La universidad de la vida 🇨🇴

Posted on Feb 8, 2024

I’ve reached Cartagena on the Caribbean coast after cycling a nicely meandering path through Colombia. Travelling from east to west consistently proved to be difficult on account of having to cross the Tres Cordilleras, three parallel mountain ranges that run nearly the entire length of the country from north to south. I spent plenty of time enjoying the coffee and views in central Colombia and then rejoiced in the amazing daily distances I could cover in the coastal flats of northern Colombia.

I was fortunate enough to spend Christmas and the New Year celebrating with my cousin who came to visit me. Together we travelled around Bogota and Medellín shortly after which I hit the road again early in the new year. From Bogota I headed west back down into the valleys from whence I came. This time, my destination was further west than I’d gone before. If I had rushed a bit in the southern, low lying regions of Colombia it was only so I’d have more time to enjoy this central region of which I’d heard so many good stories.

Alto de Letras and the Zona Cafetera

Way down south, back in Patagonia when the Andes still loomed large in my imagination, together with another cyclist we looked up the superlative passes which we could cycle. The longest one was to be found in Colombia and is called the Alto de Letras. 80+ kilometers of climbing from near sea-level to more than 3,600 meters; it sounded interesting enough and I filed it away on my cycling to-do list. A few days after leaving Bogota it was now right in front of me. I camped in the impound lot at the fire department in Honda, which was at about 200 meters above sea-level and set out the following morning for a few days of climbing.

Finally getting above the trees a bit

Bananas and coffee all around

Colombia has produced several “Grand Tour” winners and it’s a country that loves cycling; this is their training ground. After leaving Honda the ride started quite flat and gradually climbed until the town of Mariquita. The climate down at lower elevations was often insufferably hot a humid. A few times while on the bike I came to the conclusion that this was the most difficult climate I’d so far encountered. I would’ve been happy to trade for the high deserts of Bolivia and the nights deep into negative temperatures. By mid-day it was already above 40 degrees Celsius and very humid. I stopped at a cafe in Mariquita, ate lunch, and drank coffee after coffee after coffee. Whenever I encountered this weather I’d spend the early afternoon from about 1 PM until 3 PM relaxing, eating, and reading.

Views way to more views

After Mariquita the climb really starts in earnest. For the next 80 kilometers or so it’s up, up, up with a few flat sections here and there. It’d be tough but at least it’d be cooler higher up. Immediately after leaving town and for the next few days I’d see more recreational cyclists than I’d seen in total up until now. Colombians love competitive cycling and I got loads of thumbs up from people passing me by. A few people stopped to chat and ask about where I was from and a few cars stopped to give me “bananas bocadillos” or bocadillo. Respectively, one is a tiny little sweet banana and the other is a confection made of guava fruit. Similar names, both super sweet, both tasty!

Cooling off a bit in the evening. Still steep

The start of the last day

After the first day I made it to the town of Fresno where I asked if the fire department had a place where I could pass the night; I was free to setup in a spare room but had to be gone early in the morning. No problem! I walked around town a bit and marvelled at how busy each and every little town was that I passed through. At night every place seems to come to life so I walked around a bit, ate here and there, and returned to the fire department for some sleep. I was on the bike again early the next morning, which helped to increase the distance I could cover before the temperatures forced my mid-day break.

Almost done with this long climb

Topped out on Alto de Letras

As I climbed and climbed and climbed the temperatures gradually became more agreeable. It was neat to see the climate and the views change around me as I rose out of the low lying forests into high pasture land, past coffee and bananas and eventually above the tree line. The whole climb proved to be quite a mental game because at points it felt like it was never going to stop. Behind every turn there’s simply more uphill; you know it’s gotta end at some point and then eventually it does as you ride through a small town at the top of the pass. The fastest known times amongst competitive cyclists are somewhere just beyond the three hour mark whereas I did it in about two…days.

Finally some descending

Me and the largest coffee cup in the world

Once I finished the Alto de Letras I spent a night in Manizales and then turned south towards Salento. I was now fully in the Zona Cafatera or “the coffee triangle,” a place I’d heard a lot about from other cyclists. Nice climate, good coffee, and beautiful, quiet roads. Here and there I stayed with people I’d met along the way, like David and Irma who let me camp out in their greenhouse. I rode as far south as Salento and spent a rest day there visiting a coffee plantation with a few other travellers and hiking into the Cocora valley to see the famously tall and slender wax palm trees.

A full Jeep Willy's sometime around rush hour in Santa Rosa de Cabal

The view from David and Irma's house

Wax palm trees near Salento

On the Sunday night in Salento the town hosted some kind of equastrian festival (i.e. party) in which the riders, the “trochadores,” rode their paso fino horses around a town square. The horses have an oddly short, ambling gate in which they seem to prance around like some kind of caricatured cartoon robber, all the while on a cobblestone town square. “Clack clack clack clack clack…” The riders go around the square the whole evening in a bit of a show, “look how finely my horse prances,” all the while drinking plenty of aguardiente liquor along the way. Toward the end of the evening a few horses are simply turning in short circles as their heavyset riders are slowly, drunkenly slipping off the side of the saddle to one side, apparently interpreting it as a command to turn. One lady even had a saddle with speakers in it. Those poor horses.

Coffee ready for the pickin'

Paso fino horses and their riders getting ready for a night of drinking

Coffee forever

Onward to the coast

Once out of the coffee region I headed for Medellín passing by the uniquely pyramid shaped Cerro Tusa. I spent a few more days going up and down the back roads visiting smaller towns. Although it was nice it was also challenging due to the heat and the steep roads. I thought it was interesting how many places here had biblical names like Palestina, la Siria, or Samaria all the while cycling through the province of Antioquia. I’m currently writing this from the Getsemaní neighborhood in Cartagena. Colombia is quite a Catholic country.

More tough climbing but now with a view of the unique Cerro Tusa

Kites outside Medellín

No bikes allowed! 5 km Tuk-tuk tunnel ride

When will the hills end?

Waiting out the afternoon heat and watching some news in Puerto Berrío

Nice views on the Ruta del Cacao

Between Medellín and Bucaramanga I ended up riding mainly on the highway, unfortunately. The combination of temperatures and steep climbing at lower elevations turned me off of heading into the hills. After just a few days of riding along busy roads I noticed how much of an effect it had on my attitude and outlook. Upon making it to Bucaramanga, or rather the nearby city of Girón, I decided to take some rest days. I only decided this after the fact, though. In Girón I stayed with my first Warmshowers host. It’s a kind of couch surfing website for bicycle tourists. I got in touch with Leidy who said it was no problem to stay at her place, “here’s the address, come on by.” I had initially planned to stay for the night and then to hit the road again but ended up staying for three nights. On my second day there a Belgian couple also arrived who’d just started their trip in Cartagena and were headed south toward Ushuaia. We had plenty of things to talk about. Together we spent the next few days seeing the colonial old town of Girón, going to Floridablanca to eat Olbeas, watching Leidy’s daughter Elena’s skating practice, and playing microfútbol with Leidy’s family. It’s always tough to leave a comfortable place but I eventually managed to hit the road again sometime late Sunday morning.

Packing up to leave Leidy's place in Girón

A brief respite on some quieter roads

After working my way through the neighborhoods and managing to make it out of Bucaramanga I was on the road again. I had originally planned to ride up to Santa Marta and then down toward Cartagena along the coast but decided against that based on how busy that main thoroughfare was. I’d take a left at El Burro and cut across northern Colombia directly for Cartagena. Having studied the map, I knew it’d be a few more uphills and downhills and then it’d be flat as a pancake all the way to the coast. As these things go, I had my first serious fall of the trip on the second to last downhill before the endlessly long flat roads. The road that I was riding on wasn’t very forgiving in that it didn’t have a shoulder. My front wheel went off, I tried to go back on and fell off the bike. Me and the bike slid down the road a bit and I remember thinking how crazy this was.

A long, boring stretch on highway 45

My back and side were pretty well scratched up and I’ve become an even bigger proponent of wearing helmets. I’ll be shopping for a new one in the next big city. Thankfully, the next town was only about 500 meters down the road and after hopping around a bit and collecting myself, I made it there quickly and found the pharmacy. If, on a normal day in these smaller pueblitos, the foreigner arriving by bicycle is a site to behold then one pouring antiseptics over fresh wounds must really be a rarity. Pretty quickly there was a small crowd of people in the street cheering me and the pharmacist on as I grimaced and did whatever that air-punching move is that Mike Tyson did before his bouts. I bought a few other sprays and ointments to keep everything clean over the next few days and then went and had a coffee. All in all, I think I got pretty lucky.

Ladies raising money for their carnival parade. `en mi pais celebramos el carnaval tambien´

... and all of a sudden it was flat

No kidding, my fall happened on the second to last downhill before a few hundred kilometers of flat roads toward the coast. It was a small moment in a week that seemingly beat me up more than all the roads leading up to it. My penultimate Andean downhill would leave me a bit bruised and a bit battered with a few marks by which to remember the place I’ve been cycling through for the past year.

The watermelon kings of El Banco

Down low and back in banana country

Some cool floors gracias a Dios

The stretch to the coast was long but the road had quieted down for the most part and now there was at least a slight coastal breeze. Nothing new, but I had plenty of time to think about Colombia. Up to this point it has been one of my favorite countries; it’s in a close tie for first together with Argentina. I began listing some of the fun quirks I’d noticed along the way. For instance, oftentimes they drink hot chocolate with cheese in it. The first few times I drank hot chocolate and it came with a bar of cheese I just ate it afterwards and thought nothing of it. I eventually learned you’re meant to melt it into the hot chocolate. Interesting combination, who doesn’t love salty sweet?

The end of the day in Mompox

Looking like autumn here in Colombia

The Spanish language changes somewhat with every border crossing and here it’s seems perfectly normal when ordering a coffee to say “gift me a coffee please, my love.” You still have to pay for it, though. In general, how frequently people address strangers as “mi amor” is quite fun. Lastly, in the small towns I’ve biked through there’s almost always a billiards hall and the tables never seem to get cleared of empty bottles the way I’m used to. Eventually you see small tables covered in empty bottles so everyone gets to keep score. Minor differences aside, the people, especially those here in Colombia, continue to be my favorite part.

Rolling hills reminding me of Virginia

Eventually I made it to Cartagena where I quickly headed for the beach to ceremoniously dip my wheels in the sea as I had done when I left Ushuaia early last year. It didn’t feel as momentous as I thought it would but maybe that because I’m not done yet. Here in Cartagena I’ve managed to find a sailboat that can take me to Panama where I’ll carry on riding a bit further. You could spend a lifetime down here in South America and still not see everything; the place is monumentally vast. Eventually it becomes a question of " you can do anything, but you can’t do everything." I’ll be back someday.

Dipping my wheels, I hit the ocean again

My ride to Panama