I spent almost a complete week in Medellín, arriving on the Saturday afternoon and leaving the follow Friday. I had two hosts, Sebastian, a 20 year old who had studied in England and will hopefully be going to live over that way soon (or possibly Scotland), and Sergio, my friend from the Caribbean coast. Sebastian has a passion for history and gave me a detailed overview on any topic I could name, from the arrival of the conquistadors to a more recent explanation about the troubles of Medellín during the times of Pablo Escobar – the head of the Medellín cartel.
Arriving in Medellín meant being back on the cyclist trail, the PanAm, filled with those who go directly from Cartagena to Medellín and then south to Cali and into Ecuador. I’ll be on that route, for a couple of days, on my way down to Manizales, one of the three main cities in the Zona Caftera (Coffee Zone), before leaving it to go to Parque Nacional Los Nevados, “this 538-sq-km national park provides access to some of the most stunning stretches of the Colombian Andes. With altitudes ranging from 2600m to 5325m, it encompasses everything from humid cloud forests and páramo to the perpetual snows of the highest peaks”. I’d heard of the park from Mario, my host in Cartagena, who told me about an unpaved road that goes up to 4,800m (about 16,000 ft) which would beat my previous highest elevation on the top of Mt Fuji of 3,776m and sounded a beautiful area with the joys of being ridiculously challenging from the lack of not only a decent road, but also oxygen.
Between myself and Manizales there lay a couple of climbs, the first being called Alto de Minas, although Sergio didn’t seem to know what mines were located there. It would take me from my starting point around 1500m up to 2500m although quite gently being a rolling climb over 30km. The climb is a favourite for the local riders, and although it wasn’t a weekend there were a fair few out who gave me nods as they blasted past me, and then again after they’d summited and were bombing back down. The prevalence of cyclists means that traffic is completely used to cyclists there, and so during the 30km not one single vehicle got uncomfortably close. Traffic wasn’t actually too heavy, and I repeatedly had stretches of a couple of minutes without anything trying to pass me.
Upon summiting, I saw down and ate some of the pasta I’d cooked the night before. Being sat in the shade, even in the middle of the day, the altitude’s effect on the temperature was very apparent. It’s going to be fun up at 4,800m, especially in my tent at night. This was followed by a gentle roll along the ridgeline before a drop of more than a mile down to about 650m to the weekend-get-away town of La Pintada. It’s sat by the large river in the area, the Cauca, and being down at a low elevation provides a good warm getaway point for the 2.5m people living in Medellín.
Thankfully the rest of the ride, about another 60km to the next river town of Irra, followed the river and found me often in shade doing it’s best to negate the heat. There are plenty of small restaurants and hotels along the way for those wanting a relaxing time by the river, and I got lots of waves and people shouting support out of the windows of their cars. I assume they were shouting support, I couldn’t tell what they were saying. Firstly, I had my music playing, but more importantly, and something few drivers seem to realise, it’s not actually possible to understand what’s shouted out of a car window at speed. It’s something I learnt in the US, when I had no idea if the driver was yelling GET ON THE SIDEWALK or GREAT JOB LANCE! (pre admission of guilt), so I just assume everyone’s telling me how amazing I am, life’s better that way. It’s the same reason I try to happily wave at anyone honking their horn even if it sounds angry.
I was about 15km short of the town of Irra, which I had no idea existed, at a toll booth when the sun was starting to go down. I asked and told there was nothing between there and the town of Manizales, which I knew had to be wrong as it was still about 70km away. I know part of it could be down to differing definitions of nothing, but I specifically don’t just ask for a town, but a village, hamlet, shop of any description or petrol station. Not believing him, I stopped at the petrol station just after the toll gate and got told there was about 5km to a tunnel and then another 5km to the town of Irra where there were not only police but also firemen – perfect. I had a destination.
I could have stopped at any number of places before that, but I’ve got to the position when I’ll generally ride further if it means I’ll get to the police or fire brigade. In a way it means I’m missing out on some cool experiences, as I’m not just knocking on random people’s doors and getting invited into farms, houses or whatever else, but not carrying a stove I like to be in a place where I can buy something to eat when I’ve found where I’ll sleep, something that’s not that accessible in the middle of nowhere and would mean I was relying not only on the person giving me a place to sleep but also dinner.
Anyway, just after deciding to keep going, I turned towards the tunnel and a small silver car came past me with it’s window rolled down and the passenger handed me a can of Red Bull as they shouted GOOD LUCK to me, before speeding off. Note, this doesn’t contradict my earlier point, because as they were trying to hand me the drink they were going at the same speed. I took this as a sign that I’d made a good choice to go to Irra, and had a pleasant 15km ride. It was 5km to the tunnel, but then 10km after that. Being generally flat, the only problems were the crappy road surface and the blinding headlights of traffic that seems to refuse to lower them.
In Irra, I pulled into the small bomberos and was welcomed and told that of course I could stay. Instead of the reaction of the bomberos in Rio Berrio who mentioned having a cyclist stay maybe 2-3 times a year, those in Irra said that another cyclist had stayed with them 2 nights earlier. I learnt about the problems of getting work in Irra, a town of 3,000 with minimal employment opportunities, and apparently the main industry is people panning for gold in the Cauca. With how luck based that has to be, it seemed to be a weak thing to base an economy on, but I guess that’s the problems he was talking about. The fireman I was speaking to had his own little cacao finca which provided a side income and as his children had grown up and moved out it provided enough.
My relatively longer first day, meant it was only 70km to Manizales. Sure, that involved a bit of climbing (from 750m to 2100m), but Tour de Colombia riders do these two days as one stage, and with the slight bit more climbing that’s involved starting in Manizales. It’s good practice for my plan when I get to France, doing the Tour de France course but taking twice as long, what with not being a pro rider on a carbon bike with a professional support crew and masseuse on hand.
After riding along the Cauca and spotting people out panning for gold I got to a junction. My GPS, the signs and a policeman all told me to go straight as that’s where the new road is. I decided to turn left up a slightly steeper road, but one that hugged the side of the mountain as it climbed up through the coffee plantations and had almost no traffic. It was a beautiful climb, and being a Saturday I saw a good number of cyclists out enjoying the ride, and one of them, Gilbert – a man in his 60s, kept me company for about an hour.
The road really got much steeper after getting to the outskirts of Manizales, and the city itself is just evil. It seems to be built on several levels so you can go along a main avenue, but if you want to go to the one running parallel you have to drop down a very steep street to keep going. To arrive the house of Miles, my host, I had to drop down two avenues and I was concerned about going over the top of my handlebars as I snailed down the road with my brakes fully on.
After cleaning up, Miles took me out to show me around the city. He’s only been living in the city for a few months, but he showed me the main areas. I went to my first Colombian shopping centre which had a catwalk and a fashion show on the go. We saw a few churches, including the cathedral which is one of the tallest in the world, and also the strangest Simon Bolivar statue which is half man, half condor. Bizarrely brilliant.
Why wouldn’t they be for sale
Medellín at night
On the climb to Manizales