up hills and down valleys

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7th January Puerto Valdivia to 5km before las Ventanas
Our day off in Puerto Valdivia had been such an impromptu glimpse in to small town Colombia, I love those moments when you realise there is no way you could ever re create a moment even if you tried.  We could have easily spent another day relaxing in the priests house and hanging out with the village kids, however we had mountains to climb, and those mountains are The Andes.

So we started off early, slowly crawling up hill, of course the views became more spectacular the higher we climbed. After a few hours moving very slowly up hill a balanario (water park) appeared, it was a simply a waterfall on the side of the road with a proper pool dug into the bottom.    It didn’t take a second for me to bomb myself fully clothed into this mirage like water. We followed the swim with some purchases from the pools shop- long life cake and fizzy drinks, the magic combo that all cyclists will appreciate.

gate crashing a pool on a hot day up hill views like this make going up easier

I can’t say the constant up hill was a hardship, the road was shady, the views amazing, and I love jumping in to water almost as much as I love cycling, and then came another reason to smile and exclaim as we have been ‘I love Colombia’…. A family stopped to offer us water, we chatted for a second from the car but then this wasn’t easy so the parents and 2 brothers got out, we chatted about the route and the trip whilst they gave is sweets, plantain crisps, tropical fruit and a Colombian travel guide, wow!! I love these people so much.

We stopped at Valdivia about 20km ahead, slow progress but we were having fun. We ordered plates of plain rice, sometimes this just seems to power the pedals better than anything, apart from bananas of course, oh and peanut butter!

these boys watched us silently as Jo changed a puncture, we were sort of afraid of them at first, haha.

these boys watched us silently as Jo changed a puncture, we were sort of afraid of them at first, haha.

That afternoon we slowly crept up the hill, almost without realising the weather changed,we began to see all the people on the mopeds coming the opposite direct were all wearing wet weather gear. At around 3.30 we stopped to break some bread sat on some crates outside a roadside home made of tarpaulin and sheets of metal. We saw some people coming down the hill, it was 2 teenage girls and a mum. One of the girls lived in the house, we appologised for sitting outside but of course they didn’t mind. I bonded with the mum by offering her my nail varnish removal pads as she has just scuffed her nail varnish. We chatted for a bit before Doris, the mum offered to let us camp outside her house just up the hill. We’d only done 30km but were ready to stop.

meeting Doris on the hill

Here we showered (only cold water which seemed painful in the cold) and chatted to the family, sat in the open house to watch the rain, Doris was really funny, they laughed at me as I did my Spanish homework and asked so many questions, they poured over the pictures in the Colombian travel guide we’d just been given, I don’t think they’d left that hill much. Doris cooked us up rice, plantain, egg and beans (it’s good to have beans back in my life, they disappeared in panama and aren’t available on the coast of Colombia.) this was served with a bowl of milk, we are now in the dairy country of Colombia and whilst on these mountains we were offered milk with every meal. We asked for it to be heated up, we were so so cold on top of that hill, struggling with the rapid change in temperature. This was the first time in about 3 months I was wearing a jumper and having to sleep in my sleeping bag. I was wearing all the layers I had and Doris kindly gave us big thick blankets to sleep in. I think of how cold my flat in London would get in the depths of winter, I guess I’m just not accustomed to it now.

camping on top of the mountain

Doris and her daughter

8th January- Las Ventanas to Los llanos
Doris heated us some milk which we put with our oats before we hit the road. There were some ups and downs and we began to see the traditional black and white spotted cows that we are used to in Europe.  Again we stopped for more bowls of milk and a regional speciality cheese bread which is pretty dense like a bagel. I was getting a bit bored by the end of the afternoon, the views less interesting and neither amazing downs nor really challenging ups.

We stopped at a little town and asked in lots of places before we were successful in finding a place to sleep, the lady who worked in a cafe offered us the basement of her flat, we played some pool in a deserted cold bar and then passed the night in a cold dungeon like basement.

 9th January – los llanos to Medellin
Guess what, more bowls of hot milk with our breakfast before hitting the road. we were so excited as we had some of our ‘boat family’ (the people we’d caught the boat to Colombia and spent Christmas with) waiting for us in a luxury appartment they’d rented.

20km down the road we stopped at a petrol station (many have big coffee urns and no one seems to mind us sitting outside and drinking copious amounts of tinto). And then on we went to begin a thrilling desent down to the bottom of the valley. This was all great apart from one of my panniers fell off as I was speeding down the hill. Since I’ve been worrying about my bags and having falling off a few times I now go down hill with caution, which sort of makes me sad as I used to love it so much.

free coffee and water at many petrol stations here

free coffee and water at many petrol stations here

It was another 30km or so of pretty forgettable dual carriage way before entering the city. Of course there is always some stress at entering big cities but we found the apartment ok. Despite being so tired we made a huge party that night with a load of our friends from the boat, it was really special

10th- 13th January Medellin
Medellin is a positioned in a valley and known as the city of eternal spring (although no spring in my country boasts such good temperatures, it’s perfect really, not sweaty like the coast so it means you can actually move around easily during the day,and you just need to wear a jumper at night). Its was of course infamous as the home town of Pablo Escobar, the drug barron who is an important figure in Colombians social and political history, he practically ran the country and up until his death in the 90s Medellin was a pretty dangerous place to be.

We weren’t really that productive in Medellin, some more partying with our lovely friends and seemed to watch a lot of films and eat lots of biscuits. I sometimes feel more proud of my ability to do nothing than I do my ability to cycle.

We stayed in El Poblado neighbourhood which is leafy and middle class, with waterfalls in the street, and still the same friendliness we’d experienced everywhere else in Colombia.  We managed to find some gritty parts of the town centre which were good for wandering, and we went to the Boltero Museum, one of Colombia’s most celebrated artists, I like his stuff but it’s all a bit similar after a while.

leafy El Poblado

leafy El Poblado

Back when we’d got the boat across the river to Mompos we made friends with Raul’s family who had given us a ride. Santi one member of the family worked distributing bike kit in Medellin. He came to meet us and gave us some really good socks, gloves and tyres which was so sweet.

13th – 15th January, San Antonio del Prado Casa Ciclista

We cycled about 20km out of Medellin and up hill, and then up and up more to the town of San Antonio de Prado. Here is the home of a Casa Ciclista. For years Manuel and Marta have been inviting cyclists to stay with them in a garage theyd converted into a small house. More recently he’d doubled the size of the building too. It has everything a cyclist needs, shower, kitchen, a washing machine, wifi and most amazingly Manuel is a bike mechanic and runs a really successful shop in the town, so it was the first opportunity since Mexico City 4 months ago to have a proper mechanic look at my bike.

I’ve mentioned Manuel’s name to other prominent people in the Colombian cycling scene and I’ve since worked out this guy is a bit of a legend. Marta is incredibly kind and sweet too and really looked after us.

The house is set in a beautiful valley amongst trees and a waterfall below, the air was so fresh and sweet, especially after a few days in the city. The tyres that Santi had given us were a top notch Colombian brand but we didn’t need them, so we gave them to Manuel and asked that he used the money for the Casa Ciclista. He insisted we drink Rum de Medellin with him, and the following day he spent the whole time working on our bikes.

Staying at the Casa at the same time as us were a couple from Switzerland just starting out on their journey south, and a girl from Argentina who was hitch hiking and biking her way north, these places are a great convergence of cyclists! I loved reading the guest book about people who had been there before. What I loved about Manuel was that he was really interested in everyones adventure, how we rode, if we camped or paid for places, if we’d toured before. Most of all he was excited to hear about the cyclists who’d stayed in the Casa that I’d met on their road north, I think I’d met 6 of them between Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

casa ciclista, San Antonio del Prado

casa ciclista, San Antonio del Prado

16th January – Casa Ciclista San Antonio de Prado to La Pintada
It never gets easier to say goodbye, I could have spent a whole week at the Casa Ciclista, relaxing in the hills, working with my bike and enjoying the towns bike culture. This town is on a big hill which seems to make it popular for road/racing cyclists, and there were so many of them everywhere.

Manuel and Marta, such amazing people

Manuel and Marta, such amazing people

Manuel had given us some tips on the best route out, which meant some long climbing before about 40km of down hill. That evening we met 4 Colombian boys touring the country, they seemed a lot of fun and were pretty chilled out smoking a doob on the side of the road.

We arrived at La Pintada and as we had descended so much it was really hot again. We asked around at some farms and garden centres without luck. Due to it’s heat the town seemed a popular place for little swimming pool holiday parks, some with camping but it was prohibitively expensive. It was getting dark and we had little options left so decided to speak to the police, the station was located next to the disused fire station we had hoped to stay. Something I prefer to avoid if possible. But wow, we asked the commandante to camp behind the station, he said he wouldn’t allow it, and insisted on paying for a hotel and dinner for us! We asked if we could just camp or if he knew somewhere safe but he wouldn’t hear of it, he said some other cyclists had passed through the other week and he did the same. We ate food in some place opposite the station and then went to the hotel. Here there was satellite tv and we spent the rest of the night watching American sitcoms like ‘super fun night’ and ‘2 and a half men’ .

thanks commandante

thanks commandante

17th January – La Pintada to camp
We went to say goodbye to the commandante (he wanted to buy us breakfast but we had already eaten). He seemed really impressed with our trip which was sweet. Again, Colombia continues to provide.

This day was perfect, hot but shady flat cycling through a valley, the Magdalena river again by our side. We stopped at a viewing point of the river and I took the opportunity to jump into a swimming pool belonging to a hotel. We make lots of little stops for coffee and fruit and end up chatting a lot to people, one of the good reasons our travel in Colombia has been slow.

another pool to gate crash

another pool to gate crash

We stopped about 20km before Chinchina, asking at a small finca if we could sleep in the grounds. A really kind man called Norberto lived with his family on the finca and maintained the land for a rich family who came to stay at the weekends. He let us shower in his home and use the kitchen to cook. He also gave us agua de Panela (sugar cane water). We camped in the football pitch.

18th January – camp to Chinchina
We slept so well and woke late. We had planned to stay with a warm showers host only 25km away so there was no rush. It was Saturday so lots of racing and mountain cyclists on the road who stopped to chat to us. I was beginning to get excited as the fields were beginning to be filled with coffee plants, we were in coffee region!

Jo took this of me, sound asleep in my tent

Jo took this of me, sound asleep in my tent

We arrived at Chinchina before mid day; We quickly became a real interest in the town, a crowd of men forming to ask us questions about our trip, it’s always good natured and we always get gifted drinks or ice lollies but it would occasionally be nice to be invisible.

Here we drank amazing coffeein the plaza. Although Colombia has the best coffee in the world thy export most of the good stuff. This means stuff they drink here is bad quality and it is drunk as ‘tinto’ which is basically weak and sugary, I can drink it before bed it is that weak.

Anibal our host was amazing, and so was his sweet and kind girl friend Estefania. Anibal is a paediatrician in the local public health hospital and he’d spent a few years living in London. We took us on a beautiful drive through hills of coffee plantations to his cousins finca where we swam in the pool and ate. Its a hard life being on a bike tour. That night Anibal took us to a local bar to dance and drink rum.

Anibal's cousin's finca

Anibal’s cousin’s finca

19th January – Chinchina and day trip to Manizales.
We spent half the day sleeping and then in the afternoon we took a bus through stunningly beautiful hills, covered in blankets of coffee plants.

Anibals incredibly kind and sweet girlfriend Estefania took us to Manizales, it was a good place to spent a Sunday afternoon, on a hill with a long path giving views to the valleys below. there were so many families wandering around and lots of treats to buy- juices, ice creams, biscuits and some really over the top ice cream/ juice/ custard/ chocolate combo.

20th January -Chinchina to Salento
In the morning Estefania had already left for university so we said goodbye to Anibal (such a great host), drank a coffee in the town square before hitting the road. Up hill out of the town we spotted some guys picking coffee (the fruit is called a cherry) we stopped to chat to them about how they go about their work- they had sewn  waterproofs out of sacks, amazing!

I loved the mountains of the morning which continued to be filled with coffee. We passed through the city of  Perreira and then onwards. The afternoon wasnt so much fun- it was rainy and it didn’t look that pretty.

Love motels – Most of Latin America is pretty catholic and as most young people live with their families there is a trend for these love motels on the outskirts of towns. They are discreet and even have giant curtains blocking the car park so people can not see the cars parked indoors. They always have funny names or signs, and that day there was one with my name on it.    IMG_4245

We arrived in the town of Salento, off the main road and up a hill. thinking we had a place to stay via couch surfing. However I’d not read the instructions properly and the women lived in the village in the valley below, we didn’t want to back track down the hill and it was cold and wet do after unsuccessfully spending ages trying to find free camping we ended up in a small hostel run by the eccentric Don Roberto. He did not stop talking and was keen to try out his English which was pretty confusing to understand, he was an ex-cycling champion though. We slept so well that night under thick blankets.

21st- 22nd January Salento
Salento is pretty touristy, and it’s obviously strange to go from towns where people literally crowd round you in the plaza because we are 2 white girls on bikes to towns with an abundance of backpacker hostels. I never really understand why some places become touristy and others not. I liked Salento though, it wasn’t too much and everything seemed to exhist in harmony. We spent a few days here- we visited a coffee finca to learn about the coffee growing and processing. I plan on writing another piece just on this.

IMG_4300

And another day we took a 10km walk through the Cocora Valley. There was a hummingbird sanctuary at the end which made it worth it but I spent the whole walk wondering why I spend my days off walking, I would have been just as happy sat in a hammock. I decided one thing- I do not want to do the Inca Trail when we get to Peru.

I think the most significant thing to happen in Salento was meeting fellow cyclist Melanie. Anibal had told us she was just ahead of us so we messaged her on Facebook and met up. Mel is from Canada and had cycled the USA Pacific coast and then did Baja in Mexico before flying to Bogota, Colombia. Mel had started off cycling in Colombia but had lost the buzz a bit and had begun to hitch hike everywhere. She asked if she could join us south- and so then we became 3!

23rd January – Boquia

We left Salento in morning, after Don Roberto made us a breakfast, I can’t remember what it was called but it was essentially hot milk with spring onion and an egg poached in to it. It was actually pretty good, he said it was a typical mountain campesino (peasant) breakfast. People always say that about food that doesn’t contain meat- they tell us we eat like campesinos.

So we cycled down hill to the village of Boquia and were drawn in by the river and lush grass, we stopped for a break and ended up there for hours, relaxing in the sun. Jo went off for a little walk and discovered the home of Margarita who we were meant to be staying with when we first arrived. She said we were still welcome to stay so we changed our plans and stayed in her home, a nature reserve which she had created and was also being renovated into an Eco hostel. We spent the evening chatting with Margarita who was one of the most engaging enigmatic people you could meet, she reminded me so much of Frida Kahlo in so many ways, she is a truly special person that has the whole room captivated with stories of her youth and adventure.

24th January – Boquia to Calarca
We left Boquia and cycled around 15km to Calarca. We were doing a bad job of moving far but we kept meeting interesting people we wanted to stay with. When we first started out on the Carrabean coast in Colombia we’d met a couple on a motor bike who were coming back from their holidays and going home to Calarca. They’d given us their number and told us to come stay when we got here. Then a when we were going up hill to Salento we saw them again- Diago told us he was waiting for us to come stay. Diago and Vanessa are professional cyclists who train in the mountains around here for these months of the year and then in the summer they compete in the USA.

We hung out in the plaza of Calarca before going to meet Diego and Vanessa. The 3 of us sampled all the walking street venders had to offer- cups of fruit, juices, weird foaming milk drinks, coffee, deep fried cheese snacks, and then Mel and Jojo got some ice cream. Here we were more of a scene than ever, maybe a crowd of about 20 people surrounding to us and quizzing us

We then headed off to Diego and Vanessa’s home. It was lovely to chat to them about their racing, Diego had competed to Olympic level and I really admire their discipline. Diego worked on my bike, I needed to change my chain and put some new gear cables in. Diego had so much energy and was really keen to help. We washed some clothes, which was sort of funny, they don’t have a machine of their own but instead of going to the laundrette you call up a guy who brings a machine over to yours strapped to the back of a moped, you just plug it in and call him when you’re done! We all slept early as we were all getting up at the crack of dawn to cycle. We had a mountain to climb called ‘the linea’ (the Line) which would see us on the next leg of our Colombian adventure.

2 thoughts on “up hills and down valleys

  1. Michael Hermsmeier

    Thank you for your great pic. and writing. I hope to start a journey from Seattle WA to Santiago chile next year!

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