COLOMBIA, 19th-26th June 2019
After our rest day in Since we were keen to get going the following morning, especially when we looked out the window and saw that it was cloudy. Unfortunately, by the time we’d packed up and got our stuff down the stairs and back onto the bikes it was sunny again. But there wasn’t anything to do about that, so we cycled out of town and were off on the great dirt roads again. There really is some lovely cycling to be had on these back roads, and we enjoyed cycling past the cows and stopping in a little village for ice cream, as had become our lovely little routine.
With a couple of hours of daylight left we were pulled over by a police car, one of the few cars on the road. They wanted to know where we planned to stay the night, bringing back memories of the police in China wanting to make sure we’d always be in a hotel. Ironically we were currently loving staying in hotels, but this was the first night in a week when there wasn’t going to be one en route and we were planning to wild camp somehow. That was a little difficult to explain to the police though, so I told them we were going to San Marco, a town that was almost on our route and too far ahead for us to cycle to, but close enough to seem plausible. The policemen were satisfied with that. They smiled at us and wished us well, handing us some water before driving off ahead.
We rode on and it started to get late, and we didn’t know where we were going to sleep. Colombia really has the best fences in the world, and there were very few people living out here to ask, but enough passing by motorcycle or horseback to make clambering over a fence or gate unseen out of the question. It was a bit of a relief then to eventually find a finca set off from the road that we could cycle over to. A man and woman greeted us and chairs were brought out for us to sit on. They seemed friendly and there was plenty of space for our tent. But the man made a phone call, while simultaneously using his motorcycle to herd a lost cow through a gate, and then came back and told us unfortunately we couldn’t stay. The landowner, no doubt far away in Medellin or some other town or city, had said no.
We reluctantly got back on our bikes and resumed pedalling. Camping here was so hard, all the land out in the countryside belonged to people who weren’t here, fenced off, not for public use. But we knew there was a village in a few kilometres and we hoped to have better luck there. And indeed we did, for the first property we came to had the word “Hotel” on the gate. We had to laugh.
It was a big property, a farmhouse in a spacious yard, and there were a group of men sat outside watching a television set, for Colombia were once again playing a football match. Amongst the engrossed men were the two policemen, who for whatever reason had not thought to mention this hotel to us earlier. Another man, the owner, showed us to a room inside which, while pretty basic, had air-conditioning and therefore won our hearts instantly. But before enjoying that we went outside and watched the final minutes as Colombia scraped a 1-0 win over lowly Qatar, whose capacity to buy their way into football tournaments had them inexplicably competing in Copa America this year. At the final whistle the two policemen got up and walked over to their patrol car to go back to work, and, with darkness having descended, one of them casually asked us, as an afterthought really, if we were going to continue cycling to San Marcos.
The next day we returned to tarmac and rode westwards on it all day until we reached Highway 25, the route most cyclists follow for hundreds of kilometres from Cartagena to Medellin. But after the fun we’d had on the back roads there wasn’t much to be said for this truck-heavy route, and so we got off onto another dirt road as soon as we could the next day. But it was only a brief reprieve, and we had to rejoin the main highway for 70 kilometres or so from Planeta Rica (which, if my Spanish has improved at all, I believe means Delicious Planet) to Caucasia. Thankfully it had a wide shoulder the whole way and really wasn’t too bad for making a bit of faster progress. In Caucasia the best option for a hotel happened to include not only air-conditioning but also a swimming pool. The start of our long-awaited climb into the mountains was now only a couple of days away, and we thought we’d better enjoy these heat-avoiding luxuries while we still had a good excuse.
We made use of the pool and then went out for some street food in the evening. One major benefit of our current hotel spree was that it allowed us to see what towns were like in the evening, something we didn’t often get to do. And Colombian towns come alive with music and people out in the streets. A friendly pizza maker went out of his way to make a veggie pizza for us, a really delicious one, and we complemented it with fresh juice from another stall, which was also delicious (they really should have called this town Delicious Planet), and we sat and enjoyed this feast while watching men playing cards, motorbikes whizzing everywhere, music coming from somewhere. We chatted and felt happy to be here.
The next morning we didn’t really feel like leaving. We liked it here, and the way the towns and hotels were over the next stretch it made more sense to rest a day and then get up early to cycle the 90 kilometres to the next town of Zaragoza in a single day. So we had a pretty relaxing day, swimming in the pool, where I invented a very fun game of pigeon-scaring. The pigeons would come and drink water from the other side of the pool, so I’d dive under the water, swim discreetly across, and then spring up next to them, shouting “SURPRISE!” and bringing much amusement to Dea. The funny thing is that this game sounds kind of mean, and in a way it is, but please bear in mind that pool water isn’t really good for pigeons, so making them scared to drink it is doing them a favour really.
We then went back to our air-conditioned room and I watched Colombia play their final group game of Copa America, this time against more conventional opposition in Paraguay, and record a third-successive victory that had them finishing top of their group. Then Dea and I decided to go out for a walk around the town. We wandered away from the main street and down a maze of back streets where people, as people do everywhere in Colombia, were sitting in the shade outside their homes. Some kids were kicking a ball in the street, but otherwise things were very relaxed and peaceful everywhere. We felt nothing of the dangerous reputation of this country whatsoever. We were on our way to a park, and it was just across the street, so very close, when everything changed. Suddenly we came under attack.
I heard the roar of motorbikes behind us and looked around. It was a big group of them, all beeping their horns madly. We were walking in the road, as there was no footpath, so I got us up onto a small grass verge. I could see that the majority of the motorcyclists were wearing yellow Colombian football shirts and one of them had a big Colombian flag being waved from the back. Football fans, clearly, out celebrating their team’s success by driving around making lots of noise. We stood back to watch them pass, but when the first ones reached us a passenger on the back of one of them hurled something at us. It hit Dea hard. I was furious, but there was no time to react or do anything, before another attack came at us. They were hurling flour at us, not particularly dangerous, and yet completely unprovoked and unnecessary. And the assaults kept coming. We were stuck at a corner, blocked in by a hedge, there was nowhere to go. I turned Dea around and did my best to protect her, taking most of the flour hits on my back, like a man. The bikes just kept coming, there must have been at least 20 or 30 of them. I felt vulnerable, violated. It was a horrible experience.
I soon lost any man points I’d gained protecting Dea by spending the rest of the day complaining like a girl about the flour I’d got in my eye (which did really hurt) and insisting we spend the rest of the day hiding in the hotel room. But the truth was this incident had really affected me negatively. It was clearly just some overexuberant football fans celebrating in a way that no doubt made sense to them with a bit of alcohol and a bit of mob-mentality, and no one can deny that successive 1-0 victories over football powerhouses like Qatar and Paraguay deserve to be celebrated, but I wasn’t convinced that covering strangers in flour was the best way to do it. I felt so powerless in those moments, so unable to do anything, and so unwelcome here. We hadn’t seen the motorcyclists throwing flour at anyone else in the street, and, while it was probably just because we were soft targets by an unfortunate combination of our location and very bright clothes, I couldn’t help feeling like it was because we were foreign and unwelcome. Somehow it made me forget all of the very nice and friendly and welcoming people we’d met through Colombia so far. It made me want to go home.
The next morning the alarm woke me at 5:30 a.m., making me even less keen to continue cycling. But my total distance cycled since Paris had just ticked over to another milestone, and I am not the kind of guy who says he’s going out for a 100,000 kilometre bike ride and then quits and goes home after 96,000. I wasn’t going to let a few idiots ruin things, so I got up and we were back on the road by seven. A big bridge took us out of Caucasia and then we were off on a new paved road. It was the only alternative route south, the only option other than Highway 25, but it had very little traffic on it. There was a wide shoulder and yet hardly any vehicles on the road, and consequently it made for some very pleasant cycling. Overall it was an easy, enjoyable day that got my spirits back up, though there was one bigger climb at the end of the day just before our destination of Zaragoza, made more exciting by a sudden thunderstorm. There was nowhere to seek shelter, and I was counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder to make sure it didn’t get too close. When it got down to two seconds and the thunder sounded exceptionally loud I realised that there wasn’t actually anything I could do to make sure it didn’t get too close. In fact by that stage I actually did think it too close, but there really was nowhere for us to hide, so we just kept on going, slowly uphill. It wasn’t really the time to hang about at the highest point either, so we whizzed down into Zaragoza.
We had started early because 90 kilometres felt like a long way to us, but with the road being so good we were safely in Zaragoza by mid-afternoon. We found the town square and checked into a hotel with a strangely art-deco appearance that had big windows overlooking the square. There was a restaurant beneath our room where we had great rice, beans and eggs, and a bakery across the square where we went for dessert. It almost felt a bit European, for with the storm passed we were sitting outside on tables in the square, though it’s unlikely you’d get a doughnut, an ice cream, and a coffee all for £1.15 anywhere in Europe (and the air-conditioned hotel room overlooking the square would probably cost more than £10 too). We went back to that room and watched the people from our window, feeling pretty good about things once again.
From Zaragoza the reason why there wasn’t much traffic on the road became clear. The wide paved road was nowhere to be found, in its place came a dirt track. The plan is clearly to eventually build a highway all the way through, connecting north to south, but along this section work had only just begun, and for the next 60 kilometres we would have to battle our way along on the old road. It was roughly following a river, but it was climbing and falling frequently, the flat landscape we’d been in for most of Colombia now turning rather hilly. This was a good thing, it was the start of the Andean foothills, and we would hopefully soon be at a cooler altitude. For now though, we went up and down, up and down, through muddy sections, over rocky sections, and through plenty of puddles. It had of course rained heavily the day before, and one or two puddles that blocked the whole road were so deep that we got soaking wet feet as we rode through them.
For all the difficulties of the road it was a great adventure, and the scenery was improving with every turn as triangular green hills sprung up everywhere. “I love this, I think it’s wonderful!” Dea said to me, as we made our slow progress through the challenging terrain, made slower by her happy little self constantly stopping to take photos. We had hoped to ride the 65 kilometres to Remedios, but with a 500 metre climb coming at the end of it that was too much on this bad road, and, barring any more random hotel miracles we were going to have to camp.
Around 4:30 in the afternoon we were both tired and we spotted a house off the road with enough flat space around it to make camping a possibility. Like most of the places we’d seen along this route, it looked like it belonged to rather a poor family, but the brightly-painted gate outside it made it seem quite welcoming. Dea volunteered to go and ask if we could camp, and returned triumphant, saying that, like so many places in the world, it was the old woman who was in charge, and she had said yes.
And indeed it was this woman, Faviola, who spoke to us and made us feel welcome as she sat us down outside and brought us glasses of lemonade. Mine had two ants floating in it, but I did my best to ignore that as Dea, whose Spanish extends beyond “Delicious Planet”, chatted away with Faviola. She was so warm and friendly and full of smiles as she stood on her porch, her breasts resting upon the coloured fence posts. A man lay in a hammock behind her, a kid kicked a football against a wall. This boy then came and smiled at us, his eyes wide in disbelief at our stories. Turkeys walked around like they owned the place, while two sorry-looking dogs slunk around. In the yard were several ponds full of fish. Land was being flattened for the new road close by, it would run by the house. Faviola seemed pleased about this. Maybe it would provide new opportunities.
We put up our tent and cooked dinner, and Faviola sat with us and smoked a cigarette, the rest of the family also coming out to see how we put up the tent and cooked. These were good people, real people, and it was a nice experience to spend an evening with them. We had only gone up a couple of hundred metres but it felt a tiny little bit cooler, there were no flies or mosquitoes around, and we hadn’t even had to jump over any gates. Maybe camping in Colombia wasn’t so bad, after all.
We bid fond farewells to the family in the morning and returned to the undeveloped road. Now was our first real test of the mountains, the 500 metre climb up to Remedios. The road was still bad, if anything it got worse, with more puddles and more rocks, but the gradient was rarely very steep and we climbed strongly. We passed through some increasingly spectacular scenery, and succeeded in riding up in a couple of hours without too much trouble at all. It was a good confidence builder for the Andes.
We knew that at a certain point the road would become paved again, and this became something of a goal for us to reach. After a day on the tough road I was craving a smooth road surface again. And yet as soon as it arrived I regretted it and wanted to go back. The tarmac connected two towns, Segovia and Remedios, and it was busy with buses and speeding motorbikes, here free from the speed limits enforced on them by the rocky road. There was no shoulder, and it was a not very pleasant last few kilometres to Remedios, although it was interrupted by one nice moment when a team of young road cyclists stopped to chat with us. Colombia is well known for being a popular road cycling nation although we hadn’t seen too many thus far, probably because we’d mostly been on dirt roads. This was the next, enthusiastic, generation, and they were amazed and hopefully maybe even inspired by our journey. It was great to see young people out on their bicycles, and just a shame they had to train on this busy road.
It was up and down all the way to Remedios but that was just how it was going to be from now on. “It should get flat again in Bolivia,” I reminded Dea, as we descended down into town and made our way to the central square. I was feeling hot and exhausted. We were now 730 metres above sea level, but the sun was high in the sky and it was still 32 degrees. We found another hotel with big windows overlooking the square which for some reason we decided would be fine without paying extra for air-conditioning. This was something I came to greatly regret when the afternoon sun came in the windows and turned it into something of a sauna. We might have gone up a bit, but alas it is still rather hot. I guess we’ll just have to go higher. But the Andes hold no fear for us now, for we have tackled our first bit of climbing, and I’m only a little bit exhausted, and according to the route I have planned for us, we now only have 34,000 metres of climbing to go before the end of Colombia. Bring it on.