9-13 January 2017
We stayed several days in Tunja. The first day, after lunch, we drove up to Edna’a uncle’s finca in Combita, where the family there was making pizza. The climate here is on the cold side, and rainy, so after dinner we all went into the sauna and played Cranium while drinking beer.
On the second day, Lenin called Juan Manuel, and he took us on a bicycle tour of Tunja, which basically consisted of pointing out all of the nine churches in the city. He knew people on every street, and Lenin started calling him “Alcalde”, or mayor. Before going to his mom’s house for coffee and sandwiches, Juan Manuel took us to Nairo Quintana’s apartment building. He lives in Tunja, and is very receptive to visitors. However, when we asked the security guard if we could meet him, he told us that Nairo was in Bogotá for a social event.
We made plans to meet again the next morning to ride to Villa de Leyva, the second most touristy city in Colombia after Cartagena. The first ten kilometers was up, but the rest of the ride was downhill or flat, and the climate grew much warmer and drier in a short distance. We arrived before noon in the small town, where the main square and streets were made up of old cobblestones. This region is rich in paleontology and archaeological findings, including prehistoric fossils and indigenous ruins, and there are many museums, restaurants, shops and cafes in a relatively small area. Juan Manuel had to work that day, so he took a bus back to Tunja. Lenin and I ate lunch and walked around the town. Down one of the streets off the main square, I found the best gelato I’ve had since arriving in Colombia. Good ice cream is increibly hard to find, although there are many ice cream shops. Nearly all of them offer the same two brands of mediocre quality ice cream. Needless to say, the gelato in Villa de Leyva made me very happy.
We ended up finding a host on WarmShowers at the last minute, where we stayed two nights. There were two other travelers staying there, and we all shared a room. One girl was from France, but living in Bogotá, and the other was from Bogotá. The next day we all walked to the paleontology museum, but it was closed, so we ended up hiking up a nearby mountain instead. The family hosting us was incredibly generous with their space, as every room in the house contained multiple beds, including the kitchen, and it was unclear how many people actually lived there, or whether people had their own bed or just slept in whichever one was vacant at the time. We shared dinner and breakfast with everyone, with the girls from Bogotá cooking dinner and Lenin and I cooking breakfast. Churro made friends with their dog, Dakota, and he did not want to leave when it was time for us to go. We rode back to Tunja the second morning for one more night at Edna’s house before continuing south.
8 January 2017
On the way out of Moniquira, we slowly made our way uphill for about an hour before we came across the finca that the tourist policeman had recommend to us the night before. We only had to go about 65 km to get to our friend’s house in Tunja, but there was a lot of climbing, and Churro in his trailer slowed us down considerably.
We finally started to descend a steep mountain when it began raining. The rain was cold and hard, and the on the way down we passed a magnificent waterfall. Shortly after this, and the only place for miles where one could pull over, was a house that happened to have an amazing view of the cascade. Lenin and I were not the only ones stopping here, as there was another couple on a motorcycle who had also come in to stay dry. The family inside seemed accustomed to frequent visitors, and they made coffee for all of us while Lenin and I changed into dry clothes. Lenin asked them why they don’t have a restaurant or some business there, with the perfect view of the waterfall, but the woman answered that there are too many thieves from Bogotá on the road. After waiting for about an hour, the rain let up enough for us to venture back outside. We continued on to a small town called Arcabuco, where we stopped for lunch. We got inside just a moment before the rain recommenced, this time for longer and harder than the first time.
The rest of the ride to Tunja was uneventful, until we reached Combita, just 15 kilometers from our destination. The home where Nairo Quintana grew up is on our route, and it has become somewhat of a shrine to the superstar athlete. Nairo’s parents run a small tienda out of the house, selling mugs, shirts, souvenirs, coffee and other snacks. I had been anticipating arriving at this place all day, and it seemed to take forever to get there. The road was hilly, and weather was pretty horrible for cycling, and nobody seemed to know anything about distances or how long it would take to bike somewhere. Seriously, every time we asked someone how far the house was, they severely underestimated either the distance or the time it would take. Anyway, it was dark by the time we arrived at Nairo’s house in Combita, and all I wanted to do was rest inside and recharge. We had already wasted a lot of time waiting for rain to stop, and Lenin wanted to get on the road quickly to get to Tunja.
After a quick tinto (black coffee) and brief conversation with Nairo’s mom, we got back on our bikes. It was dark and cold, and from there it was all downhill, so we were going fast with not much pedaling, making me even colder. My front light died almost instantly, so I couldn’t see the cracks in the road. Within the first few kilometers after leaving Nairo’s house, I got a flat tire. I felt like giving up and hitchhiking right then, but we sat on the side of the road in the dark, fixing the flat with frozen fingers. From there, the descent was steeper and the pavement grittier and less consistent.
When we arrived in Tunja, Edna was still driving back home from out of town, so we sat at a cafe to pass the time. Two guys came up to us and bought us coffee, actually! They had seen us in Moniquira that morning and wanted to talk to us about our trip. One of them, Juan Manuel, was an enthusiastic cyclist who wanted to show us around the city, so he and Lenin exchanged phone numbers. When we finally met Edna and walked to her house, it was a relief to have a nice place to rest for a few days.
7 January 2017
We left La Paz after breakfast, cycling a grueling distance on a hilly, unpaved carretera before arriving in Velez for lunch. From there, it was almost all downhill on pavement to Barbosa. In between Velez and Barbosa we were passing many signs for bocadillos, a paste made from the guava fruit. We were in the region where bocadillos come from, so we stopped at one of the places where they were making them. The man outside was in the middle of painting the building, but he went in and emerged with a fresh package of bocadillo, which he gave us for free.
Shortly after this, the shifter cable on the bike Lenin was riding snapped, and he was forced to ride in the hardest gear. We were climbing uphill at the time, so we stopped and sat on the side of the road, eating bocadillo while trying to see if we could fix the shifter. Sitting down again in surrender, it began to rain. Fortunately, we only had to walk a short distance to the top of the hill before we could coast down all the way to Barbosa and find a bike shop.
It was Sunday afternoon of a holiday weekend in Colombia, but we eventually found a bike shop that was open and able to replace the shifter cable. I was amazed at how inexpensive it was, and I bought new brake pads to hang onto for when the existing ones inevitably wear out. One guy at the shop told us that we had just missed Nairo Quintana, world champion Colombian cyclist, who was in town for a mountain bike race. A girl at the shop was very excited to meet someone to try to practice her English, and she asked me to talk in her Snapchat video before leaving.
When we finally got back on the road, we only had a short distance to travel to the next town, Moniquira, in the department of Boyocá. It got dark as we rolled into town, and it started to rain. I wanted to seek shelter from the increasingly heavy rain before my shoes got too wet, so we pulled aside and under the cover of a fruit market. The fruit man gave us some mandarins, and we sat and talked with him and his family for over an hour, trying to decide where to sleep, waiting out the rain, and hoping that maybe one of them would offer us a place to spend the night. The problem was that it was a holiday, and that town specifically had a special celebration that night where everyone sprays foam at each other. People were in town from all over, visiting family, taking up all the space that would normally be vacant. The rain wasn’t letting up, so we ventured out to ride across town to a church to ask if we could stay there.
We arrived, cold and wet, to the church, where we asked a boy if we could speak with the priest. The boy came back several minutes later, saying the priest was busy. His family was in town so we couldn’t stay there, but he gave us directions to another church in town, where we would meet the head of tourist police. The other church was only two blocks from the market where we had been passing time earlier. We waited for over an hour under an awning in the doorway of this church before Lenin finally found the tourist policeman. Every place in town was booked solid for the holiday, except for this one finca that the policeman estimated to be about ten minutes out of town by bicycle. Instead, Lenin talked him into letting us sleep inside a community building around the corner, which the policeman thought was too dirty. He obligingly unlocked the building for us, and we made ourselves comfortable on the floor of an empty room for the night.
6 January 2017
Our decision to leave Medellín was very last minute, based on the fact that Lenin’s brother, Seled, was driving to get his family in La Paz, Santander, and he had just enough space in his car for me, Lenin, Churro, and our bikes. We folded down a back seat in his hatchback and stuffed in our bicycles, along with the trailer and all of our belongings, and joined Seled for the 8-9 hour drive. Within the first two hours we discovered that Churro gets car sick. While sitting on Lenin’s lap in the front passenger seat, he started to vomit. There wasn’t quite enough time to pull over, so he puked out the window, plastering the side of the car with half-digested dog food.
It was very late when we arrived in La Paz, so we stayed in a hotel that night. The next morning, we took Churro on a test ride in the trailer from the town to one of Seled’s in-law’s houses, about 10 kilometers away. He hated it, and we had to zip the screen on to keep him from jumping out.
From the house, we got into the back of a pickup truck with Seled and his family and rode up to a giant hole in the ground, about 80 meters in diameter and 300 meters deep. Instead of riding back with the rest of the family, Lenin and I took Churro on a hike from the hole to where we were supposed to find a clear blue swimming hole. After a nice long hike in the wrong direction and back, we eventually made it to a river with a waterfall, but it got too difficult to walk along the river, and it was growing dark, so we turned back before we made it to the swimming hole. It was a long walk back into town, and we took turns carrying Churro the last few kilometers. Hopefully, he would still be worn out enough to relax in his trailer the next day.
17 December 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.