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Ask a European to name an event from Colombia’s history, and there’s a good chance they’ll mutter something about the assassination of footballer Andrés Escobar after the national side’s exit from the 1994 World Cup. Although it occurred 20 years ago, the murder of Escobar still goes a long way towards defining Colombia in the eyes of distant outsiders who’ve never visited it. The image of a lawless country dominated by what the US government infamously dubbed ‘narco-guerrillas’ is one that’s proved hard to shift.

Colombia has certainly endured a difficult few decades, especially the notoriously violent 1980s and 1990s. As Tom Feiling points out in his insightful travel narrative Short Walks from Bogotá, the 50-year-old insurgent guerrilla group known as FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) came far closer to toppling the government than did, for example, ETA in Spain and the IRA in Ireland. Whether victims of the guerrillas, paramilitary fighters or the army, thousands have died in the decades-long battle for the soul of the country.

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However, as we’ve been learning, both from books such as Feiling’s and from conversations with Colombians, the country’s history is considerably more complicated than the commonly painted picture of drug-running freedom fighters at war with the establishment. Many widely held assumptions about the past here turn out to be false, reductive stories fed through the filter of a foreign news media with little time for nuance.

And as for the present, life as a traveller here in 2014 isn’t always straightforward, but it’s a world apart from the country’s popular image. One long, lonesome and beautiful ride Will took a week or so ago illustrates why.

 


 

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Until recently, the direct road between the towns of San Agustín and Popayán was regarded as off-limits to travellers. The 60km section linking Isnos with the ragged, truck-stop settlement of Paletará is sparsely populated, and one 35km stretch of virgin cloud forest along it was – and, by some accounts, still is – home to a branch of the FARC. As this blog post details, buses are still occasionally held up here, and our 2014 edition of the Footprint South American Handbook unequivocally states that ‘cyclists should avoid taking [this] direct route’. However, the guidance we sought and received from police and army officers was that it’s safe to ride.

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Coming from the south, the aforementioned stretch of cloud forest begins around El Mármol, a town so small that it doesn’t appear on any of our maps. The town, indeed, isn’t really a town at all: it’s home to just four families, who between them run two modest restaurants and a shop for the benefit of truckers passing through this misty hinterland. The school has long since been closed – useful, as it meant Will could shelter both tent and bike under its porch in the pouring rain – and the trio of children who live in the village now have a daily round-trip commute of 46km to take lessons. Beyond El Mármol lies a deserted dirt road hemmed in by greenery that drips in the humid, sticky heat.

In 2008, the four families were joined by a battalion of 60 soldiers, permanently ensconced at an army checkpoint a stone’s throw from the first restaurant. Such sights are common on Colombian roads, especially those roads that pass through areas once controlled by the FARC. According to Felipe, the teenager who was minding the shop when Will rolled into El Mármol, the road became safer after the army’s conspicuous arrival, repeating a pattern we’ve already seen further south in the once-dangerous, now-secure region around Mocoa.

 


 

It’s easy to see how a tourist taking this trip by bus – and increasing numbers do these days, San Agustín being home to a spectacular array of ancient statuary granted World Heritage Site status by UNESCO – might still assume the worst about Colombia. The roadside presence of armed soldiers might unnerve tourists shielded by the window of a bus, not least because such tourists generally make their way through Colombia on transport that runs from doorstep to doorstep.

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Travelling by bicycle, you’re inevitably more connected to your surroundings: more exposed to the country and the city, to natural beauty and urban decay, to the hills and the valleys and the contours of a country. But you’re also more connected to the people through whose homeland you’re travelling. The soldiers, some of whom are barely out of school (army service is still mandatory in Colombia), are invariably much more genial than their fatigues, rifles and serious expressions suggest: amused but – we think – pleased to make the acquaintance of a couple of Europeans cycling through their territory, generous with both their advice and their coffee.

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And so it goes with Colombians of all stripes. A few hours after leaving El Mármol on the second morning of this two-day ride, Will was flagged down by a passing car, one of only a handful of private vehicles plying the muddy highway. Winding down the window, the grinning driver passed out a drink, a bag of crisps and a phone number. Less than 24 hours later, phone call duly made, we were enjoying a rich lunch and a bottle of red wine in the gracious Popayán home of the driver, a retired academic named Otto, and his wife, Gladys, a lawyer.

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This kind of generosity is far from uncommon in Colombia. Our notebooks are gradually filling with phone numbers and invitations received from people we meet on the road. Our mental ledgers, too, are now dotted with karmic debts to people who pass us drinks from car windows, stop us and offer us somewhere to stay, spot us riding into towns and help us to get wherever it is we’re trying to go. (Above, that’s Ruth with Edward, a cycle courier who put his deliveries aside in order to shepherd us through rush hour in the sprawling city of Cali; and Freddy, a road cyclist from Buga who interrupted his Saturday-morning training ride to talk us through the highway ahead.) The country with a reputation as uniquely inhospitable to intrepid travellers turns out to be the friendliest place we’ve ever been.

 


 

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Ask Colombians about the state of their nation, and most seem guardedly optimistic. Many areas that were once under guerrilla control have recently been brought to order by the military, a state of affairs tied in part to apparently falling membership of groups such as the FARC and the less influential ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional). Close though it was, the recent reelection of Juan Manuel Santos’s incumbent government was tantamount to a vote of approval for the ongoing peace process, and for the continuation of negotiations in Havana between the politicians and the guerrillas. (This, of course, is a hopelessly simplistic summary. For anybody interested in learning more about how Colombia got this way and where it might go next, the aforementioned Tom Feiling book is an excellent place to start.)

Colombia isn’t yet a totally safe country. Certain areas remain off-limits, especially to tourists; in what authorities believe to be a guerrilla attack, two Colombian cyclists were killed in January after they strayed into a sketchy area north-east of Popayán. Caution is advised, and always taken. Nor, too, is it a country without other troubles, perhaps the most visible being the vast inequality between the country’s richest and poorest classes. However, nor is Colombia anything like the violent pit of unpopular imagination. We’ve felt in more danger cycling through the Medway towns of Kent.

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One constant undercurrent of our conversations with Colombians is that while they’re happy to help us understand their country’s troubles, they’re happier that before too long, they may not be asked quite so regularly about them. Indeed, they’re delighted to meet outsiders who are as enthusiastic about their home as they are. Nearly every southbound cyclist we encountered on the way here told us that of all the countries they’d visited on their journeys through the Americas, Colombia was their favourite. After a month here, we’re not inclined to disagree.

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Route notes for fellow cyclists: the ride from Mocoa to San Agustín should take two days (155km, roughly 3,400m of climb). The road is paved, but regular rain means you may be delayed by the occasional landslide. Roughly 67km from Mocoa and home to a couple of basic hotels (we stayed at the newish Gilvar, which has a justifiably popular restaurant next door), the truckstop settlement of San Juan de Villalobos is the natural place to spend the night. The longest climb between Mocoa and San Agustín is the steady haul from San Juan de Villalobos up to a hilltop army checkpoint, a pick-up of about 950m; the steepest is the final short sharp shock of 5km from the Río Magdalena into San Agustín.

Taking the direct route described in this post, it’s a tough but doable two-day ride from San Agustín to Popayán (135km; click here for a GPX file and elevation profile). Although it falls a mere 45km after San Agustín (all but 5km of it paved) and midway up a lengthy climb, El Mármol (just after km post 87) is the best place to break the journey. The next settlement, Paletará, is a further 40km up the road (about 50km from Popayán), nearly all on dirt and three-quarters of it uphill, and officers at the El Mármol army checkpoint counselled against camping between the two towns. Will camped at El Mármol and then made it to Popayán the following afternoon.

Shortly after Paletará, the pavement returns. There are still short unpaved stretches between here and Popayán, but many were being paved when we passed through in July 2014 and the surface is generally in good shape. Get lucky with the weather, and the rolling descent into Popayán will be glorious.

 


 

from El Rosario, Caldas, Colombia