Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle


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Cali es Cali…

‘Cali es Cali y lo demás es loma!’, meaning ‘Cali is Cali and the rest is [just] mountains’, is a famous catchphrase for the people of Cali. Living on the (sugar cane) plains, it’s basically their way of saying why Cali is better than the rest of Colombia, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way. Cali is the third largest of Colombia’s main cities (Bogotá, Medellín and Cali) and the other two are indeed right up in the mountains.

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Changing Landscapes

Following the previous short day, I planned to ride a longer 120km to a town called Buga. Most of the first half of the day would be downhill, so I was still expecting that it would be a fairly easy ride. What I hadn’t anticipated was just how much the landscape and would change – visible most significantly in the varying fruit and veg growing at the side of the road.

I started off in the familiar territory of the coffee and avocado plantations, with their little button trees dotting the hillsides.

As I descended and the temperature warmed, these soon morphed into banana and plantain trees, casting long shadows with their fingery leaves

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The tallest palm trees you ever did see

Next stop out of Salento was to visit the stunning Valle de Cocora which stretches away from the town and runs right up into the mountains.

Time for another ride, this time on the back of a Willys Jeep from the main plaza in Salento, to get to the start of the hike. I rather enjoyed myself, although I do still get strangely nervous travelling in vehicles now as I’ve got so accustomed to the slower pace of a bicycle.

The Valle de Cocora is famous for the dizzyingly tall palmas de cera (wax palm trees) – Colombia’s national tree and the largest of the world’s palm trees, growing up to 60m tall.

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In the Zona Cafetera

The stunning view out across the coffee zone from the small town of Filandia

After relaxing all the way to my core in Santa Rosa de Cabal, I was ready for the next bit of climbing to take me up (yep, more hills!) to my first night proper in the coffee zone, staying on a family ‘finca’ (a farm, or smallholding). Stopping just at the top of the turn off to the small town of Filandia, I arrived at Finca Campestre La Adelita, run by an amazing woman called Sonia, with the help of her son Pablo.

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Heading up, up and up

Me and Snarky Puppy, loaded up and ready to set off again from Medellín

After a fantastic week with Team Sara(h) it was finally time to hit the road again. I was setting off early to avoid the midday heat given the 35km climb I had ahead. Sara-Ann, Sarah G and Sarah R had all got up early to wave me off (and thanks to them, I have this rare pic of me with my bike).

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The light and dark sides of Medellín

The next day we arrived together to Medellín, with plenty more exploring to do.

Medellín, Pablo Escobar and the Drug Cartels

For our first morning we had a tour to visit some of the old locations previously used by Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel. It is no secret that the drug cartels were the cause of extreme violence in Colombia during the 1980s and early 1990s, with Escobar being a significant component of making Medellín the cocaine capital of the world. Medellín and Bogotá had some of the highest homicide rates on the plane. According to a statement by Colombia’s Defence Minister, in 1993 Bogotá had a rate of murders per 100,000 residents – now significantly reduced, to 15.8 in 2016. Colombia has just experienced it’s lowest murder rate since 1974 when the drugs wars first began.

The violence finally began to abate from 1993 onwards, following the death of Escobar (things have also continued to improve with the more recent peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC). Medellín is now a far safer place. Many Paisa’s (people of Medellín) today are sick of hearing Escobar’s name and are fed up of the city’s identity being tied to a murderous criminal. There is optimism in the air and people want to move on.

But I’m afraid given it’s such an extreme history (brought even further into the popular mainstream by the Netflix series Narcos – which Paisas are also very critical of), not least given how one man apparently managed to wrap (bribe/blackmail) an entire country’s government round his little finger, that curiosity got the better of us. So we went to see a few of the remaining sites in the city that marked the rise and fall of the Medellín cartel:

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