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Things fall apart

In the morning, Anita brought us out to the back of the house and picked two young males from the wooden crate full of cute, furry guinea pigs. These large rodents reproduce rapidly, and she has to continuously kill the males or else they will fight and kill each other. She prepared a pot of water to boil and then grabbed the first cuy to kill. I stood there and watched as she quickly stooped down to smash the poor animal’s head into the concrete floor, face first. Then she held it by the back legs over the pot, letting blood pour out of the nose as its body dangled above the boiling water. The creature struggled just once, flexing all of its muscles in a final attempt to hang onto life before going limp. Anita then dunked the cuy into the hot water for a few seconds, so the hair could easily be removed. She expertly pulled out all of the fur, revealing wounds that indicated this cuy had already begun fighting with his cratemates. Repeating this process with the other cuy, we saw that his back was covered with deep scratch marks from being clawed, probably by the first cuy she had killed. Anita used the edge of a knife to gently scrape away any stray hairs and clean the skin before moving on to the next step, which involved slicing open the bodies and separating the organs. Certain organs were thrown away, but most of them went into a pot for soup.

Lenin and I took a walk around town at this point, searching for some more local honey since we had finished the honey we bought two days ago. During our walk, Lenin started telling me how hurt and abandoned he felt that I was going back to the US a month earlier than we were anticipating when we first landed in Colombia. I was considering coming back to continue bike touring for the month of April, but the cost of traveling back and forth was an issue. We were thinking about starting a bike tour business in Colombia, and we still had so much of the country to see by bicycle. Lenin was really upset, and we ended up arguing until he exclaimed that he was going to call my dad and complain. He went into the nearest shop that offered international calling, and I walked away, not wanting to fight anymore.

After wandering around the town for a while, I found Lenin again outside of the house. Anita had finished making the cuy, so we sat down for lunch, to continue our discussion later. The cuy tasted a little bit like dark turkey meat, but better. Very moist, and different from any other meat I had tasted.

Everything rapidly declined after lunch. I spoke with my dad on the phone, telling him about our argument, feeling like we couldn’t come to a mutual understanding. My dad reinforced the idea that it was too costly to go back to keep traveling after going to Portland.

I decided to buy a one way ticket to Portland for the moment and make up my mind later about continuing the bike tour. At this point, while I wanted to keep traveling, I was irritated by Lenin’s attitude towards this project that I was going back for, and I didn’t want to keep traveling with him if he was going to be like that. I still had three weeks to bike around Colombia, see how far we could get, evaluate whether Lenin’s mood was tolerable, and then decide if it made sense to come back again from Portland.

As soon as I announced that I was buying a ticket, Lenin got extra mad. Maybe I should have waited, but there was a 99% off sale on Spirit Airlines, and I had to buy a ticket by the end of the day to take advantage of it. I wasn’t sure when we would have internet access again. Lenin tried to unplug the internet to prevent me from making the purchase, but I managed to buy it just before losing the connection.

We left Anita’s house abruptly while she was out. Lenin was so upset, and I didn’t know what to say or do to console him. We stopped several times to have long discussions on the side of the road, but nothing was very productive. He had decided to end the bike tour and take a bus from the border back to Medellín. I wanted to keep touring for the last three weeks until I had to leave, but Lenin insisted that it was me who was ending the tour early by going back to the US.

We did more arguing on the roadside than cycling, and the darkness crept up on us while we were standing there. When we started riding again after one of our stops, a truck had pulled over to ask if we needed a ride. The driver helped us haul our heavy bikes, fully loaded, into the back of the truck, and we climbed in after them. The truck was empty except for a  layer of sawdust and a few personal items that presumably belonged to the driver. Lenin and I lay in the darkness, holding one another in silence until the truck stopped to let us out, just a few kilometers from the border.

We had to stop in the customs building on the Ecuadorian side first, and then into the Colombian customs building up the road. A few more kilometers uphill from the border lies the town of Ipiales. Lenin was on a mission to get to the bus station, and all I could do was follow him, secretly hoping that the station would be closed for the night, or that he would change his mind before buying a bus ticket.

We arrived at the bus station, and Lenin immediately went to the counter to buy tickets. I told him that I wanted to keep riding and begged him to let me reorganize the contents of our bags, so he could keep all of his stuff on one bike, and I could take the other with my stuff. There was no time. The last bus was leaving in a few minutes for Cali, and Lenin had bought two tickets, not really giving me a choice to stay behind. I started frantically trying to separate our things, but it was useless. I felt like I was being swept towards the bus with no regard to what I wanted, much like Lenin probably felt I was doing to him by leaving Colombia prematurely. I was unprepared for this bus ride, and it felt like I was observing everything in a dream as I reluctantly helped take the front wheel and bags off of my bike to put it under the bus.

The bus ride to Cali was hellish. Our assigned seats were next to each other, and Lenin used the time as an opportunity to further express his dissatisfaction with everything about me. I couldn’t escape, and all I wanted to do was turn my ears off so I didn’t have to listen to his constant berating me.

Somehow, when the bus pulled into Cali the next morning, we were no longer fighting. Maybe we were just too exhausted to keep arguing. It was a long ride. We decided to stay in Cali for a few days before going back to Medellín.

Ambuqui to Julio Andrade

In the morning, we left the fire station and pedaled about 5 kilometers up the road to a restaurant for breakfast. There was little tension from our arguments the day before, or maybe we were just ignoring it. We looked at our options on WarmShowers for a place to stay that night and took down contact info for three different people. We were hopeful to get to the border that day, but just in case we fell short, we had hosts in two other towns before leaving Ecuador.

The elevation profile for our day from Ambuqui to Julio Andrade

The riding was tough, with a lot of climbing. Worse than that was that we were breaking mentally, and we were losing the motivation to keep going strong. The rainy weather we were subjected to every day was not helping. It rained while we ate breakfast, and when it stopped enough to venture out, we simply had to push ourselves uphill. The distance to the border appeared, in my mind, to be out of reach if we were to climb discontentedly on loaded bikes all day. All I needed was to have a minor mechanical issue, and I probably would have wanted to take the rest of the day off.

We made a stop for lunch at a restaurant on the road, and Lenin talked them down in price for the meal we shared. This meant that we couldn’t get ice cream, since he told them that we didn’t have enough money to pay the full price for the lunch. 

Just keep climbing…and smiling…

We felt some relief from the climbing after passing San Gabriel, but it was only a short distance of downhill before we had to go up once again. When we reached Julio Andrade, the first town where a WarmShowers host resided, we were ready for a break. 

We stopped at a bodega for ice cream and asked the lady there if she knew our host, Richard, who owned a bakery called Anchwy Hwan Chae. She directed us further into town, and as we climbed a steep hill, a man must have recognised us as some of the crazy bike travelers that always visit this one guy in town. He showed us exactly where to go.

A young boy answered our knock at the door and let us in as if he had been expecting us. He introduced himself as Darwin and asked us where we were from, and then his mother came to greet us while he proceeded to finish his homework. Darwin and his mother, Anita, were very nice and social, both warning me of the cold water when I asked to take a shower. With maybe one or two exceptions, none of the places we stayed in had warm water, so I was used to the cold and actually looking forward to a refreshing shower after sweating from climbing all day. This water, however, must have come from some icy mountain spring, because it was more frigid than any water I had bathed in before. Within seconds of standing under the icy stream, my hands and feet were numb and I barely had any dexterity left in my fingers. They weren’t kidding about the cold water. For the rest of our time there, I was reluctant to volunteer to wash dishes.

A sculpture of bicycle racers out on the hills outside of San Gabriel, before we made it to Julio Andrade. Note the beautiful sky we are biking towards.

Lenin and I were almost considering to keep going on to the town by the border, Tulcan, or Ipiales, which was just over the border in Colombia, but once we got a taste of Anita and her family’s hospitality, it wasn’t a hard decision to stay. She gave us the most delicious bread and cheese with hot coffee, showed us the cuy she was raising in the back yard, and helped us to set up a mattress to sleep on. The mattress was in the back of a room shared by all three of her sons, one of which had been hiding on his bed, using a laptop the entire time we were there. He was clearly less social than his mother and younger brother. We squeezed between a bunkbed and another twin bed to get to the back area where we laid the mattress down. The eldest son we heard on the radio before we met him. Anita turned the volume up when she recognised his voice, telling us that it was her son on the radio. Richard was out of town for a few days, selling his bread near the border, so we wouldn’t get to meet him.

Lenin and I both were curious to try cuy, which is guinea pig, and since it had been a year since we met, Lenin figured we should celebrate by eating one. Anita offered to cook it for us the next day. 

Over dinner that night, Anita shared her own experiences with Yaje and told us about the shaman who was going to be visiting them in 4 days. It really sounds like this stuff is amazing, and if you have any kind of health problems it would allow you to see inside yourself and understand how to fix your problems. Anita started taking Yaje because she had cancer and acid reflux. She swears by it as a cure for any disease. 

In spite of the discouraging time we had earlier in the day on our bikes, the day actually turned out to be pretty good. We made it through the whole day without any serious arguments, and we slept heavily on that mattress in the back of the bedroom.

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.

Crossing the border: Orito to Lago Agrió 

From Orito we backtracked to the main road, which was under construction for a good stretch of the way to Hormiga, the only town of any significant size on the way to Ecuador. The lack of pavement made for slow progress, and we had to wait a few times in places where only one lane was open to one direction at a time.

Along this road was a bridge that had been taken over by guerrillas years ago. The guerrillas basically killed anyone who tried to cross the bridge, dumping the bodies in the river. Many towns in Colombia, including the one where Lenin grew up, were accustomed to the guerrillas coming in several times a year to massacre the police and steal supplies. First, the electricity to the whole town would go out, announcing their arrival. Then, you would hear the bombs and gunfire. They would usually target police stations, and sometimes the entire police force in a town would be killed. Then, the guerrillas would rob everything they needed from the town, including food, ammunition, and medicines. The next morning, when there was daylight, people would come out, inventory the damage and see who had died. Lenin lost friends this way who were caught in the crossfire, or who had been too close to the police station when a bomb went off.

The towns in Putumayo seemed to either be common victims of this type of warfare, or protected from it, depending on who lived in the town. Orito, for example, didn’t get attacked very much because most of the people living there were related or connected to the attackers in some way. Or, it could have been because the town was dominated by the oil industry and was heavily reinforced by military protection. El Tigre, on the other hand, just north of Hormiga, seemed to have a darker history of oppression by the guerrillas. It was chilling to think about what had occurred at the bridge while we crossed over the Guamez river outside of El Tigre.

Lenin stops to eat sugarcane from a farm on the side of the road.

One of the best parts of riding in Colombia are the many delicious fruits that are so readily available everywhere. Guava was in season, and as we neared the Ecuadorian border, we passed hundreds of trees full of ripe guavas. We also passed sugarcane, and when we saw a farmer loading the back of his truck with freshly cut caña, Lenin asked if we could have some. Without hesitation, he shared four stalks with us, expertly removing the hard, outer skin with a machete. The last snack we bought before reaching the border was a turron de maní. This is a roll of panela that has been kneaded by hand to the point where it is a taffy, or nougat consistency. It is mixed with peanuts, making for a crunchy, sweet and salty treat that resembles a Payday candy bar.

We made it to Ecuador!

When we came to Puente Internacional, the bridge that crosses from Colombia into Ecuador over the Río San Miguel, we asked a policeman to take a photo of us. On one side of the bridge were Colombia police officers, and the other side were Ecuadorian police officers. The immigration office was still a few kilometers down the road into Ecuador, so after getting a photo from both sides by two different officers, we rode on to this office. Most of my border crossings on land have been between the US and Canada, where photography is always strictly forbidden. I thought it was novel to actually have the police officers take our photos at the border for us.

We pulled up to the immigration office to get our passports stamped. Beyond this point, we passed cacao farms, more guava trees, and many properties for sale, as well as many abandoned houses. During the time when the guerrillas were most active, they would frequently cross over the border to hide out in Ecuador. The Colombian president at the time, Uribe, had a vengeance for the guerrillas since his father was killed by them when he was a boy. Disregarding the fact that this wasn’t his territory, he ordered the military to bomb the jungle, trying to find and kill the leaders of these guerrilla groups who were reportedly hiding in Ecuador. As a result, not many people live near the border, and there is a lot of abandoned property.

Lenin’s name is everywhere in Ecuador!

When we got a little further south, we started seeing green murals painted with Lenin’s name on them in huge blue letters. Ecuador has recently had an election, and one of the presidential candidates was named Lenin. They actually need to hold another election because the results were so close, so it’s possible that Lenin may very well be the next president of Ecuador.

Continuing to the south, we approached Lago Agrió, or bitter/sour lake. This town was originally settled by people who had migrated from a town in southern Ecuador called Loja and had named it Nueva Loja. However, when the big oil company, Texaco, started taking control of the area, they renamed it Lago Agrió. The town is not pretty, and it appears far removed from the beautiful jungle that we were surrounded by closer to the border.

We had the contact info of a man from WarmShowers who lived in Lago Agrió, so we headed towards the address listed for him. We tried stopping at a few places to use a phone and call him, but nobody seemed to have a working phone we could use. Just after sunset and just shy of 100 kilometers from where we began in Orito, we came to the church where this WarmShowers host was supposed to be. At first glance, it appeared that nobody was there, but when we got closer, a pregnant woman stepped out of the darkness. She told us that the man who used to host people was the pastor, but he had left the church a few months ago, and she didn’t know where he had gone.

We decided to go back towards the downtown and ask if we could stay at the fire station. The fireman who greeted us told us that they were understaffed, and the people working there were just covering for the actual employees while they went to a training in Quitó. He didn’t have the authority to let us stay at the station, so we settled for a cheap hotel around the corner. My birthday was the next day, so it was kind of like an early birthday present to splurge on a hotel, but I still felt guilty about spending $15 on a room (they use US dollars in Ecuador).

While walking around to find food, we found another bike traveler. He was from Bogotá, and he may have been more talkative than Lenin. We were both very tired, but we listened patiently to his stories from the road before retreating back to our hotel.

Orito

The oil companies try to fool us into thinking their earth raping machines are really just big pretty birds, but I know better!

From Puerto Asís, Lenin and I rode to Orito, a town that exists mainly because of oil. We had to backtrack about 15 kilometers to Santana, and then diverge from the road to Ecuador for another 7 kilometers or so out of the way, but Lenin’s brother, Seled, had a friend living there where we could stay.

Sayra knew Seled and his family from their church, and she had just moved back home after spending the last few years studying in Italy. She wasn’t home when we arrived in Orito, but we were told that her brother was a councilman and we could find him at the town hall. However, when Lenin asked for him, all of the councilmen were having a meeting, and he was the only one not in attendance. Not sure what to do, we wandered around briefly before coming back to the town hall and asking again. This time, a man who knew him gave us his mother’s phone number so we could get in touch with the family. The mother was expecting us, and she came to meet us at the town hall with her motorcycle so we could follow her back to their house.
Sayra and her brother were visiting one of the veredas outside of town and had no phone service, which is why we couldn’t get in touch with either of them. We relaxed at their house, drinking juice and talking with their mother while waiting for them to return.

When it’s not raining, the river is clear, and you can jump into it from this large rock.

That night it stormed heavily, complete with thunder and lightning that took out the electricity for the rest of the night and half of the next day. We were thinking about going to a nearby waterfall the next morning, but it was still cool and rainy all day, so we didn’t do much of anything. Sayra’s brother, Jonny, drove us to a huge rock in the middle of the river where people can jump and swim when it’s not so cold and rainy. On the way back, we stopped at the market and bought chontaduros and small bananas, which made for a very delicious juice with our dinner that evening.

 

Since we didn’t make it to the waterfall that day, we decided to stay in Orito one more night and try to see the waterfall the next day. Jonny’s friend, Jhon, who owned the land where the waterfall was located, planned to pick us up in his motorcycle and show us around.

 

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The eco-farm had a rope swing!

Jhon first brought us to this eco-touristy farm where they had coconut water waiting for us to drink right from the coconuts. The two women running the farm took us around the property, explaining how the pepper is cultivated and allowing us to sample the guava, guama, cacao, sugarcane, and coca leaves. There were also two small waterfalls that we could stand under. A baby turkey followed us around the entire time, crying out when we reached a steep bank that was too hard for him to climb down. After this, we rode to the property with the waterfall we originally wanted to see.

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This flower only blooms for one day before dying.

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The long walk to Jhon’s property where Cascada Silvania was located included this rickety bridge.

 

Cascada Silvania wasn’t too far from the town, but it was totally wild and barely touched by humans. Nobody even knew it was there until relatively recently because the area was infested with guerrillas for 50-60 years and too dangerous to explore. From where we parked the motorcycles, we hiked a little more than 2 kilometers to get to the finca. We ate lunch here and then walked down a steep trail that descended into a lush, green jungle. Everything around us was a vivid green, and the smell of flowers filled the humid air. The only sounds were of birds and rushing water. I felt like we had stepped into a secret world, beautifully hidden away from industry and human destruction. We crossed a small river and came to a deep natural pool that was mostly surrounded by a high wall of stone covered in more green.

 

img_4347The cascade was across this pool and to the right, falling from a height of about 15 meters. Completely shade protected, this place was like a little slice of heaven in the middle of a normally hot part of the country. In spite of the setting sun and lowering temperatures, I had to jump into the cold water and swim around. It was so cold and clean, and difficult to swim towards the waterfall. Just to the right of the cascade was a rope that made it possible to climb up the rock to a small cave with a ledge, a little less than halfway up, from where you could jump. I hate the feeling of free-falling, and for some reason jumping off a small cliff into water is mentally harder for me than jumping out of a plane with a parachute or off the side of a mountain with a paraglider. Maybe because I wasn’t given enough time to reconsider those other jumps. It took a lot of courage for me to jump in, but it was worth it. It grew darker as we hiked back to the motorcycles, and it was pitch black by the time we started heading back towards the town.

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Lenin beams as we walk towards the waterfall.

 

Cycling in and around Medellin

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.

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A mural outside of Parque Salado in Envigado

 

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One of the ciclovias on Avenida Poblado

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.

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Bike touring through Antioquia and Caldas along one of the highways

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.

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The ciclorutas throughout Medellin are painted at intersections

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.

bicitourOn 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.

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Taking a break in a park during one of the Sicleadas

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.

enciclaAnother 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.

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Mountain bikers bomb down a trail from Tres Cruces, in the heart of the city.

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.

Bogota and cycling

“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

Monserrate on a clear day, with no fire, was ever elusive to our hiking attempts

Monserrate on a clear day, with no fire, was ever elusive to our hiking attempts

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.

This is where we began our bike tour, in the Candelaria just a few blocks from our hostel.

This is where we began our bike tour, in the Candelaria just a few blocks from our hostel.

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.

There is government-funded graffiti everywhere in Bogota, and it all has a meaning.

There is government-funded graffiti everywhere in Bogotá, and it all has a meaning.

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.

During Ciclovia you can find all sorts of people enjoying the streets without car traffic. Cyclists, pedestrians/runners, street vendors/performers and dogs dominate the roads from 7 to 2 every week.

During Ciclovia you can find all sorts of people enjoying the streets without car traffic. Cyclists, pedestrians/runners, street vendors/performers and dogs dominate the roads from 7 to 2 every week.

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.

Here is the plaza around the church on top of Monserrate.

Here is the plaza around the church on top of Monserrate.

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…

The view from Monserrate includes the entire city of Bogota.

The view from Monserrate includes the entire city of Bogotá.

Goodbye to a good summer

Since our last update, Dallas and I have ridden in the MS bike tour (Ride the Rhode) and raised nearly $2000 for the cause, thanks to our wonderful friends and family who supported us.  We’re not sure where we’re going to be for next year’s tour, but registration is already open if anyone wants to sign up and get an early start on fundraising!  This year, we opted to ride a full century (which ended up being 105 miles) the first day and 75 miles the second day.  We lucked out with perfect weather and no incidents on the road.  The terrain was not too challenging, but not too flat and certainly not boring.

What Cheer? Brigade's 2014 west coast tour poster

What Cheer? Brigade’s 2014 west coast tour poster

Immediately after the bike tour, I set off for the west coast to meet the band on tour, where we continued down from Portland, Oregon all the way to Tijuana and back up to finish at a beautiful wedding in the redwoods outside of the bay area.  After playing every day for two weeks, I couldn’t help but improve my mediocre trumpet-playing skills.  I’m afraid that after not playing for two weeks (on our most recent vacation to Costa Rica), I am probably worse off that I was before tour.

Dallas and I ran together for the entirety of the LOCO marathon in Newmarket, NH this October

Dallas and I ran together for the entirety of the LOCO marathon in Newmarket, NH this October

While not bike touring this year, we have been able to do a few races together, including the 10 mile Blessing of the Fleet race in Narragansett, a half marathon in Worcester, MA and two marathons in Erie, PA and in Newmarket, NH.  I also participated in several cycling events, including a few Women Bike RI group rides, the Woony River Ride, and the Gran Fondo New England.

The summer in Rhode Island was one of the better ones that I can remember, with almost no rain and not too much heat.  As always, it ended too soon.  We have been incredibly fortunate to have barely any excuses not to be outside every day, but I still feel like I didn’t get my fill of outdoor activities before it turned cold.

My first (unofficial) cyclocross race

My first (unofficial) cyclocross race

Still in Providence, Dallas and I are buckling down here for the winter, but in an attempt to combat the depression that comes with this season I bought myself a cyclocross bike.  I’m not very good at it yet, and so far every time I start riding on a cross course I find myself thinking that maybe I’m not cut out for this sport.  That feeling usually subsides after 2 minutes or so, as my mind is consumed with staying on my bike and not crashing into anyone else.  By signing up for races this winter, I hope to motivate myself to get outside during the dark months to practice (and hopefully get better).

Dallas and me on a boat outside of Quepos, Costa Rica

Dallas and I on a boat outside of Quepos, Costa Rica

Speaking of trying things outside of our comfort zone, Dallas and I went to Costa Rica for the first two weeks of November.  While traveling comes naturally to us both, we did get to try some new things while we were there.  Dallas let me practice my Spanish (which is worse than my trumpet playing) on some of the locals whenever we went out.  Dallas also went surfing – I could not, because of a knee injury from my cyclocross bike, but I watched.  It was apparent that he was having enough fun to abandon his usual apprehensive feelings about being in the ocean.  This trip was our first time traveling together internationally, so while we were concerned at first about how we would do, we came out of it only wanting to go back out and experience more new places together.

I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving!  I’m taking this day off from work at the cave in order to write and bake lots of desserts for tomorrow’s gathering with family.  On Friday, while all the crazy people are out battling each other to buy stuff, Dallas and I will be celebrating Buy Nothing Day by bringing our coats to a coat swap (just when we need them most)!

Day 8 – Gold Beach, OR to Crescent City, CA

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This was such a beautiful day.  Dallas and I enjoyed sunshine and comfortable temperatures all day, with gorgeous views of Oregon’s coastline along much of the ride.  The first half, from Gold Beach to Brookings, was awfully hilly and included some of the longest climbs of our tour so far.  The descents were rewarding but were over too quickly.  I felt like much of the first 30 miles was spent climbing hills at a pace of around 5 miles per hour.

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Arch Rock

Brookings is the southernmost town in Oregon, and Dallas and I spent a little too much time there.  Since all the hills slowed us down, we got there a bit later than anticipated and didn’t actually get our daily dose of espresso until after 2pm.  This coffee shop we found was nestled by a harbour, with several docks and a cluster of little food places right off the road.  In between coffee and pizza, we spoke with Jeremy, who was staying with his girlfriend on their sailboat.  Like us, he had quit his job for a more adventurous and fulfilling life of seasonal jobs with plenty of vacationing in between seasons.  Hopefully we will run into him and his girlfriend again down the road.

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We ordered a pizza with salad on it from the nearby pizza place, and then moved on to the place next door for ice-cream cones before hitting the road again.  It was after 4pm when we finally left Brookings, and it was another 30 miles to Crescent City.  We finally made it to California!  So far, I think Oregon is more beautiful, but our route took us inland a bit once we crossed the state border.  More coastline and redwood forests await us tomorrow, so I’m sure California will redeem itself.

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Finally in California!

Dallas and I had hoped to make it a few miles past Crescent City and into Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park to set up camp, but the sun was setting as we stopped at the grocery store, and Dallas had remembered climbing a steep hill with no shoulder to get out of Crescent City.  We didn’t want to deal with that in the dark, so we’re staying in town tonight and will try to get an early start in the morning to make up for it.

Day 7 – Langlois to Gold Beach, OR

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Dallas, listening to Mike at the campground, just as it starts to rain

Today marks the end of a week since when we left, and in total, we’ve gone 350 miles.  Both of us woke up bright and early, with high expectations for the day, which we failed to meet.  Dallas started tuning his bike derailleurs and tightening spokes, and a man in the campground named Mike struck up conversation with us, delaying our packing.  This guy had ridden up and down the coast 13 times before, and also around Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii.  He stuck around for a while, and went on about bicycles, his dogs (at one point he had 12 of them living in his RV with him), and the felony he got after 13 years of selling marijuana in Michigan.  We were hoping to get to Port Orford and into a cafe before the predicted rain began, but it started misting just before we were ready to leave.  When we did venture out from the safety of the tree cover, it started to rain steadily.

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The first 14 miles to Port Orford were pretty miserable, but it actually stopped raining just before we got there.  Paradise Cafe is a small diner on Route 101 that boasts free WiFi.  We sat down in a booth next to a couple, and the man immediately started talking to us.  He told us that they were also camping around there, and they were impressed with our riding.  He also told us about their pug (named Pugsly) that only has three teeth and needs to eat special food.  Then he must have thought we were bowing our heads in prayer when we were actually trying to steal glances at our menus, because he told us how nice it is to see young people pray before a meal.  We politely engaged the couple in conversation, but then moved to a different table after ordering so we could sit by the one outlet we could find and charge our phones.  Before leaving, the woman gave us $20 for our breakfast!  We are always so blown away by the generosity and kindness of strangers, and this was no exception.  It definitely pays to be nice to strangers.

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Bridge to Gold Beach

We had perfect weather for the rest of the day, but we were way behind our hopeful schedule, and our legs were just too tired to maintain a fast enough pace.  Much of the ride after Port Orford was within view of the ocean, and it really was beautiful riding.  We were still 28 miles away from Brookings (our goal) when we stopped in Gold Beach.  We found a really cheap motel, although we ended up spending more on dinner at the Port Hole Cafe (we were really hungry!).

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