Colombia in 1984 was famous for only one thing: horrific drug wars.

So why did we decide to bicycle through Colombia?  I guess because it was on our route south.

Yes, especially after our experiences in Panama with thievery, we could only image Colombia to be much worse. The travelers’ grape vine emphasized never to go out at night; never to camp outside a guarded campground. People would kill for drug money; or kill if you inadvertently stumbled into their drug operation.

Our plan was to cycle quickly through the country and get to Ecuador.

Yes, we did have some problems, but our overall impression when we traveled through the towns and villages of this drug infested country was that we were glad we came.

For the majority of the people we met on the roads and in the towns believed in their country and who they were.

 They knew, and showed to us, that they were more than headlines. We felt a genuine friendliness everywhere we went in Colombia.

Having said all this, I must also confess that we rarely took out our camera to get photos.

It stayed deeply buried in the confines of our panniers.

 We cycled from Medellin to the Ecuador border in 11 quick days…about 500 miles.

Colombia is mountainous.

 Every day was up and down steep grades.

Colombia is exquisitely beautiful.

 Friends who have traveled there in the new century have reported to us it was their favorite country. 

The drug wars no longer rule Colombia; tourism is thriving.

Bicycling Colombia

Eleven days-500 miles

Our first day in Medellin was no different from our first day in Costa Rica or Panama. We needed to get money and maps.
In 1984, visa cards were relatively new in these countries. We carried one, but we relied on American Express travelers checks, the old standby; they could be cashed in a major city, but not anywhere else.

In some cases, it could take a month to bicycle between locations where we could get money.

Some very funny stories developed out of this problem which we shall recount later on in Peru. Suffice it to say, we had to carry a lot of cash as we traveled.

We could never find maps. So, we set out in Medellin to see if we could succeed in Colombia. Walking to the library, we came across a street vendor selling maps! We snatched up a good one.

As we continued,the sidewalk narrowed down because of construction. The streets were crowded and walking was elbow to elbow. We were not concerned about theft as we carried nothing conspicuous. I had three dollars pinned into my pocket with no wallet, no bulge, no passport or anything more of value.
A man from behind began pushing through the crowd where the construction blocked the way.

He push me hard, acting like he was in a hurry.

 I gave him an evil stare as he pushed past. Something in my mind clicked. I checked my pinned pocket. The pin was undone. My three dollars was gone.
I was separated from Mike by the crowd. Usually, I am a reserved person, not willing to make a scene in public, but after the bikes were stolen, and the attempt to steal the camera, I had become very aggressive.

“Pickpocket!”, I screamed.

I had kept my eye on the man and pointed him out to Mike who heard my scream. The thief wore white pants and shirt and stood well out from the crowd.

“Where?”, Mike responded.

“White pants”, I yelled, pointing in the thief’s direction. He was crossing the street as if nothing had happened. 

Mike took off after him. I tried to keep up. The thief, upon seeing Mike bear down on him, ran down the middle of the street. Brakes screeched, horns honked; like a TV cops and robbers, they dodged cars and people in a terrifying chase.

“Mike caught him; he put a strangle hold on the runner; the man knew he was about to die. His fingernails ripped across Mike’s hand drawing blood; Mike held tight.
I caught up and, pointing my finger at his face, accused him of stealing my money. His denial only precipitated a tighter neck hold.  

The money lay in the street not too far away. A bystander picked it up and brought it to me.

Crowds of spectators had grown into a surrounding circle of silence.  No police arrived.  As our heartbeats lowered and the fury of another assault abated, Mike let the thief go. The crowd dispersed in silence. Yet, as we made our way back to our street, three different store owners came out of their shops to shake Mike’s hand.

“Bravo”, they said simply mimicking the stranglehold.

We slowly began to realize the depth of what had happened.  

In Colombia in 1984, there were millions of starving, battered, crippled, poor people who had no alternative but to steal to live.

That is in addition to those who steal to finance their drug habit, a considerable portion of the population as we had been told. They rob Colombians as well as foreigners. Colombians feel there is nothing else these people can do. They expect to be robbed regularly as a kind of social security payment for the needy. It is an accepted way of life.

The maimed and lame line the sidewalks exposing their putrefied limbs for money. The very poor beg. The moderately poor sell lottery tickets, cigarettes and chicklets…one at a time.

Children sleep in cardboard boxes.

 It is beyond sadness for it seems truly hopeless. We protect ourselves, carrying only $10 between the two of us; no packages, no passports, no other items at all.

We are constantly aware of anyone touching us, knowing they might be distracting us for nefarious purposes…yet we like Colombia. The division is clear. There are thieves trying to survive; there are druggies who would kill you because they need their fix; there are drug dealers who would kill you to protect their multi-million dollar business, 

and there are citizens of Colombia…warm, friendly, happy, and somehow emanating a sincerity we had not yet experienced in our trip.

Bicycling Colombia

Day 1-Medellin to Pintada

Twelve miles steep up hill-about 38  miles down hill

There were very few paved roads in Colombia. They were, however in silky smooth condition. That also meant heavy traffic. Cars always gave us a thumbs up. Truck exhaust systems were underneath on the rear right side. We got a heavy blast of black soot every time they passed.

Our starting elevation was about 555 feet. We would ascend to 8500 feet in about 12 miles.

The mountains closed in around us, forcing the road upward. The heavily forested slopes released a cold fresh supply of air that had gone missing from our diet since we left Idaho. On a particularly steep section, a passing car pulled off the road above us. We saw the driver get out, walk back towards us, then turnaround back to his car and drive off.

When we got to the spot where he had stopped, we saw the two cold beers he had left by the side of the road for us!

Dark clouds challenged the tropical blue skies of the lowlands; temperatures plummeted; we donned our down jackets from Marmot for the first time on our trip. Between the steep grade, the cold and rain, we took 2.5 hours to reach the top. Like most mountain towns in Colombia, this one sat on the spine of the ridge. Where there was no more room,  the buildings just spilled over the edges. The road defined the only level area. Views off both sides fell off into space.

Bicycling Colombia

We arrived in Pintada at dusk.  Just as the American has said, there was a beautiful campground on the river. Six dollars a night  included a 24 hour guard, sturdy fencing with a guard controlled gate, a swimming pool, restaurant and grassy tent sites. Camping vehicles were rare since there were few dumping facilities in the entire country. A young couple who saw us bicycling, followed us into the campground.

“Welcome to Colombia,” they said and pulled out two beers to emphasize their point.

 It became so evident as we traveled that the local people loved their country and wished fervently it did not have such a bad reputation for crime.

Bicycling Colombia

Day 2-Pintada to Supia

40 miles- 5 miles very steep uphill

Breakfast at the campground was  an all you can eat buffet. Full service campgrounds are the norm in Colombia.  Rice, potatoes, beets, onions, frijoles, tomatoes, eggs and large pieces of delicious meat cost $2.00 each.

Bicycling Colombia

Sometime late yesterday, my gearing began to grind in violent protest. We would go nowhere unless we repacked the bearings. But it was Sunday, and we only had a few spare parts with us. Colombia is a cycling country. Though the vast majority rode high speed racing bikes, everyone knew all the local shops. A small group of morning riders led us to a small town repair shop already open for the day.

The shop had no bearings for a mountain bike, but with racing bearings and spacers, he constructed a cartridge and had the wheel spinning in 15 minutes.

  The next big town, in 100 miles, would have real cartridges. He charged us $1.00. We paid him $2.00.

It’s hot already. We are on the valley floor sweating profusely,  Mostly flat biking following a river going upstream. Beautiful valley, reminds us of Salmon River of Idaho country with palm trees. There are small restaurants, fruit stands, and villages along the way. We stopped frequently to drink. Started uphill again when a car pulled up in front of us and stopped.

Out jumped a man with 2 bananas in his hand “Welcome to Colombia” he said and offered us the fruit.

He also gave us his road map. “A gift”, he said. After considerable chatting and eating, he invited us to his house in the city of Armenia. It was about 60 miles out of our way so we probably won’t go. Continued uphill for 1&1/2 hours to a plateau. Exhausted from the heat we happily settled into a hotel in Supia, a typical small mountain village. Went to bed at 7:30.

Bicycling Colombia

Day 3-Supia to Anserma

15 miles up steep then 15 up and down

Left town and immediately started uphill.  Went 15 miles uphill before getting to the first flat spot.  Average 3-5 mph. Beautiful, like riding above the earth. Impossible footpaths going straight up embankments led to precarious cliff hanging houses. People carry heavy sacks of goods up and down these trails.

It’s like riding in British Columbia on the peaks rather than in the valleys.

One tiny town along the route stopped us to find out who we were and where we were going. They gave us 2 sodas and eight oranges. Then the lead man invited us into his house to see his bicycle trophies. He gave us two more sodas with ice which we polished off then and there.

A little boy was selling bananas along the road. Mike asked how much the bananas were. “$1 for 30”, the boy answered. We weren’t quite prepared to buy thirty but 2 would be nice. They were green however and not ready to eat. We explained we did not want to carry green bananas but we gave him $1 and said we would be back next year to pick them up. He smiled and said, “they will be ready to eat.”

Every house along the road sells something: fruit, bread. Little children stand by the roadside with meat pies baked by their mothers.

I think they pick the fruit for free. Oranges, bananas, a delicious sour fruit called guanabana and other strange things I haven’t identified yet.

Arrived Anserma  at 3:00 pm. The town sits on top of the mountain ridge. One main street runs out the ridge. To both sides the hill drops off very steeply, houses and streets are built on the slopes. Looks like you are canoeing down a river and the view ahead is of treetops, like a waterfall. It’s very dramatic.

Friendly town. Neat hotel near the central Plaza. $6 with bath and window. Large lobby with skylights and when you register they give you a free drink to welcome you, towels, soap and a warm blanket for the bed.

We kept asking people what the altitude was but nobody knew. We figured 8000 to 9000. You can see straight down to the valley below where we will be tomorrow at about 2500′. This is what bicycling Colombia is like.


Bicycling Colombia
Bicycling Colombia

Bicycling Colombia

Day 4-Anserma to La Victoria

 68 miles

Roadside restaurants are common. We stopped for eggs, rice, frijoles, grilled steak, and soup for $1.50. The owners were fascinated by our enormous appetites.

Bicycling Colombia

Got up at 6 am but it was raining off and on with much fog so we waited till 10:00 to make a dash. The downhill is great but disappears too fast. About 5 miles down a truck had skidded across the road and had blocked traffic for 30 to 40 vehicles stacked up on each side.

Instead of waiting in the proper lane on each side, the drivers would go around into the passing lane thereby facing each other off and halting all possible movement. Then they all honked madly. We deftly left them all behind as we fed our skinny bikes through the maze.

Fifteen minutes later we could hear the roar of hot engines behind us. In our South American wisdom, we pulled off the road entirely, dropping into the gutter.

They surely give the truck driving jobs to the lowest IQ test scores.

Many of the houses in this area are very nice, swimming pools seem to be a big item. La Victoria is a small agricultural town. Nice park with walkways lower than the lawns which are contained behind brick walls.

Pension cost $5, with outside bath, mosquitoes and no fan.

Bicycling Colombia

Bicycling Colombia

Day 5-La Victoria to Guacari  

68 miles level

We are in the Cauca Valley for the second day. There are many  fine haciendas. Exhilarating day biking about 15 mph. Good road with nice shoulder. Many fruit stands and vendors on the road.

Excellent fresh juices, pineapple, grapes, oranges, soursop, bananas.

Prices range dramatically from one little place to another. Club soda ranges from 10 cents to 25 cents. Fresh fruit juices from 20 cents to 45 cents.

Never know what to expect so we are learning to ask. Food places never seem to have menus so they rattle off what they have so you try to sort it all out and not spend too much. At lunch we ordered beefsteak and potatoes, $1/plate. We got a delicious piece of meat and good fried potatoes $2/each. I had missed hearing the lady say beefsteak and large beefsteak.

Now we know why they don’t have menus!

Still the food in Colombia is the best so far. Excellent soup filled with vegetables and meat. Always check the price. Nothing is standard.

Lots of other bikers but they don’t seem to like to draft or have you draft.

They will pass you at a furious pace as if racing. If you tag on they slow down so much you end up passing them. They won’t draft you. Two bikers zoomed past us. Mike decided to take off after them as he was beginning to feel laughed at for being on such a strange looking bike. He tagged after the fellows for two miles right on their tail. You could tell they thought it would be easy to lose Mike and couldn’t figure out how he kept up. (Sheer Macho). Finally they all pooped out together and stopped on the road till I caught up.

The Spanish words in Colombia seem to be very different. I have a consistently difficult time understanding here.

The high school kids must all take English but it is impossible to understand them; their accent is so poor.

They really have a tough time with our sounds. When they speak English, I’m trying to figure out “what is that Spanish word I haven’t heard yet.”

Stopped for the night in Guarcari,  a very different town. Found only one hotel  at $2/night. Bottom of the barrel basic and dirty. There was a used piss pot in the windowless concrete wall room. Not sure about restaurant yet; the lady at the hotel wanted to feed us but we were not happy with her cleanliness attempts so we will look in town.

Found a restaurant that seemed, more interesting. It was the people’s house.

You sat down at their dining table and she fed you what she had cooking on the stove.

It really was quite good. The house was dirt floor, concrete walls, no doors, just curtains pulled across.  Animals of all descriptions walked freely about.

It is an agricultural town, but the quality of living is much lower than further north. The buildings look like prison walls with occasional holes in them for doorways.

Bicycling Colombia

Day 6-Guacari to Santander

65 miles level

Wonderful bakery with fresh whole pineapple for breakfast. Scenery changed, to mostly sugar plantations.

Took route thru Palmira and Puerto Tajedo rather than thru the big city of Cali.

Traffic pretty heavy and lost the shoulder on the road until we took the short cut through the country. Ducked in behind 2 different tractors for several miles and made good time.

Most the towns in this part of the country are utilitarian and very unattractive.

Buildings are long concrete walls with doors cut in them. No character at all. Individual houses in the country are brick. Obviously there is a brick making industry but it doesn’t look like they use mortar. Seems like mud and grass hold the bricks together…or don’t.

 

Arriving in Santander, we are at the base of the Andes. The town too is unattractive though we did find a good hotel for $4 with bath and a lovely restaurant. The same sterile concrete walls for the building but when you pass inside, many places have court ­yards with lovely gardens.

This time we have a window in our hotel room and a nice garden area to sit in.

 The people have all been very kind, welcoming us with hot tea.

 

The bathrooms are very utilitarian. The entire floor is tiled with a drain in it as the shower is not separated off. Toilet, sink and shower are all squeezed together in the tiny space. A wet seat always greets your bottom as you do your thing. 

Occasionally we see toilet seats in the better places but paper is still thrown in the corners.

Bicycling Colombia

Bicycling Colombia

Day 7-Santander to Piendamo

35 miles

Bicycled up and down steep hills all the way. Not more than a mile of level the whole way. Had planned to make it further but the hills tired us out fast and there were no more hotels until Popayan.

About 1 hour after arriving it began to rain buckets. The hotel saw us coming. $6 is definitely overpriced. Very small and no window.

Had to sleep in one single bed together and put the bikes on the other bed.

 Cold water shower.  Thought we would have a very boring afternoon writing letters. But as soon as we sat down for a beer at the table cafe, we were accosted by three girls 13 to 27 who wanted to learn English in the next hour. They became our permanent companions for the rest of our stay. After every word there would be a chorus of high pitched giggles.

Bicycling Colombia

The main street in Piendamo, however, attracted shoppers along a stretch of 30 or more food stands: Empanadas, hamburgers, corn cakes, beef kabobs, pork, potatoes, coffee soda, bread, rolls and lots of weird looking things like stuffed intestines that masquerade our sausages. It was dark when we made our rounds for dinner food. It all tasted good even though we had no idea what it was and couldn’t really see it. The food was cooked on fires built in pots. $1.80 for two. We huddled under scant shelter from the daily evening rain and had a great time eating with the locals. Walked into one store to buy toilet paper; the man behind the counter ran outside to see our bikes.

Wonderful people in this town, They laughed and smiled a lot.

Every Tuesday and Friday the town power turned off from 6 pm to 8 pm to conserve. Candles came out and business went on as usual. It was very cold.  We wore our down parkas and wind jackets.

Bicycling Colombia

Day 8-Piendamo to Popayan 

22 miles

Bicycling Colombia

Finally had a short, easy day. Though there was still continuous up and down, it was easier than yesterday. Popayan was famous for colonial buildings and a hot springs in the mountains. Just a year before, many of the beautiful, old structures were destroyed in a big earthquake. It was sad to see so many fine buildings in ruins.

Took a bus up a very steep, narrow road led to the beautiful hot springs. Popayan is a National Park that has an aura similar to Yellowstone.  We spent the afternoon there, although it was very cold and the hot spring water was not warm enough to warrant bathing.

Bicycling Colombia
Bicycling Colombia
Bicycling Colombia

Bicycling Colombia

Day 9-Popayan to Calavernas

65 miles

Road construction and numerous landslides turned this section into an ordeal. There was very heavy traffic  through mud and construction all the way. The hills were meant for motors, not cycles! Calavernas was a pit of a town. Hotels were filthy.

Bicycling Colombia

Bicycling Colombia

Day 10-Calavernas to Pasto

65 miles

This was another really tough day through endless climbs and descents on roads under construction. For the first time, we arrived after dark.

With no knowledge of the town or where to find lodging, we felt quite vulnerable to possible thievery.

 We fumbled about in the dark trying to find our maps and keep track of everything. In a bit of a panic, we took off quickly; my pannier promptly fell of the bike.  Finally we calmed down and took a look at our situation. People were strolling in the park.

No one paid us any attention.

 We spotted a hotel across the park and decided to take it, regardless. It turned out to have hot water and enormous rooms for $4. Found a chicken dinner at a Colombian Colonel Sanders for $1.25. each then went out to a pastry shop.

The Colombians know how to make tempting pastries.

 Two glasses of brandy and a warm glass of milk for $1.30. Two old men sat across the aisle. As one got up to leave we could see a huge hunting knife sticking out of his pocket. I bet it was sharp!

Bicycling Colombia

Bicycling Colombia

Day 11-Pasto to Ipialis

65 miles

Bicycling Colombia

Another grueling day of cycling through relentless hills. Yet, we are stronger and doing it easier than weeks before.

The scenery is spectacular.

 What an inexplicable treat to have accomplished these hard days and been rewarded with so much variety. Ipialis is the border town for crossing into Ecuador. There isn’t much to see here in the town, but we were excited to be reaching our next destination.

We bicycled Colombia faster than we wanted to.  

I must admit, looking back, we had some of our best people experiences in Colombia.

They were aggressive in meeting you, interested in talking and the majority seemed educated. Yet at the same time we were constantly paranoid of trouble and were afraid to trust anyone. I guess a lot of that really stemmed from our Panama experience. In Panama however we never felt friendliness around us like we did in Colombia. 

So, we say farewell to this beautiful country with a bad reputation overshadowed by friendly people.

 

 

Costa Rica 

Bicycling Costa Rica

Bicycling Costa Rica

 

Panama

Bicycling Panam

Bicycling Panam

 

 

Columbia 

Columbia route map

Columbia route map

 

 

Ecuador 

Bicycling the Andes in Ecuador

Bicycling the Andes in Ecuador

 

 

 

Peru 

Bicycling Peru

Bicycling Peru

 

 

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