From our first days riding in Colombia, we noticed three things.
First is that people are very curious about us. Lucie and I have become a four-wheeled conversation starter. If we even slow down on the bikes, we find ourselves locked in discussion with someone. When we stop, we become the centre of a spontaneous town meeting. People in cars and motorcycles chat us up as though they weren’t holding up a mile of traffic. No one is the least bit aggressive or intrusive, just genuinely interested and not afraid of approaching us.
Second is that Colombia doesn’t seem to have discovered hypocrisy. Sincerity rules. Lucie got yelled at for not saying “good day” to the attendant on her way out of a public washroom. As we took leave of our first host, (a corn farmer whose field we camped in), she said, “I enjoyed talking with you, it was great getting to know a bit about you.” On a dairy farm two nights later, we were completely exhausted and lay down in the tent shortly after arriving. Minutes later the ranchers came over and said “Wake up, come talk with us!” Heroically, Lucie and I rose to the call, and of course had a great night laughs and food.
Third is that people are incredibly generous and hospitable. If people keep feeding us the way they have been, we’ll never have to refill the camp stove. Almost every morning, someone comes around the tent with two cups of sweet, strong coffee. Early one day just after we’d just started out, a dairy farmer on the way to his ranch passed us on his motorcycle. He stopped and asked if we’d had breakfast. “Oatmeal?” he cried, disgusted. “Follow me. I’ll give you hot yucca and fresh suero!” (a tasty raw milk paste where sour cream meets cream cheese). “Then you’ll have the strength to face the day!” A couple of coffees and a couple of pounds of delicious grub later, we rolled back onto the highway grinning and rubbing our bellies. Yesterday, a random dude in a restaurant paid for our lunch and invited us to stay at his home a couple hundred kilometers further down the road! We were warned about how amazing this country is from other cyclists who have gone before, but the reality far surpasses all of our preconceptions.
Still, we noticed an apparent contradiction when we started asking for places to camp. As the sun would get low, we’d look for a finca or ranch, roll up, introduce ourselves and say we wanted to pitch our tent and rest for the night if it wasn’t too much trouble. For the first time in months we got turned down, not just once but several times in a row. “The owner isn’t here” they’d say. The owner? We were confused. Was this some kind of cop out? Why would tenants need to consult the owner about our modest request? Why were the owners never at home? We theorized about some kind of Colombian serfdom that had survived through the ages. I thought that maybe people were reticent about helping strangers for safety reasons. We’d heard of cruel reprisals against those who assist either the guerrillas or the paramilitary, of entire families killed for having supplied so much as a glass of water to the wrong side.
A couple of nights ago we got our answer while talking with Maria, one of our hosts on yet another dairy farm. Kidnapping for ransom was big business about ten years ago, with instances numbering in the thousands annually. While there are now fewer than 200 kidnappings per year, targets are often ranch owners with collateral and cash. It’s still common practice, therefore, for said ranch owners to live in a nearby town and commute each day and for a caretaker family to live on-site full time. We had been approaching only ranches, and only after 5 p.m. Ha! Mystery solved!
If you’ve been following the map, you’ve realized by now that we’re taking a meandering route across Colombia. We had hoped to land in Cartagena, but fate took us to less glamorous Turbo instead. Cartagena is an elegant colonial city with fortified walls built in the 16th century to keep out pirates. Turbo, we’ve heard, has actual, 21st century pirates and no deterring walls nor canons. We didn’t hang out in Turbo very long, though it seemed pretty hopping. We were determined to see Cartagena, though, even though locals told us it was “very very very very touristy.” We eventually learned that very very very very touristy by Colombian standards is kind of sort of touristy.
Getting to Cartagena meant riding northeast (ack! the wrong way!) for four days from Turbo. After a couple of dreamy days walking around the old city and nights sleeping on a Californian’s boat in the bay, we turned southeast. We hugged the Venezuelan border for a day or so before heading southwest. Now we’re starting to see signs for Bogota, which is encouraging. We rode some huge days (130 km/day average for four days in a row) over flat land to make it to Barrancabermeja for Lucie’s birthday. “Barranca” is the hometown of Yesica Mendoza, one of Lucie’s competitors in last year’s World Cup race in Montreal. While Yesica had to leave town for a race, her parents Roger and Francie hosted us and helped make Lucie’s birthday one to remember. There was cake. There were burgers and beers. There was a big bouncing flashing blinking diesel discotheque bus that took us on a nocturnal tour of the city (see video).
From here, we’ll ride our final flat miles of the trip before soaring a couple of thousand meters up to Bogota, where we hope to spend a few days resting up and cooling off. The only negative aspect to report from Colombia so far is the extremely hot climate in the lowlands. I’ve had trouble getting more than a couple of hours of sleep per night for the heat and humidity. While Lucie seems to thrive in the sweltering tropics, I’m looking forward to chilly mornings and a renewed need for wool.
Now to wind up this long-winded post with some breaking news: We’re going to try to make it to Argentina after all. That means flying back to Montreal from Lima, Peru for Lucie’s sister’s wedding in August, then flying back to Lima in September to finish our ride south. We don’t know if this is actually possible. But then this entire adventure was supposedly impossible from the start. Despite a shoestring budget and minimal preparation, we’ve still managed to embark on the adventure of a lifetime by the sheer force of our enthusiasm. We knew last year that putting it off would likely mean never setting out, and we’ve never regretted our choice (even if we sometimes miss home, our families and friends). So if you want to keep us pedaling south, vote “yes” with a donation (or some air miles)! Or just send some positive thoughts our way.
Hope all is well wherever you are.