(This article was also commissioned for Adventure Animals, a website which unfortunately did not go live)
“If you could keep going now, go straight home, what would you do?” My housemate Ty asked as our plane to Bogota left the red hot tarmac of Santa Marta.
It was a tough question. After ten months in Colombia, and a particularly tough final month which included several bouts of food poisoning, a worm infestation in our water supply, and a two week long argument with our landlord, we had both been counting the days until we could leave Santa Marta.
But on the other hand, how could we leave Colombia without visiting the famous coffee region? Our plan was to get straight on a bus to Armenia, and be in Salento by bedtime, ready to hike the Cocora Valley in the morning.
We landed in Bogota and I marvelled at how beautifully functional everything seemed. I was able to push my luggage trolley over even, uncracked pavements, and thought I had suddenly gone deaf when I saw people talking but couldn’t hear what they were saying. We managed to drop our bags at the hotel and make our way to the bus terminal within an hour of landing, and high fived each other when the bus to Armenia that was leaving in ten minutes actually left in ten minutes.
Curled up with two seats to myself I was soon comfortably asleep. When I woke up a few hours later I felt a surge of excitement. I was glad that I wasn’t about to leave Colombia on a bad note, marvelling at how the rest of the country was nothing like the coast. Until I realised that we were still in Bogota. It dawned on us that our enthusiasm had been wildly misplaced when the bus driver, having finally made it out of Bogota’s bottleneck traffic, decided to stop at the side of the road and go and stand in the central reservation of the motorway to try to recruit more passengers. Maybe Cachacos weren’t so different from Costeños after all.
A few terrible action films later, the driver decided it was time for him to take a break to watch the football. We were about an hour’s drive from Armenia according to Google maps, from where the last bus to Pereira would leave in, you guessed it, an hour. We sat there powerless and frustrated, and used the busses temperamental wifi to book a flight back to Bogota on Tuesday. We weren’t about to undertake this journey twice. When we finally arrived in Armenia we had missed the last bus by a long shot and counted ourselves lucky to even get a meal.
Armenia is one of the main cities in the triangle of the coffee region, but has none of the charm or beauty that the region tends to conjure in your mind. High rise buildings and their penchant for using brick give it the vibe of a northern English city suburb. Wanderlust hostel was a true backpacker haven, but I was more than eager to leave in the morning.
Once on the little bus to Salento, rolling green hills that looked like screensavers from a Windows pc, and adorable little old men in ponchos, straw hats and wellingtons made me feel like I was finally in the coffee region. As we climbed the hill to Salento the scenery became increasingly picturesque. Little fincas dotted the hills, and soon enough brightly coloured cottages and narrow streets alerted us that we had finally reached Salento.
Jumping off the bus we decided to opt for one of the nearest hostels, stopping outside one that was advertising downhill mountain biking, had hammocks and a talking parrot. I was sold.
While Ty was checking into the Estrella De Agua, I excitedly Whatsapped the number on the poster. A tall Paisa with a wide smile and mobile phone in his hand approached me. “Eres Kiki? Juan Pablo.” He’d just seen my message and started showing us videos of the trails. “Have you done it before?” He asked. “The extreme tour is amazing if you have experience…”
We both looked at each other and shrugged. Ty admitted that he had never done it, while I claimed to have a bit of experience. I mean, a bike is a bike right? Regardless of the gradient… “Well, even if you don’t have much experience, it is still fun. I think you can do it.”
We didn’t need much encouraging. Having fallen for overhyped “extreme” experiences in the past, only to be disappointed by painfully tame conditions (looking at you, extreme white water rafting in San Gil!) I assumed that a tour on the well trodden backpacker path would be well within my capabilities…
We signed up, went for a quick lunch (Sidenote, ‘Brunch’ is probably my favourite cafe in Colombia!) and returned to see a teenager packing bikes into a little lorry. “Listo?” He jumped into the open back where the bikes were hanging, and gestured towards the two stools he’d set up for us to sit. Listo!
As we drove up the hill overlooking Salento I was relieved that this was just a downhill tour. Even holding my ground on the stool was proving a challenge. We chatted to our guide, Nicolas, Who really was only 16, and I enjoyed being properly cold for the first time in 10 months. The air was crisp and fresh, fragrant from the pine trees and it almost felt like being back in Wales.
When the lorry finally pulled over, we started getting kitted out. Elbow pads, knee pads and a full face helmet. This definitely wasn’t just your usual bike ride…
We headed into the trees and my first thought was that this looks a lot easier in the videos. I find watching DH videos mesmerising. They seem to flow, and look almost like they’re locked in, as if the trail is a kind of toboggan run. What they don’t show you is that you have to control the movement of the bike with your upper body strength. And that takes a whole lot more than just steering.
Nicolas called out to me to copy his posture, leaning back with my legs in a standing position at equal points. Which is a lot easier said than done. He waited patiently at the bottom of the first descent, somehow managing to keep a straight face as I wrestled with my bike, and tried to keep a foot on the ground at all times.
Seeing our faces he decided it was time for a snack. I marvelled at the fact that after nearly a year in the country I could still be presented with a fruit that I had never seen before.
After refuelling we were on our way again, dodging trees as the trail got gradually more treacherous. As we descended, the tracks got deeper and steeper, and the high banks on either side meant that I could no longer keep a tentative foot on the ground. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I realised that once I actually let myself go, and picked up some speed it was a lot easier to keep my balance.
Soon I was charging along, and by the time we stopped for our next snack (biscuits!) with a view of the Cocora Valley I was absolutely buzzing. We were out of the trees and faced with the greenest panorama that I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying a lot coming from a Welsh girl!
The next part of the trail turned out to be the biggest shock. Traversing a ‘flat’ I soon realised that when I had to peddle I actually couldn’t breathe. Cycling is not easy when you’re in an Andean mountain village higher than most European ski resorts!
Feeling like an even bigger failure for pushing my bike on the flat, my heart sank when Nicolas decided that now was a good time to tell me that the next part would be hard and then the next part would be even harder. I started to miss the Costeño way of presenting alternative truths. Now was not the time for honesty.
He wasn’t exaggerating. The trail, the steepest yet, now came with jagged rocks, and slippery, wet, mud. After sliding sideways on my bike for a few meters I decided to try and walk, and got a hysterical case of the giggles when I realised that I couldn’t even take a single step without sliding and dragging the bike down with me. Nicolas rescued me, and had the decency not to laugh as I stumbled down to safety. I was clearly not the first gringa he’d seen go arse over tit.
I’ve never been so happy to see tarmac in all my life as when we reached the road. Peddling past cows and fincas, I started singing Shakira’s bicicleta to myself as we tried to race each other, and I finally got that free feeling that I’d been expecting from the trail. I started wondering if I should stop doing things just because they are extreme. Wouldn’t I have been happier on the relaxed, scenic beginners ride? Ambling past palm trees and not worrying about my heart exploding. Possibly. But would I still be thinking about it and telling the story? Definitely not.
Sitting in the back of the truck, watching Nicolas being towed on his bike behind us (Clearly the ride hadn’t been extreme enough for him) I let the adrenaline wash over me. Laughing at how badly we’d failed, but still congratulating ourselves on having actually survived unscathed, we began making plans to try again. On some less extreme runs maybe.