Our final days in Colombia.
Here’s a brief update from us to bring our amazing Colombia leg to a close. We’re currently in Ipiales, a scruffy border city just a couple of clicks from the Ecuadorian border.

On the 10th May we’ll be getting up early and joining the throngs of people currently moving between the two countries. As Venezuela’s crisis has continued, thousands of people a day have been crossing to Colombia, and thence to Ecuador and beyond in search of employment. We experienced this influx first hand in Bogotá, where many Venezuelans try to get by daily by selling sweets and nick nacks, or busking, on the public transport. We’ve heard reports of people taking as long as eight hours to complete immigration – so fingers crossed.

Ipiales might not be the most appealing city, but as with so many other occasions of our four and half months in this country we have found ourselves in good company. Ozcar and his wife Judith (previously the only Warmshowers hosts in town but now ceased) took us in on arrival and have fed us and helped us track down a late courier package. This time we’ve been able to reciprocate though, helping Ozcar buy a secondhand DSLR (He picked up an original Canon 5D for a steal) and Hana helping Judith with a sewing project for her daughter’s birthday – which we’ll be attending too. This kind of relaxed sharing and company has been a theme of our time in Colombia and has added a really nice dimension to our experience of a country that has become one of our favourites for its riding, landscapes and biodiversity.

Our three night stay in Pasto after coming off the Trampolin de Muerte was quite pleasant. Despite not being the most appealing city, the bright and airy surroundings of our hostel, in an historic former mansion made it a nice city break. Cities generally mean better food too, and it was interesting to mix with middle class Colombian office workers while eating, instead of campesinos (farmers) and truck drivers.

The manager of the hostel, Luis, was a super friendly and helpful guy too.

Templo de Cristo Rey. We’ve noticed a lot more Afro/Caribbean people in this city, after seeing very few since the north of the country.

The spectacular interior of the Templo de Cristo Rey.

Aiming to take a more or less direct route to Ipiales, we decided to skip the quite popular circuit of Volcan Galeras (at the foot of which Pasto sits). It was quick to get out of the city and after only a couple of kilometres we were on a quiet rural road that climbed steadily up to a saddle on the shoulder of Galeras.

Shortly after Yacuanquer we joined the Pan American Highway which dropped into a 10 kilometre downhill leading into the canyon of the Rio Carchi.

A highway it might be but it wasn’t too busy and the views were grand.

We spent the night at a truck stop hotel and continued early the next morning.

Not a bad place for a highway; that’s the Pan American top left…

We were only on the Pan American for about 17 kilometres that morning before we were spared its lack of shoulder and constant traffic by taking a peaceful dirt road on the other side of the valley. Siwei Zhong (north bound) had the same idea – and once again it was great to bump into another cyclist. Our encounters have become more frequent as we funnel into the border with Ecuador. Siwei has been on the road an impressive 6 years, racking up over 60,000 kilometres in 27 countries. On the downside, he’s been robbed 6 times – most recently when his bike was stolen in Quito. Forcing a return to China to organise a replacement.

Our dirt-alt was a good one.

Leading us directly to the number one attraction in this region: El Santuario de Nuestra Señora del Rosario de las Lajas. This gaudy but impressive gothic church – deep in the canyon – has been built progressively on this site, since the witnessing of a miracle here in 1754. Legend has it that an image of the Virgin Mary was discovered by an indigenous woman and her daughter while seeking shelter from a storm as they travelled from Ipiales to Potosí. Hiding in a gap in the rock, the girl who until then was considered deaf-mute suddenly called out ‘Mamita, the mestiza calls me’ pointing to a lightning-illuminated apparition on the wall of the cliff.

Popular pilgrimage to the site followed and it is now one of the most-visited religious monuments in Latin America.

Hundreds of plaques line the edges of the stairs, giving messages of thanks to the Virgin Mary.

The current church was built between 1916 and 1949.

The dungeon-like levels beneath the church contain a crypt, confessional rooms and a museum with hundreds of indigenous artefacts, including pottery in a wide range of styles.

The Santuario de las Lajas deep in the Carchi canyon and surrounded by a fertile patchwork of farming country.

Indigenous sculpture on the outskirts of Ipiales.

This deep fried flat-bread is called a tortilla locally, but confusingly so are several other things. They’ve become our go to budget snack.

These though, are cuy, or better known as guinea pig in English speaking countries. A very popular dish here. We’re waiting until Ecuador to try them though, where they’re apparently much cheaper!

We’ve been in Ipiales four days now, resting, blogging and chopping and changing our kit for Ecuador. Some excellent custom hooded down jackets have arrived from Kathmandu, along with some waterproof pants which we have modified to a 3/4 length – a bit of insurance for Ecuador’s frequent rain and high Andean thunderstorms.

Ipiales is a rainy, chilly sort of place, up at 3000 metres. But being just a stone’s throw from the Equator now it’s baking when the sun comes out. So far it’s rained every day we’ve been here, usually at night.

Some basic Warmshowers digs for our first night here, in the corner of the parking lot that Ozcar and Judith run.

When I went to shake Ozcar’s hand he offered my his other, miming and retelling a story about how he’d been repeatedly punching a ladrone (thief) who’d tried to rob him, and accidentaly smacked his fist into the road, breaking some bones.

Following the footsteps of the 75-odd other cyclists who have crashed here over the years, thanks to Ozcar’s hospitalty

We needed wifi and some work space so we moved into a cheap hotel near the city square for a couple of nights. Not a bad view from the window.

But our contact with Ozcar and Judith has continued while we have been here and it’s been great to have some locals to hang out with. Cool people.

Our plan for Ecuador is to follow the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route published on bikepacking.com, combining the dirt road and single track versions, as well as the Tres Volcanes route. We’re really looking forward to it. One of the reasons we’ve stayed in Colombia for so long (apart from it being an excellent country to tour) is that we’ve been waiting for the worst of the Ecuadorian wet season to pass in order to (hopefully) get better riding conditions.

Colombia – it’s been amazing!

Below is our final ride into Ipiales, and below that a map of our complete route so far.

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8 Comments

  • Louise Chursinoff says:

    Reading about the both of yours adventures is part of my morning coffee ritual – I love seeing your adventures and learning about all of the places you’re experiencing. Really looking forward to Ecuador along with you!

    • Mark Watson says:

      Thanks Louise – it’s always nice to have comments. We’re glad you enjoy the blog! Looking very much forward to Ecuador (tomorrow) and the route ahead.

  • Alex says:

    I am always excited when I receive an email that your next post is available 🙂 You can’t believe how thoughtful and contemplative your stories and pics make me remembering that I was still one of you bikers just 4 months ago. There will definitely be a part 2 on my end. And your route and pics are excellent guiding material to close my gap between Guatemala and Ecuador. Keep posting and rubber side down !!!
    Alex

  • Madge says:

    It is the highlight of the day when your blog comes through ! Hope you’ve negotiated the border quickly & safely……depending which country you’re in, I found they could be a mine of corruption, exercising the need to “grease the palm”……here’s some beer money to help ! As I write, I picture you in Quito ? Surely Mr Zhong is a sponsored cyclist with that mileage under his wheels ? Impressive church. Good luck with the cuy !! Travel safely.

    • Mark Watson says:

      Thanks Madge – the beer money is always greatly appreciated! We’ve got 5 days worth of tough Ecuadorian riding under our belts now. All going well. Hopefully I’ll post an update in three days time.

  • gary hopkinson says:

    Hi Mark and Hanna,
    I too sit here after a flit through the emails to follow your travels, and enjoy the photos as i finish the obligatory morning cuppa.
    Have you ever given your followers a precise of the photographic kit you carry? I would be keen to hear what you carry and use sometime.
    best wishes
    Gary Hopkinson

    • Mark Watson says:

      Thanks Gary – really glad you enjoy the read, and thanks the reminder about the photography kit; it’s a post that’s in the pipeline – I promise! Cheers 🙂

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