I’m sitting in bed at the amazing Hostel Kaleidoscopo in Manizales, relaxing after exploring part of the city on foot today. Manizales isn’t on the backpacker circuit of Colombia, which is all the better after spending too many nights in Medellin.
I spent 4.5 days in Medellin, Colombia’s second biggest and most modern city. It has a spotless metro that the city is incredibly proud of, and cable cars that extend into neighbourhoods that crawl up the surrounding mountainsides. It bustles with energy as you’d expect a sprawling metropolis of some 3.8 million would, and I wondered if there were any quiet neighbourhoods.
I stayed in El Poblado, which was described as a great neighbourhood full or bars and restaurants. That part was true – the concentration of bars was something to be seen – but it was also very touristy, pricey, and definitely where the rich go to party. I was expecting something hipster, but instead ended up in club land. Fortunately, the hostel I stayed at, the Black Sheep, was in a quieter part of the area, so it wasn’t too bad. The hostel was great, with multiple hang-out areas, comfy beds, a well-stocked kitchen, and friendly staff. Unfortunately, it was also a sausage fest, where the best way to cure your hangover was by drinking more beer and snort some cocaine. After lots of lonely days on the road, the social atmosphere was welcoming, but also a little much.
The good news was my brother Julian came and met me there on his way to spending a week in Rio de Janeiro with his girlfriend. I beat him to Medellin by a day, which gave me time to buy a new pair of bike shoes. That night, I went to watch Colombia play Paraguay in World Cup qualifying, which was quite the scene and a sea of yellow packed the bars of El Poblado. I watched as the crowd went ecstatic when Colombia scored a late goal to go up 1-0, only to see everyone fall silent when they blew it by giving up two goals in five minutes to end the match. After, we went to a bar with a giant ball pit, which was both fun and gross. A couple of the guys I was out with that night didn’t stop partying until 48 hours later. It enjoyed watching their bodies slowly break down.
My brother showed up the next morning and we booked ourselves onto the Real City walking tour of Medellin – a four hour stroll and history lesson of the city, region and country. We walked through the main squares and shopping streets in the heart of the city, visiting the heart of government centre, the red light district, and Plaza Botero, where the artist donated 23 statues to his hometown. Medellin’s modern architecture is a highlight of the city.
A highlight of Medellin was its public transportation system. As mentioned, the metro is immaculate. It is also raised above the city streets, meaning that every time you go for a ride you get to take in the sights along the line. Even better are the gondolas that connect the poorer neighbourhoods that crawl up the mountains to the metro. On Saturday, Julian and I took one of these up the eastern slopes up to Parque Arvi. The park itself was nothing to write home about – there wasn’t much in the way of trails or views, and the signage was terrible – however, the trip was worth it, with the gondolas providing a glimpse into Medellin’s poorer neighbourhoods that you probably wouldn’t want to wander on foot as a Gringo. That night we went bar hopping and ended up at a salsa club, where we watched the locals do their thing.
On Sunday we attempted to go up to Communa 13, once Medellin’s most violent neighbourhood and now a bit of a tourist attraction, but were thwarted when the gondola stopped. Instead, we went to the Antioquia museum to see the works of Botero and other Colombian artists. Unfortunately, the lack of English translations for many of the exhibits meant we didn’t get the full experience. I could get the gist of it, but lacked details.
On Monday I said goodbye to my brother and made my way just outside of town to San Antonio de Prado, where my plan was to hit up a bike shop and stay at the Casa de Ciclista the shop owners run. A Casa de Ciclista is a home that’s been opened to bike tourers, and there’s a scattering of them throughout South America. This one was a fantastic little spot, located on a country road a few kilometres out of town. The owners, Manuel and Marta, had set up a perfect little bunkhouse featuring a kitchen and sleeping space. There were four Venezuelans staying there, all heading north, so my hopes of meeting a touring partner were dashed, but it was still a nice place to relax for the afternoon.
The next morning I went down to the store to get a bike tune-up. After five days without much movement, I wanted to hit the road to Manizales, my next destination, but also found it difficult to motivate myself. I took some time researching hostels in Manizales, stopped at a local bakery to devour some churos, and didn’t really hit the road until noon. My goal for the day was to get past La Pintada – about 65 kilometres, a long climb, and even longer descent away.
My legs left me win Medellin and I pedaled slowly along a busy road through the suburbs of Medellin to the town of Caldas, where I joined the Pan-American Highway and started the 20 kilometre climb to Alta de Minas some 1,000 metres above. I’ve done tougher climbs on this trip but this one seemed to take forever and I kept dropping into easier gears as I ascended. I stopped for a late lunch just short of the pass and promptly ate too much, making the final three kilometres to the summit even more of a slog. As I crested the pass, the road flowed away below me and the views of the Cauca River valley opened up. I flew down the mountain, keeping up with and even passing truck traffic. I stopped numerous times to soak in the amazing views and take pictures. The descent went on and on and on at just the right grade so I could lay off my worn-out brakes.
Finally, some 1,800 metres and 40 kilometres below where I started, I rolled in La Pintada, a getaway destination for Medellin residents. There were several higher-end resorts on the way into town and the view was dominated by a towering peak to the south. It was almost 6 p.m. and the main street was hopping in anticipation of the World Cup qualifying game between Colombia and Peru. I crossed the Cauca River, found a cheap hotel, showered, and went to grab dinner while watching the game.
The next morning I set my most ambitious goal of the trip – a 115 kilometres with some 2,000 metres of elevation gain to Manizales. I didn’t know if I could make it, but it was worth a shot. The first 60 or so kilometres were filled with undulating hills along the Cauca River, passing through small settlements and countless farms built up the side of the steep slopes above; farming here is not an easy way to make a living.
There was lots of construction going on that slowed progress, and made for many frustrated motorists. At one point I was let through a construction zone, only to be halted partway through by an excavator that was working high up a slope, sending rocks and dirt careening onto the road below. I passed the town of Irra, at which point the road left the Cauca River and began to slowly climb. There was some moderate ups, followed by short downs and at 4 p.m. I found myself at the junction signalling the big hill to Manizales. There was a small guesthouse at the side of the road, but the sign said only 20 kilometres to go. I knew Manizales was 1,000 metres above me, so it would be a tough go after 95 kilometres of riding.
Foolishly, I went for it, figuring that at worst there’d be another guesthouse higher up. It wasn’t long before I contemplated going down. I thought about hitchhiking, but there weren’t any good pullouts. I passed a few gated communities and scattered homes, but not much else. The highway widened to four lanes and trucks, buses and motorcycles roared past as I hugged the shoulder. The climb seemed to steepen and every time it would level off I’d round a corner it would get worse. I stopped more times than I’d care to admit, but slowly but surely, I got closer and closer to Manizales.
By this point it was getting dark and as I wound my way up the mountain, I was treated to the best sunset I’ve seen on this trip. It started off typical red and orange, with the sun slipping away beyond the distant ridge to the west. As the glow faded, I continued, only to round a corner, and see the sun’s rays illuminating the sky in hues of pink and purple. I stopped again to take pictures (and rest). When I thought it was done, I coaxed myself around another curb, where the view was even more spectacular and dramatic before, with a series of ridges basking in the final glow of the setting sun.
The sunset boosted my dragging spirits a bit. I passed a motel called Tu y Yo, but it charged by the six hour block, and I could tell I was not their target market (maybe if I was on a tandem bike?). I reached Manizales, but the city is built on a mountain and the heart of the city is at the top. I still had 150 metres of climbing to go on a steep, busy road and I rested frequently. Finally, 11 hours after I left La Pintada, I found myself turning into town, only a few blocks from the hostel. I got there, only to see that I had to climb up a flight of stairs to get in. I looked for a place to lock my bike when a staffer popped up and confirmed they had beds available. I lugged my bike up the stairs – exhausted and relieved after such a long day.
The GPS track for this route can be found here: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/20079258
(Edit: I forgot to post this after writing it. I’ve been in Manizales for three nights now, but this post is long enough, so you can read all about that later.)
Wow, quite an adventure!