Colombia by Bicycle

Written by Evan

After a long journey to back to Colorado, we spent a very quick week seeing many friends in both Denver and Fort Collins, and took numerous trips to stores to get our bikes and gear all in order, we finally made it to Colombia with our bikes!  A HUGE thanks to Marcia and Rick (Michelle’s aunt and uncle) for letting stay at their place for the week, wonderful hospitality, good food, and letting us use their cars.

Although our motorcycle trip ended in Guatemala, we decided to head straight to Colombia for a variety of reasons – most importantly because we did not want to deal with the expense and hassle of figuring our way around the Darien Gap from Panama to Colombia after the logistical headache and expense of the motorcycle breakdown.

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Christmas celebrations with the Murphy family! Thanks to Murph’s parents for the  delicious surf and turf!
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Sunday brunch at Andy and Oana’s with Denver area friends!

 

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Saying goodbye to Marcia and Rick at the airport

 

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We landed at 8:30 pm in Mexico City (for our overnight layover) and had to bring or bikes through Mexico customs prior to re-checking them for our next flight leg; however, we were unable to recheck them until midnight. Here, we were waiting in the cold open air airport until midnight before heading to our hotel for a quick sleep.

We arrived late Christmas night in Cartagena, but not with our bikes. They were still somewhere in the Bogota airport – we put in a lost baggage ticket with the airline, then were on our way to our hostel, hoping our bikes packed with all of our gear and clothes would show up before long. Right as we were headed to bed, the hostel doorbell rang, and our bikes arrived. We were very lucky; 1. The nighttime ride back to the hostel from the airport would have been dangerous to say the least, given the neighborhood we were in, and 2. Putting the bikes together in the airport would be time consuming, very sweaty, and frustrating after a long two days of traveling! A quick taxi ride was much easier!

 

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Assembling our bikes at the hostel in Cartagena

As the trip had been on a bit of a rough patch, the roughness continued on our second day in Colombia as we were searching for a bike shop. A Google search yielded a nice looking shop on the other side of town – turns out the shop was not there, and took us through some rough neighborhoods. We eventually found a shop, got Michelle’s damaged brake cable housing fixed (nixed in air transit), and were on our way. The way back into downtown was on an extremely busy three lane road – it was classic Latin America – endless motorcycles and buses, crazy and exciting. We were feeling the pain of not being on our motos, as bikes are not fun in these situations. Anyways – I took out Michelle’s phone for a quick photo, and before I knew it, her phone was ripped out of my hand by a passing motorcyclist. Well, welcome to Colombia! (So, FYI: Michelle no longer has access to her old phone number). To top it off, on our ride back to the hostel, through the rough neighborhood, a nasty guy on a moto started blowing Michelle kisses – she brushed him off, and he just laughed. Needless to say we were less than impressed with Cartagena – the downtown is old and historic, but the rest of the city is gritty, dirty, and hot! While I should not have taken the phone out, it was crazy how quick it happened – it was out for seconds. The passing motorist reached across my body with his throttle hand and grabbed Michelle’s phone out of my right hand.  Is this the norm, or just really bad luck – pulled it out at the wrong place at wrong time? We were feeling quite down and not psyched to get on the open road. On the motorcycle you have so much more power, on bicycle you are much more exposed to the surroundings. This is an appeal though, but we have been very careful now with placement of our phones on our bikes.

The next morning we finally got underway. The route out of the city took us through the same road that the phone was stolen on – the road was equally crazy, with two out of place bike tourers among a sea of motos zigzagging through buses and taxis. At one point, a moto pulled up, but this time had a mountain bike tire in hand, and asked if it was ours. It was – we are carrying 2 tires each to put on our bike when we get to Ecuador. It was extremely nice and probably quite hard to bring us the tire that fell off. He would’ve seen us, a tire on the ground, stopped in traffic then caught up and gave it to us. This is just the start of the friendliness and hospitality of the Colombian people. This brightened our mood a lot, and reminded us that the vast majority of people are good, and that the open road is indeed a great place to be!

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Leaving our hostel in Cartagena on day 1

 

We took the first day very easy with a short ride to Playa Blanca for a nights stay in a basic cabana on the beach. We had an early start the next couple of days as we eased into riding and dealt with the crazy heat and humidity. We took a day off in Tolu over New Year’s weekend, and spent the night in the hotel restaurant with some Medellin locals, who invited us to their New Year’s dinner, complete with Aguadiente (Colombian liquor) and Sangria.

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Walking our bikes to a cabana on Playa Blanca
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Dinner view over the Caribbean

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First of many stops for refreshing road side juice (freshly squeezed!)
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Dirt road heading to Tolu
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New Years in Tolu with locals
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Tolu sunset

 

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Amazing bike paths heading into Monteria on New Years Day
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New Years Day dinner at the grocery store- literally no where else was open! We were lucky to find a good meal after a long day of riding.

The next few days were spent riding towards the mountains as fast as possible (sometimes on some of the best bike paths I have ever been on) – we couldn’t get out of the heat fast enough! We finally arrived in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, and started a full day ascent from near sea level to over 8000 feet. The climb was STEEP and initially extremely hot and humid. Midway through the heat subsided and we entered into the clouds – a bit of rain, lots of fog, low visibility, big trucks, and lots of encouragement from cars and motos brought us to the top of the pass just before dark, and we ended with a quick 1000 foot descent into the friendly small city of Yarumal. We quickly found a hotel, and went out to get a fantastic meal for $2.50 – complete with soup, beans, rice, meat, and juice. We planned on taking an easy day off – which turned into three, as I came down with my second bout of food poising this trip – complete with fever, diarrhea, and complete lack of energy. Days were spent recovering for me and going to the local panaderia underneath our hotel for numerous loafs of the best pan de queso (cheese bread) we have ever had. This area of Colombia has many dairy farms, so good cheese is everywhere.

 

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En route to the Andes
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Andean foothills
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Rio San Jorge
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Passionfruit!
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Best meal in Colombia – menu of the day in Caucasia
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$6 Hotel along river
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Midway through 1st climb into the Andes
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Feeling good!

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We turned the corner and realized we were definitely NOT at the top like we thought.
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A quick stop before our last push to the top of the long climb. Darkness was falling, we should have started earlier!
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Top of the painful 8000k climb, before a quick descent into Yarumal
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Yarumal building
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Miguel – our tour guide to the viewpoint of Yarumal
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Above Yarumal
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75 Cent pant repair

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Recovering from food poisoning and fever

 

Eventually we were back on the road, and arrived 2 days later in Medellin, former city of Pablo Escobar. While the city used to be one of the most dangerous in the world, today it is thriving with tourism and business, all most likely helped by the fantastic scenery and weather. On the ride into Medellin, we were passed by many road cyclists, many curious to where we were from and where we are going. Cars and trucks in Colombia are very tolerant of cyclists, and Medellin is the epitome of a city friendly to cyclists. The bikes frequently take a whole lane to themselves, and cars and trucks are very patient and courteous to riders. The USA could use a lesson from Colombia on how to treat cyclists!

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Green grasses of the Colombian Andes on our two day descent into Medellin
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Dairy Country
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Michelle’s bike taking a breather from the hills
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Viewpoint near Sasn Carlos

 

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Intermittent bike path into Medellin

After Medellin we headed up a steep 3000+ foot climb, followed by a truck choked descent of 5000 feet.  On descents we are pretty aggressive – and are always faster than trucks, leading to some exciting passing maneuvers.  The next day was a bit of a bust – we were planning to ride a 5000 ascent up a pass followed by an equal descent, but Michelle took a spill on the wet morning road before the climb.  After about 1000 feet of slow hot climbing, Michelle’s head and knee were really bothering her from the crash, so we found a hotel (vastly overpriced, but not in the mood to shop around) and called it a day.  We finished up the climb the next day, and enjoyed a fast traffic free descent into the hot lowlands of the Valle del Cauca region of Colombia, where we made quick work of the 175 miles of flat riding, until hitting the hills again for an undulating and steep ride to the old colonial city of Popayan, also known as “the white city” due to its white colonial architecture through the historic downtown area.  We took a few off days to take care of chores and relax at our quiet hostel.

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It is rather common to see boys hanging off the back of large trucks on the big hill ascents.  Once on the top, they ride like hell down the long descents.

 

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Start of a cold rainy descent – we have had more rain in Colombia than all of the previous parts of the trip combined!
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Small stream draining into the Rio Cauca
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Slick morning roads take Michelle out!
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Steep climbing
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More climbing!
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Endless climbing!
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Typical $2 menu of the day plate (plus soup and juice).  We often substitute the meat portion for eggs.
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Fields of Sugarcane in the Valle del Cauca
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Our first flat tire of the trip (moto or bicycle)

 

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Popayan – The White City

 

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Road grim and grit

 

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Popayan Overlook
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Classic Michelle yawn on our rest day in Popayan
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Church door in Popayan

The day after leaving Popayan, the skies opened with ferocity.  Hard rain all night and into the following day, left rivers flooded and us very wet.  As quickly as the rain began, dry blue skies brought us into Pasto – it was the worst and best weather of the trip within 24 hours.  One more day of climbing brought us to Ipiales, on the Colombia – Ecuador border.

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Flooded river – hard rain all night and morning!

 

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Wringing out socks after a morning of riding in heavy rain
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One of the few long sections of bad road we had comes to an end
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Arepa con Queso drenched in butter- greasy goodness for the next 6000 ft of climbing

 

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Colombia!

 

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Spectacular landscape on a long climb to Pasto
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A local joined us for the second day of our climb to Pasto
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Last meal in Colombia – Chorizo, Lentils, Rice, and Potato

Colombia has been interesting, as it is a very diverse country – the culture has changed so much as we moved through the coast, mountains, and valleys – from the Afro-Colombian coastal areas, to the bucolic dairy lands that dot the Andean hillsides, and to the modern cities of Medellin, Popayan, and Pasto.  We enjoyed the endless climbs through the Andes on (mostly) very smooth clean pavement and, of course, the wild descents.  Although we miss the vibrant markets and tasty tacos in Mexico and the incredible avocados in Guatemala, we really l0ved being able to count on roadside fresh juices (no sugar added!), the hearty menu of the day dinners, and all the tasty cheese breads. But, most importantly we could not get over the amazing cycling culture!  Aside from soccer, cycling is their other major sport, and it is quite obvious how welcome cyclists are in every community and on every road.

We are enjoying being on the bicycles – the interaction with locals is much higher than our days on the moto.  We can’t blast through towns fast on a bicycle and we are forced to stay in random locations because we simply cannot go any further.  These are all good things as we get to see a place and country for what it truly is, and not just the perspective that the major cities/tourist destinations give.

We did not take an adventurous route through Colombia – but instead used the Pan American Highway to get back into cycling shape after many months off our bicycles – and to prepare our legs and lungs for the more challenging future dirt routes through the Andes Mountains.  None the less, we have really enjoyed Colombia and highly recommend it to any bicycle tourer looking for challenging climbs, good roads, excellent bakeries, and a thriving bicycle culture.  For info on our bike set up, you can check out our ABOUT section.

Also in the ABOUT section, we added the link to the last time our SPOT GPS recorded our location. We try to check in with our GPS tracker at least once every couple days for anyone interested in our whereabouts between blog posts.

Colombia Stats:

  • 980 Miles
  • 74,000 Feet Climbing
  • 19 Days of Riding
  • 9 Non Riding Days

Map:

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14 thoughts on “Colombia by Bicycle

  1. Oh my gosh, someone snatched a phone right out of your hand in Cartagena! That’s nuts.

    I just saw a piece on Medellin about how it has turned in to a thriving and pretty city, nice to see it’s actually true! Great pictures and stories as always, you guys.

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  2. What imcredible adventures you are having on this amazing trip! Thank you for letting us live vicariously through you. The pictures and stories are all very cool. Enjoyed the new link so we can stay up to date on your location. Stay safe 😍
    Love, Aunt Patty & Uncle Carl

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  3. Hi, What an awesome trip! Cannot tell you how much we have enjoyed reading your descriptive, adventurous tale. We admire your fortitude and envy you all the fantastic sights you are enjoying. Keep having the time of your lives. Love you, Gram & Gramps

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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  4. This trip becomes more impressive with each new blog.
    Memories for a lifetime !
    Looking forward to your next blog.
    Be safe
    Love Aunt Colleen and Uncle Michael

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  5. Devoured your post–thank you for sharing! I love the addition of the GPS link and will follow along. You both are so inspiring and I cant wait to read more. Be safe and have fun!
    Jennifer

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  6. hi guys, we are the English couple walking down from the Lagunas de Mojanda in Ecuador, whilst you were cycling up the long cobbled road. We got back home just now, and enjoyed reading about your travels. Shame about the phone theft in Cartagena. We had nothing but nice experiences in our four weeks in Colombia a few years ago. It probably doesn’t help that cruise ships regularly stop in Cartagena, and as a result that city becomes horribly touristy and that is probably when the thieves are most active! I hope Ecuador has been wonderful.
    Chrissie & Rob

    Like

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