The impression that people in this region are more introverted found evidence when I cycled from Pasto to Ipiales, the transit town next to the frontier to Ecuador: when I greeted they mostly just stared at me like an alien without answering or smiling. But this was only the beginning of a great day: climbing up by almost 700m to a pass at 3200m offered a splendid view on the montains around, each parcelled with cultivated fields in different colours. Then came a stretched out and perfect descent to the valley of Río Guáitara at about 1700m where I stopped at a fruit stand to refresh with some delicious Guayabas
, grown at masses in this area. It became an extended rest of about 1,5 hours when the whole family gathered to ask for my experiences during the journey and to hear about my homeland far away. I continued with new energy thanks to this lovely encounter. Just behind the next curve, a motorbiker, after a risky overtaking maneuver, lost control of his bike, hurtled and laid on the ground five meters from my feet. He (and me as well!) had more luck than judgement: he seemed to be a bit dizzy but ok.
A few kilometers later, when climbing up to Ipiales, I met for the first time another travelling cyclist: the Panamericanista Andi
, a crazy guy from Scotland traversing the country coming from Venezuela and now heading for the same direction. We continued together.
In a small town on the way, we heard Andinean music en vivo
and stopped amid the festivity on the church square to admire the traditional suits and to have a dram of aguardiente
. It was the midsummer fiesta
for the god of the sun, Inti Rajmi. In the sunset we reached Ipiales: three apparently worried policemen accompanied us kindly on the search of a hostel. After 87km and 1835 altitude meters, I felt sufficiently tired.
The famous V-shape
After a sweet time in Morpheus arms I went for a late and (due to the delicate state of my stomach) light breakfast: from the table nearby the familiar sound of the southern german accent. After more than a month a welcome occasion to speak german! So I joined Andreas and Yvonne, who had worked for two months as school teacher in Popayan, for a day on the Laguna de Cocha. We enjoyed the refreshing air of the lake and the rich fauna on the small island.
Pasto itself is a lively city in the middle of the mountains and just in the neighbourhood of an active volcano who time and again spits his dust over the gray streets. The residents are more introverted than in the other parts of Colombia and seem rather reserved to strangers on first sight. But this shell only covers a kind and cordial hospitality: for dinner we were generously invited by Adel, my seatmate during the flight, eager to learn and share between the cultures.
Just when I wanted to leave the next day, I ran into a severe problem with the screws of my shoes which I could not turn due to their rotten thread. Luis from my comfortable hostel solved it by manually carving a suitable hexagon key: muchas gracias por todo!
The nature in Minca was balm for our battered bodies. After a relaxed breakfast on our patio over the rich garden we strived through the little village and undertook in the afternoon an easy walk to Pozo Azul, a natural pool below a cascade in the nearby river: what a refreshing bath! The day ended with a private lesson for me of the dance Reggaeton.
We had to return to Santa Marta to wrap the bicycle: an undertaking much more complicated than ever thought of: never touch a perfectly working machine! Due to my excitation, I would not have completed this task without the patient help of Estella and the owner of Casa Familar, respectively, to be honest, I watched them cutting the carton and sealing it.
The next day was the painful farewell leave on the airport: Estella went back to Pereira and I flew over the whole country to Pasto in the south to continue my journey traversing the frontier to Ecuador. When would we ever see us again? It is one of the most existential moments when two biographies intertwined for an intense time separate leaping in the dark, it is the pain a traveller must learn to stand.
My bike well stored with the friendly owner of Casa Familiar, we took a bus to the near national park Tayrona. Yes, it was very hot and the mochila was heavy, packed to survive three days in the wilderness. But we were enraptured by the beautiful scenery when, after three hours of walk in the jungle, we reached the sandy beaches of the coastline in the sunset. It was a picture like sprung from a catalogue of the untapped Carribean, a dreamy vision for the longing soul.
In the falling darkness the steady murmur of the ocean mixed with the rich sounds of the jungle, the crying of micos, little monkeys, the buzz of crickets, the croaking of frogs and the call of sleepy birds. The concierto followed us into our dreams in a light tent on the camping site Don Pedro.
After a hearty breakfast at Panadería Vere (the best bread I’ve tasted since travelling), we discovered the beaches up to Cabo San Juan with two mates we’ve met on the way, with Lazaro and Elisabeth, un día de descanso in preparation of the tough walk we planned for the following day. For supper, Estella prepared delicious Pasta on a log-fire.
Passing Cabo again, we left the sea to traverse the jungle on an old indigenous track mounting up to Pueblito, today few ruins on a green glade which about 800 years ago counted a population of 3000 people. It was a nice stone-paved path through dense thicket, crossing at times little streams and climbing small rocks. In the humid tropical heat our sweating soonly spoilt up our water reserves which we refilled hesitantly in a river.
After about 8 hours we got to Calabazo along the carretera and stopped a bus to Santa Marta. The relaxation was short: in a good distance from our destination the road was blocked by violent manifestations in a suburb which was cut from electricity supply for more than a month. The only way to proceed was again by feet and after passing the blocked bridge on the back of two moto-taxis. Due to these unforeseen complications we missed in Santa Marta the last bus to Minca, a village in the milder climate of 630 meters above sea level. Thanks to Estella’s charming negociation skills, we finally got a cab ride and arrived -after one more walk up the hill of course- at about 8 p.m. a calm and lovely cabaña of a finca on fresh green meadows.
Over the roofs in Santa Marta
In the centre of Santa Marta, I met Nancy Estella, who had taken a week of vacations from her work and studies in Pereira, to pass with her a wonderful time discovering scruffy corners of the town, hiking in the Tayrona National Park and enjoying the village Minca on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the highest coastal mountain of the world.
The first day after our happy encounter was all occupied with preparations, namely searching a large cartonboard box to pack the bicycle for the flight to Pasto a week later. Crossing in a torrential rain the dirty streets flooded up to 15cms by gray disgusting water from our hotel in the poor port area and asking a countless number of grumpy bike shop owners, we luckily enough found one in the central collection station on the periphery.
The industrial port
Afternoon session watching the football game Colombia-Peru
In the afternoon, we happened to encounter various groups of musicians performing the traditional vallenato on the central Parque Bolívar – a friendly experience which somehow reconciled us with the tiresome heat and the run-down appearance of the town center where frequently even the metal gully covers are stolen for some bugs leaving dangerous holes in the street.
Early in the morning, before 6 o´clock on the road again, with many ciclistas on the opposite direction coming from Barranquilla, friendly greating. One of them turns to accompany me for a while. With its farewell the urgent advice: the next 50km you don´t stop, you don´t buy anything along the street, you simply go on. Even with only two bottles of water for the long way to Ciénaga, I had no appeal to break his counsel when traversing the wooden shacks of the southern suburbs to avoid the traffic of the industrial town: dark figures burning garbage in front of their homes. What then came, was one of the finest landscapes I´ve ever seen: for about 40km, the Ruta 90 divides the marsh land of good old Río Magdalena, the largest colombian river, I´ve met the first time a long and rich month ago, from the sea. On the right hand side sweet water lagunas with cactus and scattered huts, on the left hand side the breaking of sea waves with white spray behind a sandy belt of palms. I felt that it was a godsend to be riding here and could not see enough from all these deep colors of red, yellow, ocher, brown, dark green and bright blue.
Later on, the right side opened up to a larger lake with stilt houses of fishermen.
The remaining 30km to Santa Marta were a mere tedious exercise in the afternoon with forty-one degrees Celsius, but I was vastly remunerated by the warm welcome in the Casa del Ritmo, a beautiful, individually designed hostal, led by the young entrepreneurial couple Ivonne and Giovanni.
Cartagena – Santa Marta: a greatly rewarding way of about 265km with only 1000 accumulated altitude meters at an average speed of 18,8kph.
Time to leave. I enjoyed riding the bicycle again, listening to the sharp clicks of its precise gear change, admiring its sophisticatedly straight functionality, e.g. of the automatic alignment of the pedals. Following the coast line, I crossed the suburbs with their huts surrounded by garbage along the street and in the more and more marshy fields until the landscape changed to dusty areas of savanna. The temperature mounted to unbelievable but dry 42ºC. It was a surreal atmosphere with dark clouds and thunder on the right hand side and the blue sky on the coast. For a while, everything was perfect, but then the street turned ever more to the right and into the lightning… Seeking shelter, I could not find a single tree, only a lonely booth selling mango. Crowded together with the friendly lady under the tiny roof, we had a lively conversation on family and our lives during the heavy rain which turned the dry earth around into mud. After the rain, her children coming back from school joined us and by and by the whole family was assembled asking, taking pictures and joking. How grateful I was for this rain!
But with the prolonged break I had accumulated a considerable delay and after two more hours of travelling along, it became clear that, once again, darkness would catch me on the way to the next village still about 30km away. In this situation I decided to follow a small route not in the map but with the promising indication playas de Bocatocino. Soonly, the road was blank earth crossed by cattle now and then. Half an hour later, it led to a beach with some lonely houses and wonderful dunes. A perfect occasion to camp out for a first night! After a friendly talk with one older resident, I easily built up the tent and took a bath in the sunset. Shortly later, in the darkness, two policemen were knocking on the entrance alarmed by a neighbour mistaking me for a guerillero. After a detailed control of my luggage, the two young man were only worried about my one safety: together we moved the tent down to one courtyard where I packed it again and passed the night in a hammock under a palm roof with two fishermen.
I woke up at five o´clock with tremors down my backbone and after a nice swim in the calm sea, I left for a bath in the highest mud volcano of Colombia just along the way, Volcán del Totumo. The only problem now was the water supply after this unforeseen night outside: milde 38°C for two hours until I reached rather dehydrated Santa Veronica. At noon, a stiff breeze came up, but alas!, from the wrong direction and slowed me down to 12kph. After a decent struggle, I settled in the coast village Puero Colombia in the afternoon – which should become a stay for three days.
Cartagena is a dreamy town with the encanto especial of a sleeping beauty. Its old centre, surrounded with strong fortification walls since the 16th century (the last conquest of Francis Drake), is formed by crooked, narrow streets of cobblestone through which echoes the clop of horse hooves like a resonance over the centuries. In the evening, smooth illumination caresses the balconies and creates a captivating atmosphere.
It is a peculiar place. And a precious one. Glimpsing through wooden entrance gates of private houses when roaming around, one sees patios with green gardens and shining swimming pools. As I read recently, ten percent of population comprise forty-six percent of total income in Colombia, while on the countryside, sixty percent of population live on the breadline. Among latinoamerican countries, economic disparity is highest in Colombia (see here and here). In this hermetic paradise, however, life is untroubled. Its colonial style architecture makes it appearing more european than any european city.
One day I undertook a touristic excursion to the Islas del Rosario, a national park about two boat hours away: crystal clear, blue water, coral reefs with rainbow-colored fish and white beaches.
Woken by the implacable alarm clock at a quarter to four in the morning, I swung my feet out of the bed – and stood in a pond of water. For the short night, I had switched off the fridge… After a nocturnal bicycle trip to the terminal in the north, I reached just in time the bus to the coast, to Cartagena. It was an odd feeling to watch from the comfortable seat the landscapes and the faces flashing by behind the window. Accustomed to the bicycle, I felt that I somehow did not deserve to see them, like a gift not earned, like a win of an unfair battle, like an inappropriate temporary intrusion into foreign lives. After a climb into the clouds, when we reached my good friend Río Cauca at Valdivia, the mountains gave suddenly way to green meadows with cattles browsing under a plam trees and to flooded fields with sheds covered by palm leaves. At the peajes all along the way, sellers of snacks and souvenirs climbed the bus.
With a delay of about two hours after an obscure stop on the road, we reached Cartagena after 15 hours at about 9.30p.m. Que calor! I asked the bus driver for the way to Bocagrande to my hotel: „One hour in this direction, but don´t stop on the trip! Good luck.“ Riding through the suburbs, I understood his indication. 40min later, I reached the hotel, but my reservation was lost and the place all occupied due to the following monday, un dia festivo. Asking around in the neighbourhood, I finally found a bed for one expensive night but had to pay in cash. This raised the need for a cajero: the first one was run out of notes, the next one closed, the third out of function…
At midnight, I finally bedded my exhausted head on the pillow (luckily no fridge in the room).
El Poblado is the modern business quarter of the city with clinker skyscrapers and proper sidewalks. Wandering around at night in the streets, I couId not find any of the typical chariots vending food, only expensive fast food restaurants. My hostel was overcrowded with drunken american backpackers hanging around in the pool. After the first night I decided to move to a more authentic place, to the simple and, despite its location in the red light district, clean and friendly hospedaje La Odéon in the very heart of the city, near Parque Bolívar and just about 10min walk distance from the famous Parque Berrio with the corpulent sculptures of Botero.
Medellín is the only city in Colombia with a metro infrastructure, a rail system of various lines covering the main axes of the city. I used it frequently on the way to the lovely Jardín Botánico, to the Parque Explora, somehow the „Deutsches Museum“ of the country, with a variety of interactive exhibits in natural sciences, and to the Biblioteca España in the quarter Santo Domingo. Formerly, this quarter was a no-go slum with gang warfares and dealers, now it can be visited from the teleférico which connects the metro with the library. When I was there, the library was well-attended by youngsters on the many internet computers and by adults reading worn-out books in the ample reading halls. A successful example of an extraordinary development plan.
One day, I undertook an excursion by bus to the barrage of Guatapé where they produce one third of Colombia´s electricity consumption. The lake can be viewed from the erratic boulder El Peñol, after climbing the 750 steps of the intertwined staircase, whereas the lovely village is known for the zócalos, emblems of casted cement along the houses.