Mocoa to Pasto – A Colombian Epic

I’m now in Pasto, south western Colombia, just 88km from the border with Ecuador.

The journey from Mocoa is one renowned in bike touring circles for being amongst the most beautiful and rugged rides in Colombia. It crosses from the department of Putumayo to that of Narino, via the high plateaux of the Sindamanoy Valley and the vast, shimmering Laguna de la Cocha. Until a few years ago, this part of the country was a major centre for cocaine production. But like much of Colombia, things have changed greatly. Even though Putamayo barely gets a mention in guidebooks, these days it’s a far more secure region to travel.

As for the ride, the scenery covers the gamut of lush forest, craggy rockfaces and green, rolling hillsides, often lost in halos of swirling mist. Altitudes fluctuate wildly from a balmy 500m to a series of chilly 3000m passes, with surfaces ranging from billiard smooth tarmac to the narrowest, most rock-embedded track you can imagine…

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Despite most definitely exisiting (it's even paved), the road from Pitalito to Mocoa doesn't actually appear on many maps, and is marked as a dirt track on our national road atlas. It's a peaceful, continually undulating ride, the only sharp reminder of the area's political sensitivity being these burly, reinforced trucks, complete with gun turrets, that patrol up and down. There's very little danger though - most of the remaining FARC are dug in deep in the forest.

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Giant smiley me and little serious looking army man - who, incidentally, was far friendlier than he appears.

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I nearly squashed this colourful critter.

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After battling heavy rain, we dried out in the Belgium-run Casa del Rio hostel, just outside Mocoa. This is the only hostel in this region and its owner, Filip, faces a tough battle in convincing backpackers to visit - the Lonely Planet doesn't even have a chapter on Mocoa. Also staying there was a couple from Germany, two months into a ride from Venezuela to Argentina. We all left in convoy in the morning.

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The 25km dirt road climb begins...

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Under a heavy canopy of vegetation, fording streams...

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These butterflies settled on our bikes when we stopped for a breather.

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That little dot there is Dorothy, one of our German companions.

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Mist swirled in, half enveloping the steep sided drops and adding to the ethereal atmosphere of the climb.

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Unexpected colour.

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Most definitely rugged. Just the way I like a road...

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Up and up...

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Past roadside shrines.

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It was steep in places - looping switchbacks wrapped tightly round the mountainside like a giant boa constrictor.

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When a climb passes phone towers and radio masts, you know you're getting somewhere.

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As the clouds parted, we caught fleeing glimpses of the valley far, far below.

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Cresting the first pass at 2200m, the sight of two dozen backed up cargo trucks warned us there might be trouble ahead.

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And indeed there was... Bikers generally brazenly believe that no landslide is beyond a quick-footed scramble. This one was... and a posse of AK 47 wielding soldiers made sure no one got any funny ideas. The road had already been closed for three days but luckily, the diggers had just arrived.

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The local wood-shack eatery at the Mirador was heaving with punters and running short on supplies. My plate appeared with a body-less fish.

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As coldness began to bite, everyone retired to their trucks for the evening. We camped the night on the only patch of flat land we could find. The morning brought with it clear, crisp mountain view.

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High above the clouds.

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By midday, things were looking hopeful. Like two jousters locked in battle, the diggers persevered at their respective rockpiles until they finally met in the middle. A sizeable crowd had by now gathered, and we cheered each tumble of rock down the mountain. Some truckers had been there for four days.

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Finally, there was room to squeeze through. It was still gridlock back at the landslide, so we had the road to ourselves for some time.

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First it fed us down the valley.

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Then began to climb once more.

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It was hard to believe this is the main road between two deparments.

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Barely a razor's width for passing... even on a bike.

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A windy road indeed. Not far as the crow flies, but still a ways from Pasto...

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Eager to push on and make up some time, we rode until dusk and camped by a basket ball field in an empty school. You can see the top of the second pass in the silhouette behind.

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When we reached it, at some 2800m, we´d earned these far reaching views.

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The dirt road on this side of the mountain was smooth and groomed, making for an epic, wind-through-the-hair descent.

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It snaked its way back down the valley.

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Arnaud and Bob the Pod speed their way down.

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Finally, it emerged into the stunning Sindamanoy Valley, basking in sunshine like a long lost, fertile valley.

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From Mother Earth we are born and for her we live. We must all look after her.

Anti FARC graffiti. Once recognised as a voicepiece of the countryside, the guerillas are often now blamed for hamstringing Colombia's development and general safety. Many see the socialist message of these revolutionaries as lost, or at least muddied, with their involvement in the production of cocaine. On a few occasions I heard the sentiment that during the 70s and 80s, the FARC fought for a genuine socialist ideal, protecting indigenous communities and workers from exploitation. But when they moved into the cocaine trade to fund their activities, they began to exploit the very people they used to protect, becaming more like a mafia. 'They don't deserve to call themselves revolutionaries any more', said one person.

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We were expecting a smooth run into Pasto. We'd forgotten two 3000m plus passes still lay ahead.

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As the road morphed back from pavement to rock and dust once more, we stopped for a break. The usual staples were on offer. Coffee, juice, soft drinks... and roasted guinea pig, a local speciality.

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I refrained from tucking into this little fellow, roasted into a rather unsettling expression in his final death throws.

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One more pass down... Thank you bicycle and bags! These are the tools that get me to these incredible, soulful places, and I'm grateful.

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I didn't need any reminder...

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The road then dipped once more, as we swept down the hillside to the largest lake in South Colombia, Lago de la Concha, set at a lofty 2760m. A prime, if a little lumpy, campsite was found just as the last rays of sunlight clipped the hill tops.

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A strange plant spotted near our tents.

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Continuing the descent the next morning, we stopped in the small settlement of El Encano to sample regional cuisine, like this bag of pork crackling and roasted corn combo - maiz tostado con tosino frito.

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Onions are grown all over the patchwork quilt of hills, seen here with a pup that has yet to learn to chase and bark at passing bikers.

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Another regional speciality, flutes of stuffed corn and cheese, wrapped in corn leaves. These are called choclos.

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A rare, non barking dog. He is our friend.

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One of the characterful Buses Escaleras, the regional country buses - with obligatory yapping dog.

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The buses are so named for their ladders. I love the roomy loading bays.

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And their attention to detail.

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A series of perfectly polished, individual doors lined the right side of the bus.

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How cool is that...

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They reminded me of the old slam door trains in England, with their own smoky compartments, that I used to travel on to see my grandad.

Pasto. A hilly city in a hilly country. From here, you can see our descent down into the city centre.

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Freshly made potato crisps were my reward for reaching our destination.

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Intermixed with shards of paper thin fried plantanes.

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Much of the city's colonial heritage has fallen victim to frequent seismic activity, as Pasto is in line with a volcanic corridor running into Ecuador. This Hulk-like Ford looked like it might have burst through the wall of an apartment block scheduled for renovation.

Poke around though, and there's still plenty of interesting architecture in this bustling little city, creating a happy hotpotch of styles.

I like the stencils on this long abandoned sports store.

Always plenty of colours and interesting typefaces.

Streetside graffiti.

Streetside graffiti.

Between slabs of concrete, a few of the old style walls and detailing remained.

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Luckily for us we had a place to stay. Alberto´s family, who we'd spent several days with in Bogota, hailed from Pasto. The entrace to his brother's house, on a busy city centre street, was simple enough. But stepping inside revealed a timewarped 1920s family home, with high ceilings and a beautiful central courtyard.

Looking up from the courtyard.

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This was the home of Ovidio, an artist and art teacher at the university, and his wife Amanda and son Daniel.

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Appropriately enough, the house felt like an art gallery.

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Paintings on every wall.

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Daniel had even put on his own show recently, with 32 cat-inspired drawings gathered over three years.

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10 year old Daniel and his fluffy cat Michita, who he bought after selling eight of his works.

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I love a house with details. And this one had plenty.

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Bike parking for the night.

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Back at home, many will attest to the fact I'm no big fan of washing... Yet while travelling , scrubbing my few clothes offers a strangely comforting constant to the continual changes around. By now I've learned to recognise a good scrubbing block when I see one, so I set to work. Clean clothes!

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An earthy kitchen. Note two delicious meals that had kindly been prepared for our arrival, washed down with fresh rasberry juice... Ah, Colombia!

9 thoughts on “Mocoa to Pasto – A Colombian Epic

  1. Steve Tober

    Well done you two! That’s quite the landslide…and the bush is so thick I don’t think you could have carried your bikes up and around it. Excellent photography.

    Reply
  2. gyatsola

    I think if I rode some of those passes I’d end up looking like that guinea pig….

    Truly amazing photos. I can’t say anything more, they speak for themselves.

    Reply
  3. thetravelchica

    Wonderful photos. Love the diversity of your subject matter. Really tells the story of your trip.

    By the way, would love to know more about how you prep for each long ride (e.g. planning the route, packing enough food/ water).

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Well, in this instance, I have Steve to thank (who posted above), for getting in touch and letting me know about this road.
      I normally ferret around websites to see what backroads people have ridden, use paper maps and google, and pop into local mountain bike shops for advice.
      Water is generally readily available in any finca or little restaurant, I don’t bother to filter as it seems pretty clean. Likewise, there’s often food around, either little shops or cheap restaurants, though I carry lots of granola and porridge oats, dried fruit and nuts to tied me over, just in case. Otherwise, it’s rice, rice, rice…

      Reply
  4. Matt

    When I see a post of yours in my RSS reader I hesitate for a few seconds before clicking, for I know I’ll be reminded of the amazing sights and flavours one encounters while travelling the back roads by bike. For now I’m doing my best making life in urban USA an adventure, but find myself daydreaming regularly of faraway mountain routes.

    Reply
  5. Louise Soakell

    wow, wow, wow. what an inspiration. the photos are amazing and inspiring. just wish we were doing it by bike!!!!!

    Reply

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