Already in Salento we had to think about how to get in Ecuador. Our original plan was to cycle to Mocoa and take the death road to get on the Pan-American highway and to cross the border at Ipiales. The death road, ‘Trampoline de la muerte’, is a 70 km long dirt road carved into the side of an unbelievable steep hill with narrow passages and crazy drop-offs. Sounds quite adventurous. However we got mixed messages that the road was in an even worse conditions due to the heavy rains last weeks with risks of landslides on the road. The other option was to take the busy Pan-American highway via Cali, but again, this road was blocked by indigenous people because of a political situation with various violent attacks. Both options were not ideal. Even if we would find our way to Ipiales to cross the Colombia – Ecuador border we heard that it could take up to 6 hours to get a stamp at the migration office. We started to look into other alternatives...
It took some time before we considered the option to cross the border at San Miguel south of Mocoa. Almost everyone seems to go to Ipiales because it is known as the only safe border crossing. However, we started to ask around, and searched for information about this border crossing and current safety of the region. All locals reassured us that nowadays it is quite safe, as long as you stay on the main roads and only travel during the day. We followed their advice and decided to take the route south from Mocoa to La Hormiga and cross the border at San Miguel.
Cycling through the Amazon rainforest
The route, starting in Mocoa which is a dodgy little town, partially leads through the Amazon rainforest situated at the foothills of the Andes mountains. It continues to the Andean paramo at high altitude. We did not stay in Mocoa for the above mentioned reason so camped in the garden of a hostel a few kilometers out of town. The combination of rainforest and elevation differences results in endless amounts of waterfalls in the region. Combined with colorful birds flying around – and even the birds make a sound of falling drops of water – it felt very relaxed and peaceful to cycle here.
History of the region
But the area has known troubled times. There have been decades of violence between competing FARC and paramilitary forces that peaked in the early 2000s. The numerous graffiti and monuments we passed made us aware of the horrific scenes that took place in recent history. One of those monuments is in the town of El Tigre. In 1999, paramilitaries took over the bridge and killed anyone who tried to cross the bridge. It was the first big paramilitary massacre in the region. From there the paramilitaries went from village to village to kill all the FARC guerillas and everyone who at even a slight connection with the FARC.
Knowing some of the history and FARC presence, it did make us just a little bit uneasy entering this region. It proved to be unnecessary, as we were told before by several locals, because everything went and felt perfectly safe. Also the fact that we met quite some other (Colombian) tourists on the road was reassuring.
After completing this route and intrigued by all the graffiti and monuments, we searched for more detailed information and articles on the historic and current situation of this region. There has been some activity by numerous parties in the last year. However, it has mostly been taking place at night and a little bit away from the main road with locals. It wouldn’t have changed our minds, but information is important in making these decisions. Since the situation might change it is still important to know and check up on recent activities before taking this route.
“The armed conflict has calmed. Between 2003 and 2006 some 30.000 supposed paramilitary fighters in Colombia lay down their arms as part of a demobilization deal with the government. The 52-year armed conflict between the FARC and the government officially ended with a peace accord in 2016. Officially, because there are still activities of FARC dissidents and rearmed groups. The region Putumayo is one of Colombia’s most important coca cultivation regions and it is strategically located along the Ecuadorian border. With the cocaine traffic at the border, there are some equally violent guerilla and drug cartel activities on the Ecuadorian side.”
The road from Mocoa to the border was mostly paved with some stretches of dirt roads. The second night we stayed in a cute little village Santana, where we had one of the best empanadas of Colombia. There was hardly any traffic, only some local transport and oil company trucks. Getting closer to the Puente Nacional border crossing, signs of oil industry are everywhere. For instance this ‘lonely bird’ colorfully painted in true Colombian fashion. Most of the time, the road was accompanied with oil pipelines along the road.
“The improved peace situation has already brought intensified oil exploration into the region. Putumayo has been reclassified by the federal government as a mining district, rather than part of the Amazonian protected region. Over the past few years there has been a dramatic expansion of mining and oil operations in the region. However, with the new investment and infrastructure, residents warn that ongoing inequality and environmental destruction are sowing the seeds of new conflicts. In February 2019, one of the pipelines near Orito was bombed. ”
Entering Ecuador – border crossing Puente International
Puente Internacional, a bridge that crosses from Colombia into Ecuador over the Río San Miguel. The immigration office to get the stamp is 3 km further down the road. There were still tents set up by the UN and humanitarian aid workers to shelter and help Venezuelan refugees. However, no refugees were around. At the immigration office, only one person was in front of us in the que. So within 10 minutes, all paper work was done and we were happy that all went smoothly. We continued our way to Lagro Agrio/Nueve Loja. The first thing that surprised us, is how ‘strong’ borders are. The currency in Ecuador are American Dollars, and even the roads and atmosphere in Lagro Agrio directly had an American feel to it. Just after crossing the border, the food becomes different, everything is more expensive, and the Colombian coffee is exchanged for instant coffee. The people are more introvert than in Colombia, which instantly gave a more tranquil feel to everything. Also the surroundings changed quite suddenly; the distance between villages becomes larger, the amount of places to stop for a coffee decreases. But with the decrease in civilization along the road, the views become better as well!
Cycling from Amazon rainforest back up to the Andes
From Nueva Loja we followed the road towards Quito. We cycled from the amazon rainforest back up into the Andes mountains. A stretch of ~275 km of perfectly smooth tarmac with hardly any traffic and a gradual climb from ~300 meters up to 4000 meters. This was a relief, because in Colombia we had mostly cycled steep dirt road or busy highways. Most of the kilometers were climbing with every now and then a beautiful descent with great vistas on the Amazon rainforest. The slow but steady pace was perfect to listen to some podcasts and contemplate on what has been and what to come.
The oil exploration and oil pipelines along the road continued also in this part of Ecuador. Slogans and graffiti on the pipelines expresses how local inhabitants are clearly not happy with the oil companies. Even the regions looks pristine from a distance, the water is not potable in this region because of the severe pollution. The Ecuadorian people seems to value their environment with many billboards along the road to express the value of the nature, the importance of water and to educate people to take care of the rivers and the environment.
Getting back in the mountains, and being in Ecuador where volcanoes are everywhere, we camped at a great spot near Thermales de Jamanco. Having a dive into a hot water pool after a long day on the bike was truly refreshing. For the final stretch with our first climb up with an elevation above 4000 meter, out of the blue there was a cycling lane! We were wondering, could this be the highest cycle path in the world? After days of climbing, we spent all our hard earned elevation meters in one hour to get back to 2400 meter in Pifo. The descent was fantastic! Going down on smooth tarmac with the sun shining again, was a big relief for in Colombia there had been only one such a descent. We had learned our lessons in Medellin, Colombia, that getting into a big city by bicycle can be a nightmare. For that reason, we parked our bikes at Aries Bikes Camping in Pifo, ~25 km outside of Quito. A perfect base to take an Uber to Quito and explore the city for a few days.
It was an interesting ride and we enjoyed (almost) every kilometer of it. The first two cycling days from Mocoa to the border was intriguing and made us aware how recent the violent situation has been. The route also marked our entrance to a new country! We are happy to be in Ecuador and are enjoying the more open landscapes and relaxed atmosphere. So far, Ecuador is providing everything why we are cycling in South America. Every day we are spoiled with beautiful views!