, etc. It’s a well known fact in the crack team world that crack team members keep extraordinary friends, some of whom will likely be crack-level operators themselves. Turns out Benedict had one such friend who just so happens to live in Bogotá for the past couple years. Andy Grabarek—aka @captain_agrab, aka Andy G, aka The Pusher, aka the Snow Man—happens to be a first rate rippah and is one down adventure hound. After a couple calls, it quickly became obvious that we (a) had our fixer and (b) we had to ride in Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados.
Los Nevados is centered around an active volcano named Nevado del Ruiz. This volcano is considered active active, like Tinder active, fedora and fancy wingtip active. Nevado del Ruiz is ready to party. Still the draw was obvious and as we began to look deeper into our volcano adventure we stumbled on a few disparate stories from a couple other intrepid adventure bikers who had circumnavigated the slopes of the volcano by traversing a long, closed mountain road high up on the volcano’s flank. Why is this road closed? Apparently the government in collusion with scientists thought that it wasn’t safe to be up on the volcano, cool opinion guys. All of our research pointed to a difficult passage, a little bit of law-breaking, and an all-time adventure. For the past couple months the volcano had been belching dark plumes of ash into the sky on a daily basis, but that didn’t deter us. We’ve made all kinds of stupid decisions in the past. In our mind there was no other option—we were going to ride the volcano. What’s more, we could spend the first two days of riding climbing Letras, which at 80 kilometers is famous for being the the longest sustained road climb in the world. Fully packed bikes riding at altitude? What better way to prepare for a couple days on a volcano?
In the end our plan was to take a van from Bogotá to Mariquita where the Letras climb begins. From there we’d ride over the mountains to Manizales, stock up on provisions and pedal into Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados. At some point we were going to need to sneak past a guard’s hut in the middle of the night as we made our way around the volcano before descending back into Mariquita. At some point the volcano wouldn’t erupt and rain fire and molten rock down on our bikes, ultra-lightweight gear, and our fab bodes. On paper it was great plan.
“Did it account for altitude, humidity, humility, food poisoning, semi trucks, park rangers, shaolin temples, or three feet of ash? No it did not. Does that make it bad plan? No that makes it a great plan.”