Monthly Archive for June, 2012

Back to the mountains in Colombia

Kilometers this post: 562 on the night bus, 24 in Gringo Mike’s Land Rover, and 448 pedaling in 9 days


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Colombians love to ask us how their country is treating us. It is a much more common question than in any other country we’ve visited. It is surprising and endearing, and it makes us feel as though we are nationally invited to enjoy the food, customs, and generosity of each of the varied regions. It also suggests a sense of national identity that we didn’t even realize was missing in many Central American countries. The economy here seems healthier and more self-sustaining, the social class structure more complex. It has been a while since we’ve seen a large middle class. Sometimes there is a tentative nature to the question, “Como les parece Colombia?” and in some of our more in-depth conversations, we have discovered that this is because many people have stories of having been robbed, or sometimes worse. We’ve received lots of warnings to be careful in this or that city or region, don’t leave our bikes alone, don’t ride at night (things that we take care to do automatically). But the same people who offer these warnings are the ones who seem to receive us and send us along in a way that feels exceptionally warm and, well, safe. As though everyone we talk to is looking out for us.

The first thing we did when we arrived on the night bus to Bucaramanga was to ride to one of the central parks. This is a common first move for us when we arrive in new cities. We were there for under a minute when we were approached by 4 or 5 homeless guys who lived in the park. We were momentarily on our guard, but soon decided that these gentlemen were really just interested in sharing some stories. They asked us questions about our trip and told us a bit about their lives. One explained that he had spent years making a tour of Colombia too, but walking. Eventually he developed a muscular disorder that forced him to stop. Before too long, a couple of policemen came over and seemed to join the jovial conversation. As we headed out of the park to find a hotel for the night, the police accompanied us and in the friendliest, best-intentioned manner possible, explained that they were worried we’d be robbed by the dudes in the park. They pointed us toward what they promised us was a clean, safe hotel, and, a bit bewildered, we thanked them. After giving this series of interactions some thought, we decided that we were no more suspicious of the homeless guys than we were frustrated with the police’s warnings. Everyone was just operating under the best intentions, but from different angles. We spent the day wandering around Bucaramanga enjoying the market, the squares, and the cooler weather.

We eagerly rolled away the following morning, happy to be back on the bikes, carrying all possessions necessary to eliminate the need for a plan. It had been a while. We biked up over a small climb, and then descended into Chicamocha Canyon, which we hear is the second biggest in the world! The descent was beautiful, and at the bottom we found ourselves in the town of Pescadero, where we inquired at the police station about a place to camp. Some combination of boredom and friendliness inspired the guys to take turns guarding the bikes (with their large guns) while one of them took us on a thorough tour of every possible campsite in town, and some of his favorite spots on the river. When we returned to our bikes, they had picked some mamoncillo for us as a welcome gift. One of them asked for help with his English homework.

After a peaceful night of camping, we set off early to tackle the monster climb out of the canyon. We’d come down far enough that the heat was oppressive again, which made the day creep by slowly with lots of breaks in the shade. We were passed numerous times by speedy road bikers with fancy gear who cheered enthusiastically as they whizzed by on the way up the hill. One patted a’s shoulder and promptly wiped off his hand on his shorts. Heh. Half way up, we took a break to buy some overpriced water and popsicles at the “Parque Nacional Chicamocha,” which was not much like a national park, but rather more like a theme park with daredevil rides and long lines. We were amused but not interested in entering, so we continued up the mountain. The views down into the canyon inspired increasing awe, and effectively distracted us from the pain of the climb. Unfortunately, the pictures can’t possibly demonstrate the incredible expanse of the mountains nor can they inspire the resulting soaring exhilaration, but goodness, it is great to be up high.

In Colombia we have noticed three new vehicular trends. 1) There are tons of motorcycles. Not really powerful or loud, just enough to get one or two people where they’re going with a minimum of gas (which costs about $5 per gallon). 2) There are lot of fancy road bikes. This sport is a pride of the Colombians, and people from 12 to 65 come speeding by us on country roads in spandex and helmets. 3) There are a lot more European cars than we’ve seen before.

The day after our climb, beat and plagued with the task of washing our moldy tent (oops), we took a short ride to the colonial town of San Gil, where we made use of a hostel’s facilities to get some things cleaned and some internet-ing done. We were eating breakfast at a sandwich place run by a gringo biker named Mike and planning to be underway in an hour when, chatting with Mike, we found ourselves convinced to take a detour to another, much more beautiful we were told, colonial town in the hills. Mike was driving himself and his mountain bike up there that afternoon to ride with a friend, and he offered to throw our bikes on his rack, our gear in the back of his truck, and haul us up there. One of those things you just don’t pass up. And we are so glad we didn’t, because we ended up spending two of the best days of our trip so far in the picture-perfect town of Barichara, staying on the floor of the very same friend Mike planned to ride with. Mauricio, a woodworking artist and his wife Laura, a graphic designer, welcomed us like we had been friends for years. We slept like babies on a huge air mattress in their living room, were fed delicious food, and even enjoyed a mini birthday party for Andrew the night before we left. The hours we didn’t spend chatting with Laura and Mauricio or admiring their cool art, we spent hiking to yet another, but much tinier, idyllic colonial town over a ridge. Our visit to Barichara was one of our favorite accidents of our trip so far.

Riding south through the departments of Santander, Boyaca, and Cundinamarca, we’ve rolled and climbed through regions that specialized in sugar cane, coffee, bocadillo (guava paste), chorizo (and all manner of pork sausage), and finally dairy. We have found a handful of people each day to chat with and conversations have been delightful because folks are so relaxed and genuine, and also because the Spanish is the clearest we can remember! Before leaving Santander, we finished our last large climb for a while, arriving at an altiplano at 2600 meters. It is hard to describe how utterly delicious it feels to be cold, to ride in long sleeves and wear our down jackets at night, to crave hot drinks, to sleep later because we’re waiting for the sun to warm the mornings…

In the middle of the altiplano sits a ridge that forces all traffic to go up to 3050 meters before descending into the bowl that contains Bogotá. Just like the last time we climbed over 3000 meters (on our second day of the tour, in Mexico), the weather turned gross. A blowing fog that turned to drizzle, and temperatures in the 40’s. While pedaling uphill, we worked hard enough to keep warm, but as soon as we started the descent and the drizzle turned to real rain, we had to stop to change out of wet clothes and add layers. A little further on, we pulled into a store and sucked down tinto (coffee, usually served sweetened with cane sugar in rural areas, and always provided in the morning with a hotel room, no matter how cheap) trying to make our fingers come back to life. Luckily, the rain stopped and as a last resort for getting warm, we headed farther down the road. By the time we got to the flat part, the sun was out and we changed back to our usual riding clothes, which dried long before we reached the city limits. How quickly the weather changes here!

Our stay in Bogotá has been a good one, full of help from friendly Bogotanos. We are staying in the beautiful apartment of Alicia’s sister, Ruth, who is off working through the weekend. By good fortune, we were chased down by an avid biker, Gustavo, who lives just down the block and has been incredibly helpful leading us around the city to pick up replacements for worn out items, treating us to breakfast at his coffee bar, and answering all manner of language and cultural questions in the region. But it seems that everyone wants to help. The bike shop manager gave us a list of must-see destinations downtown and directions how to get there. A gentleman helped us navigate the metro-style bus system, and we chatted on the crowded metro (which is actually a bus) all the way home.

And tomorrow we’ll be on our way again – with Gustavo as our guide out of the city, we’ll roll our way down into the Magdalena river valley, and then up and over the central range to coffee country.

Paradiseando en la Caribbean

Kilometers this post: 218 biking, 523 sailing on the Wild Card

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As a bike tourist, there are a few options for traveling from Panama to Colombia. You can fly for a lot of money (plus extra for the bikes,) you can pick your way really slowly along the coast trying to find water taxis for each small leg of the trip, you can be NUTS like Matt Burney who mounted a sail onto a cayuco and took 2 weeks sailing from island to island with his bike in pieces (pretty tempting, actually), maybe along those lines, you can somehow schlep your bike through the Darien Gap and have a 50ish% chance of a less than pleasant run-in with Guerillas, or you can take a sailboat trip, also for a lot of money. But, this last one is the option we chose because we thought it was worth it to spend a few days on the San Blas islands, snorkeling, swimming, eating fish, and visiting indigenous island villages. Indeed it was worth it. Of course, this trip also included some awesome sea sickness, complete with turning the color of algae and losing our dinner over the side of the boat, but it didn’t take us too long to figure out dramamine, and then we were a.o.k. Visiting the islands and learning about the culture of the Kuna was a highlight of our entire trip so far. They are a matrilinear tribe, and they own and govern all of the 365 islands of the San Blas archipelago. Their livelihood is in the fish they catch, the coconuts they collect, and the incredibly bright and colorful crafts they sell to passers-through and on the mainland, all of which we sampled first-hand on our trip.

Our boat, the Wild Card, is a 60ft boat with a steel hull and an Australian captain, John, who has some neat stories to tell once you get him going. On our voyage, there were 3 crew and 14 passengers, 6 – you heard me, 6 – of whom were bike tourists. Needless to say there were lots of stories and route information to trade. We get a kick out of meeting bike tourists who have met other bike tourists we’ve met before, like Emilien and Lala from France who hung out with Sarah and Geoff (whom we met in Honduras,) in Nicaragua. It makes us feel like while it may be invisible, there is a community of bikers making their way south at different speeds with different styles.

We arrived in Cartagena salty, sunned, slightly sleep deprived, but so eager for Colombia. The city was the perfect introduction. It is colorful, full of young people, and bustling – especially so when we were there, since it was the city’s birthday and there was a big celebration. And man, do they know how to celebrate. In fact, they seem to do it non-stop. Walking the streets anywhere in the city there was music and boisterous conversation that spilled onto the sidewalks. Our conversations were all of a sudden spiced with humor in a way we hadn’t experienced in many of the countries we’ve been to so far. We also loved the fruit carts, which we seemed to find around every corner, heaped with mangos, mamones, bananas, piñas, aguacates, etc. There is an old, walled portion of the city where we happily got lost in the narrow, colonial streets several days in a row, taking pictures of parks and bougainvillea-adorned balconies before we finally decided it was time to head north to Santa Marta, to visit buddies from the Madison ultimate scene, Alicia and Chris, and their rock star 2-year-old, Magdalena.

The three day ride was flat, yes, but so hot that it was one of the hardest stretches we’ve done. We found ourselves on the bikes every morning before 6am (highly unusual for us), getting as many kilometers under our belts as we could by 10. Then we’d limp along, withering in the heat, until we couldn’t stand it anymore. One of the days, we caved, quit at 10:30am in the city of Barranquilla and found a hotel with air conditioning. But we arrived before we melted, and have been spending a blissful week hanging out with Alicia, Chris, and Mags, catching up, playing frisbee (woohoo!!), swimming, cooking (Chris is the master chef, we do what we can) and doing some bike maintenance. Over the weekend, we also went to a turtle release on the beach, which was a great time. Tonight, it is seafood stew and perhaps a movie, and tomorrow we will head off on the next leg of our trip, which will involve first another bus ride to save us a week of flat riding in the unbearable heat, and then making our way through the mountains to Bogotá.