After leaving our bikes in the famous Tumbaco Casa de Ciclistas for the past two days to explore Quito, it was time to head off. Santiagos lovely little sanctuary had been the host to a few animated days hanging out with the awesome bike packers, Sue and Tara, who themselves had also hit the road. We were heading north, to the Colombian border and a country we had heard so much about. Supposedly the friendliest and most fun people on the continent, we felt ready to leave Ecuadors cool climbs, rugged mountainscapes and drizzle for something new. Ahead still lay a few hundred mountainous kilometres to the border, but we had opted not to follow the TEMBR for this section, as we had taken a lot more time than expected riding from the Peruvian border so far.
Some boring suburban kilometres saw us out of the capitals reaches, and by the afternoon we found ourselves eating up some glorious miles of smooth backroads heading towards Ibarra. After an undulating morning consisting of steady climbing, we were reaping the rewards of claiming those vertical meters. Grinning wildly like kids, we were sprinting for road signs and overtaking cars in the afternoon sunshine, and all we could say was, ’this is unreal…’ What a road. Before Ibarra lay a straight paved descent to the fringes of the city. We set off down it with Rodrigo at the front. He was tucked into a theatrically aero, position picking up speed until he glimpsed a speed bump too late. With no time to stop he was bucked into the air, his back wheel rising horribly high before crashing down. He just managed to hold on, how his wheel didn’t blow out we’ll never know, but as we both stopped for the lights ahead, we knew he was damn lucky not to be in the back of ambulance.
Ibarra turned out to be a beautiful city boasting an ornate old town and nice bustle of people. As we were leaving the next day, we found ourselves passing a lot of road riders out for a pre-work morning spin. These climbs were the hometown of the national hero ‘Richard Carapaz’. The young cyclist had broken through the pro ranks to win the Giro d’Italia this year, and we had heard his name wherever we went in the country. After a tough days climbing past the so-called ‘steam train’s’ hometown, we admired a local mural of him that greeted us entering San Gabriel. The air was cool back up in the mountains, a welcome reprise from the morning valley heat. The following day we continued climbing what would be our last Ecuadorian mountain before aiming for the border. At this time, I find myself always thinking back to my time in the country, and Ecuador had been incredible. When thinking about my South American adventure I had always focussed on the Peruvians Andes being the mountainous holy grail, whilst Colombia represented a fun musical haven, Ecuador was a connection. Instead I now think back to the gnarly dirt tracks, sitting in beautiful small-town plazas, days of pouring rain, an unforgettable New Years and the most amazing volcanoes.
Colombia kicked off with a night in the strange city of Ipiales. A border town which had a slightly edgy feel to it, leaving us happy to ride off for the following two days towards Pasto. Busy roads and some long climbs brought us to the main city of Colombia’s south. The week before it had played host to the famous ‘Black & White’ party – a fiesta celebrating the countries diverse ethnicities. From what people were telling us it sounded amazing. Our hosts were the Casa Bici Pasto – an awesome bike collective that allow cyclists to camp, use their wifi and hot showers for a nominal fee. It was an awesome place, and I can only recommend it for any cyclists passing through. I love seeing projects like this, people setting up bike collectives with their aim of promoting cycling, improved cycling legislation and providing real spaces and seminars for people to do so. I would love be involved in something similar back in the UK.
After two days spent at Casa Bici, putting together some writing, playing with their gorgeous dog and catching up with family back home, we were back on the road. The next big stop would be Cali, although we knew many climbs lay between us and the city of salsa. On our way out of the city we saw large groups of hitch hiking immigrants. It was to be the start of a long chain that we saw constantly over the next weeks, essentially they were all heading for the United States and dreams of a better life. Ecuador being a visa-less country for all nationalities, it was their first port of call before crossing into Colombia, bound northwards. After a little climb out of town, we found ourselves gawping at the incredible canyons that flanked the road. Covered in greenery, they were home to huge condors gliding off their thermals in the heat of the day. It was stunning. The tarmac ribbon of a road guided us between rocky outcrop, through tunnels and over large bridges until we began climbing again.
We decided to get the drone out to film us riding over a particularly epic looking bridge, where somehow, Rodrigo managed to drop his chain, leaving him pretending to the ride the bike at a snails pace whilst I cycled off. From here we sweated like pigs up the almost 1000m climb before descending to what we had hoped would be a flat road. The elevation profile looked flat when scaled to the huge descent we had made out of Pasto, but in reality the road was constantly throwing up 100m punchy climbs with very little chance to find any sort of rhythm. It was the hottest we’d been in South America and there were no small towns or streams to get water from. Sitting down on a rock around 4 o’clock, we were both struggling. After the sun fell below a nearby mountain ridge, we set off again, hoping to make the 30km’s to the first village of Mojarras where we knew we could collect water. It was one of those incredible hours on the bike. One of those times that seem to only come at the end of the day, when the light is at its softest, colouring everything in a warm orange hue. Our legs now felt numb, leaving us pedalling along faster than any point during the day as homed in on the village. We blasted out music through our headphones and found ourselves singing out into the incoming night as happy as Larry. I have been lucky enough to have many of these hours of the past two years, but when they come, the feeling never fades. These are the moments you live for.
Drawing into the village cafe just as the darkness properly enveloped us, we were soaked in sweat but buzzing from the last hour. We had both felt the energy, fining ourselves talking about this moment and that from the last miles of the day. Although it had been a tough slog of a day, that last section had over ridden everything. Now we needed somewhere to camp, so I asked whether we could sleep on the football pitch, to which I was instead directed to a covered area set just back from the road. It was a sports court of some sort, and served as a perfect place to rest up from what had been a tiring day. The next day brought more of the same, blistering sun, more climbing and yet more incredible views. We finished up most of the way up a particularly long climb, in the town of Rosas. We grabbed ourselves a cheap dinner from the local restaurant, drawing many bemused looks from the locals in doing so. The light was rapidly fading as began scrambling about trying to find a spot to sleep. We ended up hanging out on the village football pitch, rolling out our mats and sleeping bags on the shaded concrete bleachers for what was a surprisingly good nights sleep.
Another tough day in the saddle saw us circumnavigate Popayan and finally take a B-road down to the small town of Morales. Immediately we were greeted with less traffic and beautiful carving bends through the Colombian countryside. Finally we were seeing the true country and not just the trucks stops and convenience stores that occupy the sides of the large roads. At a tiny stall we were introduced the amazing invention of Kumis – a popular creamy Colombian drink. It tasted like homemade yogurt with honey and was delicious. From here we would be converts, always willing to stop and try a village’s home made Kumis. After downing a couple of these, we checked out another covered sports court as a potential spot to sleep. It would have been perfect bar the few shady characters that seemed to be smoking up behind the back wall, so we decided to try and find a small guesthouse to bed down. After a little goose chase of finding the person who owned the tiny place, we had a bare room and dodgy bed to call our own. I rolled out my mat on the floor, believing I would get a much better sleep down there than that dodgy bed.
Before hitting the hay, we cooked up using the stove on a small balcony. Looking down below there were some roadworks taking place with a large number of armed police around. The owner of the guesthouse joined us in watching on whilst chain smoking a good way through a pack of cigarettes. Something felt a little strange about it all, but she assured us there wasn’t any sort of problem. We left early the next day to make the most of the cool morning. The road was yet another beauty, and we snaked our way along a stunning ridge line boasting incredible views of the reservoir holding most of Cali’s water. Below us were some huge villas looking out over the water and we took picks as to which ones were once owned by the infamous Cali cartel. Descending down from here we reached our lowest altitude for months, and quite possibly the lowest since I was in Lima! Here we followed a surprisingly good network of bike paths into the city of Cali and our hostel.
The streets in Cali buzz with life. People are dancing, singing and generally smiling everywhere. We had heard a lot of negative things about the city, making us very cautious about just cycling into town, yet what we had found couldn’t have felt more different. We knew we had to look out for ourselves come the evenings, not venturing out on our own and staying away from certain areas, but these are things we did normally. On the first night we made friends at the hostel bar, and even decided to sign up for a few days of Spanish lessons. Our intended one day stop over turned into five, as we were whisked away with locals to tour the cities bars, and even had a few dinner parties. Cali was just pure fun, and it felt like the city didn’t want us to leave when a protest blocked us leaving for one day more.
The next five days riding were to take us to Medellin – quite possibly the city we were most excited about seeing in South America. First however there were a fair few tough climbs to conquer. After our longest day riding together out of the city, we began tackling higher grades. I checked my calendar that morning to find that it had been exactly two years since I started this bike ride. For two years I had been riding that bike from my parents garage. I was now far further than I had ever dreamed of going, in a country and continent I had no initial intention of exploring. I thought back to the streaming reel of memories that comprise the last two years of my life, almost unable to process what has done for me. The people, places and memories. I will be forever grateful to have experienced these things, and hope that through this, I understand, to make time and place enough value on pursuing these type of experiences. Of course it won’t be easy, but I have met enough people in every stage of their lives to know that it is possible. I got Rodrigo to snap a picture of me and my bike, both of us almost unrecognisable from my leaving photo two years ago. It was hard not to feel slightly emotional, but it was a real happy sensation – I was still doing what I truly loved. I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world than this small Colombian town.
We left said Colombian town only to keep stopping at small villages to take on water and our fair share of fizzy drinks. Slowly, we were making headway through the luscious mountains. One morning we found ourselves at the bottom of a 2000m climb, riding besides a river when a small lorry overtook us on the flat. Taking the impending speed bump a little quickly, its back doors slowly swung open, releasing a pile of hefty sacks of oranges onto the road in front of us. We had to dodge the 40kg bags that kept coming out the back like some crazy video game. Pulling up at the side of the road we were in fits of laughter at the craziness of it all. This would never happen at home – it was in a strange way, exactly why we were here.
After four or five hours plugging away at the climb, we found ourselves a cheap room in a guesthouse next to the road. Hopping across the road we grabbed dinner at what looked like locals joint. Obviously we stood out, ending up in conversation with a local couple intrigued as to what we were doing. It turned out they now lived in Miami, but ran a pig farm in this region where one of them grew up. It was a suitably strange conversation that culminated in the guy taking Rodrigo’s number in case he fancied importing coffee to Cardiff upon his return… Who says bike touring is boring…?
A few hundred morning meters were all that was left to climb, as we found ourselves amongst hundreds and hundreds of sunday cyclists. I have never seen anything like it. As we reached the top of the climb we saw a steady stream of riders that snaked back 10’s of kilometres down to the city fringes. They all gave us the thumbs up as we enjoyed the descent down into Medellin. The city had closed some of the main roads to cars, allowing us to cycle freely towards our hostel, which would form our base for the next week. Naomi was flying into the city, where we were to celebrate her birthday. After arriving however, we had planned a surprise, renting out a cheap car that we loaded up for an adventure to Guatape with Rodrigo’s friend ‘Isla’. Known as a colourful tourist hotspot, the reservoir has its fair share of attractions and hostel, although we opted to camp down by the shore. Naomi had told me back in Lima how she had loved camping the one time she had done it, so I decided to give her a birthday she wouldn’t forget in a hurry. We had all week to hit the infamous bars of Medellin, but for now a crate of beer down by the lake, with music playing and the stars out was perfect. We laughed into the cool mountain air until retreating to sleep in the tents.
After kayaking and exploring some dirt roads leading to beautiful look out points, we wanted to explore the famous Gutape rock. A huge monolith that sticks out the ground, it’s famous stairways are usually packed with tourists. However, the past two days it had been shut ‘for tax reasons’ – classic Colombia. Luckily we found it had opened that morning, allowing us to climb to its summit and admire a view substantially worse than the free viewpoint we had hiked up to that morning! It was all in good jest though, as we pumped the music on the car as we sped back to Medellin.
It was Friday night and Medellin is very much a party city. It just so happened that a big techno festival was being held in town, so we snapped up some tickets and got a few beers in before heading down. It was the first time I’d heard proper techno music live since my solo night back in Munich at the start of this trip. For those who didn’t know me before this trip, electronic music was very much a part of my life when living back in Bristol. I knew Colombia was a hotspot for the genre, with their crowds being notoriously lively. It was a great time, and we went back for the following night’s event, staying until late into the morning. Rodrigo had come down sick the night before, leaving me and Naomi dancing alone for hours and hours. After a few days admiring the crazy Iguanas that inhabited the local parks and eventually saying our goodbye’s, I wished Naomi farewell for now, promising to reunite again in Mexico. We had really had a blast in Cali and Medellin, but things were looking tight for to reach New York and then the UK for our Grandad’s birthday. It was time to put in some shifts on the bike.