First impressions of Colombia


We arrived in Medellin yesterday after 8 days of cycling from Cartegena, a 680km trip that has awakened our senses to Colombia, its stunning scenery and its lively people. It was a journey that brought us from the coast up into the Andes through gentle rolling hills, along a great Andean river and finally up and up through the steep valleys that are really just foothills of a great mountain chain. The difference compared to Central America is remarkable, this is a new continent for sure and that alone has left us wide eyed and struggling to take in and make sense of this nation.

Colombians are curious and helpful, friendly and fun loving, living life to a background of music. And they love their motorcycles (there are at least 27 in the picture above). Getting out of Cartegena was an experience, fully alert, almost like dodgems, the road full of people and buses and motorbikers, who like to pull up beside you and have a chat, however crazy the traffic. The usual questions, "where are you from", "where are you going", buen viaje. The same with people on the side of the road, shouting out the questions as if life depended on it, and you shouting back an answer as you speed on. This guy pulled up alongside us for five minutes for his chat, on a steep hair-pinned descent with lorries grinding along behind and then posed for a photo, you have to love them.

The last week has confirmed once again for me that bike touring is the best way to discover a country, its people and its land. We were feeling a bit rusty after weeks of fun in Panama and really wanted to get going. Once out of Cartegena the landscape revealed a fertile land of small farmers, delicious fruit and beautiful green countryside. We didn’t plan to stop anywhere before Medellin and so after three long days and two short ones, we found ourselves on the banks of the Rio Cauca and heading for the mountains. During these first days we began to develop a new routine for a new country.

It is cheap to eat in the local comedors once you go with the "menu del dia", and Colombians seem to have moved away from simply rice and beans, instead serving you up soup, yucca bread, fried plantain, salad, maybe an egg and, of course rice beans and chicken, all for a couple of quid and washed down with homemade limonade. Enough for any hungry cyclist. The roadsides are lined with makeshift stalls selling fruit, mainly mangoes. This is the land of the mango, not the bland tasteless kind you get at home but a succulent and wonderfully smelling fruit, again for next to nothing. On the other hand, stray beyond the basic foods and things get very expensive.

Accommodation has been interesting to say the least. Whereas in Mexico you could fit your entire extended family in a room for two, things are different here. A couple of nights in very cramped rooms, not improved by various mice, spiders and the like have left us searching out trucker stops for a better deal, space wise at least. So, we have moved on from this

to this. Still, accommodation is cheaper than anywhere else, often only a fiver a night.

The one thing both of us had been looking forward to was getting into the Andes, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Mountains mean climbing, and long, slow days….but the rewards are always worth it and the last few days haven’t disappointed.

Each of the last three days has been so different. As we left the river on Sunday afternoon and began to climb, my spirits were soaring. The road climbed at a steady gradient for 20km and we gained 900mtrs. It was a perfect ride, you get into a rhythm and enter an almost meditative state, pedals turning, turning, turning. We were both surprised, and hardly out of breath when we arrived in Valdivia. It was early enough to have a couple of hours before dark and we really enjoyed this mountain town. Sunday evening, the plaza was alive with music and the locals drinking the last of the weekend away. Great for people watching. It was here that we met a really lovely old gentleman baker, Ramerio and chilled out in his panaderia. It was so good and he was so nice that we went back for breakfast.

Climbing further up the valleys we noticed distinct signs of an impoverished people. It was not uncommon to see wooden shacks wrapped in plastic that served as houses. And the signs of a farming community that was reminiscent of life in the west of Ireland in my parents time.

The last two days have seen yet more climbing, 4000 vertical meters over the three days and 225km into and over the mountains. We are feeling fitter now, the fact that we can do that and stay together on the road, never much of a gap between us, simply enjoying the beauty around us rather than suffering the pain of intense exercise, is a good omen.

Mountains are special places, and cycling through a mountainous landscape gives you a real insight into the breath and depth of your character. Throwing away the securities of society and finding instead strength within yourself, finding yourself in breathtakingly beautiful places where nature is alive and the power of nature is evident for all to see, something never to be under estimated. The mountains are a meditative place, a simple place, a powerful place, and for the next months, our place.

Powered by Qumana

%d bloggers like this: