Freewheeling from Coconuco to Popayán

By Huw Hennessy

A teenage boy in hoodie, baseball cap and headphones was bobbing his head to the music and mouthing along with the lyrics. So what? What jangled our nerves was the fact that he was also hitching a ride on his bike by clinging to the tailgate of a lorry, only a couple of feet in front of our bus, which was racing along the main road from Cali to Popayán. Our bus driver had no such concerns though, as he accelerated and overtook the lorry, seemingly missing the boy and his bike by inches. On a blind bend in the road, of course, much as he’d done for the rest of the journey. Welcome to the world of bus travel in Colombia.

As for the cycling, who’d have thought that only a day later we’d be taking to the road on two wheels ourselves? In our case, though, we were high up in the mountains above Popayan, on a quiet country backroad. We were still slightly cagey about Colombian traffic, not to mention getting lost and wondering whether we’d even be fit enough to cycle at over 2000m, having only arrived in the country two days ago.

All such concerns melted away, however, when we were dropped off with our bikes at the hot springs, a few kilometers beyond the village of Coconuco.

The Baños Hirvientes are run by the local indigenous community (also called Kokonuko), set out in the open, surrounded by lawns and flowerbeds, planted with Arum lilies and hibiscus blooms. On cue to complete the exotic scene as we arrived, a dazzling long-tailed, emerald green hummingbird darted from flower to flower.

There are several pools of varying temperatures from tepid to bath warm, filled with green water said to have healing medicinal properties.  I can’t vouch for the curative powers, but what a way to shake off our jetlag, as we simmered gently in the steaming pools.

Duly reinvigorated after an hour of wallowing, we jumped on our bikes and made our way down the winding road.  High mountains flanked us on both sides, carpeted in forests and neat plantations, which the indigenous farmers have separated with trees rather than fences.

We passed roadside shacks nestled in neatly-tended gardens, bursting with colourful hibiscus, forget-me-nots and cacti. Sleepy dogs snoozed in the dust, and scrawny chickens ran for cover as we streaked downhill past them.

After just a few minutes we came to Coconuco itself, a simple farming town of painted wooden buildings. We lunched on deliciously fresh trout, the local speciality. Farmers divert the river into pools, where they breed the fish to sell to the town’s restaurants, such as Sofi’s, the corner café where we ate, watched hungrily by a couple of wide-eyed dogs. A bargain set lunch, about US$5, including soup and lemonade.

Hand-painted signs further down the road offered cheese and yoghurt for sale. Queso campesino is salty and hard, similar to feta; doble crema is smoother and softer, more like mozzarella; and Kumis is a local homemade yoghurt.  We passed sparkling waterfalls, one of which must have been 20 metres or more, cascading over the bare rock, and drenching the vegetation.  Around one rather nail-biting hairpin bend we crossed the Rio Cauca, which flows through the valley to Popayán. Here it’s a roaring current, frothing over giant boulders. We met very little traffic en route, save for the occasional cattle truck or minibus, and the ever-present motorbikes.

Up here the mountain air was fresh and clear, and we were blessed with a warm sunny day. It was only about 30 kilometres down to Popayán, but we noticed the change in climate even as we whizzed ever downwards, with the humid valley air washing over us.

White stones at the roadside mark the distance to Popayán, but all we had to do was follow the same road all the way to the outskirts of town, up to a left turn handily situated just opposite a locally famous roadside café, Estadero Don Luis. The specialities here include the unlikely sounding combination of hot chocolate served with queso campesino. The idea is to break the cheese into chunks and then mix it into the chocolate drink until it melts. I was too impatient for that, but still quite liked the salty-sweet mix of cheesy white blobs bobbing around in their pool of chocolate. Kate opted for ice cream, with tangy blackberry, mango, and passion fruit among the flavours, all homemade from locally grown fruit. More exotic varieties also included the bitter sweet chontadura (peach palm fruit), or lulo, deliciously sweet persimmon.

Batteries recharged, we hopped back on our trusty bikes, negotiated the left turn into Popayán and plunged back into the city traffic, which suddenly didn`t seem quite so daunting any more.

It was only halfway through our ride that I realized that this was my first time on a bike in all the 30-plus years I’ve been travelling around Latin America. How could I have missed out for so long? But what a way to make up for it. And what an introduction to the stunning Colombian countryside.

Thanks for the bike loan go to Steve and Kim of Hostal Trail, Popayán, who also run other tours in and around the town, as well as hikes to Volcan Purace National Park, and trips further afield to the south of the country.

Huw Hennessy is the co-author of our Colombia Handbook, and is currently in Colombia researching the new edition, which will be available in 2018.

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