Armenia, Colombia: Where is Juan Valdez?

Avoiding Rain Colombia

Colombia-Driving RiverbedA plan for an early start was foiled by early morning rainfall. I waited. But as the clock ticked, I got antsy. So I packed the bike and headed toward Manizales. Climbing through the mountains the temperature started to drop. Then I descended into a valley and out of the rain. It was in this small town at the intersection of roads to Manizales or Ibaque that I fought with myself and drove in circles for fifteen minutes capturing the curiosity and bewilderment of those on the street of this small Colombian enclave. My experience climbing mountains behind trucks in the rain met me head on at these cross roads. I looked up in the sky. The mountains a dark green with grey and black clouds moving in slow motion obscuring the peaks of the cordillera. A two hour ride through mountains in the rain , fog and behind trucks overloaded creeping up steep inclines and hairpin turns could turn into a five hour nightmare and yield me only a 80 miles or less progress by afternoon. I could take the easy road along the valley paralleling the ominous mountains but this would only delay the inevitable. I’d have to cross somewhere.

So I U-turned. Then my mind started playing tricks. Going to Manizales would mean seeing and riding by some of the tallest mountains in Colombia. Then again, while I’d be making my way west, I would still be moving slightly north. So I u-turned again.

By the time my inability to make a decision passed I was riding the extremely straight road between the mountains I crossed yesterday and the mountains I’d eventually have to cross today. Past cattle ranches, farms and tiny settlements soon I was passing through a ghost town. At least that’s what it looked like. Passing abandoned buildings now littered with graffiti. It was eerie. Then I saw the sign with aerial photographs of this town before and after.

Amero Before After

The Worse Volcanic Disaster Of The Century.

While more than 50 miles away and proudly gracing the mountainous landscape of the Colombian Andes, Nevada St. Ruis is the northernmost and highest Colombian volcano with a summit elevation of 17,680 feet, tthe volcano is covered with 15 square files of snow and ice even though it’s located only 300 miles from the Equator which I have yet to cross. Beginning in November 1985, the volcano began showing clear signs of unrest, including earthquakes, increased fuming from the crater and small explosions.

Amero Colombia1

Amero Colombia2

Amero Hospital

On November 13, 1985 an explosive eruption from Ruiz’s summit crater sent a series of pyroclastic flows and surges across the volcano’s ice-covered summit. Within minutes, pumice and ash began to fall to the northeast along with heavy rain that had started earlier in the day and swept into gullies and channels on the slopes of the volcano as a series of small lahars. (large amounts of material, including mud, rock, and ash sliding down the side of the volcano at a rapid pace) After speeding down the volcano several thousand feet and building up speed and size by eroding loose rock debris from the sides of the volcano, the lahars funneled into all six major river valleys leading from Ruiz. Flowing downstream from Ruiz at an average speed of 40 miles per hour, lahars eroded soil, loose rock debris and stripped vegetation from river channels. By incorporating this additional water and debris from along river channels, the lahars grew in size as they moved away from the volcano–some lahars increased up to 4 times their initial volumes.

By the time the lahars reached this former town of Amero in the Valley of Río Lagunillas where I stumbled upon this site of the worse volcanic disaster of the century, the lahars had traveled 60 miles and left behind a wake of destruction: more than 23,000 people killed, about 5,000 injured, and more than 5,000 homes destroyed along the Chinchiná, Gualí, and Lagunillas rivers. Accounts from survivors indicate Armero was inundated with several pulses of lahars.

Twenty years later and the entire site is a memorial to those who perished. Crosses were littered everywhere. Several cars and trucks stopped and stared at the sign. Others drove deeper into the memorial. For the first time I could remember on my journey, no words were exchanged with locals or passersby. The massive volcano that triggered this disaster was obscured from my view as I stared at the devastation.

Rain. Rain. And More Rain.

Colombian Rain Sky

Colombian Trucks

Colombian Accidente2

Colombian Accidente

Colombian Cordillera

But soon I’m climbing the windy, steep roads over another cordillera of the mighty Andes. Climbing and descending at altitudes from 8K to 11K, the roads are in remarkably good shape. But many of the trucks driving them are not. The trucks throw off my rhythm, but the sweeping, green and lush landscapes of trees and serpentine winding rivers lined with steep plantations of banana and coffee. it’s spellbinding and dizzy as I climb and look down. I am impressed by the amount of roadwork and how organized the construction sites are. A series of well engineered bridges will improve traffic flow through the tightest of hairpins.

Overall, I find Colombia to be prosperous with much building. At no point have I felt to be in danger — that is except for the continuous rain I battled for most of the day. The worst part is the grey skies are not favorable to my camera, while the trucks continue to frustrate me. When I finally reach the summit at La Linea traffic is stopped. It’s still pouring. I wait patiently but soon realize there are no cars or trucks coming from the other direction so I slowly make a move to pass. Two miles later I come upon an accident. Military and police types surround my motorcycle, gawk at the GPS and ask the typical questions. I learn that no one was hurt when a Red Cross vehicle collided with a bus, but the line of traffic backed up on this mountain road was growing. Negotiating my bike between trucks, cards and pass more military and police I count nearly 5 miles backed up on the other side of the summit. Many deliveries are going to be late tonight.

By the time I rode into the bustling town of Armenia, smack in the middle of perhaps Colombia’s biggest coffee growing region I once again opt to find a more tranquil setting for the night. Perhaps I might even find Juan Valdez. Outside the city center and on the road toward Colombia’s Nacional Parque de Cafe (Coffee National Park) dozens of working coffee farms offer accommodations. Many are rented 100% by families from Bogota, Cali or Medillen for retreats. Some are more organized like Inn’s or hotels. I wind my way through fields of coffee down a dirt road and settle on La Manuela where I spend the evening with a family from Medillen, Pacho, a recent college graduate who’s traveling his country for the first time before entering the real world, and handful of farm workers who live there and tend to the needs of the guests.

A small group gathered in the dining room for dinner and everyone was eager to hear my impressions of their country. Proud and with much honor many were disappointed I wasn’t visiting here or there. Sincere and from the heart I was sitting through a sales pitch on the beauty of the culture, geography and people of Colombia. I didn’t need to be sold. Only a couple days in Colombia and I’m assured that changing my plans to visit this country could be the best move of this journey yet.

The next morning everyone wants a photo of me and my bike. And photos of them by the bike. After the photo session I take off for Cali.

La Manuela Colombia


Photos: (1) The sky looking like this helped me make the painful decision to change my route and head south through the valley along the river.; (2) If you don’t like the roads in Colombia, use the rivers as this pick up does; (3) Amero Colombia the site of the worst volcanic disaster this century killing more the 23,000 people, injuring 5,000 and destroying 5,000 homes in the matter of a couple hours; (4, 5 & 6) Abandoned buildings from Amero Colombia; (7) The dark skies occasionally gave way only to return again; (8 & 9) Just glad I’m not on a chicken bus or driving a car because this accident delayed other vehicles for hours on the windy and twisty road over the cordillera; (10) The road despite the rain was scenic as I followed the river; (11) Colombian girls are incredibly beautiful, one for each arm and a couple reserves works for me!

4 replies
  1. Randy
    Randy says:

    Great entry Allan!
    Thks for the story on Amero, very sad. You are right about the beautiful women, my cousin married a girl from Bogata and she is stunning … I think I would have a tough time keeping my eyes on the road !!
    take care and Happy New Year!

  2. PACHO
    PACHO says:

    Hi, allan.
    I hope that you be good!
    I am Pacho, I speak with you in armenia – colombia, I was knowing colombia after of my graduation.
    I got a nice surprise when I look the web side with your comments over colombia. Many thanks.
    I hope that you take east message everywhere, I hope that you visit colombia again with calm.
    Happy holidays and wishing you all the best for coming Year.
    To all the readers of this Web- side, I hope visit colombia , my country,paraiso terrenal, has two oceanos, four islands, volcanos, deserts, snow-mountains, all the climates throughout the year, is first country of the world in cafe, third in biodiversity, has rivers (rio Amazon), first country in species of butterflies, reptiles, first country in birds, extreme sports, agriculture, landscapes, Flowers, amiable people and much but……. I LOVE COLOMBIA, I HOPE THAT YOU WHEN VISIT IT, YOU LOVE COLOMBIA, TOO! THANKS.

  3. gael
    gael says:

    Alan, I don’t know if you plan on hooking up with Sacha again, but if you do, tell him his brother thinks he should be as diligent as you about updating his site. (Just kidding. That will likely bum him out and set him in a foul mood.) Looks like you are have an equally beautiful and adventure filled trip. Stay safe and good luck through the rest of your journey.
    Gael Beriro

  4. allan karl
    allan karl says:

    hey gael — thanks for your comment here. i think sacha is in Ecuador, but not sure I’ll connect with him. He’s mad at me… oh well. I enjoyed our riding together and yes… i was always getting on him to get his site updated…. i hope he gets it going on soon too!
    smiles and thanks for tuning in and the good luck wishes….


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