The driver of our white van decorated with green lettering and white frill on the ceiling grinds through his gears as we pass through the town of Puente Nacional. We’re in northwest Colombia traveling on tight, steep roads on the way to Florián and the crags of La Ventana for steep sport climbing. A puppy narrowly avoids the wheels of the van. We pass two men standing in fatigues with rifles who give us a thumbs-up indicating it’s safe ahead.
The open glass window jiggles by my ear. We rattle by a colonial-style brick building, a painting of Homer dressed up as Santa riding a tricycle, sleeping dogs. The pavement ends and we hit a rough dirt road riddled with sharp rocks. Thick jungle replaces city. The van springs creak as we sway.
I hear a hiss as the rear tire drains flat. The driver takes his over-shirt off and crawls under the vehicle near a pile of fresh horse manure until the soles on his worn, brown shoes are the only things visible. Soon he teams up with the passengers to replace the tire with the spare located on the roof.
My travelling partners, photographer/videographer Rich Crowder and Adidas Outdoor pro climber Ben Spannuth, jump the nearby barbed wire fence and hike downhill toward a water source. Turning a corner, they come upon more than 50 people swimming and wading in the river. So much for the middle of nowhere.
This is my second trip to Colombia in seven years, and I’ve come back because of the warm people, beautiful landscape and exceptional climbing. In the years since my first visit, it has only become safer here for traveling Americans looking to explore places that, until recently, have been off their radar. It wasn’t so long ago that Florián, like many parts of Colombia, was not a place for visitors. Three or four year ago, if we three gringos were headed here, we almost certainly would have been taken captive. Florián was cocaine country, controlled by paramilitary and guerrillas then, but as recently as 2010, progress has been made by the government to improve safety for locals and visitors alike. Violent crime is down. This isn’t to say the drug trade is over, it’s merely less prevalent.
I look at the remaining tires: they are split and worn. I’m nervous. We soon get back on the road having used our only spare. Hours later, with the driver perpetually looking back at the recently replaced tire, we finally reach the cave.
Once off the bus, we walk through a rock awning and into the magnificent cave. We cross a series of bridges into the middle of it. A flowing river pours out the far entrance and through that opening we see the orange brick buildings and tin roofs. Florián is in the distance surrounded by lush jungle. As the sun sets, the hundreds of homes surrounding the town light up like fireflies.
For the next five days we climb at La Ventana, getting pumped out of our minds as we dangle and swing like monkeys along the roof of the cave on the many stalactites. We immediately meet locals like Emerxon Porras Jimenez who is our guide to La Ventana (he also works for the local radio station). We also meet an 18 year old named Juan Carlos Camacho Barbosa and his crew who enthusiastically shows us around town and calls Rich, Ben and I by the same name: “Macho Man.” Now this is the real Colombia.
COLOMBIA: THE GRINGO’S GUIDE
The nation’s capital is comprised of red brick buildings, and offers all the amenities of a major city, shops, boulevards, traffic, cars and people. Here, street vendors sell salted unripe mango, and sell from pushcarts filled with cigarettes and lollipops on nearly every street corner. For about $10, catch the Téléphérique de Monserrate, cable car up to the 10,341-foot summit of Monserrate, home to the 17th century church overlooking the city. For a challenge, run the 2,690 vertical feet up steep path. Back in the city, visit Cafe el Maná offering both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks—including the best cup of coffee I had in Colombia (where it’s oddly hard to find decent coffee since the good stuff is all exported)—plus delicious meals in a candle lit, intimate setting. Bogotá is the place to stock up on fresh veggies.
Rocas de Suesca
The rose capitol of Colombia, Rocas de Suesca is nearly an hour’s drive from the capital city. Alongside fields of greenhouses filled with roses is a giant cement factory. Visitors come here to hike along the train tracks, watch the climbers scale the sandstone walls and enjoy the fine restaurants. This is the oldest crag in Colombia with climbs up to 300 feet tall and 250 routes, including the (sandbagged) 5.10a La Nariz (The Nose), a three pitch crack route ascending through several large roofs, and El Traverso del Sapo (The Toad Traverse), a bolted 5.12d route which goes up compact, slick pink sandstone edges. The 20-year-old Rica Pizza (ricapizzagourmet.com) shop bakes gourmet pizza for about $12 per person, which is two to three times more than the expected price of surrounding restaurants. Other nearby options serve traditional Colombian fare such as rice, french fries, and carne (beef) or pollo (chicken) for about $3 per plate. For the best coffee in town and free Wifi, visit Vámonos pa’l Monte (vamonospalmonte.com). The El Vivac (elvivachostal.com) hostel offers a clean, spacious place to stay for $15 per night, it’s merely a 15-minute walk from the crags. For $3 you can camp at the base of the crags.
A nearly two-hour drive or three-hour bus ride from Bogotá is this town that is famed for its thermal hot springs. Climbers come here for routes like Putas de Yoyo 5.12a (sport) and Son para un Sonero 5.11c (trad) which bake in the sun for most of the day. The hostel El Paraíso and adjoining Restaurante Pandaria are located at the base of a crag. The owner of mondodedo.com, Hernan Wilke, is helpful for answering planning questions (his cell number is posted on the website). There are no taxis to take you from the crags to the hot springs so plan ahead to arrange a ride. Take in the direct sunlight or frequent the local candy and cerveza shack across the street.
It’s one heck of a bus ride to get here but it’s worth it. Located eight hours north by road from Bogotá, this small brick town is close toa giant limestone cave filled with stalactites and a 2,000-foot cascading waterfall pouring out of its mouth. The climbing here is world class, but a little shaky at times, with six routes in the cave from 5.11 to 5.13+, including a few open projects. It’s worth noting that new route development is no longer allowed within the cave but you can bolt outside of it. Eat at Restaurante Rosita, and stay at hotel next door called Hotel Guaimaral ($5 per night). For $3 per meal you’ll consume lots of starch, sweet coffee, beef or chicken.
La Mesa de los Santos (The Table of the Saints)
Take an open shower with water fed down bamboo pipes while overlooking the Andes Mountains at Hostal Sol de La Mojarra (hostalsoldelamojarra.blogspot.com). Sleep in an adobe thatched eco-shack hand built by Edgar, the owner. Once you’re settled in, you can hike 30 minutes up the hill to and pick from nearly 100 steep sandstone cracks and sport climbs, including the 5.12b roof crack La Custodia and sport routes, de Gerber para Princess (5.12c) and La del Español (5.13c).
Elevation Outdoors contributing editor Chris Van Leuven is also a contributor to Alpinist.