19 November 2017
Despite our best intentions to get an early start that morning, Lenin and I ended up leaving Necoclí well after noon. The other bicycle travelers who had generously hosted us under someone else’s roof invited us to share the fish that they had caught the day before for breakfast. It was being stored in somebody’s fridge just a few blocks away, so we packed up our belongings and biked over to where there was a little hut and barbecue set up on the beach. This ended up taking a good chunk of our morning, as we helped to clean all of the fish that they had. The fish were much too small to be kept legally, and I felt so guilty eating them, but they were already dead, so there was not much I could do. While cleaning and preparing them, we did try to explain that the fish were way too small, hoping that they would release such young fish in the future. We each ate maybe three small fish of various species, accompanied by fried plantains, before continuing our journey along the coast.
Traveling by bicycle is a unique experience, invoking all sorts of reactions from people. Most are in disbelief when you tell them you are traveling by bicycle, to the point where they are not convinced until you confirm what they thought they heard you say at least two or three times and follow up with interesting stories to prove that you are serious, albeit crazy. On the other hand, you become privy to a whole network of like-minded people who you never knew existed before you dove into this lifestyle choice yourself. I never would have met Lenin (or Dallas) had I not made the decision to jump off the ledge of a typical American career path to ride my bike instead. Now it seems as though people of similar mindset are everywhere I go. That morning as we sat around the fire eating fish on the beach with the other bike travelers, we were approached by a few people who were interested in our adventures, probing us with questions. One group of 3 people walked over to us with a clipboard, obviously working for the city. They were surveying tourists and wanted to ask about our stay in Necoclí. We answered to the best of our abilities, but our situation couldn’t really be applied to the typical tourist (we didn’t stay in a hotel, didn’t spend money, etc). When people do find out what we’re doing, most people want to help in some way, which normally takes the form of advice against doing whatever we were planning to do, or warnings about the dangerous roads up ahead. Advice must be taken with a grain of salt, since most of these people would never consider riding a bicycle that far in general, let alone between different towns and countries. Anyway, the general consensus of the people we spoke with that morning told us to steer clear of the scenic coastal road and take the shorter main road that cut inland.
As we got a late start, we were pedaling through the heat of the afternoon sun the entire time. We stopped for dinner at a small town called San Juan de Urabá, just 20 km outside of Arboletes. While dining on fish at this restaurant, a man and woman with a German Shepherd puppy came and sat at the table next to ours. The man was local, and the woman was his sister, who had just moved back to Colombia after retiring from a career in the US agricultural industry. Sadly, I only remember the name of the woman’s dog, Trotski. We spoke to them for a while after we finished dinner, and the man paid for two rounds of beer plus our dinner! Before departing, we got the woman’s contact info so we could reach out when we passed through Montería, the city where she had just purchased her retirement home.
We departed San Juan de Urabá with a sense of urgency to arrive in Arboletes before the setting sun, and we made very good time over these last 20 kilometers. We arrived at the local beach just in time to witness the sunset on the horizon, and we shared a papaya that we had plucked from a roadside tree. Arboletes has another volcano that is open to the public for bathing in the mud, just a few kilometers outside of town along the road towards Montería. Lenin and I asked some police officers about camping there, and they unanimously recommended against that, saying that it may be dangerous. We decided to check it out anyway.
Darkness sets in pretty quickly after sunset, although it was only around 7pm when we arrived at the volcano. It was difficult to see anything, but there was a small house where the mayordomo (caretaker) lived with his family. A heavyset woman with rich, black skin was lounging on the porch in front of the door, and two kids were playing outside around the entryway. We walked up and asked if we could string our hammocks up under the pavilion next to the volcano for the night. She told us it was technically not allowed, but if we got everything cleaned out before it opened for visitors, we should be fine. This ended up being my favorite place that we slept during the whole trip. It was wonderfully dark and quiet, with only the periodic sound of the sulfur gas bubbling up from the center of the mud-filled crater, less than a hundred meters away. As we were setting up our hammocks, the kids brought over some food that the woman had cooked for dinner. We were fed very well, without even asking, and I was touched by the generosity of this humble family. That day I learned that you can’t always trust the cops, but the locals are generally overwhelmingly welcoming and eager to help.
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.
Fast forward to the next day, when we leave our hostel to walk towards Monserrate, we notice smoke and fire on the mountainside. We arrived at the gate to find that the walking path is closed because of the fire, and there are 4 or 5 fire trucks waiting on the street across from the entrance. We stood for several minutes to decide what to do next, and eventually agreed that we should walk up Cerro de Guadelupe, the mountain next to Monserrate, instead. At the top of this mountain is a statue of the Virgin Mary, and it looks to be about the same elevation as Monserrate. We find walking directions to the peak of Guadelupe on the map app that I downloaded to my phone, and we spend another minute or so trying to decide whether to walk it or take a bus or cab. It was just over 6 miles from our current location, but we decided to walk until it looked unsafe (like, if the sidewalk disappeared and there was no space for walking).
As we ascended the steep streets towards the mountain, the neighborhood became quieter. The view of the city was impressive, and we hadn’t even reached the start of the mountains yet. We turned back down one of the roads the map led us up because it just didn’t feel right, and we figured we could get to the main road a better way by staying on Calle 9 until the end, where there appeared to be a university.
We ended up on a very steep cobblestone road that was beginning to be overgrown by grass. As we got about halfway up the road, two men approached us from above. Their intentions weren’t immediately clear to us until they attacked, each man wielding a screwdriver as their weapon of choice. I never knew how frightening a situation like this could be until it happened to us. With adrenaline at full blast, it was hard to think about anything except to give these men what they wanted so they would leave us alone. Dallas, who was carrying our backpack, was more reluctant to hand everything over. Having read an article my dad sent me about couples who were killed trying to resist robberies, I was begging Dallas to just give it to them or else they would hurt him. He stalled for what seemed like forever, but eventually gave them the backpack and emptied his pockets for them. As they ran back from where they came up the hill, one of them threw Dallas’s wallet back to him. A moment later, after realizing his passport was in the bag, Dallas was chasing them up the hill, and I was following.
They were about to make their escape on a motorcycle when, fortuitously, a police vehicle came driving toward us down the hill. We waved them down, frantically pointing at the motorcycle, and the police cut them off. The man on the back of the motorcycle dropped our backpack and ran off to the left, disappearing into the neighborhood below, while the other man dropped to the ground and was apprehended by the police. One of the policemen chased the man who ran away, but to no avail. He still had my waist pouch with my phone in it and Dallas’s phone and cash.
We sat shaking in the grass for a while as more police officers arrived on the scene. Stray dogs came over with tails wagging and licked my hand, as filthy as they were, making me feel a little better. Traffic was starting to back up on the road, and people in nearby houses were gathering around to see what the commotion was. The cops moved the one robber from the first vehicle to a second patrol car that arrived, and then moved him again to a third car that came even later. At one point I counted 14 police officers standing around on the road, using their radios and cell phones. Communication was not easy, and most of it fell upon Dallas since he was far more proficient in Spanish. He did practically all of the explaining as different cops continued to question us throughout the day.
This all began around 1:30pm, and by 2:30 we had been driven down the hill to a police station where we ended up sitting for a few hours while police tried to get us to positively identify the man who they thought got away. So many factors make it extremely difficult to identify anyone in a situation like this. First, everything happened so quickly and neither of us were studying faces to see what these guys looked like. Dallas said that they were wearing hoods to cover their faces, but I don’t even recall that. If I couldn’t even remember if they were wearing hoods, how could I be expected to remember what their faces looked like? Second, what are the details you are most likely to notice during such a quick and stressful interaction? Height, complexion, hair color, clothes… They were both about our height or shorter and had a darker complexion, which doesn’t exactly narrow down the field. The photos that the cops were showing us didn’t really help. Sure, it could have been him, but they could have shown us a photo of any Colombian man and we would have thought the same thing. We had no idea. Third, the language barrier made it so that even if we did have a good idea in our heads of what the man looked like, it was nearly impossible to communicate a detailed description.
While waiting for the cops to complete their paperwork, and using google translator to communicate back and forth, a boy came up to the station with my pouch. Inside were both of our phones. He told the police that he found it on the street, and then he left. I watched as he ran away down the street, and the cop changed what he was writing in the report to reflect what just happened. He confirmed with us everything using google translator. Meanwhile, the man that they did capture had been led from the police car to the station where we were waiting. This station is tiny. There’s a small room with a computer and a laptop and a few boxes of papers, and in the back is a room with some lockers and a small bathroom. The whole station is probably less than 150 square feet. The man in handcuffs is placed in the locker room, which doesn’t appear to have a door. We feel like he could run out at any moment, while the cops are casually walking in and out of the main room.
Overall, we were really impressed with the thoroughness and seriousness that the police in Bogota take their jobs. We felt like they went to great lengths to make us safer and recover our belongings, and they made a commendable effort to communicate with us every step of the way. However, we had no idea when we would be able to leave, and we eventually were escorted to the back of the same cop car that our robber had been put in to go to the main office of criminal justice. We had to squeeze into the back of the car and sit next to the man in handcuffs for a ride of unknown length. Did I mention how small all the vehicles are in Colombia? With a hard slippery surface to sit on, no seat belts and just a bar to grab in front of us, I felt like we were on a roller coaster, speeding even further down steeply sloped hills. The smell of diesel fuel and heavy air pollution drifted into the caged windows, making the ride even more uncomfortable.
When we finally arrived, we were all led up several flights of stairs, and Dallas and I waited in a separated room with chairs for almost 2 hours before we were led to the interrogation room so Dallas could try to tell our story again to different investigators. The man in handcuffs was sitting on the floor across from this room with glass walls. It was all very confusing to me. They had Dallas sit with a woman at a computer who transcribed his story into yet another report.
While he was doing this, one of the policemen brought me back out to the hallway where he had me sit next to another young woman. He wanted us to talk to one another, but I wasn’t sure why. She didn’t know what to say at first, and neither did I, but we managed to have some kind of conversation with her trying to speak English and me trying to speak Spanish. It was actually very helpful, and I learned that she was in school to be a flight attendant. She was 20 years old, visiting Bogota from Medellin, and wanted to learn English. I didn’t realize until another cop took her away to question her that she was in handcuffs. She came back and we talked some more before a different cop took me away and brought me back to the first room where Dallas and I had been waiting initially.
Eventually, I was brought back to the room where Dallas was still working out our story with the woman. When he finished up with her, we spoke with another investigator who gave us advice about walking around Bogota and told us stories about other cases that didn’t end so well. He also gave us some money for a cab ride back to our hostel.
By the time we arrived at our hostel it was 9pm, and aside from some cheese and candy that the police had shared with us, we hadn’t eaten anything in over 8 hours. We felt hungry, dirty, and exhausted.
All of the police and investigators were incredibly helpful and nice to us, and we are very grateful for everything they did. We feel very lucky to have encountered the police when we did, and we are especially lucky to have gotten away unscathed. While we can’t help but feel guilty and think about what we could have done to have prevented this from happening in the first place, we realize it could have been much worse.
Please try not to worry about us! We are taking this as a learning experience and will be extra cautious when walking around from now on.