Spending Time in Coffee Country

When we first met our friends Nick and Megan of The Long Cruise, they pulled up to the DIJ inspection lot in Panama City with an adventure ready rig that put our boring old camper to shame. Their California plated Land Cruiser was loaded down with mountain bikes, surf-boards, and trekking gear. They’re one of the few overlanding couples we’ve met towing a trailer- it houses their living and cooking space and disconnects from the main vehicle easily. Why? To leave the Land Cruiser available for chasing surf of course.

After a few minutes of regaling us with their adventures up and down the mountains and beaches of Central America, Megan asked: “So, what’s your thing? Like, what do you guys do for fun?”.

We mumbled something lame about hiking and taking Spanish classes, then changed the subject.

Feeling a bit ashamed, Taylor and I talked amongst ourselves later. Most of our overlanding friends were off surfing, climbing mountains, volunteering and taking on epic off-road routes. What do we really do? We feel like we’ve kept busy on the road, but maybe day-drinking shouldn’t be our only hobby?

I think it was the guilt we felt at letting opportunities pass us by, that inspired us to sign up for salsa classes, seek out more challenging drives, and finally take SCUBA lessons. We even planned an overnight hike into the Los Nevados wilderness, then bailed when we were told the first possible campsite was 9 hours under the best of conditions from the trailhead. So, we’re still pretty lame, but at least we’re making an effort, right?

Cool air, stunning views, and an isolated wild camp nestled among the pines lead us to create a 3-day journey out of a 5-hour shortcut through the Colombian mountains surrounding the town of Salento. After the hustle and bustle of Bogota, a slow backroad drive through high-altitude farmland and among the otherworldly wax-palms was just what we needed.

The town of Salento is right in the heart of Colombian coffee country, the cool waters from Cerro Negro, one of Colombia’s few snow-capped peaks, feeding the valleys below. It’s also the gateway for one of the Pan-Am’s iconic hikes through the wax palms of the Corcora valley and home to one of the country’s premier downhill mountain bike trails.

While we’d managed to complete the hike, after a week of beautiful weather, I’d still never made good on my threats to sign up for one of the “extreme downhill mountain bike tours” advertised all over town.  We’d occupied ourselves by exploring the restaurants and bars of Salento with the Brits from Tuck’s Truck and Elvis Lives before making the 40-minute drive to Steel Horse Filandia for Christmas.

A few days after Christmas we were still in Filandia, basically doing nothing, when Taylor got a message from Nick of The Long Cruise. They’d made time to swing by the finca for Christmas, despite a Christmas eve adventure involving tow trucks and sleeping at a truck-stop, but were long gone doing more stuff and being awesome. They’d signed up for a mountain bike tour and wanted to know if I’d join them. When? In an hour of course, which gave us just enough time to pack up and drive back to Salento. I almost bailed with the timeline as an excuse, but fear of lameness provided the motivation I needed.

We slid back into our old spot at our Salento Hostel minutes before the tour guides showed up. I had just enough time to throw on a pair of shorts before clambering into a clapped-out truck adorned with equally clapped-out mountain bikes with Nick and Megan along with their friends Kelly, Dave, and Jenny.

One of the ladies suggested I bring a rain jacket, which turned out to be some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

The sky was clear and weather warm as we left the valley floor, towing our guides on their bicycles behind. After an hour’s drive up the mountain, conditions were changing. The sun was being rapidly obscured by clouds and our rain jackets were necessary just to keep warm, even while riding. 

There are two common routes for the mountain bike tours out of Salento. Both begin at “la linea”, the 11,000’ pass Taylor and I had driven over on our 3-day ramble into town. The first option “Carbonera” is basically a five mile, all downhill ride for beginners along the road. The route passes wax palms and fincas before ending at a small guest house where hot-chocolate and coffee are served to high-fiving tourists.  The second option, “Alegrias” is one of the most famous singletrack trails in Colombia and is used for their Enduro National cup. It’s an IMBA rated single black diamond under good conditions.

Most tour operators offer both as a package, since Alegrias is accessed on the road heading back into town and dumps riders out on the paved road from the Corcora valley back into Salento it’s a convenient progression for cyclists looking for a bit of technical riding. Most tour operators also budget 5-6 hours to tackle both routes. Since we didn’t even leave town until almost 2pm, I had assumed we were only going to ride the more technical Alegrias back into the valley.

I was mistaken.

By the time we’d finished the easier portions along the road, it had already been raining for 30 minutes and dusk was approaching. The two cocky teenagers sent along with us had really only been “guides” in the sense that they knew the way. Mostly they’d squabbled over the better bikes and taunted us for any mistakes in our riding. We’d done all our own setup and used Nick’s tools to make a few repairs to the equipment we’d been given.

When they told Nick and Dave the trail would be too hard for Kelly and I, we all balked. The four of us are experienced technical riders and had watched videos of the trail. We were certain it was well within our skill sets. Besides, their challenge had stirred my typically dormant competitive side, clouding any better judgement.

Megan and Jenny wisely chose to catch a ride with our shuttle truck back into town.

Quickly losing daylight the remaining four of us, bent on tackling Colombian singletrack, pushed past the guides and dropped in to Alegrias. Having spent several years on the West side of Oregon, I’m no stranger to the rain. Still, riding between the ferns and through the muck of our temperate rainforests back home did nothing to prepare me for the grease of the Colombian Andes. Very shortly after beginning the trail, we found actually “riding” our bikes nearly impossible.

What would have been an extraordinarily fun trail on a dry day, was a steep, tractionless slog over drops, across gaps, and through thick woods during the un-lighted, after-dark downpour we experienced. Falling for me became routine and I adopted Nick’s “tri-pod” method of tackling the trail, rarely gaining the confidence I needed to lift one foot from sliding along the ground to it’s rightful place on the peddle.

We tackled rocky sections in near pitch-black woods and drops and turns in zero-visibility rain; all while being motivated forward by the ever-present descent to the valley floor below. We struggled through torrents of runoff along the ice rink of mud. I did my best to keep upright and fought back thoughts surrounding the ill-fitting helmet I’d been given and of the health insurance I don’t have.

Our guides continued to taunt and push us to go faster. I tried walking, but found staying on my feet to be even more difficult than remaining on the bike.

We arrived at the bottom battered, muddy, and frustrated. If I’m being honest, that was probably the least fun I’ve ever had on a bicycle. That being said, I was still on a bicycle. As Nick made clear, the whole experience may have been miserable, but we were all smiling at the end. I’m happy to have been invited and to have been a part of their adventure. Despite (or because of) the weather and our guides, it was a great experience. One I’m grateful to have had, but also one I wouldn’t seek to repeat.

So, inspired by our friends’ thirst for adventure and ability to wring experiences out of their Long Cruise South, will we find our “thing”?

Probably not, but we did go on a truly great coffee tour and I signed up for wind surfing lessons next week.