Manizales – Villa Maria – Potosí – Laguna del Otún – Potosí – Cabañas de Brisas – Termalez de Ruiz – Manizales
There’s just time to squeeze in one more bikepack before I head back to New Mexico…
Lying a few hundred kilometres west of Bogota, and jutting high above the surrounding coffee plantations of Colombia’s Zona Cafetera, I plan my trip to Los Nevados between a visit to Medellin’s Sunday Ciclovia, and the capital’s car-free Earth Day. This four day adventure in the Cordillera Central of the Colombian Andes is shared with fellow backcountry enthusiast Nick Gault (be sure to check out his epic paddle around the Darien Gap), and inspired by the dirt road explorations of The Ride South.
Combining the likes of low-traffic jeep tracks, swathes of rolling páramo, the wonderfully bizarre and beautiful Frailejón, the serene Laguna del Otún, a burly 4700m volcanic traverse, and (eventually) a 2800m whirligig descent through cloudforest, it’s as stunning a bikepack as I can hope for. Much of the route lies above 4000m. It tops out with a 4750m pass – perhaps the highest in the country – that skirts round the 5,321m-high Nevado del Ruiz, the largest of the five volcanic craters that dominate the skyline of Caldice province.
There’s a caveat though. Unfortunately, the pass that neatly connects the two sides of the Parque National Natural Los Nevados (to give it its full title) is officially closed at the moment, due to unstable seismic activity… This means a stealth/night mission/fence hop is required to complete a crucial segment of the loop, and avoid plummeting back down to a lowly 1900m in altitude along the way. The status of the road may change in the future. If and when it does, this is a bikepack that’s not to be missed.
Read about Paul’s thwarted attempts to hike-a-bike to Salento, and his clandestine nocturnal adventures, here.
The park has had a recent revamp. Entry has been reduced to 25,000 pesos ($10) for foreigners. Our tickets were checked regularly by the park’s friendly rangers – at Potosí (3850m), at Laguna del Otún, and Cabanas de Brisas (4050m), the main entry to the park. Camping at the designated sites is free, and there’s basic accommodation at Potosí for 7,000 pesos per person.
We exited the park via the dirt road signposted to the hot springs at Termalez de Ruiz, dropping down to La Enea. This avoids taking the main paved route. It’s around 35km from the ranger station at Cabañas de Brisas to Manizales, with nary a climb.
The Legal Route:
The ride to Laguna del Otún is an out and back along a 12km rocky road; it’s almost completely rideable with a bikepacking setup and some determination. Just the last two kilometres of trail are too awkward to pedal; it’s best to stash your bike in the paramo and hike in to the lake on foot. Once there, we wandered up amongst the Frailejón to a nearby, smaller lake. With more time and better weather, the day hike to Santa Isabel’s glacier is definitely recommended – which apparently takes 7 hours there and back.
In fact, given the closure of the road around Nevado del Ruiz (for good reason), I’d recommend simply making a three day dirt road loop from Villa Maria to Laguna del Otún (exiting via Santa Rosa), with an extra day put aside for hiking to the glacier.
Alternatively, you could use the park as a means to link Manizales with Murillo – and onto Ibague (see wikiloc for dirt road ideas), detouring up to the Nevado del Ruiz volcano as a side trip, via Cabanas de Brisas. You’re allowed to ride to the base of the pass.
The Cycle/Hike (Thunderforest on Gaia) layer of OSM maps shows all the roads for the route.
If you would like to keep up with where I am between tardy blog entries, I keep my While Out Riding Facebook page more regularly updated – along with posting extra photos and gear ponderings. You can find it here. Occasionally, I post pictures on my Instagram feed. And if you haven’t overdosed by then, I’ve also started a While Out Riding Tumblr edition, focusing on images.
It’s 2pm by the time we leave Villa Maria, following a dirt road that climbs ever upwards towards the park, ushering us from 1900m to over 4000m. Punctuated by a series of waterfalls and dairy farms, it makes for perfect backcountry touring.
Without exception, Colombians we meet are friendly and engaging.
Weather in the cordillera is unsettled at the best of times. This is the rainy season, and with it comes the promise of additional afternoon downpours.
As dusk falls, we find ourselves pedalling past the dairy farm of Los Alpes, some 30km from Villa Maria. Jovial Omar, the farm manager, invites us to camp in the yard…
… before pressing cups of coffee into our hands, infused with agua de panela.
Our digs for the night, complete with dogs, cats, cockerels, a Krampus and a Troll. Nick cocoons himself in his MSR Huba. Seeing as I’m only carrying my 6 Moon Designs Deschutes tarp, I opt to roll out my sleeping mat and fend off a fleet of giant, egg-sized flying beetles that hover around.
In the middle of the night, the cow milkers also get to work. Milking is done by hand at 1am and 1pm. With each worker assigned twenty cows, it takes several hours per shift. Containers of milk are then loaded onto horses and hauled up to the farm. It’s a hard life, for sure…
Come dawn, the fruits of their nocturnal labour is collected by a Chevrolet milk truck rumbles up and down these dirt roads between farms.
Or, it’s made into delicious hot chocolate that Omar ladles out to any takers.
After filling our bellies with dairy products, we take to our bikes to continue the climb, passing other milking stations along the way. No mechanisation around here…
Forget Cliff Bars. In Colombia, energy comes courtesy of bocadillos, sugar-laced guayaba bricks perfect for lengthy climbs.
Onwards we ride, the dirt road steeper in places as we close in on the national park.
Reaching the juntion of Potosi, we turn off towards Laguna Otun, where conditions take a turn for the worse.
Soon though, we’re back on a stony track, winding our way between clusters of frailejón, the high altitude plants that populate the moorland – just like the ones I saw in Ecuador.
Glimpses of Santa Isabel, one of the five volcanoes in the region.
A misty, damp environment at the best of times, our hike up above Laguna Otun is a boggy, rainy affair. But it’s beautiful and otherworldly nonetheless. Without doubt, this area would make for some incredible multi-day hikes. Bring your wellies!
Frailejon grow just a centimetre a year. Several specimens we see tower over 5m high, making them some 500 years old. Others in the park are said to reach twice that in height – a millennium in age.
From Laguna del Otun, we backtrack to Potosi. The Krampus’ 29+ meaty, low pressure tyres transform rocky terrain into challenging but eminently manageable riding, with a lightweight bikepacking setup at least. Fully loaded behemoths would seriously struggle, especially here at 4000m.
But after a morning of heavy rainfall, even a midfat struggles in gloop like this.
That night we creep round a closed gate under the cover of darkness, and camp in a scruff of paramo, priming ourselves for a 3am assault on the volcanic pass ahead.
The last few kilometres are slow going, as tyres scrunch over a bed of snow, sand and mud.
Almost at the top. Nick, nursing a sore belly, a cough and a cold. But still in short shorts…
We crest the pass in the early hours, rising above a duvet of cloudcover from which surrounding volcanos peep.
Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble…
Then comes the descent, on a wonderfully loamy track that unravels its way down a broad volcanic valley. A rope across the road signals the end of the closed area.
4400m. Hardy, fan-like plants of the ‘super-paramo’.
Below 4300m, the valley is populated once more with an army of frailejon, as if awaiting our arrival. At the entry to the park – Cabanas de Las Brisas – the rangers are waiting for us too. We’re politely informed about the closure of the road, so we know ‘for next time.’
Too soon, we’ve left this mountain moorland and are back once more into the farm belt. Horses and mules are parked up in readiness for milk-toting duties.
Down, down, down, into the jungly depths of the cloudforest we go, finally emerging back in balmy Manizales.
A few kilometres before we’ve returned to the frenzy of the Manizalan highways, we stop for traditional sausages…
… and roasted plantanes smothered in cheese.
So. Much. Fun. The Krampus is winning over my heart for bikepacking. Just as Colombia is winning it over for adventurous, backcountry riding.