From Cartagena, Colombia to Popayan, Colombia
Colombia is the first country on this trip in which I regularly see local people cycling for pleasure. In Boyaca, the Mecca of colombian cycling, I saw lots of people out on road bikes, some were wearing lycra and looked quite professional, others were wearing ponchos and gummy boots. Though I’m not sure about the aerodynamic merits of the latter outfit, it is a pleasant sight. The ever present cycling culture makes Colombia an ideal country to explore on a bike.
Leaving Cartagena, I needed to ride a long, hot stretch of paved road before I got to the mountains. I was heading for Norte de Santander, an often overlooked province in the north east of Colombia. After all the paved roads and easy touring in Central-America it was about time for some adventure.
I’m sitting outside a grocery store in Ayacucho. People don’t want me to take the dirtroad into the mountains. I ask why. Once, people told me not to take a road because it was a dirtroad, with all the stones and mud it is dangerous for the bike. This is different, I realise when the people that have gathered around me make semi-synchronic shooting gestures. Exclaiming it’s peligroso. Guerilla groups are still fighting. And the situation deteriorated the last couple of months. On my way to town I passed a blown up bridge and a lot of military guarding the new bridge. It is always difficult to assess the safety of the roads. People tend to exaggerate danger. But when the whole town unanimously tells you not to go there, it just might be best to not go there. Luckily there is more dirt further down the road. Meanwhile one more long hot day on a paved road awaits.
Once you leave a main road, and ride a dirtroad, something happens. Or actually something doesn’t happen. Life slows down. Instead of riding along the landscape, you are riding in it. You stop in a town, immediately someone offers a chair and for a couple of hours you get to witness life in a remote mountain town. It is a town all the young ones want to leave, cause nothing ever happens. It is a town where all the old ones want to stay cause this is what they know. It is a town surrounded by military police because not so long ago the dusty streets were controlled by guerillas. The border with Venezuela is a stone’s throw away and I occasionally encounter people fleeing from Venezuela asking me where the next military checkpoint is.
A couple of kids on bmx’s chase me and ask me where i’m going. To Argentina, I proclaim, it is this way right?
On my first day into the mountains, some kids yelled Nairo Quintana to me. Unfortunately it did not make me climb the mountain any faster. It reminded me of me and my little sister hiding in the bushes, yelling ‘allez museeuw’ and scaring the crap out of every cyclotourist, on their way to their 11 o’clock beer, pseudo justified by the fact that they managed to pull their body in too tight lycra earlier in the morning.
When i descend the pass to Villa Caro, a town tucked away in the mountains of Norte de Santander, i wizz by a lonely house with a lot of people outside. I stop, they ask me the usual questions and we take a lot of pictures in all sorts of compositions. They offer me tinto (Colombian coffee, sugar not optional) which tastes amazing after the cold on top of the pass. Before I leave they fill all of my water bottles. I have a big smile on my face the whole way down. The kindness of strangers is magic.
In El Salazar, a man comes to me asking where I’m going. His daughter spoke english and was eager to talk in english to me. After I told the father I was from Belgium, the father said that there was a Belgian cyclist who won the Tour de France 5 times, Eddy Merckx. He started to name all the cyclists he knew; Hinault, Anquetil, Fignon, Indurain, Lance Armstrong. He pronounced the names rather peculiar, I didn’t understand the first time so he asked his english speaking daughter to repeat. It felt like a quiz. Finally all those hours memorizing the Tour de France winners would pay off. After a while I figured every single one of them out. It was really nice to talk with someone who was as passionate as I am about cycling history. They didn’t leave before buying me drinks and dessert.
On the average colombian climb I have to sprint at least 10 times, evenly distributed between dogs and wannabe Nairo Quintana kids who wanted to race me. I decided to visit the town of Nairo Quintana. Combita lays on the altiplano north of Tunja. I arrived into the town and asked in a restaurant if this was the town of Nairo Quintana. It was, said the owner, pointing at a big poster in the corner of the restaurant. His house is 2km down the road. His parents are potato farmers and have a small place where you can drink tinto.
I start climbing. 2km down the road I ask again. Yes the house is 2 km further. On the top of the hill I ask again. Yes it is only 2 km from here. Meanwhile it was getting late and everywhere around it had started to rain. It would be just a matter of time before I got soaked. I decided to head downhill to Tunja instead, trying to make it there before the rain hit. I did not make it. Torrential rain started. Within minutes the roads turned into rivers. I felt my tires searching for grip in the streams of water and mud, but there was no other option then to continue into the rush hour traffic.
One day I stopped for a drink at a small shop when another cyclist pulled over. His name was Alexander and after we chatted for a while, he invited me for dinner with his family. We had a nice dinner together. It was getting late and I asked them if I could camp. I could. They offered me some agua panella, a sugary hot drink with lemon. In the morning they gave me some panella for the road so I could make my own agua panella.
I’m grateful for this family welcoming me into their home without knowing me, showing me what hospitality is all about. Making me feel at home thousands of miles away from home. They also gave me bocadillos de lena. This is guayaba jelly and apparently the secret of Nairo Quintana. I’m not sure if it is a secret if everyone knows. All the sugar does give a lot of energy. The following days i got bombarded with bocadillos. You know it is the secret of Nairo Quintana? I’m currently carrying a stash that will last me until Argentina.
All this to say that I met a lot of very friendly cycling loving people in Colombia. I often got the question what we in Europe think about Colombians. Do you think we are all dangerous, drug trafficking guerillas?
In theory, I understand the concept of prejudice (eventually after one failed attempt at my psychology exam). As a mechanism it helps simplifying a complex world in which there is not always time to make a thought through decision. In practice I think prejudices are just a load of crap which prevent you from interacting with the world.
I met a lot of friendly colombians. They seem to be very cheerful. The response to buenos dias sounds almost without exception very genuine and joyful. But I don’t want to start another prejudice that all Colombians are friendly, I met some very unfriendly Colombians as well. Luckily. Prejudices make the world less exciting. If you already know what is going to happen, what is the point of interacting. After all, not all Colombian cyclists are climbers.