COLOMBIA, 27th June – 3rd July 2019
The road south from Remedios continued to be paved but was thankfully much less busy than it had been north of the town. That meant the cycling was rather pleasant as we undulated our way through the green hills, still dotted with cows, beneath the bright blue sky. The road was going up and down a lot, and in the 43 kilometres it took us to ride to the next town of Vegachi we did 800 metres of climbing, to gain just 200 metres of altitude. Along the way we had one extremely welcome surprise when we passed into an area of pine forest, which was cool in more ways than one. It was the first time we’d seen pine trees in months and there was even a rare possibility of finding somewhere to wild camp, but we didn’t have enough water with us for that, so we rode on to Vegachi.
Vegachi was a busy little town with a modern curved church that looked a little like a giant salt shed. It also had a surprising number of hotels, and after investigating many of them we settled on one being run by a friendly old woman who, after checking us in, led us through town to a friend’s restaurant where we could eat dinner. After eating our staple rice, beans and eggs we sat in the town square and watched the people, remarking again on how nice it is to have the chance to spend our evenings in these little Colombian towns.
The next day we left Vegachi with a plan to ride only as far as Maceo, which would mean another short day in terms of distance (38 kilometres) but another decent day in terms of climbing (800 metres). For the time being we were happy not to overdo it, to keep the amount of climbing at sensible levels in order to give our bodies time to adjust to the demands of cycling through the Andes mountain range for months on end. For the first 20 kilometres we remained on the paved road, before the turn off for Maceo took us back onto dirt. This back road was very quiet and initially very flat, and we wondered why they hadn’t paved this route and made a connecting road south. We soon found out when the terrain changed into sharp hills and we were forced to rise up and down steeply to make our way through. It was really hard work, and the sight of Maceo when it did finally arrive was certainly a welcome one. It looked almost European with its church tower protruding from the homes on the hillside. Unfortunately, as we prepared for the final descent we came to a road block, where a man told us we’d have to take a diversion as this road into town was impassable ahead. The alternative rolled up and down over even steeper hillsides and eventually spat us out on the far side of Maceo at a paved road. Cycling back uphill to Maceo didn’t appeal now that we were already passed it, and, as we knew there was also a hotel in another ten kilometres, we decided to just continue to that.
There was more climbing to be done, bringing our total for the day to over a thousand metres, but I felt really strong and was even going faster than Dea, something that very rarely happens. Near to our goal we hit a bigger main road that descended down to a little town and a gas station. This was where our hotel was located and from the front we were not very impressed. It was, after all, positioned on a gas station forecourt. But when we went to investigate further we were invited through the hotel lobby and out onto the far side of the building and everything changed. The hotel rooms on the other side backed onto a really nice grassy space beside which flowed a river, the noise of the main road was replaced by bird song and there was even a swimming pool. The price for a night in this lovely location was 30,000 COP (£7.50), and before we’d even finished moving in we’d agreed we’d probably be spending two nights here.
After cooling off in the pool we had dinner in the nearby restaurant and watched on TV as Colombia lost on penalties to Chile after a goalless draw in their quarter final match. This result meant that Colombia were in the unfortunate position of being eliminated from Copa America without having conceded a goal in the entire tournament, but frankly we couldn’t care less – we were just happy we weren’t going to be getting pounded with any more flour.
The next day we made the most of our rest day by playing Eureka Ball in the garden. It was the first time we’d played in months, a sign that it was finally getting cooler as we gained altitude, though it was still hot enough to enjoy the pool. Then the following morning we both spent a long time trying to readjust Dea’s troublesome front derailleur, without much success, and as a result we left the hotel rather later than planned. It was after midday by the time we headed out in the direction of San Roque, but it was only 35 kilometres and it was paved all the way, even if it would involve a big steep climb, so we still felt confident. It was Sunday and the main road was not very busy, but after a few kilometres we came to a side road that was signposted “San Roque: 24 kilometres”. This road we could also see on maps.me and it was a more direct route to San Roque. The downside was that it was not paved, but we do tend to prefer to take the road less travelled when we can, so after a quick consultation we elected to leave the highway and take our chances.
The road was predictably tough. It climbed a lot and the rough surface made our progress even slower. Our average speed was only six or seven kilometres per hour, and I began to worry about whether we could make it to San Roque. But all the hard work was worth it when we got up higher and we were actually cycling on top of a ridge with spectacular views down into the valleys on both sides of us, and of waves of ridges and valleys going off into the distance. This was somewhere special, and I was really loving it more and more cycling in Colombia.
The only problem was that time was getting on and there was nowhere to camp, thanks to the constant fences and steep slopes on either side of us. We tried asking an old couple if we could camp on their nicely-manicured lawn, but we were turned away, leaving us frustrated at how hard it was to camp in Colombia. There was nothing for it but to press on for San Roque. Thankfully the road eventually flattened out and just as dusk was enveloping us we rolled into town. And what an extraordinary scene greeted us! It seems that Sunday night is party night in Colombia, the night when everyone dresses up and hits the town, and they were certainly doing so in San Roque this night. It was an unbelievable shock to leave the quiet dirt road we’d been on all day and arrive on a small town street that was as busy and bustling with people as any European capital would be late on a Friday or Saturday night. There were people absolutely everywhere, bars all down the street, a real lively atmosphere. Perhaps the main difference from any European capital, however, was that many of the patrons of the bars were riding on horseback. Men and women would ride their steads through the streets, steering them expertly through the crowds, and parking them up alongside one another outside of a bar. They would then remain upon their animals and drink their beers in their saddles, before riding off to the next watering hole. It was a performance straight out of the wild west.
Dea and I found a nice hotel and went out for food, before sitting on the steps of the church to watch the people in the plaza. We’d done this in many Colombian towns by now but this one, on this night, was the best. There were people everywhere. Kids doing wheelies on their bikes, women, families, men in cowboy hats. An old man with a stick, shirt tucked neatly into his jeans like all the men here, his face half hidden under his hat, shuffled past and I looked at him and wondered, what’s his story? It was so amazing, so full of life here.
We were up relatively early the next morning, thinking we’d be able to cycle the 40 kilometres to Alejandria, with a midway stop in Santo Domingo to break up the day, without too much trouble. We were wrong. The streets of San Roque were much quieter in the morning, but a friendly butcher with some English skills spoke to me as we passed his shop, and, on hearing of our plans, told me that “They say the road to Santo Domingo is very bad.” I was not sure what was worse, the fact that they said that, or the fact that someone who lived here had never even taken the road to Santo Domingo.
Of course they were right. The road to Santo Domingo was very bad. It was rocky and it was steep, and it wasn’t long before we had lowered our ambitions to just making it as far as Santo Domingo and no further. This we managed to do, with an insanely steep last climb up to the plaza justifying our collapse into café chairs to order cold drinks. A hotel was in the next building, and everything was alright. We sat there and took in yet another lovely little Colombian town, this one looked a little wealthier, perhaps due to its proximity to the big city of Medellin. “Look at that,” Dea exclaimed, “that woman is picking up dog poo! We haven’t seen that since the U.S.”
There was a cattle market taking place in Santo Domingo the next morning which we passed on our way out of town. It was a really amazing sight, a timeless scene, with men in cowboy hats standing around everywhere, their horses tied up everywhere in lines around the cattle pens.
There was a lot of downhill on the road to Alejandria, but unfortunately the road was so bad and rocky that it remained a slow-paced journey for us. Along the way we saw a beautiful waterfall coming down from the hillside, and there was even a gap in the fence that allowed us to go and take a closer look. Colombia is a wonderful country, but the one major downside is the constant fences that never stop lining the road, so much so that we joked they could rival the Great Wall of China, but here was a rare chance to get off the road. It was so nice, and I went down to the river and leapt over the stepping stones into the middle of the river. I looked around and all I could see was nature and it felt so good. It was one thing I really missed.
From there the road climbed again until Alejandria, a strange town full of cobblestones where the plaza was closed for renovation. There were a couple of hostels and we figured it was trying to develop into a bit of a tourist town for people from Medellin. We didn’t like it too much, until we cycled out of town and came to a paved road. Wow, we hadn’t been expecting that! After all the tough roads we’d been on recently the tarmac beneath our wheels felt like bliss, at least for the five or six kilometres that it lasted. The road at least remained pretty decent gravel after that, and carried us up through a stunningly beautiful valley. Our goal was the town of Concepcion, but just before it we saw a finca that was advertising rooms and camping. We missed camping so much and this turned out to be a perfect opportunity to get back into it. A very kind woman who ran the finca showed us to a place close to the river where we could pitch our tent for 20,000 COP (£5). It was a lovely peaceful location and there was even a tiny little football pitch where Dea beat me 5-2 but let’s not dwell on that too much. Life was good!
It rained heavily all night and sadly the pitch was waterlogged in the morning, making a rematch impossible. There wasn’t time anyway, for we had thoughts of making it the 50 kilometres to the bigger town of Rionegro. With the road not being paved and with 1,100 metres of climbing these were ambitious thoughts indeed, but they were soon scuppered anyway. After passing another cattle market in Concepcion we tried to turn off on the road to San Vicente, only to be stopped by a road block and a woman this time, who told us the road ahead was not passable. This time our potential diversions were long and any hope of making it to Rionegro was gone. There was a road going west out of Concepcion, but it would mean joining the main highway south to Rionegro and doing a lot of cycling in heavy traffic. Then Dea saw a better solution – we could go east and then south around a big reservoir. The only slight problem was that we would have to ride back to Alejandria, but with the decent road and beautiful valley this was a bit of backtracking that was easier than most to swallow.
And what good fortune it was that we did backtrack, for along the way we saw a sign for another waterfall, a sign we’d missed on our first passing. It was a 500 metre hike uphill but it was again absolutely worth it to get through the fences and off into the nature for a little while. Instead of me describing the waterfall (falling water?!) I’ll post some pictures, and you’ll see how nice it was.
Back in Alejandria we stopped at a café and used the WiFi to check our route using google streetview. The paved road we had planned to take to Rionegro looked too busy, but there were more back road options, and we soon had our new route finalised. It began straight away with another tough rocky road, but we both climbed well and felt strong. It seemed like we were toughening up, and the views were making the toil worthwhile.
We took a break, feeling pretty good, but immediately after that we made a turn and the road started climbing insanely steeply. It climbed 120 metres in the next kilometre and was very tough with the bad road, causing Dea to get a little frustrated. In fact she got quite a lot frustrated, and threw her bike down, saying “I can’t do this!” Which was quite an inaccurate statement, for we were at the top of the steep section and she’d just done it, and what was more, she’d cycled that bike from Edinburgh, which was quite a lot of “doing it”.
Of course, Dea picked herself up and got on with it, but the road was still pretty bad and she wasn’t having her favourite time of the trip, so when the chance came to wild camp I suggested we stop. It wasn’t the greatest campsite in the world, just a little space down a track that led to a gate and a fenced-off field, but it was certainly the best we would find in Colombia. Some trees blocked us from being seen from the road, and in any case it was one of the quietest roads we’d been on, almost nobody was using it at all. We had climbed up high enough that we were in the clouds, and this really did feel like a wonderfully remote place to be.
The only slight problem with our chosen campsite was a large immovable rock that was stuck in the ground where our tent would need to be. I was unable to shift it, but I found that by bashing it very hard with another rock I could gradually wear the hard edges of it down. I continued to do this for ten or fifteen minutes. As I did so I briefly pondered the potential risk that I might accidentally bash my fingers as I brought one rock down on another. Certainly getting hurt out in this remote location wouldn’t be a good idea. But it was a passing thought, and I carried on bashing away. Bash, bash, bash. And then, eventually, the rock was worn down enough that we could put the tent on it and sleep without being disturbed.
I cooked dinner and we had a nice evening. It was really nice that we could camp again. Up at 1900 metres the temperature was very pleasant, and there were no mosquitoes. Inside the tent I wrote my notes for the day, reflecting on how it had been another very nice one that had ended in a very nice way, and then I lay down next to Dea and we read our books. I think I was pretty close to drifting off to sleep when we heard a cracking noise.
It was one of our tent poles, and it was not a great surprise. They had already cracked in three places, and this was the last one to complete the series. We couldn’t leave it as it was, bent all out of shape, and so I got up and went outside to fix it. I knew how to do it, I’d already done it with the other three cracks (and with plenty of other tent poles in the past). It just needed a piece of tube over the top of the crack to hold the pole in shape. I’d been on the lookout for a piece of plastic tube the right size for a while, but I hadn’t found one at the side of the road. I did have one thing that would work though – the remains of the selfie stick that Ciaran had given Dea for Christmas. I knew it would work because I’d already broken off one of the retractable pieces of metal to fix Ciaran’s tent pole with back in Guatemala. I’d just do the same now.
I went outside and found the selfie stick pole by the light of my headtorch. Unfortunately this light was attracting a lot of little flies towards my face which was quite annoying and forced me to hurry up. I unfurled what was left of the selfie stick and then snapped a piece off by bending it over my thigh. The metal didn’t break off cleanly, and left sharp edges at both ends, but it had at least maintained its tubular shape and I was sure it was up to the task I had in mind for it.
I slipped the piece of the metal over the end of the tent pole. Annoyingly the end piece of the pole had a bend to it that stopped the metal tube sliding on. I knew I could remove this end piece to get the tube on but untying and retying the elastic inside the pole was a big hassle that I couldn’t be bothered with, what with the annoying flies and everything. Instead I tried to just force the metal tube over the bend in the pole. It was hard work, but it felt like it could be done. As I yanked at the tube it did briefly cross my mind that the metal might suddenly come free over the bend and move at speed into my hand which was gripping the pole higher up, with the sharp edge causing me some serious injury that wouldn’t be ideal in our remote location, but as with all such thoughts, it passed quickly and I carried on yanking. Yank, yank, yank. And then the metal tube suddenly came free and moved at speed into my hand which was gripping the pole higher up.
And as the blood started spurting out of my thumb, worse than blood has ever spurted out of any part of me before, I believe I said a very rude word.