Since my last post I’ve travelled through the last of ‘coffee country’, and continued to have an incredible time in this cyclist’s paradise.
I had another couple of days slogging up the hills with my original chainwheel. With some of the ascents being up to 20% in parts, with averages often being over 5%, many of the climbs were done in short bursts. It was tough, but the sense of achievement at the top, and exhilaration when going down the other side, is indescribable. And the views continue to be breathtaking.
As I was leaving one of the villages I had stayed in, it became apparent that there was some sort of parade due to take place. It made sense to stay and watch, and I was told it was to commemorate the 1819 Battle of Boyacá, apparently a vital battle to the formation of independent South America. As a result, it’s a day where the military and police are celebrated (at least in that village, anyhow). Whilst I was waiting, these kids were getting really excited, and being taught to sing out something along the lines of ‘thank you for keeping our country safe’.
I was pleased to be given a flag by one of the kids, and it duly adorned the bike for the rest of the day
The parade was impressive. The town was small, but it was a real sense of occasion, with military, police, and search and rescue all doing their thing, along with kids bands, the local Lions Club, and various other groups. I’ve been surprised by the visibility of the Lions, with signs at the entrances to many of the towns.
Large or small, life always appears to centre around the local square. Recurring features are people playing chess (and attracting crowds), children being pushed around in little cars (what a job, pushing these all day), or simply reading the paper and watching the world go by (one of my favourite pastimes back home too).
A couple of days later, I was happy to reach Manizales (after another gruelling climb), keeping my fingers crossed that my replacement chainring would find its way to the DHL office there. To be honest, I enjoyed having the two day break from the hills too. It was with great relief that I picked up my package sent so promptly by Thorn, gladly paying the customs duties to DHL.
I found a bike shop around the corner from DHL, and, once again, was blown away by Colombian hospitality and friendship amongst cyclists. I asked the shop whether they’d mind if I did the work outside the shop, so that I could call on their help if necessary with shortening the chain (the only thing I might need additional tools for). It was made clear to me that there was no question of working outside the shop, and that I was to use their workshop and tools. What followed was a joyous couple of hours of camaraderie with the owner, Andres, and his staff.
To much amusement the customer with the smallest bike came in whilst I was there, so a pic had to be taken of customers with smallest and biggest bikes together!
After refusal to accept any payment, I was eventually able to take Andres and his team out to lunch – but it took some persuasion. And of course people had to have a try on the bike, which continues to be the subject of interest and delight to bikers here, along with the occasional police officer.
With the new chainring fitted, I had a day to relax and enjoy Manizales. Like most of the places I’ve visited so far, it was clearly founded there due to a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. The best view was from the top of the cathedral, reached after a good number of stairs. One way to stretch the legs I guess.
As the evening came, a local vantage point quickly filled up with people there to see the sunset.
Now either Columbia has an insane number of parades and cycling events, or I am just exceptionally lucky at being in the right place at the right time. The morning of leaving my hotel, there was a cycle race about to start outside the door.
The new chainring has made an incredible difference. On the really gruelling hills I still stop regularly, but cycle much further between stops, and with far less effort. That said, there are still some sections now and then where there’s no choice but to get off and push, usually due to the combination of rocky paths with gradient. Yes, it hurts.
And then there are the times where I regret my phrase, when asking whether paths are passable, of ‘if a horse can use the path, then it’s fine for my bike’.
That said, it just adds to the adventure. This pic was taken by the soldier (the only person I encountered for about 10kms) who helped me carry my bags over the river before moving the bike across. I think it added interest to an otherwise boring day for him.
The next few days were spent cycling through the heart of ‘coffee country’. I was lucky enough to stay at a beautiful farm in Salento, away from the frenzy of the local tourist hotspot. This place was a piece of paradise, with great accommodation, wonderful staff, and delicious breakfast on the patio.
The accommodation also served as a great place from which to explore the Cocora valley, a famous beauty spot, where you see the crazy juxtaposition of palm trees and mountains.
As I walked the circuit, I was convinced this horse was posing for the picture. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had held out a hoof and demanded some money for the shot!
I was also able to do the obligatory coffee farm tour. It was genuinely interesting, with the opportunity to see the whole process from planting to roasting. It was also fascinating to see the diversity of plants and trees that surround the farm.
I’ve been asked by many people whether I get lonely travelling on my own, and so far the answer is a resounding ‘no’. It’s incredible how many encounters you have on the road. Again, all only possible because of the patience of my Spanish teachers in Medellin. And then there are the many sights you see as you make your journey, in little coffee shops, in the places you stay, or the delight of finding less-travelled roads. Nope, there’s certainly been no boredom or loneliness so far.
Another incredible encounter was in a small town a few days ago. I stopped at a café for a light bite to eat and a drink for lunch, and got into a long chat with Pedro, the cycling enthusiast owner, and his friend Alex. Of course the bike was tried out, but when it came to pay, again my money was refused. Not only that, but Alex disappeared for a few minutes, and reappeared with a gift of a cycling jersey of the local club. I am literally left speechless by people’s generosity here.
It was on this day that I firmly decided that this is definitely a ‘journey is the destination’ type of trip. I have no interest in ‘doing the miles’ and would rather do fewer miles and enjoy beautiful roads and continue to have friendly interactions with people, stopping whenever I fancy. To cement this, when I finished that day I had a message from another cyclist, Nick, who’s been doing more or less the same route as me for the last few days. He had wanted to get a high mileage day in, and went for the direct route going along the very busy main roads. Unfortunately he got robbed of his phone for his trouble, going through a particularly poor area. Thankfully it was just a snatch by two guys on a moped, just the kind of thing that is plaguing London (or at least was when I left). Nick’s misfortune gave me advance warning of the problematic area, so I was happy to take a bus through this part, and was grateful to have the couplings that allow me to split my bike into two parts, as otherwise it wouldn’t have fitted onboard.
I watched from the bus window as we drove through the dodgy area (even before it, the drop in prosperity was palpable, and it did burst my bubble a little about the paradise that I’ve seen so far). I decided to continue by bus for another 1 ½ hours to the city of Popayan, in the mountains in the South. Whilst safe, this part of the route would have been along the main road, so I would have been breathing in diesel fumes as I went. No thanks. Also, you regularly encounter these beasts. Whilst they try to give you room, it’s unnerving, particularly when the tail at the back end starts waving.
Popayan is a beautiful ex-colonial town, now a city but with a beautifully preserved centre.
As I was going back to my hotel last night, I walked through the square, to see another mass of cyclists. Turns out they were having a ‘critical mass’ ride here for the first time. I literally ran back to my hotel to get the bike, and enjoyed a great atmosphere as I rode around the city with a couple of hundred others. It felt like I was flying on the bike, not having 25kgs of luggage with me.
Then to top it all, my friend Bob from Medellin came up to greet me. He’d travelled all the way from Medellin to take part in the ride. As coincidences go, it was pretty remarkable, and it was great to see him.
For those who’ve made it to the end, thanks for bearing with me! I’ll try not to do such crazy long posts in future, but can’t promise I’ll manage that.
Warm wishes and love to all,