Really trying your patience now, but these last days have been amazing, and I want to write it down before the passion is lost.
I left Medellin last Sunday, planning to get an early start, but the Wimbledon final was on so I ended up staying to see Andy Murray cry. Poor old chap. Then I rode out of the city, never too pleasant to ride the big highway, but it quieted down quickly, and I road through little town after little town along a winding road alongside the river, while most traffic was diverted to a bigger road the other side. I stopped for lunch and ended up spending a couple hours talking to the ladies running the restaurant – people are too friendly here to make any sort of progress!
I started riding and started climbing, back and forth up the side of the valley. Big climbs are always harder when you don’t see them coming, and at every turn I was expecting the climb to end. For about 12 km. So at the top I was quite exhausted, it was 5:30 and well past my normal camping time. But I was on top of a mountain, and the road abruptly started dropping, so there was no flat ground to be found. Eventually I found a patch with an amazing view down to the Cauca river valley – same one I was riding along before the mountains. A couple kids came at sat with me as I cooked, snapped a few pictures for me. In the morning, I had an amazing ride along the mountain ridge, with steep drops into massive valleys on either side, then down I went, down, down, down for 25 miles, until I was crossing the river. Looks just like it did when I left it! Just as hot too. So I went back to my river riding, gently weaving alongside between the hills. I camped by a little stream, blessedly far from the highway – I could hardly hear the engine braking! I bathed in the stream, but the little fish nibbling at me kept me from savoring the cool water too long. The next day I’d planned to ride to Salento, a town people kept telling me to visit though I had no idea what to expect. The morning was hot and hilly, on a 4-lane highway, the worst kind of riding. But in the afternoon it had cooled, perhaps because I had climbed to a higher elevation, and the 15 km climb I’d been dreading was cake, hardly an effort at all. Around 6 I made it to the turnoff for Salento, a pretty little town across a wide valley from the main road. The side road immediately started dropping quickly, and I tried not to think about having to climb back up the way I came the next day. I camped on a grassy overlook, in a field alight with fireflies, then continued to Salento the next morning. Salento itself was nothing special, pretty town with lots of tourists, not very different from many others I’ve seen except perhaps for its remoteness. But a mirador up above the town had an absolutely amazing view over the Cocora valley, lush and green, I think it’s what Switzerland looks like. Leaving Salento, my map showed a road following the river in the bottom of the valley – dirt, but better than climbing back the way I’d come. So I took it to Armenia, and it was one of the greatest stretches of road of the trip so far. A bit mucky in places, it was almost totally flat, following a river through very seldom travelled country. It was not so different from landscapes I was used to seeing, but seeing them from a dirt road makes it so much better. I’ve been trying to convince myself, unsuccessfully, to enjoy riding on dirt roads – many roads in Peru are dirt, and sticking to the pavement really limits your options there. And these massive superhighways grow tiresome, day after day. And all of a sudden it happened! I was riding a dirt road, and I loved it. I got to Armenia, and pulled out my map to find the nxt dirt road side track I could take. The map showed a paved road leading west through the Coffee National Park, better than the highway, anyway. So I hopped on it, lovely and quiet, though more bananas than coffee and more pasture land than either. But the pavement started to develop holes, than gradually deteriorated from there to dirt. Good! I was worried I was just being swayed by the Greatest Dirt Road in the World, and I wanted to see if I could enjoy some worse roads, too. I hit the hills and started climbing (heading to a town called “Look-at-valleys,” I really should have seen that coming.), but still with that awesome, “out-there” feeling that comes with not seeing any cars and few people. But at 4 it started to pour as I rolled into a town of maybe 50 people and with a great park for camping, so I called it a day. I’d see just how bad dirt roads can get come morning. I cooked as I waited for the rain to stop, though I shouldn’t have bothered – there was stiff competition among the villagers to offer me food or shelter. But after all this time, my tent really feels like home, and I’m more comfortable sleeping there than anywhere else, rain or no.
It ended up raining for about 16 hours straight, and I was tempted to wait it out another day in the town. But part of me was curious to try the road. So I did. Yeah, it was bad, but it was still enjoyable, beautiful, fun even. Normally downhills are awful and bumpy on dirt roads, but with the muddy conditions and my tires, which have worn perfectly smooth since Baja California, it was exciting, almost like a game. Though quickly “Let’s see if I can get down the hill without falling” became “How few times will I fall down before the bottom?” At the bottom it was absurdly muddy, I even passed a Jeep stuck in the mire. So I was eager to reach the pavement when it came, but I was definitely glad I’d taken the side road. Sure, it was slower, but so much more exciting.
So, as I continue south, I am now resolved to keep an eye open for alternative routes. I’ve been rushing a bit up to now, but I am here in South America, where I’d really wanted to be all along, so I’ve got to switch gears, stop pressing for progress. I’ve got plenty of time to get to Argentina (I recently realized I’m closer to 9000 km from the end than 9000 miles, which I’d thought originally), so I can forget about the clock. The key to enjoying dirt roads is to be satisfied with sloooow progress. I’m sure I’ll take plenty of pavement too, but I’m thoroughly pleased that I’ve opened a new avenue in the future.
I’m posting new pictures, and I’ve added a new “Donations” feature on the right, if you feel like chipping in. Please don’t feel obliged, I just wanted to offer the possibility, in case anyone out there was dying to contribute. I’m a day from Cali, where I will meet up with Steve, another cyclist, and possibly bike with him as I take to the mountains once more.