For the first time in 2 months I can finally stop sweating – but only after I got done climbing.
I met another cyclist in Cartagena, fresh off the boat and headed for Argentina, and we toyed with the idea of cycling together. But in the end I got cold feet and he ended up staying another week, so I set off alone. It was swelteringly hot, as it has been since El Salvador, but blessedly flat. I’d heard a lot about the terrible traffic in Colombia, especially the trucks, but found the roads to be pretty quiet once I got out of the urban sprawl. The first couple days were uneventful, just hot flat riding. But when I rejoined the main road in Sincelejo the scenery picked up a bit, rolling green pastures as far as I could see. This was a source of great frustration for me, spending all day biking past all this beautiful country, prime camping grounds, but everytime I went into one of the massive fincas to ask permission, I was told “El señor no esta.” The owner isn’t here. He’s some rich guy in Bogota, of course he’s not there. And the people that are there can’t give me permission to camp. But as a result I had a wide variety of camp sites. Next to a gas station, in a city park on the playground (that brought back memories), and behind a village with an army troop. The whole troop was comprised of 18- to 20-year-old fresh faced boys, as excited about their guns as you’d expect them to be. They shared their supper with me (complete with fruit juice) and promised to protect me – “But DON’T MOVE during the night!” As it happened, they went off on a secret expedition in the middle of the night, leaving me to fend for myself. They rousted me to tell me they were leaving and ostensibly to say goodbye, but half the troop came up to me one by one and whispered confidentially that they’d be back by morning. So in the morning they shared their meal with me once more – hot chocolate and an arepa – sort of like a pancake.
The easy riding went on for a couple more days, but I knew the Andes were looming in the distance. By the time I reached them I was so sick of the heat (I couldn’t get to sleep until midnight, when it cooled down a bit) I was no longer worried about the climb, just eager to get up higher. Well, I was a little worried. I had another 8000 foot climb, and I was hoping that it wouldn’t be a repeat of the Guatemala affair. The lead-up to the climb was a lovely road winding alongside the Rio Cauca between steeply rising hills on either side. I’ll be back on the Cauca when I get to Cali (southern Colombia) so I couldn’t help wishing the road would just continue on as it was rather than cross the mountains. But I came to Puerto Valdivia, crossed the river and Bang!, I was climbing. At first glance it looked terribly steep, but it was entirely reasonable. Short steep bits but for the most part just slow and steady cruising up the mountains. At about 2:30 I saw an open gate on the side of the road, with a patch of flat ground perched on the edge of the abyss (the road was following a river valley and at this point had gotten quite high up the side of the valley) that looked like a perfect campsite, with such an amazing view. But by the time the tent was up, clouds had rolled in and I could see nothing but white, then the rain started and I crept into my tent to sleep for 16 hours. I was a bit disappointed, but it would have been pretty miserable riding and dangerous to boot in all the rain and the fog.
Come morning my amazing view was back, and even better for the early morning light, the wisps of cloud down in the valley following the river. But my camera had gotten wet during the night and stopped working, so I’ll just have to remember it. I still had another 10 km or so to go until I got to what I was told was the top, but with the cool of the morning and the magnificent views it went by quickly. But of course the top didn’t mean the end of the climbing. Most of the way from there to Yarumal was climbing, not the flat I was promised. I think I need to give up on the hopes of flat riding until I’m out of the mountains. But these climbs were easier than the big one, and I knocked of the kilometers at a steady rate, saying wow to myself every time I turned a corner. In Yarumal I had lunch, fixed a broken link in my chain, and let my sleeping bag dry. I talked to a few people, who assured me that from there to Medellin was all downhill or flat, and that I’d get there by evening. I understand that in a car climbs are not so noticeable, but it’ boggles my mind that so many people could not notice the 12 km climb immediately out of Yarumal. And several smaller ones to follow. I camped in a small town by the school house, having climbed more than I’d dropped since Yarumal. This was an exciting night for me, as I slept inside my sleeping bag for the first time in months. I think the last time was somewhere near Mexico City. Some kindly and inquisitive neighbor-ladies brought me an arepa and hot chocolate, I think mainly as an excuse to satisfy their curiousity about my stove and other apparati. In the morning, the school children started to arrive and to form a circle around me at about 6 feet, following my every move but too shy to actually speak.
I had 1000 meters to drop to get to Medellin, so I knew I’d have some big downhills, but by 10:30, after amazing, amazing riding, I thought my height was spent and the rest of the way would be more or less flat. Then I turned a corner and saw an enormous valley, and a red-brick city at the bottom. Not Medellin, it turns out, but close. The road plummetted down the side of the valley for 15 km, exhilirating at first then just frightening – the turns were extremely sharp, the road often narrowed to one lane, and opposing traffic would frequently use both lanes when rounding blind corners. And it just went on and on and on.
At the bottom, the road abruptly turned into a 6-lane monstrosity, and the rest of the ride was a bit of a drag. Hot and trafficky, but then I’d look up and see the mountains towering high above. I got to Medellin and had a crazy ride through it, so much traffic and so few rules, a real free-for-all. Which is actually pretty fun if you don’t have to do it too much. I got off the highway, then found that none of the other roads go through, so I meandered quite a bit to get to a hostel. But riding in a city, slowly and exploratorily, is pretty fun as a change of pace.
I’m posting pictures – the camera works again, except the screen, so I just had to point and shoot, not too many turned out and pictures can’t capture the grandeur so I deleted a lot of them.