COLOMBIA, 11th – 14th June 2019
We were both very excited to leave Barranquilla and set off to cycle South America, and we did so after a mere three days in the air conditioned hotel room. They are difficult to leave though, these air conditioned hotel rooms, so getting out by one o’clock in the afternoon on the third day was pretty good really. And we actually were very excited to be making a fresh start on a brand new continent, for me my first new continent in four years, and one I’d grown increasingly hopeful for after watching videos and reading blogs about cycling the back roads up in the Andes. It looks amazing up there, and delightfully cool, and we only wish it wasn’t such a damn long way away. But for once time’s on our side, our only deadline is our boat back to Europe. Those following us closely may remember we had hoped to catch a cargo ship from Brazil bound for Senegal, but unfortunately that has stopped taking passengers, and so we’ve instead booked yet another cruise, departing Buenos Aires in March 2020 and dropping us off in Malaga, Spain for a final springtime ride home. That leaves us with a fairly relaxed nine months to cycle the Andes as far as northern Chile and then pop across to Argentina’s capital.
We started our South American adventure together by cycling out of Barranquilla through some nice quiet streets lined with colourful houses and filled with rickshaws and cyclists. To us it was a really nice place, a great way to cycle out of a city, but when a motorcyclist pulled up alongside us and drew a line across his neck in warning, we were reminded that this was in fact a dangerous neighbourhood of a dangerous city, and perhaps not a place we should linger too long. But it remained a nice, crime-free ride, and took us out of the city to the bridge over the very wide Magdalena River. Because of my back-and-forth to Taganga, it was the third time I’d ridden this bridge, and the third time I’d looked up at the brand new, much bigger bridge being constructed next to it. Once again I looked up and admired the extraordinary engineering capabilities of mankind as the half-complete bridge continued to slowly take shape.
On the other side of the bridge we came to a small town with a slightly unsavoury feel to it, and after procuring some gasoline for our stove, we turned off on the dirt road that we planned to follow down the eastern banks of the river. Almost immediately we left the noise of the main road behind and were out into the flat green countryside, feeling liberated to be so. We whooped with glee and Dea stopped to take a photo of some horses with her new camera, but as she did so two motorcycles came along and pulled up next to us. On one of them a man spoke to me in rapid Spanish, of which only one word was clear to me. “Peligroso.” Danger. He was warning us about taking this road. I asked him why, and thought at first he was worried about mosquitoes and snakes, but then he mimed stealing the camera out of Dea’s hands, and imitated a gun with his fingers, making it clear that the danger here was of being robbed.
Of course I knew there was some risk here, what with us still being so close to Barranquilla, but having this second warning of the day from the locals really made me feel concerned. This road was very remote, and the possibility of being held up felt now like a very real one. The problem was that the only other way south was to take the main road on the other side of the river, which I knew would be extremely busy and have sections without any shoulder, providing us with a very real danger of a different kind. And whichever option we chose we would be stuck with, for the next bridge across this wide river was almost 200 kilometres away. Dea and I discussed the situation, the two motorcyclists still standing next to us, until the other one, a younger guy, started asking us for money, a gift in return for their advice. ‘Oh no,’ I thought, ‘are we being robbed by the people warning us about being robbed now?’
The first man told the other to stop, and they rode off, leaving us all alone, no longer feeling quite so liberated. We discussed things further, and decided to continue on the more remote road regardless, for when all is said and done we slightly prefer armed robbery to getting hit by a bus. The road soon became a very bad surface and with our progress slow I was nervous. Every so often a motorcycle would come along and I feared the worst. The possibility of encountering a bad person existed, and we would be easy targets with nobody else around. I was keen simply to put some distance between us and Barranquilla as quickly as possible, and so it was good when the road became newly paved and we could make faster progress.
Apart from the anxiety of being robbed it was nice cycling. The skies were overcast and there was a breeze that meant it was not too hot, and the road was flat and smooth. Thunder and lightening began as the afternoon wore on, and the rain came just as the tarmac ended and we got to a really soft dirt road. It was still possible to ride our bikes on it though, and we followed it to a small town, where we cycled down a narrow street, stared at by people sitting outside their homes as we navigated through the puddles and mud and flooded intersections. We reached the town square, where kids played football in the rain and we could sit and eat sandwiches under a sheltered alcove. The atmosphere had changed already, it felt safer here in this rural town, only 25 kilometres from the city but a world away from it. But where were we going to sleep?
We rode out of town on a strange road of mud. There were no cars here, only motorised rickshaws and men on donkeys, much better equipped for the churned-up road surface, and it was fun to slip and slide along with these characters. There were a lot of people on the road now, and fences lining it, so with wild camping out of the question we instead made enquiries at a house about camping in their yard. We were waved in through the gate and made to stand and wait while the topless father sat in his chair, smoking his fat cigar, mulling over whether to let us stay. The rest of the family, three sons and a daughter in their late teens, and their mother, looked on as we stood there, unsure of where else we might go, but eventually the answer came back that yes, we could stay.
We were allowed to put up our tent under a big thatched-roofed construction, and indeed the father now turned helpful and kind, getting us some wooden boards so that we wouldn’t have to put the tent in the dirt, and offering us some chairs. We sat for a while with the family, and did our best to converse with our limited Spanish, and we felt very welcome. They lived a simple life here, raising a number of animals, with chickens and cows being the most prominent in the nearby fields, while cats and dogs and ducks roamed about our feet. It was really a menagerie of animals, added to by the constant croaking of frogs coming from the wetlands nearby and bats flying overhead catching the flies and mosquitoes that unfortunately also called this place home. We looked around and agreed, there was no doubt now that we were back travelling once again.
The dogs barked and the roosters crowed, but overall it was not a bad night’s sleep, and we were back up, bright and bushy tailed and on our way by seven the next morning. It had rained most of the night, and the muddy road now provided quite a tricky obstacle. It was a lot less busy than it had been the previous evening, which was good because there were fewer people about to witness my slipping and sliding and occasional falling into puddles. It all seemed very unfair, given that my tyres had more tread on them than Dea’s, that not only were they collecting the mud about the frame and clogging it up, but also that I was slipping and falling more than her. On this latter point, however, she insisted it was because I was cycling too fast into the tricky sections, whereas she preferred to take her time about them, which was fair enough. The worst of it all was when we came unstuck with the mud, or rather came stuck in the mud, and had to get off and fight and push our way out, because at such moments the mosquitoes would cruelly descend upon us.
The road was now very quiet, but we passed through several small towns. It all felt very safe here, the difficult road providing a barrier from Barranquilla that the bad guys probably weren’t going to cross, and in these towns there was a warm and friendly atmosphere. Many people spoke to us to ask us what we were doing, no doubt amazed by the sight of two gringos on bicycles in this region.
Through the afternoon the roads dried out and the cycling became easier, and we actually rode almost 80 kilometres in the end. The long day was partly due to the fact that we couldn’t find anywhere to camp and we just kept on riding until dark. The road was simply lined with very strong and consistent fences, and for a long time there were no farmhouses or other places where we could ask about camping. Eventually we did come to a farmhouse atop a small hill. It was now getting very dark, the road was getting worse again, and we really did need to stay here. The problem was that there was nobody outside for us to ask. Dea volunteered to walk up to the house, although this was something she quickly regretted when she was chased back by a vicious dog.
Finally after enough shouting a woman noticed us and sent a man down to talk with us. Unfortunately he brought with him bad news, and we were not going to be allowed to camp here. Now things were really looking desperate for us, with darkness upon us and little hope of finding another farmhouse to ask at soon. The road had inexplicably become wet and slippery and tough again, and as we carried on into the darkness I felt my back tyre going flat. Still, this was the kind of adventure we’d signed up to, the kind of desperate situation that requires some out-of-the-box thinking to get out of. “Dea, let’s climb over that gate there,” I said, doing some out-of-the-box thinking. We quickly unloaded our bikes and tossed them over the gate, jumped over ourselves, and pushed everything quickly across the field in the moonlight before anyone could come along the road and see us. It was an exhilarating way to end the day, and it all worked out perfectly, with a peaceful field for us to sleep in, the grunting from the field next to us aside. “At least we got the field with the cows, not the bull,” I said, “that was lucky!”
We were awake at five and back over the gate before anyone came along the road. I had two flat tyres to fix and I did so beside the road as the sun rose, the early morning motorcyclists and donkey riders surprised to see us. The road was now hilly but it was at least dry, with a line of flatter, harder earth that we could follow, carved out by the motorcycles that weaved in and out of the rest of the churned-up mess of mud and dirt. Many of these motorcyclists said hello to us, gave us a wave, or stopped to ask what we were doing. They, and the donkey riders, were the only ones using the road, and even in the towns we continued to occasionally pass through there were no cars. It really was a world free of cars along this route, and that was quite wonderful. We wondered how it was these towns got their supplies, and decided that they most likely come by way of the river that we were still following south.
By afternoon the road was nothing more than a grassy track beside the river, a lovely place for a bike ride if ever there was one. The only trouble was that there were no clouds in the sky, and the sun was beating down on us with a fearsome intensity. I’d been feeling good the past days, much stronger and healthier again after all my rest and recovery time, but this sun was starting to wear me down again. We had hoped to make it to the end of the dirt road and the town of Plato, where we knew we could find a hotel to avoid the difficulty of camping, but the sun was now making the task of reaching there a tough one. So when we arrived in Tenerife, a small town fifteen kilometres before Plato, and stumbled on a cheap hotel with air conditioned rooms, it wasn’t a difficult decision to stop early.
Of course it was good to get out of the sun and rest. There was no need to overdo things in the heat at this early stage and get sick again. We walked a little around the town in the evening and ate a nice dinner of rice, beans, and eggs at a little restaurant, reflecting on how great the cycling had been and how friendly everyone was, how good it was to be in Colombia. We were certainly feeling glad that we hadn’t turned back at the start and taken the busy main road instead, for we had really had a tremendous time riding these back roads.
We spent the next morning in the hotel writing, and I then had to fix another flat. All of these punctures were being caused by bits of metal stuck in the tyre that were gradually working their way through into the tubes, a legacy of our time on the Panamerican. It was after one o’clock in the afternoon when we got moving, and super hot once again, not a cloud in the sky. The idea to just ride to Plato today and get another hotel was already on our minds, the “let’s ride to Plato and see how we feel,” that we agreed upon a mere cover up for the “let’s ride to Plato and definitely stay in another air conditioned hotel room,” that was surely on both of our minds.
The road was busier now, and in pretty good shape, but it was also quite hilly and the sun made things more difficult than we’d perhaps anticipated. Certainly I was glad we hadn’t tried to push on to Plato the day before. As we crested one hill we finally got a sight of the big bridge that we would use to cross the mighty river, but not just yet. Plato was a little to the east on the main road we now connected with. It felt a little odd to be back amongst vehicular traffic again, although once we got off the main drag into the centre of Plato, it was once again motorised rickshaws making up the majority of traffic. We stopped for a juice and then lunch/dinner. It was already 3:30. “Not really worth going on now, is it?” “We don’t want to overdo things, do we?” “No rush, is there?”
“So, shall we get a hotel?”