I split off from Daniel Fernandez & his crew just outside of Santa Rosa and made my way towards Manizales. The coffee plantation scenery was astounding and the highway was spectacular as well.
Riding up into Manizales was fantastic. Perched on a ridge, the view from town out over coffee country was amazing. Clouds filled the valleys in the distance and gave the illusion of being high in the heavens. Houses were built seemingly on top of each other stacked all the way to the ridge top. A high tech gondola, serving as public transportation, ran from deep in the valley all the way to the crest of the city.
It was early in the day and the weather was sublime. I rode right through the city and pointed for the next ridge and the National Park of Nevado Ruiz. A glacier topped volcano is the centerpiece of the park. I was excited to head up and camp out near the high refuge. The drive was stellar on its own. The cool air felt great and the sunshine kept me warm. Ripping up the twisty, well paved highway was a little slice of motorcycle nirvana. Even fully loaded my KTM performed well eating up corner after corner until I came to the park turnoff.
I had read that there were also hot springs in the area, so it seemed a great place to be headed. I was loving riding solo. So I pushed on for the park entrance. Daniel had warned me that motorcycles are not allowed inside national park boundaries in Colombia, but I thought I'd be able to charm my way in and be able to ride to the refuge and set up camp for a cold night of solitude.
Daniel was right. No matter how hard I tried to convince the park rangers, they wouldn't give in, stating that motorcycles are strictly prohibited. The clouds had filled in and it was pretty cold way up there. Hot springs were sounding pretty inviting, so I found the back road down from the park looking for them.
I was pretty bummed out to find that the hot springs had been closed down for renovation. I pushed further down the back road not wanting to return all the way to the ridge road. The road quickly deteriorated into a four-wheel drive road. I managed to pick my way through the rocks and ruts occasionally stopping to photograph the misty landscape.
Soon the road got better, and I found myself in a little weekend retreat town for the city of Manizales. The roads were lined with bright purple bougainvillaea.
I stopped for some late lunch at a roadside restaurant. Minutes after I parked, two Americans approached me curious if I'd really ridden my motorcycle all the way from Colorado. We talked for a while there on the side of the road. Mark Mauricio and Kevin O'Dowd, both teachers from the United States living and teaching in Manizales gave me some good beta on the area. I asked them about hostels that may be able to host me and my motorcycle for the night. They said that most of the hostels were located on the ridge in the city and they couldn't think of one I could park my bike at, which lead to them inviting me to come stay at their apartment in the suburb of Manizales known as La Enea. I was stoked to join them for beers and dinner at their place. Mark and Kevin were great hosts. We had a good time hanging out for the evening.
I was able to negotiate a parking place in a key makers shop for the night.
My hosts needed to teach early the next morning. I woke up a bit groggy due to three Colombian cowboys prancing their horses in front of the apartment partying into the wee hours of the morning. But our early start to the day afforded me a rare view of the summit of the volcano Ruiz free of its typical cloud cover.
With the incredibly clear morning the views were simply staggering. Manizales could be seen in the valley, as well as the back road I took there the day before.
The area is dotted with incredible flora that reminded me of the strange silversword plants found high on the volcanoes of Hawaii.
I pushed on to through some road construction to the entrance to the park another time. I visited with the rangers for some time but still couldn't convince them to allow me into the park with my motorcycle. But they did give me some maps of the area and lined out a spectacular route that circumnavigated the park and brought me into a couple of great little towns that had only recently become safe enough for a solo tourist to explore.
The landscape and views were mind blowing. I rode for hours circling the huge volcano. Words fall short and photographs are only an approximation of the intoxicating beauty I encountered that day.
As I came down out of the mountains to the east side of the park, I rode through phenomenal farmland towards the little town of Murillo. I was now in the central valley. This area is still a little sketchy. Locals were continuously warning me to be careful traveling alone, yet all I seemed to encounter were incredibly friendly Colombians. Coming into the towns was great. When I pulled into the center of Murillo it was like stepping back in time. The town was tiny but well cared for and pretty.
From Murillo, I continued to drop into the valley. The temperature kept rising the further I descended down from the mountains until I was deep in coffee country again. Approaching Libano was super picturesque. The town's twin towered church could be seen miles away.
I searched around town for somewhere to get a bite to eat and found a great restaurant. I ordered up a 'bandeja paisa', a Colombian favorite. It has a little bit of pork chicharron, a bit of beef, beans, eggs and salad. It was incredible and was served up to me by a couple of young ladies that were enamored with my big KTM motorcycle. They said they had never seen such a big motorcycle before. They were really excited to have their pictures taken sitting on it. I was so stoked for their excitement, I had to have a picture with them as well.
The rest of the day was a mad rush back through the mountains, heading first through Ibague and then a big push to Armenia and back to Salento. When I rode into Ibague, I got lost in the city. A Colombian guy on a scooter pulled up next to me at a stoplight and offered to escort me through the city to the highway heading over the pass to Armenia. He told me not to stop for anyone while I rode this stretch. He was super adamant about this. He said not to even stop for Police or Military, stating that if they were in fact official, they wouldn't stop me since I was obviously a tourist. This part of the central valley is still heavily controlled by the revolutionary FARC army and is also a hot spot for cocaine production and trafficking. I rode fast and hard on high alert. It made for an exciting adrenaline filled ride. The scenery was spectacular, but I didn't dare to stop to make any photos. Fortunately, I passed over the pass without incident and rolled into Armenia around sunset. I decided that I would push on through the dark for another half hour back to Salento instead of staying in the big city. This ended up being one of my favorite days in Colombia. The scenery was more than spectacular and the riding fantastic.
Up next: Salento and the Valley of Corcora : a closer look...