Cycling is among Colombia’s most popular sports, second only to football (soccer), and you will find all sorts of riders out training or commuting on the roads both inside and outside of the cities.
Aside from the heavy traffic and air pollution, Medellin and its surrounding areas are incredibly conducive to cycling. Following Bogota’s lead, Medellin also hosts a Ciclovia every Sunday from 7am to 1pm, closing 42 kilometers of roads to motor vehicles so people can feel safe to bike, run, walk or skate freely. Some of these same roads host a smaller version of Ciclovia every Tuesday and Thursday night between 8 and 10pm. Additionally, there are over 100km of ciclorutas (separated bike paths) within the city. For the BMX riders, there are parks and pumptracks sprinkled throughout the city, including a pretty big one named after world champion Mariana Pajon, a native of Medellin. While there’s no velodrome (yet) in Medellin, there is a decent track where roadies can train, riding circles as fast as they want out of traffic.
If you’re comfortable riding with traffic, the autopista (highway) is one of the fastest ways to get around town, and it is not off limits to cyclists. While there are many bike routes throughout the city, they can be slow due to the numerous pedestrians who are not paying attention to their surroundings while strolling down the bike paths. Most road cyclists will end up riding out of the city on one of the highways and inevitably end up climbing switchbacks up one of the steep mountains on the outskirts of town. It is not uncommon to see pelotons of professional cycling teams training on these roads every week. Possibly the most popular spot to ride on the weekends is the road leading to the airport in Rio Negro. It’s basically straight up a mountain for 16 kilometers, but you can find hundreds of riders on both road and mountain bikes cycling up Avenida Las Palmas on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
The worst part about riding in Medellin is undoubtedly the pollution. Medellin is currently the 8th most polluted city in South America, and you can really feel it when you ride a bike. Most of the buses and trucks emit thick clouds of black smoke that encompass you and your bike as they accelerate away from you, and the numerous motos are not much better. Traffic can be very slow, and you really have to be careful when going around buses and taxis because the motos are usually speeding along in between the lanes of cars. I regret not having a GoPro to take video footage of one of my rides through traffic, because I think the video would be quite exciting.
On our first full day in Medellin, Dallas and I took a tour of the city with BiciTour Medellin. Carlos and Mateo were excellent guides, and I was lucky to be able to ride with both of them a few weeks later when I had finally acquired my own bike. The tour is a great way to learn about Medellin while seeing more of the city than you would be able to on foot. They will teach you about the city’s violent history, show you some of the graffiti, buy you salpicon, and take you to Pueblito Paisa, a model colonial village with one of the best views of the city.
Every Wednesday night SiClas organizes a ride called Sicleada that leaves from Carlos E. Restrepo park at 8pm. The route changes weekly and is never repeated. It varies from easy, flat rides within the city to fairly difficult rides that include climbing the surrounding mountains of Medellin. This ride draws over 1000 riders every single week and is a great way to meet people and make friends. The ride is usually more or less 20 kilometers, and very slow. Volunteers block cars from intruding on the ride from side streets, and the front of the group waits at the top of every hill for the rest of the group to catch up before moving on. There is always a break about halfway through, where some of the riders sell homemade sandwiches, cookies and juice. People are talking, laughing, whistling, playing music, and generally having a blast throughout the entire ride. If you ever find yourself in Medellin on a Wednesday night, you should rent a bike from SiClas and do it – this is an experienced not to be missed.
Another encouraging program in the city is EnCicla, a free bike share service. Drawbacks to this are that it can take a few days to get a card to use the program, since you have to apply with ID and a utility bill to prove you are a resident. The other down side is that the service is only available on weekdays from 5:30am until 7pm. There are some stations that are manned by a person and others that are automatic. Because it’s a free program and doesn’t generate any income, it’s expensive to operate. Maybe in the future it will be more like existing bike share systems in the US that are all automatic and available 24 hours a day, but this will probably require them to charge a small fee to rent the bikes.
The cycling community in Medellin is expansive, and there is something for every type of rider. Groups on Facebook, Meetup, and Couchsurfing exist for mountain bikers, road cyclists, and casual riders who just want to socialize. The people are friendly, and it’s very easy to make friends and find people with whom to ride. I did have a bit of trouble finding a good road bike, and it’s not easy to find a good, inexpensive second-hand bike. Most shops sell new bikes for the same price that they would cost in the US. They do come with an ownership card that includes the serial number in case your bike ever gets stolen, which is a system I think should be adopted everywhere. If you know where to look for used bikes, they can be very cheap (30,000-100,000 pesos). But depending on what kind of riding you plan on doing, I’m not sure how reliable these bikes are.
Now that I’ve written enough material for three blog posts (and I could go on), I should conclude by saying that cycling around here is really great, no matter what kind of biking you’re into. There are obvious concerns with exercising in such heavy air pollution, but I think my positive experiences and the excellent views have outweighed the risks.
If you’ve been following either of us on Facebook, you may already know that Dallas and I decided to end our relationship about a month ago (I know, it’s been way too long since updating this blog). We are both free spirits, drifting in different (but not necessarily opposite) directions, and we couldn’t let our relationship hold us back from dreams that we didn’t want to compromise. We will remain friends, hopefully forever. Here are each of our facebook posts, for those who missed them:
We feel both sad and excited to be ending this part of our lives, which we feel lucky to have been able to share together for so many wonderful adventures. I know we both will have more adventures individually, and I am excited to see what the future holds for each of us. Thank you to all of our friends and family who have liked/reacted/commented on Facebook and to everyone in our lives who knew us as a couple and who continues to support us as individuals. We love all of you!
Please continue to follow us both on social media. I will be here, as well as on instagram (nomadiccycling) more frequently, and Dallas’s instagram name is neuropolitics.
One common theme in all of these densely populated Colombian cities is heavy traffic and noxious fumes. The traffic in Cartagena in particular seemed to always be at a standstill within the small historical center of the walled city. The roads are narrow, and sidewalks are insufficient in width for the amount of foot traffic they receive. Within the Centro Histórico, bicycling is absolutely the best mode of transport. I cannot imagine having to navigate a car there (and having to sit in it for countless hours while breathing in those fumes over the course of a week).
Driving in Colombia has been quite an experience. All of the times I’ve ridden in the car with my dad didn’t even come close to preparing me for the style of driving that people are accustomed to here. It makes me wonder where these people learned to drive and leaves me astounded that we haven’t witnessed any serious crashes so far.
From the taxi and bus drivers to the police, the motorcycles and our own personal host in Cartagena, nobody hesitates to cross into oncoming traffic lanes in order to pass other drivers, even when oncoming traffic is imminent. Our host, Miguel, even crossed into the oncoming lane to pass cops and buses. I’ve learned that as long as there is a bit of space in front of the vehicle, the driver will continue to accelerate, probably to avoid another car coming to cut them off. If there isn’t much traffic on a road, it doesn’t matter how twisty and narrow or hilly it is – the drive will be fast. However, in the city, there is never not much traffic. It always smells like diesel and gasoline exhaust, and the fumes are sometimes intolerable. The only vehicle where the seat belts were actually in working order was the tuktuk we took up a long, steep, unpaved road from San Jeronimo up to the Finca where we stayed in the mountains for a few days.
Whenever I’m in a moving vehicle on the road in Colombia, I have to relax and tell myself that these people know what they’re doing. Besides, I have little to no control over the situation, so if I want to get somewhere I have to trust the drivers with my life.
In Cartagena, I had the great fortune to try my hand at driving myself. Miguel was driving us back from the beach after a tiring few hours of kitesurfing. Traffic was moving more slowly than usual, and Miguel suddenly asks me if I know how to drive. I’m sitting in the back seat with Hannah, a German who is also staying at his AirBnB rental, and Dallas is in the passenger seat. Miguel suspects there is a police checkpoint up ahead, which is slowing everything down. He hadn’t had so much to drink that he couldn’t drive, but he didn’t want to risk getting checked by the cops. I was the only one who hadn’t had any beer, so Miguel pulled over so we could all switch positions.
Miguel has a small Kia Picanto that I had never seen before. It’s very cute and perfect for driving in a congested city (not counting the motos and bicycles). I hadn’t driven a manual transmission in a few years, but the car was easy to drive and handled well. Even though there were police up ahead, people didn’t change their driving styles, and cars were sneaking in front of me if I left them enough space. It wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be, but I was happy to hand over the wheel to Miguel again once he deemed us clear of the checkpoint zone.
Learning how to kitesurf was possibly the highlight of my year, which was pretty full of excitement this time around. It was at the least an excellent way to celebrate the end of the year, and Cartagena is an amazing place to try it if you go at the right time. While not as consistently windy throughout the year as some places, there is a pretty constant wind for about 3 or 4 months of the year. The beach where we went was perfect, with warm water and soft sand, and getting attacked by a shark didn’t even cross my mind while I was there (it’s usually one of the top 5 reasons why I find it mentally difficult to remain in the ocean whenever I try to go for a swim, along with seaweed, jellyfish, boats, and unexplainable warm or cold spots in the water).
Our AirBnB host, Miguel, had his own kitesurfing board hanging from his living room wall. I asked him about it and told him that I’ve been wanting to try it. In the afternoon on Christmas we went to the beach, and Miguel introduced me to his friend, Jesus, who is a professional kitesurfer and instructor. He offered me a discounted rate if I wanted to try it for an hour or two. I didn’t have any money with me, but Jesus trusted that I would give it to Miguel to give to him if I didn’t come back for another lesson. It didn’t take much convincing for me to accept a lesson.
For the first 20 minutes or so, I felt like I had gotten myself into something that was way over my head (literally). Controlling the kite was astonishingly difficult, and I almost regretted trying, thinking it was not for me. I could see how it could be dangerous to someone who didn’t know what they were doing, as the kite was very strong and almost pulled me away a few times. There was a bit of a communication barrier, since I hadn’t learned much Spanish yet, but Jesus was pretty good at explaining in English. I did have trouble determining whether he was saying “now” or “no”, which could have been a problem when I urgently needed to pull the kite one way or another (“now left or no left?). However, by the end of the lesson, two hours had gone by and the sun was starting to go down. I was having so much fun, and I hadn’t even gone in the water yet! The next day, we didn’t arrive to the beach until after 4:30, so I only got about an hour of lessons before the sun set. This day was spent mostly in the water, but without the board. Jesus had me controlling the kite, while he hung onto my harness and the kite pulled us downwind. I didn’t realize how far we had gone until the long walk back on the beach after the sun had set.
The third day I was determined to get to the beach and get on the board. It was our last day in Cartagena before flying to Medellin. Miguel had to work, so Dallas and I took the bus from his neighborhood to the beach. Four and a half hours later, Jesus had trusted me enough to stand up on my own and kitesurf into the sunset. Changing direction without dropping the kite was still challenging, so I definitely feel like I need to go out again and practice this new sport.
Since the previous two days had only been 1-2 hour lessons, I had no intentions of staying for as long as I did on the third day, and I hadn’t brought enough cash with me. The only ATMs were a bit of a drive from the kitesurfing school, so Jesus drove me over to the nearest one on his motorcycle. I tried to take out cash, but it didn’t work! Maybe I missed something…the ATM is in Spanish, so I may have done something wrong. I tried 4 more times and no money, so I told Jesus I needed to try a different ATM. He drove me to a store that had an ATM, and I repeated the process of trying 5 times to take out money unsuccessfully. I explained to Jesus that my card wasn’t working, but it had worked in a different brand of ATM just two days ago. He said he could take me there, but we had to go back to get helmets.
Dallas was diligently waiting for me at the kitesurfing school, and I felt terrible about making him come to the beach with me in the first place. He hadn’t even brought his ATM card with him, so we weren’t able to try that one to take out money. We decided that Jesus and his friend could take both of us to the ATM that was further in the direction of Miguel’s house, but if it still didn’t work I would just give money to Miguel to pass on to Jesus later that week. Riding on the motos was really fun, but also a bit terrifying. They drive the same way that the cars drive, without a second thought about swerving into the opposite lane to pass traffic, and they’re even more flexible in that they can squeeze into tighter spaces than cars. We stopped at two more ATMs with no success. I felt awful. I gave Jesus what I had with me as a tip, and promised him I would resolve the problem and get money to Miguel when we got home. He was always smiling and very understanding.
When I got back to the house and could use a phone, I discovered that my bank had deactivated my card even though I had informed them of my travels. What inconvenient timing! I was able to get my card to work again that night, and I wrapped everything that I owed up with a thank-you note for Miguel to pass on to Jesus. Now I can’t wait to get back on the water and try some more kitesurfing!
Cartagena is the exact opposite of Bogota in terms of climate. At sea level and on the Caribbean, the temperature never dipped below 80F. During the day it is too hot to want to go outside at all, so most people do what they need to do in the morning or after the sun is lower in the sky. The people of Cartagena have darker skin and seem to get much of their heritage from Africa as opposed to Spain. They identify more with the rest of the Caribbean than they do with Colombia. The touristy part of the city is quite small and has a very old and charming air about it. Streets are narrow and the architecture is lovely, with luscious vegetation overflowing from balconies above and thick vines twisting upwards from street level. It reminded us of the French Quarter in New Orleans.
After walking around with our heavy bags during the hottest part of the day for a few hours, we concluded that Cartagena is much more expensive and more difficult to find a hostel than Bogotá. We eventually settled on bunk beds in a rather dirty hostel for 35,000 pesos each (about $11 per night). The next night we found a nicer hostel with a private room just outside of el centro histórico in an area called Getsemani. The city has a really interesting history, and we should have learned from our time in Bogota and taken a bike tour or walking tour the first day, but just walking around we got a sense of the historical significance of the place. Streets have names like “La Guerra” (the war) and “Calle Del la Bomba” (street of the bomb). And then there is the Castillo, which was the only fort built by any of the Spanish colonies that was under siege but never seized. We didn’t get to visit it before leaving, so we will have to go back some day.
The hostel where we stayed for our second night organizes a shuttle bus to Playa Blanca, a popular beach on Isla Barū. Advertised as one of the most beautiful and serene beaches where you can get away from all the people, I was skeptical when I saw how many tour buses and boats have trips out there daily. We arrived around 10am on a Wednesday and were immediately bombarded by locals trying to sell us…everything. The most annoying were the men selling oysters, or some type of shellfish. They would walk around with a bucket full of them, carrying one in their hand that they would shove in front of us (mostly in front of Dallas), so we would have to turn not to walk into it. I wondered how many other armpits those shellfish had visited. Our plan was to rent hammocks to spend the night on the island, but we ended up renting a cabaña instead for 50,000 pesos. That was half the money we brought with us, so we had to be very careful to budget for the rest of our time there. After all the daytime tourists get back on their boats or buses, the beach really did get more relaxed and peaceful. We weren’t constantly turning down people hawking their various food and drinks, and we could walk the beach until sunset.
Being a Caribbean city, fish is the most popular dish here. Dallas and I always share a plate, which is more than enough to keep us full. The fish is usually reddish and comes fried whole on a plate with rice, patacone (smashed and fried plantain patty) and sometimes salad. The proper way to eat it is with your fingers, and everything but the bones are edible (sometimes even the bones can be consumed). We had this fish for lunch and dinner on Playa Blanca and had just enough cash left over for some fruit and water for breakfast the next day.
When we arrived back at the hostel, it was time to go to meet our AirBnB host. We chose Miguel because he had good reviews and he promised to show visitors the way locals live in Cartagena. It was Christmas Eve, and we thought it would be nice to spend a few nights with some local people as opposed to being surrounded by other orphaned tourists. Miguel delivered on his promise, and we had a wonderful experience with him and his other guests in his neighborhood of Los Almendros, about a 20 minute cab ride from the centro historico. He was home to greet us and offered us cold water and small bottles of beer called Costeñitas. It’s so hot on the coast that some people prefer to drink beer in small bottles so they have time to finish it before it gets warm. Then they just get a fresh one from the fridge more frequently.
Once settled in, Miguel introduced us to his neighbor who was stirring something in a huge pot over an open fire in the park across the street. Other neighbors were helping – one brought over some grated coconut and milk while another man poured an entire (small) bottle of Aguardiente (distilled sugar cane drink that tastes like licorice) into the pot. Antonio, the man who was in charge of making the Natilla, which is some kind of corn-based pudding or custard, gave us a taste of it from the big spoon. It tasted like corn porridge, but he still had to add the coconut, cinnamon, and more panela (sugar). We also got to talk to his other neighbors who appeared to spend their time hanging out at the tienda on the corner, running up a tab. We were each treated to three or four Costeñitas by the time we retreated to Miguel’s house to plan dinner.
Miguel drove us to the supermarket along with Michelle and Tyler, two other American guests who had arrived just after us from Panama on their way to Ecuador. We each prepared a dish to share with everyone else for our Christmas Eve dinner. Miguel made pork, mashed potatoes and plantains, Michelle and Tyler made pasta with mushrooms and broccoli and garlic bread, and Dallas and I made apple & mountain berry pie. Two other AirBnB guests, a Russian/Canadian girl and a German girl who now lives in Portugal, also joined us for dinner. Dallas and I cherished our local experience in Cartagena so much, we extended our stay with Miguel from two nights to four. We highly recommend staying with him or someone like him if you visit Cartagena. Any place can be enjoyed more fully when you get away from the other tourists and make real connections with the locals.
“If we’re going to talk about transport, I would say that the great city is not the one that has highways, but one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can go safely everywhere.” – Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogotá from 1998-2001 who was just reelected for 2016
We wanted to take a bike tour, so we woke up early on Friday, but it was still raining as we finished up breakfast so we decided to postpone it a day. Instead, we visited the gold museum and then tried to hike up Monserrate for the third time.
The climate in Bogotá is cool. The city lies at around 8,000 feet and is surrounded by mountains, but you warm up substantially while walking up all the hills. It makes it hard to pick what to wear, and we were constantly either shedding or adding layers. It was just after 3pm, and the hike to the top is about 5 kilometers. The sun doesn’t set until 6, and we wanted to check out the sunset from the top. We had more than enough time to make it before it got dark, but when we arrived at the gate at the bottom of the walking path, the police informed us that it closed at 2pm.
We still wanted to take a bike tour, but the tour starts every day at 10:30 and ends at 2:30, so we would have to try once more to hike Monserrate on Sunday if we did the bike tour on Saturday. Sunday is when Ciclovia happens every week, so it would be a pretty active day if we were to bike around the city in the morning and get to the mountain before 2pm to hike, but it was our last day in Bogotá, so we had to try to squeeze it all in.
Our bike tour on Saturday was what we really should have done on Tuesday, our first day in Bogotá, to learn about the city and get a good idea of where we wanted to check out in more depth (and learn what we probably should avoid). Our tour guide led us along with another expat couple living in Peru and a German man through the streets of Bogotá for four hours, stopping at various points to explain the history of what we were seeing. We stopped at a local market to try some popular Colombian fruits and at a coffee roaster to try some of the coffee that gets exported from Colombia. Most Colombians drink cheap instant coffee, while all the good beans get exported to other countries.
The story of the graffiti was most interesting to me. All around the city you can see beautiful, colorful murals. Graffiti used to be illegal, but some of the artists got together and formed collectives to demonstrate that their art actually adds beauty to the city and can communicate social or political messages. Eventually, the government, tired of wasting resources to lock these people up and paint over their work instead of focusing on more dangerous criminals, had a change of heart and actually started supporting the graffiti artists. Now there are paintings all over the city that are financially backed by the government, all with a political or social message to share with the public. A similar story was told to us during our bike tour in Medellin, where we also saw many colorful graffiti murals. I think this model should be adopted everywhere, along with Ciclovia.
Ciclovia was started in the late 1990’s by mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who was actually born in the US. Over 100 kilometers of roads are shut off to cars every Sunday from 7am to 2pm in an effort to entice people to be more active. With a feeling of safety in the streets, Ciclovia now attracts around 2 million people every week. They come out on their bikes, inline skates, on foot, with their dogs, with their running clubs, and with every level of intensity from recreational stroller to athletic guys in spandex on carbon race bikes. People sell food, offer bike repair services, give dance lessons and perform in the street – there’s something for everyone on every block, and you could spend all day riding and still not see it all.
The real downside to Bogotá (and Cartagena and Medellin) is the air pollution. From the moment we stepped out of the airport we could smell diesel fumes from all the traffic. It’s sometimes so bad that I physically couldn’t breathe in. It’s not a good environment for intense physical activity, but outside of the city I imagine the mountain air is relatively fresh and clean.
We returned our rental bikes to our hostel by 1pm so we could get to Monserrate before they closed the walking path. Upon arrival, the gate was closed, and a sign informed us that the mountain was closed for landscaping or something like that. We tried four times with no success, and we were flying out the next morning for Cartagena so we just gave in and bought tickets for the cable car. The line was long, and the car was packed, and of course we were in the middle so we couldn’t really see out the windows at all, but the view from the top was pretty good. The entire city of Bogotá is visible from Monserrate, but we couldn’t help but think of how much more rewarding it would have been to hike up there ourselves instead of standing in a crowded cable car. C’est la vie…
We spent a week in Bogota before flying to Cartagena. Since it didn’t take long for us to get robbed, we were very wary of the place for the rest of the week. We spent pretty much all of Wednesday with the police, and we barely left our hostel on Thursday.
We finally wandered out for a walk Thursday evening where we discovered Carrera Siete, a road where a long section had been closed to cars a few years ago and was now exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists. This was just a few blocks from our hostel, and stretched on for about 1.5 kilometers. The whole street was all decked out in Christmas lights and decorations, and in Simon Bolivar Plaza stood an enormous Christmas “tree”. Chinese drummers were performing on a stage that had been set up opposite the tree, and their performance could be heard from inside the cathedral across the plaza where a mass was taking place at the same time. The whole street was alive with crowds of people – street performers, artists, vendors, people walking around in Christmas hats and people playing with these light-up propeller toys that launch high into the sky and then slowly fall straight back down. Those light-up toys could be seen all over the street and plaza.
Dallas and I were mostly interested in the street food and the guinea pig games. The food was cheap, and most of it was tasty. We shared a corn on the cob and an arepa con queso, and then watched some guinea pigs run into houses. The game is really silly, but really fun to watch (and even more fun to play). A group of 5 or 6 guinnea pigs huddle next to one another on the street by the feet of the man with the microphone who is encouraging everyone around to bet on which house the animal will choose. The houses are all lined up in an array about 20 feet away from the guinea pigs – the far row with doors facing the guinea pigs and the nearer houses have the doors turned away. The man with the microphone keeps talking to work up a crowd, and people line up around the guinea pigs and houses, forming a runway for them to run towards the houses. People place coins on top of the house that they think the guinea pig will go into, and when enough people have placed their bets, the man with the microphone picks up one of the guinea pigs and places him down a few feet away from the others, so he runs towards all the houses. There are several of these exact same set-ups along Carrera Siete, and as far as I know, this goes on every night. It’s the perfect gateway game to get kids hooked on gambling.
After betting and losing 200 pesos (~6 cents) a few times, we buy some plantains with cheese and guayaba, a popular fruit that always seems to come in a paste form and is eaten with cheese. We also try the aromatica, a hot drink that tastes like sugar cane and limes with herbs. The next day, we came back here and Dallas actually won 1000 pesos on the guinea pig game!
Fast forward to the next day, when we leave our hostel to walk towards Monserrate, we notice smoke and fire on the mountainside. We arrived at the gate to find that the walking path is closed because of the fire, and there are 4 or 5 fire trucks waiting on the street across from the entrance. We stood for several minutes to decide what to do next, and eventually agreed that we should walk up Cerro de Guadelupe, the mountain next to Monserrate, instead. At the top of this mountain is a statue of the Virgin Mary, and it looks to be about the same elevation as Monserrate. We find walking directions to the peak of Guadelupe on the map app that I downloaded to my phone, and we spend another minute or so trying to decide whether to walk it or take a bus or cab. It was just over 6 miles from our current location, but we decided to walk until it looked unsafe (like, if the sidewalk disappeared and there was no space for walking).
As we ascended the steep streets towards the mountain, the neighborhood became quieter. The view of the city was impressive, and we hadn’t even reached the start of the mountains yet. We turned back down one of the roads the map led us up because it just didn’t feel right, and we figured we could get to the main road a better way by staying on Calle 9 until the end, where there appeared to be a university.
We ended up on a very steep cobblestone road that was beginning to be overgrown by grass. As we got about halfway up the road, two men approached us from above. Their intentions weren’t immediately clear to us until they attacked, each man wielding a screwdriver as their weapon of choice. I never knew how frightening a situation like this could be until it happened to us. With adrenaline at full blast, it was hard to think about anything except to give these men what they wanted so they would leave us alone. Dallas, who was carrying our backpack, was more reluctant to hand everything over. Having read an article my dad sent me about couples who were killed trying to resist robberies, I was begging Dallas to just give it to them or else they would hurt him. He stalled for what seemed like forever, but eventually gave them the backpack and emptied his pockets for them. As they ran back from where they came up the hill, one of them threw Dallas’s wallet back to him. A moment later, after realizing his passport was in the bag, Dallas was chasing them up the hill, and I was following.
They were about to make their escape on a motorcycle when, fortuitously, a police vehicle came driving toward us down the hill. We waved them down, frantically pointing at the motorcycle, and the police cut them off. The man on the back of the motorcycle dropped our backpack and ran off to the left, disappearing into the neighborhood below, while the other man dropped to the ground and was apprehended by the police. One of the policemen chased the man who ran away, but to no avail. He still had my waist pouch with my phone in it and Dallas’s phone and cash.
We sat shaking in the grass for a while as more police officers arrived on the scene. Stray dogs came over with tails wagging and licked my hand, as filthy as they were, making me feel a little better. Traffic was starting to back up on the road, and people in nearby houses were gathering around to see what the commotion was. The cops moved the one robber from the first vehicle to a second patrol car that arrived, and then moved him again to a third car that came even later. At one point I counted 14 police officers standing around on the road, using their radios and cell phones. Communication was not easy, and most of it fell upon Dallas since he was far more proficient in Spanish. He did practically all of the explaining as different cops continued to question us throughout the day.
This all began around 1:30pm, and by 2:30 we had been driven down the hill to a police station where we ended up sitting for a few hours while police tried to get us to positively identify the man who they thought got away. So many factors make it extremely difficult to identify anyone in a situation like this. First, everything happened so quickly and neither of us were studying faces to see what these guys looked like. Dallas said that they were wearing hoods to cover their faces, but I don’t even recall that. If I couldn’t even remember if they were wearing hoods, how could I be expected to remember what their faces looked like? Second, what are the details you are most likely to notice during such a quick and stressful interaction? Height, complexion, hair color, clothes… They were both about our height or shorter and had a darker complexion, which doesn’t exactly narrow down the field. The photos that the cops were showing us didn’t really help. Sure, it could have been him, but they could have shown us a photo of any Colombian man and we would have thought the same thing. We had no idea. Third, the language barrier made it so that even if we did have a good idea in our heads of what the man looked like, it was nearly impossible to communicate a detailed description.
While waiting for the cops to complete their paperwork, and using google translator to communicate back and forth, a boy came up to the station with my pouch. Inside were both of our phones. He told the police that he found it on the street, and then he left. I watched as he ran away down the street, and the cop changed what he was writing in the report to reflect what just happened. He confirmed with us everything using google translator. Meanwhile, the man that they did capture had been led from the police car to the station where we were waiting. This station is tiny. There’s a small room with a computer and a laptop and a few boxes of papers, and in the back is a room with some lockers and a small bathroom. The whole station is probably less than 150 square feet. The man in handcuffs is placed in the locker room, which doesn’t appear to have a door. We feel like he could run out at any moment, while the cops are casually walking in and out of the main room.
Overall, we were really impressed with the thoroughness and seriousness that the police in Bogota take their jobs. We felt like they went to great lengths to make us safer and recover our belongings, and they made a commendable effort to communicate with us every step of the way. However, we had no idea when we would be able to leave, and we eventually were escorted to the back of the same cop car that our robber had been put in to go to the main office of criminal justice. We had to squeeze into the back of the car and sit next to the man in handcuffs for a ride of unknown length. Did I mention how small all the vehicles are in Colombia? With a hard slippery surface to sit on, no seat belts and just a bar to grab in front of us, I felt like we were on a roller coaster, speeding even further down steeply sloped hills. The smell of diesel fuel and heavy air pollution drifted into the caged windows, making the ride even more uncomfortable.
When we finally arrived, we were all led up several flights of stairs, and Dallas and I waited in a separated room with chairs for almost 2 hours before we were led to the interrogation room so Dallas could try to tell our story again to different investigators. The man in handcuffs was sitting on the floor across from this room with glass walls. It was all very confusing to me. They had Dallas sit with a woman at a computer who transcribed his story into yet another report.
While he was doing this, one of the policemen brought me back out to the hallway where he had me sit next to another young woman. He wanted us to talk to one another, but I wasn’t sure why. She didn’t know what to say at first, and neither did I, but we managed to have some kind of conversation with her trying to speak English and me trying to speak Spanish. It was actually very helpful, and I learned that she was in school to be a flight attendant. She was 20 years old, visiting Bogota from Medellin, and wanted to learn English. I didn’t realize until another cop took her away to question her that she was in handcuffs. She came back and we talked some more before a different cop took me away and brought me back to the first room where Dallas and I had been waiting initially.
Eventually, I was brought back to the room where Dallas was still working out our story with the woman. When he finished up with her, we spoke with another investigator who gave us advice about walking around Bogota and told us stories about other cases that didn’t end so well. He also gave us some money for a cab ride back to our hostel.
By the time we arrived at our hostel it was 9pm, and aside from some cheese and candy that the police had shared with us, we hadn’t eaten anything in over 8 hours. We felt hungry, dirty, and exhausted.
All of the police and investigators were incredibly helpful and nice to us, and we are very grateful for everything they did. We feel very lucky to have encountered the police when we did, and we are especially lucky to have gotten away unscathed. While we can’t help but feel guilty and think about what we could have done to have prevented this from happening in the first place, we realize it could have been much worse.
Please try not to worry about us! We are taking this as a learning experience and will be extra cautious when walking around from now on.
Four years ago, I embarked on a journey that permanently changed the course of my life. The journey started as a desire to do something out of the ordinary and as a resistance to the status quo. This journey has taken me throughout the US, from Alaska to Florida. It has forced me out of my comfort zone a million times over and has challenged me to face many of my fears. I have been fortunate enough to make countless friends along the way and find a loving companion, who is just crazy enough to join me in my travels. Four years ago, I left Portland, OR on my bicycle, heading south with not a single plan set in stone – just an openness to experience something new. That journey continues today, and I’d like to share with you a few lessons I’ve learned from my extraordinary life of travel.
The first few steps might be the hardest, and it never gets easier – Whenever I’m about to embark on a new adventure, it’s the act of taking those first few steps in a tangential direction that are the hardest. The thing that has surprised me the most about this is that in the past four years I don’t think changing course has ever gotten easier. I guess that’s why it’s often those first few steps that make the biggest difference between an ordinary life and an extraordinary life. This principle is probably best summed up in Newton’s first law of motion – an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion. I still find leaving home to set out on a two-month bicycle tour just as difficult as coming off that bike tour at the end of two months to set-up a new home. The thing that does get easier is the adaption process. The more I put myself outside of my comfort zone, the more tools I gather and the easier time I have to adapting to a new way of life.
Come up with an ‘ABC Plan’ – What’s an ABC Plan you say? Well, this is a little tool that I’ve developed over the years to help me feel more comfortable in taking those first few steps toward my goals. The “A” in ABC is the best case scenario. I imagine the best case scenario for whatever my next adventure is and what actions I will need to take in order to achieve those results. The truth about the “A” is that it often doesn’t require much more input other than getting started. If everything works in my favor, that scenario is usually self-sustaining and doesn’t require anything additional from me.
You might be able to guess now that the “C” in ABC is the worst case scenario. Mentally I can usually come up with at least half a dozen “C” scenarios, and I try to think about what I will need to do to resolve them or at least reduce the risk of them happening. With cycling these scenarios usually involve: getting my bike/panniers/wallet/cell phone stolen, running out of food/water/energy or ending up in a ditch/hospital/graveyard. While these aren’t pleasant things to think about, they will provide you with a much needed back-up plan and risk assessment strategy, which I have found will make you both more likely to survive a “C” scenario and actually downplay any fears you might have going into a new situation.
The “B” in the ABC Plan is the scenario that is most likely to happen. This is the part where I think you gain the most insight. When it comes to cycling this usually involves things like flat tires, broken chains and spokes, and running behind schedule. This part of the planning phase tells you how to pack and plan for things that are most likely to happen and will once again help alleviate any fears that you have going into your next adventure. The great thing about the ABC Plan is that you can use it in almost any area of your life where you have fear, even if you aren’t embarking on some big new adventure. Looking to ask for that promotion, but afraid? Develop an ABC Plan and explore your options. It might not seem like such a big task anymore.
A life of travel ranges from exhilarating to exhausting – I’m not going to lie, I have felt more exhausted, more times in the past four years than I ever remember feeling the 30 years prior. I’m not talking about the kind of exhaustion you get from riding a 100-mile bike ride or running a marathon. That exhaustion usually dissipates in a day or two. I’m talking about the exhaustion felt from life on the road. In the past four years I have moved my home base from New Orleans, LA to Newport, RI to Portland, OR to Skagway, AK to Durango, CO to Providence, RI to where I’m at now…which is looking for my next “home.” It’s not easy living a nomadic lifestyle, but I do have to say that I have been thrilled with the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met and the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I’ve encountered. I have actually looked back on the past four years of my life and thought to myself “I really do lived a charmed existence.” Though it is rarely easy, it is often rewarding, and that’s why I continue to live this way.
Less really is more – There are so many ways I see this principle apply to my life, and it has truly made me happier. The house with the least possessions is the house that’s the easiest to clean. What I’ve found out about the “less is more” philosophy is that it’s continuing to evolve for me. What I considered traveling light a few years ago is completely different than what I consider it today. I expect that four years from now that idea will have evolved even more. A question pertaining to my nomadic lifestyle that I’m often asked is “Where do you keep all your stuff?” My reply is often as simple as “What stuff?” I’ve learned that I can pretty much find anything I need in just about any town in America, even if I’ve entered that town empty-handed and having no connections. Things like Craigslist, email list-serves and eBay have made it easier than ever to walk into a new place and make a life for oneself. The great thing about the “less is more” philosophy is that it’s going to mean something different to everybody. We will all have different wants and needs. I’ve just found that I’m personally happiest only having to worry about the few possessions that I can carry on either my back or bicycle (and maybe a box or two of nostalgic items that I can keep at a relative’s house), than being bogged down by furnishings of a typical American household. This idea has also led me to purchasing more quality products, often reusing nice used items and focusing on longevity as an economic strategy.
Every experience is enhanced when it is shared – Before I met my Sarah three-and-a-half years ago I did most of my traveling alone. I had some great, I’d even say truly amazing experiences while traveling alone, and I encourage everybody to take on solo travel at least once in their life. Never having to compromise on things like where to go, what to do, where to eat or what to see is what tops my list about solo travel. What I’ve found though, in my own experience, is that when you don’t have another person with whom to share those amazing times, you tend to forget just how amazing they were. There is something about reminiscing with another human being about things that keeps those experiences so much more alive in our memories. After all, what’s the use of a life full of experiences if you have nobody to share them with?
What advice would the future version of yourself give you today? – When I find myself at a crossroads or in a moment of fear or uncertainty, it helps me to look to the future and imagine what advice a future version of myself would give me today. The amount of years I usually use is 10 because that’s a number I think of as being close enough to imagine yet far enough away to hold a different perspective. Maybe 5 years or 8 years or 20 years is a better benchmark for you, it doesn’t really matter. The thing about this exercise is that I find it can help even with the small decisions. Should I work out today? Future me says yes. Do I really need to eat this entire box of cookies? Future me says please don’t. Will this $100 be better off in my savings account or buying some new electronic device? Future me says the $100 does more for him in savings than in an electronic device that has been outdated for years. I’ve found that it helps the most with the big questions though. Should I continue working at this job that I hate because of the short-term fear of quitting or should I take a stab at something completely new? Future me says that I will benefit more from trying something new, even if that means failing, than continuing to do the same thing expecting different results. What would the future you have to say about your recent decisions?
All things considered, humanity is alive and well – Whenever I’ve found myself in a truly tough situation, I’ve found that there was a person there that was willing to help. In fact, something I’ve often said is that if I ever lose my faith in humanity, the best thing I can do is go on a bicycle tour. There’s something about cycling in particular that really seems to bring people together. With websites like WarmShowers and CouchSurfing, connecting with like-minded strangers has never been easier. These websites take away a lot of the fear of meeting new people too, because they require identification verification and you can read what others have to say about these people. I’ve also been shown such beautiful acts of unexpected kindness while bike touring. I’ve had complete strangers offer me a place to stay, buy me dinner, give me money and donate to charities that I support. One of the most touching acts of kindness I’ve experienced came at one of the lowest points in my years of bicycle touring – right after Sarah and I had our bikes stolen. Unbeknownst to us, some friends of ours reached out to strangers, friends and acquaintances and pooled together enough money to allow us to continue on with our travels. At my lowest point, I was shown the most amount of love.
As I continue on my journey through life, I understand that this list is not exhaustive and is just a drop in the bucket of lessons to be learned. What I’m hoping to show you is that a major life overhaul is possible, and it doesn’t have to be as scary as we humans tend to make it out to be. Even failures, if done in a thoughtful way, can be insightful steps in the right direction. While my ideal life right now is that of a nomadic one, I know that this too can and will change. I’m not recommending that everybody jump on a bicycle and ride across the country, but I do think that everybody can benefit from a little more adventure in their lives, whether that means taking your kids camping, asking your boss for a raise or simply taking your bike for a ride around the block. Two truths that continue to show up in my life: You’re never going to be as young as you are today, and this is the only life you’re guaranteed…so you better make the most of it.
After seeing them in action, I truly think that Ed Raff is a genius for creating this cycling team (either that or he got very lucky). This is a great way to get kids to be active and involved in a team sport that can also double as a mode of transportation and a lifestyle. After most players of team sports like football, rugby or lacrosse have retired due to injury or ‘old’ age, cyclists can maintain their sport for a lifetime. Bicycling has been predominantly a poor person’s mode of transportation but a rich person’s sport, and it’s about time that changes.