As a builder/designer I can’t help but note the construction standards of the places we stay in (i.e., pretty cheap). I have seen some pretty abysmal plumbing and flimsy structures that one marvels are still standing but the ‘piece de resistance’ was certainly our shower in Pitumarca. The electric shower head (aka. Suicide shower or Frankenshower) was just above my head. The water spewed in all directions. The neutral and hot leads were spliced with a bit of tape. The ground connection just dangled in midair. The 220 V, 40 amp circuit breaker with exposed terminals was surface mounted, handily within reach – just in case it tripped while you’re standing barefoot in the shower. Oh well, it least the water was warm!
For some, Colombia evokes images of brutal leftist guerrillas, paramilitary death squads, corrupt police and violent drug cartels (i.e., don’t watch Netflix’s Narcos prior to visiting). However amongst bike tourers it is almost universally recognized as an awesome place to ride with friendly locals, good roads and beautiful scenery. Accordingly our hopes were high as we dragged our bike boxes out the front door of the airport in Cali (we had flown from Peru). It was 4 PM and the weather, hot and muggy. Rain clouds were building but it was only a flat, 20 km into Cali so we decided to put our bikes together, there and then, and ride into town. I struggled with one of the front pannier racks taking longer than hoped, nevertheless once riding, it felt great to be back on the bikes, creating a cooling breeze as we pedalled hard towards town. As we neared Cali the traffic intensified, the shoulder eventually disappeared, it started raining and as darkness fell the chaotic traffic was at its peak and we were in the midst of it.
It is hard to accurately describe the motorcycle ‘scene’ in Colombia without sounding overly dramatic. They are everywhere, driven by all walks of life, respect no rules and take IMO, enormous risks. The kids from a very young age grow up on them and everyone appears totally comfortable weaving through traffic, talking on their phones, eating, carrying babies in one arm while driving with the other, as many as four to a bike, helmetless, etc. For us, riding in the rain and dark, trying to find our hostal, weaving through rush hour traffic, up onto sidewalks (following ‘motos’) was our introduction to Colombia. It was pretty intense.
The following days were spent getting to know the city and planning our route north. Our third day while hanging out on the roof top terrace of our hostal an earthquake (epicentre approx. 70kms north) shook our building noticeably. It is a disconcerting feeling. My stomach was queasy for a few minutes after. Cali is known as the Salsa Capital of the World and that night we went out to La Topa, one of the famous Salsa dance clubs. Getting frisked by a 500 lb giant of a man outside the club and then once again inside the door was a bit disconcerting (a reflection of the not so distant, violent past?) but, I must admit, I’ve never been in a club so suited to dancing…..and dance they did! It was fun to watch but I didn’t have the cojones, nor Claire, to get out on the floor to practice our nonexistent salsa dance moves so we made it an early night.
Planning our route north was frustrating. For one we couldn’t find a road map of Colombia anywhere. Though we are using various mapping apps, a paper map of the country helps to plan our general trajectory. One would think that given the wealth of info on the web and guidance from local riders (Colombia has a big cycling culture) it would be relatively straightforward. As a map-guy I might be too harsh a judge but local map reading skills are nonexistent. When showing potential routes on our phone to people they would ignore the map and simply refer to town names. Moreover, our desire to ride less travelled, more scenic routes was rarely understood. Cyclists want to be on the busy routes with lots of other riders. Is this a hold over from past security concerns or is it simply that Colombians are generally gregarious and are inured to traffic noise and road safety considerations? We couldn’t figure it out. Plus the general lack of knowledge of routes outside their local area and the propensity to always want to be helpful, led to a remarkable lack of quality info.
Nonetheless we persisted and managed to find some awesome rides most of which involved big climbs. The first leg, from Cali to La Virginia, was relatively flat, through sugar cane country and some quiet backroad towns. The general lack of traffic compensated for the occasional 5-trailer long ‘cane train’, its last trailer weaving erratically onto the shoulder….scary! We then attempted the 8 km climb at 10% grade to Belalcazar. It was an absolute killer (I can hear all the hardcore Squamish riders scoffing at the suggestion. Try it with a 45+ kg bike!) and half way up a farmer gave us a lift to the top, where we pedalled along a beautiful ridge through coffee country. Two days later we almost started up the long climb from Supia to Caramanta that I had misinterpreted as 1 km of dirt and 27 km paved (it was the reverse). We got our bikes on top of a ‘chiva’ (a converted truck-bus servicing rural communities) for the very rough, boney ride up to the start of pavement….we never would have made it. Somehow our bikes on top of the bouncing bus survived. Another lovely ridge ride followed. On one long descent I was going at what I thought a good clip when a garbage truck passed me at maybe 65 km/hr. Bumper-hitching (remember doing that?) behind the truck was a kid on a BMX bike, no helmet, no shirt waving at me to try and keep up. And so it went.
Hot and muggy but pleasant riding through sugar cane county
Riding into the city of Medellin was not something we looked forward to but luck was with us. Other riders we met en route insisted we not bother with the ‘ciclovia’ and just stay on the highway. The 4 lane highway turned into a 6 lane ‘autopista’ with no shoulder but somehow we managed to hang with a bunch of other riders as they just took over one of the lanes as we rocketed into downtown Medellin on a descending grade. We had only a vague idea of where we were so when the group of cyclists in front of us exited we followed, relieved to be off this madcap trajectory. In short order the exit ramp led us to a road that they close every Sunday to vehicles offering a pleasant, stress free cruise to within a short pedal, on busy city streets, to our AirBnB.
Medellin has a grim reputation that it no longer deserves. We found the city of ‘eternal spring’ very welcoming and though not exactly tourism friendly we enjoyed our wanderings. Only once when looking for bike shorts for Claire did we wander into a decidedly sketchy neighbourhood, but it was midday and the streets were crowded so we just picked up our pace and felt fine. On another walk we were caught in a downpour and we decided to take the Metro home. It was rush hour and we were crammed in every bit as tightly as the images of the Tokyo subway, door-pushers and all. I ended up face to face with a young women from Portland, playing Ultimate Frisbee in the first women’s ‘pro’ league (travel & fees covered) and making her living online – you meet all types! After four days in Medellin we were ready to leave. The frantic pace, noise, congestion, etc. was wearing us down and we longed for some backroad riding and small villages.