When I left Cartagena at just after 6, Mario and Ana had already left. I got to ride through rush-hour traffic, which was full of buses and scooters weaving along in ways so ridiculous that I’m amazed that I didn’t see any accidents. The scooters are incredibly popular, even more so in the rest of the Caribbean coast, as they act as taxis. Everyone riding a scooter wears a helmet, and most of them have a 2nd one hooked onto a backpack. Their licence plate number is not only on the licence plate, but usually on the back of the helmet, and on a high-vis jacket that they ride in too.
I would have to double back to leave Cartagena, so I took a road running parallel to the one I came in on to minimise riding on the same road. It had a couple of climbs in it, which is why I’d chosen not to take it the first time, and was popular with local cyclists who were out in force on early morning rides before the heat got ridiculous as it does every day in Cartagena by about 10 or 11am. I nearly always wave at cyclists as they go past, but most of them have their head down and are cranking along so don’t respond. I didn’t get overtaken by any, most seemed to be heading into Cartagena, but did manage to overtake one, maybe that’s why he was so quiet as I greeted him when I went past him. I’d seen him when he was a good way ahead of me, and decided to see if I could catch him. The rolling terrain made it harder for me, weight just means I crawl up hills, but after 10 minutes I managed it. Shame he didn’t say anything.
I stopped after a while for breakfast, and water, and then kept going through the heat. Stopping at towns to buy more bread, and, at the bread stop I decided was lunch, also taking a nap on the table in a bakery. My water supply was getting low when I made it to a town that I was considering stopping at, but the town was down a hill to the west of the road and I was heading east so I kept going. I stopped at a petrol station and asked for water to fill my bottle only to be told that the water wasn’t drinkable. Asking for a solution he popped inside and came back with 5 300ml icy cold bags of water and said I could have them.
I was very glad that I’d got that 1.5L of water, as I turned off figuring there’d be a few stops on the way to my new destination of Plato. There weren’t. Just two hours of constantly rolling hills with impressive potholes making for a very bouncy ride to town. In town I found the fire station, across from the Red Cross, and was welcomed in. The fireman wasn’t wearing a uniform as they were having a pay dispute. The local government has the money for the firemen but isn’t giving it to them. They are massively underfunded and don’t have important things that they need. Their fire truck is 16 years old and is in desperate need of replacement, but who knows what will happen. The fire station didn’t have fancy dorms like those in Costa Rica, he just pulled a mattress off a bed and stuck it under a fan in the covered open area in front of the fire station. My tent went up under the other fan, although the ceilings were a little too high to be able to get the full effect.
Plato is located on the River Magdalena which cuts this part of Colombia up with a rather limited number of place to cross. It feeds into the Caribbean in Cartagena and in my rather windy route I’ll cross it further along when I go back from Bucaramanga to Medellin, and then again heading to Bogotá. To get to the main road to Bucaramanga, I had to get to Bosconia, and then I’d be on one of the main north-south roads, leading from Santa Marta & Barranquilla all the way to Bogotá.
Enough about Colombian geography, the road to Bosconia didn’t get to any heights, but did roll its way east on a number of short climbs. The steepest and longest being near the town of El Difícil (the difficult), apparently named so because of the steep hills in the area. Having been warned by lots of people about the upcoming climbs I was unimpressed, and I can only guess they were further away from the road. The way people had spoken about the hills, and especially considering they named the town after it, I was expecting something more.
My day ended in Bosconia. I’d only gone about 100km or so, but the next dot on the map wasn’t for another 40-50km and with it looking like it’d rain soon that seemed too far. It’s definitely not a memorable place, its main purpose seems to be to transit and change buses. Even though it’s a fair-sized town, there was no fire station. Apparently when there’s a problem, they have to come from 60+km away, considering that way heads into the mountains I can’t see them arriving in anything less than an hour, I guess it promotes fire safety as you know that any leak or fire and you’re pretty much in trouble. They do however have the Defensa Civil, which considering what they had in the building seemed mainly to be about road construction, but no-one was actually there at the building, only the maintenance people, who had no problem with me camping. I got dinner from a nearby hotel, where I could have got a room for about 15,000 pesos ($7.50). I had my customary desire to pass out on the table after dinner and the waitress pointed me to a nearby reclining chair to relax in. After a nap and realisation that I’m so old I was invited into the kitchen to chat with the owners. The waitress who had been serving me, was the daughter of the owners, and they seemed very eager for me to marry their daughter. I politely declined when they told me she didn’t have a bicycle and made my way back to the tent in a downpour.
I was up early and headed along the road to Bogotá. Traffic had picked up, but being a main road there was also generally a very nice shoulder lining the road. By the time I made it to the first town, I could start to see the Cordillera Oriental, the eastern of the 3 parts of the Andes that runs through Colombia. They stayed on my left-hand side and made for much more interesting viewing than the flat cow-filled fields on my right.
While the weather was toasty as usual, with highs probably ranging from 35-38c, the humidity was a little lower than by the coast, and there were trees lining the road most of the way. This meant that I kept my average speed at 20km/h, only having to push on the last climb of the day, and so considering I had no goal for the day meant I kept going and going. It made for what I believe is my longest ride of the tour so far, 215km, taking me to the town of Aguachica. There wasn’t much of a need for a break during the ride as I was on the bike for almost 11 of the 13 hours it took me to go the 215km. Half an hour of that was when there was torrential rain about 20km before Aguachica causing me to hang out in a bus stop. I left while it was still going as I’d rather ride in the rain than in the pitch black, and figured it’d clear up before too long, I was probably only in the rain for another 15 minutes, although of course it was enough to soak me.
I stopped at a petrol station just after the entrance to town, and after a long discussion between 4 guys trying to help me, one of them offered to show me where the fire station was. I’m glad he did, because it would have been confusing and involved asking for directions from a lot of people to get there without him. At the fire station I was welcomed, as nearly always, and offered a drink, I thought he had said tinta (wine) but got the much more likely tinto (coffee). I was about to ask where I could find something to eat nearby, when I was directed to the kitchen and told to help myself to the rice, soup and potatoes that they had cooked for dinner. We spent a good while talking, before I retired, not to my tent but to a room with a fan and my own bed where I passed out quickly.
I had a lazy start at the bomberos knowing that it was going to take two days to get to Bucaramanga so there was no need to rush. I stopped for breakfast at a small house where they were selling arepas and eggs, a typical Colombian breakfast. While there I was offered my 2nd wife in 36 hours, maybe there’s something about my sweaty t-shirt that’s developing some interesting tears that attracts people? Who knows.
The ride was flat and toasty for the first half, until the town of San Alberto. I arrived around 1pm and took a nap on the floor in the shade in a quiet corner of town. It was still too hot to ride when I woke up, so I went for lunch at a nearby restaurant. I got the cheapest meal I’ve found to date, at 5,000 pesos ($2.50) and had a delightful time chatting with the family, with another offer for a companion for the ride.
By the time I left, it was already 4pm, I figured it was a little late to make it to El Playon as I’d hoped, but I’m always a fan of riding today so you don’t have to ride it tomorrow. It’s one of the few things I don’t procrastinate on. I got the first climb and descent done and through a small village with about 30 minutes until it got dark, and 30km to go. Even though I knew it would be impossible, I pushed on.
Not long after it went dark, the heavens opened and I got soaked. There were houses infrequently dotted along the side of the climb and one of them had their lights on and a porch. I stopped outside and asked if I could wait out the rain for a while, and they accepted warmly. The father and son came out to sit with me, and as we chatted away the mother would bring out drinks and snacks for me, to make sure I was OK. I was there for the best part of an hour, and considering how many trucks flew past despite the rain I was glad to not be riding.
When the rain had stopped, the traffic had dropped a little and I thanked the family and headed on. Climbing at night is in a way safer than in the day, because you can see the headlights of anything coming down or up so nothing surprises you. I have lights on my bike, and, while they’re obviously not as strong as on a car, they do a good enough job at letting people know I’m there. I pushed on and summited, making my way through a few small collections of houses with businesses enjoying the evening cool.
I was 10km before El Playon at the toll booth when the heavy rain came again, and after some persuasion from the security guard there, and a couple of coffees, decided to camp there. There was a little hut, where the vendors hang out during the day, and my tent just about fit in. The roof meant I’d stay bone dry, and even though it was right by the road, my earplugs and sleep mask meant I would sleep pretty well. That and knowing that I was 20km and a climb closer to Bucaramanga than if I’d been sensible and stopped in San Alberto.
Even though I’d been a bit late to sleep the night before by my usual standards, I was up just before 5am and by the time I was ready to go, it was still dark. I was given a cup of coffee at the toll booth, good for dunking the rather stale biscuits I had picked up at the little store next door.
About 10km later I got to El Playón, the town I’d been unable to get to the night before due to the rain. The bakery was open, and so I got my fill for the climb ahead. I’d read that the climb would be split into 4 separate climbs, with frustrating descents between each one. I have no problem climbing, but I much prefer it when it’s just a single climb, and if not a single climb then one split up by several plateaus rather than drops. I would gain 200-250m and then drop 100-150, and even though I knew they were coming they were annoying.
Having left so early, I was riding in the shade until the end of the 2nd climb, so at least that part of my plan worked out. I passed through a toll gate at the start of the 3rd climb, but, instead of the warm reception I’d been receiving at other gates, I was told to move out as I tried to make sure my brakes were adjusted properly. The security guard pointed at a sign that prohibited picking up or dropping off passengers and said that toll gates were not for resting at. He pointed to a private house a couple of hundred metres down the road and said I should go there, ignoring that there was no shade and I only needed a minute. His attitude put me in a poor mood, and so my earbuds went in and the volume went up on my iPod.
I got to full blast on the 4th climb, because of how ridiculous it seemed at the time. The 3rd climb ascended almost to Bucaramanga’s altitude but then rounding a corner I saw it sat on a ridge ahead. The problem being it was down a 200m drop and then a 3-4km steep climb surrounded by urban traffic giving almost no space.
The non-cyclist vibe continued when I was looking for the centre and saw round signs prohibiting bicycles. I couldn’t understand it, although was later told it’s because gang members like to cycle around and so give bikes a bad name. When I made it to the central square, I lent my bike on a police box and sat down to relax in the shade. A Colombian sat next to me and started chatting away. I wasn’t feeling great, so was giving brief responses.
After about 15 minutes, a policeman emerged telling me that I was not allowed to lean my bike against the police box. I got my Clickstand out and used it. A few minutes later a rather angry policeman came out asking why my bike was still there and that it was prohibited to leave it anywhere in the main square. I pointed out how he had said not to lean it and so it wasn’t leaning and that he was moving the goalposts. Apparently policemen really don’t like being questioned and he started getting quite angry at me. I moved my bike to a different part of the shade, where there was no shade, and realised I had an email from Andres, my host, telling me where he lived so set off there.
Obviously it wasn’t flat to get across town, but thankfully it was mainly downhill. He lived on the outskirts of an area called Floridablanca, a wonderful name. He works online and is a stay at home dad to his 15 month old baby Abby, as his wife, Eddy, works as as optomoetrist. Abby was a blast to hang out with, although the constant attention required means he has to work in short bursts. He grew up in a “red zone”, and told stories of growing up with the guerillas and police basically at war with daily shootings. The situation started to improve a lot under the term of the previous president, Urube, and many Colombians wish he was still the president for how well he seemed to reduce the violence, even though it was mainly by arming and increasing the number of police.
Road to Bosconia
In the rain