Bike Touring Colombia – Medellin to Nevado Del Ruiz
Traffic is suddenly coming to a stop. A man is walking across two lanes of traffic, lifting up the midriff of his blue shirt, revealing his chiseled six pack. Although cars don’t usually stop for pedestrians here, this small, weathered man with his big toothless grin has found a bold way to safely cross the road. Even Janet and I stop our tandem to watch the spectacle. As the man approaches us, I can see all the way into his mouth through his huge smile. He walks directly towards us, and kisses each of us individually on the shoulder. He steps back, and wishes us a safe and happy journey.
I’ve been remarking to Janet – of all the countries we’ve visited, Colombia reminds me the most of home. The reasons for this feeling are multi-faceted, but if I were to consolidate this “feeling” down to one word, it would be “optimism.” It’s an enormous generalization, and it obviously does not apply to many individuals… but as a whole, I feel like the optimism seen in my fellow Americans (and the wonderful Colombians we’ve been meeting this past month) is making us feel at home. Of course, we’ve also learned about some cultures and customs that are unique to Colombia…
Every individual is different, but so far in Colombia, I feel we receive the same level of interest on our tandem bike that we do in the United States. Almost never have we received the long, cold stare that defined some other locales. People will greet us with “hello’s,” “how are you,” long, curious discussions about the mechanics of riding a tandem bicycle, friendly waves and cheers out car windows, and applause as we crest seemingly impossible climbs – about the same range of reactions we receive at home (minus the “she’s not pedaling” comments).
I’ve also noticed two welcome differences from home, however: The first is that we simply don’t ever receive angry horn honks from drivers (actually the United States seems to be the only country where cyclists in the road tend to drive people in cars to anger). The second is that people are extremely courteous and polite. You may be bored to tears of my commentary about the politeness here, but it is an enormous factor in my enjoyment of this country. In a few of the other countries we have visited, I would begin to dread interacting with people – even to ask simple questions or directions. In Colombia, nearly every interaction is uplifting and fun! The only thing that I am dreading is that eventually we’re going to need to leave.
This entry begins in Medellin, Antioquia – the home of “The Paisas.” What is a Paisa? It’s a self-assigned name given to the people of the the departments of Antioquia, Caldas, Risaralda and Quindío. The Paisas were geographically isolated long enough that they are actually a genetically distinct population of Colombia. The Paisas think they are special amongst Colombians – and they’re not afraid to admit it either. Practically every conversation you have with a Paisa eventually comes around to the topic of how they are better than the rest of the other Colombians. It’s actually kind of a joke – but it comes up so frequently, you start to wonder if there might be a little truth to what their jokes.
We took a walking tour with Real City Tours to learn more about this city and the Paisas. What our tour guide told us dovetailed precisely with some thoughts that I have been thinking about for a long time. What I’ve been noticing in our travels is that the places where people are the friendliest are precisely the places where people have had it the hardest in recent history. These are places where when we talk to people, sometimes they tell us about their parents, brothers, or sisters being murdered – even in front of their own eyes.
I was actually driven to tears twice during the 4 hour inspirational talk/walk with our tour guide. To me, the recent history of Colombia is definitely one of tragedy – but also one of triumph. In just 14 years, Colombia has made a major turn around. In fact, in 1991, under president Uribe, Medellin experienced a 90% reduction in crime in just one year. This was due in part to heavy monetary investment in social programs and public infrastructure – as well as heavy propaganda that elicited pride in the citizens for their city.
During our tour, our guide mentioned that the metro trains (and metro cable) have been around for 20 years. She asked if we had noticed anything special about the trains… Did we notice that there was no graffiti, no carvings, etc. in either the trains or the stations? Sure enough on the return trip, I observed how immaculate these 20 year old cars were. How? Thanks to carefully engineered propaganda, the city was able to make the people of Medellin proud of “their” metro. In fact, Medellin is the only city in all of Colombia that has such an advanced transportation system – and the people treat it with care and respect as if it were one of their own belongings.
I think about BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in my home state, and I wonder if it would have been possible to instill this type of pride in our own transit system. If we just told people, “This is YOUR BART,” would people take such good care of it? Or do we also need the recent memory of atrocities in order to make us really appreciate the good things that we have?
Eventually, it was time to move on to begin bike touring again. Before we left Medellin, though, we enrolled in some Spanish courses as well as visiting some great spots within easy reach of the city. Since we like great scenery the most, Guatape is our most highly recommended excursion after the city walking tour:
Medellin to Manizales by Bike
We had a number of objectives after leaving Medellin. The first was to visit Nevado del Ruiz. This is one of Colombia’s 58 National Parks. The jumping off point for treks into Nevado del Ruiz is Manizales. To get to Manizales from Medellin, our objective was to find a route that had the least amount of traffic (and preferably as much pavement as possible).
Not long after leaving Medellin, the traffic improved. The first leg was Medellin > Caldas > Camiloce > Los Palermos > Fredonia (shown below). The scenery and traffic improves with every mile along this route. It is entirely paved:
The next leg takes you from Fredonia to Filadelfia. This route is very enjoyable – almost in its entirety. Traffic is very light, and it is entirely paved. In areas where there is slightly more traffic, there is an adequate shoulder. This leg takes you from Fredonia > La Pintada > La Felisa > Filadelfia. Despite the lack of towns, there are enough small restaurants and tiendas to keep you fueled. The “flat” section along the river is deceptive, as you’re constantly climbing or descending.
Manizales To Los Nevados By Bike
After carefully examining maps of Los Nevados del Ruiz National Park, we noticed an aesthetic North-South route through the park. The ideal aesthetic route was the following:
Leave Manizales heading towards Gallinazo (Termales Tierra Viva) the (following Green Line on the map below) > Pass Termales Ruiz Antiguo > Turn Right on paved road (following Black Line on map below) > Enter the park at “Las Brisas Entrance > Continue along Black Line in Map Below all the way to “La Pastora Camping” passing Lago Otun (the only lake along the black line). From La Pastora, head out to Pereira, and then back up to Termales Santa Rosa de Cabal. **NOTE: La Pastora camping sometimes seems to be referred to as “La Primavera.”
There are a number of problems with this route, however! The first of three problems is that the park is officially closed between the two flags (marked “Closed”) along the black line. The reason for this closure is that Volcano Ruiz is currently in a state of “Orange Alert.” This means that an eruption is probable in the next few days or weeks. In 1985, Nevado Ruiz erupted, killing 22,000 people. The government was criticized for ignoring warning signs for several months before the volcano erupted. As such, they are taking the cautious route by simply closing this susceptible portion of the park. In spite of this closure, however, you can still potentially cross – however it is illegal. Our friend Nick traveled this section at night, and you could too if you’re daring and don’t mind disrespecting the law. Link to Nick’s Blog Here.
The second problem (of three) with the aesthetic route is that bicycles are not allowed on the section from the main trail to La Pastora Camping. On the map above, this is the section along the black line from the “b” in “Santa Rosa de Cabal” to the tent pictured at “La Pastora Camping.” So, if you were to do this route, you’d also need to violate another law. We were not aware of this rule until we arrived at the Southern ranger station (also at the “b” in Cabal). We assumed it was legal because both Nick and Paul Griffith (Link to Paul Griffiths’ blog) took their bicycles as far as Lago Otun (the blue lake along the black line on my map).
The third problem (of three) is that Paul tried to take his bike past Otun, and found that it was exceedingly difficult! He ended up having to turn back. Here is a link to Paul Griffiths’ report. It’s quite a tale, too, as he ends us wandering around the paramo searching for a mysterious man who might have a horse to which he can strap his bicycle. Since we’re riding a fully loaded TANDEM, we knew that even without the first two problems, the third was going to be a deal breaker. We had to seek a new route!
The plan was to see as much of the park as possible. We’re not afraid of hard work, so we decided to enter the park twice – from either end. This was a very bold move, as each entry requires about 10,000’ of climbing (for a total of 20,000’) – at elevations up to 14,000’! It can be divided up into two sub routes – both of which we recommend highly.
Manizales to Las Brisas Entrance of Nevado Ruiz By Bike
The Las Brisas Route is an exceptional route if you enjoy thermal hot springs, high elevations, climbing challenges, and scenic beauty. We highly recommend following this route in the direction stated because of the condition of the roads (i.e. we believe it’s easier to climb dirt and descend busy pavement). Starting at Tesorite (Just South East of Manizales on my map), head towards Termales Tierra Viva. You will quickly pass Tierra Viva, El Otoño, and a water slide park while ascending on good pavement. There is a nice looking hotel at Termales El Otoño, which costs about $70 for a double room in high season. After the water slide park, the road turns to dirt. It is littered with rock as well, so it would be best for a full suspension mountain bike. Expect to make slow progress up this beautiful road. You will encounter very little traffic, if any.
After climbing for quite some time, you will arrive at Termales Ruiz (or Termales Ruiz Antiguo on my map). Entry into the termales is $6US per person. If you decide to spend the night, you can pay for a room $75 US double occupancy, includes breakfast for two and the entry into the hot springs. The rooms are luxurious, and because of the elevation, cool and comfortable. The hot springs are extremely clean and welcome. There is a bar, and they will serve you drinks as you soak in the hot springs. Because it is a difficult climb from Manizales, and because we wanted to enjoy this location, we spent one of our best nights of the trip here. They do not offer camping yet, but the staff said that they are building the camping area, and there is currently camping 2KM before the termales along the dirt road.
The next leg takes you up to 14,000’, where you will ride to the Las Brisas entrance. You continue up, past the springs on the dirt road. Eventually, it becomes paved again as you ride through the Paramo. You will hit a well paved road, and turn right to continue ascending. After passing an abandoned restaurant (pictured below), the road forks left and right, becoming unpaved again. There is a fantastic waterfall that you can see to the left (towards Murillo)… and the Las Brisas entrance can be found on a steep rock road to the right.
At the Las Brisas entrance, you can pay about $9US per person to enter the park. You’re allowed to ride all the way to Valle de Las Tumbas (about 5Km), where upon the park is closed (the northern most “closed” flag on my map along the green/black line). At this point, you will turn around and descent back to Manizales. We suggest taking the black line because it is beautiful and paved. You will eventually encounter a main highway as you descend, which has more traffic than you’ve been experiencing (hopefully none). Nevertheless, you can descend almost as quickly as the cars, making it safer than if you were ascending this route.
Manizales to Lago Otún Entrance of Nevado Ruiz By Bike
This route is a spectacular route that takes you up into the Nevado Ruiz Paramo. The best highlights, however, might be found on the lower slopes. Our route starts near Bosque Popular El Prado. From here, you can climb like we did (a VERY steep, unpaved logging road) – but we do not recommend this route. For one reason, it is closed to bikes every day except Sunday. Having said that, though, we did not encounter a single person or vehicle. We did have to walk up this steep road with sharp rocks.
Instead of following our route (shown in the map above dated 01/05/2016), you would want to go to Villamaria, and head out towards Turin, then Tejares. In a couple miles, your route would join ours – with a surface that looks like the picture below:
You will climb and descend several times along this portion. A sturdy mountain bike is recommended. At about mile 10.5 along our route above, a beautiful waterfall will come into view!
At mile 11.5 (shown in the map above dated 01/05/2016), you will come to a hostel named La Laguna. This hostel has a beautiful veranda, and they charge about $6US per person for camping; about $20 for a room. Because we were here fairly early, we continued on – but had a fantastic and hearty lunch in their beautiful location. This is the last place along the route for official accommodation.
The route continues to ascend. There is nothing for the tourist here – just dirt roads and some haciendas. Nevertheless, we met some very friendly and helpful campesinos along the way. We were offered a place to stay at one of the houses where the milk workers stay. The man told us that the workers would come back from the field at 6PM, and then return to work at 12AM. If you decide to stay at one of these places, keep in mind that you will likely receive a night time wake up call!
If you’re lucky, and the sky is clear, you will get to see great views of Nevado Ruiz here. At one point, we saw the ash plume coming from the mountain. Unfortunately, at that distance, our iPhone cameras are inadequate to produce an image worthy of the blog. In person, it can be much more exciting.
At mile 11 (shown in the map directly above dated 01/06/2016), you will come to the Lago Otun entrance to the Nevados Park (which for you will actually be an exit because you would have already entered the park several miles back). You may be asked to pay here, even though you’re exiting. This is also the turn off for Lago Otun. If desired, you can legally walk to the lake; if the park staff is there, they will likely guard your bicycle. The staff informed us that bikes are not allowed to Lake Otun. The riding from mile 6 to about mile 15 in the route above is very enjoyable. Eventually, it becomes difficult and rocky again, though. Also, do not be deceived by the apparently large amount of descending: there are a lot of very steep (20%) climbs that don’t show up well on the elevation profile, but can really set you back time-wise. You could end your route at Santa Rosa de Cabal, or you could do like we did and go to Termales San Vicente.
We felt that the hot springs would be a treat at the end of this challenging route – but for our personalities, it was the opposite. This is a beautiful, natural setting, but unfortunately, the character of the place is that of a crowded, commercial site, which overwhelms the potential tranquility. There are 9 thermal pools, and we found them to be very crowded. Camping (along with park entry and meals) cost almost the same as Termales Nevado Ruiz where we enjoyed a very upscale room and quiet solitude in the mountains. In contrast, the camping at San Vicente is in a muddy field at the most distant end of the park (i.e. away from the services). In some regards, this is good: because it distances you from the mayhem in the pools. Keep in mind that in a place like this, you’ll be sitting with pursed lips, trying to prevent the water that is being splashed by children from entering your mouth and eyes – whereas in Termales Nevados Ruiz, you’ll likely be truly relaxing.