Luring friends to come out and visit is not an easy task at the best of times. Make the destination Colombia, a country whose reputation remains tainted by its brutal recent history, and I imagined the job would become even more of a challenge. Apparently not though, as with almost no coercion at all, Phil and Suzanne announced they’d booked time off and were heading out – brilliant! Having been friends since that blurry first year at university, it was great see such familiar faces and a cracking week ensued. The primary objective being a four-day trek to La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City), effectively a smaller, less accessible version of Machu Picchu, but made all the more alluring as such.
All good things must come to an end though (a terrible rule) and so as they flew back to Blighty, carting a quite substantial quantity of my gear with them (thanks!), I returned to Cartagena to reunite with ‘The Beast’. The trouble with these lengthy periods off the bike is that it becomes somewhat of a motivational challenge to actually get back on it again. Having intended to get cracking straightaway, another whole week managed to slip past wherein each day I’d confidently declare that “I will definitely leave tomorrow!”. The fact that Matthias had just sailed in didn’t help matters, with each evening of ‘last night’ drinks basically preventing the much-anticipated departure from happening the following morning. Eventually though, we broke the cycle, bade a final farewell to Cartagena and hit the road together once again. The first pedal strokes of a new continent.
It was great to have this now bearded German for company again, but the partnership was due to be short lived since we both had different immediate plans (and adventure cyclists tend not to be the most compromising of characters). In effect, the Andes splits into two ranges when it reaches Colombia and I was making a beeline for the Western one and the city of Medellin, whereas Matthias had his sights set on the other. Arguably the more interesting route, but for various reasons I wanted to visit Medellin, the most mundane of which being to return someone’s laundry! So after two days riding together we struck off on our respective missions, with the plan to try and reunite a bit further south.
Just before parting ways we managed to catch Colombia’s first World Cup match at a raucous local bar. For an Englishman, my lack of interest in football is frankly embarrassing, but sat amongst this passionate sea of yellow I’ll admit to being momentarily pretty psyched. The babble of excitable commentary was barely comprehendible, but there was no mistaking the points when the commentator appeared to implode, releasing an almighty ‘GOOOOOOLLLLL!!!!”. Quite a feat of linguistics, and if for some reason you failed to hear it, a Colombian goal would also be accompanied by blaring horns from all passing traffic and people running to the streets, jumping up and down with huge flags. This all paled in comparison though, to the final whistle blow and eruption of celebrations that followed the win. Within minutes seemingly the entire town had taken to their mopeds and swathes of screaming, half drunk fans waving flags took over the roads. It was as if they’d won the whole thing, and upon remounting our bikes we were soon engulfed by a wave of euphoric moped riders. I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed such energetic celebrations, but one thing’s clear; football is a pretty big deal over here.
The tradition of ‘ciclismo’ also runs strong and the highlights of my sweaty days riding across the lowlands towards the Andes were always the random encounters with supportive locals. They really are a friendly bunch and take evident delight in the fact that you’ve bothered to visit their neck of the woods. Shouts of “Venga Quintana!” followed me wherever I went and offers of hospitality came thick and fast. One incredulous group insisted on buying me drinks and lunch, which was great, until they began trying to pair me up with one of the guy’s sisters. Some awkward ”How pretty is she??” “Ermm, yea really pretty” followed, along with the usual “Do you have ‘Face’?” (Facebook appears to be too much of a mouthful over here).
Others insisted that I needed the stuff that makes Nairo Quintana (Colombia’s cycling hero) so fast and promptly ran off to a shop. Half expecting them to return with a handful of amphetamines, I was instead presented with a 1kg brick of ‘Panela’. Although flying in the face of my recent weight saving initiatives, I gratefully accepted the solid lump of what appeared to be the Colombian equivalent of Kendal Mint Cake. Pure sugary goodness – great for cyclists on the verge of energy depletion, although probably too sickly for general consumption. You take one bite and your taste buds instantly classify it as disgusting, advising you to immediately abort, but then suddenly the brain receives word of the ridiculous sugar content and overrides the order; “Wait a minute! That’s exactly the stuff we need – keep it coming! More!”.
After a few days of flatish riding I finally caught my first glimpses of the Andean foothills and was struck by that shiver of excitement reserved for special occasions. The trip was about to embark on a whole new chapter; tropical lowlands would be traded for the chilly heights of the Andean mountains; my home for the next few months. And having recently exhausted my supply of DEET, it frankly couldn’t have come at a better time.
My Andean initiation began with a near-continuous 70km climb, not something you see too often in the UK or even continental Europe for that matter. But as a cyclist who’s only veritable attribute is his climbing ability, I was strangely relishing the chance to pit myself against it. Things started well and I was soon in ‘the zone’, pedaling away in my own little world and cracking out a steady tempo to a soundtrack of Drum and Bass. As time passed the temperature dropped to more manageable levels and each view became even more breathtaking than the last. By around halfway however, I was abruptly brought out of ‘the zone’ by a sudden urge to empty my bowels (for lack of a more polite word). This effectively signaled the beginning of the end, with the remainder of the climb punctuated by frequent dashes to the bushes, all the while trying to determine what was responsible for this unfortunate situation. I generally take comfort in having something to pin the blame on, but having recently consumed innumerous suspect looking items of street food, exposing the culprit was a fairly futile endeavor.
Following a day laid up in a $5 hotel room, I’d recovered enough for the final push to Medellin and took a great route through what could be mistaken for classic English countryside (or maybe I’m just forgetting what England looks like). Nine hours of hilly riding were concluded with a stunning decent into the valley where the sprawling city of Medellin lies. Rather shockingly, as recently as the 90’s this was considered the most dangerous city in the world, due in no small part to drug baron Pablo Escobar, who basically ran the place. Things have come a long way since then though and nowadays it makes for a fascinating city to explore, with a strong cycling heritage to boot.
For the past couple of days or so I’ve been ‘Couchsurfing’ in what is effectively a mansion, owned by a very friendly US/Colombian couple, Janine and Jorge. As an avid cycling enthusiast, Jorge has been filling me in on all the latest racing news, as well as taking me on the odd ride up in the mountains behind the house. A great guy and the only person I’ve ever met who cycles with a towel round his neck. I’ve also been tapping into the knowledge of some of his friends with regard to planning the next leg of trip; a possibly over-ambitious off road route through the Los Nevados National Park. Reaching almost 5000m elevation, this will be my first taste of high altitude riding and for the first time in the trip I’m genuinely not sure whether my plan is actually feasible. I’ll let you know in a couple of weeks….
For my final day into Medellin I left the ‘25’ at Santa Rosa and headed along more minor roads via Entrerrios and San Pedro. This is totally recommended if you can bear a bit more climbing: no trucks, great road (with only some very short gravel sections near the start) and an epic decent straight into the city avoiding the main highway.