Seven days in the saddle – San Gil to Medellin


What goes down, must go up

That’s the way I’ve felt the last few days – dreading every little downhill because it means I have to climb back up again. Such is it after 6.5 days in a row of challenging roads (except for one boring stretch of pavement on the Pan-American Highway.)

At the same time, the cycling has been spectacular, with incredible scenery along roads that see more cows than cars. Motorcycles and horseback are the methods of transportation of choice around those parts – definitely not bicycle.

I left San Gil last Thursday morning. The previous day I took the bus up to Chicamocha Canyon National Park. Like all canyons, it gets compared to the Grand Canyon, but it doesn’t come close. It wasn’t the park experience I was hoping for – the walkable area was all developed and filled with kitschy attractions like ziplines, a really sad bird zoo where the birds were trapped in tiny cages, and restaurants and souvenir hawkers everywhere. There were no trails to explore at all.

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The road from San Gil to Bucaramanga as it drops into the Chicamocha Canyon. I looks like a torturous climb and I did not ride it, though I’ve probably ridden worse.

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The Chicamocha Canyon.

The highlight was a gondola ride that went from one rim, down into the canyon, and back up the other side. The problem was the gondola only ran for 30 minutes every two hours, and there wasn’t much to do on the other side, so all in all it was a pretty dull day. It would have been nice if they would have let you got out at the bottom, in the cactus-filled valley, but the bottom of the canyon was actually a big construction site where they appeared to be dredging the river. Ah well.

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The gondola that goes in and out of the Chicamocha Canyon.

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The Chicamocha Canyon is hot and dry – as evidenced by the abundance of cacti.

I left San Gil early and climbed the paved road to Barichara. It is hailed as a pristine colonial town, and like most I’ve passed through, it is filled with white-washed adobe buildings that have changed little over the years. I spotted a sign pointing to the bakery and promptly filled myself on pastries and a Gatorade. These small bakeries are in every small town, and they all sell the same things for a thousand or so pesos (about 50 cents). I assume it’s all mass produced, but my concern is calories.

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Looking down at pretty, colonial Barichara and across at the mountains I would have to overcome to get to the Magdalena River valley.

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My unnamed bike, outside the bakery in Barichara.

From Barichara there was a long descent along a paved road which turned to dirt and rock when I took the turn off to the Rio Suarez valley (where I’d gone rafting two days before). At 500 metres, it was the worst heat I’d experienced on the trip and the bridge was closed for construction. The head of health & safety said I couldn’t cross and told me there was a detour not far away. I consulted my phone and realized it would add 20 kilometres to my trip, but she wouldn’t hear it. Fortunately, after 20 minutes of waiting around, a couple of workers escorted me across and I began the grueling climb up to Gallan, another clean, white colonial town that would probably be in the guidebooks if it weren’t so remote. Dying in the heat, I made it to town and stopped at the local store for a lunch of empanadas and a 1.5 litre bottle of Colombian lemon-lime soda.

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The bridge over the Rio Suarez.

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Gallan loves the Simpsons.

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The mountains above Gallan.

Rejuvenated, I rode ever upwards along a road carved into the mountainside, overlooking the Rio Suarez and the farmland on the other side. My goal was Zapatoca, but I stopped 10 kilometres short at a little roadside store where they let me pitch my tent under the very large awning, completely exhausted. It poured rain that night, so I was incredibly grateful for the shelter.

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Beautiful views along the road from Gallan to Zapatoca.

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Domestic farm animals along the road present the biggest obstacles to travel.

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Looking east from the road to Zapatoca, across the Rio Suarez.

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Rural stores have proven to be great places to camp for free.

Day two, I continued the ride along the brick-red road to Zapatoca and then went down and up through a mountain pass and into a valley shrouded in clouds. I went from a scorching hot, but smooth road to one that was littered with big rocks and mud. I descended endlessly through the clouds, stopping occasionally to rest my hands and adjust my brakes. I watched as Andean condors swooped back and forth and the clouds floated through the valley. At times, the valley looked completely closed off, but then the road would round a bend, opening up new vistas and a way through. It rained a bit, there was some short, punchy climbs, but eventually I hit pavement, meaning I was on the outskirts of San Vincente de Chuchuri. I stopped at the second restaurant I saw – a burger joint, where I spent about $7.50CDN on a huge burger, fries and coke. It was so good.

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The valley views near Zapatoca.

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The roads around Zapatoca have a reddish hue. This was after passing through town and heading towards the pass leading to San Vincente de Chucuri.

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Colombians love their bikes. I’ve found evidence of one other bike tourer who’s travelled this route.

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Heading down into the misty valley towards San Vincente.

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An Andean condor soars through the valley, just off the road. There was two of them and they provided a great show while I rested my hands, which were exhausted from squeezing the brakes on the rocky descent through the mountains.

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More misty views.

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The central square in San Vincente is filled with giant fruit and vegetable sculptures.

In San Vincente, several locals took interest in me – I don’t think they see many gringos there, let along gringos on a touring bike. They were trying to convince me to get a hotel room in town, but I still had two hours of riding time left, and a long way to Medellin, so I pushed on. They said I wouldn’t find any hotels between there and the Pan-American Highway, but fortunately I happened on a clusters of tiendas and once again they let me camp out for free. In the middle of nowhere, these little stores also serve as the local bar, so I was kept up by a combination of raucous locals and barking dogs. And again it rained and I swore I would get a hotel room the next night.

Day three started off with some of the most miserable riding so far. It was wet and muddy and rocky and generally not fun. There was flashes of pavement, but they would only make the dirt parts worse. I slogged away for 30 kilometres of this until I reached the Ruta del Sol and 80 kilometres of hugging the shoulder while trucks and buses roared past. I got a cheap room at a roadside hotel, enjoyed a typical Colombian dinner (soup, meat, potatoes, rice, beans, salad and plantain) and went to bed.

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Emerging from the mountains and in to the Magdalena River valley. Despite my hopes, there was still a lot of ups and downs to be had.

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Onto the Ruta Del Sol – and the first bit long stretch of pavement since the road out of Bogota.

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Farmland alongside the Ruta del Sol

Day four, I cruised down the highway towards Puerto Barrio and the bridge over the Magdalena River. This was a milestone for this segment of the tour – the river runs through the heart of the country and was in my mind for a while. After breakfast in Puerto Barrio, I had a choice – stay on the highway or take the backroads. Naturally, I chose option two.

The road started off great – smooth dirt through beautiful, prosperous-looking farmland. The further I got from the highway, the worse the road got, the scrubbier the farms seemed and the smaller the homes got. The overcast morning cleared and I found myself grinding away in the oppressive heat. I encountered sections of road where the mud was so thick that all I could do was get off my bike and push. Eventually, I reached a crossroads, where I was able to get lunch and refill my water bottles.

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The bridge over the Magdalena River.

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Rolling fields on the dirt road to Puerto Nare from Puerto Barrio.

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This is cattle country.

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When roads go bad. This was one of several sections over the next two days I had to push my bike through.

The next stretch involved a punishing climb through the jungle, out of the Magdalena valley. Halfway up, I passed one scenic creek where I considered a swim but the climb down to it looked very steep and I figured it wasn’t worth it. Two switchbacks later, I saw another trail heading down to the creek, accompanied by a sign saying to keep this area clean. I jumped off my bike, stripped down and jumped in the warm water. The sweat washed away and I dried off in the last bit of sun before it fell behind the jungle canopy. I was tempted to camp out on the only flat, sandy spot, but given my lack of provisions and the tendency for it to rain at night and waters to rise, I hopped back on my bike to finish the climb.

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A rule of life – if you find a swim hole in the jungle, jump in.

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The reward after a tough climb through the jungle.

That night, I ended up in Puerto Garza, a truly remote outpost with a couple of stores, a hotel and a hospedaje, where I got a room with a lumpy bed for 20,000 pesos (about $8.50). Most importantly, it had a shower, which is all I cared about after a sweaty ride through the jungle. I walked into town for a cheap meal, past curious locals drinking at the town bar who probably don’t see many gringos.

That night it rained and rained and rained and rained some more. I struggled out of bed, hoping that, as usual, it would stop as the sun came up. I packed slowly, got breakfast at the local restaurant and, right on cue, the rain stopped. The deluge took its toll on the roads. While it wasn’t too bad for the most part, there were times I had to get off my bike and push, and at one point the road was blocked due to a landslide that covered all but the far edge. There was just enough room to get my bike through, while a crowd of road workers on the other side looked on in confusion and curiosity while they waited for the excavator to get to work.

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The budget hotel I stayed at in Puerto Garza.

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The overnight rains sent water streaming out of the mountains.

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This was a not uncommon site along this stretch of road.

I continued climbing for 600 metres and some 20 kilometres along a road where men on horseback guided their cattle down the road and the occasional delivery truck would rumble past. I got a snack in El Jordan, where the road was paved the rest of the way to San Rafael. The closer to Medellin I got, the more developed everything was. The road improved, the houses were in better shape and there was generally more people around. For me, the 40 kilometre stretch from El Jordan to San Rafael was a continuous series of ups and downs. Rather than rejoicing at the descents, I groaned, because I knew it meant more climbing. I reached San Rafael, which was hopping on this Monday afternoon, and continued on to where my GPS app said there was a hostel. It was closed, and I briefly contemplated the 20-kilometre, 1,000-metre climb to Guatape.

Very briefly. There was a campground nearby with open gates but no workers on site. I set up camp under the restaurant canopy and cooked an uninspiring meal before settling down with two friendly dogs huddling outside my tent.

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A mural in El Jordan.

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A kid wheelies through the plaza in San Rafael. He was one of several rocking it on their bikes. Have I mentioned Colombia has an amazing cycling culture?

On Tuesday, I made the steep climb to Guatape, and a very colourful and scenic town not far from Medellin. I was mentally and physically done, and the climb, despite only taking two hours, took a lot out of me, so at 10:15 a.m. I pulled into the Lakeview Hostel and booked a bed for the night. Five and a half days of hard riding had done me in. Going forward, I’m going to try to take a rest day at least once every four or five days, but on this stretch, there really was nowhere worth stopping. After an amble around town, I plopped myself on a chair to write this blog, but the Internet went down, so I couldn’t post it.

That night, I stayed up until midnight enjoying some beers – the latest I’d been up and the most I’d drank all trip. I repeatedly had to explain to people that my trip isn’t that crazy, but they didn’t believe me. I had a lazy start the next morning, heading to a local shop to get some eggs and veggies to cook an omelet for breakfast. It was cool and overcast – perfect biking weather – so I decided to hit the road towards Medellin. I left the hostel at around 10:30 and headed to the Piedro – the giant rock that looms over Guatape. The ride up the road to the base of the rock was brutal, but the 750 or so steps to the top were a breeze. The view was incredible (photos to come) and I sat down to take it in while chatting with someone from the hostel.

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Lake Guatape – a reservoir that wraps around the countless hills and where wealthy Medellin residents spend their weekends.

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Colourful Guatape.

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The base of every building in Guatape featured some sort of painting.

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The colours of Guatape are a stark contrast to the white-painted colonial towns I’d passed through to the east.

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More Guatape artwork.

I was back on my bike not long after noon. My plan wasn’t to get all the way to Medellin. I was aiming for a town called Rio Negro, about halfway there, where I figured I’d get a hotel and finish this blog. Rio Negro ended up being a dump and there was a massive amount of construction going on in the town square, which is generally the highlight of any Colombian town. I pushed on towards the Medellin airport, where there was a few hotels marked on my Open Street Maps app. When I got there, it was 5 p.m. but the sign said 20 kilometres to Medellin. I knew it would be mostly downhill, so I hit the road, even though my phone said 29K and there were mountains looming between me and the city.

I pushed hard through the climb, trying to keep up with the occasional lycra-clad road cyclists that blew past me. It was a long up, followed by a quick down, another up, then an endless downhill until I hit the main highway into town. I hugged the shoulder as best I could and enjoyed the ride. Partway down, I stopped to adjust my brakes and realized my bike light had stopped working. The highway was well lit, so I kept going, though a little bit slower. I took the exit towards El Poblado, the neighbourhood I was staying in, and had to descend a series of steep roads to the valley bottom. Some were so steep, I couldn’t even stop my bike and I would drag a foot to help slow me down. On one occasion I walked my bike down a hill.

Finally, I hit El Poblado, which was filled with restaurants and bars. I navigated the confusing streets to the Black Sheep Hostel, where I scooped up one of the last remaining beds. The atmosphere was lively – inside at one table, a group of young people were playing drinking games. Outside, an older crowd were sitting around, drinking beer. I went out for a terrible pizza then joined the outside crowd. Next thing I knew it was after midnight and I went crawling into bed.

Today is a lazy day where I need to find a new pair of bike shoes because somewhere along the way, the cleat on one of mine got loose and mangled up the sole, making it very difficult to twist out. It’s a safety hazard and after lots of trial and error to find a solution, I think the only one is a new pair. Tomorrow, my brother shows up for a weekend pit stop on his way to Brazil. I’ll be in Medellin for the weekend and on Monday I plan on heading to the Casa de Ciclistas outside of town to see if I can find any other bike tourers. A Casa de Ciclistas is a exactly as it translates – a place where a homeowner has opened his house to bike tourists. There’s several of them throughout South America and this will be the first I visit as I get onto the main route going south.

You can find the GPS track for this route here: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/26715947

 

 

Categories: South America tourTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 comments

  1. Hi Alex, Mas & Patti Matsushita here, thank you for the great stories and images. Best wishes on your entire journey, we look forward to your next installment. Cheers!

    Like

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