COLOMBIA, 9th-18th July 2019
After five days off in Guatape we got back on our bikes, me with my thumb wrapped up with plasters and a very impressively self-constructed if slightly-silly-looking red bandage to prevent disturbing the still-healing cuts. I was okay to cycle again, but we both agreed it would be better not to overdo things on the first day back, so we stopped after four kilometres and checked into another hotel.
The reason for this wasn’t only because of laziness. Actually we wanted to spend the afternoon exercising our legs in a different way. On the shores of the reservoir resides an extremely large rock. Now, you are probably sitting there imagining what an extremely large rock might look like right now, but trust me, whatever size you’re thinking of, it’s bigger than that. This rock is truly huge, and it sticks upwards out of the land like nature’s answer to London’s Gherkin building. And nobody even knows how it got there, at least nobody who makes information boards at the rock. But what somebody did do was build a set of stairs up to the top and put a bunch of restaurants and tourist stalls up there. So we thought we’d climb up it.
It was actually kind of scary going up the stairs. They were made of concrete, but concrete that was hanging out over the edge of the rock, zig-zagging up a massive crag. I felt like this concrete might collapse at any moment, and following an extremely fat woman up these fragile-looking steps gave an extra element of danger and excitement to the adventure. But the views, wow, the views really were amazing. The reservoir had basically flooded this large area of mountain tops all around us, creating a surreal landscape of water and islands that was damned cool to look down on. We took some photos, of course, so feel free to take a look for yourself:
The next day we got back into some serious cycling, and covered a whopping 19 kilometres. We started by cycling past the rock and heading into the hills beyond it to the south. The road was gravel, and then mud, and it climbed pretty steeply, which goes some way to excuse our limited mileage. During one of our breaks we were surprised by the sight of a cycle tourist coming towards us from the opposite direction. Surprised, because this was the first cycle tourist either of us had seen on the road in Colombia, apart from each other, of course. His name was Carlos, he was from Spain, and he had been cycling all around Colombia with his brother and a friend. Those two were presently in Granada, our destination for the day, where Carlos told us that the three of them were volunteering at some sort of NGO in the town that was helping it recover from the long conflict that affected Colombia for so many years and decades. We had already heard that Granada was particularly affected, but Carlos really put it in perspective when he told us that there were 3,000 people missing or dead from this one small town alone.
We made it through the mud to a paved road that descended into Granada, where we decided to stay in a nice cheap hotel that overlooked the town square. While Dea was checking us into the hotel I was approached by two young people who were dressed more fashionably than most and had a big camera with them. They were interested in what we were doing and explained that they were students from Medellin who were making a documentary about the conflict and what happened here. Another girl of about the same age was with them, who they explained was a local girl whose father was among those 3,000 missing. It was a sombre moment, one that brought home the reality of the problems that Colombia faced until very recently. The two students asked if they could film an interview with us, but I didn’t feel comfortable, our trip frankly seemed trivial at that moment, and I stepped aside to let Dea do the talking.
After we’d moved into our hotel we went to the small museum in town that exists to honour the lost lives and act as a reminder for future generations. We had to find the people at the NGO to unlock it for us, and all of the information was written in Spanish, but the wall of faces that looked down on us, portraits of those lost, was sobering enough. It was clear that the people here had suffered so much.
After that we had some dinner in a restaurant that looked down over the square, and it looked much like any other town in Colombia. The waitress was friendly, the people were socialising happily together. We watched a man arrive on a horse and park it up outside a café and just leave it standing there while he had a coffee, and the horse stayed where it was despite all the motorbikes and people and honking buses around it. This town had shown us how bad the conflict here had really been, but it also reminded us of the amazing way that Colombia and Colombians are moving forward and getting on with their lives in an admirably positive way.
The next day was a mixed bag in terms of cycling conditions. From Granada a paved road took us over another climb to El Santuario, then we turned off onto a tough dirt road for 15 challenging kilometres to El Carmen, where we suddenly found a bike path through town. Another paved road then led us to a highway, which we followed into the bigger town of La Ceja. Riding on the flat highway made for some faster kilometres, but it was not at all pleasant to suddenly be amongst heavy traffic again. One plus was that we were not the only ones, for there were many other people out cycling too, both casual riders and serious road cyclists riding fast, some of them in big groups. And arriving in La Ceja there was a billboard with a professional cyclist on it too, though it was hard to get a good photo of it with all the motorised traffic getting in the way.
The part of town we had arrived into was very developed, it could easily have been a relatively affluent corner of Europe, and we stopped at a giant supermarket to restock on things we couldn’t find in smaller towns, such as veggie burgers. On the way out of the mall we were stopped by a family who could speak great English. Well the man and his grown-up daughter could. Her newborn baby wasn’t so fluent.
“We are cyclists too,” the man, Juan, told us. “My son just cycled from Cartagena to Lima. He told me you are all like a big family. You are welcome to stay with us tonight if you like.”
We had been planning to stay in yet another hotel in La Ceja, so the invitation was most welcome indeed. Juan, his wife, and his daughter Raquelle lived in a really nice home with bicycles everywhere and vegetables growing in the garden. Juan explained that they had lived in the United States for almost two decades and had built this home and only moved back to their home country within the last year. Their son, Ricardo, the one who had done the bike trip, still lived in Florida but we got to speak with him too over the internet. He seemed like a really nice young man, and as we talked about our respective trips it was obvious that he felt a bit trapped by the office job he now felt stuck in. He said many times that he envied us, but I also envied him being 25 and having the years ahead, the chance to do whatever he wants. I hope he’ll find his way out of that office and on to his true calling before long.
We were fed delicious arepas for dinner. Arepas are a common food in Colombia, flat discs made of corn, but until now those we’d had had always been a bit dry and bland. But here Juan brought in a bag of fresh corn cobs and so these arepas were made fresh and they tasted absolutely delicious smeared in butter and topped with plenty of cheese. It was great to taste real quality Colombian food. Over dinner we chatted more with Juan, an enthusiastic, healthy man who gets up at four every morning to go for a run. “I love running,” he told us, “I run every day of my life!” And like everyone else in the family he also loves cycling, and so we also talked about the Tour de France which was now about halfway done. The cyclist we’d seen on the billboard was a professional who came from and still lived in the town and was a friend of the family, although he wasn’t one of the three Colombians presently sitting in the Tour de France’s top ten. The increasing popularity of cycling in Colombia and the success of messrs Bernal, Quintana and Uran was one of the reasons why Juan and his wife would be travelling to Europe the following week. They were so looking forward to watching the final stages of the tour live from the French roadsides, cheering their men on. Dea and I watched those stages on television from various hotel rooms, and it was the smile on Juan’s face that we were thinking of when Egan Bernal broke away on the penultimate stage to become the first ever Colombian winner of the Tour de France.
From La Ceja we had a couple of very tough days of climbing and falling on dirt roads. The scenery changed quite a bit, the endless fields of cows replaced by larger hillsides covered in crops, corn, fruit trees, avocado trees and large coffee plantations. The hills had grown into mountains, the landscapes growing more daunting as we headed deeper into the Andes. We had a great night camping at a restaurant with a large field that we shared with a couple of horses, then a short stint on a busy highway that reminded us why it was worth sticking to the back roads as much as we possibly could. It had rained and the highway was busy with trucks, and the sight of a stricken motorcyclist about to be raised into an ambulance reminded us that this wasn’t the safest place to be. She was at least conscious and being one of the approximately 50 percent of motorcyclists in Colombia that bother to wear a helmet had perhaps saved her life.
We got off the highway and returned to the tough gravel roads of teeth-gritting ascending and hand-hurting-from-braking-all-the-time descending. This was real coffee country now, coffee plants growing everywhere. After another gruelling day we made it to Fredonia, a small town balanced close to the peak of a mountain, where we checked into another old hotel and enjoyed looking down on the bustling town square from a balcony.
I often check the route ahead by looking at Google streetview to see what potential roads look like, and by chance I’d got a virtual view of a spot that actually looked like it would be good for wild camping. Thanks to Colombia’s obsession with fences we still hadn’t really wild camped at all together in the country, and this seemed like an opportunity to get back to doing something we both love. The spot I’d seen was only 35 kilometres away, not very far considering it would involve 1,200 metres of descent on a smooth paved road, so we stayed in the hotel through the morning and didn’t get out of Fredonia until two. The long descent wasn’t as much fun as we’d hoped, for the road was busy with weekend traffic visiting the mountains and it went on so long that it rather hurt on the hands and arms and we were pleased enough when it was over. From there we turned off on a dirt road along a river which was really nice for there was almost no traffic whatsoever. There were quite a few chances for camping as there were no fences, but we kept going until the point I’d found online. It was everything I’d hoped it would be, setting up the tent under a tree and lying there with my girl looking up at the clouds, cooking ourselves some dinner and sitting outside, undisturbed by anyone except for a few cows who wandered around near us no doubt a little confused about the whole thing. Wild camping is truly one of the joys of bicycle touring and it was really the only black mark against Colombia that it wasn’t something we were able to do more of here.
Unfortunately Dea woke up the next morning feeling rather unwell, and so we rode only the last eight kilometres of the dirt road to La Pintada where we found a hotel for her to recover for the rest of the day. La Pintada was a horrible crossroads town, more crossroads than town, although that didn’t matter much to Dea – she passed out straight away and didn’t leave the room until the next morning.
Our enforced stop in La Pintada actually had a tremendous benefit, for we checked our route and decided to make what would prove to be a fantastic change to it. We had been planning to take on a 1,700 metre climb on a minor road to avoid the highway, but when we left La Pintada the following morning it was instead following the highway in an effort to make back time. It followed a river valley and was therefore flat, and it had a big shoulder, but best of all there were a lot of roadworks taking place along this highway. We kept coming up to sections were the traffic was being held back but we were waved straight through, and consequently we very often had the road to ourselves, which was brilliant.
Progress on this quality, flat road was much faster than usual. In fact we’d done our usual daily distance by ten a.m. And it was also interesting that instead of being surrounded by agriculture as in most of Colombia, we actually passed through more regions of natural jungle along this road. One really interesting if quite disgusting consequence of this highway-jungle was when I spotted a wild cat at the side of the road. It was, sadly, not all still in one piece, but it was still impressive to see its orange fur spotted with leopard-like markings and its giant canine teeth as it lay there motionless. It was not very big, not much larger than a domestic cat, and I didn’t know what it was until we saw a sign at the roadside later on warning to watch out for animals, with a picture of the animal I’d seen described as a tigrillo. I didn’t take a picture of the roadkill, so here’s a tigrillo I got off Google images instead.
Dea had made a full recovery and was feeling good, but as the day went on I began to feel bad with the same symptoms she’d had, and so we stopped relatively early at a gas station hotel. I still wasn’t feeling great the following morning, but we’d already booked a hostel in Pereira for the following night and we had to keep going to get there. Pereira was a significant milestone for us. About two-thirds of the way down the country, it was a city with a lot of bike shops where we planned to rest and rebuild our bikes, and also visit with Irma and David, a couple we’d got to know on the slopes of Acatanengo in Guatemala.
The going got a lot harder as we started to climb up more. Having descended so much from Fredonia it was hotter at these altitudes, and things only got worse when we left the highway. Perhaps because of all the construction work on the highway, the minor road we switched to had a lot of traffic on it, and it wasn’t very pleasant riding, dripping sweat as we climbed slowly on the tight corners. It was a really tough day that I’m sure had us both questioning why we were doing this, but our reward came in the end when we found an ecohotel high up in the mountains. The rooms were out of our price range but we managed to persuade them to let us camp for the sort of price we could afford, and the result was a lovely evening. There was a swimming pool that we could cool off in, and then we had a terrace/balcony area that was ours to pitch our tent on and sit and look out at a stunning view over the Colombian mountainsides. It was surely the best hotel room we’d stayed in yet!
We were up early the next morning, steeling ourselves for one last challenge before our rest time in Pereira. We planned to take on some dirt roads over the mountains in front of us, an 850 metre climb on roads of dubious quality which would certainly justify the rest in the city. We started well, climbing the first five steep kilometres in an hour. But then we were stopped by a man in a village who said he was himself a cyclist. He suggested another route, diverting east towards Santa Rosa and joining the highway to Pereira a little earlier than we’d planned. Looking at the elevation profile on Dea’s phone and considering our tired legs, we didn’t need much convincing that his route would be an overall improvement, and we took his advice. It proved to be the right choice again, cutting out a lot of climbing and leading us to the city by early afternoon. Cycling into Pereira took a little bit of navigating to avoid the busy main throughfares, but there was actually a bicycle path for the second half of the ride into the city centre. We had done it, we’d made it to Pereira and another leg of our Colombian cycling adventure had been completed. Now it was time to rest and to rebuild our failing bikes, so that we might stand a chance of making it through the rest of the country!