Bike Touring Colombia – Pasto to Ecuador border via Circunvalar a Galeras
I’m standing outside of the store, watching the bike, while Janet is inside buying bread. The usual crowd of guys has gathered around me asking the usual questions: “Can each person pedal the tandem separately?,” “Who steers the bicycle?” I didn’t detect a bad vibe, but I did feel a little something in the back of my head. Perhaps I had subconsciously taken note of the bars on all the windows, or perhaps I had noticed men also walking behind me – maybe eying me differently than usual. The feeling was subtle. Suddenly, while I was talking to crowd that had increased to about thirteen guys, Janet tapped me on the shoulder. She had just returned from buying chocolate. Something in her face made me ask, “what’s wrong?” She said in English, “This place is dangerous.” Suddenly, all of the subtle cues I had been taking in flooded down upon me when she said those words.
Immediately, another guy approached, kind of parting the crowd. He asked (in English, which is extremely rare in Colombia) if we needed help. Meanwhile, Janet had started telling me a story about how the lady selling her bread had briefly locked her inside the building due to thieves lurking outside. The lady hesitated to give her change until certain people had walked away. Not knowing who to trust, I said, “We don’t need help” to the guy speaking English and offering us assistance. He told us his name was Carlos. Carlos then started telling us about how he himself had biked to Argentina. Eventually, he managed to pull us from the crowd, and immediately but quietly told us that this place is dangerous. We better be careful. I asked him, “thieves, or worse?” He made a knifing motion (carefully looking around to make sure that others hadn’t noticed). I made up my mind: “Let’s get out of here!”
Most people we talk to believe this: Colombia has a reputation for being a dangerous country. In fact, Colombia’s reputation seems to span the globe. Every foreigner we talked to was aware of this notoriety. Every local we talked to said that it is extremely difficult for them to secure a visa to visit ANY outside country because of Colombia’s history with drugs and violence. In spite of this reputation, for the most part, our experience in Colombia was the opposite… the extreme opposite.
In our Central American travels, we had become very accustomed to receiving safety warnings from locals. Even in “tourist friendly” countries such as Costa Rica, we received numerous warnings about certain locales. Granted, these places were away from the tourist track, but the frequency of warnings we received goes to show that you cannot judge an entire country by its individual parts. Everywhere we went in Colombia (up until we reached Pasto), people told us that it was safe. In fact, no one even volunteered safety information until we asked. The topic of safety seemed to be of so little importance that it wasn’t really even considered worth discussing.
It is important for me to convey this information, because after having bike toured in 36 countries, Colombia has without a doubt been the greatest touring experience I’ve had to date – and I’d like to share that with my readers. The largest contributing factors are: The friendless/politeness of the people, the ease of finding a place to stay (even the smallest towns have hotels), the remarkably high concentration of varied destinations/attractions, and the relatively low cost – partly due to the exchange rate.
Nevertheless, upon reaching Pasto, the safety situation seemed to have changed. Pasto is relatively close to the border with Ecuador, so it may be suffering from some of the typical “border town” problems. One thing we noticed in Nariño (Pasto is the capital of the Nariño department) is that there were gasoline shortages. The signs outside said, “No gasoline due to lack of quota.” Locals told us that there were a number of things going on: Ecuadoreans were coming and buying up all the gas (because gasoline is cheaper and better quality in Colombia). Also, we were told that people have been buying gas here and selling it for a profit farther North. Indeed, we noticed that gasoline prices here were quite a bit lower than we had seen in the rest of Colombia. Finally, one local told us that the Southern part of Colombia was the last to receive gas shipments. Regardless of the reason, Janet and I were still surprised to see people driving on the road when gas stations everywhere had already been shut down for 5 days! Whenever there is a shortage of a necessity, I tend to worry about things like riots… but apparently this situation has been going on for several years. At the end of every month, the gas runs out, and the people just deal with it.
Another thing we noticed was the acronym “FARC” spray painted on the exterior walls of homes on our way to Laguna Cumbal. FARC is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and it is a guerrilla movement with a history of violent acts and terrorism. They seem to make the news every day, with various agreements being made with the government. This was the only region where there seemed to be any evidence of their activity, and I asked a local, “Why don’t people just paint over the graffiti that says, ‘FARC?'” He told me, “If they did, they might have problems.” So, pretty much every home we passed near Cumbal had this acronym graffitied out front.
Everyone we met in the city of Pasto had a friendly warning for us. In fact, a teenager approached me and asked, “Were you the guy I saw by the bridge using your cell phone?” Indeed, it was me, so I said, “yes.” He said, “People don’t take their cell phones out in public here because there is the risk of being robbed. Please be careful.” His genuine smile and polite way of addressing me left me with such mixed feelings. Everyone was warning us in such friendly ways – about these unseen miscreants that must be swarming the city. So, although we took much more caution in Pasto and Ipiales (both cities in Nariño), we still feel that there are many sites worth visiting in the Nariño department if you have the time!
Circunvalar a Galeras
The Circunvalar a Galeras is a superb bike touring route, and an alternative to the busy Pan American highway. If you loved Colombia so much that you want to spend a little extra time here, this is your ticket. The volcano itself is closed, but that hasn’t stopped at least one or two people from going to the top. (Here is a rather entertaining report by two people who tried this). We did try to ride as close as legally possible – but for you, we suggest skipping the volcano and just doing the circumnavigation.
If you want to do the route, you can either follow the map provided below, our you can follow our textual description: Pasto > Villa Maria > Genoy > Nariño > La Florida > Sandoná > Consacá > Yacuanquer. We noted that each of these towns has at least one basic place for lodging. Sandoná is particularly well-spaced in terms of timing. If you stay there, we recommend selecting a hotel in the center (instead of the lower quality hotel we stayed at on the periphery).
The route that we recommend (see map above) is paved from Pasto to Sandona. From Sandona, for the next 5 miles South, the route is unpaved. The remainder of the route is now paved, making this one of the longest, quietest paved sections we did in the mountains of Colombia.
Volcan Azufral is absolutely worth a trip if you’re in the area. We staged out of the town named Túquerres. The trip to the crater is an out-and back, so it made sense to leave our touring gear in town at the hotel, and ride up unladen. If you have a mountain bike, it is possible to ride all the way to the rim of the crater. To get down into the lake (which you will definitely want to do), you have to walk.
There is a station near the top where you must register that you are entering. There is no cost to enter; you just need to provide your name and passport number.
Laguna de Cumbal
If you’re riding a mountain bike, and you have the time, riding your bike to Laguna de Cumbal can be a fun excursion. Though I wouldn’t necessarily consider it to be a must-do, Cumbal is the most active volcano in Colombia. Therefore, if you’re interested in seeing a smoking plume, this could be your best chance. Also, you are allowed to climb the volcano (though we didn’t, so I don’t have any information to help you with that).
The ride out to Lago de Cumbal is completely unpaved from the town of Cumbal.
As with the rest of our rides, you can use the interactive map below for finding your own route. Note that the dates on the map are click-able, linking you to a more detailed map and elevation profile on Strava.