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A paragliding adventure

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.

Riding a few laps on the velodrome

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

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

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

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

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

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Learning patience through cycling adventures

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

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

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

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

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

The five of us continued up the mountain at a painfully slow pace. Juan del Bosque, who was supposed to be our leader, ended up being the limiting factor for how fast we could go. While his bike was in the shop to get a new chain, what he really needed was a whole new drivetrain. The chain ring and cogs had worn down so much that the new chain fit poorly over the gears, slipping easily if too much pressure was applied to the pedals. Seeing that the entire ride was uphill, this presented a considerable challenge for Juan. For me, it was a struggle to ride that slowly, so I would ride ahead and then wait for the others to catch up. I tried to let everyone else get ahead a bit so I could pedal by at my own pace for a while, but Jorge would always stop when he reached me and wouldn’t allow me to give him a head start.

We couldn’t have gone more than a few kilometers from Jorge’s house before we all stopped again, to buy some food from what looked like somebody’s house. As we sat there eating, I wondered what I had signed myself up for. The day was more than half over, and we were definitely still less than halfway up that mountain. It looked like it was going to rain soon, and I had undoubtedly consumed far more calories than I had burned so far. At this rate, I wasn’t sure if we would make it before dark. I felt anxious to pick up the pace and make it to Juan’s house before it got much later, but it was impossible to get everyone to move faster so I just had to abandon any hope of controlling how the ride was going and resign myself to a very long day of riding (and stopping).

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

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

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

Riding back to Medellin through Parque Arvi

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