Colombia, Places, South America, Travel Tips
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Biking Coconuco to Popayán: Not the “Death Road,” but…

When planning my partner and I’s journey overland from Colombia to Ecuador, we had to find a place to stop along the way to break up the journey from Bogotá to the border.  We could have stopped in the eclectic, salsa-loving city of Cali, but since we prefer smaller places, we decided to take a 12 hour overnight bus from Bogotá to the small city of Popayán.

Main plaza in Popayán

Popayán is known for its colonial architecture and as Colombia’s “White City” due to the historical centre which is filled with white buildings.  It is surrounded by mountains, including the Purace Volcano.  Once you’ve explored the colonial centre, it’s worth it to either attempt the Purace volcano climb (only allowed with a guide and trips aren’t made every day if you’re tight for time) or take a trip to the nearby indigenous village of Coconuco for some time in hot springs and an adrenaline-pumping bike ride.

Colonial buildings in Popayán

I booked the trip to Coconuco through my hostel, HostelTrail.  It cost 55,000 Colombian Pesos, or about $25 Canadian.  It included getting picked up by a jeep driver, the bike and helmet rental, and the entrance to the hot springs.  

The driver picked us up at about 10:15  AM and drove us outside Popayán up the sides of mountains to the village of Coconuco. He didn’t speak English, but even with my piss-poor Spanish I was able to catch where he pointed out our bike route – for instance, to make sure to go right back to Popayán and not left, which would take us all the way to Cali! Once at the Termales Aguatibia hot springs, he spoke with the woman running the entry before bidding us farewell, we left our bikes outside and went into the hot springs.

The unassuming village and hot springs in Coconuco

Now admittedly, this is kind of done in reverse of what you would think makes sense. Hot springs should be done AFTER a long bike ride or hike, not before! However, the hot springs were at the top of the mountain and not at the bottom, and I certainly wasn’t biking up the mountain to get here.

We were the only tourists at the sulphur-smelling springs which had pools of varying temperature. After about 20 minutes of breathing in the stench of rotten egg and getting odd looks from the small children enjoying the morning in the springs with their parents and grandparents, we decided to get moving on our bike ride.  The skies above looked tempestuous and while taking in the hot springs in the rain isn’t too bad, a bike ride is something else entirely.

Tight downhill bends

The ride itself was predominantly downhill and the road had very little traffic. In some sections we probably got up to 80 km/hour! Fortunately the bikes were well-maintained and we had no issues with braking or shifting gears on the uphill stretches.

For the most part, the speed and momentum of the previous stretch of downhill was enough to get us up most uphills.  Better yet, there was very little traffic on the road so we weren’t competing with much (though at times were swerving to avoid cow turds on the road).

Avoiding cow turds

It took under 3 hours to bike the 30 km back to Popayán. Though it rained a little, we biked past farms and plantations, green-covered Andes mountains, little waterfalls, forest jungle, steep cliffs and rushing creeks.

Going around the bend – spot the biker!

Though the weather wasn’t perfect, it was an exhilarating ride with no other tourists in sight or speeding cars to dodge and watch out for.

One of under 10 cars we saw the whole three hours

If you’re on a trip in South America looking for a downhill bike ride that isn’t as costly or  busy as Bolivia’s Death Road, trips like ours from Coconuco to Popayán make for a good alternative option!

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