For the next week or so I ride across the flat planes of the Caribbean coast of Colombia. I get used to getting up before 6am to set off early before the heat of the day hits. By 11am it is 35C degrees, and by the time I reach a town called Sincelejo a few days in from the coast, I see the thermometer hit 45C. This place is not for the feint hearted!
Somehow I thought the landscape would be bare, but it isn’t at all – it’s lush and green and there are many small farms along the way, with cows with big floppy ears. Presumably the ears help them get rid of the flies and create a small breeze in the heat. They are often accompanied by little white birds eating the leftovers they spill I think.
I am gradually adjusting to being in a new country with a very distinct culture from those I’ve come from further south. Here life is lived outside. I pass little children running about in their birthday suits sometimes staring or pointing or (best!) waving hello, and old people sitting out on their porches, in a rocking chair in the shade, watching the world go by. Others are working, and many of the men walk along carrying machetes for their work in the fields.
The locals here seem fascinated by me and my bike – I’m riding a bike through Colombia that’s not a racing bike (of which there are many). And a woman, and a gringa, and alone! I get peppered with questions, sometimes by people from their motorbikes or cars, who wind down their windows and slow down to drive beside me as I pedal along the road: ‘ Where have you come from?”, ‘Where are you going?”, ‘Where are you from?”, ‘What’s in your bags?’, ‘What do you think of Colombia?’. Everyone is friendly and smiles and many give me the thumbs up. I get lots of beeps and waves. A lot of people tell me I’m beautiful which makes me laugh. A lot of people tell me ‘Bien! Bien!’ (Good! Good!) with an approving nod. It’s nice to feel like my efforts (and sweat in all this heat!) is appreciated.
Riding along the road between 6.30 – 8.30am is magical. The temperature is in the 20C’s and there is a slight breeze keeping my skin cool and dry. The sun comes up gradually to my left, but it’s then amazing how quickly it rises in the sky and shines over the tops of the trees. By 9am my side of the road is completely in the sun and the temperature gets into the 30Cs. With the increasing humidity the sweat stops evaporating off my arms and they start to glisten. By 10am it might start going over 40C and sweat drips from my brow and elbows.
Favourite time of the day – riding along shady avenues in the early morning
I take care to cover myself in factor 50 sun cream and drink lots of water (which I’m usually terrible at doing). But that has one downside – all the fields are fenced off, often with electric wire if it’s a cattle farm. And every time I look down a track there’s a house, or a motorbike, or someone there. It’s very difficult to find places to pee! Thankfully there are quite a few petrol stations and toll booths along the way, so I get used to using a proper loo for a change, rather than hovering behind a bush like I have been doing for most of the past 6 months. Even better, Colombians provide loo paper in their bathrooms – that’s a pleasant first for me in South America, where up until now I’ve always had to be very careful to carry my own!
The Coastal Road
I’d been warned by a number of cyclists that the road leading just out of Cartagena was a bit dicey. Some had experienced being robbed here by two guys on a motorbike wielding a machete, who had presumably clocked on to this road being a popular cycle-tourer route with us as easy pickings. So I was a bit nervous setting off, and had made sure to stash my cash and other valuables throughout my bags, and not have it all in my handlebar bag. A good precaution to take regardless. I timed my departure from Cartagena to set off at first sunlight on a Sunday morning – the day of the week that cycling-crazy Colombians all get out on their bikes. In the end I just had plenty of lycra-clad company along the road and more waves and thumbs-up than anything untoward.
My first stop was just outside a town called Palenque. This town has an extraordinary history. It was originally founded four hundred years ago by escaped African slaves. These slaves had been used to build the city walls in Cartagena, and to construct other forts surrounding the city. A former African king, Benkos Biohó, had been sold into slavery but subsequently escaped from Cartagena. He led a group of 30-40 escaped men to set up their own small army and eventually founded San Basilio de Palenque some time in the early 17th century. From here, they also helped other escaped slaves to safety.
In 1612, the governor of Cartagena, embarrassed by their continuing resistance, signed a peace treaty with the people of Palenque, making it the first free slave town in the Americas. Ever since, the people of Palenque have protected their culture, including speaking Palenquero – the only Spanish-Bantú spoken on earth (I’d been struggling to understand people in this area and now I knew why!!). They also continue to practice traditional dance and music and a number of famous Colombian musicians, actors and boxers were born there.
View from my room just outside Palenque – palm trees and tropical heat
There was a lot of Palenquean graffiti on the walls. In Cartagena, you see women in brightly dressed clothes carrying baskets on their heads and selling candied fruits in the street. These ladies come from Palenque.
My first proper meal here away from a tourist strip – fried fish, coconut rice and patacones – twice-fried green plantain patties.
Adjusting to life back on the road
Here are a few reflections from my first week or so on the road, and what makes Colombia a fantastic place to cycle:
Accommodation: all along the road there are trucker stops, generally paired with a petrol station, where truck drivers can stay the night for about 20,000 COP (£5). They aren’t the quietest places for obvious reasons, but I’ve been impressed how clean they are. The rooms often even have the option of coming with an en-suite bathroom and A/C! Best of all, Colombians seem to like hard beds – so I haven’t had to suffer at all from saggy-mattresses which were ten-a-penny further south. I haven’t yet touched my tent since I’ve been here (which is good because I’d probably be boiled alive inside it if I tried to camp). Everyone also seems to just expect that you’ll want to keep the bicycle in your room, which means no waking up to noises in the night, wondering if someone’s trying to make off with it outside.
The view from my room in a classic trucker stop / petrol station combo – a very comfy bed and even had good wifi. Unfortunately for this place though, the truck outside my room was carrying refrigerated food, so its generator turned on and off throughout the night. I was cursing the staff in the hostal back in Ushuaia who threw away my ear plugs!
Sunset from another trucker stop
Food: As with the motels, there are small local places to eat everywhere. The trucker stops will often also have a restaurant downstairs. They will generally sell ‘corriente’ – which means meal of the day – and usually includes a soup, a main course (generally chicken, fish or beef with rice or fries, a little salad and an arepa (corn bread)), and a glass of fruit juice. These meals can get a little repetitive if you’re having them every day, but for £3 are great value to fill yourself up.
A ‘corriente’ main course with meat, rice, salad and frijoles (refried beans)
Street food – I miscalculated one evening and missed out on getting a proper meal for dinner. This town had lots of small street food stalls alongside the main square, including these potato and cheese patties – very naughty but super tasty! The lady with the baby was giving this guy a really hard time, teasing him mercilessly when I asked to take his photo.
Street hawkers congregate round the statue of some Spanish conquistador or another – presumably the founder of the town
Fruit juice: There are so many different types of fruit in Colombia it’s insane. And the sun shines so much they are sweet and juicy. Most of the water in Colombia is drinkable which means you can enjoy a refreshing fresh fruit juice with ice at the side of the road without the risk of getting sick.
In the intense heat, I loved this drink of crushed watermelon and ice with just a little syrup
These two young guys had come to Colombia from Venezuela, where the current internal conflict meant they’d lost their livelihoods. They were working hard to try and find a new footing in Colombia, selling food and drink on the roadside (as many others also do). This old guy was a local who came to sit and chat with them every day whilst enjoying a cup of juice. I was also delighted to find that Colombians also have the concept of ñapa (giving you a top-up) which I’d first heard about in Bolivia and Peru. This chap gave me a whole second cup, saying I looked like I needed it (yup, I was a sweaty mess at the time!).
Fruit carts selling fresh fruit and juice on the streets
Churches & Plazas: Every Colombian town has a central plaza and church – a legacy from the Spanish. They are great places to sit and watch the world go by in the shade of some palm trees (and also usually have free wifi). I love how the central churches in Colombia always have their doors open. People pop in and out to say a quick prayer or to attend part of a service which they may join or leave part-way through. They often have small kids running about between the aisles. Of course the weather helps, but it is also a much more relaxed and welcoming approach to worship than I’ve seen in the UK.
The beautiful central church in Monteria
‘The door is always open’ – people worshipping at the central church in Sincelejo. The church doors opened out directly onto the main plaza.
Friendly people: The people I’ve met so far have been so friendly. Colombia has this terrible reputation for being dangerous, but those years are increasingly a thing of the past (which Colombians themselves only just seem to be realising). Wherever I stop people are curious and ask questions, and often want to buy me a drink or offer me a some food.
These guys in a bakery just couldn’t get over the fact that I’d ridden from Cartagena (I didn’t dare tell them about the rest of the ride!). They were so happy I’d stopped in their bakery for a drink and bite to eat. He wanted me to take so many selfies of us all!
These guys were breaking in a colt, training it in the field. Once they’d caught it, they came over for a chat and invited me into their finca (farm) to fill up my water bottles.
Friendly dogs: Unlike the other countries I’ve ridden in in South America so far, Colombian dogs don’t seem to have the energy or inclination to run after cyclists. It’s just too hot! They are probably also very used to bicycles given how much people here ride. It’s such a pleasure to be able to ride through small towns and villages and not have to be on the lookout for aggressive dogs.
Iguanas: When I first started riding I kept jumping at the sound of rustling in the bushes. At first I thought it was snakes, but the noise was just too loud. I soon realised it was these iguanas – some of them are absolutely gigantic and with extremely long tails. And look at those feet!