< Panama | Ecuador >



The Darien Gap presented me with a difficulty. Here was a stretch of land without any road, but populated with poisonous varieties of any animal you can imagine, infested with all manner of disease and also with people who would be just as likely to shoot me as not. And so starting in Honduras, the contemplation of this physical barrier caused it to burrow into my mind, seperating my trip into everything before the Darien Gap and everything after.

And the problem of how to cross it was not easily solved. I could hire a tour and march through the Darien, I could take a boat from near Colón to Cartagena, or I could take a flight. Now as you may have guessed already, I am not the adventurous sort, so crossing the Darien by land was out. That left the boat and the plane. At first I was all gung-ho to take the boat, but as I looked into it, the problem of actually getting a boat with a captain who wouldn’t abandon us in the middle of nowhere nor be raging drunk the entire time was greater than I had imagined. And all the reputable boats would be leaving nearly two weeks after my original arrival in Panama City. Since that city shares the same insta-sweating quality as Puntarenas, I was somewhat eager to make onward progress.

So I took a flight to Cartagena. This had the twin advantages of being faster and cheaper than a boat, and the bonus advantage of heart-stoppingly sexy stewardesses. Being a modern man I normally use the word “flight attendant” when talking about that profession, but these women were so classy in a 1960s sort of way that “stewardess” was clearly what they were. They were also, to my wonderous delight, typical of nearly every Colombian woman I would see. But I digress…

With me on the flight were a Swiss, a German, and an Australian. We formed a confederacy and took a taxi from the airport to the old town, realizing when we arrived after only a distance while that we’d paid far too much for the ride, so it goes. I joined in on the taxi, because I wasn’t confident that my bicycle would survive the turbulent flight intact, and I had no desire to find that out in the airport (it did, thank god).

And how to describe Cartagena? The old town is surrounded by a thick and fortified wall, built after the town was razed several times by English pirates (Sir Francis Drake among them), and within this wall is a collection of well-preserved 16th and 17th century Spanish buildings. Outside the wall on three sides is the sea and the forth is a hill with an impressive fort. So in summary, Cartagena is gorgeous. The city is also not insufferably hot, thanks to a continual breeze coming off the sea, and I am glad to have had it as my introduction to Colombia.

It felt somewhat weird to be on the road again after leaving Cartagena. Everything seemed similar to every other latin country I’d been in, but of course, this is the country with armed revolutionaries in the hills and para-military drug-smuggling kidnapping-for-ransom bad-asses everywhere else. But still the road felt as safe as anywhere, and considerably safer than in some countries I’ve already passed through. I guess either my perception of reality and reality itself were at odds (I certainly won’t discount the possibility at this stage in the journey), or the strong military and police presence everywhere made it feel quite safe.

In Curumani, I finally picked up a pair of sunglasses. I was tired of feeling like my eyes were being rubbed with sandpaper after a long day of riding, and of riding with one eye closed while I tried to fish out whatever insect decided to kamakazi into my eye most recently. So, I finally have sunglasses again after my last pair broke outside of Guanajuato. ¡Qué bueno! Now if I can only get some pants to replace the ones whose seat was stained black, I’ll won’t feel embarrassed to walk around in public…

People have started to ask me if I’m from Argentina. I guess here, it’s more likely that a white person on a touring bicycle is from Argentina than from the US, so that’s the logical conclusion. During those times where I take the effort to explain that I’m from the US, they don’t believe me. They don’t speak Spanish in the US, I’m told. I usually respond to this with the equivalent of “well, there it is…”

Shortly after passing through the town of San Alberto, I began a series of climbs that put my legs through the paces. I would climb and climb, perhaps for a thousand feet, and then descend down nearly all that distance. This repeated itself five times before Bucaramanga, and ending with a final long ascent up to the city itself.

But before arriving in Bucaramanga, while stopped at the town of Rio Negro to do some exploring, I met two Bucaramangans (Mauricio and Sergio) who were in town to wash Mauricio’s scooter in the river. We struck up a conversation and Mauricio invited me to stay at his place while I was in town. I was incredibly grateful for the invitation, and of course accepted. He gave me his card with the directions, and after we parted ways, it was two hours of hill climbing till I was there. ¡Múy excellente!

When I arrived in Colombia, I helped the non-Spanish speaking Australian through immigration, but appartently she didn’t like my joke that his purpose in visiting the country was to find a Colombian wife: she gave both of us only 15 days on our visa. So as I spent time in Cartagena and while riding through the country, the days ticked down until at my arrival in Bucaramanga I had only three days left. I needed an extension.

In the spirit of all countries whose bureaucracies (Germany I’m looking especially at you) I’ve had to deal with, the day I would have taken care of this business was a national holiday and nothing was open. So Mauricio proposed to show me Bucaramanga and the neighboring towns on his scooter. I accepted. We went to a zoo where I saw the largest pigeons I’ve ever seen in my life (they were bigger than chickens), I tried tons of different types of local sweets, saw the colonial town of Giron, and kicked it with his friend Marta. This was the first time I’d ever ridden on a scooter larger than a minibike, and am very pleased with how few times I fell off the back of it (not once!).

Finally leaving Bucaramanga, I had a breath-taking descent down into a canyon, and a 20 mile climb back out. While descending, I nearly ran front-on into a truck which decided to pass another slower-moving truck and take up my entire lane. But quick thinking and ditching off into the gutter saved me from injury. I only wish I had had a hand free to flip him off…

The climb itself actually wasn’t horrible, but it just never ended. The energy I had in me before the climb lasted the first 3000ft of climbing, but eventually I found myself weakening, and knew that food was the answer. Unfortunately, I’d failed to pack any while in Bucaramanga, and none was in evidence for the next 5 miles of climbing. When I finally got to it, I downed a few bananas, ate most of a block of hardened sugar locally called “panela”, and continued on my way.

The clouds closed in as I was riding through coffee fields, and for the first time since the highlands of Guatemala, I found myself needing a sweater. It was so wonderful to feel the nip of cold again, rather than the dissolution of the heat, and I welcomed it smiling (well, at least not grimacing). Still the climb continued above the clouds, until the pass was finally gained near a chicken plantation 6000ft above the town of Pescadero, where I crossed the river and began to climb up, up, up, and up.

At this point rolling hills and descents led me down over 3000ft from the my maxium altitude and into the colonial town of San Gil. While descending, the rain finally started to hit me with some force, and I made a mental note that this was the 8th day of riding out of 8 in Colombia where I had been rained upon. As it stands, Colombia is set to outpace Alaska, Canada and the Pacific Northwest for percentage of rainy days (100% vs. 60%).

When I arrived in San Gil, I asked some people where the gringos stay in town, was directed there, and set in. I quickly decided that the soreness in my legs would necessitate a rest day, and even though I’d just had two, I didn’t feel guilty about it at all.

During that rest day, I wandered around the sharply inclined streets of San Gil, and through its markets and clothing stores all the while hunting for food and pants. I managed to score the perfect pair of pants, and made a potato-spaghetti dish with a tomato based sauce for lunch. The potatoes I found were small and good, and of a variety which I had never encountered before (the Andes being the home of the potato, I expect this to happen with some delightful frequency). Seeing that the goals of any rest day are to stuff oneself with food and allow the muscles to recover their strength, I’d say this one was quite satisfactory.

From San Gil to Santana one day, and from there to Chiquinquira the next. Both days saw lots of climbing, and as I climbed higher and higher into the thinning air, I felt the lack of oxygen in my legs. But never one to assume that the problem lies within until all other causes have been ruled out, I continually checked my tire pressure, ever-suspicious that my rear tire was slowly and intentionally going flat. Just to spite me. It wasn’t, I was weak, and at 7 m.p.h. I trudged up the hills all day long.

And as I climbed back into the cold, the stupidity that had possessed my mind in the hot lands began to fade away. To fill the void came the tricks and techniques of cycling I’d learned way back in Alaska, but had forgotten or unlearned through the heat. And even though I rode slowly, I rode at peace. I rode consistently, stopping to photograph the beauty around me, and to feel the cold enter my lungs and caress my face.

The rain continued, of course. But this time I could wear my rain jacket without fear of over-heating. And my torso kept warm while my legs warmed themselves through their effort. This difference in the manner of warming was pleasing and contributed to my serenity. And after that second day of riding from San Gil, when I arrived in Chiquinquira I was fully happy and had remembered everything of the joy of touring.

While riding down the streets of Chiquinquira I glimpsed a street party. So I squeezed the brakes, bought some Arepa (similar to American corn bread in texture and taste, but flatter), and headed on over. I asked a lively group of people if I could join them, they said sure, and through the miracle of joviality and beer we became fast friends. I was invited to stay with them (one of the women joked that she had half a bed I could sleep on. Her sister doubted whether I would be able to sleep). The sisters showed me around the town, and to my surprise to the second most magnificent basilica in Colombia (I’m not sure which the first is suposed to be, but I believe that this one deserves its high ranking). And after a night spent in my sleeping bag on a sofa couch (foul temptresses…), I was refreshed and ready to press on.

Everyone warned me about this major climb between there and Bogotá called Piedra Negra (Black Rock), and so I spent most of the ride apprehensive of the climb. And as I rode I got varying estimates for its grade and length. So I knew it was somewhere between 3 and 7km long, and anywhere up to 15% grade. But while riding along, I came across a group of amateur cyclists out for a day ride, and I joined them for about 20km. They told me concretely that the climb was 6km, and around 8 to 10%. When I finally got to the climb, it turned out they were right. The climb happened, and on the other side was a long descent into the altiplano containing Bogotá.

This descent put me down to 2600m, or about 8500ft. Since Colombia is so close to the equator, the temperature doesn’t change with the seasons, but only with altitude. At this altitude, the average temperature is in the mid 60s to low 70s, and when there is a good covering of clouds, it feels like mid-November in northern California. In other words, my perfect temperature.

I ended that day short of Bogotá, in the city of Zipaquira. In Zipaquira is a giant cathedral carved out inside a salt mine, and it is a marvel to behold. I don’t know whether it is the largest cathedral in the world, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it was.

The next day saw my entrance into Bogotá, and the entrance was the easiest I’ve ever made. Bogotá is an extremely bicycle friendly city, with dedicated bike lanes everywhere, and closed streets on Sundays and holidays for what is called the ciclovia. I had the great fortune to arrive on a holiday when it was in effect, and rode with a thousand other cyclists right into the city center.

One evening, I fixed a woman’s sleeping bag and was rewarded for my efforts with beer. On the way back from the bar (which played the music videos of all my favorite hits from the 60s to today), five punks with knives mugged me. One of them managed to get his hand into my pocket and take my wallet after I put up a struggle, and then outrun me as I chased after them yelling “policia”. Where are the police at 12:15 in the morning anyway?

And I was extremely dissatisfied with the mugging. I never felt threatened by the kids who performed it. I could see in the way they brandished the knives that they were more afraid to use them than I was of them using them. And since I paid good money, didn’t I deserve —at the very least— to be scared?

But no. And like an idiot, I had my debit card in my wallet (the credit card was safely locked up elsewhere). And moreover, the wallet wasn’t just some piece of crap I bought at Macy’s. My dear friend Keyla made it for me, and I loved it a lot. So instead of being scared, I was just dissatisfied and pissed off.

But I did at least get a story out of it for a little while. But then the bastards took that from me too, as they continued their spree of muggings. My story was hardly interesting when every third person had been mugged as well. It got to the point where another traveller and I started joking about holding a competition as to see who could get mugged the most in a single evening.

Eventually the fun had to end, though, and I left Bogota to continue on my way (I had a new debit card coming to me in Quito, and I wanted to actually be there to receive it). And leaving Bogota was a 8000ft plummet to cross a stupid river and then another 9,000ft climb to cross over a pass called “La Linea”.

Near the summit, while taking a cookie break, it started to rain. And it was cold rain. I was pretty upset that it had to rain on my picnic, but I couldn’t dwell on it too long, because rain at 11,000ft is cold. Luckily, at the summit there was a small restaurant which served hot panela with cheese, and that helped to warm me up.

The descent was freezing, then cold, then comfortable, then warm, then humid and hot. Such is a 6,000ft drop in the tropics. That put me in the city of Armenia, which I had no intention of actually visiting, so I rolled out some miles in scattered showers until encroaching darkness forced me to stop in some small town.

Playing the “I’ve just been robbed and have no money card”, I got accomodations on the cheap, and plowed those savings into a large position on delicous potato empanadas. That and my usual bag of milk set me for the night, and some shrewd bread purchases provided the early breakfast.

It was flat, fast riding into Cali where I took a day off to see what was on offer in Colombia’s third city. After that I somehow managed to ride the 90 miles up to Popayan, including a 30 minute break to wait out a hail storm. Arriving in the gloaming, I saw the beauty of the city, and wished I’d taken my break day there instead of in Cali. That night, I saw Transformers on dvd. I don’t remember my childhood games with transformers to match what I saw in the movie. But that was 20 years ago, and maybe my memory fails me…

Leaving Popayan promised to be a 5000 ft drop into some hot valley, but instead I managed to climb and descend several thousand feet throughout the day. What made it maddening, however, was when a hybrid motorcycle-ice cream cart chased me out of town and followed me for half an hour playing a demented music box medely of Fur Elise and The Entertainer. I started to entertain very violent thoughts. That guy finally got the idea that I wasn’t about to buy his ice cream, and just as the horror of that jingle had nearly faded completely, some other ice cream jockey decided to try his luck. He gave up when I pulled over, covered my ears and started shouting. I ended the day in El Bordo and watched Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in Spanish on television. It was an early night.

The next day it was hot, god-awful hot. At one point, while stopped to take a break, it started to rain. But the rain evaporated before it could wet the road. I’d never seen that before. And the sight of it encouraged me to get back on the bike and climb (the temperature drops with altitude).

And just when I thought that the day would just be stupid boring climbing the whole day, I cleared a saddle point, and holy moses, what a canyon opened up before my eyes. And fields climbed the hills in every direction, provinding a patchwork quilt over the land.

Owing to the first front tire flat I’d had since the great storm in northern British Columbia, I had to stop short of my target for the day. I was happy I did. I found a military unit guarding a bridge and generally patroling the area for signs of FARC. I asked them if I could camp with them, and they said yes. The people whose land the soldiers were camped on offered me dinner, and inside their cabin they had a cuyeria. A cuyeria is where you raise cuy for eating. I’ll leave it to you to find out what cuy is.

The next day I climbed and climbed to Pasto, and past Pasto to some truck stop town. It was a day of 40 miles of climbing, and my legs felt dead afterward. So I drank double milk rations. The next morning I finally made it to Ipiales with 16,000 pesos to my name (around $9US), traded it for $8US (thieving money changers), and crossed into Ecuador.

I survived Colombia, and highly recommend that you give it a try as well.

< Panama | Ecuador >