Colombia: To the end by bike and bus

 

“There is unrest in the forest, There is trouble with the trees, For the maples want more sunlight and the Oaks ignore their pleas.  The trouble with the maples, (And they’re quite convinced they’re right), They say the oaks are just too lofty and they grab up all the light.  But the oaks can’t help their feelings, If they like the way they’re made, And they wonder why the maples can’t be happy in their shade” (Rush, The Trees).

I found myself humming the tune and ruminating on these lyrics as I bounced along the seemingly never ending rocky road between Neiva and Popayan, looking out of the window at the incredibly lush and packed vegetation along the roadside and stretching out as far as the eye could see, whether down river valleys or up hillsides.  Looking out of the window?  Yep, we (Scott, Sarah and myself) were on the first of two busses that were taking us from Neiva in the Colombian lowlands to Ipiales on the border with Ecuador, saving ourselves about 370 miles and 37,000 feet of climbing.  More of that in a bit, first I want to get back to staring out of the window . . .

For mile after mile I was marvelling at the sheer number and variety of competing trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses in whichever direction or distance I looked.  Palms, firs, pines, yuccas, ferns, climbing flowers of orange, purple and yellow, bamboo, orchids – every inch of soil had something growing in it, competing for life-giving light and water.  Many trees had other plants growing on them, in fact not just on them, they were part of them, yuccas had planted themselves into the nooks of branches to be nearer the sky.  Densely packed, even the roadside verges looked like thick jungle.  In the valleys more trees and fields of lush grass; on the hillsides if there weren’t trees there were rows of farm planted food crops on impossibly steep slopes.  This is Colombia!  

There are over 56,000 species of flora and fauna in Colombia with over 9,000 of them being endemic (not found anywhere else).  It is the second-most biodiverse country in the world (behind Brazil).  It ranks first in the world for the number of orchids and birds, second for plants, butterflies, fresh water fish and amphibians, third for species of palm trees and reptiles.  About 10% of the world’s fauna species live in Colombia.

All of this is possible because of the diversity of habitats available thanks to Colombia’s wide variety of altitudes, temperatures, weather conditions, soils and sunlight on the coasts, in the Andes and the rainforest lowlands.  Colombia is, without doubt, the greenest-in-colour country I’ve ever cycled (or taken a bus!) through.  BUT, sadly we don’t currently live in a world where all of this is being maintained.  More to follow later . . .

Getting lost

You wouldn’t think it possible to get lost on a twelve mile route, especially when you’ve written down instructions like “stay right at coffee farms after 2.3 miles”, but after leaving Salento and exactly 2.3 miles into my short ride I inexplicably turned left at the coffee farms and plunged down a steep rocky road and into the wrong valley.  Scott and Sarah had taken the steep, rocky mountain road to Ibague a couple of days earlier but, as my bike doesn’t suit that kind of terrain, I’d decided to take a different route, including a bus ride.  As it turned out my descent into the wrong valley also had me struggling over rocks and wading through rivers and streams.

The valley I was meant to avoid

Although I spent a fair amount of time sweating and pushing my bike back up out of the valley it was still beautiful.

I met up again with Scott and Sarah in the dump of a city that is called Ibague, listening to my companeros tale of being threatened with robbery on their way in and spending a less than comfortable night in a hot and noisy hotel in the cheap part of town (though I suspect Ibague doesn’t have a non cheap part of town.

View from my hotel window – trucks started delivering to the market at 2.00am

The only reason we were going through Ibague was to avoid the busy Pan-American Highway route to Ecuador in favour of a quieter road that led to:

The Tatacoa Desert

Two days ride out of Ibague took us to the small town of Aipe on the Magdalena River, on the opposite shore of the Tatacoa.  A motorised canoe took us over to the other side and into a landscape unlike anything else we’d seen so far.  For one thing the Tatacoa is not predominantly green, it’s red.

The Tatacoa was named in 1538 by the conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez Quesada (you’ve learned something new today!) and refers to the rattlesnakes that can be found there.  It’s not just a desert, but also a tropical dry forest.  Unlike most of the rest of Colombia it has low humidity and high temperatures, the area being heavily eroded to create dry canyons.  Wildlife includes rodents, snakes, spiders, scorpions, eagles, alligators, snakes and wildcats.  I’m pretty sure we saw some eagles but – thankfully – nothing else.

Scott and Sarah’s Colombia visas were due to run out in just a few days time so we decided to do just one more day’s ride to Neiva where we would then get busses all the way to Ipiales on the Ecuador border.  To be honest, visas notwithstanding, we’d seen pretty much all we’d wanted to see in Colombia anyway and didn’t fancy riding what looked to be fairly brutal and/or uninspiring roads! 

The Three Amigos in guess where?

A note for the cycling purists

On my first two or three cycling tours I was determined, as far as it was feasible, to cycle every mile of road from start to finish.  It was important to me, that as well as enjoying all the scenery and everything else that the trip could throw at me, that I had the challenge of riding an unbroken road.  In New Zealand, when my rear tyre split, that meant parking the bike, hitch-hiking forward to the next bicycle store to get a new tyre, then hitch-hiking back to my bike to carry on.  On my trans-America bike ride it meant blagging and pleading my way through two sets of road construction works in Alaska instead of getting in the back of a pilot truck.  On the third – seven mile long – section of roadworks I was told quite firmly that I had to get in the truck as no-one was prepared to take responsibility for my serious injury or death from being run over by a piece of heavy machinery.  But that was OK, I wasn’t allowed to cycle and there was no other road so it didn’t count as ‘cheating’!  There are certain tunnels cyclists are not allowed to cycle through or bridges we are not allowed to cycle over.  Again, that’s fine, if you’re not allowed then it doesn’t count as breaking the ride.

However!  The first bus – ‘cheating’ – I ever took was in Mexico, from Tuxtla Gutierrez to San Cristobal, just 50 miles of road but with a single 7,000 foot (2,134 metre) climb.  It was hot, humidity was running at about 70% and I just.  Didn’t.  Fancy it!  If I had any regrets they were soon dispelled as the bus chugged and heaved its way up the hill, grinding away in the bottom gears, taking about four hours to cover the distance.  Thank goodness I’m not riding up this!

And so to the purists I say this: I get it.  I get why you want to cycle every mile, I’ve been there myself.  But, once you’ve taken that first bus, you almost certainly will not regret it!

Thank goodness we’re not riding up this! 

The first bus we took was the 5.00am Neiva to Popayan, an “eight and a half hour” journey that actually took over eleven.  It saved us 170 miles and 15,000 feet (4,575 metres) of climbing on a gravel/rock/mud road that would have been hell on a bicycle.  I think we’d still be on it now if we’d tried to ride it.

Our chariot of choice – don’t be fooled by the paved road, that only existed in the few towns we passed through

After arriving in Popayan we had just enough time for breakfast of chicken foot soup (complete with actual feet 🤮) before jumping onto the night bus to Ipiales – an “eight hour” journey that took over ten but was on the paved Pan-American Highway and in a more comfortable bus.  That saved us another 200 miles and over 22,000 feet (6,700 metres) of ascent.  As much as I never want to spend around 22 hours out of 25 on busses ever again I can only thank the busses of Colombia for saving us over 11,000 metres of sweating, heaving, pushing and swearing!

Now, readers of previous trip blogs of mine may remember this feature?  Time to reintroduce it.  And what really grinds my gears on this post is the arbitrary paying of money to bus drivers for putting a bicycle on their bus!  It goes like this: you buy a ticket at the ticket office, explaining that you have a bicycle.  The ticket office sell you a ticket to sit on the bus but tell you that you will have to pay the bus driver for the bicycle.  If you ask at the ticket office how much you will have to pay the driver they will either not give you a figure or the figure they do give you will not match the reality.  You take all your gear off the bike and remove the front wheel to help with space.  The bus arrives and the driver immediately pulls a face.  He is not smiling.  He looks semi angry.  He begins to gesticulate and tells you space on his bus is going to be a problem/he is running late/he can’t be arsed/all of these.  This is an act designed to ramp up what comes next – he wants money to watch you put all your gear, and the bicycle, on his bus while he stands and watches.  How much he gets then becomes an act of bartering usually only seen in a Moroccan souk.  Our Neiva to Popayan driver wanted 50,000 pesos per bike – the same amount as the actual ticket cost.  Sarah told him to do one and we eventually paid 40,000 (still too much) to load our bikes in the dusty boot.  For most of the journey we were the only people on the bus.

My question is this: WHY??!  It really grinds my gears!

La Lajas Sanctuary

Before heading into Ecuador there was one last place we wanted to see and it’s just a short taxi ride out of Ipiales.

La Lajas Sanctuary is built inside a canyon and straddles the Guaitara River.  Its inspiration was a purported miracle that took place in 1754.  Amerindian Maria Meneses de Quinones and her deaf-mute daughter, Rosa, were caught in a storm and sheltered between two giant slabs of rock (lajas).  To Maria’s surprise – and that’s putting it mildly – her deaf-mute daughter cried out “The Virgin is calling me!” and pointed to a lightning-illuminated silhouette over the lajas.  Quite clearly a deaf-mute child had shouted out that she’d seen the Virgin Mary in the night skies of Colombia and pilgrimage to the site duly ensued. Still, the current church was built between 1916 and 1949 and is quite an impressive sight.

And what pilgrimage site wouldn’t be complete without countless shops selling necklaces, glow-in-the-dark Virgin Marys and llama rides for the kids?

Do I look daft in this?

Scott and Sarah were given their best chortle of the day by an old boy who asked Scott if he wanted to buy something from his cool box.  “No, gracias” said Scott.  “Que hay de algo para tu padre?” (“What about something for your father?”) asked the old geezer!  Oh, how they laughed at that!

Riches to Rags?

Before I go, back to Colombia’s rich biodiversity:

The WWF have said that deforestation, urbanisation, habitat loss, over-fishing and mineral, metal and oil extraction have led to environmental degradation that is threatening a third of Colombia’s plants and half of its animals.

Perhaps the most symbolic of these threats is the fate of Colombia’s national tree, the Giant Wax Palms of the Cocora Valley, which Colombian scientist Rodrigo Bernal describes as “living corpses”.  These trees, which grow up to 60m tall, live for upto 200 years and are a key component in the region’s ecosystem, its fruits feeding a large number of birds insects and mammals.  However, much of the lush, dense forest around the palms has been cut down to provide grazing land for cattle.  This means that the seeds of the palms either burn in the sun or are eaten by the cows.  As the older trees come to the ends of their lives there are no new saplings to take their place.  It is estimated there are only 2,000 Giant Wax Palms left in the Cocora Valley.

I’ll leave it at that, except to say let’s hope it isn’t too late.

Oh, we came across this strange shop window display near our hotel in Ipiales.  Answers on a postcard please.

So, it’s goodbye to Colombia and its lovely food (apart from the chicken feet soup), people ( apart from the bus drivers), scenery, hills and rocky roads) and hello to Ecuador!

Until next time

Don Ricardo

 

 

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Blood, Sweat and Gears

“It’s too fucking hot for this shit!” (Scott Daniel Gutierrez) 

(picture credit to longrodehome)

We’d cycled precisely 1.5 miles uphill from our hotel in Tribunas to a panaderia to get our pastry supplies for the ride ahead when Scott pulled to a halt, sweat already soaking his red shirt and shorts (he looked like his throat had been cut) and mumbled this rallying call to the troops, Sarah and myself.  If Henry V had issued a similar call to arms at Agincourt in 1415 history, I suspect, would have turned out very differently.  Suitably discouraged by Scott’s fatalistic cry to arms we climbed back on our steeds and started our 25 mile slog uphill in the burning heat – another day, another bid for survival!  

And that’s how the end of each day on a bicycle feels in Colombia, an overwhelming sense of relief that you’ve survived another day . . .

The end of my last blog post had us in the town of Riosucio after a 15 mile rocky/muddy downhill from our football field camping spot that took me 3 hours and 22 minutes of saddle time to complete – that’s an average speed of 4.6 mph going downhill!?  I’ve cycled up hills far faster than that, though probably not in Colombia!

We took a day off in Riosucio on the Saturday in Easter Week and witnessed a couple of extremely sombre and funereal processions around the town square – anyone would think someone had died – including one where the local Ku Klux Klan appeared to have a part to play in carrying the Cross of Christ.

We left Riosucio for Risaralda, a 29 mile day, starting and ending (as per the norm) with an uphill.  Despite the final uphill into Risaralda being timed perfectly to coincide with the inevitable daily thunderstorm this ride, which was still in Colombia’s coffee country, was probably the easiest of the trip so far, though ‘easiest’ is a relative term.  Coffee plantations were growing side by side with banana plantations and much of the scenery was beautiful.

Where’s Wally?

Coffee beans

Risaralda boasts two basic hotels and the one we stayed in also serves as the local knocking shop.  My room was just being vacated by an embarrassed young couple as we arrived – a quick sweep of the floor and a changing of the sheets and I was in.  Lovely.

I thought we were firmly back on paved roads after Riosucio and my rock/mud nightmares were over by this point.  I was wrong.  Cycling out of Risaralda we were back on the dirt and, after an early morning downpour, this quickly became a muddy quagmire – complete with the occasional landslide and road collapse.

(picture credit to longrodehome)

(picture credit to longrodehome)

Typical of the world over there was one guy working (in the digger) and nine watching!

After a night spent in the rather ugly town of La Virginia we set off on another of the more brutal days.  Again, not a big distance – just 25 miles – but with some long and steep hills, no cloud cover and hot sun to keep us company along the way.  We were aiming for a roadside restaurant/hostel we’d found online but, arriving there first, I found the gates padlocked.  20 minutes later poor old Sarah and Scott arrived, looking both exhausted and relieved.  Their bikes might be better suited than mine on rock and mud but mine is better suited than theirs on paved roads.  If I felt knackered after a tough uphill day in the heat I knew what sort of state they would in – not good. Much swearing ensued when I told them it was closed, not helped as the owner turned up and brusquely unlocked the gate, drove inside and locked the gate again, without even a word to us.  Bastard.  The bigger problem with this situation is that when you arrive exhausted at what you think is your last pedal turn of the day, you mentally and physically close down.  If you then have to start pedalling again, especially if it’s uphill, it feels twice as hard as it did before.  And so it proved.  It was just 500 more metres uphill, before a left turn downhill to find somewhere else to stay, but I wobbled my up there and waited for my campaneros.  And waited.  And waited.  After seven or eight minutes I was wondering what on earth had happened to them and was just about to turn back to see where they were when they staggered over the brow of the hill, quite literally spent.  We were all done in and freewheeled down the hill a couple of miles until we got to a bit of a fancy hotel.  I for one wasn’t going any further, Scott and Sarah looked like the walking dead from Zombie Apocalypse and it started to rain – we checked in and enjoyed a night of luxury!

The following morning was hot and muggy and the scene of Scott’s invigorating “it’s too hot for this shit” battle cry.  He was right of course.  Another short day – just 17 miles – but it felt like 70.  A looooong uphill to start, a torrential downpour at the top and a downhill/uphill ride in the rain into Salento.  Another day survived.

On the way to Salento

 Salento and the Valle de Cocora

View from our first hostel in Salento

If Colombia wasn’t so beautiful you’d really have to question your own sanity in making your way through it on a bicycle.  It would be purely an exercise in personal determination and endurance.  It’s the scenery that keeps you going each day and the town of Salento and the nearby Cocora Valley are two of the most popular destinations for tourists and Colombians alike.  They lie in the central cordillera of the Andean mountains, part of the Los Nevados National Park.  The valley has very temperate weather due to its altitude at 1,800 – 2,400 metres.  The prevailing westerly winds that blow from the Pacific are stopped by the Andean mountains, creating a humid environment that supports a wide range of flora and fauna.  Amongst the latter are sloths, spectacled bears, pumas, humming birds, toucans, parrots, mountain tapirs and condors.  We hiked around a designated trail yesterday for about five hours and, although the only one of the above we saw were soaring condors, the scenery was amazing:

Giant wax palm trees (picture credit to longrodehome)

View down the valley

The hiking trail climbs uphill into the cloud forest, then drops down though Indiana Jones-esque ‘jungle’ alongside the Quindio River which tumbles down from the mountains:

(picture credit to longrodehome)

Small dairy farms spot the bottom of the valley and there is only one way to transport the milk out.

 

A thoroughly enjoyable day and a nice change to sitting on a bicycle.  What better way to recover than another day in Salento drinking coffee, eating and relaxing (my cycling buddies are actually lying in bed right now after a particularly tiring lunch).

Slow progress

At the current rate of knots, and assuming we make it to Ushuaia, I’ve roughly calculated that we’ll complete our odyssey to the tip of South America by March 2021!  Best we get a move on.  Then again, I’ve got all the time in the world . . .

Until next time, take care and make some travel plans.

Don Ricardo

 

 

 

 

 

A Hard Start

“If you are going through hell, keep going” (Winston Churchill)

To the best of my knowledge Winston never rode a bicycle in Colombia but, if he did, I’m sure that’s where he would have said those words . . .

Ambulances, Busses and Bicycles

I don’t feel the cycling Gods have been looking down very kindly on me so far.  I’ve been in South America for thirteen days and, at the time of writing this post, I’ve travelled the grand distance of 135 miles: 95 of them on my bicycle, 25 on a bus and 15 in the back of an ambulance!  I’ve bent my front wheel into the shape of a pretzel, broken a handlebar end and bent a pannier rack.  The bike was lucky!  I’ve had stitches in my elbow, I’ve got a badly bruised hip and ribs and an infected leg.  

Still, always look on the bright side of life:  I got a new wheel (well, Scott and Sarah got me a new wheel), a man in a shed with a vice and a hammer repaired my pannier rack and I’ve visited various clinics to have running repairs made to my various ailments.  And it really could have been so much worse as, lying in the roadside gutter in the immediate aftermath of my crash, I really did think my adventure was over before it had begun.  My overriding thought as I lay there wondering just which bones I’d broken?  Richard, you are a fucking idiot!   

Surely I can bend this back into shape?

Scott and Sarah eventually pressed ahead, leaving me in the sweat-box town of Bolombolo to recover for a couple more days.  Unable to stand the humid heat of that place any longer I decided to get a bus to Jerico to meet up again with my companeros who were taking two days to cover the same distance as it took the bus to cover in 90 minutes!  They were taking a ‘short cut’ along what was basically a goat track ‘road’ and were having a tough time.  I actually passed them on the road and, looking at their strained faces as they struggled up a monster of a hill, I thought to myself how glad I was that I wasn’t with them!

Into coffee country

Jerico sits in the heart of Colombia’s coffee country and is a beautiful little town.

Looking down at Jerico from the ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue

Town centre

And, quite possibly the best thing about Jerico?  The view from the balcony of our little apartment:

Or was it the beer wall in a local bar?

Why, oh why, oh why am I doing this?

This is a question I’ve asked myself quite a few times over the last three or four days.  There is a price to pay for being able to enjoy the beautiful scenery of Colombia’s coffee country.  The towns on our route from Bolombolo to Riosucio (where I’m now sitting in a coffee shop writing this) are almost exclusively linked not by paved roads, but by rocky, muddy tracks.  The day from Jerico to Jardin started with 20 miles of this, followed by a 1,500 foot climb into town with a thunderstorm thrown into the middle of it.  Just 32 miles but by the end of it we were all knackered.  This was Scott and Sarah’s third day of this kind of tough riding – but my first – and my bruised ribs were wondering what the hell I was putting them through.

Leaving Jerico

Hmmm . . .

Pushing

Looking over at the town of Buenos Aries – not what I was expecting

Riding into Buenos Aries – a one horse town if ever I saw one

Mud! 

It was a gruelling day.  OK, I’m not very fit at the moment (none of us are) but even so it was the toughest start to any of my cycle trips and, unfortunately, a taste of things to come.

After a day off to recover in the lovely town of Jardin I had the wild idea of covering the 32 miles to Riosucio in a single day.  There was the small matter of a 3,800 foot climb out of town, covering around 12 miles, but then it was pretty much all downhill to Riosucio – surely not that difficult?  Think again.  The first three miles were on paved road, then it was rocky, muddy track the rest of the way.  Daniel, the hostel manager told me that with all the weight we were carrying on our bikes – I assume he meant our gear but he might have been referring to us – it would take us four hours to get to Riosucio.  I spluttered, remembering our previous day, and said it would take us four hours just to get to the top of the climb.  Oh, how very optimistic!

Typical local bus

Anyone for some Tosh granola?

Or some Bum sweets?

Anyway, back to the ‘road’ from hell.  Eight miles into our already tough ride we were hit by a thunderstorm which lasted for about an hour – easily long enough to turn a rocky road into an impossible-to-ride rocky mudbath.  For the next four miles we were reduced to an exhausting – in mind and body – push up another 1,500+ feet of ascent.  Occasionally we’d get a stunning view of lush Jurassic Park-like (Sarah’s description) mountain scenery where, as Scott remarked, you wouldn’t have been too surprised to see a T-Rex emerge from the trees.  But my god it was hard work!

 

Pushing

Grimacing – two people pushing one bike, not fun

Stunning – I mean the backdrop of course!

Gorilla in the mist? I probably smelled like one!

After about eight and a half hours – five hours of cycling/pushing time and three and half hours sheltering from the rain/resting and swearing time – we’d covered a whopping 16 miles and pitched our tents on a disused football pitch, just as another huge thunderstorm broke.  Why a football pitch had ever been put in the middle of nowhere I have no idea, but we were glad it was there.  No dinner, just fell into our tents listening to the rain and thunder with the occasional flashes of sheet lightening illuminating the dark.  I had just enough energy left to peel off my wet socks, change the bandage on my infected leg and crawl into my sleeping bag.  It had been brutal.

Breakfast in the goalmouth

The following day involved 15 miles and 3,800 feet of downhill on the same rocky/muddy shit that we’d climbed up.  Scott and Sarah made it to town an hour before I did as I braked and slid my way down, terrified of falling off and further damaging my ribs.  It was not enjoyable.

Coming into Riosucio

And that’s about all I have for now.  Colombia so far: lovely, friendly people; some incredibly lush scenery; good food; rain; mud; good coffee; good companeros.  And very, very tough riding.  I almost didn’t make it even this far, but here I am.  Big thanks to Scott and Sarah for helping me to keep going and for keeping me sane.

Until next time, take care and make some travel plans!

Don Ricardo

Me

 

 

 

Unfinished (Leisure) Business

“Just what is it that you want to do?  Well, we wanna be free, we wanna be free to do what we wanna do.  And we wanna get loaded and we wanna have a good time.  And that’s what we’re gonna do (away baby, let’s go!).  We’re gonna get loaded, we’re gonna have a party”  (Primal Scream, Loaded)

Wall mural of a coffee plantation, Guatape

Arctic to Antarctic, Part Three – South America! 

Well, here I am at last, sitting in the Nomad Hostel in Medellin, Colombia, about to begin the third leg of my bike ride from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.  It really wasn’t meant to be like this.  In May 2017 I packed my job in and flew out to Fairbanks, intending to take 12 months or so to cycle down to Ushuaia, whereupon I’d go home and get another job, probably working on until retirement and chin dribbling.  Although I’d had a great ride – full of amazing places and people – mosquitoes, the heat and a general weariness got the better of me by the time I reached Acapulco so I went home, thinking that was probably the end of it and I’d best get back to work.  Nah!  Exactly two months later I flew back to Mexico, picked up where I left off and cycled on through Central America to Costa Rica where, in a careless moment, I fell off my bike and broke my collarbone.  Home again, where I really would have to go back to work.  Nah!

Scroll back to New Zealand and my first touring bike ride in 2010, sitting in a coffee shop in Kaiaua to escape the rain for a while.  A little motor home pulled in.  Across the top of the windscreen were the words “The Life of Riley” and, written on a card on the dashboard, “For Sale”.  An older-than-me couple got out of the van and, as the bloke walked in to the cafe, he looked at my bike, looked up at the rain and said something like “Jeez, you must be bloody mad”.  Little did he know it but that bloke and that motor home had already got me thinking: wouldn’t it be funny if you could buy the Life of Riley?  Not the motor home, just the concept.  And then I thought: maybe you can!  In my case it would eventually mean selling my house (which I did, just eight days ago), to give me enough funds to do whatever I want to do for as long as I’m able to do it.  Just what is it you want to do?  Well, we wanna be free, we wanna be free to do what we wanna do (away baby, let’s go!).

Colombia

Which is why I’m in Medellin, meeting Scott and Sarah at the Bakery Mc. Pevi in the morning to set off southwards towards Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.  I know from past experience (see above) that things don’t always work out how they’re supposed to but hopefully we have 12 months and a few thousand amazing miles in front of us to reach ‘The End of the World’ at the tip of Argentina.  But, before all that, it’s flag time!

Unusual – the flag of Ecuador is the only other one – in that the three horizontal stripes are not equal in size.  Yellow represents the riches of the country, the wealth of the Colombian soil, the gold, sovereignty, harmony, justice and agriculture as well as the sun.  Blue represents the sea, the rivers and the sky.  Red represents the blood spilled during Colombia’s independence (from Spain on July 20th 1810), the effort of the people, their determination and perseverance.

Colombia first came to my attention in 1984 when I was working/partying (away baby, let’s go!) on a kibbutz in Israel when a chap called Sergio arrived from Colombia – sent there, so he said, by his father to escape being killed.  He showed us a bullet wound in his knee to prove the point.  And that’s the image Colombia has had for so long – a cocaine producing, violent country, full of drugs gangs, murder and mayhem.  A country to be avoided.  Not now, Colombia has a growing reputation.

Poverty and Wealth 

I’m really not going to go on about this too much, as with most places there is a big divide between the haves and have nots in Medellin.  The streets here have many, many homeless people, a lot of them in rags with literally nothing to their name.  I was slightly heartened today when I saw a van with volunteers handing out food parcels to an orderly queue of impoverished people.  Having said that Medellin has undergone something of an urban revolution since the 1990’s when it had the unfortunate label of the “World’s Most Dangerous City” with more murders per capita than anywhere else, most of them gang related.  Between 1990 and 1993 there were 6,000 murders a year.  It’s now a vibrant city.  A trip on one of the cablecars through the barrios on the hillsides still shows how most people live though.

I don’t think there are too many building regulations here!  Some of these ‘houses’ look like they’re about to slide down the hillside and, sometimes, they do. 

Barrio 13 is an infamous and once notoriously violent neighbourhood that was ruled by various gangs as well as the FARC urban militia.  It’s now one of the city’s tourist attractions due its amazing street grafitti:

My day out to see the colourful town of Guatape took in a brief boat trip to see how the other half used to live and how the other half do live.

This is what remains of Pablo Escobar’s house on the Reservoir del Penol:

Drug lord lived here . . .

Pablo’s cartel once smuggled 80% of the cocaine supply to the USA.  At the height of his ‘career’ his cartel earned him a personal wealth of $21.9 billion per year, making him the world’s richest ever criminal and one of the world’s richest ever men period.  Well, you know what they say about ill-gotten gains – Pablo was shot dead by the police in 1993.

Just next to the ruins of Pablo’s house are the houses of James Rodrigues and David Ospina, Colombia’s most famous footballers, who play for Bayern Munich and Arsenal respectively.  Here is James’s house:

The tour guide told me you have to be very rich to live here as the houses on the reservoir cost around 500 million pesos.  Sounds a lot doesn’t it?  It’s actually about £120,000, which means I could buy one and have some change left over.  But it’s a lot of money in Colombia.  I would guess James Rodriguez earns about £250,000 a week playing for Bayern Munich, meaning he could buy one of Colombia’s most expensive houses every three days or so.  Rich and poor, rich and poor.

Guatape and Piedra del Penol

The Stone of Penol is the world’s third largest rock according to the tour guide literature, though when I googled it it came in at number 11 (Ayers Rock is No. 1) rising 200 metres above it’s base.  It has 740 steps to the top and I climbed them, trying out my new Olfi vidcam when I got there.

Piedra Del Peñol

The town of Guatape is famous for its colourful houses and sculpted/painted tiles that run along the bottom of the houses and shops, many depicting what the shops sell or celebrating the resident’s cultural beliefs or local agriculture.  Here are a few:

Donkey does not look happy!

I might need one of these at some point!

Hitting the road

And that’s about it for now, tomorrow I actually start the ride with Scott and Sarah and I’m looking forward to pedalling out.  Then again, I can’t say I’m looking forward to the first even moderate hill.  I’ve conducted my usual pre-tour training routine of eating, drinking and not riding my bike for three months.  It’s going to hurt.  My only comfort is that Sarah and Scott look as unfit as I do!  Before I go:

Colombia is nicely cheap – I had lunch today of soup, main course and two beers for £4.00, half of that was the beers.

I need to improve my Spanish – I thought I ordered shrimp but actually ordered pork (which was still delicious).

The prostitutes here start work early – spotted at 7.00am.

If you ever decide to take a walk off the beaten track and spend more than five minutes trundling along to the constant stench of urine you should know you’re in the wrong part of town!

I can no longer use the superhero name of ‘The Lone Cycler’ as it will now be more like the Three Amigos.

The Lone Cycler has company!

The Grand Depart

I decided to hold off publishing this post until today so as to include the three of us setting off.

The Three Amigos

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And it was all going pretty well until about 30 miles in, at which point I had a spectacular crash and somersaulted into a concrete kerb!  Out came the paramedics, off I went to hospital for stitches and to check if I’d broken any ribs (which are hopefully only badly bruised).  The bike is somewhat mangled unfortunately and looks worse than me!

So, we’re going to go back to Medellin to see if the bike can be fixed.  Until we know that there’s not much else we can do.  Scott and Sarah have been amazing and I’m pretty sure I’d be in a bigger mess if they weren’t here.

And the day ends in . . . the back of an ambulance

There’s really not much else to say except may I should be getting used to this kind of shit by now!

Until next time, take care and make some travel plans.

Don Ricardo (I can still use that one) 🚴🏻💨

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Journey Begins (Again!)

Welcome to my new adventure!  This is the final leg of my ‘Arctic to Antarctic’ bicycle ride which started in Fairbanks, Alaska in June 2017 and was originally intended to be a 20,000 mile single trip.  As it’s turned out South America is the final leg (or wheel) of a three part journey.  Part One took me 11,294 miles from the Arctic Circle on the infamous Dalton Highway in Alaska to Acapulco in Mexico; Part Two 3,343 miles from Mexico City to Panama; Part Three will – hopefully – take me from Medellin in Colombia to Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina.

One of the several motivations for this particular trip is a very long held desire to visit Patagonia.  I can’t remember when or where I first saw an image of the towering spires of this wonderful-looking region but I do remember thinking ‘I have to go there!’ – much the same as the first time I ever saw Table Mountain standing majestically above Cape Town.  And so, here I go . . .

“The best things in life aren’t things” – Art Buchwald