All too often tours and day trips can feel sterile, overcrowded, or it can be hard to get a real feel for a place. But on a recent Coconuco Downhill Cycling Trip on Columbia bikes offered by Popayan Tours we found the ideal combination of organization and relaxed down-to-earth attitudes that allowed us to be safe in knowing that everything essential was sorted, but leaving us free to explore at our own pace. Starting at a indigenously run thermal pools high in the Andes and running back down to Popayan, the White City of Colombia, this tour truly offers an authentic opportunity to see culture and modern indigenous life amidst stunning scenery while throwing in a bucket load of fun. It’s a great way to spend a day doing something unique outside the city and makes you feel like a true adventurer at the same time…and you will be very on trend as in Columbia bikes are all the rage right now!
Our day on Columbia bikes starts at Hosel Trail at 10am where after a short van trip you’ll be up at the thermal pools around 11 am, armed with plenty of interesting information about the local landscape and community eagerly provided by Tony, Popayan Tours owner and our driver. The journey to get there is along the same road you’ll be coming back on which provides a nice little familiarisation along the way and you will get all the best stops and not-to-be-missed locations pointed out to you! On arriving at the thermal pools we were introduced to our mountain bikes, helmets and a run down on our other gear such as a pump and tyre repair kit. Luckily the bikes were the best quality we had received in our time in South America and everything worked perfectly all day – but stil, better safe than sorry right! From there we were on our own. Armed with all the info we needed, and a phone number if we really got into strife, it was up to us and our bikes to get back to Popayan.
It may sound a bit crazy but this is one of the best things about the trip, no guide! No one telling you where to go, you’re going to fast or slow, or to make awkward small talk. This is real freedom to do exactly as you wish, stop where you like, and take as much time as you need! We got back just as the sunset and loved maximizing our time in nature. The other great thing is you get to choose your group size. Don’t feel like chatting and just want to be by yourself or with a friend (you know how it can get sometimes), no problem! Want to meet new people, socialise and form a group, no problem! Its up to you! On our trip we were accompanied by two French – we chatted at the different stops and kept meeting along the way but didn’t feel the need to wait on each other! I’m gonna go out on a limb here and call this the perfect downhill bike set-up and hopefully more operators try it out!
But back to the story. Before we set off we needed to do a little more preparation…. some essential pre ride relaxation in the hot pools! Travel can be so stressful right! The pools are filled from the natural geo-thermal springs heated by the surrounding volcanos of this region. They’re operated by the local indigenous and non-profit community of Coconuco. Popular with local and foreign tourists alike they’re a perfect way to rest the muscles before you’ll be needing them again. The slightly eggy smell of the sulphites in the air might take a little getting use to but its definitely worth taking a soak before you get going. We spent two hours here and it was complete bliss! But then it was back on our Columbia bikes!
The ride from the pools back to Popayan is a 30 kilometer, mostly downhill trip, meaning you don’t need to worry about being too fit. The sealed road also has very little traffic so if you only have limited cycling experience that’s not a problem either. If you’re a bit of speed demon you’ll be back in the city in around one and a half hours. Otherwise at a more leisurely pace, as we did, with plenty of time for photos and a bite to eat along the way, it’ll take 3-4 hours.
As soon as you get going the scenery starts doing its thing. Luscious green hills rolling into mountains, fields lined with trees, streams criss crossing the landscape. It really reminded me a lot of home in New Zealand with the added bonus of a friendly dog joining us for a brief run every now and then. Within ten or so lazy minutes of setting off we spotted our first find: a towering waterfall just off the main road. Pulling over to explore further we climbed off our bikes and wandered across the field past some bemused cattle. It was rather amazing to have this little spot all to our own and feel it’s tremendous power! No guides telling us how long to stay or other tourists wandering into our photos / telling us about this ‘much better waterfall they saw in XY or Z’ – yes, our first stop was a complete success!
Continuing on, and after 7 kilometers and plenty of photo stops we found ourselves in the local indigenous village of Coconuco. A simple little place full of friendly faces. It’s a great stop for a lazy lunch or to grab some snacks for later. We stopped in for an almuerzo (a lunch special – a key word for those travelling South America!) at Sofi’s Restaurant where we had some amazing trout while watching daily life go by outside. This is a must-try, as trout is a specialialty of the local community as we had found out earlier from Tony. He’d also told us about the organization of indigenous people in Colombia and how in this area it is forbidden for any non-indigenous to buy land. In fact, no one here really owns land and it seems to all be managed as a community – if you look closely you can see the living fences of trees which seperate different farm fields. If you’re not looking after yours it gets re-allocated within the community. I love this idea and a focus on preserving land for communal use and future generations – a core tenant of sustainability. So by stopping in to the little shops and restaraunts on the way you can do your part to promote sustainable tourism and development in the community!
After refueling we continued cruising down the road where the brilliant scenery didn’t cease to end. After many more photos stops (and a few to catch our breath on the couple of uphills) we were sadly getting close to our final destination. But I wasn’t ready to go home just yet!
With a bit of time up our sleeves before sunset we decided to stop in at one of the many small cafes that you’ll find dotted along the way. If you have time (and if you haven’t already) you must try a Colombian specialty, Chocolate caliente con Queso or Hot Chocolate with Cheese!! Its exactly what it sounds like and is as weird as you would imagine, if not weirder! Love it or hate it I guess, though I was closer to the latter. But you’ve got to try these things when you travel, if not just for the novelty factor, and was still nice to have a warm drink before the final stretch back to Popayan!
After a final few kilometres of gently winding tarmac the trees and greenery transformed into the white-washed colonial houses of Popayan where we’d begun. We may have had wind crazed hair but we had huge smiles on our faces. It really felt like we had gone on our own adventure that day, discovering rural Colombian life and glimpsing at a world most travellers just hurtle by on their way to the next ‘big’ destination. Who would have expected so much from a nice leisurely roll down a hill! So simple but so perfect.
This is the ideal tour for people who don’t do tours and easily one of the best things to do in backpacking in Colombia. Take your own time, make your own pace, do it the way you want, and have a great day out! I know we did!
Now you're all set and prepared to explore our big wide world, why not sort out everything else out all in one go? If necessary for your travel plans make sure you have brought proper travel insurance, protected your privacy by getting a secure VPN, compared all the top hotel booking sites to find just what you're after, reserved an unbeatable rental car price and - of course - booked the best flight deals!
Many budget travelers (including me) indulge in worldwide airport lounge access, so we can experience luxury while still slumming it in economy. Naturally, we would never leave home without a more a more general travel guide since we couldn’t possibly cover everything here!
Just add an adventurous attitude and plenty of smiles - they go a long way - and that about covers it all! Now go out, find your own path and don't forget to share your best inspiration stories with me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram...I'd love to hear from you!