seen me travel from the glorious walled city of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast to its antithesis, the modern skyscraped metropolis of Medellín, nestled in the northern Andes. As my good cycling friend Urs would say, “this can only bring about the mileage of smileage”.
5 days trying to keep my dinner down on a boat and 4 days doing pretty much nada in Cartagena left me craving the saddle once again. I was mad for the mountains too after the Central American stretch which was as flat as the proverbial pancake and baking hot to boot. I didn’t have to wait long either as 3 days out of Cartagena the beginnings of the Andes could be seen; the land becoming ever slightly warped and within 24 hours, rising hastily from the ground.
Colombia seems like it could be a country of characters now that I’ve had a week to saturate myself in it. My first night was spent in a 12,000COP ($6) Posada in San Onofre which I had been sheparderd to by Tulio, a hefty, bullish man who spotted me getting my bearings upon arrival. He claimed to be a ‘tour guide’ in Cartagena and who was I to doubt with his proficiency in English either? But after hearing some unorthodox slang, I thought to ask where he learned the language, only to find out it was on the streets. So, naturally I thought to pry into his exact line of work in the tourism sector. “Oh, I sell cocaine to tourists in Cartagena” was his animated response. “90% of you guys are looking for the good stuff up here”. Tour guide indeed I thought. Instead of worrying about staying in the Hotel of a coke dealer (which was actually his mother’s – a lovely lady who took to stroking my hair while updating the GPS later that evening), I took the opportunity to chat with him about cocaine and Colombia as maybe he’d have some rare insights. Tulio was a pretty cool companion to have in the end, taking me out for dinner and the next morning for breakfast. I met his brother too, perhaps the smiliest man I’ve ever encountered. This guy was also quite proud to show me his extensive mobile phone porn collection just before I went to bed, switching enthusiastically from video to video and searching for an impressed expression on my weary face. Satisfied with the evening’s proceedings – and perhaps a little disturbed – I fell asleep without a problem.
Not soon after hitting the road from San Onofre, a car pulled in to the shoulder just ahead of me. 3 figures got out and cracked the boot open. Thinking it just couldn’t be, especially in Colombia of all places, I was glad to see lemonade and biscuits readied instead of an uncomfortable resting place. A judge and his two children from Sincelejo, the next town over, were delighted to meet me but insisted that all people here wouldn’t as friendly as them. It was an encouraging sign though and not the last in the succeeding days where I’d be extended truly incredible hospitality. The flat landscape may have been relatively uninspiring but the people most definitely were not.
The next day again, just outside Sagahún and with a later than usual start, I paused to load up the Ipod where a wide shoulder had opened up. Another family approached, 3 deep on a motorbike, took several photos of me, shoo-ed other locals who had then insisted on photos of them and invited me back to their home to share breakfast. It wasn’t easy to escape the crowd however and before long people were asking me to speak in English because they said it was a ‘beautiful language’. Explaining that in Ireland we also have a native tongue of our own they were bouncing about waiting to hear some exotic words and continued pressing me to speak. In the silence, with around 15 sets of eyes watching and patiently listening, my pitiful memory could only come up with “An bhfuil cead agam dul do dti an leithreas maith se de thoil é”. You can only imagine the scene when their mouths opened to broad smiles and a chorus of oooooooohs and aaaaaaaahs because I had asked them can I please use their toilet in the last shreds of a parlance I once knew. I hadn’t the heart to tell them that, so mildly ashamed of my lack of words, I followed the original motorbike family back to their home shaking my head at myself.
Jesús, Cristi and Juli were full of questions about the journey and family, my impressions of Colombia and work at home. While exploring their tiny garden crammed full of banana trees, the neighbours over the fence presented me with mansanillos, a bitter lime type fruit that I had been accustomed to running over on the road. I thought to myself that this is just another experience I could only have travelling by bicycle. There is absolutely no reason to visit Sagahún and tour buses don’t stop there; they don’t even pass through the town but skirt around it, shooting towards Medellín. And because of that people there aren’t exposed to many visitors, especially from outside their own country. In that sense it’s easy to understand why people’s eyes light up when they see you, or when making an effort to talk to them or even just to take an hour and share some eggs and bread in their home.
These random encounters had been the perfect tonic for the dull topography and lashing afternoon rains I was riding through. The flat is great as a respite from climbing but after a while can become more uncomfortable. Sore hands, a painful backside and speeding cars are all aspects of this type of terrain but it wasn’t long before this swiftly changed. And when the road swung sharply away from the Río Cauca river valley just after Puerto Valdivia, the mountains were back with a bang. That day I cycled 55km from 150m to 2230m and to the hilltop town of Yarumal, marking the longest single day ascent of the trip so far. As Buff3y, my Alaska to Argentina cycling companion remarked about the road, “It’s just about sticking the bicycle in granny gear and grinding the mountain out”. And grinding it out at 7kmph means you have ample opportunity to take in the views. The mountains here are a deep green from frequent rains and along the mountainside any available space is taken up by houses, some just constructed of simple clapperboard and galvanised roof. The road barriers are used as drying spots for clothes and bedsheets and early in the morning neatly dressed children roam up and down the road to school. One day some of them even loaded their schoolbags on my rear panniers and had me cycle them home for 1km uphill! On the last stretch of climbing I met Hyojin Jeong, a South Korean female who I had bumped into in Portobelo, Panama waiting for a boat crossing the next day. I never expected to see her in the mountains here as she usually doesn’t like climbing but at the convincing of myself and Urs, she decided to give it a try. I’m still not sure how she felt with it but was giving it a fair whack on a heavily loaded bike.
As with every ascent, there’s (usually) a descent. I was never more thankful to see the road snake its way down the mountainside to Medellín in such a dramatic fashion. At the bottom of the valley you could see some scattered towns but no movement. At 3000m and looking over a kilometre and a half down there’s not much to pick out but you sure as hell are ecstatic to be heading that way. I stopped regularly along the way as the rims and brake pads were searing hot to touch and needed a break from holding them in constantly. An hour later I was down to the valley floor but as usual with cities, it’s easy to underestimate the time required to get in there and the madness that ensues navigating through 3 lane traffic. I think all that remains is adrenaline as the noise of trucks, cars and motorbikes drown out any remaining thoughts you have after the day.
For the first time in a long time too I feel I’ve earned these few days off. It was a good haul of kilometres and a nice reintroduction and reminder of the nature of mountains. Colombia too looks such a promising place. After decades of La Violencia, fighting against guerrilla groups and cocaine politics I can count myself lucky to be visiting here with the emergence of a far safer touring climate.