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COLOMBIA

 

Nov 21 – Dec 29, 2006 

Bogotá – Doradal – Medellín – Caucasía – Coveñas – Cartagena

   

Colombia wasn’t an integral part of our planned trip. Though, on meeting various cyclists and numerous Colombians speaking highly of this controversial country, we decided to give it a go. We have all heard the guerrilla, paramilitary and cocaine stories which have cast a shadow on Colombia’s image. However, with a change in presidency some 4 years ago, Colombia has made an amendment for the better. Uribe, whose father was a victim of the guerrilla, has taken a strong stand on security, making all major routes safe to travel.

A mix of precaution and cheap flights resulted in us flying from Quito, Ecuador to Bogotá, Colombia, thus avoiding the most tender stretch of the Pan American highway between Pasto and Popayan. 

Aero Gal, doing a 2 for the price of 1 deal was a grand way to get to Bogotá. Actually, the service was second to none with hot and cold towels, and champagne and wine to accompany a fine meal… all on the house. Pity it was such a short flight! Yet again, we got away with excess luggage and without having to disassemble the bikes.

   
Still shocked by the sudden death of our friend Juan Andrés, we included Bogotá on our itinerary to visit his family. Tatiana and Sergio, Juan Andrés’ mother and brother received us with open arms in their warm home.

Spending time with his lovely family it was easy to see why Juan Andrés was such a popular lad who is so sadly missed. We were able to help put names and commentaries on some of Juan Andrés’ photos and recount our days cycling with him back in Argentina. It was a tough farewell, but the knowledge that we found two new friends there, did help to soften the blow.


Tatiana and Sergio

   

The cyclists gathering

Alain (Switzerland) and Tanja (Germany) called over one of the evenings when there was a huge gathering from Tatiana’s family to meet the European cyclists and hear about life on the road. That’s when the invitations began to whisk us round from A to B in VIP fashion.

   

Álvaro, Juan Andrés’ uncle kindly took a morning off to drive us round Santa Fe de Bogotá to include the Montserrate viewpoint, the botanical gardens and a shopping mall, of all things!


Tanja, Alain, Álvaro and Kurt

   

View of Bogotá

Montserrate offered a spectacular view of this city of 8 million. Red brick is a popular building material and with little gardens in front of the houses, quite a few streets have a London air about them. At rush hour, unfortunately, there’s an almost solid lid of soot hanging over down town.

   

Pico y Placa is a system introduced in Bogotá and Medellín to reduce pollution. Depending on the last digit of the registration number, vehicles are curtailed from transiting during rush hours on certain days of the week.


Pico y Placa restrictions today

   

Colombian palm trees

The Botanical Gardens have a fantastic greenhouse simulating the various climatic zones of Colombia and their characteristic vegetation. The orchid garden is also a magnificent display of colour. Kurt lost the run of himself and shot no less than 300 pictures!

   

Seemingly, one of the “things to do” in Bogotá is to visit one of its many shopping malls. Álvaro drove us to the Centro Comercial Andino that even back in November had an impressive Christmas display of reindeers complete with snow and snow storms.


Snow scenes in Bogotá

   

Kurt, Hector and Jorge

Everyone got into the spirit of showing us round… including the neighbours. Jorge drove us into town and then, with his brother Hector, walked us round the downtown area to the Gold Museum.

   

In the Gold Museum, there is a wonderful collection of funerary objects, masks and unique body ornaments in gold, dating back 2,000 years. Surprisingly enough, it all escaped the hands of the Spanish and the likes of Sir Francis Drake.


An interesting nose ring!

   

The Candelaría district

No visit to Bogotá is complete without a gander through the Candelaría district. Right in the centre, this colourful area of colonial houses, balconies, courtyards and museums offers a delightful glimpse into Bogotá’s past.

   

Nuestra Señora de Carmen Church


Candelaría Church

   

As a preview to Medellín’s Botero collection, we visited his museum in Bogotá and enjoyed the witty depictions of little fat men, women and horses.


Botero's witty characters

   


Just 5,000 odd miles from home!

   

The salt cathedral's dark interior

Zipaquirá, 60 Kms out of Bogotá, is home to another tourist oddity. Right in the depths of the local salt mine cavities, is a huge underground cathedral carved into the solid salt structure. It takes a full hour to appreciate at a glance this magnificent piece of architecture… but with its dark, damp and gloomy underground atmosphere and lack of natural lighting, it is not really the cosiest place to contemplate or meditate, never mind pose for that cheery wedding snap!

   

Back in Bogotá, Darina was surprised to find herself on the menu of “Crepes & Waffles”! In a rare act of auto-cannibalism, she tore through herself to fully appreciate her well developed flavour and texture. “Darina” composed of wild mushrooms, goat’s cheese and sun dried tomatoes, sprinkled with a pesto dressing on a bed of rucola is certainly a feast for the eyes and taste buds alike.


Darina on a plate!

   

Ciclovía, Bogotá

Leaving Bogotá on a Sunday is akin to Quito, Ecuador and the other major cities of Colombia. Some of the main roads are closed to motorised traffic and from 7am they fill with cyclists, joggers and in-line skaters taking advantage of this ciclovía.

   

In addition, throughout Bogotá there are many bicycle lanes crisscrossing the city, providing safety from regular traffic.

 


Bicycle lanes, Bogotá

   

Highway bike lane

Once out on the main road to Medellín, we even had a bike lane on the highway through grazing pastures.

   

For the first 50km we had hundreds of colourful cyclists accompanying us to the first pass. A friendly bunch that gave us advice on the road ahead and even bought us lunch.


Gustavo, Arturo and Kurt

   

La Bandeja Paisa

By the time we hit Villeta, 70km out of town, we had dropped 2,000 altitude meters. Boy was it hot! But with cycling done for the day, Kurt was ready for a “Bandeja Paisa”: minced meat, black pudding, chorizo sausage, pork crackling, fried banana, beans, avocado, fried egg, arepas (corn bread) and rice... all for one!

   

A couple of steep passes later and we were down at the Magdalena River, with the Cordillera Oriental behind us.

 


The only way is up...

   

Ahhh!
100 Km downriver we were glad of a rest day by the pool in Doradal at 38 degrees Celsius.
   

Colombia would be a fair contender for the "40 shades of green title"… but of course would have to compete with Darina’s Emerald Isle!


40 shades of green!

   


Loads of rivers

   

Cloud forest

From Doradal we had a few long hard climbs on our way to the top in Sanctuario.

   
Pipes of running water by the roadside advertise truck wash stations, but were appropriated by Darina to cool down in the midday heat.


The business!

   

The boys in green

On this stretch, we had an army guard of honour. Every few 100 meters there were 3-4 soldiers protecting a bridge or corner and generally watching over us. It was a friendly bombardment of Colombian accents from all corners of the country, when we were surrounded by the boys in green on military service.

 

   


Colourful chivita bus

   

 

It was a lovely 15km downhill to Medellín, where our good friends Yolanda and Manuel, from Barcelona days had a welcoming party and an apartment waiting for us.


Yolanda and Manuel

   

Ana Lucía's 4th birthday

We had a very enjoyable week of family gatherings and birthday parties with Yolanda’s huge extended family in Medellín.

   

In between, we were shown around this city of almost 3 million, built up into the hills on both sides of the valley.

 


Plaza Botero, Medellín

   

The elevated metro, Medellín
Getting round in Medellín is cheap by taxi, but even better on the metro. Impeccably clean, this 10-year-old elevated train line is a great way to see the city from a height. A cable car up Santo Domingo hill is part of the deal.
   

 

Botero, Medellín’s famous artist has donated numerous sculptures and paintings to his native city. Plaza Botero is a great open air museum with tourists from all parts of the country posing beside his gorditos (fatsos).

 

 


One of Botero's gorditos

   

All the cane sugar you need

La Minorista market in Medellín is well worth the visit. Highly organised and varied, you can find everything imaginable from panela (cane sugar) to plastic flowers.

   
Here Darina was approached by a stern security guard asking for her authorisation papers for shooting pictures. Convinced he was pulling her leg, she slapped him on the shoulder and complimented him on his Miami Vice vibes. Not in the mood for a joke, he escorted her off to administration, where the boss was called to interrogate the Irish market spy!


Top secret pic... for your eyes only!

 

As if this wasn't enough publicity, the local press arrived at the apartment the next morning to interview us about our ganders in their vast continent. Colombian rivalry with their Latin neighbours came to the fore on printing and so we have had to photoshop out a couple of our journalist's creative quotations, as they do not reflect our opinion. To read the article, Casa de dos ruedas (House on two wheels), click here.
   

Lights over the River Medellín

The seasonal highlight though is the illumination of a 2 Km stretch of the Medellín River and a downtown thoroughfare. 12.5 million light bulbs were used to depict scenes from the different regions of the country as well as Santa, stars, reindeer and the nativity scene. This spectacle employs 1,500 people and a few hundred more make a living peddling their wares to the spectators strolling up and down throughout the Christmas season.

   

Lights depicting Cartagena and the coastal area

   

A wide variety of street food is available especially in the evening. Stalls are generally strategically located in front of late night liquor stores where the neighbourhood congregates for a few social kebabs and booze.


Snacks on the street
 

   

Now, do a right job on them, d'you hear?
   

Don Matías

After a week, it was time to move on and being experts at leaving we chose the Sunday to take advantage of the 30 Km of closed highway on the way out. Being our last ascent of the Andes, we didn’t mind our 2-day climb up to Alto de Ventanas.

   

On the road, we bumped into Jessie (USA), Clyde (USA) and Peter (UK) on a mission to cycle Alaska – Ushuaia in 11 months. Amazingly, they fitted in 15 minutes to chat us despite their busy schedule.


Jessie, Clyde and Peter

   

TV strikes again!

Yarumal is renowned for being feo, frío y faldudo (ugly, cold and steep). We didn’t find it particularly ugly, it was quite fresh, but it was definitely way too steep for comfort. In fact, had it been any steeper we would have been pushing upside down! In any case it took us so long to get to the centre that the local TV camera was already waiting for us by the time we got to the plaza. And once the shooting was completed they also cashed in on a radio interview for Medellín.

 

The next day was our last one in the Andes. After 11 months crisscrossing the backbone of the continent, we celebrated our exit with a 40km downhill. Since leaving Ushuaia, at the end of the world, in January, we have experienced an amazing variety of landscapes, climates and cultures.


Our last Andean pass

 


Flat at last!
We worked our ways up, cruised our ways down and rewarded ourselves with excellent campside cuisine or stale biscuits, depending on available supplies. It was at times taxing, seldom boring and often exciting, but after 10,000 Km of ups and downs we’re looking forward to nice flat coastal stretches for the next while.
   

Our first Post-Andes day was indeed flat, but very hot. We’d better get used to 35 degrees plus, as it’s what’s ahead. Excellent weather nonetheless for salpicón: a finely diced fruit salad in its own juice topped off with a scoop of vanilla ice and whipped cream.


Salpicón

   

Where's MY beer?

Colombia is one of those places where it’s still possible to see a horse tied up in front of a downtown bar/store while its owner is in stocking up on supplies or knocking back a shot of aguardiente.

   

In Caucasia we came across a goose merchant skillfully marching his goods up and down the busy market streets.


He'd mind geese at a crossroads!

   

Lots of black exhaust fumes

One of the negative features of Colombia is the poor quality of diesel used.

   
At the end of most days on the road, our appearance was more like that of chimney sweeps than cyclists. This is certainly the worst we came across in all of South America.


Filthy dirty

   

Thirsty weather

Another disappointing aspect was the behaviour of many drivers, especially those employed by the Expreso Brasilia Bus Company. A little more respect for human life (and cyclists) would be greatly appreciated. Travelling on the main drags for security reasons, coupled with heavy holiday traffic resulted in noisy days and exhausted bodies.

 

   

In Don Pelayo we were sent to a motel when we arrived at 4pm. It turned out the caretaker was given an hourly rate for room rental and couldn’t get his head around the idea of an overnight stay. He directed us to the next village. Of course, there was no hotel, and after being sent from Billy to Jack looking for a vacant room to rent, Luís and Alejandro approached us and offered us their spare room for free.


Luís and Alejandro

   

Mosquito protection under thatch

There we pitched our inner tent as a protection against mosquitos. Across the road in a little bar we had a couple of drinks by their mega speakers pounding out salsa rhythms, while a neighbour rustled up dinner for a few pesos. The whole village was on for sacrificing a hen or two for a “gallina criollo” (hen stew)dish in our honour, when we finally retired for 40 winks.
Unfortunately, the disco went on until 3am, when the noise was promptly replaced by dozens of cocks crowing. It was then that Darina
went on the rampage, armed with her Swiss-army knife, to get hold of the main ingredient for a few tasty “gallo criollos” (rooster stews)!

   

The nice flat coastal stretch wasn’t far away. We hit the Caribbean coast at Coveñas just before the Christmas rush. It was exactly like those mid-winter ads selling idyllic tropical seaside holidays with palm trees, white sand, turquoise waters and a few fishing boats for decoration. Traffic doesn’t make it’s way down to the 10km coastal stretch of private holiday homes, making this beach just what the doctor ordered.


Paradise yet again!

   

Caribbean rhythms

After the Atlantic Ocean, the Beagle Channel, the Magellan Straits and the Pacific Ocean, this was the last remaining body of water left for us to discover. Once plunging into the sea, we felt we had given this magnificent continent a fair go.

   

Striking it lucky, we managed to rent a house for a few days and a few dollars. There we lounged on the hammocks, strolled along the beach, jumped into the sea and treated ourselves, once again, to some splendid home cooking. 


Wee house for a few days

   


View from the hammock

   

The best hairdresser location

The world came to us on the beach, being the only gringos in town, and we got “morning price” for everything from Darina’s plaits to our new beach bum attire.

   

No more bad hair days for a while!
   

¡A la orden! is probably Colombia’s most popular and frequently used expression. Meaning “at your service” it’s the opening and closing phrase of everyone who has something to offer or sell… whether you buy or not! Walking through a market place, there’s a chorus of ¡a la orden! with every melody, tone and degree of enthusiasm imaginable.


¡A la orden!

   

Painted fruit... true!


Thatched cottage

   

Herons by the roadside
There's a great variety of birds on view by the roadside including ibis, herons, spoonbills, parrots and a lot we would have to invent names for!
   
A typical lunch consists of fish/meat served with rice, beans, salad & banana chips. To drink there's 101 flavours of fresh fruit juices, but a favourite is sugar cane juice with lemon. All of this comes for a reasonable price of less than 2 Euros.


Typical lunch

   

Sugar candy colours of Cartagena

Cartagena de Indias was certainly the perfect place to round off our 15 months in South America. This magnificent fortified colonial town of sugar-candy coloured buildings overlooking the Caribbean was once a pirate’s paradise.

   

Views from Cartagena

   

The Spanish empire used Cartagena to store their looted spoils from the Americas before shipping them home. For that reason Cartagena was a prime target for pirates and a few managed to hold it for huge ransom. The infamous Francis Drake was one of the successful ones making off with a nice little handful.

 


San Felipe Fortress

   

Canon protection

Raids like this led to the building of a massive defence system including a colossal city wall and the San Felipe Fortress. With canons scanning the Caribbean, it’s easy to take a step into the past and relive a little of Cartagena’s colourful history.

   

Cartagena is a very special place to spend Christmas. Unlike Europe, where everyone is wrapped up behind closed doors, here the celebration is out on the street. The music blares from open windows and everyone pulls out a chair to share a chat and a rum with their extended family in public.


Life is out on the street

   

Traditional costume

Children play in the streets, show off their new toys and have impromptu carol singing get-togethers on their doorsteps into the wee hours. The doors are wide open and Christmas trees, flashing lights, cribs and snow scenes are there for all to see. It’s a far cry from the turkey and pud in winter woollies that we’re so used to.

   


Our international seafood Christmas lunch

   

Beyond the beautiful, green landscapes, the best thing about Colombia is its people. They’re a cheerful crowd who always had a friendly shout or joke as we passed through. Rarely did we sit in a restaurant alone without someone joining us to entertain and quiz us. These smiling, happy people are wonderful ambassadors for their own country. They do all in their power to make the tourist feel at home and so promote Colombia abroad. Colombians love their country and we were very happy to share a little of their paradise with them these past 5 weeks.


Colombian flag

   
In South America we bumped into 85 other touring cyclists on various trips, mostly on or near the Pan American highway. We really enjoyed their company... and it's no wonder that Darina's German skills have improved no end this past year! One third of the cyclists were female. Here is a graph sorting the cyclists we met in South America according to their nationality:
 

   

14,000 Km later...

After 14,000 Km in South America we have reached the final shore alive 'n kickin'! If Rio de Janeiro was the perfect starting point, Cartagena is most definitely the icing on the cake and a wonderful place to raise our glasses to this amazing continent and the New Year ahead. Since our curiosity is not yet exhausted, time is not an issue and Central America is just around the corner, wouldn’t it be an awful pity not to check it out? Watch this space…

 

   

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