El Sifon

The city of Manizales is around 8,000ft above sea level and the route we would be taking to the west climbed quickly to around 13,000ft, before we turned off to head further up El Sifon. While we were pretty comfortable at this altitude, it had been a while since be had been up much higher and to date this would be the highest road we had driven Ruby on. There was nowhere in the way of places to stop in-between either, so we would climb straight up and then take it easy for the day to adjust to the higher altitude.

As we started the climb out of Manizales we were on a decent, if slow road. Ruby is slow enough going up hill, our heavy van only having four gears. Then there’s the countless trucks to get stuck behind. Get stuck behind one for too long and our engine will overheat, so there is a fine balance between knowing when its worth over taking or whether if we do we’ll just have to pull over anyway. Then there’s the bends, we are as good at cornering as we are at going up very steep hills, especially as since our trip out to Florian, we’ve been driving without an anti roll bar. Honestly though, I’m not sure theres much difference.

We plodded on until we were pulled over at a police checkpoint. This is pretty normal. Most of them just want to be nosy at the van. The have a quick flick through the paperwork and then take a load of selfies with us and photos of the cats. This guy was on another level. He checked every single document that we had, thoroughly. Then, when he was finally satisfied that it was all in order, he got a bit more chatty. He asked us where we were going for lunch, we had no really lunch plans as we’d just eaten a big brunch to see us through the drive, so we shrugged and thought nothing of it. Eventually, he waved us on.

Ruby didn’t seemed thrilled by the slow incline, but slowly we made our way higher and higher. As we neared the turn off the main road, a police car overtook us and pulled alongside. We realised it was the guys from the checkpoint and they asked if we wanted to go to lunch with them. That explained the question earlier. We weren’t really hungry, but it seemed to rude to turn down the invitation and so we followed them up to the visitor centre for Nevado del Ruiz which also has a restaurant.
The place was basically deserted and the four of us took a big table and ordered the typical local lunch; beans, rice, plantain and some kind of meat, while I settled for eggs. One guy spoke a little English and the other none at all. We chatted away in broken Spanish. As ever, they were keen to hear our impressions on the country. Did we like it? How were the people? We were honest, we genuinely loved Colombia, including its varied landscapes and friendly people. This seemed to make them very happy, the natives here are proud of their country.

After wed eaten, we went to pay for our meal but we were waived away.
When we come to England, you buy lunch, they said. Well I doubt I’ll be there, but if I am I certainly wont argue. Now incredibly full, we got some photos with our new friends before they turned and headed back down and we continued onwards.

It wasn’t so far now, but the tarmac road had stopped and we were on a reasonable dirt road. The road had also levelled out somewhat and was a bit easier on the van, she was still struggling though. Before long, we got stopped at some roadworks. With the engine so down on power, we decided to quickly whip off the air filter and see if it made any difference.
We waited a little while longer in the queue before we set off again. Suddenly, I had an accelerator pedal that worked. It had been a fairly pointless thing most of the way here with little difference to be had between a gentle press and my foot flat on the floor, now it was back. Clearly, our air filter was filthy and that accompanied by the thinner air up here, was starving the engine. As much as it would have been an easier drive to leave it off, we were now on a dusty dirt road so that wasn’t really an option. We pulled over, refitted it and began our slow crawl upwards. At least I could clean it when we got there.
As we continued higher I waited for the road to become worse. We had seen a few other peoples videos of the road, but its pretty hard to gauge the conditions on a video. Who knows how it has changed since then anyway. While we hit some more roadworks, things were still easy going. A friendly chap very apologetically asked us where we were going, before informing us that that particular road wouldn’t be open again until 3pm. We hopped out for a look at the stunning view around us and realised we had officially driven higher than ever before.

After about a half hour wait, we were waved through. He warned us to go slowly, as there was still construction traffic around but there wasn’t any fear of us going anywhere fast. I was glad that it was pretty much a level road now as I’m not sure we could have handled any more incline.
There was indeed a lot of construction traffic and they were building a beautiful new road. This was also the entrance road to the national park and I wondered if when we passed the entrance it would be so good, but for now the majority was brand new flawless tarmac and a pleasure to drive whilst taking in the views.

Before long we passed the turn off to the national park and kept going, still the construction traffic continued. It was a little stop start, as you would round a bend wait for a digger to make a drive-able path for you, or a huge truck to back out of the way, but easy enough. Clearly there wasn’t enough traffic on the road to warrant traffic lights or a one way system and so when a lone car approached the work traffic they jiggled around a bit to let you past, and then kept going.

On the whole it was an incredibly easy drive, the potential river crossings dry and then surface pre-graded before the tarmac was laid. I couldn’t help but feel it was perfectly timed as no doubt this lovely road was going to open up these remote hot springs to coach loads of tourists, we had sneaked in just before it seemed.

By mid-afternoon we had arrived at our camping spot for the night. It’s just a bloke in his lone house who lives on the access road to the hot springs. He doesn’t mind if you camp outside and while its on the road, it’s so remote that passing traffic was not going to be an issue.

We sat in our camping chairs and enjoyed the last of the sun as it shone on the snow cap peak of the volcano in front of us. It was a close as we would get, within the last few years it has been made illegal to hike to the summit as its still very active. True to this we were rewarded with a massive cloud of smoke from the crater as we sat in its immense shadow.

While we had only planned to stay one night here, the next day was a complete contrast. The mountains around us remained hidden behind drizzly rain clouds and it didn’t seem like a nice day to visit. We decided we’d spend the time trying to clean our air filter and service our diesel cooker which recently had been pretty reluctant to start, and with this new elevation had decided not to work at all. Luckily, on my recent trip back to England I had picked up a service kit.

In all the time we have owned the Wallas, that is the last 5 years, it has never been serviced. We had planned to take it in The States but when the pandemic changed all our plans it never happened. Being made by a European company there aren’t many other places to take it. The nearest and only one on this continent is in Argentina. Therefore when it started misbehaving, it seemed like it was up to me to give it a go. I had no idea what I was doing and hoped it was pretty obvious. It was a pain to take it out, the whole sink system needed to come out too as well as all the kitchen drawers but eventually I had it there. It was filthy, but not too complicated. We spent a bit of timing fitting a new burner mat, fuel needle and glow plug and then the entire rest of the day cleaning off years of grime we hadn’t been able to get to.

By the end of the day it was reinstalled. We went to test it. It didn’t work. Then as we cooked dinner on our back up gas stove, the gas cans ran out. It was not meant to be it seemed. We hoped that when we returned to a lower altitude the following day it might be better, as we were trying to operate it out of its range, but something told me this wasn’t going to be the case.

It was a chilly night with no heating over 4000m and the next day was as miserable as the last. At least we had seen the volcano on our first afternoon, because since then we hadn’t so much as had a glimpse. Despite the miserable weather we decided to hike to the hot springs anyway, a 2km downhill trail. We took the road as it was a lot drier than the muddy footpath that also cut down the valley. This was the route the horses took every morning to bring milk down from the mountain.

It was easy enough to walk down and before too long we saw the steaming valley ahead of us which must have meant hot water.

In complete contrast to the thermals in Santa Rosa, these are wild. You are simply accessing a mountain river, that happens to be heated by the nearby volcano. There’s not a piece of concrete in sight, and barely another person either.

We arrived and were amazed by this beautiful rugged place with it bright green rocks and sulphuric water. A couple of other people were there, but this was an entire river and there was plenty of space to get a private pool to yourself.

After the cold damp weather, it takes a while to get used to an incredibly hot river but it was gorgeous. I could have stayed there all day but the reality was that we had no way to cook dinner later and we really needed to be getting a move on. We enjoyed a few hours and then sadly it was back out into the cold.

The walk back up was a lot harder too. After spending an hour relaxing in the lovely hot water, it wasn’t so pleasant to be back in the cold rain, going up hill. It was safe to say we weren’t yet adjusted to the altitude either, breathing was a bit of a struggle. Slowly we made our way back to Ruby and got ready to leave. While we were struggling to breath we hoped that now with her newly cleaned air filter, our engine would do better.

We had been told by several locals that the road through to Murillo wasn’t too bad and a much better route to take than looping back via the main road. They were indeed correct and it was easy enough to drive, it was a shame that we drove mainly in cloud and fog as I’m sure the views would have been incredible. They also would have hinted at our next place of interest, Armero, but in the current weather conditions we were none the wiser.

My main concern was getting our cooker working again and once we had arrived in Murillo, now at a reasonable 10,000ft, we tried again to no avail. This was also a tiny town and not one where you could buy cans of butane. Tonight’s dinner wasn’t going to be exciting. The cats too were unimpressed, as this town appeared to have an enormous pack of roaming stray dogs, they were kept in. The rain continued and things were a little subdued that night, the highs and lows of van life I suppose.

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