“It’s ColOmbia, not ColUmbia…”

Cartegena — Cruz de Vizo —Tolú — Cereté — Planeta Rica — Caucasia —Tarazá — Valdivia —Yarumal — Santa Rosa de Osos — Medellin — La Palmas

Waking up on deck in Cartegena’s harbour after 5 days out on the water was something of a relief – the boat trip from Panama, though memorable, was physically not too comfortable.  Neither of us are natural sailors, it seems. Utilising the Captain’s slowly-sinking dingy, we were swiftly deposited on the quayside along with a little tub of Desox, a metal-cleaning substance which strips everything it touches… so with some care the bikes had a little spruce up, and we were off to find a hostel in the old town of Cartegena.

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Being deposited on the harbourside by Captain Paul
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Cleaning off sea-water and a few weeks’ accumulated dirt. Do not drink. ⚠️

Cartegena was hot, busy and beautiful, and we were right in back-packer central.  Having felt moderately bad on the boat, Edwards immediately felt heartily rough when on dry land, so the first 24 hours in town involved only getting clean and lying down a lot. The rolling feeling of nausea slowly subsided and normal service resumed. We had a couple of days in town, socialising with our shipmates, Karaoke and busker-watching; Michael Jackson is apparently ‘a thing’ in South America, but Fat Shakira got the crowd onside and as far as we know, he’s unique. After a failed trip to a bike shop which didn’t have the spare chainring we needed, it was time to roll off south and into the Colombian countryside.

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Cartegena

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From Cartegena heading South, Colombia is pretty much dead flat for a few hundred kilometres, with various wetland areas. We followed a wiggly route including the coastal town of Tolú where we probably were ripped off for Cerviche, and Cereté which was notable only for being over-run with motorbikes. The riding was really nice, great roads normally with decent shoulders. We had our last view of the Caribbean, got lots of waves and whistles from bored-looking soldiers, and on we went. The heat was still with us for sure as we passed Planeta Rica, Caucasia and finally Taraza, the last town before taking a big old left turn over a bridge, over the river and starting to climb – the start of perhaps several months of a lot of up and down.

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Beach football, sunset on the Caribbean, Tolu

The route up to Medellin was not flat, at all, ever, and it was beautiful, hot, cold, sunny, rainy, quiet, full of trucks…certainly stimulating! Having got used to easily covering 100k in a day through Costa Rica, Panama, and Northern Columbia we rapidly had to chuck any distance goals out the window and just ride according to time and weather. Being on a truck route had it’s hazards – an artic did Very Nearly take Zoe off on a right hander, though to his credit the driver did stop – shortly after hearing my swearing above his engine noise – to check we were still both alive. We were. Services like restaurants and really cheap hotels for truckers were also pretty regular, so as we slowly picked our way up from sea level to 3000m, we had no trouble finding what we needed.

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Dodging showers and making random friends, part 1
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….Part 2
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Emergency accomodation, turned out pretty comfortable and with a hot shower

Dodging a shower at one point we received our first proper taste of random Colombian hospitality, care of a family (mum plus 4 girls) in a tiny house right on the road, who invited us in for tinto (black coffee, usually sweet), chatted for ages and refused to accept any payment. Shortly after this we made friends with a guy running a tiny shop near the top of our climb, where we quit early due to torrential rain. Well, that was my reason, I think the kitten was perhaps Zoe’s motivation… anyway after some chat about places to stay he offered us a really basic room for the night, with the absolute luxury of a hot shower, the first one we had seen (or needed) for quite a while.

Leaving this little feline oasis, the next section of riding was definitely undulating as we got closer to Medellin, a series of (by Colombian standards) shorter climbs, 5-10k, and some amazing sweeping descents. Ambling up one these hills enjoying the sunshine, I glanced to my left and spied another cyclist about to pass us. Closer inspection revealed he was riding an almost exact replica of the set-up I had ridden for the transcontinental race… “this guy’s going far and fast” I thought to myself. He slowed to chat for a while – turns out it’s Jonas Deichmann, and he’s attempting the world record – the fastest person to ride from Alaska to Argentina, riding between 250 and 300k per day for 3 months, unsupported. We were amazed that he seemed to be a normal human being, not the gibbering, stinky wreck which most humans would be after a much shorter time riding as he was. He soon toddled off – and as I write is only a few days short of Ushuaia and the record. You can check him out here: https://instagram.com/jonas_deichmann

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Jonas Deichmann, on his way to a Alaska-Ushuaia world record

Onwards towards Medellin, we had again timed things to arrive in a major city on a Sunday morning, with an extensive ‘ciclovia’ (roads closed to cars) in operation from miles out of the city. We had a long, long descent down into the valley and even the three-lane highway, not yet closed to traffic, was very quiet and only cyclists appeared to be on it. From Bello, a continuation of the city to the north, we had closed roads and pedalled in to what was once the most dangerous city in the world alongside bikes of all types, roller-bladers and even a few people who seemed to be running some kind of (ultra hot) ultra-marathon.

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Riding through Bello on the way to Medellin

The city is dramatic, with incredibly steep valley walls, high-rise blocks, huge areas of tin/breezeblock shacks, and the famous cable cars riding above it all. By early afternoon we were pondering how to get up the east side of the valley and into El Poblado, to find our friends Jess and Bruce who were renting an apartment and had space for us 😬. Crossing the non-closed roads, the river, and heading up Very Steep hills into Poblado was quite the adventure, and we were helped by a Canadian bike tourist who spied us, as well as bumping into two of our shipmates from the San Blas trip. Turns out the second-largest city isn’t so big after all 😉.

Poblado in Medellin is an affluent area, definitely not the bit you might have seen on the TV a number of years ago when the army raided various areas in the city. Medellin really does have it all, and whilst its claim to have been ‘cleaned up’ is based on some genuine, amazing changes – and though much reduced – drugs and violent crime are a constant still apparently. During our week staying with Jess and Bruce we saw all sides of the city, including a walking tour of Communa 13, previously one of the most dangerous places in Medellin, and which is being rescued with unusual solutions like public art, a 400m escalator up the hill-side and, to be honest, a conveyor belt of gringos who are bringing money into the area. The day after our tour, which talked about drugs and the problems of the past, I read that the drug-related murder rate has begun to climb again and Communa 13, at night, is not the best place to be for anyone, local or not.

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Pretty far from the sea but everyone loves a Tortuga

Other highlights from Medellin included checking out the football, for which ‘exhuberant’ is a massive under-description, taking a cable car ride up from the valley to 3000m in the Arvi Park, getting our bikes some excellent TLC and a couple of new parts, and enjoying hanging out with Bruce and Jess – making meals with more than 1 pot to cook in, and of course staying properly hydrated at all times.  I also managed to make my way through the entire Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary on Netflix, which if you work it out is quite a feat in only 7 days.

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Checking out the football, a home win, though what happened on the pitch didn’t seem to affect the crowd, who were just non-stop mad dancin’ for 90 minutes
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Plenty of public art on display

Before long it was time to leave our chums and head up the hill towards Rio Negro (birthplace of Mr Escobar), where we had lined up a dog-sit for 3 weeks.  This would be a new experience, and we were a little unsure what it would be like, but it was a great opportunity to do something different, get a bit of accomodation for free, and slow down a little…

 

 

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