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!

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