The Adventures of Paisa the Colombian Mountain Pup

I was just starting to get into the flow of life in Colombia. Waking up in the morning in a small village to seek out whichever local bakery had the most people flowing in and out to grab breakfast. Hitting the road while the air was still cool.

The evening before, I had rolled into the tiny old town of Toche to a chorus of agitated dogs looking to announce my arrival. Back 10+ years ago this town used to be a particularly dangerous place due to its remote location making it attractive to folks trying to avoid the law, but these days it’s mostly just home to a small number of Llaneros (cowboys) and their animals.

Early the next morning, I rode through the town’s totally empty streets. I stopped to take a photo as a friendly pup that I’d seen the evening before came running up toward me with a lot of excitement in its step, though she never came too close. Just watching what I was doing from a safe distance.

After a stop in the shop, I pedaled my way up the start of the day’s long and steep climb to “Alto de La Línea”. This was a stretch of road I’d been looking forward to for a very long time.

Just as the thought of the curious dog from the morning had started to fade from my mind, assuming she was now finding something else to grab her attention in town, she shot past me at a full sprint. Only stopping for a split second to look back at me like “why are you so slow?!”.

Just as fast as she showed up, she disappeared around the bend in the road before I slowly rode up toward her a couple of minutes later to find her patiently sitting, waiting for my arrival.

By this time, I was starting to wonder how far she planned for her fun little excursion from the town. We were a few kilometers and a few hundred meters of elevation away from town, and she was showing no signs of stopping, but the next town was about 50km away with a big mountain pass in the middle, so I figured her turn-around point was coming at any moment.

We climbed our way up through the clouds, eventually making it into the impressive Palmas de Cera forests, home to the tallest palm trees in the world. Without a doubt, this was the most stunning place I’d ridden so far in my time in Colombia.

The kilometers kept ticking by and my new friend seemed more and more determined to come along for the ride with every passing minute. She would show her loyalty by “defending” me from such threatening “beasts” like poor donkeys minding their own business on the road while cowering behind me as her personal human shield when a big farm dog spotted her and became aggressive. We were a proper team now.

About 25km and a few hours later, we made it to the top of the pass, where we celebrated with peanut butter and honey tortilla wraps.

My new friend, nicknamed “Paisa”, sprawled out on the ground after a very tough climb and tasty treats. If she hadn’t already hit the point-of-no-return, it was at this exact moment as I tossed on a jacket and got ready for the 20+ km descent down the other side of the mountain, toward the tourist hub of Salento.

I hopped on the bike and started to coast down before glancing back to see what move Paisa was going to make. Just as I turned my head I saw her lift her head and start sprinting up next to me. I guess we were both heading for Salento after all!

The climbs are one thing, but it’s much harder for a pup to keep up on the downhill, especially after such a long walk up, so we took it easy. Suddenly I was the one disappearing around the bend in the road, turning around to wait for her to arrive.

On the descent, the clouds opened up briefly to allow the sun to hit the slopes of the Andes, and soon our destination would come into view. Still, there was a lot of ground to cover.

When Paisa and I finally hit the streets of Salento after nearly 50kms, it was chaotic. There were thousands of local tourists walking the streets on a warm Saturday evening. Quite change from the empty mountain road we’d been enjoying all day.

Paisa and I weaved through the crowd before coming up on an Arepa stand where we each inhaled an Arepa con Pollo y queso. Much to the amusement of locals, Paisa followed me around town as I looked around for a hotel, but our split felt inevitable. No hotel was going to allow a dog in and she didn’t seem to have an interest in the “inside” anyways. You can’t cage a free spirit.

I stayed in town for a couple of days, occasionally finding Paisa chilling outside of my hotel or hanging out by the bakery, getting all kinds of treats and love from tourists. Often, she’d spot me walking the streets and without me even realizing it she’d be trotting along a few feet behind me.

I knew it would be unsafe for her to keep following me for the ride, as most roads aren’t empty like the one we’d been on the previous day, and I wasn’t going to force her into some trailer that she would hate. A Colombian friend even offered to adopt her, but the idea of forcing her into a car to drive her across the country seemed like it was more to make me feel good about it than to make her happy.

So, in the end, I figured that the best thing for Paisa would be to stay in Salento where she can be free to live outside, with plenty of opportunities to charm the town’s healthy supply of tourists into giving her empanadas. And who knows, maybe this wasn’t her first time crossing La Línea and she’d be back up at the pass with another cyclist after a couple more days?

The Mysterious Nevado del Ruiz

It was sad to leave Salento and Paisa, but I still had my sights set on a ride around Nevado Del Ruiz, and my first real trip to the Colombian Páramo.

After a cruise through the rolling hills to Manizales, I started the next big climb up toward the famed volcano as the morning mist slowly began to clear, giving me a glimpse at the range I was heading toward. From the lush jungle of the lower slopes, the terrain slowly morphed as rugged cliffs came into view.

Frailejones plants sprung up from the ground, soon filling the entire landscape as far as the eye could see. Up here, the Páramo has a micro-climate of its own. Clouds fly by, constantly morphing and changing your view. No moment is the same as the previous. Misting rain is nearly constant.

There aren’t a ton of opportunities to wild camp in Colombia given how many people have farms in these hills, but the Páramo is the big exception, with plenty of open spaces. So, I’d been plotting this day carefully, eyeing a nice-looking area to wild camp here with a view of the volcano.

Of course, as Colombian weather would have it, the clouds entirely masked the view for the entirety of my evening there. Not offering even a glimpse behind the omnipresent fog.

In the morning I woke up to the sound of rain drizzling on the tent and took a look outside to find another wall of fog greeting me. I casually packed my things, realizing my hopes of a mountain view were unlikely to become a reality.

After everything was packed, the rain was still coming down, but I took another peek outside and was shocked to find Nevado del Ruiz in full sight. I scrambled for my camera, shoved my feet in my shoes, and stood up to take a photo, but before I could even get one shot, the mountain all but disappeared behind the cloud yet again. This time for good.

The rain came and went throughout the day as I made my way around the dramatic landscape at the foot of the mountain, eventually starting the long descent down the famed Letras pass, a place where many pro Colombian riders have trained. I passed through village after village along the way toward the steamy Magdalena river valley before catching a ride to the city of Medellin to meet up with some friends and take a tour of Colombia’s own Scarab Cycles (more on that soon).

My route: