Theoretically I had an easy day, I was at about 1000m of elevation and heading down towards sea level. Obviously that’s not how things ended up. While I started with a nice 8km downhill, I then got to climb back up the other side. Having not left Andres’ place until around 8:30 it had started to warm up by then meaning a toasty climb up. There were a few other cyclists riding up, and one, Walter, that decided to ride with me. We rode together for the best part of an hour, climbing up and then along the rolling flats that apparently make up the pineapple capital of Colombia. There were a few stands selling them along the side of the road, but none of them were chopped up so we didn’t stop until Walter had to turn off. Then we sat down for a well-earned Gatorade as well as the traditional energy food of Colombian cyclists – bocadillo and cheese, a delicious combination as that article explains.
I then got a long descent into the heat and along the relative flatness that lead through some uninspired looking habitations along the side of the road. I got warned several times about the local water, and so got to pull my filter out. Bagged water isn’t expensive, but I’d much rather filter my own than pay for it considering how much I drink. If I had to pay, I’d probably end up with 3-4 fewer things from the bakeries every day and that’d just be sad.
Around dark I made it to Camp 23 (Campo Veintitres), another settlement with little of interest. They did however have a large petrol station with a roofed area that I got permission to camp under. I know lots of cyclists who love wild camping and finding places to put their tents, but maybe I’m just a fair-weather camper. There’ll be plenty of times when I’ll have nowhere else to put my tent and so have to find something off the side of a road, but when there are places with roofs, showers and running water I’m making the most of them. I’d say electricity, but the power in the town cut out constantly, at first for just a few minutes, but by the time I was going to sleep it had been out for over an hour. The bathrooms at the petrol station also managed to run out of water, that’ll teach me to rinse my clothes before I shower. Me first, clothes second.
The ride the next day was no more inspired. While Colombia has had some beautiful stretches, parts like this through hot roads and uninteresting settlements really don’t do much for motivation. It’s why my original idea to go through Los Llanos, the large part of Colombia east of Bogotá is probably getting scrapped. It’s just large plains and if I went there, it’d be the same on the Venezuelan side except I’d have a different currency.
I ended the day on the side of the River Magdalena in the town of Puerto Berrio, the first town with character in the two days. The coolest thing I saw there are called motomesas, which I guess I’d translate as motorised tables.
As you can see in the youtube clip, someone came up with the idea of a motorbike powered platform that moves along the railway tracks. They’re pretty ingenious and reminded me of an article by the ACA that I read a couple of years ago about people doing something similar in Argentina, possibly Patagonia, with bicycles.
I had made it to a destination before sunset for the first time in a while, and hung out in the main square until just before dark. There were plenty of young boys playing football, and the mullet seemed to be big. Right by the main square was the Cruz Roja (Red Cross), and I went to ask them about a place to stay. It was the 5th? Red Cross I’d asked at, and I’m still at a 0% success rate. She mentioned her boss would be back in an hour, but said the bomberos were just round the corner and they could probably help. As I’ve only been turned down by them once, in Costa Rica when they said they weren’t allowed to leave anybody in the station when they weren’t there, I figured it’d be a safe bet – and so it turned out.
I got to the fire station just after the 6pm change of shift, and was welcomed in warmly. There wasn’t much space, it’s only a block from the city centre, but they’d find space for my tent. The firemen there mainly seemed to be young, in their late teens to mid-twenties, and were hanging out with friends in the station. I was invited to sit down and drink some coke, and got to explain my trip. The head of the station saw my GPS and proudly showed me his that he’d had for a while, although it was still in its box. I mentioned feeling hungry, and one of the firemen, who was only 18, offered to show me a cheap place to eat.
Apparently asking for cheap food meant that I got salchipapas, sausage and chips, which you can see in the picture below. Fried food is rarely that inspired, and this wasn’t an exception, especially when for the 7,000 it cost I usually get a soup, drink and plate of meat and sides. After eating, I got given a short tour of town, and then back to the station to set up my tent. I put it down in a place that was half-covered, and by 8pm was trying to sleep, hoping to be on the road around 4am to avoid starting to climb out of the valley in the heat.
Around 9pm I was woken up, and told that we should move my tent. It had started to rain, but I was sweating so much from the heat that I’d not noticed it. We put my tent in a sheltered part and I tried to go back to sleep. Having just taken a nap, and with the heat, I wasn’t that tired, but 30 minutes or so later I was back asleep. Or at least until 10pm when I was woken up again by someone coming to say goodnight to me. He seemed to have figured out how uncomfortably I was sleeping, and brought a fan from the office, plugged it into an extension cable and set it up next to my tent. It meant leaving the door of my tent open, which meant the few bugs could get in, but a bit of bug-spray (Thanks Jamie!) sorted that out. The air from the fan was heavenly and I fell back to sleep quickly.
I woke up around 4:30am and the rain had been going throughout the night. There was some dampness under my tent, but that’s one of the reasons I have a footprint and a water-resistant floor, two things missed on a lady in the office who seemed to notice me waking up and came to talk to me. She told me I should move my tent and sleep in the office where there was a spare bed and a fan. I was planning to get up and going when the rain cleared up so told her it wasn’t necessary and in fact I was going to the bathroom and then would be taking my tent down.
I came back to find my tent in the back of the pickup truck it had been sat next to, the lady, who had warned me that she was stubborn, had apparently got one of the firemen to help her put it there to keep it from getting wet. I’m not sure how, but it was actually a lot wetter than it had been when I left the tent. I appreciated the gesture, although not necessarily the application. I set to packing things up, although my mat, pillow and footprint were soaked so I left them to dry until the rain stopped so I wasn’t packing them away wet.
I probably should have headed out before the rain stopped, as I went to a bakery for a coffee and bread to start the day. I could have hung out there while it was raining, or in fact just ridden in the rain, oh well. I made it through the 10km of flattish terrain to the toll booth and then the climb started. I’m not sure what the difference was, but it was much prettier than the climb up to Bucaramanga had been about a week earlier. It wasn’t a simple straight climb, as the terrain next to the road was almost never flat, but in fact made up of constant rolling hills.
People frequently warn me about the hills ahead and I honestly tell them that I’m looking forward to them. Sure, I don’t go as many kilometres in a day, but that’s rarely my objective. On some steep sections, my heart rate flies up, but I’m used to climbing, at least at the fairly low altitude that I’m at, that I’ve developed a speed where I’m able to go all day without too much trouble. My fairly low load, at least compared to many other touring cyclist, helps with that.
About 90km in to the day, I made it to Cisneros. I’d been told they had a fire station, but as always I saw there was light and wanted to push on. There was a 10km climb with 500m of ascent followed by a similar drop just after and even though people told me there was nothing for 40km, I figured there’d be some restaurant, petrol station, community or something where I could stop for the night and get water. Of course there was.
After the hour it took me to climb past large amounts of sugar cane to 1500m, I was feeling a little chilly. The sun was going to be setting soon, and so I started to head down. It wasn’t quite cold enough that I needed a jacket, as I was toasty from the ascent. About 1km in, I saw Ivan, a Colombian, stopped by the side of the road. He was at a beautiful viewpoint admiring the sunset and relaxing before he got to the top. His bike was the opposite of mine, a perfect example of how with a bike and whatever you can pull together you can travel. He is from Leticia, on the border of Colombia, Brazil and Peru, and was doing a 2-3 month tour around his country. He had minimal money, but it hadn’t been a problem up to that point. It always makes me happy to see people like him, as so many tell me that they can’t do what I’m doing. They’re not a rich foreigner. I’m told that for a Colombian/Panamanian/Honduran it would take a lifetime of saving to do it, but Ivan is a perfect example that it doesn’t. After this tour around Colombia, he plans to go south towards Chile and Argentina, and wants to be in Brazil for the World Cup. An inspiring guy, and I would have loved to have more time to talk with him. As it was, I had to keep descending towards one of the couple of small towns I could see lining the road.
I had to descend fairly slowly, because the traffic coming up the other way included a fair number of trucks and with the tightness of the bends they don’t stick to their own lane. It meant enjoying the descent more, at least when I wasn’t concerned about the traffic, and that I saw a group of people flying kites. I stopped to take a picture, and then another down into the valley, when a lady from a group of 9 people sat on the crash barrier asked me why I wasn’t taking their picture. I turned to take their picture, and while she posed, the others didn’t have quite the same level of motivation for a picture, including one older lady in a red jumper who did what looked like a little dance to cover her face. I stopped and talked with them, and the lady in red was full of life and had no problem telling me that I was clearly crazy for travelling by bicycle. The lady who had asked for the photo, offered to join me the next day as long as she could sit on my rear rack – not the most comfortable position for her or me – which I of course accepted. She tried to sit there, but couldn’t quite get on.
I got to the next town, and climbed up the paved road to the police station. I’d spoken to some police at the bottom, so those in the station were expecting me. I showed them my passport and explained my story before being shown to a mattress that they’d put in a corner for me. There was space for my bike next to it. I got changed and laid down to read, passing out quickly. I had pulled out my bag containing my sleeping bag, because at 1000m+ a light blanket works nicely, but had fallen asleep before getting my sleeping bag out. I woke up to find that a policeman had seen me sleeping there and brought me a blanket to stay warm, such a thoughtful and lovely action.
It was about 70km of rolling hills gently climbing up to Medellin the next morning and I guess because it was a Saturday morning a lot of local cyclists were out. I got lots of waves and thumbs up, and even managed to overtake a few of them who made the mistake of overtaking me as we crested climbs. That just meant I would get aero on the descent and bomb past them, much to their surprise. I rode with a few for a while, but anytime we got to a climb they pulled away on their lightweight bikes.
A dual carriageway with a nice shoulder led me to the outskirts of Medellín and the main road through the city, a large heavily trafficked autopista. I had the address of Sebastian, my host, but addresses in Medellín make little sense. Thankfully, the people are quite wonderful and with the help of a variety of people, including a few different taxi drivers, I managed to get to his place, for my first hot shower after cycling since Honduras!
Typical Colombian town