I hung around with Pepe and Sebastian for a good five days, sleeping on the boat, reading, pilling Pepe with questions about Columbia. We drunk a fair bit of Columbia’s beer amongst other things and did a bit of fishing. There wasn’t a whole lot to do in the scorching port village, nights were spent watching the copa America and getting to know the other sailors, an interesting insight into another nomadic culture. After day five with no signs of departure I reluctantly jumped ship and left with German Guisbert who I’d met in the sailors bar too. I coined him David after an uncanny likeness to Bowie and he referred to me as Joe after Joe Cocker, need a hair cut and some clean clothes. More of a tourist affair but a much bigger boat. A friendly and mellow crowd included three lovable young Germans and four English doctors, my luck was in. After three months living outside in the topics my body was starting to develop holes. I was diagnosed with something definitely living in my skin and was starting to feel a bit like a leper. I lost most of my clothes too and felt a bit out of place with the backpackers on their luxury voyages. Our stories and experiences were notably different, a reminder of how much of a different opportunity travelling by bicycle offers.
A couple of days on the San blas islands, snorkelling and eating, as close to postcard perfect as you can imagine followed by a gruelling 30 hour crossing, accompanied by a dozen or so playfull dolphins and we arrived in Cartagena, Colombia, South America! Colombia’s Immaculately preserved, walled colonial gem. Outside the walled centre the city felt lively with street folk and I found the Colombians immediately friendly and Interested. I met Bristol Beth who was travelling Latin America looking for musicians for a compilation LP she was putting together, she seemed to go to two shows a day so I followed her around and revelled in her musical enthusiasm. The city was nearly 40 degrees and as humid as possible so I feasted on a diet of the euros in the day and the copa America and then live music in the evening. Colombia knocked Peru out to reach the semis, at least a hundred or so of us adorned the street curb across the road from a corner shop and gave untold grief to any driver that interrupted our viewing. My Carlos Sanchez and Juan Pablo Angel connections worked wonders and a Colombia victory ensured a party ensued, not that Colombians need an excuse.
As nice as Cartagena was its polished tourist exterior had me keen to move on, see rural Colombia and head for the fresh air of higher lands. Still after feeling well accustomed to this type of travel I always get nervous peddling into a new country for the first time. I’d stopped reading tourists guides or doing much research at all, preferring to speak to people on the street instead. Often setting off I would have little idea what was in front of me. I got flagged down after an hour or so of riding by a family making boyas, a Colombian version of a tamale and was invited in for lunch and to stay the night. I ate my weights worth and then helped the family prepare more corn before continuing on my way, the warm welcomes of Latin America continued.
I felt great leaving progressing into the agricultural Tierra caliente, the hot lands. Exotic fincas or haciendas sat at arms lengths from the small road which wound and dipped through diverse green valleys. The local folk seemed to live very basically, even more so than in central America, in wooden framed mud huts but they seemed busy with trade and production. Their properties well kept and communities a lot more orderly than those of Panama or Nicaragua. It was hard to make ground as everybody was so interested and wanted me to sit and eat with them and talk about my bike. I feel like a robot when I do this now. I think I should probably record a little monologue to save my mouth the efforts. As flattered as I am by interest I want to talk about their lives, not mine. Still I was plied with beer, coffee and meals every time I sat down in a restaurant. It really does seem the less people have the more they are willing to share. I wondered if this was an inevitability of having less and if so how valuable desiring more actually is.
It felt brilliant to be riding again, I felt fit and well conditioned, reinvigorated and energised by the atmosphere of Colombia. I raced up a 2500 meter climb without moan, so excited by the prospect and fresh air and the mountains. For the first time in months the the temperature dropped below twenty and it felt like spring. Beautiful mountain villages full of tiny wooden bars and coffee shops akin to those I’d seen in the mountains in Spain, yet full of bouncing smiling Colombians. Every lady referred to me as “mi amor” and a gentle hand on the upper arm from most blokes. The cold dry air was so refreshing and my smell started to work again, I realised you can barley smell in the tropics and even the smell of the donkey shit had me giddy with excitement. I really felt alive and awake again. Donkeys carrying old pales of milk, the greenest of fields adorned with huge mountain rocks. The smells of spring flowers outside of beautifully modest mountain homes or cabins. Colombia already seemed to diverse. From the Caribbean majesty of Cartagena, through the agricultural flat lands and then up through coffee regions into the mountains in the space of a week. I hung out and played chess with the army in the rain one day, they insisted I would be married to a Colombian before I got to Ecuador. I told them they underestimated my determination and they disbellievingly laughed.
I met an absurdly friendly cyclist Juan who insisted in buying me breakfast. He said he wanted to ride together for a while. Enamoured by his nature and enthusiasm we raced off to the mirador and chatted in his painfully fast, colloquial paisian Colombian Spanish. Unfortunately the important part, that he had to be home in an hour was lost as I shouted vamos and headed down a 30k descent. Juans manners wouldn’t let him leave me there without saying goodbye. An hour later we reconvened after dropping out of the mountains by a good 1000 meters. Juan looked a little perturbed and he made a second attempt to tell me about his work and it finally translated that he wanted to say goodbye at the top of the mountain. Not an hour later at the bottom. I hugged and kissed him for his charm and said sorry in the fours ways I knew how. Watching him start his accent which would surely mean he would be 4 hours late for work I couldn’t help myself and fell to the floor laughing. I think this is a Colombian kind of sense of humour and I was sure, maybe give it a week, he would be laughing too. Juan, what a guy.
Out of the mountains and down to Medellin, infamous for being the most dangerous place on the planet for a while and home to Escobars Cartel. The city sits narrowly amongst the hill sides and has been transformed by the first and only metro system in Colombia, connected to the poorer barrios in the hills by impressive cable cars. It was an interesting time to learn about Colombia’s violent past an the four sided 50 year civil war that had been raging since U.S. military funding in the 60s. I watched president Santos announce the peace treaty in Havana with a large group of locals, they watched with cautious dismay, angry at the disrespect shown by president Obama’s lack of attendance after he increased the funding in a military campaign started by the Bush administration. Marcelo, a GP told me of his frustration that U.S. military intervention was set to increase again under the attractively catchy marketing label of a peace plan. With desperate eyes he asked me why they couldn’t leave his country alone, to look at history and see how many “aid” efforts had exacerbated the problems and violence. This was a depressingly familiar story from pretty much every country I had passed through in Latin America. So much intervention under the guise of peace in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama that resulted in painfully recent horrendous civil wars and the exploitation of their resources, fruit, oil, emeralds, even labour, that goes on today, despite the lessons of the past. Blissfully ignored as Obama talks of improved relations and peace with nation’s that can be exploited, the charm game of Capitalist politics, an economic system so aggressively determined to leave its mark on nation’s with such more admirable qualities in hand than economic power. I took solace in visiting the museum of memory, a take on the impact on the victim’s of the civil war. It’s compassionate attempt to understand every side of the war, despite how violent, struck me as impressively progressive and a testament to the power of restorative patience and forgiveness. Unfortunately the 450 million dollars offered in “aid” by the Obama administration after the peace treaty have been allocated to “re-educating” only the two left wing groups in this conflict, running in contradiction to Columbias attempts to forgo blame moving forward. Of course Colombia is a strategic market place for oil. Another nice reason to be doing this journey on a bike.
I tried to avoid politics after feeling obliged to get my head around not only the situation here but all the fallout and anger from back home. England’s dismal performance in the Euros didn’t help so much. I was certainly glad to be away. I relaxed and explored a little and hung out with Canadian Cami and French Algerian Mhedi, his French cooking and constant laughter ensured a little bromance. We found a few nice spots but neither of us liked the city much. Fancy bars, cocktails, chain stores, baldly planned 4 lane highways and malls failed to charm our aspirations so after visiting the lakes of Guatape I left for the coffee region. Another climb up to 2200 meters, which had my nose dripping with blood. I tried to clean up as I knocked on Danielo’s door in the mountain town of Manizales. We met in Medellin and he invited me to stay despite being away at work. I hung out with the maid and rode around on his motorbike picking up supplies. I gave a local student a lift as seemed to be the way here with motorbikes but I don’t think my riding inspired much confidence. Snow covered peaks of nearly 5000 meters surrounded the young, more traditional university town. I tried to leave after a day of exploring but on my way out of town I couldn’t leave the views and decided to stay a while, the fresh air, cafe culture and tranquil ambience had me.