Cartagena, Colombia

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Crossed the divide of  The Americas ..
We have crossed another divide of sorts between Central and South America. As we disembarked from our dingy, bikes in tow, a sense of excitement and achievement enveloped us as we took our first step on South American soil. It felt like a real milestone. We were also in a country which I personally never imagined I would venture into. Colombia, synonymous with drugs, bombings, FARC, kidnappings and of course the home of Gabriel García Márquez is a country which has always captured my imagination and was curious about but certainly never imagined I would be cycling through. Yet here we were, passports stamped, with our bikes, ready to take on a country the size of Spain, France and Portugal combined.

We sailed into Cartagena, the main entry and exit point for visitors heading into and out of Colombia by sea. It is like no other city we have visited on our trip to date. It is exactly what I had been expecting – a pulsating salsa party, hot, sticky, full of life music and dance, colours emanating from all corners, scenes of kids playing football in the grounds of a crumpling 16th century church, a baseball game on the streets and older folk playing chess.

Compared to Central America there is very much a European vibe to the city. It is definitely a place to throw away the guide book and just discover it for yourself without distractions. It is a fusion of Florence with its distinctive tiled roofs, balconies and flower-filled courtyards and the dome of the cathedral and Prague with its cobblestoned streets old-world style plazas and horse drawn carriages ferrying tourists from sight to sight.

I did get a bit snap happy much to the amusement of Martin who was getting slightly concerned with the volume of pictures I was taking!

Cartagena is essentially two separate cities representing the old and the new. The old town El Centro is a step back, catapulting you into to a world of times gone by with restored colonial mansions, ancient forts, winding narrow streets, beautiful churches and numerous plazas and has been declared a UNESCO heritage site. The old city is a fortress completely surrounded by thick, 10 meter high walls built by the Spanish to protect the city. The other side of the city is modern with sky scrapers looming and not much to talk about.

Latino Vibe
Colombia is the home of salsa and even as we sailed in to Cartagena, we caught sight of locals dancing on the street. Music can be heard from every doorway and everyone from shopkeepers to manual laborers are shaking their hips while going about their daily chores. Stroll around the old town at night and people are sitting in bars watching dancers on the street. We decided to check out Havana Cafe one night, as it seemed like this was where it was all at. From the outside it was a crumpling 1920’s art deco type building but a whole new world opened up as you walked through the doors. Photos of icons from days gone by lined the walls and the central old style bar made it very atmospheric. Havana Cafe is something of an institution in Cartagena drawing well-heeled Latin American and European socialites.

The band came on stage and the place went wild. No warm up needed, couples of all shapes and sizes were girating their hips to the beats. We sat there for hours observing the clientele whose dancing skills ranged from spectacular to ‘just off the boat’ gringo tourist with a beginners salsa lesson under their belt! We were on the lower end of the spectrum!

One thing they all had in common was their passion to dance. We had a fantastic night there and are eager to find a similar place in Medellin. I could imagine so many of my friends loving this place. We both really felt that we had finally arrived in South America.

The Pan American
We have been following the Pan-American Highway, a continuous stretch of road from Alaska to the south of South America, (48,000km) only broken between Central and South America by the Darien Gap, which stretches for about 87 kilometers between Panama and Colombia. The Pan-American is the world’s longest road which makes it a popular choice for cyclists and motorbikers. The Darien Gap prevents people from crossing between South America and Central America by road which is why people either have to fly or sail to Colombia from Panama. Dare to do it and you risk never been seen again due to the remoteness of the area and the presence of drug traffickers. It is a curious piece of land which I think also further widens the gap between Central and South American culturally and physically.

Tomorrow we are back on the road, destination Medellin. This will introduce us to The Andes, where the cycling begins in earnest. Central America was just a warm up, this is the real thing. We are excited about our cycle through Colombia. Cycling is the second sport here and, similar to France, a lot of respect is shown to cyclists. It will be good to get back on the road and exit the ‘gringo trail’ for a while to see how the real people live.

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