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 across two ranges of the Andes that divide Colombia.
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 after three days there. I had a rest day, went rafting and took a trip to Chicamocha Canyon. The rafting was incredible, the canyon was a little underwhelming. Like all canyons, it gets compared to the Grand Canyon but it doesn’t come close. It also wasn’t the park experience I was hoping for – the walkable area was entirely developed and filled with kitschy attractions like ziplines, a 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.
The highlight was a gondola ride that went from one rim, down into the canyon, and back up the other side. The ride was great but it would have been better if you could out at the bottom in the cactus-filled valley to walk around. When I returned to the hostel, the owner remarked that most gringos are disappointed by the lack of true nature there.
I left San Gil early and climbed the paved road to Barichara. It is hailed as a pristine colonial town, and would have been a more pleasant alternative to San Gil. Like most villages I’ve passed through, it is filled with white-washed adobe buildings that have changed little over the years. I spotted a sign for 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 priority is sugar and calories, and on that front they do the trick.
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, the valley featured insufferable worst heat. To make matters worse, the bridge over the river was closed for construction and the nearest crossing was 10 kilometres away – a detour I really wanted to avoid in this heat. The head of health & safety approached and said I would have to take the long way. She ignored my fractured pleas to have sympathy on me in this heat. Fortunately, after 20 minutes of waiting around and hoping she’d change her mind, a couple of workers approached to escort to the west side of the Suarez. I then began the grueling climb up to Gallan, another white colonial town that’s too remote to make any guidebooks. Dying in the heat, I ran out of water and made it town completely parched. I stopped at the local store for a lunch of empanadas and a 1.5 litre bottle of Colombian lemon-lime soda. Gross, I know, but necessary.
Rejuvenated, I rode ever upwards along a road carved into the mountainside above the Rio Suarez and the farmland I descended through earlier. My goal was the village of Zapatoca, but I stopped 10 kilometres short at a little roadside store where they let me pitch my tent under the very large awning. It poured rain that night, so I was incredibly grateful for the shelter.
On day two, I continued the ride along the dry red road to Zapatoca, where I stopped for second breakfast, 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 an abandoned one was littered with rocks and thick with mud. I coasted endlessly through the clouds, stopping occasionally to rest my hands and adjust my brakes. I watched as Andean condors soared back and forth and the clouds floated through the valley. At times this valley appeared completely closed off, with steep mountain walls on all four sides. I’d zip around a bend and the narrow valley would open up new vistas and present a way through. It rained a bit, there was some short, punchy climbs, but eventually I hit pavement 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, so good.
Several locals took interest in me in San Vincente – I don’t think they see many gringos there, let along gringos on a touring bike. They tried to convince me to get a hotel room in town, but I still had two solid 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 highway but I said I would push on and hope for the best. They were right about the lack of hotels but fortunately I happened on a cluster of tiendas at a jungle junction and once again I was allowed to camp for free. They also let me enjoy a cold shower, which was very welcome in the heat and humidity of the jungle. The only downside was the store also served as the local bar, so I was kept up by a combination of raucous locals and barking dogs. Again it rained and I swore I would get a hotel room the next night so I could get a proper sleep.
Day three started off with the most exhausting riding yet. It was wet and muddy and rocky and hilly and hot and generally not fun. There was flashes of pavement, but that only make the dirt parts worse. I slogged away for 30 kilometres of this misery until I reached the Ruta del Sol. I hugged the shoulder for 80 kilometres while trucks and buses roared past. That night, 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.
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 crossing it was in my mind for a while. After breakfast in Puerto Barrio, I had a choice – stay on the highway or take the back roads. Naturally, I chose option two.
The road started off great – smooth dirt through beautiful, prosperous-looking haciendas. The further I got from the highway, the worse the surface got, the scrubbier the farms seemed, and the smaller the homes appeared. The overcast morning cleared and I found myself sweating 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 empty water bottles.
The next stretch involved a punishing climb through the jungle, out of the Magdalena valley and into the central Andes. I passed a gurgling creek where I jumped off my bike, stripped down, and jumped in the warm water for a refreshing cleanse. 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 on the only flat, sandy spot, but given my lack of provisions and the tendency for it to rain, I hopped back on my bike to finish the climb.
I ended up in Puerto Garza, a remote outpost with a handful of stores, a hotel and a hospedaje (guest house). 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 the sweaty ride through the jungle.
That night it rained and rained and rained, and rained some more. I struggled out of bed, thankful I didn’t camp by the creek – odds are I would have been flooded out. I packed slowly, got breakfast at the local restaurant, and right on cue the rain stopped. The deluge took its toll on the beat-up roads. I had to push a few times and several landslides blocked the road to traffic, but not my bike. I could edge through while a crowd of road workers on the other side looked on in confusion while waiting for the excavator to get to work. It was slow going, and one kid on his way to school was able to pass me every time I got off my bike.
I continued climbing along a road where men on horseback guided their cattle and the occasional delivery truck rumbled past. I got a snack in El Jordan and from there the road was paved the rest of the way to Medellin. The closer I got to the metropolis, the more developed the world got. The road was paved, the houses improved, and there was more people around. Here, trucks outnumbered horses. For me, the 40 kilometres from El Jordan to San Rafael was an endless succession 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 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 under the restaurant canopy and cooked an uninspiring meal before settling down with two friendly dogs huddling outside my tent.
On Tuesday, I made the steep climb to Guatape, 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 everything out of me. At 10:15, 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 more frequent rest days, but on this stretch there really was nowhere worth stopping until Guatape. 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 late drinking – the latest I’d been up and the most I’d drank all trip. Surrounded by backpackers, I certainly stood out and had to repeatedly explain my trip isn’t that crazy, though 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 El Piedro – the giant rock that looms over the lake. The view from the top was incredible and I sat down to take it in while chatting with someone from the hostel.
I was back on my bike not long after noon. I was aiming for a town called Rio Negro, about halfway there, with the plan of breaking up the ride into two days. Rio Negro ended up being a crowded dump and there was a massive amount of construction going on in the town square so I pedaled on towards the Medellin. At 5 p.m. I found myself looking up at the hill that divided me from the city. I decided if I could get to the top before dark, I could make it to Medellin that night.
I pushed hard through the climb, trying to keep up with the occasional lycra-clad road cyclist 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 tried my best to enjoy the ride in the dark, but doing so in the dark on a busy highway wasn’t exactly ideal. 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 extremely steep roads to the valley bottom. On some, I couldn’t even stop my bike and I had to drag a foot to stop. 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 my brother was scheduled to meet me the next day. The atmosphere was lively – at one table, a group of young people were playing drinking games and outside, a slightly older crowd were sitting around, drinking without games. I went out for a terrible pizza then joined the outside crowd. Next thing I knew it was after midnight and I crawled into bed while the party moved elsewhere.
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 that’s caused two crashes, and after lots of trial and error to find a solution, I think the only one is new shoes. Tomorrow, my brother shows up for a weekend pit stop on his way to Brazil. We’ll spend the weekend in Medellin 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 to ride south with. A Casa de Ciclistas is 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
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!