*reposted this as it was deleted when I left my wordpress open in an internet cafe in Peru.
I no longer have to think very long when asked what my favorite country to ride in is. Colombia has shown me what it is made of -mountains and incredible people. Cycling & respect for ciclistas on the road here is huge. What a thrill to be riding the Andean region & the velvet green Eje Cafetero (coffee axis). Some next level majestic riding .
En route to Medellin, climbing 8,200 feet my muscles gasped for air as the temp plummeted and I ascended into the clouds. Plodding uphill, the vistas were spectacular. So far this country has pushed me way further outside of my comfort zone. For the first time on my trip I hit a bump in the road psychologically. I read in the paper about two Colombian cyclists recently killed on the route I had planned to take. Hit & runs happened in my own neighborhood in Brooklyn but I admit I hid under the covers for a few days trying to catch my courage and fire again. Beginning a new continent was a pit in my stomach. I was shaky, excited- I felt like a tiny person with a big fire inside me.
I was coaxed out of my hermit shell by Manuel who I had contacted about staying at his Casa de Ciclstas in San Antonio de Prado. I had to literally ride on a freeway to get there but winding up into the misty countryside, I felt the warm safe beckoning of destiny- a haven of welcoming family to get my bearings. Manuel and his wife Marta built this place on a foundation of love for biking. They have run their bike shop Ciclo Campeón for 15+ years. It is their home, and their actual home has been open to hundreds of traveling cyclists at the Casa de Ciclistas Medellin. An astounding amount of hard work has been put into this place by the family as well as touring cyclists.
A second room was built by mashing clay & yerba by foot for the walls and a bamboo upstairs loft for sleeping. I pored over the guest book for hours, in admiration for each story, every person had their flair – such as panniers made out of plastic tubs. I love how nomads just make it happen in their own way, the resourceful nature of cyclists is astonishing & I am so proud to have met so many pioneers on the road ;some funding their journey as musicians, jugglers, even a clown who has been biking the world for 11 years.
Manuel fixed my brakes which have been in appalling condition since Guatemala & upon his expert advice that I try Sancocho de gallina- a smoky flavored stew with plantains and chicken & Aguardiente- an anise flavored sugar cane liquor. We sat round the kitchen until far too late, where over a hundred cyclists had stayed in their own home -sometimes 11 at a time on their living room floor.
I chuckled when Manuel shot up & looked out the window, announcing Marta was home so that was the last sip & then buenas noches. One bottle & too many chicharrons later with Marta, and many stories I feel honored to have been told & I was nicknamed ´Perra Vieja´ which is the utmost compliment coming from Manuel. They were both up at sunrise for work and killing it as always in their bike shop, that is always buzzing.
Their bike shop is a solid community beacon with kids popping in with questions, or someone getting tuned up before a race. It was amazing to see the time they took with everyone that walked through that door. Reminded me of Brooklyn where you could have the best time hanging out in a bike shop learning, cracking jokes and, of course, snacking. I truly have never seen so many cyclists on the road in Latin America as I did in Medellin. It was such a rush to exchange fist bumps and good energy.
I sort of couldn’t believe I arrived at this legendary clubhouse and had just missed a flow of cyclists staying there. I heard of another Yankee, Damon who got confused and was nabbed by good-intended casa ciclista imposters. I tracked him down and we decided to hit the road together for a spell. He had driven a car through Mexico & Central America and met a cycle tourist who inspired him to sell his car & continue his journey to Argentina by bike. He wrote to tell him the profound effect he had & found out his trip had recently ended due to a severe illness and so, it was like a torch was passed.
It was great riding with someone with such an appreciation and enthusiasm for the beauty of the road. After a massive climb out of Medellin, Damon exclaimed he couldn’t believe he hadn’t been doing this all along.
On a hectic four lane highway towards Versalles, there was a Sunday buzz of cyclists. Rain dumped down in buckets but we charged on, grooving on all the buena onda. Pretty often I get a powerful waft of butter in the air which means a panaderia is near, we would hit these up for bread & pastries stuffed with cheese & guava paste in it, dynamite fuel. I was happy to be climbing in cool weather even if I was soaked to the bone. The oncoming lane was jammed with semi trucks, some of them barely able to snake around the curves, it was over 30 kilometers of slow climbing and once we hit Santa Barbara it was down hill flying. I white knuckle it, unable to shake the memory of Guatemala- hitting a surprise a speed bump ripping full force downhill. Panniers really wreck havoc when they fly off, I’m still trying to find a better way to secure the front ones which I am not a fan of.
After 71k we reached the little town of Pintada. We hadn’t stopped to eat lunch and the two official camping spots were a joke at $13 per person. We talked to some ladies near a soccer field and I found myself surrounded by little kids on rollerskates, skateboards and a toddler named Dulce was climbing on my bike like a jungle gym. They said we could camp next to the “conch” which was actually a massive event style tent with plastic tarps extending it in the back. Once we set our tents up, surrounded by fire flies I realized there was a family, maybe two living in the tent. The guard for the lot next door offered us water and a bathroom.
The next morning we followed the river with a dodgy past, Rio Cauca between the West & Central Andes and then through glorious vast expanses of rolling hills and farmland.
The only break in the 30,000 mile Pan American Highway is the Darien Gap- home to native peoples Embera-Wounaan and Kuna and armed drug smugglers. I like that there is a place that exists that is virtually off limits to travelers. Taking a plane was not in the spirit of my journey so I opted for a sailboat ride through the San Blas islands. Remarkably beautiful, the of the 378 islands 49 are inhabited and belong to the fiercely independent Kunas. I swam to a few of them, and was charged a few dollars by Kuna people who were living there, fishing and selling hand stitched molas to make money. Some of the islands are cartoonish in simplicity- just a conch shell and a palm tree. There are far more bad ass ways to cross:
I did not ride the 40k to the port in Carti. It would have been 2 days of uphill pushing my bike carrying an insane reserve of wáter. I took a car for the first time on my route. I have a great amount of respect for the few cyclists who have ridden this fabulous beast of a road.
We had one rough night on the open sea. I slept out on the step of the bow and woke up, waves splashing my face, slipping towards the edge in my wet sleeping bag wondering if I would be pitched off the boat. The moon was shining bright and the 85ft. Independence rocked mightily to the rhythm of the sea. The day before I swam (with a giant foam noodle) out to a shipwreck & was reminded of how powerful the ocean is. Everyone tucked into different nooks of the deck, we drank slightly salty desalinated water which is, as captain put it “the best water you can drink”. There was plenty of amazing folks, comedic distraction & rum to appease my rumbling guts.
Slovenian Cap’n Michele told me that I was just a backpacker like everyone else, that he rode a bike through Yugoslavia with a backpack, knife, matches & no money in his pocket. A true salty dog, with stories of brawls that ended with 7 thugs cornering him in an alley and, “let’s just say it was bad luck for them”. End of story. He taught us some martial art moves before we left the boat. Majo, a fierce Colombian licensed cap’n onboard who made bets against Michele’s navigating. “Just shut up and get your wallet”, she would say before the sea confirmed her as winner, always.
Zig zagging my way through town to find the immigration office, no one seemed content give me directions, but rather show me the way, leading me up bridges or down to the corner & mime the rest of the route. It is in these hectic times I feel pretty ashamed of all the times, living in NYC I barely gave tourists the time of day for directions, rushing back from a 30 minute lunch break. A man aptly called ‘El Gordo’ met me with my stamped passport and I spent all day & the next eating fruits I never knew existed, walking around the forts of old town and soaking in the luscious colors and champeta beats on a Sunday in Cartagena.
Two defected crew from the boat, amazing Colombian guys who invited everyone to stay in their homes in Cartagena. “Stay as long as you want!” seems to be a Colombian mantra. had an epic party which I skipped to get an early start on riding. Bad call, as Mamallenas hostal is fun but not a place to catch sleep. My bed was near a bathroom where some very strange things took place. Almost as if I had lost sense of time on the boat, I felt disoriented and definitely not in the game. Packing up and getting back in the saddle I felt like I was moving in slow motion and launched myself into the midst of the morning rush hour, passing a naked man face down in the gutter. There was a maze of a bustling street market, scooters darting along side of me, the energy was combustible and after pulling over for a ‘papa relleno’ which is a fried ball of mashed potatoes with a hard boiled egg in the middle and a fresh squeezed OJ (seriously the juice scene here is out of control) I was feeling more like myself. I love stopping for snacks & instantly a chair appears out of nowhere and a small crew of grandpas come over to make you laugh, one guy just kept calling me tour de France. It´s nearly impossible not to stop and talk to all the friendly folks. Such is the beauty of travelling by bike. You stop for a fresh squeezed fruit juice or tinto (sugar flavored with coffee) and it can lead you to the most fascinating places that you have never even heard of. I think of my life back in the US, f I were to greet everyone I pass I would seem absolutely mad.
I oiled my salt crusted chain and was ready to run with the chaotic pack of busses and motos which bottle necked and squeezed with a strangely melodic cadence. Leaving behind sweat puddles as I rolled through tiny towns with massive speakers cranking champeta music, sleep deprivation working its auto-pilot powers, I realized in San Cayetano that I missed my turn off but serendipitously ran into Daniel and Marco from Guadalajara who I met on the boat and are headed to Argentina on motorcycles. I felt how small the world can be with all of our journeys tangling with one another. These familiar faces and collaborative woohooing gave me a boost in the relentless Colombian sun.
I asked a family sitting on their porch if I could camp. The grandmother waved me in & we passed the evening in cow hide chairs while I listened to all the gossip and met countless neighbors strolling by all of them asking why I was alone with the same pleading look and scolding me for being sunburned. The toilet was in the yard next to a “perro bravo” that would have happily to eaten me alive if I went unescorted. I held it all night long, not wanting to wake anyone and sleep was far from mine when I, mat on the living room floor, saw a few squeaking rats run by my head. I cinched up in my boiling sleeping bag & woke up in the morning to sweet coffee and a breakfast of corn balls and cheese, very tasty.
A week in Panama
I had to get to Panama City to catch my boat so this was like boot camp for me, riding with no distractions head down on the heat cranked PanAm Hwy. Giant whole pink fish hung from street vendor stands and plastic bags with a cornucopia a week’s worth of veggies dotted the road as well as a surprising number of men standing purposefully with a green bird on a stick..never figured that one out. I was stopped by police and plucked off the hwy and “guided” through an intensely rough neighborhood, the next day four cops piled out of the car to tell me it was too dangerous to be riding my bike on the PanAm but when I told them I had rode from LA they just said to be careful, and that this was no LA. My mind reeled at the thought of how trecherous it would be to ride a bike on the highway in LA. When my little sister was learning to drive I told her not to honk too much, that horn fluid was expensive. In Panama I wished there was such a thing as car horn fluid. It seemed every car gave a toot in passing and in the blazing heat it got old. I had an ear infection that I got from a firework spark (seriously) I think got infected in one of the many bodies of water I had been splashing about/bathing in. Panama has free insurance for tourists, IF you fly in.
Leaving San Juan Oriente a cyclist mirage turned out to be real when I saw Chris & Mel who started in Ushuaia a year ago & are on their way to Alaska. We stood melting in the sun on the roadside I could not tear myself away from their crazy stories and great advice. They passed on their Colombia map and I was flying high on good vibes, so psyched for South America after meeting them. I camped with a family that had offered us shade and coconut water. An uncle was out back making wine from the sap of a palm tree which is very acidic and fruity..and strong.
Their teenage kids took cell phone photos sitting next to me in my tent in the living room. The next morning while Aunt Rosita fought with her brother about politics and anything she could think of I made coffee and oatmeal on the porch with my beer can hobo stove for everyone and their mom cooked us eggs and plantains, she also gave me a blessing when I left where she made a cross and then struck my forehead with her palm which I was not expecting but I will take all the blessings I can get.
About 5 years ago I flew with Cristian to see his family that he had not seen in 10 years due to an immigration mess. Riding my bike back to Tocumen to deliver a hug to his mom was really amazing for me. The town looks so different but his 86 year old mother is as strong as ever, she was really excited that we can have a real conversation in Spanish now. There was a lot to catch up on!