Monday, November 20, 2017

Colombia day 11: Back in the saddle

We woke up this morning with the awareness that once again, we'd failed to get ready for an early departure. By the time we'd repacked our bags, worked out a route through the centre of town and eaten breakfast it was almost 9am. I had also had to do some emergency stitching as I'd managed to tear a two inch hole in the front of my icebreaker jersey when I went to zip it up. At least our late departure meant we missed the worst of the morning traffic. The first few miles were interesting cycling as we needed to take a couple of major roads to cross the river, but within a couple of miles we were out of the worst of the traffic and on the long climb out of the city. There is a motorway which runs towards our destination Santa Fe de Antioquia, but it is not cycling friendly and so we were on the old road over the mountain instead of through the new tunnel. This did mean that we had some wonderful views of the city.

We are getting good at judging when there will be roadside shops and restaurants on a road - on the top of the hill is almost a certainty. So with just over 1000m of climb in 25km, we stopped for a snack lunch at one of the roadside shacks on the top of the hill. The views on the descent were stunning, and at almost 2000m is our longest descent on the trip.

Santa Fe de Antioquia is a lovely old colonial town. From the last few kms coming into town it seems to have also turned itself into a bit of a resort town. It's off season, so all the posh resorts were closed or had only one or two people in the acres of deck chairs surrounding the pool. Compared to other places we've stayed the town is pretty expensive too. It's been good to wander around and get a feel for some of the country's history. 
Tomorrow it's going to be a long day in the heat and humidity again, although as flat as it gets in these parts. So it's time for a early night and hopefully an early start. 

Colombia day 10: rest day, wet day, dry day

I mentioned before that Medellin marks a transition in our trip. Another, unexpected, transition occurring here is of my cold to Emma. I've had evening time running nose ever since we started riding: literally as that stopped Emma's has started, but she's suffering it a bit more in the sinuses than I did. Thus, this morning we just had a slow lazy morning at the hotel guesthouse rather than get up and ride the closed streets Cyclovia as planned. 
Midday we strolled the nearby botanical gardens, and then took metro system to the cable car than runs way up over the Eastern "wall" of the valley stopping at a few stations for local barrios (neighbourhoods) before heading up to the Parque Avrí forest over the top of the mountain and outside of the city boundary.
The view on the way up is astounding and really gives a sense of the size of the city, spread along the valley floor and spilling up the mountains on both sides. Generally the higher you get, the more impoverished the barrio. The last station before the park is Santo Domingo, which 2 decades ago was one of the most dangerous "no go" zones of this famously dangerous city. The cable car was built last decade as part of a package of measures to tackle this, another being the landmark city library built alongside it. CNN ran a story on exactly this just a few days ago:

As we looked down we could just make out an urban downhill mountain bike race going on through the alleys and stairways of the town, with a big party happening around the finish line. Fiesta!

It started to rain when we got to the Avrí park, so we just did a little exploring in the wet before heading back down. 
As our ticket included transit to anywhere in the metro  system we carried on through to El Poblado touristy area for a beer and bite to eat. Shock horror! All the bars and restaurants had gone dry. Turns out it's presidential primary elections today and that means no alcohol sales this evening. Hence loads  of police patrolling the area too. So we ate some Colombian style Mexican small plates (so much delicious avocado! Rico! Even speaking as a Californian. London is going to come as a shock) then scampered back to our guest house for a sneaky beer (as it's a private bar they're exempt).
Back on the bike tomorrow as we start our second week of touring.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Colombia day 9: Descending into madness

Today we fell off of a cliff. Well it felt a little like it anyway, as we took a wrong turn on the way into town and ended up on a long steep descent into Medellín. It actually turned out well as it dropped us near the post office in El Poblado. We've decided to send some of our camping gear back to Bogatá and rely on hostels and hotels for our accommodation for the rest of this trip. This has reduced the weight we are carrying on the bike by more than 12kg which has the side affect of reducing the strain on the rear axle as well as making it slightly easier to go up hills. 
Medellín traffic is as crazy as in Bogatá, but with fewer bike paths. Fortunately we've manouvered a fully loaded Dobbin through London on many occasions, so nothing really scares us on that front any more. It was pretty tame to tell the truth, as the speed of the bike isn't a limiting factor. The sheer weight of traffic is what's slowing everyone down and while we can't squeeze through gaps the mopeds do, we can still go through gaps the busses and cars can't.

Medellín is known as the city of eternal spring - being close to the equator means that it is a pretty similar temperature year round and it's elevation in the Andes keeps the temperatures from getting too high. Ever since yesterday afternoon when we were riding on the plateau south west of the city, we started to see the nurseries and garden centres which abound in this mellow climate.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the centre of town, finding our bearings and wandering along the section of Carrera 52 which dedicates itself to bicycle and motorbike sales and repair. The stock levels in the bike shops were pretty amazing - as well as new bikes and cabinets full of all the components you could need on a modern bike, there were boxes of different axles, bearings and races and all the other odds and ends you could ever want. No spare freehub for a tandem hub which is no longer made though, not surprisingly!

We have 2 nights booked here so tomorrow is a rest day before we continue our travels. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Colombia day 8: Alto Bonito

Last time I blogged, on Wednesday, I said it was a fairly uneventful day, hit Send, and promptly a 12 hour rainstorm started that flooded our tent.
Today really was uneventful, and very enjoyable too. As we're getting nearer to Medellin we're starting a transition from turning out the miles to vacationeering mode. This is because we've allowed double the time allowance for the return, and it will be via some more classic gringo trail destinations in the "zona cafeteria" (coffee growing region).

Last night's trunk stop hospedaje was probably the most basic we've been in yet, but no less hospitable for it. In fact I think we enjoyed it as much as anywhere. We splashed out on 2 rooms for the night, one for us, and one for the soaked tent to dry in. Unfortunately overnight so much water came out the tent that there was a significant puddle under the door and running down the tiled hallway. We quickly mopped that all up and like to think might have cleaned it too, packed up the gear and went down to the roadside feeding area. The proprietor was there looking same as when we'd retired after dinner last night, and geated us enthusiasticly and carefully described the breakfast menu in simple words and gestures we could follow. Soon we had a formidable plate of "the usual", eggs, rice, beans, bread and cheese. 

Grand total of $25 usd all in for 2 meals, four beers and 2 rooms for the night.

This put a heavy weight in our stomachs for tackling the first 30km of the day, all steadily uphill. At least we no longer had 4 extra kilos of water in the soaked gear!
As we climbed we passed seemingly hundreds of roadside Lavados like we'd been seeing for the previous 2 days but in lesser numbers. These are roadside truck washes. The MO is find a stream above you house, dam it a bit a run long length of hose down, presto unlimited water supply for vehicle cleaning. The hoses run permanantly, hung up as fountains beside the road when not needed as a sort of advertisment. The same hose lines will regularly supply the fresh water for the house, and the collection resevoir makes a nice plunge pool for all the family (or hotel guests, in a couple places we saw).

Eventually we summited the pass Alto Bonito, stopped for our 3rd drink break of the day, and started the 5km of descent and 30km of flatish Altiplano riding to our hotel stop for the day. This summit really marked a transition from rural highway to urban riding. The closer we'd got the more affluent looking cars and restaurants we'd seen along the road, like we'd not seen since Zipaquira on Sunday.
Along with the urbanization is an increase in range of hotels available, meaning cheap hospidajes are more likely to be genuinely seedy, but on the flip side we're now back in coverage so I found us a fancy hotel in a colonial style building as a $40 extravagant treat. We got in just after 2pm so got some laundry done and made a relaxing afternoon enjoying first hot shower in a while, and drinking beer on our Cabaña porch. A thunderstorm is just rolling in now, third in as many nights but we've been very fortunate in not have any noteable rain to deal with during daylight hours. Long may that continue!

Colombia tour day 7: Climbing out of the river

This morning we broke our rain duck and set off in the drizzle. We'd had an interesting night, and it wasn't like we could get much wetter. We'd woken up at 1am to find that the waterproofing on our tent ground sheet had failed for the first time in our experience. Wherever there was anything pressing on it, water was coming through. To be fair to it, at this point we were pretty much camped in the middle of a small lake, so it wasn't really surprising - most of the footprint in the porch area had a small river running through it. We discussed our options and went for the, let's just sleep on the thermorests without any bedding option and use our waterproofs for pillows. Everything else went into ortlieb panniers and the dry bag. The thunderstorm overhead with accompanying torrential rain made no signs that it would like to move on, and neither of us wanted to go outside in the rain. Surprisingly, it worked. By 6am, Joth had started to get a little cold as his mat was waterlogged, but we had both got more sleep than expected. It had started raining heavily at 7pm last night and while it was still raining at 10am, it was much lighter. Up until today the only rain we've seen was heavy showers, but over fairly quickly. The weather had clearly been lulling us into a false sense in security. This is Colombia's rainy season after all.
The restaurant at the campsite didn't open until 8am, so we opted to get a few km of climb in before breakfast. We stopped at a small deserted cafe a few km up the road for a traditional breakfast. Two minutes after we sat down a number of trucks turned up with their drivers all sitting down for their regular breakfast. We've not done so well for choosing places to eat over the last couple of days, but we seem to be getting the hang of it at last. We've been finding it difficult to spot places which are open and actually serving hot food. We managed a traditional lunch today too for a change: soup followed by meat, fish or eggs served with rice, vegetables, plantain, beans and sometimes potato or cavassa. Colombians traditionally eat a large breakfast, a large late lunch and a small evening meal. Trying to get a full meal in the evening can sometimes be difficult and get you some strange looks. Unusually, the truck stop hospedaje we are staying in tonight do serve a full meal in the evening, though we managed to resist it.

Today has been full of climbing. We've had a fair amount of descending too but we won't be dropping below 1000m above sea level again for several days. This is a good thing, as we both find the heat and humidity a challenge at the lower altitudes. We've spent all day on the Pan-American highway. The views are splendid, but the traffic and disappearing shoulder make things challenging sometimes. There are a lot of very slow trucks on the climbs, and busses and other trucks frequently overtake when they don't have visibility. Twice today we've seen traffic in one lane grind to a halt as an overtaking vehicle has come nose to nose with oncoming vehicles. In general the traffic is very courteous when passing, there have been a few close passes when a truck is overtaking a truck who is overtaking us. There isn't much spare room on the road in that situation. Tomorrow we'll continue on up the Pan-American highway to the plateau on which Medellín is situated.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Colombia day 6: down by the river side

In many ways today was quite unremarkable, which given the last couple was exactly what we needed. Caparrapí, being sat atop a huge ridge line, offered a fine 1200m descent to start of the day. Although the town was completely shrouded in cloud as we left, we soon dropped through it and never needed any layers. The road has relatively recently been sealed which made for a nice fun freewheel to test out our repaired freewheel. I was glad this worked as according to Strava's routing engine there was no way to connect through, as if the road didn't exist, but the last 2 day's routing was made entirely on the premise we could! (Google Street view plus some local knowledge had helped allay the worst of those fears).

We started the day up there in those clouds!

Once at the valley floor we were getting close to sea level, so the temperature rapidly rose to over 33C, and it  was still only 9 in the morning!
First we rejoined the Rio Negra, the same river we'd followed on Monday's epic decent through Pacho, but soon turned West from it to climb over to Rio Magdelana. This is the defining river of this valley, and of much of Colombia, running right through the country from the Andes in the South to the Caribbean sea to the North. Over it's history it had also carved a very wide flat flood plane, which was good news for us as it made for a couple hours of flat to slightly downhill constant paced riding. The wind was still but the pace was enough to create some cooling breeze to regulate our temperature so we made good time: in 50mins covering the same distance as we did all of of the previous day!
Fairly regularly throughout the day we passed small towns or roadside communities with many tasty looking food and drinks establishments, but alas our bellies were not synchronized to these services so it was just a few "motorway service stops" for us, but randonneuring style they did the job.
Powering our way along, in the ample sized shoulder of the dual carriage divided road, we had fun playing"guess the animal" for the road warning signs. Snakes, monkeys, anteaters, cyote, foxes all appeared on these signs but alas we didn't see any of those in the flesh.

In the afternoon we left the river turning west towards the Andes foothills and, eventually, Medellin. This meant end of the fast rolling roads (for today, and probably for the rest of our trip!) and into climbing mode. The road reduced down to single lane non-divided road, and then the shoulder mostly disappeared, meaning a bit more testing riding among the traffic. The previous road was toll road and surprisingly quiet, but now we had some more bursty traffic to deal with. As the rolling climbs started the afternoon temperature was really rising, hitting 37C at one point.

Eventually we made it to our chosen destination for the day, Rio Claro nature reserve. 130km riden was very pleasing progress after the snags of the previous day.
The nature reserve offered camping so we thought we'd try that - seeing as we lugged the tent all this way might as well use it. Somewhat mixed experience so far though: camping costs more than the onsuite hotel rooms of the last few nights, and for that we get a boggy litter strewn field by a rather buggy river (later with added tropical rainstorm!).  This is bit of a quandary for us, as hotels have worked so well we'll likely not try and camp again (at least not in an official site) which means we're lugging 15kg of unnecessary gear with us - putting extra load on that fragile freewheel hub. Oh well, benefits of hindsight and all that! (We'd been plenty warned of this, but just didn't feel right setting off in an unknown country without the backup of our own tent until we tried it for ourselves)
On the plus side the nature reservation does look fascinating if here in the right conditions and lots of time to spare, with some really well organized activities from canopy walkways to swimming into caves etc to take on, in the sub-tropical rain forest. We debated putting tomorrow over to sight seeing here, but it would mean either starting riding in the hottest part of afternoon or staying in the bog another night and squashing our schedule of a day. Instead we'll probably aim for a good early start to get in some distance before it gets too hot. We have several days of solid climbing ahead, but thankfully that means decreasing temperatures again.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Colombia day 5: The kindness of strangers

The most important lesson learnt today was: always make sure you've put bearings in your hub before reassembling it. It's been another fun day!

This morning started very like the previous two; leave our accommodation and climb straight up a hill. Fortunately it was paved, so there wasn't an immediate attack of the grumps. The views were also pretty amazing. We had woken up to see cloud swirling around the village and had expected to climb in cloud for a while, but by the time we had called in at the bakery and actually got onto the road it was clear. Very warm and humid though. The descent down the far side turned to a rough gravel surface pretty quickly with lots of landslides and washouts. The busses were still making it through though, one every half hour or so. It was soon clear to us on the descent that we'd got a problem with the rear wheel - we'd broken the freehub, again. The last time we were in South America it signalled the end of our tour. This time we had come prepared, or so we thought. We limped on to Caparrapi which perches high on a ridge between two steep valleys.

While stopped at one of the main junctions in the centre, one of the locals asked what we were looking for (in English), and directed us to a hostel. The very accommodating owner let us store Dobbin in the bar next door. After a quick shower it was time to tackle the freehub before lunch. The NBT2 (next best thing 2) had the cassette off without a problem, and the cone spanners had the bearing races off in super quick time. We had gained a helper in a local called Carlos by this time, come to check out what we were doing. We then hit a snag. The what remained of the freehub was held on by the body fixing bolt which required a 10mm Allen wrench to remove it. The largest size we had with us was 8mm, of course. Carlos came to the rescue and took us for a tour of the town, visiting businesses who might be have such a thing. The bicycle shop was unfortunately closed, as was one of the garages. We finally found one in the fifth business (a motorbike repair shop). As we had the new freehub body with us, it was a 30 second task to remove the remains of the old one and screw the new one on. We had been a little concerned that the body fixing bolt had been damaged, but a quick inspection showed that the damage was mainly to the freehub, with some relatively minor damage to the axle threads. By this point we were starting to get hungry. We were on a roll though, so it seemed to make sense to finish the job. After trying to work out why the hub was always either too loose, or binding and having reassembled everything for the 23rd time, Joth realised what was missing. In our excitement, we'd not transferred the drive side bearings from the old freehub to the new one, no wonder it didn't work. We didn't have any grease either, but fortunately we knew a man who did. Carlos went and fetched his pot of grease. After realigning the axle and reassembling for the last time, we were good to go. It would have perhaps been better if we had eaten lunch before attempting the repair! We had a quick spin around the block, then went for a large and late lunch across the road and shared a beer while discussing the food and the football with the help of Google Translate (England vs Brazil was on the TV). The Google Translate app has helped a great deal on this trip. It's amazing how often that you can't remember the right word in the right language when you need it. Having a written translate facility when offline is so useful too. 

After a quick siesta, we met up with Carlos for a tour of the town followed by a beer in one of the bakeries. We were joined by Carlos's friend Julio and passed a pleasant couple of hours. We have met with nothing but friendliness in Colombia, and today was perfect example of why we love touring. Caparrapi is a town serving a large municipality containing 20 000 people. It is not somewhere which appears in any of the guidebooks or tour bus routes, yet the views are amazing, and the people as wonderful as you'll find anywhere. Visiting places like this, and meeting people like Carlos is why we do this.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Colombia day 4: Welcome to the Jungle

Today was on of those days of cycling touring where everything goes according to plan, but by the end of it you feel anything like it - because the plan toured out to be far tougher than either us realized. Blame rests with the NASA GDEM elevation data and it's low quality around deep gorges, but I'll get to that in a bit.

Our Zipaquira hostel provided a great breakfast in the bargain ($8 ea) but it did take a little while to get the cooking going. While scoffing it down our table neighbors, from bogotá, mentioned they were planning to cycle all the way from home to Ushua and back. Thus insued a lengthy discussion about the wonders and challenges of Patagonia. It was facinating they'd not considered that Patagonian winter is in June not December, leaving their planned dates (or starting next month) a full 6 months out of phase with the ideal. I guess seasons are hard enough to grok when you live in a country on the equator that has no seasons, let alone having to deal with southern hemisphere opposites. Anyway it was really fun to describe our time there back in 2011, and also quite interesting to reflect that that was the last time we were on a proper cycle tour until this one.
We eventually got away about 8.30, not too bad but did mean 3 hours, or almost one quarter, of today's day light had already passed us for the day. Another subtlety of being on the equator: day never lasts longer (or shorter) than 12 hours.  We were keen to get going as we knew we had a long day planned - even if the toughness was not fully known.

It started with a steep but we'll graded climb out of the West of town, for about 10miles and 2000 feet. Being a public holiday Monday, plenty of locals were out making this climb too, so we had a good steady assent shouting a Buenos each time we were passed. At the top we made the first of many soda stops for the day, before starting out on "the" descent of the day.

And what a descent! As we rounded the corner at the top of the pass we cut through to another valley, and found ourselves staring down a rolling green meadows and on to the top of a huge cloud bank, blocking the further view. Fascinating to be sandwiched between cloud layers!

The descent continued for 30miles and 7000 feet, so of course we broke through the clouds into spectacular view of the gorge we were descending into. Part way down we passed through Pacho, self proclaimed capital of oranges, with many stands selling them around the town. We hadn't planned to stop here but navigating was tricky and we happened to stop for map discussion right out side a bakery, so second elevensies was procured. 
As the road continued down, we'd been told how the temperature would rise; from about 15C to almost 30C. Another fact of being on the equator is the climate is largely dictated by altitude. But what we'd not been prepared for was the change in dominant foliage that went with it. Looking back the farm lands of Zipaquira recalled Scotland in a very lush year. But this one short freewheel downhill and suddenly we were in subtropical jungle plants, and associated changes in bird calls and other sounds. Really breathtaking to experience, doubly so as hitting the cloud layers we'd been bracing for cold but got this instead!

As the valley floor levelled out we passed many small shop-cum-cafes that make the roads here so amenable for cycling, but one really caught our eyes as it advertised "camping", first time we'd seen this. Too early to stop for the day, but we did stop for some lunch and another cold drink, and noted the location of the facility so I can add it to Google maps and generally make other cyclists aware of it via this blog. 
Soon after lunch the road turned away from the river and we started the last smallish climb up our destination town, La Palma. And here's where the challenge really started: rather than a small climb it was a fairly decent 1500ft ascent and at steep grade. And there was a second problem: ever since we summited the first pass this morning the roads had made a significant drop in quality, generally nicely paved but with occasional sections of 100m or more where the tarmac had been completely washed away and there was just the rocky and muddy base remaining. Aircraft sized potholes if you like. Well, the frequency of these holes increased as we progressed, and by these climbs it was more "spot the  patch of tarmac" in any given mile of rocks. Climbing steeply on this surface in the heat was tough work.  

Eventually we crested the climb, just as we emptied the last of our water, and sighed relief it was just 10km to go. Only, this was another steep drop still on rocky road, followed by another 1000ft climb. So the final 5km took about 1H20 to complete, with some impromptu stops to grab more sodas ("gaseosa") at the town swimming pool on the way in. So it was 5pm, just 30mins before sunset, that we stopped at the first of the hotels in town - Masion Rose. We must have looked quite a sight! But the landlady was just down the street chatting with neighbor, and came running up to welcome splattered us and grubby Dobbin in. Another bargain: $13 for onsuite double room. A much needed shower and Google translate jumped to our rescue in helping us get restaurant recommendations, a tasty parillia grill, and the land lady walked us around there, and went and found the grill owner who was across the street nattering in a hairdressers shop. If this sounds like the kind of town where everyone spends much of their time in each other's shops you're getting the idea. Tranquilo.
Feasting on pork and rice and fries really hit the spot, with some recovery drinks and pastries really rounded out the evening.

A totally amazing, and truly awesome day. Even tougher than expected,  and has truly taken us off the beaten track even for locals tourism routes. Tomorrow we have more climbs and broken roads to Caparrapí and then it's down to the Magelana River and busy highways. But for tonight, we'll sleep well and savor some well earnedmemories.