Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Colombia day N-1: Leaving Amazonia; the journey home.

Flying back to Bogotá from Amazonia feels like returning home from a foreign land. Partly because we've been in Bogotá several times now so it's starting to feel familiar - especially the hotel apartments we're staying in - but mostly because our Amazon experience has been one of the most unfamiliar experiences of our lives. There's little I've done that I can liken it to.
Being in the jungle is no doubt a memorable and unique experience for all that go there, but what really defined our trip was the decision to stay at Casa Gregorio in the indigenous village of San Martin de Amacayacu. It's hard to get one's head around the life story of this village, and even harder to capture in words. Let me try giving the context though. Just 50 years ago this Tikuna tribe were living deeper in the jungle in a single "Maloka" hut: 6+ families under a single palm leaf roof building with no internal walls. Now they have family houses with electricity (8 hours a day), satellite TV, village WiFi internet (maybe), mobile phone towers and of course smart phones for the older children. Yet no city water system, minimal sewage and many house lack a flushing toilet. Only half of houses have a front door and none at all have glass in the windows. 
If you feel your generation, or that of your parent's, saw huge social and technological changes just try and wrap your mind around how much this tribe has had change thrown on it. 
So, while we were in the Amazon to spend 4 nights discovering and absorbing the jungle, this was in fact more of a backdrop to the experience of learning how people that have lived and loved and breathed the jungle for as far back as their aural tradition goes. 
Our hosts, Heike and José (Dutch and Tikuna respectively) organize more than just board and lodgings but laid on transport and guides and teachers and a couple activities a day, walking in the jungle, traveling the rivers and lakes, spotting animals, learning about the native agriculture, fishing, pot making and other handcrafts, and so on. These were all enjoyable (save for the ever present mosquito bites) but the agriculture tour was a particular highlight. This really brought together the core of how the Takooma people live and work the land day to day. The plants grown in argicultral plots and harvested from the secondary forest provide a large portion of the food source for a family, obviously, but also provide building materials, paints, decorations, tools, transportation (i.e. boats), weapons, medicine and clothes.  The most versatile and crucial plants are palms (or many and various sorts) and yuccas.
Between the exploring and learning we also had a good relaxing time. With no internet at the accomodation (and barely any in the village) and few hours of electricity a day, it's a good unwind from all our usual habits and distractions. We seemed to spend a lot of time eating, none at all drinking, and grew a new appreciation of fresh pineapple. I never liked pineapple in the UK, and I think this will have redoubled that position.
We now fly to Bogotá for one night, dismantle and pack our tandem for the long haul flight back to London, where we'll arrive Friday all being well. Always so sad when such a eventful and fulfilling trip is coming to an end, but we're fully grateful for having had the time and opportunity to spend here in Colombia, and feeling a lot more reset and recharged for the next chapter of tandeming things - whatever thay may bring!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Colombia day 21: The last leg

Today was our final day cycling in Colombia. It's been a truly amazing experience, everything we'd hoped for and more. 
The day started unsurprisingly with some climbing to get us up and over the ridge into the Bogotá plain. We had originally thought that we might finish our tour in Honda and get a taxi to transport us and Dobbin back to Bogatá, as we'd heard that the climbs back up were heavily trafficked and uninspiring. In the end it was easier for us to cycle back, and with the help of Strava heatmap chose to climb up most of the way on a secondary road. This worked perfectly, the climbing yesterday was on one of the least trafficked roads we've had here, and the views were, of course spectacular. Being slightly off the main tourist and trucking routes also takes to smaller towns with a more authentic feel. The first hour today continued on the same road, where we had a couple of different cyclists ride with us and attempt to chat. Our Spanish is improving, but general conversation is still not really possible. We've got quite good at guessing the questions people ask about us and our trip and giving an appropriate response. Most of the time we have no idea if we've just answered the question asked though.

The last part of today's ride was on the busy autopista, and on a mixture of large roads and cycle paths into Bogotá. Standard fare for cycling into a major city, and while it seemed chaotic in places it's not that dangerous as everyone is moving along at around the same low speed. The segregated bike lanes (also segregated from the pedestrian paths), made a nice change from the chaos on the road.
We had a little change of plan when we turned up at the airport hotel we'd booked. They really were not happy about allowing bicycles inside, and insisted that it needed to be left outside. Given we were planning on leaving the bike at the hotel while we go and see the Amazon for a few days, this didn't seem like a sensible plan. Instead we made use of the free cancellation policy and rode in towards the centre, to stay at the hotel we stayed at when we first arrived in Colombia. About 10 minutes away from the hotel it started raining. Really, really heavily raining. Apparently it's been quite wet in Bogotá over the last few weeks, so it makes us feel good that we've been lucky with the weather. We pulled up at the hotel soaked through, but still received a really warm "welcome home" from the staff who quickly checked us in and found Dobbin a safe a dry place to sleep. 
We'll be resting tomorrow then fly to Leticia Saturday for 4 nights staying with an indigenous village in the jungle! This will likely be the last blog post of the trip, we'll aim to put a few photos and things on Facebook:

Colombia day 20: from bogs to Bogotá

The trick with long distance riding in lumpy terrain is keeping in mind the total climb in the ride, not the absolute altitude you're heading towards. This is a mindset I learnt when randonneuring, but turns out it applies pretty well to cycle touring too.
Reason I mention this is that our day consisted entirely of climbing into the Andes for the third time, on the home stretch towards Bogotá. Our stretch goal for the day was Guayabal de Síquima, which sits at a sweet 1630m elevation, 1400m higher than we started the day. If that's all there was to it, we'd have reached it just after lunchtime. However, as the road topology works here there was a sharp 500m drop immediately after hitting that target elevation, and then we got to spend 2+ hours of the afternoon regaining that height sweltering meter by meter, in 28C heat. The Relive video actually illustrates this pretty nicely:
Had we just been focused on getting to 1630m we'd have had a shock, but fortunately we'd figured out today had at least 2000m of total ascent so keeping that in mind it's much easier to track progress to the goal. 

Anyway, the day could have gone very differently indeed. It started off at about 5mins past midnight with Emma rushing to the bathroom with upset stomach. Something we ate last night hadn't settled well. Possibly the impossibly large fruit salad hadn't been prepared with the cleanest of water. Or maybe just the long day of riding into the heat had unsettled things. Combined with the insanely hot and humid room we were sleeping in (drawback of being back down by the river at 250m - along with the bugs!) it wasn't a restful night. Fortunately come sunrise at 6am Emma was feeling more settled so we were able to get up and out for an early start - if only to get out into cooler air before the sun really got going. Breakfast was tentatively eaten by Emma, but she found eggs and rice went down we'll, and at 7.45 we started the riding - that is to say, climbing - for the day. The temperature was soon at 29C, but happily the higher we crept the cooler it got.
The climb went back through the layers of vegetation and fauna we're now used to seeing with elevation change. There's the coffee plants. Now butterflies - including a second sighting of a huge 6" wingspan electric blue Morpho butterfly. 

(Not our photo)

Cambao had also been awash with stray dogs, mostly docile but we had to deal with a persistent begger while we were breakfasting. Poor thing obviously had a litter of pups somewhere, but seemed wrong to encourage it in someone else's town. Anyway all the way up the climb we saw regular ferrel perros ducking in and out of the undergrowth. Majority were tame but occasionally a pack of 3 or so mught take too much interest in the strange double headed tandem beast passing by and come barking and chasing us. Happily Emma has finessed her loud "NO" with teacher quality finger point, which does wonders in stopping them in there tracks (if occasionally nearly causes me to leap off the bike in shock).

We climbed slowly in order to not stress Emma's belly, and it seemed to work as she got stronger as the day went on. We were rewarded with great views, and a great lunch.

Our hostal tonight is one of the more unusual arrangements. The first hotel we stopped at wad locked up and banging the door gave no answer. Same with the second, but this time a hand written note said to call a number. I have it a go and got through first time. The guy that answered seemed a bit surprised, got the gist of what I was trying to ask in Spanish, then thankfully realized English would be easier for us both and he could speak it. And then he got a friend to come around and open it up for us. So we don't just have a room but a whole hostal to ourselves, including the front door key to come and go as we like. It's a very nice building with a roof terrace overlooking the town square. Interestingly the rather eccentric chap who cooked a burger for us at the nearest hole-in-the-wall eatery also spoke great English. This is in no way a tourist town so I guess just a sign we're getting back close to Bogotá.

Speaking of which, only about 65km remains to get back to the airport, with about 1000m of climbing. So we should be there sometime tomorrow afternoon! Can't believe this amazing tour is coming to a close, but it will leave us a few days free for the next chapter of our Colombia adventure, which Emma might write a bit about tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Colombia day 19: Ups and downs, lots of downs!

Today has been dominated by Nevada del Ruiz. Last night we were staying in a hotel with hot springs provided by that volcano and this morning we cycled up over the closest road pass to it before descending almost to sea level where we passed through the ghost town of Armero. This poor town was destroyed in the the eruption of the volcano in 1985. Unfortunately we didn't get to see the volcano today due to there being a lot of cloud this morning. 

We started out a little late having been unable to resist spending some more time feeding the hummingbirds and mockingbirds at the hotel. That was one of the most amazing and unexpected pleasures we've had on this trip. After a 500m climb taking us over 4000m altitude while cycling for only the second time - the other time was on our previous South America trip. We then had to descend before climbing to the Letras pass which was 300m lower than our highest point. There were a number of other climbs of 100m or more on the first half of the descent. Overall, it was definitely a day of descending though.
Due to our ever changing plans, we departed from our originally planned route on the descent and then turned South at Mariquita. This town marks the official start of the Letras climb 'the longest climb in the world'. There were plenty of bike shops in town which enabled us to pick up an spare chain in case of more failures. It took a couple of attempts to find though as the first shop we visited didn't carry anything so old fashioned as a 9sd chain! This road also took us through Armero. I remember covering a little bit about the tragedy there in Geography in school. A disaster which claimed 20 000 people out of a population of around 29 000, and occurred through a tragic combination of circumstances, miss-communication and lack of resources. There were several more thousand killed elsewhere in the same eruption, most notably in Chinchiná close to the coffee farm we visited a couple of days ago.

Our target destination for today was Cambao, a distance of 152km. A long day, but we made it into town as the sun set behind the mountains behind us. Tomorrow we start the long climb up to Bogatá.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Colombia day 18: getting into hot water via buckets of cold water

Today's ride went up. And up. And up.

Getting out of Manizales was exciting, as they don't do shallow inclines in the slightest. We plummetted down to the main road to Letras, the famous high pass to the west of the city as featured regularly in Veluta Colombia and known as The Longest Climb In The World. That's with regards to the Eastern side, which we'll have the joy of descending tomorrow. But first we had to summit it. 

We decided not to crawl up the main road but instead take a secondary road, that passes by some thermal spring areas on the edge of the volcano range we were hiking on 2 days ago.
We were encouraged at first to see a group of 8 road cyclists heading up past us: suggests paved roads! An hour later we passed them again coming back down. They'd reached the end of paved roads no doubt. Indeed at 13km mark the road gave way to gravel, which we'd be on for the remaining 12km to our destination for the day. The maths is pretty simple from here: 12km across and 1200m vertical assent, so a 10% average grade. Fortunately it didn't fluctuate too much, a few flatter bits and a few ramps in the 13-15% area but otherwise very constant.

By 15km the mist had turned to light rain, and another km it got heavier. Only the second time we'd needed to don rain jackets this tour, which is not bad for 18 days in rainy season! At 20km / 3000m elevation, there was a short flatter bit where water was really starting to pool up in giant muddy puddles, then it went steeply up again. As I shifted back into lowest gear there was a BANG and the pedals went limp under us. Broken chain. Fortunately we'd packed spares for such an eventuality so was only a few minutes job to pull out the mangled link and put in a quick link to replace it.
As we crept upwards we could feel the air getting thinner and breathing more difficult. The temperature also dropped to 7C, along with the heavy rain we were starting to get pretty cold if we stopped. Keep moving to keep warm! Thankfully the rain never turned torrential - not enough to form rivers in the ripio - so it was quite manageable even with occasional patches of slippery muddy sections.

At last the Termales Ruiz hotel and hot springs came into view! A glad sight. Just as we were checking in, a large group of French pensioners rolled in. The same group we saw at the coffee farm doing a tour yesterday afternoon! We're clearly still on the gringo trail then, despite our adventurous routing choices of the day. We'll try the springs and sleep here today, then head over the top of the pass tomorrow at about 4000m! The highest point of our tour, and all down hill from here to Bogotá (except we dipn below its height and will need to reclimb 4500m back up to it...)

Colombia day 17: Coffee break

Today we learnt why the coffee you get to drink in Colombia is generally poor. The big cooperative which the vast majority of the coffee is sold through only exports the highest quality beans, keeping the second and third class beans for domestic use. Coffee is probably the most popular hot drink we've seen, but hot chocolate (made with water or milk) has always been an option for breakfast, and herbal tea and aqua de panela (made with sugarcane) are often options. When coffee or chocolate are made with milk, they seem to be served scoldingly hot. 
After a relative lie in we had time to squeeze in a hot breakfast provided by the hostel before the jeep transporting us to our coffee farm tour arrived. It was a pretty tame 45 minute journey compared to yesterday's epic adventure. The tour group was pretty big but worked pretty well. It was almost an even split between the British, Canadians and French with a couple of Greeks and a German to complete the mix. The first part of the tour was learning about the history of coffee and the processes used to make it. Central Colombia seems to be a bit like the Goldilocks of coffee. Not too hot (or cold), too wet (or dry) or too high altitude (or low). Being close to the equator means that they harvest beans year round, although there is still a peak season for berries. We learnt a lot about the way coffee is grown in Colombia with the vast majority of producers growing only one or two hectares. The farm we visited was one of the largest in Colombia with 120 hectares of coffee plants. Colombia still manages to be the third largest coffee producer in the world however. Like almost all the coffee plantations we've seen on our travels here, coffee plants are mixed with other plants like plantains to provide shade and additional soil nutrients. 

Producers can sell direct to markets but most choose to sell through a cooperative which will guarantee a sale. Price is broadly set by the central coffee market prices (for Colombian coffee this is in New York), but is adjusted for quality and transportation costs. The cooperatives also fund research into more pest and desease resistant plants as well as more efficient machinery for processing the coffee beans. Due to the wet climate, beans here are wet processed. The fermentation part of this process has caused the smell we've frequently found on our travels. The beans we've seen on grids and on sheets on the road have been the final part of the process before the beans are bagged and sold. The cooperative generally then performs the final shelling process before the beans are ready for export. This farm sells a proportion of its beans to the tourist trade locally so has a roasting facility here. As coffee beans are best used within around three weeks of roasting, the vast majority are shipped before roasting.

After an exhaustive morning learning about coffee it was time for a relaxed lunch, before some serious hammock time before traveling back to Manizales. Much more restful than yesterday!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Colombia day 16: Colombia high on the white(ish) stuff

That's right: we went in search of snow.
The 4.15am alarm seemed very early. Guess we need rest days like this to make us appreciate the cycling days all the more!
The part of Los Nevados park we were headed to can only be reached by some 3 hours of dirt road (more like offroad) driving. Along with the altitude gain and distinct gasoline fumes in the aging and abused Land Cruiser, we were all a bit bleary and weary before any hiking started! We were in a small group with 3 other English speakers - a mother and preteen daughters from Canada who moved to Colombia in August. Fascinating to hear their stories! (Dad is busy studying for Masters so they get out the way every weekend doing something fun). There were probably 10 jeeps heading up in all, the rest with domestic tourists I believe.
The drive up probably did have the best views of the day, both stunning and precarious roads on sheer mountain sides, and up towards the central range of volocanos we were heading towards. The most famous cones are relatively active so have an exclusion zone. Santa Isabel on the other hand hadn't ereupted for some 8000 years so odds were in our favour for a quiet trip.

This volcano is also home to Colombia's lowest glacier. 100 years ago Colombia had 19 glaciers, it's now down to just 6 and expects all of those to be gone in the next 20 years. Santa Isabel, being the lowest, is retreating fastest and won't last 10 more years. So we were fortunate to get chance to see it, or what's left of it.

The drive back down was equally tiring, riding in the Fume Cupboard as I'd now dubbed it. All the excitement brought out my annoying cough into a full blown cold, so tomorrow we'll take a much more restful rest day!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Colombia day 15: It's a long way to Manizales

After a short day yesterday, we decided to go longer today and made it all the way to Manizales. The roads were busier than the previous day's, but mostly in good condition. There has been a lot of rain in this area in the last few days and there were multiple landslides on the roads. You can tell we are in a wealthier/more touristy area as there were crews out with diggers and trucks clearing them up. We actually had a couple of rain storms while riding too, and quite a lot of grey overcast skies. It makes the climbing a little easier to handle than the intense sun. There were many more jeep taxis on the roads today. These seem to be something like a bus, but a little more flexible. Some were incredibly overloaded with the front seats filled, people squashed into the bench seats in the back with goods piled between them, 3 or 4 people standing holding on to the back and more goods piled on the roof rack, possibly including a couple of sacks of coffee beans. The negotiations when they were picking up and dropping of customers could get quite involved!

Unlike entering Medellín, it's quite a climb up to Manizales. Thankfully it didn't loom over us in the same way as Salamina did yesterday - because it was short day and much shorter as the crow flies we could see our destination for much of yesterday's ride. Manizales is both the northern most city in Colombias zona cafeteria (coffee country), but also the main entry point for a couple of national parks. As we have arrived a day early, we managed to book on a tour to enter the Nevados national park tomorrow and walk up a volcano. A nice relaxing day off. I'm not sure that it will feel that way when the alarm goes off at 4:15am though! Hopefully it will mean that we will get to see snow (or the remains of a shrinking glacier at least). For the last couple of years black Friday has marked the start of our ski season - making the most of REIs #optoutside campaign. So it seems appropriate that we should see snow this weekend.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Colombia day 14: not a turkey trot

A short day, but not a totally easy day. We're heading south along a secondary road towards Manizales for a few days, which means variable quality road paving and an awful lot of sheers drops and climbs. But the views are Spectacular Spectacular.
We rolled out of Aguadas about the same time as Stefan, the German cycle tourist we'd met yesterday afternoon. We rode together for a while but had slightly different speeds and stop cadence on the climbs so leapfrogged most of the way. The ride was basically a small down, small up, big down, big up.
We were barely out of town and about to start the first down when I saw a nice hairy tarantula crossing the road. She was particularly slow moving, perhaps because she'd lost a leg (or two), poor thing.

As we'd seen many days, several houses had large hauls of beans laid out on the tarmac (at least, where the road was blessed with it) to dry in the sun. It's so humid here that it's tricky to air dry products, but with the help of the blacktop they seem to manage it. A few places the beans looked less like eating beans and more like coffee beans. A couple times yesterday we'd caught the distinct smell of coffee gently toasting on the vine, so we're definitely getting into that region.

The long climb to Salamina was punctuated by frequent stretches of washed away rocky / gravelly road. Happily they didn't extend for long - unlike the prior 15km desent which was almost all on dirt and so very slow. The roads remained quiet. I've got the hang of realising when a climb is going to be very sustained and long as many of the mopeds/motorbikes coming the other way will have cut out the engine and just coast down past us. Gasoline is not cheap here, maybe 3 times USA prices? So guess it all helps.

We got to town soon after midday so got a good coffee and fruit salad snack then looked around for a hospedaje. Stafan decided to push on 23km to the next small town, but we're definitely in holiday mode so decided to just stay here in the larger places.  I doubt we'll find any turkey for dinner, but we will look! Happy Thanksgiving to everyone celebrating it today, and all the best to you and your family.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Colombia day 13: Back on top of the world

Today we left the main roads behind us again and regained some altitude. We are taking the secondary road to Manizales, which once again means gravel, landslides, washed out roads, little traffic and breathtaking views
Our first issue this morning was one of mud though. The road followed the river for around 13km before it started climbing and as part of the road construction they were taking gravel out of the river at a number of sites. We had woken in the night to hear a large storm battering rain on the buildings and this combined with the construction trucks had turned the road to muddy gloop. By the time we reached the cafe at the bottom of the climb, the bike and ourselves were covered in it. We haven't got a bike that muddy since a sustrans incident in 2015!

Up and up on the gravel we climbed, there wasn't a great deal of shade in some sections and we both got very hot. Changing from the bike helmet to a sun hat helped a lot - I was no longer dripping sweat like I was doing an indoor training session in June or blinded by sweat. I'm normally of the opinion that the best way of carrying a helmet is on your head, but today was an exception. 

This road is a little different to the small roads we travelled before Medellín in that shops and services are further apart, and the towns/villages are bigger. Our lunch time stop was in Arma, an historic village on the top of the hill. Despite being a little off the gringo trail the town square had a couple of information boards in both English and Spanish giving a little bit of history about the town and the holy relics in the church. We skipped the usual Colombian large lunch for a couple of ice creams and a packet of minature chocolate and banana cakes to take with us. The second climb of the day was around 1000m but unlike the first, was mostly paved. This makes it slightly easier going. 

Our destination, Aguadas, is a reasonably sized town with a lovely town square and a few nice restaurants and panaderías (bakeries). It sits on a ridge and the views make you feel like you are sitting on top of the world. We met a German cycle tourist as we arrived in the square and he recommended the hotel he was staying at. Now we are out of the holiday/tourist areas again the hotel accommodation is much cheaper, AND has hot water for the shower. Luxury! They were also very helpful in letting us borrow a hosepipe so we could clean Dobbin. He should be a little lighter for the climbs tomorrow and hopefully his gears will be a little better behaved.

Colombia day 12: Rolling Rio Cauca

Hot, long, still, rolling gradual climb. I think that best describes today. Although it's reassuring to recall that even on an easy day following along side the river, Colombian road builders have no fear of throwing in the occasional 10% climb to keep the legs warm.
Our Santa Fe Antioquia hostel had breakfast served promptly at 8am as promised. We'd already packed up so were on the road be 8:20.  Even so we only had an hour or so before the temperature went over 30. Thankfully it didn't get much higher than that all day, and we had a few pleasant stretches in a small gorge beside the river that were cooler and also took the edge of the humidity.
We were following Rio Cauca all day, upstream towards its source. We won't get as far as its namesake department, but that's fine as that's one of the less stable parts of the country. In fact tomorrow we branch off of the valley and start our climb back over the Andes again, through coffee country. Tonight we spotted that road contains large sections of unpaved gravel, so it's going to be back to slow and tough compared to the last few days.

Dobbin had admirers as we feasted on pop and a bag of crisps.

The first 75km today was very quiet riding, on generally very good quality roads. We had a latish lunch near Bolombolo, stopping in the first restaurant that unfortunately just did drinks and crisps. Around the corner we discovered two very large restaurants feeding a small army of road construction workers. They were a clue as to what awaited us on the next 40km stretch.

The after lunch stretch was significantly more "lumpy" in profile, this is where we hit several steep grades even though still beside the river. But it's getting a major upgrade so for all 40km we were among construction lorries and regular temporary stop signs to allow access to the work areas. It looks like the old road won't exist when they're done, but the new one could change the feel of this ride quite a bit. Certainly they're straightening corners and flattening out the dips and rises. Possibly cutting past some of the small communites that provide all the handy food and drinks services; I'm not sure if they'd relocate to the new road or just wither away. Certainly the culture of regular roadside stops seems very strong so maybe they just adapt to this sort of upgrade work.
Odd to say but we felt strangely lucky to have ridden it before this big change.  But still, I'm sure those Colombian road designers will find a way to sneak a few 10% grades into the new road anyway.

La Pintada old bridge, from the newer bridge.

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. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

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.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Colombia day 3: Look Dobbin, mountains!

The 6am alarm felt far too early, again, but we made it down to breakfast for 7am. It's nice to eat a hotel breakfast and not feel like you've consumed your regular calorie intake for an entire week. After running our errands and packing our bags we managed to get on the road by 8:45. The ciclovia was in full swing and the road was full of cyclists and the occasional runner as we made the turn for our main climb of the day: Patios! This is a famous local climb with thousands of cyclists attempting it every weekend. The road was still open to traffic, but was generally very tolerant of the bicycles weaving their way up. The range of cyclists and bikes was huge, though most were traveling faster than us. There were surprisingly large number of mountain bikes both hardtails and full suspension. Given the steepness of the hills, I can understand the desire for lower gears than you get on many road bikes.
Patios was a great way teave Bogota, as soon as you make the turn you are leaving the city behind and once through the crush of cyclists at the top it was into green open farm land. Despite the summit of the climb being almost 10000 feet, we never felt the need for more than shorts and a t-shirt although it would have been quite different if it had started to rain. There were still huge numbers of cyclists around and it was easy to spot our mid morning snack point by the number of bikes. Elisa had given us a great tip about a couple of roadside shacks selling the traditional arepa, a ground maize flat bread filled with cheese.

The road surfaces were quite variable, and there was a number of sections of road with roadworks, one way traffic and gravel surfaces. Dobbin of course ate them all up and we made it to Zipaquirá in time for lunch at a cafe on the main square. Colombia seems to have some similarities to France - plenty of grizzled old men on road bikes, lots of bread and many, many places to buy fresh pastries. I don't think I'm going to be losing My weight on this trip! Lunch was savory pastries filled with cheese and chicken followed by a delicious pastry with layers of honey custard between flakey pastry layers and topped with something incredibly sweet. Yum. After lunch it was a quick walk up to the big local tourist attraction - the salt cathedral. We had just missed the start of the English language tour, so it turned out to be a quick run up the hill to catch them. I haven't really noticed the altitude when cycling, but definitely know about it when walking or jogging up hill! Thus the first tourist attraction of our visit was achieved. 


Our first proper day cycling touring for quite some time has gone well, and we are getting back into the swing of it. Tomorrow we face some more rural roads and more climbs. We are looking forward to it.