COLOMBIA, 19th July – 6th August 2019
We arrived in front of an old building covered in colorful paintings of nature and animals in the urban centre of Pereira, and a friendly English speaking woman helped us inside. What a great relief I felt that we had made it to Pereira, our aim for weeks now, and a beautiful hostel where we would be staying for three nights. Ahh!
After relaxing a few minutes, I got straight onto one of the many to-do’s, that was to book an appointment with a dentist. I had felt some slight pain in one tooth for some time and I wanted to have it checked before travelling further into the wild regions of the Andes. David and Irma, our friends that lived outside of Pereira, had provided me with a list of phone numbers for good dentists and now the owner of the hostel, Federico, who had a phone and spoke a lot better Spanish than me helped me too by calling these numbers and within a few minutes had an appointment for me on the coming Monday. Then I could relax for the rest of the day, which meant going shopping for veggie burgers in the big supermarket across the road, eating them and convincing Chris to watch the first episode of the teenage series I’d watched a decade ago, The OC, on Netflix in the hostel’s mini-cinema before falling asleep at about 8pm.
The next day we got onto sorting out another long to-do list after watching the day’s Tour de France stage together with Federico, who excitedly followed his Colombian fellows in the saddle. Then we hit the town with a long list of bike parts that we hoped to get hold of by consulting the overwhelmingly high number of decent shops in Pereira. We walked around from shop to shop, trying our best to explain/point at the things we needed and were met solely by patient and helpful shop workers, so that as the day went by we could tick off all the things on our list like a cassette, a derailleur, pedals, chains, brake pads, cables and housing, a rim and bartape. It was overall a great success and now we could actually rest a bit the next day before moving on out to David and Irma’s place, where we had been invited to stay as long as we needed in order to install all our new stuff on our well-worn bikes, so that they would be ready to take on the rest of South America.
On our actual rest day we went for a walk in Pereira down town. It was the first city we had been to in Colombia since Cartagena, since we had avoided them and all their traffic and stayed out in the countryside. It was a different side of Colombia that it was good to experience too, lively and colourful with several big plazas where people would spend some free time. One of them had a huge fountain which both had timed springing water that came on and off and that you could walk right through on a path, which was pretty cool, although it wouldn’t beat my favorite fountain which can be found in Batumi, Georgia. On the other plaza however there was a statue that immediately struck me as my favorite statue in the world, so far. It was of a wildly running horse with a man leaning forward over the neck holding something that looked like a burning paper roll. It was wild.
In the evening Chris and I got to talk with two of the other guests in the hostel, two solo backpackers, Gotham from New York and Hamsar from Morocco. They were very interested to hear about our trip, but we also found it great to hear about their travels and lives beyond travelling in their respective parts of the world. It was just really good to be talking to some other people in English with a similar position to ours as that doesn’t happen very often.
The next morning was a Sunday morning and that is the best time to be cycling in Colombian cities as there is a common tradition of closing some of the main roads off for traffic to let people use them for cycling, running and walking. As we would be cycling to David and Irma’s place 13 kilometres out of the city we now joined the crowd on one of the main roads right outside the hostel, at least for a few hundred metres, until we had to take a different route. It was busy with people and such a great thing to take part in. The rest of our ride also happened to be a part of a popular cycling route as it followed a narrow road gradually up along a river through lush forest before reaching a network of gravel roads which were popular for mountain biking. Now I’m not entirely sure I remember it right, but I think David told me that about 2,000 cyclists would cycle that route on a Sunday. Moreover it was also a popular route for motorized traffic with people escaping the city for the weekend, so it was a rather stressful ride for us, and we were happy when we arrived at the top of the steep driveway outside David and Irma’s old-but-in-the-process-of-being-renovated, beautiful farm house.
We had met David and Irma on the strenuous hike up the Acatenango volcano back in Guatemala and since then they had continued their travels south in their van to their property which they were working on for some months before they would resume their travels south all the way down to Ushuaia later in the year when the seasons were right. They had been incredibly helpful already receiving a parcel with more bike parts for us at their address and now they made us feel at home for as long as we wanted, they let us make a mess of a bike workshop at the back of their house, Irma cooked us delicious meals and she also went with me to the dentist the following day to help translate. We felt so lucky to have a safe, relaxed place to get all the things that build up during the constant movement forward sorted and we so enjoyed again being with these good people with whom we shared the bug for adventure and life on the road. Irma, being a native Colombian, also shared some insights into Colombian life and culture in the countryside telling us stories about ghosts, hidden gold and family tragedies, the latter unfortunately probably were more real than the ghosts and gold.
Over a couple of days we got our bikes fixed. None of the maintenance caused us much trouble except from the rebuilding of my front wheel with a new rim. This new rim was deep compared to my old flat one, as most rims seem to be nowadays and it was the only type the bike shop could get me. It meant that my old spokes were too long to just move directly over onto the new rim in the three-cross pattern I had built it with back in Kazakhstan. This I realised after I had moved all the spokes and they poked too far out of the spoke holes to possibly be tightened enough. This realization was witnessed by a very curious man who was the son of a couple that rented a small apartment from David and Irma. He told me he knew how to build the wheel in another pattern with an extra cross that would make the long spokes fit in the wheel, and because I didn’t yet know how to do that myself, I let him do it. In the meantime Chris was also researching how to do just that, and the next day I decided to rebuild it myself following the instructions of a video on Youtube that Chris had found. The wheel build the man had done looked kind of okay, but it was hard to actually see if it was done correctly, and so it just felt better to do it myself, so that I knew what had been done with it. And besides, I really just love to build up a wheel, and claimed to Chris while I was lacing the spokes systematically that maybe I should become a wheel builder once we got home. Then I finally got the truing process and I got the tightening of the spokes a bit wrong and spent at least an hour making no progress at all, and in the end finished the wheel off being only kind of true, as I already had had enough of all that wheel building. But with that and a few other fixes we were ready to get back to the cycling again.
After a short but tough climb away from David and Irma’s home we had a pretty constant descent towards a big flat valley in the west of the country which we were then able to follow for a few hundred kilometres south. That meant we had several days of easy cycling and good progress. Colombia’s never-ending fences meant we were still staying in cheap hotels each night, but we made the most of them, lying in bed each morning and watching the closing stages of the Tour de France on TV. Inspired by the exploits of the young Colombian winner, Egan Bernal, we then rode each day feeling strong as we raced along at unusually fast speed. Of course the fact that we were travelling through a flat valley on the shoulder of a well paved highway rather than up windswept Alpine passes helped with that.
Travelling on the main highway meant we also got to see a lot of Venezuelans. Like us they were heading south, but they were on the road for a different reason. They were refugees, hoping for a better life further south on the continent than their troubled country could currently provide. We saw them walking along the highway in groups, whole families, parents with little children on their shoulders, makeshift backpacks carrying their few possessions. They tried thumbing lifts and when that didn’t work they jumped on the back of trucks undetected for a free ride if they could, or more often than not simply kept on walking. We occasionally met and spoke with them and they were always so warm and friendly, and somehow so interested in our trip. It was amazing and uplifting to us how they could be so positive given their situation.
Our fast progress meant we were soon in Popayan, a colonial town in the south of the country known as the white city. It wasn’t hard to see how it got the name, for all of the buildings were painted in that colour, and it would have been rather a pleasant place were it not for all the traffic clogging the narrow streets. We checked into a hostel for a couple of nights and enjoyed walking around the town and watching the sunset from a hill overlooking it. From Popoyan it was only a few hundred kilometres to the border with Ecuador if we continued to follow the highway, but we knew that the shoulder would disappear and it was not such a safe road. We therefore planned to next head east over a mountain range, then south for a bit, then back west over the same mountain range on a road known as the Trampoline of Death. It was a considerable detour that would involve some 12,000 metres of climbing, but the highway just sounded a bit dangerous, compared with the Trampoline of Death, which sounded very safe.
The morning that we planned to leave Popayan my teeth were painful and we decided to delay our departure so that I could see a dentist. Our recent fast progress meant we now had a little bit of time to play with before our 90 days in Colombia were up, and Dea’s recent positive visit to a dentist in Pereira, and the generally good smiles of Colombians, had convinced me that this was the country to get my teeth sorted. I walked around town for a while before I found a dental clinic that would see me. The female dentist could speak a bit of English and after examining me she confirmed that I would need both a filling and also an extraction of what was left of an old, broken root canal. She could do the filling the following morning, but the extraction would have to be done by a specialist in a few days.
So we had a prolonged rest in Popayan, during which time I began to make a serious effort to learn Danish. We had now been in Latin America for nine months and my Spanish was worse than the day we had arrived. I had assumed simply being in Spanish-speaking countries for long enough would mean that the language would rub off on me, but I had assumed wrong. I’ve never been very good with languages, an unfortunate ailment for a travelling man, and, while learning Danish wasn’t going to help me much in the rest of South America, it will probably be of some benefit when we settle down in Denmark next year. So it was agreed that from now on Dea will be doing most of the communicating in Spanish, while I spend most of our remaining time travelling trying to work out how to pronounce uafhængig.
The surgeon who extracted my tooth was a very nice man who could speak English very well, although his promise that it wasn’t going to hurt was not one he was able to keep. After the surgery was over he gave me a prescription for some painkillers and some antibiotics and told me that I should eat lots of ice cream, all the ice cream I could eat, as it would help with the inflammation. Then he told me the one thing I should avoid doing was to drink milk, as that apparently wasn’t good with antibiotics, which had me wondering what the hell he thinks ice cream is made from.
Unfortunately the doctor also told me that I was not to do any exercise for eight days, otherwise I might cause the sutured wound to hemorrhage. This was unexpected, and not exactly in line with our plans to cycle 12,000 metres of climbing in the now only two weeks or so before we had to be out of the country. I followed his advice for a couple of days, especially the bit about the ice cream, and then I decided I was probably fine to cycle. I’d read online that if it started to bleed again I could bite on a teabag and it would be fine, so we got a box of teabags, and rode off into the mountains.
We left Popayan on the 3rd of August, needing to be out of the country by the 16th and with the elevation profile of the route ahead of us looking rather daunting. The climbing started straight away, but the road was paved and traffic surprisingly light. It was nice to be out in the countryside again, and we even managed to sleep in our tent, camping on a sports field in the small town of Coconuco. We ate strawberries and cream and played Eurekaball, my gum survived all this exercise without the need for any teabags, and everything was quite alright with the world.
It was a bad night. There was loud music being pumped out from more than one place in town, all night long, and I didn’t really get any sleep. It was not exactly ideal preparation for the climb ahead, especially as I was feeling sick now. The first doctor had cut my lip doing the filling and I’d developed a cold sore which had spread to a throat infection despite the antibiotics I was taking. To make things even worse it was a miserable day, with strong winds and drizzling rain. It was not at all easy cycling and we both got very cold in our wet clothes as we climbed up into higher and higher altitudes.
The road got a lot worse, a dirt road full of potholes that were filled with water from the increasingly heavy rain. We were passing through a national park, a natural forest. It was nice but so wet that in places the road was more like a stream. I was feeling really bad but the trees were too thick to get in and camp anywhere and we simply had to keep pushing on to get to a hotel on the other side of the pass. It was a real slog up to the top, some 3,200 metres or so above sea level, but reaching it provided no great relief. We were both completely soaked and descending chilled us to the core. It was a miserable struggle of a day, and it was with great relief when we eventually reached accommodation. It was a simple hospedaje, a basic room without running water, but it had a bed and warm blankets and we dove under them until the shivering stopped. The discovery that my Arkel panniers were not waterproof and that my few spare clothes were also wet was not a good one. We hoped the morning would bring us better luck.
It was another rough night for me, and by morning my stomach was also sick. We’d hung up our wet clothes on a string across the room but in the cold temperatures nothing had dried. There was nothing for it but to put our wet clothes back on and continue the descent. The road was at least paved now and we set ourselves the modest target of rolling down 24 kilometres to the town of Isnos where we could find a better hotel to recover in. I felt truly awful and when the road hit the occasional short climb it left me completely exhausted and needing to sit down at the roadside to catch my breath. We somehow made it to a nice hotel in Isnos and I went straight to bed, where I remained for the rest of the day, apart from when my stomach called me to the bathroom, which it did worryingly often.
We decided that I would need to take a rest day to try and recover a bit, but we were very close to an interesting archaeological site. A great many statues had been discovered in this area that dated from almost two thousand years ago, though much about them remained a mystery as the civilization that created them had disappeared without a trace. Apart from the statues of course, that was a pretty significant trace. One site was only five kilometres out of Isnos and we decided to ride there together. I figured I would be okay to do such a short ride on an unloaded bike. I figured wrong. It was really tough going for me in my weakened state. Still, seeing some ancient statues would surely make it all worthwhile. We struggled through the five kilometres, and reached the entrance, where we found a building site. Some hard-hat wearing workers confirmed the worst – it was closed.
The ride back was even worse and I found myself pushing my unloaded bike up a not-very-steep hill. At that moment the rest of the ride to the Ecuadorean border, over all those mountains, felt almost impossible. Back at the hotel I collapsed back into bed and began researching my symptoms online. After a while I realized that the problem with my stomach was almost certainly being caused by the antibiotics I was taking after my dental surgery. They were the same antibiotics I’d been taking after I had cut my thumb, and two courses within a month was surely enough to upset my natural gut bacteria and cause my tummy troubles. Worse was that my symptoms – loss of appetite, nausea, stomach cramps – matched worryingly with C-diff infection. This was a more serious form of stomach infection that arises from antibiotic use and that takes weeks to improve even with hospital treatment.
Suddenly it felt like I was in real trouble. We could stay only ten more days in Colombia and it really didn’t look like I could make it the rest of the way under my own power. For one thing I needed to be in a hospital, and for another there was still something like 10,000 metres of climbing to be done, including the Trampoline of Death, and the Trampoline of Death really did not sound like the kind of thing that one should be attempting on a bad stomach.