It’s taken a whole lot longer than expected to get to San Angustin – a town famed for its megalithic structures and religious monuments in the southern district of Huila.
The main road will shuttle you there in five hundred and fifty relatively direct kilometres – perhaps five or six days riding. As soon as you hit the backroads though, the gradients ramp up and pavement, more often than not, crumbles into dirt.
But as so often seems to be the case in Colombia, the rewards for taking the road less travelled are rich. Incredible hospitality, dramatic mountain scenery, mile upon mile of gravity-defying coffee plantations (and with these, invitations of endless cups of the best Colombian tinto) and a true, off the beaten track feel.
This is some of the best backcountry touring I’ve experienced, and shows Colombia, a truly diverse and beautiful country, at its very best.
What’s more, these are areas that would have been off limits just a few years ago. It’s always best to keep an ear to the ground for the latest security news – but this is definitely the time to explore Colombia’s web of dirt roads.
Leaving Neiva, we turned off on a back route around the Lago de Betonia. It was tempting to stick to the main road, avoid some hills and make up time, but the lure of the road less travelled won through. It turned out to be a good move.
It was baking hot. The road climbed, steeply in places, before rounding a bend and unveiling this view.
Dripping in sweat, we stopped off in Iquira for lunch, guzzling glass upon glass of fresh juice that comes courtesy of our set meal – the ever dependable comida corriente – from this characterful little joint.
Colombian bike culture. I like the belt: nice safety feature.
Then pavement turned to dirt, and we looped our way closer to the craggy peaks we’d first spotted far in the distance.
And closer still… Until they were towering above us.
Quiet too – barely a car passed us by.
The ride between Iquira and Pacarni compressed some of the best views into just 13km of dirt track.
It rounded off the show by meandering its way to the mountain settlement of Pacarni.
I guess the residents of Pacarni don’t see too many gringos (as we’re often mistakenly called). Our dusty arrival attracted some serious eyeballing. A sizeable crowd quickly materialised to observe us eating an arepa, the colombian corn cake staple. A variation on a theme, this particular one was stuffed with cheese and drizzled with pineapple jam…
There’s a distinct spike in military activity in these parts, and the south in general. These posters are a reminder to villagers not to to aid the ‘terrorists’, namely the FARC. It’s not always cut and dry though, with pressure – sometimes violent – tugging at village communities from both sides. This said, the situation is considerably more stable than it was even a few years ago.
Then it was back to pavement, with those same incredible views. It felt like we’d uncovered a hidden Colombian gem. One of many, no doubt.
We were lucky with the weather. Storms occasionally threatened but never materialised.
Shortly out of Tesalia, while scouring a fenceline for entry to a field, we were invited in by Albert and his family to his fincita. More wonderful hospitality ensued. A handful of juicy lemons, and the obligatory jet black shots of tinto, were gifted to us as we prepared to move on the next morning. A photo session ensued. As you can see, I’m a vertitable giant in these parts.
Bearded trees lined the road into La Plata, a raucus little settlement busy with country buses, jeeps and motorbikes.
A long, slow grind on a dusty, rough and tumble road led us out of La Plata. Before long, the scenery started to ramp up in drama again, with far reaching views over the tightly interlocking Rio Plata.
In this region, local transport takes the form of these colourfully painted buses, called chivas. Wide and squat like Hummers, there’s no glass in the windows. One side is open, for easy access of people and their piles of cargo. And rain and dust…
After refuelling in La Argentina, we pulled over and asked to camp in this old, sprawling finca, sharing a field with a curious horse.
A couple more curious neighbours. In the evening, reinforcements arrived. A gang of kids came by to chat, bringing with them bread rolls for the morning. Photos were taken, to be posted on ‘Face’. Who would have thought that social networking would have reached even the most remote folds of the Colombian mountains…
The next morning, I was awoken by a gentle ‘Buenas Dias‘ from outside my tent. A coffee growing neighbour, Isidro, had come by.
Of course, he brought a mini bucket of fresh, organic, sugary black coffee to jump start the day.
Isidro invited us for a tour of his small organic finca, where the minutae of the coffee growing process was explained to us. It takes a couple of years to prepare the plants and soil for organic status. But the rewards are a natural, chemical free land and a generous purchasing price from the European, American and Japanese coffee buyers. The ultimate aim is to achieve the coveted ‘Tasa de Oro‘ award. The illustrious Golden Cup had been bestowed upon a finca close to San Angustin the year before, which seemed to be a great source of inspiration for Isidro.
Chickens and old coffee beans provide the fertilizer.
In amongst the rich, organic mulch, we admired the worms as they wiggled about their work.
A plug at the bottom of the barrel allowed its essence to be drained. The way Isidro enthused about its goodness, I was almost temped to have a sip.
Coffee beans being cleaned.
More inner workings.
Isidro’s wife and son. When we bid them farewell, a couple of arepas (corn cakes) were gifted for the journey, supplementing the hefty bag of granadillos, plantanes and yucca another neighbour had piled upon us just moments earlier. Yucca sure is heavy.
Then began a long, at times tortous climb, passing immaculately kept coffee fincas along the way, clinging to the lush hillsides.
This father and son wanted to offer me yet more tinto, but my nerve endings were already buzzing from the many cups I’d had in the morning.
Hands etched with folds and scratches of years of picking, come rain or shine.
Up and up we wound our way, past a settlement with more billiard tables than people.
Road steepness is rarely conveyed in photos. But this final stretch had us off the bikes and hunkering down to crest the pass.
By now, we were well above coffee planting altitudes. in its place were fields of lulu, a sharp-tasting fruit popular in Colombia for juices.
You can eat it unsweetened, with scrunched up eyes and puckered lips. A little honey takes the edge off.
Finally, the road topped out amongst dense, fern covered forest, before ejecting us out the cordillera, the Serrania de Minas, on the other side.
After such a tough graft, the long, sinewy descent felt all the sweeter.
One last end-of-the-day mountain blip led us to Salado Blanco. As we were toiling up the final climb, Alex and his wife passed us by on their scooter, and invited us into their home/funeral parlour business. There, we were given beds of the night, fed copious amounts of food, electronic gadets were recharged and our clothes were washed. As if this wasn’t enough, they set about preparing us a pack lunch in the morning. First, some banana leaves were plucked from the garden, with the nonchalance one might take some tin foil from the kitchen drawer.
These were lightly cooked to seal in the odour and taste.
Then, these massive leaves were fashioned into a bowl and rice heaped in.
Some eggs too.
No Colombian can do without a few chunks of meat, of course. Arnaud had mentioned he was a vegetarian, but this seemed to fall on deaf ears.
The bundle is wrapped.
Like an edible, ecological christmas present.
Alex’s wife Erika, and their child Sharon. Thank you!
Back on the road. From Salado Blanco, the track plummeted back down again through lush vegetation to a tumbling river, before beginning yet another climb.
Roadside flowers, spilling out like a narrow, colourful corridor.
All manner of shapes and sizes.
Many medicinal plants are grown in family gardens, like this aniseed.
Coco leaves, used medicinally, as well as for other less salubrious products…
An alpine-like feel on the climb to the settlements of Bordones and Isnos.
Another prime camp spot. I could hear this 170m drop waterfall, Salto de Mortino, from my tent. Entry cost 50 cents, and that included our camping fee!
Don’t look down. The viewing platform, jutting out over the chasm, was built to Latin American (wobbly) standards.
Arriving in San Angustin. Woohoo! Finally the end of a nine day journey.
San Angustin is famed for its pre-Colombian burial chambers, terraces and carved figures.
The stone figures have been gathered from all over the surrounding hills; now they all get to hang out together in the park. Positioned as guardians at the entrance of the funeral rooms, some are more than 4 metres high and weigh several tonnes, A number of them have been heavily restored and look a little on the pristine side, while others are worn smooth by the ravages of time.
Not a great deal is known about this north Andean civilisation. The carvings have been carbon dated to AD1-900, the Regional Classic Period.
The Fuente de Lavapatas, a religious water feature, running over a series of carvings set into the rock.
They’re hard to make out now, but you can see them on this diagram.
Before they were discovered by archeologists, some carvings were used by locals as pillars to support their houses. Good use of recycling!
More Colombian colour co-ordination.
This skinny Daihatsu is from 1978 and still happily bounces around the backroads.
San Angustin is very much a cowboy town, and come the weekend, horses are tethered up outside the various bars, orr to random lamposts. Here’s one cowboy loading up the equivalent of the family SUV…
… with beer.
Next stop, the (in)famously rugged Macao to Pasto road… 600m to 2700m, on dirt!
Neiva to Betania to Yaguara to Iquira. Paved, easy going initially, then increasingly steep in places. Iquira to Pacarni, unpaved and incredible. Pacarni to Tesalia to La Plata, paved and very scenic. La Plata to La Argentina to Isnos, unpaved. This section includes some herculean climbs, particularly from La Argentina, through the coffee plantations and over the Cordillera de las Minas. Isnos to San Angustin, paved, big descent, then a climb.