Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Heading up, up and up

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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).

This felt like my final leg, as I’d be riding through Colombia and Ecuador to reach the end of my 9 month tour. My original plan had been to ride all the way to Lima Peru, but I was running short on time and I knew Ecuador in particular would be extremely mountainous, and the ride just wouldn’t be enjoyable if I tried to rush it – I’d just end up wearing myself down and inviting injury or saddle sores (something I still have to be vigilant about, even now). I also wanted the extra time to take a couple of detours in Ecuador, to be able to acclimatise properly in order to ride some of the most famous and more adventurous cycling routes there. As it was, I thought I’d probably need to take a bus a short way in the south of Colombia to get it all done.

I was quite weighed down setting off out of Medellín – I was now carrying a spare tyre as backup given the holes now appearing in my current set, and also a spare chain that Sara-Ann had kindly brought out to me as I knew I’d need to replace the current one before the ride was out. Those things are surprisingly heavy! Another piece of kit Sara-Ann kindly brought out for me was some brand-spanking new cycle touring shoes. Woohoo! My old ones had grown tears in the fabric, the heels had completely worn through, and the grips on the soles had all but disappeared after all that trekking in Patagonia. I’d already had to glue them back together in Cartagena and I was clip-clopping around like a horse on speed in my old shoes, as the metal cleats were now protruding (and wearing through) beneath the grips. It definitely wasn’t too much fun if I had to walk down a steep slope in the wet. (I’ll save you a description of what they smelled like after 7 months of constant wear…). I felt very smart in my nice new shoes!

My nice shiny new cycle touring shoes, and the old ones, with grips all worn down

Back on the ciclovía!

I’d timed my departure from Medellín for a Sunday morning again, so I had the pleasure of both entering and leaving with the ciclovía. The road all the way down to the southern end of the city was closed for the morning, so it was yet another hassle-free ride in Medellín.

I met a really nice guy, Damian I think, who kept me company along the ciclovía through the south of Medellín. He told me he owned a clothing store, and travelled to Asia quite a bit to buy new stock (international travel is pretty unusual for most Colombians as its just prohibitively expensive). He loved that I was riding through his home country and much to my amusement, kept telling other riders on the road about me.

Damian saying farewell at the final set of traffic lights, where he turned round to ride the ciclovía all the way back through Medellín again.

As I began the long climb out of Medellín I realised that I was still in good company. Some of the more serious riders clearly used the Sunday morning to train up in the hills. You can see just how many there were below!

The town of Caldas, about 20km (all uphill) out of Medellín. These Colombians really are bonkers about cycling!

And after Caldas I saw still more cyclists. There were fewer of them, but now I was bumping into the mountain biking crowd. This bunch was heading out for a day riding in the trails in the hills. One of the group, Enrique, swapped numbers with me and we messaged back and forth the next few days as he gave me tips about the road ahead (and mostly where best to find more food!).

Mountain bikers – very focused here on fuelling up on corn arepas with butter and cheese. I stuck to a banana and freshly squeezed orange juice.

As I got further into the climb (which then became quite a bit steeper), the mountain bikers peeled off and all that was left was a handful of more serious road bikers doing their hill training. As I neared the top I was really suffering, for the first time this badly really, on a hill like this (except for the sand storm day in Argentina that is). Cyclists call it ‘hitting the wall’. Having not been able to eat properly the entire past week due to the food poisoning I’d had, I was definitely low on blood sugar and energy and I had excruciating stomach cramps when I got to the top which got me a bit worried. Thankfully after half an hour of resting they passed and I could carry again.

Sadly I didn’t get a proper photo of this chap – he saw me and my fully loaded bike at the top and came to congratulate me for making it up there (little did he know how ill I was feeling!). He bought me a Gatorade from the little cafe there to replace some of the electrolytes I’d lost (which may well have done the trick in helping me feel better) and we had a nice chat. Then he turned and sped off back down to Medellín.

I’ve had so many encounters like this in Colombia. People are open and friendly and chatty (and also quite nosey, ha!), and extremely generous. So many people wind down their windows next to me at traffic lights to say hello, ask what I’m up to and give me a thumbs up. Some studies say that Colombia is the happiest country in the world. Despite the various challenges and inequalities that exist, from what I’ve experienced here I can easily believe it. I don’t know what causes a sense of community and altruism to be so engrained in a population, but Colombians definitely have that magic.

Back on the open road

As I descended the other side of the hill, I appreciated the joy of being out of the city and back surrounded by greenery again. The landscape was changing – and so apparently was the wildlife!

Snakes??!! – Thankfully I didn’t see any

The iguanas were definitely back out in force though, making me jump with their rustling about in the bushes

I stopped for a soup for lunch at a little cafe with stunning views down the valley – although got another good reminder that Colombia doesn’t go easy on the hills!

Nice views of small villages nestled along the ridgeways

My tasty soup for lunch – very typical in Colombia – with vegetables and some meat that would have been stewing in it overnight. Perfect for getting some much needed nutrients after feeling ill all week

It became warmer as I dropped down into the valley on the other side and the vegetation looked more tropical again. I came across a fantastic hotel for the night in a small town called La Pintada. Just $12 and it even had a swimming pool and heated jacuzzi! I treated myself to an ice cream whilst enjoying the relaxing bubbles then settled in for the night.

The next couple of days were lovely, following the Rio Cauca again and then climbing up again to the town of Santa Rosa de Cabal. I had originally planned to take a detour away from the ‘Autopista del cafe’ (the coffee route), to go higher up into the mountains via the small town of Anserma. As luck would have it though, the slightly easier main road was actually closed to all traffic (except bicycles, which could still be walked across the bridge that was in the process of being rebuilt:), and all the lorries were being diverted along the higher Anserma route, so staying on the main road would actually mean that I’d have the whole route to myself. Perfect!

Aguapanela

I stopped off for a drink at a small road-side cafe along the way and met a lovely couple who ran the place, along with two of their friends who seemed to just be hanging out there for the morning. Business must have been pretty slow what with the road being closed. I asked for a cold fruit juice, but they insisted I tried aquapanela – a drink made from ‘panela’ – unrefined sugar cane (sold in blocks in the supermarket), water and lime juice. It had been cooled and was soooo refreshing. I tried not to think about how much sugar I was consuming, but either way, it was very tasty and definitely gave me plenty of energy to keep me going for the rest of the day.

A refreshing glass of Aguapanela – made by boiling the panela with cinnamon in water until the sugar is completely dissolved. Chill and add lime juice to taste.

The couple who owned the restaurant were really kind people and gave me lots of advice about the route. I probably chatted to their friends for a good hour before moving on. They were really curious about all my kit and how I mapped my route so we spent a bit of time playing about with MapOut on my tablet (the bees knees of online mapping apps). This picture gives you a good idea as to just how insanely smiley Colombians are!

Onwards and upwards, (literally), I hopped back on my bike to keep riding up the valley. I felt cheered by the affection and laughs I’d just had with these guys – it really does make a difference to your day when travelling solo.

The climb was nice and steady, climbing alongside the river still. I enjoyed being back in the heat and humidity with all the jungly plants and trees.

Entering la Zona Cafetera Colombiana

I continued riding up into the hills and the vegetation started to change as I entered the famous Colombian Coffee Zone. This is considered to be the most beautiful region in the country, with lush green hillsides, clean fresh air and a relaxed way of life. First I saw neat polka-dotted hillsides, covered with avocado trees. Then came the first signs of the coffee plantations (which can sometimes be surprisingly hard to spot as they are often peppered with taller banana and fruit trees to distract insects away from feasting on the coffee beans). Only Arabica coffee is grown here, thriving on the perfect combination of soil, altitude and climate.

I stopped for the night in the hills just outside my first cafetero town called Chinchiná. Beforehand, I’d popped into the tourist information centre in the main square to find a cheap place to stay. Chinchiná is a working coffee town, down-to-earth and not so twee as the more touristic famous coffee towns. The central plaza was full of locals drinking chilled coffees. The gent running the tourist information centre insisted on getting me a cup (tho I don’t actually drink coffee – but I gave it a try out of curiosity and to be polite – see below for my verdict on the local stuff!).

The lush hillsides polka dotted with avocado plants

Officially entering the ‘Eje Cafetero’ (the ‘Coffee Axis’)

A cup of local fresh coffee in Chinchiná. This was pure frothy whipped coffee (no milk), served chilled. I’m never overly enamoured of the flavour of coffee, but even I could tell that this was very light (perhaps unroasted?) coffee, and I would imagine pretty refreshing.

One of the main coffee factories in the town where the best quality beans are selected for export.

Check out the logo on the bottom right of the poster – this is from the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia. It was founded in 1927 as a non-profit business cooperative that promotes the production and export of Colombian coffee and represents more than half a million coffee producers, most of which are independent family-owned fincas. The federation has three objectives: 1) to protect the industry, 2) to study its problems and 3) to further its interests.

It supports R&D into the production of coffee and also monitors production to ensure continuing high export quality standards. In 1981, the federation launched its highly successful ‘Juan Valdez’ brand, to distinguish 100% Colombian coffee from coffee blended with beans from other countries. There is also now a very successful chain of ‘Juan Valdez’ coffee shops in Colombia, and this is in large part what has stopped Starbucks from trying to colonise the country. Unfortunately though, premium arabica coffee is very expensive for Colombians as the export market has driven up the price. The vast majority of Colombians (and pretty much every cafe you go into outside the coffee zone) will have absolutely terrible coffee, as over 70% of coffee consumed in Colombia is from low-grade ‘seconds’ beans.

The Thermal Springs of Santa Rosa de Cabal

Before reaching the most famous towns on the coffee route, I had one more stop to make, at the town of Santa Rosa de Cabal. This is another busy market town famous for its hot springs which are rich in minerals, and there’s a large refreshing waterfall and natural plunge pool to cool off in afterwards. It was a really beautiful drive up into the mountains (I decided I’d done more than enough hill climbing recently thank you very much, so cheated and took a taxi up from my hotel;).

Aahhh, it was so nice to relax in the hot water in such a beautiful location. It was a week day so the place wasn’t too busy and I was impressed with how clean and professional the whole set up was.

The stunning walk alongside the river running up to the thermal pools

Families enjoying the hot water in this glorious setting

Followed by a ‘refreshing’ (will definitely wake you up!) shower under the waterfall. Can you spot the little statue/shrine hiding there?

My beautiful relaxing little room just at the base of the hill heading up to the thermal baths. With none of the usual snoring neighbours, or rumbling truck engines at 5am, I had such an amazing sleep here. A final gift from Santa Rosa de Cabal which is famous for its spicy chorizo. You spot these tasty sausages hanging up outside roadside stalls all the way into town. They are delicious sprinkled with fresh lime juice.

2 thoughts on “Heading up, up and up

  1. What a great account of what sounds like a fabulous few days. It transported me away from rainy Lancashire for a few minutes 😎

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Sarah – we are travelling by bike from Alaska to Argentina and are about a month behind you on the road (will be in Medellin on Sunday). Your blog is great and is giving us lots of ideas and info about the road ahead. I’d love to get some more detail on some of the places you stayed or would recommend (or not recommend!). Would you be willing to exchange some detail via email? We are blogging at http://www.leavewithoutpay.com (on WordPress as well).

    Kind regards
    Nancy & Dave

    Like

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