Back in Colombia
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29th-Cartagena to San Juan Nepomuceno
We were on the road by 7.30am, cycling along the beach and out of Cartagena, I loved that place but it was with so much excitement we were hitting the road, our bikes faced south we now had a whole continent ahead of us.
“We suddenly saw the whole country like an oyster for us to open; and the pearl was there, the pearl was there. Off we roared south.” Sal Paradise, On The Road, Jack Kerouac
As we cycled out we saw the real Cartagena so much life on the streets, crazy markets and plenty of traffic, and the real simple homes of the local people.
We soon found ourself surrounded by farmland and wetland, trees lining the way providing shade, passing small villages dotted along the road. It was a Sunday, and it seems that what everyone does is face giant human sized speakers out from their house on to the street and play incredibly loud Rumba or Champeta music. Peoples houses have wide open doors because of the heat and they just sit at the front with this music blaring, it’s way too loud to have a conversation with someone sat next to you. Stopping at a shop all the men were sat outside sinking beers as it seems customary to do on a Sunday afternoon in many places in Latin America. We sensed some machismo, lots of stares from the men and some heckling but as we’ve continued to journey through the country this kind of thing seems isolated to Sundays. It was of course still incredibly hot but there was plenty of opportunity to buy juices along the road, I tried this most delicious fruit drink with giant chunks of fruit, that really powered the pedals.
We arrived at the town of San Juan Neo within good time to find somewhere to sleep, we asked around for a while without any success at the usual places. When we’re in this situation it’s normal that if we exchange a wave or smile with a family outside their home, and if we get a good feeling we’d go over and ask if they knew a place or if we could camp in their garden. So this is how we ended up sleeping in a small stable next to a horse, the family lived in the centre of town and from the front of their house you wouldn’t have even known they had a garden let alone a horse. They had a well and we carried water to the bathroom so we could wash. Again I am always so endeared that people warily say yes to letting us sleep, and that’s all we need but once we’re there in their home we are offered so much more. We wanted to go and find some food and the family insisted on walking around the town with us until we found somewhere. We’d arrived during the few days of the year when the town has it’s fiesta or ferria (all across Latin America villages and towns have annual fiestas, in different regions these are at different times of the year, and in this region of Colombia they all seemed to be happening now). It was still early but music was blaring from all corners, people buzzing around on mopeds; standing in the middle of the square was some crazy sensory overload, we were a bit too overwhelmed and tired to wait for the real party to start! During the day times of this party period it’s traditional that this town has some sort of ‘running of the bulls’ event each day, set in a makeshift stadium. We saw several of these make shift stadiums on the outskirts of towns along this region. We were asked to stay and watch but really that’s not something I ever want to experience.
30th December- San Juan to San Pedro
We were woken briefly at 4am when the horse was taken out to go and collect milk from the field to bring back to the town. The family make what is a regional speciality soured cream called suero (my dictionary translates that to mean whey), people were arriving outside the house at 6am to buy the suero. Since travelling further down this region we’ve seen this for sale on the side of the road and bottles on the tables of many cafes, its pretty strong almost like a blue cheese in taste, but it’s pretty good.
The countryside became more rolling and it was hard work in the heat. There is quite a strong police and military presence on the road which I’d remembered from my previous trip here. The military have been nice, they give a thumbs up to passing cars if they want you to keep driving or a thumbs down if they want you to stop. They are almost always very young lads with big smiles. The Police have stopped us a few times, purely out of their own boredom to ask questions, it’s fine but can be frustrating. “take your glasses off so I can see your face, how old are are? Show me your tan lines”.
We’d planned a detour to the town of Mompos so we came off the main road and cycled down a quieter country road, the fields a burnt yellow from the dry air. On this smaller side road passing through rural villages, rancheros on horse back, I felt as though I was living in my vision of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.
We stopped at the town of San Pedro, stopping to assess our options a woman sat outside her comedor (small family run food place) waved at us. We went over and they said we could sleep in the storage room at the back. The woman even swept and mopped the floor for us. We sat with the family and chatted and ate food together, most people seem to have good knowledge of the outside world and geography and sort of understand what we’re doing, which really hasn’t been the case in many of the places we’ve passed through.
Here in Colombia we have new name, ‘Mona’. Its used for blonde or light skinned people and is used with warmth and endearment (the masculine form of the word is mono which means monkey but we are told it doesn’t have any relation). Colombians are very warm in the way they speak, the most common term of endearment is mami or mamisita for a woman or papi / papisito for a man (literally mummy / daddy or little mummy daddy but is used by almost everyone all the time).
31st December San Pedro to Mompos
1st January- Mompos
The journey to Magangue seemed fresh and fast, 50km easily done to arrive at 11am. Magangue was hectic and alive, we loved it, everyone in these parts rides a moped and almost all of the traffic was made up of these, people slowing down to ask us questions and riding with us to give directions. To reach Mompos you had to take a boat across the Magdalena river. Waiting for the ferry we asked a lad about my age where he was going, Mompos. It was new years eve and still 40km along a bad road, we didn’t want to arrive late and tired so when he offered us a lift we jumped at the chance. Obviously taking a lift is against my own rules when I’m on my journey south but this was a detour we were taking so hitchhiking off-piste is guilt free. Raul, his sister and parents were incredibly nice people. Chatting away he couldn’t believe I’d cycled across Mexico, he thought it was a dangerous place due to the narco stuff, which sort of seemed funny as I told him that people probably think the same for Colombia.
Due to its location on the Magdalena river Mompos was one of the most successful cities in the country during colonial times. The river was used to transport goods from the Andes up to the port of Cartagena. The national mint was located here, storing all the countries gold, silver and emeralds as it far enough inland to be safe from pirates. Mompos was the first town in Colombia to declare independence from Spain in 1810. The town is a world heritage site and the only tourists we saw were from other parts of Colombia.
This flat and inland area is the hottest place in the country. We met up with a Begian couple we’d met on our boat and wandered the streets drinking the locally made tamarind wine. The colonial houses had their large doors wide open, and elaborate nativity scenes in side could be visible to the whole street. New years eve is a family affair and people bring their chairs and giant speakers out in to the street to play rumba, everyone loves to move. We’d been adopted by one family who we were with most of the night but did sneak off for a bit to join other peoples parties. All along the road for the past few days we’d noticed effigies, we’d learnt that the tradition is to make one of these and then burn it at midnight, to burn away the bad things from the past year. They were filled with firecrackers too so it was all a bit crazy. For days after we’d notice little piles of burnt cinders in the road as we cycled along.
New years day we spent avoiding the heat in an air conditioned room venturing out to wander the deserted streets in the late afternoon, it was a bit of a shame that all the local museum was closed. We were invited over to another families home , people are keen to know why you’re here and what you think of their town and country, where we were fed and taught to dance Champeta, particularly popular on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. I’ve made a rule on this trip to never refuse someone if they ask me to dance, this means I’ve danced Danzon with tiny octogenarians in town squares, teared up the dance floor learning Cumbia in Mexico and now I was having to dance what looks like overtly sexual but actually pretty skilful moves.
2nd January – Mompos to Sincelejo
Raul and his family offered us a lift back to Magangue which meant waking at 4.30am. We took the ferry across the Magalena river as the sun was rising, drinking Tinto (what Colombian call sweetened black coffee, its sold in the street by men carrying flasks) we watched the fisherman in their wooden boats as the sun rose.
It was initially hard to get into the rhythm of cycling that day, we were now starting out in the heat and I was tired from the early start. We were retracing our steps but it stil felt different, viewing the landscape from a different perspective. We stopped back in San Pedro and said hello to the family who’d let us sleep behind their cafe. They gave us coffee and asked us to stay for the villages fiesta which was due to start that day.
Back on to the main road we stopped for a delicious street snack of Patacones con queso, patacones are green plantain mashed down then fried to a fritter, it was served with a rectangle of cheese, yum.
There was a pretty roomy cycle path lining the whole way to the city of Sincelejo. After crossing the city and stopping many times for directions we made it to the bomberos (firestation) These are Johanne’s ‘go to’ when arriving in a town, and a popular choice with bike travellers generally. The station was brand new and not yet in opperation, it was just the station captain sat in the empty space. He said we could go down the road to the other station or stay there, this place was clean and quiet with brand-new showers and everything and we sort of felt too lazy to move so we decided to stay.
3rd January- Sincelejo to Pueblo Nuevo
We’d slept so well it was hard to wake up that morning, needing a lot of coffee to get going. The rolling green pasture land continued. I’m loving so much that there are lots of places to buy fruit and juices on the side of the road, crushed watermelon is my new favourite, and the stalwart of coconuts remain a road side favourite.
Arriving at the entrance of Pueblo Nuevo a garden centre with giant trees and plenty of shade really caught my eye. We went in to ask if we could camp there the night, an old lady came out of the house, she thought about it for a bit before she said yes. Later on she told us of how a German cycle tourist had camped there before too, she was laughing as she told us about him cooking on his camping stove. We wanted to go to the shop to buy dinner but when we told her she said she had everything we needed. She cooked us up eggs, cheese, plantain and rice and gave us suero to pour on top. We sat in the living room as her children and grandchild turned up, no one seemed to shocked to see us and neither did they ask to questions, they were pretty engrossed in their television. Although I always know the names of these old women to me in my mind they are always just ‘Abuela’ which means grandma. This type was one of my favourite types, she wasnt full of smiles or terms of endearment but she just kept providing us with unassuming love and kindness, and made some really sharp and funny comments.
4th Pueblo Nuevo to 5km short of El Jardin
We drank tinto with the Abuela whilst she warned us about the dangers of big cities. She was keen to show us the
Cocoa plant she was growing in the garden, she said chewing the leaves was good for dental pain, she encouraged us to eat a little leave and see how our tongues would go numb. She did a prayer for us, I’m obviously not religious but I always feel moved when this happens, I’m happy for any well wishes and I like the idea of angels fluttering their wings to keep us safe.
We were stopped along the road by some boy racers to be given an ice lolly ‘a welcome gift to Colombia’ , this was our second lolly gifted in as many days.
Agua por favor- the constant search for water.
On a cycle tour like this we spend our time thinking and searching for the basics- water, food and shelter. The quest for drinking water is ongoing and sometimes a source of anxiety. I will never forget the feelings of thirst I experienced whilst cycling in the desert in Mexico. The amount we need to drink in this heat it would be really easy to spent about 20% of my daily budget on water. Instead I had this water purification stick, which I’d swish around in water for 1 minute, the UV light killing the 3 main bacterias. Really really frustratingly I’d lost this stick, water in Costa Rica and Panama was safe to drink and so I had packed the stick away, now it’s no where to be found. Johanne had the great idea of making a sign saying ‘agua por favor’. It was a Saturday so plenty of traffic, the sign worked so well we were able to constantly replenish our supply. I’m not sure this sign will continue to work in poorer countries like Peru and Bolivia, so I will need to re-buy the stick. It’s more than a weeks worth of my budget which is really annoying.
That night we ended up finding a place just before dark, it was annoying that we cut it so fine but we’d found it hard to find somewhere and then been refused a few times. We stopped at a tiny village and found a school building. We asked the family who lived next door if they thought it was ok, it was and they even turned the water supply on. We slept well on the classroom floor.
5th January- 5km short of El Jardin to Puerto Valdivia
The mum who lived next door to the school came over in the morning with tinto, and told us we were always welcome to return.
We made some stop offs to eat some fried cheese dough balls, one of the many deep fried street snacks available and a fruit milkshake. My favourite choice is a fruit called Zapote (called Mamey in Mexico). The road become more narrow as it began to follow a river in the middle of a valley. There was so much water coming down off the mountain in small waterfalls that lots of people had hosed the water and had turned the place into a huge truck cleaning operation. You’d see whole families climbing over this trucks scrubbing away.
We stopped that night in Puerto Valdivia, stopping at the church. The priest gave us keys to an outhouse but after a little while he beckoned us up and said we could sleep within his house! We had our own room and bed!
6th Jan Puerto Valdivia
We took an impromptu rest day in Puerto Valdivia, we delayed leaving due to the rain, but once we were sat on the sofa watching it fall I was sort of hoping it wouldn’t stop to give us a reason to stay, Johanne made the suggestion and went to ask the priest, who said yes.There is always something to do with spare time on this bike tour- writing the blog, organising photos, and then there’s things that I should be doing like learning Spanish, stretches and there is always something to repair. I loved sitting under shelter just watching the rain and listening to my music, feeling incredibly lucky that I am living a life where I can change my plans at the last moment like this.
Puerto Valdiva was a small village and I don’t think they’d met many foreigners before so we felt like we were in the circus. Everywhere we walked we got smiles and got asked questions and the local kids in the neighbourhood by the church kept coming over to chat to us. What’s it like in your country? Are there witches and trolls? Teach us a song in English, teach us a dance. This place might be one of my favourite places so far, maybe because spending a day there was so unique and unexpected.
- up hills and down valleys