Making up time on the Cauca

Date: 15th June – 17th June 2012
Where: Salento – Tulua – Cali – Popayan
Distance: 3199 to 3301 miles

This post is a little bit different, and tries to give an idea of the daily routine of our cycle-tour experience by following our day cycling from Salento to Tulua.

At 6am the alarm rang out. Both of us were already awake, anticipating the cake in the Panaderia next door. Grabbing our washing whilst simultaneously munching some cereal and yoghurt we pack our stuff. Stumbling into the shop, we are the first ones there and order coffee and cake from the owner. We  just finish in time to greet the newly-arrived shop assistant who takes our money. We try to leave Salento, but are quickly intercepted by some tourists from Cali who ask the usual obvious questions: ‘Where are you from, where are you going, is the bike heavy?’.

Leaving town, we’re glad to be moving, the cold air was a welcome change from the heat, but at this time of morning it’s not so pleasant. Going down the hill from town the tourists overtake us in their shiny 4×4, hooting as they go. We wave, and quickly wave again as cyclists pass us in the opposite direction. It has been completely normal to see road or mountain bikers each day, sometimes seeing their bikes retuning on car roofs at the end of the day.

The downhill means miles quickly mount up and allows us to keep pace with a road-biker retuning to Armenia after his morning cycle. Hernando (another one) gives us directions through Armenia and recommends a restaurant for breakfast. People are really friendly in Colombia and happy to help. Unfortunately he doesn’t tell us about the Cats-eye trap just before town. Hundreds of them are in formation across the road, rank on rank, but offset so it is impossible to miss them. We hate cats-eyes. Apparently the inventor got a penny for every one made. That must make him a multi-billionaire. If he got a penny for everytime we swore at a cats-eye as we struggle to stick to a narrow hard shoulder going up hill with a truck honking at us, he’d  be able to single-handedly solve the world economic crisis!

Entering Armenia a young lady accosts Sarah and asks if I am Richard! Apparently she put up an English cycling couple a few years ago, apparently they stayed for 8 days. Seems we weren’t the only ones taken hostage by friendly Colombians! Going through town we try and follow Hernando’s advice but following a small supermarket detour, soon get lost. We shout across the street in our improving Spanish: ‘?Es la ruta para Cali?’. ‘No, sigueme (follow me)’ comes the reply, and before we know it we’re in hot pursuit of a scooter guiding us though the traffic of downtown Armenia. Weaving in and out as we try and keep pace with our helpful local we finally reach the outskirts on the correct road, and with a honk and a wave he is gone with a story to tell his chums over a tinto.

The road to Cali begins with a flat road back to the River Cauca. As cyclists we’ve learned to fear the word ‘flat’, but in this case it proved to be more of a downhill flat than an uphill one, although there were still some hills to bop away to our ipods on. The midway lunch stop gives an idea of the variability of food prices in Colombia which we’ve struggled with. The first place we stopped wanted 20,000 pesos for lunch (about $12), but where we eventually ate lunch only charged 6,000pesos!  The scenery was ever-changing, but never breath-taking, and soon we reach the valley and reward ourselves with a trip to the Panaderia where we wolf a fair few sweet and savoury snacks together with a new fruit shake: Lulo.

The hot Cauca sun was starting to drop as we whizzed along past fields of cane sugar. Hernando had warned us about the sugar cane trains which ply these roads. These beasts of burden pull up to 8 lorry loads of cane sugar at high speed with little regard for anyone or anything on the road. We were lucky to only see one on a dirt track next to us, and it was shifting pretty damned fast.

As the sun went down we started looking for a place to stay stopping at a petrol station near Tulua to ask to use the phone. A few kilometres further down the road was a warm showers host, but the phone call only got through to his fast-speaking Mother, and another option was required. It is too hot in these parts to camp comfortably in our tent. However luck was on our sides and for $10 the petrol station offered us a clean room with TV and shower.

69 miles later, and ready for the next day we slipped into a deep sleep.

Making friends with the local cyclists: Hernando just outside Armenia

Towns in these parts seem to be charactarised by having steam trains on display. Here in Armenia

The cane train in the Cauca valley

At the end of a long day…T…V..!

The next day we soon found ourselves in a torrential downpour only finishing 20miles later in Buga. A quick change in a Panaderia toilet was followed by (you guessed it) much cake plus a full breakfast. Following our planning marathon in Medellin we knew we needed to make up some time and the road along the Cauca between Buga and Popayan was the place to do it, so we caught a few buses.  So we found the bus station and that night reached Cali. Here we met up with a friend of Sarah who she had met once in the Phillipines and then again via facebook. She took us first to a corner shop which sold beer and everyone sat outside drinking it on the street, which made for a nice atmosphere. Then we went to a veggie restaurant for big plates of pasta for dinner. Finally we walked up to the local park which even at 9pm was filled with people of all ages and so we settled down with an ice cream and took in the view and situation. It was a lovely night.

The whole of the next day was spent getting to Popayan by bus, not terribly pleasant, but it was at least 2 days of cycling for us, so worth it to make up the time. On the way we passed the Korean cycle tourer who Nico met in Guatemala. Reading her blog a little later, we were shocked to find that shortly afterwards she fell into a drainage hole by the side of the road and was trapped by her bike till someone came and helped her! (Inspiring blog here: )

The stretch of road from Popayan to Pasto is meant to be quite dangerous due to the FARC activities but we set off based on the fact it is also meant to be a beautiful road!

The big church in Buga, drying out after the rain

With Natalia in the park in Cali

Geoff winning the Cali-Popayan leg of the ‘Tour of Colombia’

Churches churches everywhere on the streets of Popayan

Popayan side-street in the early morning

One response to “Making up time on the Cauca”

  1. uncovercolombia says :

    Nice journey guys! Thanks for sharing

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