30th Sept – 8th Oct: Madrid to Bilbao

We’ve been back in the UK for just over a week now. It’s great to be back, lovely to be catching up with family and friends and getting our fix of all those things we’ve been missing for the last year and a bit – marmite, Cheddar cheese, copious cups of tea, our mums’ home-cooking, sleeping in a bed, etc! It’s also a little sad that this particular adventure is over, now we just have to work out what comes next…                            

As we reflect on the past year, and continue to gorge ourselves on tea, etc here’s a summary of our short Spanish odyssey.   

We cycled about 350 miles from Madrid to Bilbao. It was great, the perfect way to ease ourselves back into Europe. It was also tough. When we decided to cycle this last bit we didn’t notice that there would be three mountain ranges to cross over, for example! Nevertheless the excitement at being homeward bound, plus plenty of cheap wine, cured meats and great cheese spurred us on to the ferry!  

We found Madrid in the middle of a late September heatwave - the perfect excuse to stop often and enjoy chilled San Miguels and Tinto de Verano (red wine, ice and lemonade). Our return to Europe was made extra special as my mum, Linda came to meet us and enjoy the Spanish capital with us for a few days. We were also very lucky to stay with warmshowers host Carlos. Him and his girlfriend and their very fluffy cat were very tolerant of us spreding ourselves around their flat, putting the bikes together, and waiting for our new tent to arrive by courier from Blighty.

Day 1: Madrid to Cogolludo                           

Apparently the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain - we felt not a drop as we ploughed across the flat, dusty land of Castilla y La Mancha north of Madrid.

We pedaled past a lot of solar parks, many of them much larger than this one. In recent years, before the economy slumped, Spain heavily subsidised solar energy encouraging people to make use of the abundant scorchio!

Day 2: Cogolludo to Cantalojas                         

A sunny morning in Colgolludo - hitting up the bakery for breakfast.

Climb number one: the Sierra Gorda. May be roughly translated as the 'Fat Range' - make of that what you will!

Ned practices his circus skills on the down sections.

In the middle of the day's climbing we stopped for lunch at the pueblo of Umbralejo. In this picture perfect village an educational project is run by the government bringing kids from all over Spain to live for a week in the middle of nowhere in the sierra. There were some impressive kitchen gardens and a table tennis table for a spot of lunchtime competition. Ned beat me, but only just! Here in Umbralejo we could see the 'black architecture' for which the region is famous. The houses are made from local slate which is very dark in colour.

That was a 10% gradient going UP! The climbing wasn't over.

Looking back at the steep road and down into the valley of the river Sorbe

A castle in Castilla, one of many perched in impressive locations all over this arid region.

Presenting our brand new tent - the MSR Mutha Hubba. What a beauty: featuring enough space to swing a pannier, double vestibules (his 'n' hers) and it's not too heavy either. Our first night camping in Cantalojas.

Day 3: Cantalojas to El Burgo de Osma                    

There are also a lot of wind farms. And where there's wind turbines, yes there's wind - unfortunately often in our faces.

                   

  

We arrived in the small town of Ayllon at lunchtime on Sunday to find the main plaza full of people and a delicious, rich meaty smell wafting through the air. Lured by the aroma we found two huge bubbling cauldrons of beef stew called 'caldereta'. Once a year the town municipality puts on a big feast for one euro per person including wine, and we'd arrived just in time. What luck! We settled in with with some day-trippers from Madrid to enjoy the feed and some respite from the heat - 29 degrees C in the sun.

Day 4: El Burgo de Osma to Quintanar de la Sierra                  

The next day our luck on the food front changed. After crawling out of the bush that we had camped in the night before we set off to search for breakfast - looking forward to steaming cafe con leche and croissants. As we cycled from one deserted village to another we began to lose hope until someone told us about the imminent arrival of the bread man. We hung around and joined the jubilant crowd of people buying their daily bread. That day we breakfasted and lunched on bread and honey. One thing we took for granted is how easy it would be to buy food in Spain. We neglected to consider that we would be cycling through some of the most under-populated areas of the country and that most Spanish shops close for four hours in the middle of the day. It was an unforeseen culture shock after Colombia where you never have to worry about food, as long as you are not too fussy about the quality you will never go hungry!

Entrance to the spectacular canyon of the Rio Lobos. We went a bit off-piste here, following a hiking trail through the canyon.

Some technical sections!

Some very narrow sections!

               

   

Vilviestre del Pinar

Day 5: Quintanar de la Sierra to Anguiano              

The campsite was closed for the season in Quintanar de la Sierra so we set up camp nextdoor to the site, amongst the pines. It proved to be an eventful night. First we got rumbled by the local police who had seen us setting up our not so stealth camp. Luckily they were very understanding and let us carry on cooking up our sausages and lentils, and gave us permission to stay the night. Phew! Later we received another visitor - one who was not quite so courteous. A hungry fox, obviously missing the tasty morsels usually to be had in the campsite, launched numerous attacks on our tent in its search for food. We slept in fits and starts, woken often by the little critter scrabbling around. In the morning we discovered that it had stolen our milk, chewed up my shoelaces, and made a tear in our brand new tent! Outrageous!

Climb number two: Sierra de la Demanda

Neila

The eerie landscape of the reservoir Mansilla. The water was very low and the whole place had a strange, deathly quiet atmosphere.

During the damming and flooding of the area this village was abandoned and left to the ravages of time and water.

        

         

Day 6:  Anguiano to Miranda de Ebro     

        

Anguiano (and the end of the canyon of Rio Najerilla!)

The vineyards of La Rioja.

      

The day's ride took us through Santo Domingo de la Calzada, a beautiful town on the Camino de Santiago pilgrim's trail. Ned couldn't resist masquerading as a pilgrim!

Setting up camp just beyond Miranda de Ebro, the light was beautiful and we were surrounded by the high mountains of La Rioja and the Basque country.

 Day 7: Miranda de Ebro to Orduña     

  

Feeling happy about climb number three: Sierra de Arkamo

As always the hard work paid off. At the top of the climb we were treated to a thrilling descent down into Basque country. After six and a half days under blue skies and sunshine we descended into Autumn - whizzing through clouds of falling leaves, shivering at the new chill in the air.

The view of the peaks from the town of Orduña. They reminded me of the prows of ships moored up in the mist.

Our last night camping in Spain. The barman at the restaurant where we enjoyed an epic, boozy lunch kindly offered us his garden as a camp spot. As well as a flat, spongy surface we had full use of his outdoor pool, al fresco shower and laden fig tree. We enjoyed cold showers in his garden watching out for passing trains so that we could hide our modesty from the commuters from Bilbao!

Day 8: Orduña to Bilbao  

The short stretch into Bilbao seemed to whiz by, and we forgot to take any pictures in our excitement at reaching our destination! Here's Ned in front of the Guggenheim.

After a night in Bilbao we caught the ferry over to Portsmouth. We nearly didn’t make it on time. The port is actually 15 miles away from the city centre and we got a bit lost on the way. If it hadn’t been for three kind mountain cyclists who took pity on us and showed us the best way to the terminal who knows, we might still be cycling around the Basque country looking for Brittany Ferries!  

So that’s it. In the coming weeks I’m going to reflect on the trip and write some more musings for anyone that is interested – hopefully returning to the long lost farming theme…! In the meantime it remains for us to say a massive thank you to everyone we have met and who have helped us in our trip of a lifetime. Muchísimas gracias por todo!

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Rocks, ropes and roses – our final few days in Colombia

29th September: We’re getting a bit behind ourselves on the ol’ blog. Right now we are in Madrid, Spain having said a fond farewell to our cycling adventure in the Americas after just over a year on the road. Prolonging the pedaling for a few more days we are going to head up from the centre to northern Spain and catch the ferry back to Blighty.

In the meantime, as we recover from the jet lag, here are some highlights from our last few days in Bogota, and Colombia – in particular our weekend jaunt out to Suesca, a small town which boasts some of the best rock climbing in South America.

Ned and Angela practicing balancing skills on the disused railway line before getting a grip on the rocks.

The rocks!

Starting from the top with our guide Andres, we rapelled down to a ledge and then clambered our way back up a rock fissure - one by one!

Francisco was the first to take the plunge...

Angela on the way down...

Chock-a-block on the ledge, about a hundred metres above the cows below

The crew back on horizontal ground (almost!)

The view from the rocks was unfortunately marred by plastic hot houses, and the local cement factory. Colombia is the second biggest exporter of cut flowers in the world (after The Netherlands) and the rows and rows of plastic shelters are for this most useless, though prized, of crops. The cut flower industry provides a lot of jobs in Colombia, but the growth of the industry since the 1960s has brought a myriad of environmental and social issues to the communities around Bogota where many of the flowers are grown. Use of very nasty, polluting chemicals (many of which are banned in the US and Europe), depletion of the water table, plus exploitation of the mainly women workers that labour on the farms are some of the problems. A fairly old article in the Guardian highlights some of the issues.

Heaps of waste flowers, offering a cheap and resourceful opportunity for the men to indulge in romantic gestures towards their girlfriends!

Camping out in peaceful Suesca. Our cheap-o Nicaraguan-bought tent even withstood a heavy downpour - much to our surprise!

Back in Bogota - soaking up the breathtaking view across this city of almost eight million people from the mountain of Monserrate, reached by cable car. Apparently the first ever tourist to visit Monserrate was an Englishman who, 100 years ago, tightrope walked between two peaks across the gaping chasm below. We settled for ambling around the quaint gardens, sticking to the pavement and staying well away from steep drops!

Now that our time in Colombia has come to an end we realise we have many, many people to thank for their wonderful hospitality and generosity. None more so than the truly amazing Francisco and his girlfriend Angela who put up with our presence in his small flat in Bogota for almost three weeks! Francisco never once complained, and took the 'mi casa, su casa' sentiment to unprecedented levels. We are eternally grateful - thank you Francisco!!

Posted in Colombia, Horticulture, Local Agriculture | 7 Comments

Cows, coal and Ciclovia – the road to Bogota

31st Aug – 12th Sept: We`ve been in Bogota over a week now hanging out and trying to get to know this city of eight million people. At 2,625 metres above sea level Bogota is the third highest capital in the Americas (after La Paz and Quito) and at times, riding and walking up and down hills our lungs are definitely feeling the strain!

Bogota is flanked to the east and west by mountains, and we are staying in the north-east with our generous and very tolerant Warmshowers host: Francisco.

Bogota is growing on us. It’s big, smelly and can be dangerous – but it`s also vibrant, beautiful and full of secrets to uncover.

Here are the pics from Villa de Leyva to the capital.

A typical carb-filled lunch in Chiquinquira. For between two and four quid you usually get soup to start, then a plate of meat with at least two carbohydrates (often up to four: yuca, potato, rice, pasta!!), and a juice. This one was a particularly delicous one, apart from the sloppy bits of pig skin we found floating in the soup...

The windy plaza in Chiquinquira

Breakfast in Capellania - this lady cooked us up an eggy storm, served with steaming hot chocolate and stale-ish, sweet bread (made edible by liberal dipping into aforementioned hot chocolate!)

Cow country - the high valley that we followed after Chiquinquira was full of cows. And where there´s cows there`s plenty of cheese to be found at little shops on the side of the road, plus delicious condensed milk sweets mixed with panela (a personal favourite of mine)

Climbing up to the 3,000 metre pass just before Zipaquira.

The dusty town at the top of the pass. Around these parts there are a lot of coal mining operations, and in the town several brickwork factories were grinding away pumping smoke up into the cold, clear atmosphere.

Cows and coal smoke!

After the pass we enjoyed a chilly but thrilling downhill descent to Zipaquira. On the way down we were going so fast that we overtook two dawdling trucks! Then we hit a proper cycle path that tracked the side of the highway. A very welcome break from battling with the traffic.

We stayed for a few nights just outside Bogota at the home of Gabriel and his wonderful, welcoming family. They live up one of the steepest hills we have ever encountered - at nearly 3,000 metres it was a lung buster to get up there, AND we were doing it without panniers!

We timed our arrival in Bogota for Sunday morning to coincide with Ciclovia. Every Sunday from 7am-2pm 120km of the city´s roadways are closed off to traffic and given over to cyclists, pedestrians, skaters, etc. Ciclovia has been going since 1975 and the frankly brilliant idea has been repeated all over the world - notably not in the UK though...

Plaza Bolivar in central Bogota

The Candelaria - colonial central district of Bogota

There are statues dotted around the rooftops of the Candelaria representing images to celebrate local working life. I´m not sure what this guy is doing... The imposing edifice of Monserrate is in the background. The church and mountain provide a useful navigation point for knowing where you are in Eastern Bogota.

In the Museo Botero. Botero is a Colombian artist known for his depictions of fatties in his paintings and sculptures. Here´s fat Mona Lisa!

Face to face with the fatest cat in Colombia!

The Gold Museum has the largest collection of pre-Hispanic gold in the world - all of the pieces managed to escape the rapacious greed of the Spanish conquistadors and avoid being melted down. A well-known legend from the Bogota area is that of the Muisca people who used to throw ornate gold pendants and idols into the nearby lake of Guatavita in tribute to the god that lived there. The Spanish heard about this and felt that they may have found a watery El Dorado. Many efforts were made to uncover the treasures in the lake - it has been drained several times but revealed very little of the legendary gold lurking in the depths. In the 1960s the Colombian authorities banned any more efforts to search for fortune. Seems like the lake god may have had the last laugh!

Graffiti in the Candelaria

Rooftop antics, another green man.

Another Sunday, another chance to enjoy Ciclovia. This time with our lovely new friends Magne, Francisco and Ardi.

Cyclists aren´t the only ones to enjoy Ciclovia - Cumbia came out for a lollop along the quiet roads as well!

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Boyaca – ‘land of freedom’; land of panela!

The department of Boyaca is known as ‘land of freedom’ as it was the scene of famous battles in Colombia’s quest for independence from Spain – the freedom fighters led by Simon Bolivar. To us, peddling through, it felt like ‘land of panela’!

Panela is unrefined cane sugar obtained by boiling and evaporating sugarcane juice. The plant is pressed to extract the juice and the final product is a hard, brown, grainy block. In Colombia panela seems to be a national addiction. Agua de panela is a very sweet drink served with most set lunches and the stuff crops up in most sweets and cakes, etc.

Colombia is the number one producer of panela in the world – 1.4million tonnes annually for home consumption and for export to satisfy the Latino sweet tooth. The industry employs 350,000 people from small scale family businesses to big factories.

Ned and I are forming our own addiction to panela – consuming our fair share of agua de panela and locally made sweets. Apparently as well as sugar it is loaded with protein, iron and calcium (so does that mean it’s simultaneously good AND bad for the teeth?). We were also told recently that former professional Colombian cyclists swore by the energy-giving properties of panela. If it’s good enough to have got them up these damn hills, it’s definitely good enough for us!

A small panela processing plant on the way to Barbosa, department of Boyaca. We could smell the sicky, sweet aroma of boiling sugarcane a long way before reaching these facilities dotted all along the road. Sugarcane was planted on every available patch of land - a real monocrop in this area.

The finished product, for sale in a store in Villa de Leyva. The blocks are so hard that many people keep a special stone in their houses especially for smashing the panela apart!

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San Gil to Villa de Leyva

22nd – 29th August: From San Gil we continued to follow the Cordillera Oriental of the Colombian Andes, into the department of Boyaca. Winding our way up and down valleys, along and over ridges, through towns and villages, we gradually climbed from 1,100m above sea level up to 2,400m, before descending to a lowly 2,100m.

Our destination, Villa de Leyva, is boasted to be the most beautiful pueblo in all of Colombia – a bold claim indeed, although perhaps justified. There is certainly something special about the colonial town set in a high altitude valley. Every way you look there are stunning vistas of expansive skies and dramatic mountains with the clouds skidding along the dark ridges. The fascinating landscape changes from day to day, and perched at the top of town, camping out in the garden at Hostel Renacer it proved very difficult to drag ourselves away…

Road block just outside Socorro - we were waiting for 45mins while the trucks tried to right the overturned lorry. At least it gave us a break from the climbing!

We stopped for elevenses in Barbosa and found a throng of people beside this little stall selling empanadas - very similar to a Cornish pasty, deep-fried and with the added bonus of a boiled egg inside! Delicious. The ones we had here were seriously good, the best we've tried so far - and we've sinked a lot of empanadas. Washed down with a thick milk and oat drink, and plenty of banter from the eccentric vendor we set off with renewed vigour back into the mountains.

The rainbow after the storm - main plaza Moniquira. We hit two brief but brutal thunder storms on the way to Villa de Leyva. The first threw hailstones the size of peanuts at us out on the road. Luckily during the second we were safely stowed in a bar, and could simply order a beer and wait for the rainbow to appear!

By the time the storm was over (and after a couple of beers) it was too late to carry on pedaling so we decided to stay in Moniquira. Little did we know that the department of Boyaca regional school sport championships were underway and there was no room at the inn anywhere in town. Fortunately Lady Luck was smiling upon us that night, and the lovely Martha offered us a place to stay in her house. It turned out perfectly, she happened to be good friends with Miguel-Angel - bicycle enthusiast and cousin of Alonso who we stayed with in San Gil! We had a wonderful evening with the family and felt truly fortunate to have run into such a cyclist friendly bunch!

A roadblock of a different kind lay in wait the following day as we set off on the back road to Villa de Leyva. This one took a fraction of the time to clear!

A 15 mile climb lay ahead from 1,700m above sea level up to 2,400m.

Typical - you see no traffic for an hour, then two vehicles come along at once. Luckily Ned kept his distance!

There really was very little traffic on this section.

Traveling in style!

From orange and banana groves we climbed and climbed until we were surrounded by pines and eucalyptus trees.

Up to the pueblo of Santa Sofia. In the main plaza we were lured into a bakery by the smell of freshly baked bread, a common and very welcome aroma on every street in Colombia!

Life on the square in Santa Sofia

Just a mile or so short of Villa de Leyva, our bicycles stopped to admire the view!

The imposing, impressive plaza in Villa de Leyva - it's 120m x 120m, the largest in any town in South America. We arrived on a Thursday and the emptiness was a little eerie. The stunning vista of the ridge behind with the expanse of sky all around adds to the effect.

At the weekend the town filled with people, and the plaza too. Luckily for the orchestra poised for their outdoor concert the ominous rainclouds held back their cargo and everyone stayed dry. The plaza is so large, and windy, that people come and fly their kites there!

The buzzing Saturday market. These huge witches' couldrons filled with soup were kept bubbling all day.

Another ominous bank of cloud that passed us by, but gave the valley below a soaking.

Sunday morning - the padres on their way to preach.

Taking a tramp - this track is definitely not for our bikes!

Villa de Leyva from up on the ridge - you can make out the huge plaza way down below.

Rooting around

On our mini-hike we found this perfect swimming hole. Ned took the lead and we spent many happy minutes climbing the rock and plopping off into the freezing water!

Henry and his bike shop. During the ride from San Gil Ned noticed a disturbing crunching noise coming from his back wheel. We thought it was the bearings in the hub that had gone, but alas the problem was not so easily resolved. The freewheel mechanism needed replacing, and although Henry tried valiently to find the right part for the job he couldn't. So, off we trot Bogota-bound, hoping that the bike will make it the last 100 miles or so.

Truthful sentiments at the Botanical Garden just outside town.

Posted in Colombia | 3 Comments

Blots on the landscape

Colombia is blessed with some of the most diverse and fertile terrains on earth. For example I have lost count of the number of new fruits that we have sampled in less than a month, it’s probably running at one every couple of days. Incredible.

The department of Santander, that we have just left, is particularly famed for its abundance – from tropical wetlands to craggy 3,000m+ peaks, the land there produces pretty much anything. And the pace of agricultural production seems to be gathering speed. Many people we’ve spoken to believe, understandably, that the future of Colombian economic development lies in its natural resources – in particular agriculture. But at what cost to the precious environment?

During our stay in the pueblo of Zapatoca, our host Armando explained how in recent years the local government has allowed and promoted the building of chicken processing facilities in the surrounding countryside. The town applauded the decision believing there to be job prospects and economic prosperity to come. However, the reality has been that the facilities have produced few jobs (a circumstance of industrial agriculture worldwide – labour needs are few, as farms are more like factories) and instead have contaminated the valleys. They are also an eyesore on the otherwise pristine landscape.

Similarly we passed through the department of Boyaca, near the stunning setting of Villa de Leyva. Here the entire landscape was dotted with huge plastic polytunnels. We think they were for growing tomatoes.

It’s a tricky conundrum to solve – trying to balance economic development with environmental protection. In Colombia the environment is one of the country’s greatest assets and it would be an unforgivable sin to pursue the former at the expense of the latter.

Polytunnels: spoiling the view, and the environment - on the road down to Villa de Leyva

Posted in Colombia, Food, Horticulture, Poultry | Leave a comment

Deciphering directions in Colombia

Asking for directions and route information in general is a necessary, and most entertaining, pastime.

Over the course of our travels we have learnt to be wary of the advice of non-cyclists when it comes to distances, cycling times, and terrain. On many an occasion we have been totally convinced by enthusiastic assurances that our destination could be reached within the hour, and that we would enjoy flat and downhill riding to get there.

Two and a half hours later would find us cursing and panting up yet another hill, kicking ourselves for being so silly as to have actually taken the information at face value, again!

We have also received interesting interpretations about our ongoing travels on roads considered by many locals as too steep, or in too bad condition for bicycles. One woman told us not to set off in the afternoon up into the mountains as there would be a ‘bad atmosphere’, much better to get going in the morning. Logic-defying advice.

We’ve also been warned against riding in tropical rains as the extreme variances of heat and cold would definitely make us ill!

However, it is the directions given to us here in Colombia that have simultaneously flummoxed us, and left us barely able to stifle our giggles. Colombian directions invariably involve a bewildering array of hand and arm signals that resemble moves in some wild, robotic dance rather than identifiable instructions. What’s more, in our experience at least, Colombians seem to dislike making use of the useful terms: left and right. The preference is for aforementioned signalling and complicated ways of avoiding saying either left or right!

If more than one person is present at the time of asking a full on debate is sure to ensue. Once we found ourselves at the centre of a heated discussion and received wildly varying estimates as to distance to our next destination. Somewhere between 40km and 90km! The mid-point proved to be about right.

What with all the confusion it’s a miracle that we find our way at all sometimes. We always ask at least three people now if we’re not sure, and somehow, so far, everything has turned our fine!

Above all Colombians really want to help, so luckily there’s no shortage of people to ask even if their particular brand of wild semaphore remains practically indecipherable to us!

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Adventure in the foothills of the Colombian Andes: Bucaramanga to San Gil

14th – 20th August: Thanks to fellow cyclists Cass, Russell and Lorely (although we’ve never met them we like to think of them as friends!) we happened upon a back route to San Gil that took us away from the trucks, and the tarmac too.

In five days riding we encountered some of the hardest, yet most beautiful and most fun terrain in the whole of our trip.

Day 1:

The road from Giron towards Zapatoca. Already it was hot, we'd heard from a cyclist in Bucaramanga that the heat would be 'infernal'! Soon after leaving Giron we hit the dirt, and left the traffic far behind.

Amigos, fascinated and amused by our suncream application ritual. We squeezed ourselves as close to the wall as possible to take advantage of the only available shade.

Along the way we passed field after field of pineapples. I had no idea they grew like this, in bushes close to the ground. For 35pence we bought a huge fat pineapple - peeled and chopped direct from the growers. A delicous, thirst-quenching snack.

As we climbed to the top of the canyon of the river Sogamoso we could see what lay in store for us. A steep, switchback descent to a bridge across the river, then a daunting (to say the least) climb up the other side - with no end in sight!

The bridge far down below over the mighty rushing river.

Screeching round the switchbacks - the heat getting more and more intense at every turn!

Soon after starting the climb up the other side we came across this rather precipitously parked car. The views were breathtaking, giving us ample excuse to stop climbing every few hundred metres or so and gape at what lay below us.

Taking a breather. Although we were back on pavement again the climb was seriously steep requiring many pit stops.

This roadside shrine caught our attention - a pretty impressive affair with a truly awesome view

The road behind us, that we had just climbed, looked like silly string - not a straight section in sight!

The climb continues...

We originally planned to make it all the way to the pueblo of Zapatoca in one day but the climb soon put paid to that idea! Concerned for the waterproofness of our low quality tent we opted to camp under cover, forcing the cattle in the field with us to stay outdoors during the light shower of rain.

Day 2: We rode the remaining eight miles into Zapatoca and were met by our couchsurfing host Armando near the entrance to the town. We originally planned to stay only a night or two in Zapatoca, but the charms of the colonial town and of our generous hosts gave us plenty of excuses to stay longer – a full three days in total.

Relaxing at a lovely spot a short walk from Zapatoca. At 1,700m above sea level the climate here was much cooler and the water definitely refreshing! A very welcome relief from the heat of the lowlands, and of the valley the day before.

Zapatoca

With our hosts Armando and Sonya, and Jennifer

We were treated to many things in Zapatoca, but perhaps most memorable of all was this impromptu gig with Reynaldo and another friend (whose name escapes us). You can see by Reynaldo's face how much fun they are having! We couldn't stop giggling either!

Armando and Sonya organised an interview for us with the local TV station. In less than perfect Spanish we attempted to present our adventure to the cameras! Reynaldo did a great job of explaining how our efforts show that traveling by bicycle is possible, and that he hopes more people will begin to realise that they don't need a car and can rely on their own pedal power instead to get around. Together him, Armando and Sonya have many environmental projects that they are working on - trying to preserve the precious environment around Zapatoca. An inspirational trio.

(Cycling) day 3:

Raring to go!

The ride along the ridge above Zapatoca was beautiful (if a little muddy at times, but that's all part of the fun!)

Then began the descent back towards the river. A rough, rocky affair that forced us to grip our breaks with such force that we had to keep stopping to give our aching hands a rest (drop handlebars are not the best for tumbling down dirt tracks!)

The village of La Fuente far below - we had a long way to bounce our way down

In La Fuente the local police officers gave us a soft drink and took a photo of us to prove that tourists sometimes turn up in this sleepy, isolated village! Apparently there used to be 40 police officers stationed in this place - almost more than the entire population! The area used to be a hotbed of guerilla activity just ten years ago. As we passed through there were no signs of the past violence in the tranquil countryside.

Onwards in the midday sun. The ultimate descent to the river was delayed by a rollercoaster ride along a ridge deep inside the baking canyon.

The very cute chapel in the next village, Galan. We considered camping here, but the kind owner of Hotel Danny offered us the terrace to sleep on, plus free use of bathroom facilities - an offer too good to refuse! In the central plaza we were shocked by someone calling out our names as we biked past the church. Turned out that local villager, Vladimir had heard our interview on the radio that morning and had been looking out for us all day! He was effusive in his excitement at having met us and proceeded to buy us many beers, show us round and generally treat us like celebrities!

Entertaining the kids

(Cycling) day 4:

More rough and tumble down to the bridge. With some apprehension we crossed to the other side, to meet our canyon-climbing fate...

A tough ten mile climb ensued. Just when I thought I could take no more hill we emerged at the top of a particularly steeply ascending ridge into the pueblo of Barichara.

The streets of perfectly preserved, colonial Barichara

The doors and windows in this place were really cute.

The view from the pueblo back down into the canyon, from whence we came!

(Cycling) day 5:

Adios Barichara - incredibly we kept climbing!

A mere 15 miles later, and a lovely, long downhill glide (back on the tarmac now!) we arrived in San Gil. San Gil must have the steepest streets in the whole of Colombia - if not the world! It was seriously lung, and leg-busting stuff trying to get up them on our bikes!

In San Gil we stayed with the family of Warmshowers host, Alonso. An avid cycle tourist himself, Alonso gave us a lot of info for the onward route to Villa de Leyva and we spent a few restful days enjoying his family's hospitality recovering from the efforts of our wonderful adventure from Bucaramanga.

Incidentally, on 21st August we celebrated our one year anniversary being on the road. And what better way to spend it having just completed some of the most challenging, yet rewarding and exciting riding days of our whole journey. Vive Colombia!

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Cartagena to Bucaramanga (1st-10th August)

Miles: 402

Biking days: 8

Punctures: 2

Gifts received: 2 cups of tinto (Columbian coffee), 1 giant Colombian biscuit, 6 bags of water, 5 ice lollies (2 coconut, 2 chocolate, 1 raspberry), countless shots of aguadiente, 4 beers, 1 Jehovah’s witness pamphlet in Spanish, 2 empanadas (similar to mini Cornish pasties), 2 cups of avena (sugary oat-based drink), 2 mandarines, 1 litre of delicious unidentified tropical juice, 1 bowl of soup, 1 bunch of bananas, 2 cups of salpichon (more delicious fruit drink), 2 zapotes (strange brown shelled fruit with orange flesh tasting like a mix of apricot and pumpkin), 2 baseball caps complete with Bucaramanga cycling club inscription, 4 more bags of water, and finally, 1 brand new pair of cycling shorts and 1 bottle of the best bike lubrication in the world, courtesy of Jorge and Welcome Bucaramanga bike shop!

As you can from this list, we’ve found Columbians to be a generous bunch. Charlotte was going to write this post (surprise surprise), and was going to comment on the inscription on the t-shirt of out host in Cartagena – it read ‘Columbia: Brazos Abiertos’ (Open Arms). Quite fitting really; most people we’ve spoken to have been either exceedingly cheerful, talkative, funny or warm, or all four, with the exception of one hotel owner in El Playon who took unhelpfulness to levels I didn’t realise until then existed, but who was otherwise harmless. And one guy in countless people is hardly worthy of a mention.

Anyway, how was the ride? Here are some choice photos to sum up the highlights:

Fixing a puncture in the town square of a small town gathers an audience. The guy in the middle kept up a conversation with us the whole time in a very loud voice so everyone could hear, and then showed us the way back onto the highway

After arriving in a small town with no sign of a hostal or hotel, a guy on a bike took us out to his dad's place to camp. These experiences always turn out to be so much better than staying in hotels: we had his dog as a guard, a bucket of water to wash in, loads of glowworms, and this guy's amazing company for the evening

We had to take this ferry over the river Magdalena. I wish I'd got a photo of it when it was full - it was so low in the water. We got invited to someone's house to eat river turtle on the ride over! We didn't find him again, and anyway we were a bit unsure about the offer!

In typical Latino style the ferry took ages to load, and we were left frying in the sun for that plus the 45min crossing. Here's Charlotte's stylish period drama look trying to cover up from the brutal rays

And this is my look - dirty pants stuffed into cap, and evening wear shirt dug out of pannier to protect arms - stylish or what?

The wealth gap between the cities and some parts of the campo in Columbia is huge. This row of cement houses with metal roofs baking in the sun were a world away from the colonial grandeur of Cartagena

Charlotte making new friends. This girl would not stop giggling.

The little guy bottom right was counting plastic spoons much to the amusement of the others

It was a pleasure riding on these quiet roads - these guys and the odd motocycle were all we saw for miles

We arrived in Mompos to a carnival going on. We bought a bottle of aguadiente with some locals, who then tried to teach us to dance

This is the square where all the partying had gone on the night before. Mompos was full of old colonial architecture - this church had a unique octagonal tower with a balcony running around it - the only one of its kind in Columbia!

Not doing much in Mompos - the place had a seriously slow speed of life. Not surprise considering the heat - we walked round the streets hugging the sides of buildings in order to stay in the shade and ducking into cool churches for respite from the heat!

One of the squares in Mompos was so full of life in the evenings with people eating and drinking from all the street vendors, or playing cards and chatting. It was like a giant communal living room. We spent every one of our nights there. Unfortunately this photo doesn't do it justice at all.

Leaving Mompos and crossing the Rio Magdalena

We acquired some new friends on the bridge...

...who accompanied us into the next town

When some friends of ours had passed this way a few months back, the road was a total mud bath from flooding, and they'd had to take boats over the worst of it. This was the only boat we had to take, a little raft pulled over the water with a rope...

....and in place of mud, we had rocks and dust and beautifully quite roads

The next morning leaving El Banco. The flooding here had subsided too, so we set off over the bridge, having been told the road should be fine for the bikes. You can see from the photo how much water there is in this part of Columbia.

What a quality road surface! We spent the first couple of hours hopping on and off the bikes - walking the worse stretches...

Back on the highway, a few days later we made a late afternoon stop near El Playon to buy fruit. This kind gentlemen gave us bananas and fruit punch to help us make the last few miles

After a day of climbing, a happy downhill arrival into the village of El Playon

Our 8th and final day's ride up to Bucaramanga took us along this section of washed out road choked with trucks. With all the pollution, traffic and clouds of dust it was like some kind of apocalyptic nightmare! Apparently the road got washed out in December 2010, and after 8 months nothing has been done to fix it. It was a very depressing and uncomfortable few miles of riding.

Luckily we bumped into this group of cyclists that cheered us up! They were heading the other way - to the coast and flagged us down to chat. They took loads of photos - in fact I think we had our photo taken with each cyclist individually, and gave us a cap each with their club insignia!

The hilarious, and delicious zapote - the way you peel it resembles a dafodil

Bucaramanga is at almost 1,000m above sea level and there was a particularly busy climb right up into the centre. Truck after truck came flying past us with guys on bikes hanging off the back - catching a ride up the hill. On our fully loaded bikes we didn't have the nerve to give it a go!

Bucaramanga

Welcome Bucaramanga bike shop where Jorge and his team gave our bikes some TLC. We spent ages chatting to Jorge and he gave us lots of great tips for the onward journey. A thoroughly generous chap, he also gave us some free lube, and a pair of cycling shorts to Charlotte (after 11months on the road she has finally decided that padded shorts might be a good idea! It was probably the posterior bruising received after bouncing down washboard dirt tracks that finally persuaded her!)

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Cartagena – the Costa Caribe Colombia

29-31 July: Slap bang on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, with prime maritime access to Central, North and South America, Cartagena was, and still is, a very important city.

Founded in 1533 by the Spanish conquistadors, Cartagena soon became an important trading post. This did not escape the attention of real life pirates of the Caribbean who attempted to plunder the city many times. Sir Francis Drake invaded and captured Cartagena in 1586,  demanding a present day ransom of USD 200 million to return it to the Spanish.

After this the Spanish set about building a lot of forts to protect the city. Engineering works took over 200 years and Cartagena ended up with over seven miles of walls, and a number of impressive fortresses, to protect her from marauding invaders. When the defenses were finished in 1756, the city was considered impregnable. The walls and forts remain one of the most identifiable features of the city today.

Cartagena became a major trading port for precious metals: gold and silver from the mines all over Latin America – worked by indigenous forced labour. The preserved colonial charms of the old town hide other guilty secrets. Cartagena was also a  slave port; Cartagena and Veracruz (Mexico) were the only cities authorized to trade African slaves. This helps to explain the big African cultural influence that is still present today.

What’s more, in the 1600s the Catholic Monarchs of Spain established the Inquisition Holy Office Court in Cartagena. It was one of three seats of the Inquisition in the Americas, and in the quest to maintain the orthodoxy of the Catholic faith dispatched many innocent people in various gruesome ways. The Inquisition disappeared when Spain surrendered in 1821 to the troops led by the great, Latino liberator Simon Bolivar.

We spent longer in Cartagena than intended, and it was a great decision to do so. With our fantastic couchsurfing host, Mario we explored parts of the city that tourists don’t get to see. With a population of one million people there are neighbourhoods that range from high rise, swanky tower blocks to industrial maritime zones; from the quaint old town to quiet residential neighbourhoods; from sterile strip malls to the full-on sensory experience of the street market.

Mario made sure that we sampled as many delicious local foods as possible while we were in Cartagena including ‘arepas con huevo’ (fried corn pockets stuffed with egg and meat); fresh, ‘parga’ fish with coconut rice; plus many, many different tropical fruits – lulu, tomates de arbol, guanabana… Eating our way around new places is one of our favourite pastimes, we were in seventh heaven.

Culinary activities aside, Mario also took us on a muddy cycle adventure out to Playa Blanca – involving a section slipping and sliding down a dirt track with mud variously the consistency of chocolate mousse and sticky toffee pudding! Our poor bikes – no sooner were they released from five days strapped to the mast of a yacht, soaked in saltwater, that they were plunged, pedal-deep into the mud! They survived however, and much fun was had by all.

Cartagena

One night a big tropical storm turned the streets around the old town into rivers. The deluge didn't stop the game of football that had started in the plaza next door - even though the players were shin deep in water!

With Mario, on our cycle adventure to Playa Blanca

Mud

More mud

And our reward - a beer and fresh fish on the beach

But we still had to get back across all that mud

The bikes getting a good bath - two quid for three bikes, money very well spent

The crazy market in Cartagena

This lady was selling dyed chicks - it wasn't entirely clear why, but they were about 50pence a chick

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