Colombia – Part 2: Riding

Colombia strikes back. We cross the northern half of the country.

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December 2018

🚴🏻‍♀️🚴🏻‍♂️ Santa Marta – Chinchiná (1100km) -> Route

In true Colombian style, our first day back on the road started with our neighbour Richard bringing us fresh coffee, homemade arepas and a map of Colombia on which we marked all of his favourite places. Putting Colombian music on the speakers, we cycled away from our Santa Marta casa. We heard a ‘whoop’ and about 20 cyclists passed us going in the other direction, keeping pace with their support van. They were cycling in one day what we had done in three! Their van did a U-turn and caught up with us, treating us to the professional cyclist lifestyle with cold water and Gatorade! The sugar hit pushed us on and we completed over 100km by noon – a new record!

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The next day, after a couple of poorly timed punctures left us doing repairs in the midday heat, we arrived in the small town of Suan, which we had been warned against staying in (but our only other option was to cycle 250km in one go). True to cycling life though, we found a small restaurant with rooms upstairs run by a family who were incredibly kind and did everything they could to make sure our bikes were safe: behind a locked door behind a shutter! We hand washed our clothes but Lucy forgot to get her bra from the line and it ended up with the family’s washing at the launderette! Despite the grandpa and his portly brother leaping on to a motorbike in a heroic rescue mission, it was never found. At least it wasn’t the kindle!

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Construction work, dust, and huge trucks were to be our only view for the next 80km and we were relieved to arrive at a bed for the night. Once that was over we were back to a relatively quiet, green, beautiful stretch and, unwittingly, had cycled into the land of the cicadas. They were to keep us awake all night for the next three nights with their ‘singing’.

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On arriving at our stop for the night, another family restaurant, Lucy discovered that she had left her kindle in the hospedaje of the previous night, 80km back up the road! What ensued was an adventure in Colombian bus travel…

We were surprised that the first minivan-come-bus we flagged down knew the small village we wanted to go to and was happy to take us there. We were even more surprised when, half-way there, the driver told us the bus didn’t go any farther and he had arranged and paid for a taxi to take us the rest of the way. We went with it and got the kindle back – woohoo! For our return journey, we made sure to repeat our destination to the bus driver and get multiple assurances that it went there. Half-way there, the bus stopped, called us to the front, told us to get off and wait with a taxi driver who was “coming”. Sure enough, a battered, beaten-up banger from the 70s swung around the corner and out slouched the driver. After working out which two of the four doors worked, waiting for more passengers to fill up the additional spaces, and watching him start the car with two bare wires hanging down, we were off. We swung off the main road onto tiny back roads leading to the middle of nowhere. At first, we thought this was in order to rob us but soon realised it was to avoid the police who may not have taken kindly to such a “taxi”.

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Back on the road again, we met Julien, a fellow cyclist from Canada who we teamed up with for the next few days. We decided to stay the night in a truckstop motel attached to a petrol station. Whilst this seemed like a good idea at first – the distance between bed, food and shop was very small – we regretted it once it got dark and the Mariachi music started, blasting through the thin walls until 5 am. Thankfully, our next day was easy, all flat, the last before the Andes started.

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And started they did! Crossing a bridge, we faced an almost vertical wall – the climb had begun. For three hours we climbed 1000 metres up, enjoying the stunning views but not the copious amounts of sweat.

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Eventually, we reached Valdiva – ‘the town of the nice people’. We stayed above a restaurant, and owner Magnolia made sure to give us cyclist sized portions for every meal! Sitting on the roof, we drank a celebratory beer and sang songs whilst Jan played the Ukulele.

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We woke up to thick fog, worlds away (1000km up) from the climate we had woken to the day before. We set off, hoping it would diminish but it only got thicker the higher we climbed. It was the scariest day we have had cycling, seeing barely a metre in front of us, on windy mountain roads alongside huge trucks.

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Suddenly, on reaching the peak of the mountain, we came out of the fog into the sunshine, leaving a wall of fog behind us. We were elated, whooping and shouting our joy to the surprise of people going about their daily routine.

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Further up the road, the fog began rolling in again and out of it loomed a ginormous inflatable cartoon man, army vehicles, and various army personnel. Excitedly, they called for us to stop and take a picture with them. Before we knew what was happening, Lucy was being interviewed, in Spanish, on our trip so far and the three of us appeared in a promotional video on the army’s Twitter account! Nothing advertises the safety of Colombia’s streets better than 3 crazy foreigners on bicycles.

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That night we stayed in our favourite truckstop to date – the food was fantastic, the room really comfortable and they had a very fat dog. They also had an interesting key policy – there was only one set, held by Felipe, a youngish man of few words, wearing stained sweatpants and a disgruntled look. When one wanted to enter a locked room, one only needed to shout ‘Felipe’, at which point all 10 women working in the restaurant would join in, ‘Felipe’, and this would continue until Felipe, and all his keys, were found.

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The next day had many costume changes as we went from cool on the top, to freezing on the descent, to boiling on the next climb.

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We went for dinner in the bus station of the town, which had a very impressive cafeteria, and got chatting to a man who collected coins. We promised to return for breakfast with any English, German or Canadian ones we could find. The next day, in very broken Spanish, we tried to explain our mission to a woman who worked there. She took us around the back of the building, under some “no entry – danger” tape and excitedly presented us to Victor – a totally different employee, who also collected coins. He was not impressed with our measly 2ps and showed us pictures of his jubilee £5 coins, rare 50ps, Lira, Deutschmarks and more.

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We said goodbye to Julien as we headed to the farm of Lucy’s friend Isabella. Which was, unfortunately, at the top of a mountain. A very steep one. We started off on a shortcut that was so steep, apparently, only horses travel it, and even they were struggling to keep a foothold. It was a long day, our hardest yet, with a lot of pushing and a lot of chocolate. Eventually, we made it to what would be our home for the next 5 day – with beautiful homegrown food, tea on tap and a washing machine!!

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We spend the time resting and helping out wherever we could – making dandelion wine, mixing ingredients for soap and even building a wall out of clay!

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For our final night, we had a fireside feast in the forest, creating a vegetarian dream dinner of patacones, guacamole, babaganoush, corn on the cob, roasted cheese and homemade wine.

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We cycled off the next day feeling well rested and healthy, soon after stopping for sweet arepas dripping in butter and cheese with a side of hot chocolate – a delicious regional speciality. After our huge climb up the mountain, we needed to go down nearly 2000m to Medellin. We took a shortcut to escape the main road and gave ourselves claw hands after using the breaks full force for nearly 2 hours going down an almost vertical track.

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On the flat again, we arrived into Medellin and accidentally onto the main shopping street, filled with thousands of people getting their last minute shopping in three days before Christmas. It was good to see the city, and we enjoyed exploring, meeting up with Julien again and going on a walking tour, but we were glad we weren’t there for too long!

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We were heading for Casa Del Ciclistas for Christmas – a cyclist haven hand built in the garden of Manuel and Martha, cycle tourists themselves. Also staying for Christmas was Ferran who had cycled here from Spain, via Africa. We made pizza for everyone on Christmas Eve and then went to the home of Manuel’s sister for more food, drinks, conversation and Novena – the telling of the story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph for the 9 days before Christmas with prayers, singing and musical instruments! Jan played the guitar (sneaking in Smells Like Teen Spirit when he didn’t know the tune) and Lucy played the plastic light up maracas.

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Christmas day was relaxed, with leftover pizza, some bicycle repairs and an early night!

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Back on the road again, our destination was Fredonia, a small town up in the mountains. It was a tough cycle and we were relieved to have arrived, but we struggled to find a hotel available and within our budget. As Lucy went to look for one, Jan was complimented on his blue eyes by a man in a sombrero. This conversation moved rapidly, and soon he invited us to stay at the Finca of his son. We agreed, bought us all some beers and food to cook, and headed into the unknown (his Spanish was fast and full of slang so we had only understood about 30%). We put the bikes into the back of a truck he had borrowed and hopped in, only to begin driving down, really down, the mountain we had just painstakingly climbed. It was worth it though – we reached the breathtaking ‘Finca Isabella’, picked fresh fruit from the trees, enjoyed the view of Medellin and watched as the stars all came out.

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After making our way back up the hill, we had a long two days ride ahead of us as we pushed on to reach Hernando’s place. We had found him on Warm Showers and he had invited us to stay. We knew he wouldn’t be there, holidaying in Puerto Rico instead, but promised us the whole “house” to ourselves. What a treat!

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What we at first had identified as the bike storage turned out to be the place, just enough room to squeeze our mattress on the floor. It was basic but while touring it’s “home is where a shower is” and we made the garage our home for New Year’s Eve, regaining energy to climb the rest of Colombia’s mountains in 2019.

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2 thoughts on “Colombia – Part 2: Riding”

  1. What a wonderful adventure you are having. I am so glad that you are enjoying Colombia…it’s one of my favourite countries in the world, and you make me want to return

    Like

    1. It’s truly wonderful and we had so many great encounters during our time here. We are now in Salento and there is so much more to come in the next weeks.

      Like

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