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North from Tumbaco: short distance, long day 

Lenin gazes at the beautiful church in the town square of El Quinche, where people were in full Carnival celebration mode

While we left Santiago’s house in the morning, Lenin and I stopped for breakfast before leaving Tumbaco, and it was almost noon by the time we actually got on our bikes that day. We had a lot of climbing ahead of us, all the way to the border with Colombia and beyond. The riding was slow, and we had a hard time feeling motivated. When we came to a small, lively town that was celebrating Carnival, we had to stop. We really hadn’t gone very far at all, and it was still fairly early, but we both liked the vibe of the town, and we considered staying there for the night. The only problem was, when we asked where the fire station was, we were told that it was back from where we came just a few kilometers. Okay, so maybe it was less than one kilometer, but we didn’t want to backtrack at all, especially since we had just come downhill into town.

Inspired by the Argentinian travelers that we met at the Casa de Ciclistas, Lenin wanted to start trying to get food for free. The Argentinian travelers he had met in the past all had specific tricks for not spending money while traveling, and he learned some valuable things from them, such as asking to stay at fire stations. However, all of the Argentinians had a parasitic tendency to overstay their welcome while trying to squeeze every last drop of hospitality out of their hosts before moving on to their next victim. They were all incredibly warm and friendly people, but they were in the business of taking advantage of people – notoriously thrifty and scheming. Lenin didn’t want to be that bad, but he did feel ashamed of how much money we were spending in comparison to them (which really was nothing compared to what we would be spending if we were living in the US, but hey, we had no income). 

I couldn’t bring myself to ask for free food, but we wandered around the market in El Quinche and eventually landed at a fruit stand where Lenin struck up a conversation with the woman selling fruit. She was with her daughter, who knew a few words of English that she had learned in school, so he tried to get her to speak in English. Like me, she was very shy and didn’t say much, allowing Lenin to do most of the talking. The next thing I knew, her mother asked her to grab some apples to give to us. Before we said goodbye to them, she had talked the fruit vendor across from her into giving us a few bananas for the road. There was our first taste of getting some food for free. I felt a little guilty taking food from them, but they were happy to give it to us.

Instead of backtracking uphill to the fire station in Quinche, we agreed to continue another 35 kilometers to the next one in the town of Cayambe. However, shortly after we got back on the road it started raining, so we stopped and ducked into a bakery to stay dry and wait for the rain to pass. The only other person in the bakery was the baker, a cheerful young woman who welcomed us to stay as long as we wanted. While we were waiting, she gave us each a roll of bread for free! We were doing pretty well without trying very hard at not spending money. 

The rain didn’t last long, so we were back on the road in no time. We had a nice stretch of riding downhill before we came to a small junction at the bottom of a long climb. As we approached the top of the climb, we stopped to switch bikes and realized that we no longer had our backpack. Trying to think back to when we last had it, and dreading the thought of riding all the way back to Quinche, we realized we must have left it at the bakery. I took a mental inventory of what was in the bag, briefly considering to just leave it and go on without it. All of our dirty laundry was in there, plus the bananas that the fruit man had given us. We would have to buy all new clothes, which didn’t seem as bad as backtracking all that distance. But then I remembered that both of our passports were in there, so we had no choice but to go back. 

We turned around and descended all the way back to where the long climb began, but we hesitated to begin the climb up to the bakery. Lenin thought that maybe we could find a place to sleep at that junction, leave our bags there, and have an easier time riding up to the bakery and back without the extra weight. We asked a man at a small shop if there was a place like a community center, where we could set up our sleeping pads for the night. He told us there was something in that town, but he warned us that it was uphill. People often tend to exaggerate their voices when something is a long distance or uphill (“bien arriiiiiba”), even if it isn’t really that far or that steep. Lenin asked how many blocks it was, and after giving it some thought, he answered that it was six blocks. We set off to find this place, thinking it couldn’t be that bad. 

The first block wasn’t that bad. Then the road became very steep, and it was really hard to keep pedaling. We came across a boy walking his bike with a flat tire, and he told us the name of his uncle who was in charge of the community center and could let us in to sleep there. From there, we started asking people outside of their houses for this man. Everyone knew him, of course, and they kept telling us to keep going uphill, very far uphill. I’m not sure how many blocks we really went, because the road wasn’t really the type to have blocks. It was just long and steep and twisty. The last part of it was so steep that we couldn’t pedal anymore and had to walk our bikes. It was even harder to walk. The man we were looking for was not home. 

Not many people were around, it seemed, because everyone was down at the main road celebrating the end of Carnival. We eventually came to the police station, and we pulled up to ask to stay there. Nobody was there either, but we could hear them talking on the radio from inside one of the rooms. At this point, we were exhausted. We still didn’t have a place to sleep, and we still had to go to the bakery for our backpack. We decided that I would wait at the police station to ask for a place to sleep when someone returned while Lenin biked down to the main road and took a car service up to the bakery and back to the police station. Lenin unloaded the panniers from the road bike and set off, while I settled in on the ground to write while I waited. Maybe an hour later, Lenin returned with the backpack. There was still no sign of the police, and the street was dead. Only one person had passed by me in the time that Lenin was gone, and I explained to him that I was waiting for the police to ask for a place to stay. It never occurred to me to ask him for a place to stay, which Lenin would have done in his own charming way if he had been the one waiting. We kept waiting. 

It grew cold, and dark, and even colder before we started walking around the deserted street, looking for someone to talk to. The police station was next to a small hospital, which was next to a school, both of which were dark and quiet. The only activity on the street was a window where an old woman was running a bodega out of her house, selling small packaged snacks and staples like milk and eggs. Lenin and I walked to her a few times to ask about the police and the community center. Lenin must have found out from her where the people who run the school and the hospital live, because he walked down the street to another house and called out a name I didn’t recognize. Nobody came out of that house, but the lady across the street from them came out and asked us what we were looking for. She told us we could sleep in her living room, and she signaled for us to meet her in the back, just around the corner. When we went inside, the man who I had talked to while waiting for Lenin was there, asking why I hadn’t asked him in the first place for a place to stay. I felt pretty dumb, but I also hate asking for things, and trying to navigate a request like that in Spanish makes it even harder. We were so happy to not be waiting outside in the cold, drizzly rain, and we fell asleep almost immediately after setting up our sleeping pads.

A paragliding adventure

Our third day back in Medellin, Lenin woke me up before sunrise. The previous morning, we met up with Lenin’s brother, Edwin, to run up to Los Tres Cruces, a climb so steep that none of us could actually run up it. As much as I hate waking up early, we agreed that it was a great way to begin the day. However, I didn’t want to do the same run two days in a row, so Lenin planned a bike ride up to San Felix the next morning.

Riding a few laps on the velodrome

Medellin has plenty of distractions sprinkled throughout the city to keep its people physically active. Aside from the numerous ciclorutas (bike paths), outdoor gyms, skate/bmx parks, soccer fields, basketball courts and swimming pools, there is a huge cycling track by the airport where you can find peletons of people decked out in full spandex, riding laps as fast as they can, as well as people riding hybrids or mountain bikes at a more leisurely pace. Not far from there is a park for roller and inline skating, a running track, and squash courts. You can take ciclorutas from there to El Stadio, where there are even more free sporting activities to do, including another running track and a velodrome. We detoured on our way to San Felix to do some laps around both the cycling track and the velodrome. After properly working up a sweat, we finally headed out of the city and up a mountain (which seems to be the only option when leaving Medellin).

Though Lenin had warned me that the ride to San Felix would be uphill for 20 kilometers, I was unprepared for how steep it would be. Neither of our bikes had sufficient gears for climbing, but we powered through regardless. For the first time, I was tempted to grab onto the back of a passing truck as it exuded black clouds of diesel exhaust in my face. I thought better of it though, and somehow managed to pass the truck, which seemed to be struggling more than Lenin and me during the steepest part of the incline. After a short distance the climb became more manageable, and we settled into a steady pace until we reached a place where we could take a break and share some fresas con crema and jugo de guanabano con leche. Our destination was another 12 kilometers uphill, where a cluster of paragliding businesses were situated near the top of the mountain, overlooking the city. In his past life as a paraglider, Lenin would come to this place religiously, spending hours every weekend and even sometimes during the week to go flying.

Paragliders soar above the mountains and the city while others wait on the grass below

Lenin guessed it had been maybe 10 years since he last took flight with a paraglider. He has changed a lot since then, most notably his long hair, and it was apparent when we arrived at the first paragliding business and nobody recognized him. We left our bikes with one shop to walk up a steep set of slippery, uneven steps, to reach the peak of the moutain where most of the paragliders were taking off, landing, or just hanging out. Delving deeper into the paragliding community, memories came trickling back to Lenin. Not a single person recognized him, although he couldn’t remember anybody’s name, so I guess it was fair. He knew their faces though, and when he reintroduced himself to them one by one, seeing the shock and surprised reactions from each of his old paragliding friends never got old. When one of his friends found out that I had never been flying, Lenin asked him to take me on a tandem paraglider. All I had to do was sign something and pay for the insurance. I barely had time to think about it before I was whisked away to the field where people were taking off and landing. Two boys who couldn’t have been older than 13 started strapping me into the paraglider while Lenin tried to explain to me how to take off and land. It all happened so quickly, I don’t think more than 3 minutes had passed from the time I had accepted the offer and suddenly we were running off the side of the mountain. In the air, soaring over the mountains, I felt like my feet might brush the tops of the trees, but then we went higher, far above the point of our take-off. We flew above the forests and farms and had the most spectacular view of the city. I think the ride only lasted 15 minutes, but it was amazing.

The bike ride back home took a fraction of the time we spent going up. We coasted all the way down the mountain amid gorgeous scenery and raced through the traffic when we reached the city at the bottom. It was an exciting ride after an adrenaline rush from paragliding. At the end of the day, we met up again with Lenin’s brother to drive to Guatape and spend a few days on his houseboat.

Learning patience through cycling adventures

During my last week in Medellin before going back to Rhode Island for the summer, I was invited to go for a ride up to Parque Arvi in Santa Elena with Lenin, our friend Anne-Marie and her friend, Juan. The host of the ride was Juan Del Bosque (Juan of the forest), and he was in the process of building a house and campsites on land that he owned within the park. We were to meet at Bici Rolling bike shop at 9am. Four of us left from Lenin’s house shortly before 9am, and we arrived about ten minutes late to the bike shop. Nobody had seen Juan yet, but his bike was still in the shop getting fixed, so we hadn’t missed him. We sat in front of the shop waiting until about 10am, when Juan finally showed up. However, his motorcycle was broken and he needed to drop it off at the moto shop before leaving, so we waiting a bit longer at Bici Rolling for him to do that. While we were waiting, Anne-Marie’s friend, the other Juan, disappeared. Nobody really saw him leave, but Anne-Marie had his bike, so we figured he’d be back. We got hungry before either of the Juans came back, so we decided to go to a nearby market while waiting for some fruit. While we were gone, both Juans had come back and left again at different times. So we waited some more. I think it was about 11 when we finally left, only missing one of the Juans, with plans to meet him along the way.

Anne-Marie and Juan del Bosque climb up through Medellin’s Buenos Aires neigborhood.

We were finally approaching the edge of the city, on the road that would take us up the mountain to Santa Elena, when I got a flat tire. Of course, it was the one time nobody had remembered to bring any tools or patch kit, so we walked a few blocks uphill to the nearest bike shop where I passed my wheel through a barred window and waited while my tire was repaired. Back on the road again, we only progressed another few blocks up the hill before stopping again, this time to buy fruit from a stand on the side of the road. Looming above the fruit stand, directly overhead, a man on a very rickety ladder was replacing one of the streetlights. There was very little space to move in between the fruit stand and parked cars. Remarkably, working with another man, they managed to lower the old light and raise the new one using a rope without hitting anything or knocking the ladder over.

While at the fruit stand, Anne-Marie started talking to an older man who had also been cycling up the same street. He was concerned that she wasn’t wearing enough sun protection and wanted to give her a cycling jersey and hat that he had at his house. After finishing the fruit, we all followed this man to his house, which was on the way up the mountain, and we took turns watching the bikes and going inside where he picked from his ample collection of jerseys to give something to each of us. This man’s name was Jorge, and he lived alone at the age of 65, with a mild case of Parkinson’s disease. Moved by his generosity, Lenin invited him to join us on our ride to Parque Arvi. He had just come back from a ride to the tunnel on the road leading to Santafe, and he was worried about slowing the group down. Lenin and Juan assured him that it was going to be a relaxed ride, which ended up being a bit of an understatement.

 

Jorge and Lenin, followed by Anne-Marie, make their way up the mountain and away from the city.

 

The five of us continued up the mountain at a painfully slow pace. Juan del Bosque, who was supposed to be our leader, ended up being the limiting factor for how fast we could go. While his bike was in the shop to get a new chain, what he really needed was a whole new drivetrain. The chain ring and cogs had worn down so much that the new chain fit poorly over the gears, slipping easily if too much pressure was applied to the pedals. Seeing that the entire ride was uphill, this presented a considerable challenge for Juan. For me, it was a struggle to ride that slowly, so I would ride ahead and then wait for the others to catch up. I tried to let everyone else get ahead a bit so I could pedal by at my own pace for a while, but Jorge would always stop when he reached me and wouldn’t allow me to give him a head start.
We couldn’t have gone more than a few kilometers from Jorge’s house before we all stopped again, to buy some food from what looked like somebody’s house. As we sat there eating, I wondered what I had signed myself up for. The day was more than half over, and we were definitely still less than halfway up that mountain. It looked like it was going to rain soon, and I had undoubtedly consumed far more calories than I had burned so far. At this rate, I wasn’t sure if we would make it before dark. I felt anxious to pick up the pace and make it to Juan’s house before it got much later, but it was impossible to get everyone to move faster so I just had to abandon any hope of controlling how the ride was going and resign myself to a very long day of riding (and stopping).

Taking a break to take in the scenery along the way to Santa Elena from Medellin

There were plenty of reasons to stop along the way. There was a random military checkpoint halfway up, although they didn’t pay us any attention. Juan and Anne-Marie switched bicycles at one point because his bike was slowing him down so much. Jorge wanted to rest. Once I had surrendered to inching along at a snail’s pace, I actually started to enjoy the journey and find humor in all the roadblocks along the way. I was even suggesting additional stops, to take photos or to get treats from a bakery. It rained on us more than once, and as we crested the high point on the road and started to coast, the sun dropped behind the distant mountains. We stopped at a grocery store in Santa Elena before going the final distance to Juan’s place to get food for that night and breakfast. The last stretch of road to Juan’s house was questionable at best, and I feared we would have to turn back. It was soft, wet gravel, narrow and difficult to ride, taking us deep into the forest. Lenin and I arrived first, and waited for what seemed like forever for Juan to catch up and lead us the final few meters to his house.

To call it a house is a bit of an overstatement. It was definitely a work in progress. Juan had been building this place from wood and materials that he procured himself or bartered for. He didn’t use money, and he procured all of his food and clothing by working for it, trading, or scavenging. He had a dog who just showed up one day while he was working and never left. The dog ran up to us, barking, when we approached the property. The main structure was like a small two-story cabin with no walls on the first floor. It was more like a bedroom on stilts, with a kitchen area and fireplace underneath. We were all wet from the rain and freezing from the change in altitude, but we made a fire, cooked dinner, and made ourselves comfortable for the night in one of the tents that Juan had on the property.

Riding back to Medellin through Parque Arvi

The next morning we got to see Parque Arvi as we biked back down the mountain a different route. The ride down was over much faster than the ride to the top, but I think the long ride up was more memorable. It’s still hard for me to relax when cycling, and I usually want to ride as fast possible for the distance that I plan to ride. However, this experience taught me that it can be okay to slow things down, be patient, and just enjoy my surroundings (and the company) during a ride.