Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Returning to the Andes

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I began my climb back up into the Andes mountains the following morning. I’d need to reach an altitude of 2800m but that would require 3500m of climbing in total. I’d split the climb into a couple of days to give my legs some rest on the way.

The ascent began here, saying farewell to the Rio Cauca at Puerto Valdivia

The road was fairly steep at the bottom and I soon crossed paths with a young guy from the US who I think must have just started his tour in Colombia so didn’t have his climbing legs in yet and was struggling. I felt for him, his would be a slow climb. I also couldn’t help feeling slightly chuffed with myself too.

I soon had a reality check when I realised that I’d be sharing the road with four day’s worth of lorries and buses, which were now on the move again following the end of the ELN national strike. Up until now the road had been relatively flat with plenty of room for a good hard shoulder, but with the tight corners curling up the mountainside, the hard shoulder had been abandoned. I regularly jumped off my bike to the side to let lorries past when they were coming in both directions, and to make sure I had a clear road behind me if I was approaching a blind corner. Colombian drivers have actually been extremely courteous and leave plenty of space, but I didn’t fancy finding out if there were any exceptions to the rule.

Jumping to the side to avoid the lorries and buses – thankfully after a few hours they’d all cleared through and there was a lot more room on the road again

Thankfully I got some good views of the mountains from pretty early on to distract me

I was in no hurry going up these hills, and unlike usual, where I’ll happily ride for 40km+ without a break, I paced myself with little stops along the way. There were lots of little ‘hole in the wall’ tiendas like this one selling cold drinks, often with a spare chair on the porch to rest tired legs and have a natter – perfect for getting a break from the sweat and heat out on the road!

I stopped at this couple’s house for a cold coke. They told me all about the rest of the road up to Medellín and nice places to stop and relax along the way. It turned out the owner’s name was also Sara.

Valdivia

I plodded my way up the mountainside for the rest of the day, and had climbed over 1000m before lunchtime. I decided that would do me for the day, so had a lovely relaxing afternoon and stay in the small town of Valdivia proper.

I got a really nice view of Valdivia, perched along the spine of the hilltop, as I approached from below

Of course one of the steepest bits of climbing for the day was the very last section of road up to my hotel!

I stayed in a place right on the lovely main square at the top of the town. There was plenty of life in the streets and lots of men in traditional sombrero and bota (scarf) like this, having a cup of ‘tinto’ (coffee) and a chat.

As I walked over to visit this old church – the centrepiece of the town – someone called out ‘Sarah!’. It turned out Sara from my rest stop earlier had called up to her friend in town to tell her to look out for me. I was initially so confused as to how she could possibly know who I was until she explained!

There were fantastic views across the valley from the roof of my hotel

Although it will always baffle me why so many Colombians put electronics close to the shower – this hotel bathroom even had the entire fuse box in there!

I really liked my little stay in Valdivia. It had been a sunny day and the town had a lovely relaxed and friendly feel to it. There was a clear central plaza in the town where everyone met up and stopped to speak with passing friends. Having views down across both valleys either side of the spine of the mountain was also pretty spectacular.

Yarumal

The next day I set off early to climb another 1500m up to the town of Yarumal. I started in the clouds and mist in the morning, thankfully with just some small spots of drizzle. At least it meant I had some nice cool and refreshing air as I began to ascend again.

Finally living up to my blog’s namesake – cycling above the clouds!

If you look very carefully, you can see Valdivia on the top of a hill on the far right of this pic, where I’d climbed up from during the morning

I felt pretty good and strong still, and aside from the usual yelp from my legs just as I initially set off and got the blood flowing again, I was pleased that they still felt pretty fresh. The road wound along the mountainside again with one switchback after another. I am always glad for the corners because it helps break up the climb into small bite-sized chunks of getting round each one, and means the view is constantly changing so the climb never gets boring.

I was surprised as I got higher up that I entered what was clearly dairy country. I could think of more practical landscapes for cattle to live on, but I guess all that lush grass and fresh air was good for milk production.

I noticed these were different dairy cows – no longer with the big floppy ears that the cows had down in the valley

I saw lots of people out milking their cows or transporting milk churns, sometimes by horse and cart

There was plenty of variety of life and work along this roadside, and always new things to look at. I passed these young guys mining pretty stone from the rock face. The ones up top seemed to just have a small rope tied to their waist. I didn’t look too safe but they seemed to know what they were doing.

A bit precarious but giving the thumbs up anyway – cutting out the rock face

The stones are definitely beautiful colours

The gradient evened out a lot later on in the day and gave way to some more beautiful countryside

Although I was a bit perturbed later on to see a huge (30+) group of very ugly looking vultures. They unnervingly didn’t move as I approached. I wondered what they’d found to eat…

(Courtesy of google – apparently the collective noun for a group of perched vultures is a ‘venue’ and a ‘kettle’ if they’re circling.)

The town of Yarumal was much bigger and busier than Valdivia. It also had lots of crazily steep streets, so I picked my way through the town to find a hostal very carefully. It was quite a hive of activity, with the town being a clear hub for all the local farming business. It was also Ash Wednesday and lots of people were walking through the streets with the ash cross marked on their foreheads. Once I’d dumped all my things, I went for a little walk round the town to explore.

I came across an amazing shop where this man was making new saddles. You could smell the leather and polish from out in the street.

A saddle he’d made – the back room was also filled with lots of molds and he told me he made bespoke saddles fitted to order

I’m not sure what these are called, but you see lots of Colombian men (never a woman interestingly) walking along the roadside going to/from work with their machete in one of these.

The church had pride of place on the main plaza which was heaving with activity

There was a constant queue in the church as people waited in line to receive their Ash Wednesday blessing

Final stretch to the top

I had the last 1000m to climb today and that felt very achievable. The air was fresh but not too cold again, and the cloud seemed to have cleared quite a bit from the previous day. I got a really good view of Yarumal as I dipped down the valley and climbed up and out the opposite side. As I was getting closer to Medellín the fincas (farms) also got prettier and better-kept. They were typically single-storey buildings with whitewashed walls, a red tiled roof and red or yellow painted wooden windows and doors. There were often saddled-horses tied up out front and a wooden cattle pen round to the side. They looked very cosy.

More pretty fincas appear dotted along the hilltops

The road started to be dotted with pretty purple flowers and orchids in the trees

Right at the top of the hill there was a line of stalls selling this fruit ‘Tomate de Árbol’ in various sizes and colours. This chatty lady made me promise to try the juice later.

And then as I just started to make my way down the other side of the mountain, I passed a famous cheese factory that sold ‘Pandequeso’ (cheesy bread!). I had to stop to try some of it freshly made. I wasn’t overly blown away but in general bread in Colombia is absolutely horrendous (they mostly eat the corn arepas instead here) so it was still a significant improvement on anything else I’d tasted and nice and fluffy inside!

Santa Rosa de Osos

I arrived in this town with a big downhill in front of me. I had a bit of an enforced rest day here, although I didn’t need one now I was heading downhill again, as I had to pace myself before meeting up with Team Sara(h)s in a few days time. I also wanted to time my arrival into Medellín to coincide with the Sunday morning ciclovia (more on that in my next post). As we were nearing the big city, there was definitely more of a feeling of people out and about at work here, and I spotted the first people in office clothes. Santa Rosa seemed to be starting to adopt some of the ‘cool’ things from the big city too, so after I’d explored a bit, I actually had quite a nice break here.

Anotherpretty church in the centre of the town – there was some kind of Catholic procession going on in the evening, and suddenly town and country mixed, with people riding through the streets on their horses.

I enjoyed dinner both evenings at this funky street market – the first I’d seen like this in Colombia

The next morning it was back to traditional Colombian food with this carbo-loaded breakfast. All I’d asked for was scrambled eggs!

Down the hill to Medellín

It was an extremely easy ride downhill to the outskirts of the city. I started to get my first taster of real cycling-mad Colombians, with the riders ones doing their weekend sprint training, riding up the hill in the opposite direction. They all had colourful club kit on which usually featured the Colombian flag somewhere – I felt very scruffy in comparison!

Even consumer goods companies recognise the pulling power of cycling in Colombia and I spotted a few adverts like this along the route.

A good view ahead of the road as it winds back down into the valley

A clear view up the length of the valley – sadly the persistent slight cloud cover in Colombia means my photos never do it justice but you get the idea!

With the steep drops and thermals it was a very popular spot for paragliders

Hidden around this corner is Medellín

I crossed paths with this wonderful Colombian chap (Guillermo I think) on the way down. His bike didn’t even have brakes – just an old-school pedal that he pushed on that would apply pressure to the back wheel to help him stop. Everything was home made. I still have no idea how he managed to control his bike down the long hills, but kudos to him! It certainly made me feel a lot less concerned about the small creaks I get from my bike every now and again.

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