Alex Cooper,Gringo Correspondent
I didn’t stand a chance. One minute, I was watching the morning sun peek through the clouds, believing it would be a nice day.
Next, it was a torrential downpour without warning. I barely had time to pull on my jacket. I got soaked in an instant to the point I didn’t even bother pulling on my rain pants in the jungle heat.
I was hosteling outside of Mocoa in southwestern Colombia, just on the edge of the Amazon. I had my sights on an infamous road nicknamed el Trampolín de la Muerte: the Trampoline of Death.
It’s the only road through the Andes in this part of the country, and it’s as rough and wild as any I’d seen in six weeks riding my bicycle through the remote countryside. It’s a rite of passage for cyclists on their way through South America—legendary for its scenery, challenges and sheer rawness.
JUST A NAME … RIGHT?
The road gets its nickname from the hundreds of drivers who’ve fallen off and failed to bounce up again. Shrines to these fallen travelers are a reminder of perils ahead.
I had two choices to start the day. I could go north, back through Mocoa before joining el Trampolín. Or, I could take a quieter road south, then north. I chose the latter, to my regret. A monsoon started as I passed the last settlement. I pedaled for an hour-and-a-half until I reached the junction of two roads where I holed up at a small restaurant for breakfast número dos.
A couple of hours later, I began the 1,500-metre climb from 700 to 2,200m above sea level—the first of two big climbs ahead.
The road was paved until a just past the last village where it turned to dirt and climbed slowly. It was a work of art, coiling its way up the mountainside, switch-backing again and again as it gained elevation. At first it wasn’t too bad. The road was wide and not too steep. I settled into an easy gear and spun away, listening to the adventures of Harry Potter on e-book.
BIKING UNDER A BAD SIGN
The first sign of trouble was a creek overflowing the road. I walked my bike across, tiptoeing along rocks. As I got up higher, the road grew more perilous. It got much narrower and the drop-offs a lot steeper. Signs warned of dangerous curves ahead, which seemed redundant considering the whole thing was curves. Guardrails protected sections but in others was just yellow tape. I was worried about vehicles navigating the chicanes at higher speeds, so I kept an ear out for them and squeezed to the side. Most were respectful and gave me a wide berth, but some whizzed by with no room to spare.
The Trampoline of Death zigzags 70 kilometers through the Andes, making Rogers Pass seem like a walk in the park. Since being built in 1930, it has seen its share of deaths from cars falling off. It is also known as Trampolín del Diablo (Devil’s Trampoline) and Adiós Mi Vida (Bye-Bye My Life).
I slowly ticked off the kilometres, six or so an hour — a decent pace with a fully-loaded bike. As I neared the top, a cluster of cell phone towers emerged from the fog. I reached a military checkpoint. I was waved through and pulled into a restaurant for a typical Colombian meal of soup, chicken, rice, beans and potatoes.
Just in time. The clouds opened up and unleashed another deluge. I wanted to continue but not in this weather and at this altitude. Workers at the restaurant said I could sleep in an unused building next to the restaurant, but unfortunately the best one was occupied by a litter of puppies. I was offered a floor in a storage shack.
It seemed adequate. At least it was dry. Before leaving on the trip, my parents told me about the time they slept in a rat infested room after getting stuck at the border of Ecuador and Peru backpacking in 1972. Compared to that, I couldn’t complain.
The next day, the weather improved but the road did not. The descent was interrupted by a series of short, punchy uphills. Rain turned the dirt road to mud and I slid my way down the road as it wrapped around the mountains. I passed heavy equipment, a truck that crashed through the guardrail and old landslides, one of which took out about 100 metres of guardrail. Just one more climb from 2,000 to 2,700m, and I was done.
I stopped to rest and wolfed down a chocolate bar and some Bocadillo — a jelly made from guava sugar that powers Colombia’s world-class road racers like Nairo Quinatana. I was introduced to it on my first day in Colombia and it was a staple ever since.
That last climb took forever. Ten K’s and 700 vertical metres of pure suffering. I had done bigger, steeper climbs, but today I just didn’t have it. I wanted to lie down. I wanted it to end. I had been up and down so many mountains in Colombia. I just wanted to ride something flat, #$&@! I counted the final K’s: Five, four, three, two, one-and-a-half, one, 750 metres, 500 metres, 400, 300, 200, 100, 50…
It felt like I died and went to heaven, reaching the top at long last. I was treated to a view of the sprawling Sibundoy Valley, 10 km of (comparatively) smooth dirt road below.
I rocketed down as fast as I dared, pulling into a Revelstoke-sized village named San Francisco. I found a chicken joint off the main square and ate as a parade filed through town.
The school band led the way followed by dancers, each in a different style, and I thought to myself: “That road was tough, but do I really deserve a parade?”
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