We leave Cali at 12 after a short briefing about the car and the tools. Kai gives us all the necessary information, including maps, a gps with waypoints for the off road tracks and a lot of useful advices on both how to move around Colombia by car but also about the nicest spots to be seen around Cali. The car is equipped with more than we actually needed, and since we are not really experienced in off-road driving we record all instructions on video to be sure not to miss anything.
The Car is quite easy to drive, and after a few km we get used also to the Cali traffic and the many motorcycles. Absolutely not as bad as we read on some travel or expat blogs. We leave the city following google maps.
Road conditions and traffic signs are fine, the only doubt is about overtaking slower traffic. Looking at the road marking it’s not really allowed but everyone does - so we also dare.
After roughly 2 hours and 100 km we reach Piendamo and the turn to Silvia - quite easy to find. The road leads uphill to Silvia, where we arrive after 40 mins. We continue always straight, passing the main square with the church towards Guambia. The road is unpaved but very easy. Nice 10 minutes drive to the village passing lots of Guambianos in traditional dresses on the road.
Back to Silvia, short lunch stop on the square and then we leave again towards Popayan, where we reach at 6 pm in the evening traffic. As Kai suggested, we choose an hostel that provides a car park and located in the city center (not really the hostel car park or Parqueadero but just on the other side of the road). Car parked safely, a quick stop at the hostel and we still have time to enjoy a nice walk and dinner in the old colonial town, definitely fascinating also at dark.
We leave early in the morning at 8.30 from Popayan. The road leads uphill to Coconuco (1 hr, 35 km). We decide not to stop at the thermal baths in order not to lose too much time. After Coconuco the paved road ends - we stop and lower the pressure of the tyres. After a nice drive in the middle of green valleys (mixed paved / unpaved) we reach Paletara, a small village where we have a 30 mins stop for a smoked (....and fried…) trout and where the pass road begins. The first kms after Paletara are just great - a long straight that crosses a valley with small palms - and we start getting the feeling that we’re finally starting to leave the beaten track. The unpaved road gets narrow and bumpy, but with the 4x4 it’s fine (and fun) to drive. The clouds are very low, it’s rainy and foggy. We just pass a few minibuses and some motorbikes - not very crowded.
40 km (and lots of bumps) after Paletara the paved road starts again. At a military checkpoint we have to stop - the officer is very friendly and curious about where we are coming from and where we are going. He’s glad to hear we’re enjoying Colombia (one of Kai’s suggestion - always talk about how much you’re enjoying the country and the locals will be glad to assist you) and after a short chat we hit the road again to Isnos and final destination San Augustin. At 13.45 we park the car at the hotel, having enjoyed the ride and with enough time left for the archeological sites and the Estrecho del Rio Magdalena - definitely worth the few (but intense) kms drive from San Augustin.
The Plan is to start early for the long drive. Getting the pressure in the tyres up again for the paved main road however takes a bit longer than we expected (around 40 mins) and when we leave it’s almost 9 am. We struggle a bit to get out of San Augustin since the main road is a one way road and we almost end up driving in the wrong way. A friendly police lady prevents us from doing so and gets us some directions.
We fill up a bit the tank with “corriente” since we do not see any petrol stations with Gasolina Extra. After 100 kms on the main road we then find the “Extra” fuel and fill up the car. It’s a pleasant drive, the road passes by a lake and crosses some villages and towns. The only negative aspect is that sometimes the pace is a bit low due to traffic and slow trucks.
After the village of Hobo we are stopped by a Policemen. I showed my passport, my Italian driver’s license and the papers of the car. Everything fine, there’s no need to show any additional papers Kai prepared for us just in case there were some issues. Again a few words about how beautiful Colombia is and then we are allowed to drive on towards the Tatacoa desert. It gets warmer and warmer as we reach Neiva, and the landscape changes once again: almost no vegetation anymore, just some small bushes and Cacti. We pass Villavieja and after another few kms we reach the desert, after risking to drive over an iguana that was sunbathing in the middle of the road. Simply stunning! We find some hammocks for the night before exploring the desert - how good it is to have a 4x4! The scenery is great and driving the small roads is real fun!
For dinner we get the typical lamb dish and as soon it turns dark we are astonished by the amount of stars over our heads - I had never seen the milky way so clearly, despite some beer :)
After a few hours sleep on a hammock we go for an early morning walk in the desert before setting forth again - The longest stage with another unpaved pass over the Andes awaits us. Stop for breakfast in Villavieja and then a bit less than 2 hours to get to the main road (via Nacional). The drive out of the desert is great, the road crosses small villages and passes by really green rice fields - a nice contrast to the desert. It’s a highlight when we pass old narrow tunnels and a steel bridge over the rio on a former railway track.
Back on the via Nacional we fill up the tank again and for lunch we reach Ibague. After getting some food we struggle a bit to find the first waypoint Kai gave us - the point where the unpaved road for crossing the cordillera to Salento starts. We find the turn off the main road a bit before 2 pm. Short stop to lower again the pressure in the tyres and we start. Again a narrow former railway tunnel and a we start a steep ascent towards Toche on a winding dirt road.
After half an hour we ask some locals to make sure that we’re on the right road. They confirm that the way is right - but they also tell us that it will take 3-4 hours to reach Toche. We start getting a bit worried since Toche is only half way on the crossing from Ibague to Salento and we did not really want to experiment driving in the dark on dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. In the end after a bit of discussion among the three of us we decide to stick to the original plan and not to drive back to catch the main road. And it was the right decision. At quarter past four after 50 km uphill drive we reach Toche, a pleasant group of coloured houses in a green valley. In general, we learn to raise doubts about timings given by locals, while they are quite good and always available to give you the correct direction. The three of us can still remember the little girl preventing us from taking the wrong way at a turn with no signs that day!
The road from Toche to Salento is fantastic and the landscape incredible - lots of high palms growing at more than 3000 m altitude, coffee plantations, green vegetation everywhere and blue skies. The sun starts going down as we cross the pass and start the descent to Salento, where we arrive safely at 6.15 before darkness.
This day and this drive definitely were one of the highlights during our holiday in Colombia.
Last day of our road trip with the 4x4 - we leave at around 11.30 after a stroll in Salento and a visit at a coffee finca. Tyre pressure up again and then it’s all highway drive down to Cali. No particular thrills on the two lanes highway. All goes smoothly, after 5 days we of driving we feel really comfortable on Colombia’s roads - it’s a pity that we need to return the car, after having washed away all the dust and dirt of our incredible adventure.
What to say - these five days and almost 1200 kms on Colombian roads and tracks were great fun. Exploring the area around Cali with a 4x4 is for sure a great way to make the most of your time in Colombia and to enjoy the variety of landscapes and vegetation. It also allows you to get off the beaten track and to have a unique adventure - definitely recommended! We’re glad that we decided to give the self-driving option a try, even despite of our initial concerns. And in the end everything went smooth and we always felt safe: road and traffic conditions in Colombia are fine and people are always nice and happy to help you.