Thursday, June 30, 2011

Hello Andes, Goodbye Colombia: Cali – Ipiales (16th -27th June '11)

Cali is the Colombian capital of Salsa, and plastic surgery – an interesting combination which led to some eye-opening people watching in the city. Jules and I spent about four days in the 2nd largest city of Colombia, and during this time we were very happy to be able to stay at Hernan Miller's Casa de Ciclista in the south of the city. The very friendly and knowledgeable Hernan and his family; his mum Sixta and his brother Arturo, have opened up their house and garden for touring-cyclists to come and stay. Jules and I camped in the back yard, amongst the chooks and under the shady fruit trees. Our stay here was just what we needed, some nice downtime to work on the bikes and relax amongst the lovely family and another cyclist, Rob from England.
In Cali we also managed to meet up again with the Cycle for Water guys, and we were treated to a great night out, having dinner with Joost, Mickel and Siskia, and Joost's parents, Huib and Marijke who were over for a visit. Happy Birthday Huib!! The next night we met up with Jason, who had caught up with us again, for an interesting meal of Chinese (without plates) with some other motorcyclists. We had a little Aussie time, which we hadn't had for a while, as two of the motorcyclists, Jeanette and Linden, were from Geraldton... not too far from our home town!
We tore ourselves away from Cali, its enhanced features and the friendliness of the Yule family in order to climb some mountains. We were seriously heading into the Andes now... supposedly we had kinda hit them already, but the mountains that we had come through were really only the foothills compared to the kind of heights we were heading towards. We have been in awe of the Andes for a while now. Especially as whenever we had talked to people about riding in South America they always said, in hushed tones, and with deference in their voice - “ahh into The Andes. Weelllll”. Except for one guy, who just laughed and laughed when we told him the direction we were going.
The first two days of riding after Cali, up to Popoyan, we climbed, and it wasn't too hard.. though we still needed a day off to recover after! We spent our rest day checking out the old colonial town of Popoyan, known for all its whitewashed buildings, and catching up with Jason again (we haven't quite worked out who's stalking who yet). However, the next day we were ready to move on up, up into the mountains. We were all prepared for climbing, the cold and high altitudes; however, after our first day out of Popoyan we dropped all the way back down to a hot, dry river valley, and spent a sweaty day cycling at low altitude.
However, after this little interlude we were back to climbing and heading deep into the mountains. The ride up to Pasto and then onto Ipiales and the border of Educador was so beautiful that most of the time that we were slowly slogging up the winding Panamerican Highway, we were too busy looking around to worry about the fact that we were only travelling at around 7km/hour.
 In granny-gear we slowly wound our way up the steep sides of the valleys until we were up in the stunted vegetation of the high country, looking at the steep drop-offs down to the rivers far below us, and the ranges of mountains stretching out all around us. We also had some fantastic downhills where we put on all our clothes against the wind-chill, then zoomed down, overtaking trucks and clinging onto our brakes with frozen fingers.
And so we arrived at the bordertown of Ipiales, where we visited the Santuario de Las Lajas, a church built out over a canyon, and tried to mentally prepare ourselves to leave Colombia. We will miss Colombia, its plentiful delicious empenadas, kumis (yoghurty type goodness), fruits, arepas, fresh cheese, aguapanela (a sugary hot drink) and smoothies – the food heaven of hungry cyclists. But even more so we are going to miss all the amazing, generous, open-hearted, friendly Colombians that we have met.
On our last full day in Colombia all our favourite things came together – we met a friendly Colombian cyclist in a side-of-the road food stop, we had a chat and then he shouted us to our coffee, aguapanela and fried arepas with fresh cheese. When he had left Jules and I got to chatting about how much we were going to miss Colombia – and Jules, the big toughie, actually got a bit teary. I wasn't sure if she was thinking of all the lovely people that we have met over our travels here, or whether she was getting emotional over all the fried goodness and great coffee that we would be leaving, but either way leaving Colombia was going to be difficult. However, with the amazing vistas that we we have been cycling through on our last few days we knew Ecuador was going to hold some stunning scenery and we were excited for the next part of our trip. Plus, I think we will make a big effort to get back to Colombia one day, to visit everyone!

Notes for Other Cycle Tourists
  • Hernan Miller and his wonderful family have a Casa de Ciclista in the south of the city:
  • We followed the Panam from Cali to Ipiales, fairly good condition most of the way, with a shoulder most of the way. A bit of traffic and fumes around the cities tho'
  • Delicious Kumis for sale in the valley after the drop-off from Popoyan!
  • We had planned to go from Popoyan to Pasto via the backroad through San Agustin but a couple of things happened that meant we stuck to the Panamerican. However, we were actually glad we did as we loved the Panam through this section – beautiful and we met lots of great people! Info on the San Agustin route is available on the Pan-am Riders Google Groups

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

In the Land of the Beautiful, Friendly People: Puerto Berrio - Cali, Colombia (2nd - 15th June '11)

A few weeks back, when we were riding through the flooded farmland near the Rio Magdalena we saw a sign saying: “Welcome to the land of tasty oranges and beautiful women”.. and we hadn't even reached the fabled cities of Medellin and Cali yet, where the beauty of the women is legendary. And it is true... the women of Colombia are beautiful, but even more so it has been the friendliness and generosity of Colombians that has floored us.
One of the first few questions that Colombians ask us is: “What do people in your country think or know about Colombia?”. We have to reply that when people (including us - before we came here) think about Colombia they immediately think of drugs, the war and kidnappings. However, having experienced Colombia, all we now think of are the amazing people that have made our travels through this beautiful country so enjoyable. We had read a lot of blogs where people had been enraptured by the country and its inhabitants, and like other cyclists and travellers before us we have to rate Colombia as one of our favourite countries.
The section of our trip from the northern plains up into the mountains of the Cordillera Central to the city of Medellin and then onwards to the Valle del Cauca and the city of Cali has been no different. Full of friendly faces and great meetings. We first left the lowlands and flooding at Puerto Berrio and followed a quiet and scenic road up towards Medellin. We had been dreading the climbing but actually the three days through the foothills and up to the city was very pleasant and aside from one big climb up from the town of Cisneros the climbing was fairly gradual. Again, the theme was friendly people- one man gave us a Colombian-flag coloured rosary, others invited us to coffee and pastries and of course lots of road cyclists cycled alongside us for a chat. One special meeting was with Elkin, a cyclist we met on the way into Medellin who introduced us to the city. We arrived on a Sunday, which meant the cyclovia was in full force.
Cyclovias are a Colombian phenomena that originated in Bogota (they believe) but have spread to other cities across South America. On Sundays and public holidays some of the city streets are totally closed to traffic and everybody gets out to cycle, run, roller-blade etc. It was such a nice entrance to the city, to be able to ride amongst all the other cyclists, to stop for juice and fruit at the little stands along the way and it was great to see how many people use it – a fantastic concept that we hope catches on across the world.
We spent four days in Medellin staying at the lovely Saman Hostel. We had caught up with the motorcyclists Jason and Mike again so we spent most of our time with them drinking coffee, eating fried things, drinking rum and eating more fried things (generally in that order too). We had a bit of culture shock when we first arrived in Medellin as we were staying in the Zona Rosa – which was full of beautiful people with money. Its was quite a different world from the area we had just come through - which was full of beautiful people without money. We spent one day in the city centre – noisy and crowded but with a fantastic art gallery where we could get our fill of the voluminous figures of the famous Colombian artist Botero.
Having had enough city time we headed out, and up, in the direction of Cali. It took us about six days of cycling to get to Cali - through some very pretty landscapes, a combination of hills, winding roads along rushing rivers and then a couple of quick days along the flat plains in the Valle del Cauca. We met more lovely people – one evening we asked at a small village if we could camp nearby and a lady opened a gate and sent us into a cow paddock next to a river. It was a perfect camping spot, and in the afternoon the river was full of families playing who smilingly waved us into the river for a much-needed cool-down and a splash around with the kids.
However, our real highlight of this section of this trip happened by accident, and by a little bit of stupidity on my part. We often ride with clothes drying on the back of our bike, as we usually wash in the evening but the clothes do not always dry overnight. One morning I put two pairs of bike shorts on the back of my bike to dry, but obviously forgot to tie them on. About 20kms down the road I realised, but of course it was too late the shorts were gone. Bike shorts are expensive, and kind of hard to come across (the last time we lost a pair it took us about three months of searching before we could replace them!) so we were in a bit of a quandary about what to do.
We were standing on the side of the road waiting for a motorbike taxi to take me back when a road cyclist stopped to see what was up. I tried to explain that I had had laundry drying on the back of my bike, which had fallen off somewhere and that we were waiting for a taxi to go find my shorts. However, my Spanish was obviously not up to scratch to explain this complicated story. While he didn't understand what I was raving on about Luis Enrique took us back to his village to try and help us. He took us to the home of Rodrigo, a fluent English speaker that had lived in NY for 25 years and who translated for us. We were so lucky that we happened to run into Enrique, who was a cycling-enthusiast and who was actually the trainer of the cyclists for the San Pedro area, and then to meet Rod who was super-helpful and a really great guy.
Well, the rest of the day was taken out of our hands – we ended up getting taken back to Enrique's house to meet all his lovely family, being fed delicious foods and tasty juices. Then Rod found a car and all of us went off to try and find my shorts (we only found one pair in the end but we were happy with that). When we got back from our pant-hunting outing the family asked if we would like to stay with them the night and they were so lovely and friendly we just couldn't refuse, even though it was only 9am in the morning. Well, it was one of our favourite days of the trip, spending time with Fanny (Enrique's wife) we walked around their pretty little village of San Pedro, had ice-cream, ate delicious food, chatted, looked through photos, and enjoyed the company of neighbours and friends. In the evening Enrique and Fanny's daughter and her friend, Martha, took us around town on the back of their scooters, meeting more friendly people and chilling in the town square (as you do).
It was with great reluctance and sadness that we had to stay goodbye to the family and Rod and the town of San Pedro and head off towards Cali the next day. It is becoming harder and harder to think about leaving Colombia and we hope someday that we will be able to get back to visit San Pedro, as well as all the other awesome people we have met along the way. In the end the losing of my pants turned into a great godsend as it led us to meet some wonderful people... though, I am not hoping to lose any more pants!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

In a Soggy Land: Cartagena to Puerto Berrio, Colombia, SOUTH AMERICA (22nd May - 4th June '11)

Cartagena de Indias, on the Caribbean Sea, was a very cool city to start off our South American adventures. The old town is full of fantastic colonial buildings, little lanes and squares in which to watch the world go by. One thing we had missed in Central America was the “square" life that we had enjoyed in Mexico, and which Colombia also has.  In the evenings everybody gathers in the town square to eat, drink, play football, watch the kids run around or just to loiter with no good purpose.
During the day we meandered the streets of Cartagena soaking up its atmosphere.  The evenings we spent hanging and laughing with the motorcyclists Jason and Mike, and having drinks with the lovely Mike and Helen who we had met in Panama. Lots of chilling in squares was undertaken.  However, while in Cartagena we also had to get some jobs done – cleaning up the bikes after their ocean voyage, doing repairs and trying to stock up on some of the things we needed. We also had to work out where we were going next. We knew we were heading south but that was about all we had decided upon. In the end we decided to take the route that Lorely and Russ ( and the Dutch guys ( had done about a month before us – south for a couple of days and then east to the area of Mompos and the River Magdalena. Obviously we had decided that we don't have enough adventure in our life as we were heading straight into an area heavily affected by flooding...
When we first left Cartagena we had two days of cycling south and east through pretty landscapes of cows and grass greener than anything I had
seen before. We then reached the swollen banks of the River Magdelena, which we needed to cross by ferry to get to the road that led to Mompos.  When we arrived at the ferry it was the afternoon and we had missed the last crossing for the day. We got chatting to some people from the ferry at a little kiosk and were given the ok to camp on the ferry deck – perfect. However, while we were sitting around having a soft drink and a yarn the couple running the kiosk offered for us to come and stay at their house – even more perfect!
We headed back to the nearby village and met the rest of the family,  including their four children, who proceeded to barrage us with lots of questions and stories. Unfortunately we found it hard to understand much of the kids' Spanish but Jules still managed to entertain them with games. They got out their atlases and we gave them a lesson on Australian geography and animals and then they gave us a lesson on Spanish pronunciation,which apparently we suck at. They were strict teachers!   We felt so blessed to have this family open their home to us, they didn't have a lot but were so generous in sharing what they had – we felt totally humbled and not sure that we deserve all the unreserved hospitality that we received.
The next morning we said goodbye to our adopted family and met up with Mike at the ferry landing.   Now there were 3 on our adventure out to Mompos. Colombia has had a very hard and extended rainy season this year and there has been some serious flooding in sections. The ferry ride and road into Mompos was a bit of an eyeopener as to the devastation caused by the floods. Whole houses were under water and lots of families were living in rows of makeshift shacks on the road, as that was the highest part of the landscape. Even the town of Mompos was very soggy when we arrived, but we soon settled in at the beautiful La Casa Amarilla Hostel and proceeded to fall into the sultry life of Mompos.
Mompox is an old colonial town surrounded by river and marshes, and seemingly straight out of a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of my favourite authors. Jules, Mike and I mosied the streets, ate, watched life in the square, had beers on the terrace and slowed down to the speed of the siesta-taking, rockingchair-lounging locals
The morning we had decided to leave Mompos we were woken by a violent thunderstorm,  When we went to leave the front gate we were greeted with roads that had turned to rivers.We said goodbye to Mike and watched his motorbike disappear into the mud.
 It took Jules and I two days of crossing through muddy and watery tracks to get out of the flooded area as a number of the roads were deep under water and had been completely closed. We ended up having to cycle 90km north, the opposite way from which we were heading, to get to a main road. The day we spent on this track I had grave fears that our day was going to end like the swamp scene from Never Ending Story, where I would have had to heart-wrenchingly leave Norma floundering in the mud. Luckily we managed to get out (with some pushing of the bikes along the way) and I had only one fall in the mud.  Apparently Jules thought the sight of me and Norma lying in the mud was hilarious... she almost got herself rugby-tackled in as well.
At the end of the mud track we reached the town of Astrea.  We stumbled in, both ourselves and the bikes were covered in mud, we were sweating like crazy and looking slightly crazed. Obviously we were the strangest sight the town had seen for a while but we were heartily welcomed in - someone bought us a softdrink, others took photos of us, we were given children to pose with in photos and then we got asked to do an interview for the local television. This event gathered quite a crowd. I was desperately trying to scrape the hardened mud off my face during the interview but nobody seemed to be too bothered by our appearance and our crowd grew and grew. We met the town mayor, the town applauded us and then we waved goodbye and headed out.
It had been a bit of an emotional last few days through the mud but it was definitely worth the effort to spend time in the timeless Mompos, and to stumble through the soggy backroads. We were also very relieved to hear that Mike (and his motorbike) had also made it out of the mud – though not without some emotional scarring. When we caught up with him further down the track the first thing we did was sharing of survival stories (some great photos are at his blog
After our exciting riding through the flooded lowlands Jules and I were quite glad to see the bitumen again and our first couple of days on the highway sped by. However, after a few long days of riding back on the Panamerican Highway, battling with trucks and constantly being stared at by the ever-present cows we were starting to lose it a bit. Give me some more mud and friendly back-road towns any day.
One day on this stretch I was repeatedly getting mysterious punctures- I would change the tube but could not find what caused the puncture in the first place (I was starting to think the cows were letting my tyres down when I wasn't looking). It had been a long day and Jules and I were perched by the side of the road changing my tube (again) when a group of lovely women in the shop across the road called us over to give us some water (we looked particularly hot and bothered) they then called us back over to invite us to stay in their house. Ah that Colombian generosity! We gratefully accepted and they sent us across the road to wash up in the communal bathhouse. This was a well, surrounded by a small amount of hessian material, sitting right on the curb of the Panamerican Highway. We have spent a lot of time on the Panamerican in the last few months but I can safely say this is the first time I took off my clothes and washed myself right alongside it!
We spent the evening with the family, the neighbours and a wide selection of neighbourhood children, who once again gave us a great Spanish education and asked us to teach them some English songs - Jules contribution was the ABC song (much to my annoyance when I found myself singing it to myself days later) and I came up with “Heads and Shoulders Knees and Toes” but I got a little stuck on the words after the first line. We gathered a crowd to watch us cook dinner and undertake our nightly ablutions, and we then had a very peaceful sleep in the family's store room..  Once again we were overwhelmed by the Colombian hospitality. In the morning, after waving goodbye to the family, and the neighbours, and some random kids, we headed off back along the highway, back to the staring cows, and straight towards some mean looking mountains ahead of us.