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On the road . July 2009 . Colombia

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Las Cabinas Internet Café [website] Medellín, Columbia, 22-07-09
Cartagena to Medellín (11 cycle days; 3 rest days; 670km;7595m)
Cartagena to San Juan Nepomuceno (88km; 667m)
San Juan Nepomuceno to El Carmen de Bolivar (32km; 366m)
El Carmen de Bolivar to Sincelejo (70km; 639m)
Sincelejo to Sahagun (51km; 264m)
Sahagun to Planeta Rica (72km; 599m)
Planeta Rica to Caucasia (67km; 301m)
Caucasia to Tarazá (64km; 394m)
Tarazá to Valdivia (62km; 1101m)
Valdivia to Yarumal (38km; 1513m)
Yarumal to Santa Rosa de Osos (51km; 1016m)
Santa Rosa de Osos to Medellín (76km; 735m)

Comfortable Cartagena
Our first impressions of Colombia are based entirely on what we experience during our week long stay in Cartagena. Street life is incredibly bustling. Book salesmen, watchmakers, jewellers and fruit and vegetable merchants collectively huddle in little roadside booths or snooze under the shade of their canopied trolleys. Cooling lemonade or tamarillo juice vendors are found in every street as is the tinto (coffee) man. A small cup costs 500 pesos (25 US dollar cents) There is even a spot where you can find every possible working part for the common household blender, which kind of indicates how big Colombians are on their liquidized fruit drinks. Peddlers of all things touristy wander up and down begging you to buy their gaudy souvenirs.

On Sunday though, the streets quieten down: small business is shut and only a few die-hard street vendors remain. The Exito supermarket chain and the over-priced boutique stores in the old town however, remain open. Money changers renowned for their slight of hand are always at work: looking for some poor unsuspecting tourist. They are known quite aptly as Money Magicians, so even with the wonderful exchange rate they are bound to offer you, it is not worth your while to change money with them.

The old town is architecturally sculptured with the colour and grandeur of Spanish colonial times and a great spot to wander around. It is a complete surprise exactly how up-market the place is and even though we can't afford to, it appears that there are enough Colombian tourists to fill up the trendy cafes and restaurants offering a medium pizza for nothing less than US$25. That's getting close to double the price of our nightly accommodation. It is a much cheaper option to eat out near where all the hostels are. Though the choice is limited and as far as food is concerned, pretty average, a typical serving will set you back between US$3 and US$6.

If it wasn't already there, Al Palcino's performance in the movie Scarface epitomised the infamous cocaine association with Colombia. And the rumours that you can obtain it easily and cheaply are true. Just look slightly like you are out to enjoy yourself for the night and you'll more than likely get offered to purchase a gram. While the drug maybe cheap, stepping out anywhere in Cartagena is an expensive exercise. That is, unless you decide to do as most of the locals do and head to one of the plazas.

Mexicans are also a big fan of this activity and we certainly missed this cultural element in Central America; where everything shuts and people retreat behind closed doors a little after darkness descends. Plazas are great places to just while away the hours and people watch. Conveniently, there is usually a shop close at hand which acts more or less like a fully stocked bar with really affordable prices. Drinking in public is not frowned upon at all and so the store even issues you with little plastic cups. Food carts do a roaring trade as well and while you are waiting for your order to be prepared, local teenagers will entertain you with a multitude of football games. The family orientated vibe can only be described as comfortable.

A bit rough around the edges
Expecting sore bottoms by the end of the day, we set off on a Sunday to relatively quiet roads. They are not at all well paved, but then again, not the worst we have experienced either. As soon as you cross the bridge leaving the old town way behind, the scene is rough and ready. Apart from all the freshly placed flowers on a local graveyard, it is not at all pleasing to the eye: more akin to slums and a striking contrast to the posh colonial demeanour of the tourist city.

The first 50 kilometres sees us steaming ahead. We are blessed with overcast skies and relatively flat terrain which helps our progress through the rich green but very poor countryside. Still, the underprivileged lifestyle doesn't stop a man from salsa dancing at 9am in the middle of a petrol station, nor a young boy from smiling as I hand over 1000 pesos for a couple of corn fritters. Normally, we don't buy from street hawkers, unless they are cooking the product in front of us and an hour down the track, I really wish I hadn't diverged from this habit this time either.

But before I tell you how the cramps have me doubled over and make the last 25 kilometres of the trip a living nightmare, I have to touch on a subject I haven't talked about for a while: birds. These airborne animals are with us everyday, no matter where we are on this planet and probably the single biggest eye-opener of our trip so far. While I don't think I'll ever become a bird-watcher, I can understand the intrigue these people have for them.

The area we are pedalling through has expanses of swampland covered with water lilies, rushes and other grasses which means our feathered friends are out in full force. Today the varieties include a multitude of herons, hawks; parrots; and a little blackbird with a canary coloured head which I imagine wouldn't help much on the camouflage front; all twittering and chattering and performing aeronautical stunts in front of us, though none so spectacular as the ability of the geese, the size of fighter jets, to launch themselves in mid-air. I can see the French farmer rubbing his hands with glee at the sight of these oversized beauties.

I'm feeling dehydrated, dizzy and pretty sick as the terrain gets hillier for the last few kilometres heading into San Juan Nepomuceno (88km; 667m). At the start of the the town, Hospedaje Virgen del Carmen next door to Hospedaje Clamy's: both painted in psychedelic colours and obviously by the same signwriter, offers an air conditioned room with private bath and cable tv for 20,000 COP (about $US10).

This seems like a pretty good deal, until we have accepted the room and paid, only to find out that there is no electricity except for the extension cord leading from an outside source to the air conditioner. This cooling system seems to be the owners pride and joy and as far as they are concerned we should be able to survive in the dark as long as we are cool and if we want television, then we can come out to the restaurant and watch it there. I'm having nothing of it and they eventually rig us up another extension cord running from a generator outside for the television. We still don't have a light, but the brightness of the television will suffice for the evening. A few hours later, more guests move in and miraculously electricity is restored to the hotel section of the building. Certainly makes you wonder?

Nothing in me
The evening and the next day are filled with impromptu toilet visits, until there is nothing left inside of me. I'm feeling incredibly weak, hungry and I can hardly make it to the top of each small incline today. The sun doesn't help matters, neither does our late departure at 9.30am, but I was feeling pretty bad when I woke up this morning, so we slept in a little longer than normal. I really should have stayed put, but there was no way I wanted to stay in the little box for another night. Somehow, with encouragement from Ali, I manage to crawl into El Carmen de Bolivar (32km; 366m).

We take the first hotel we see. Although 30,000 COP is a little on the steep side for a room with a fan, it is impeccably clean with modern amenities. The cheerful staff, with their big smiles and big stories babbled in Spanish at a million miles per hour (as if we understand every word they say), also add to the pleasant atmosphere. The fan doesn't really live up to its job in the cement space and we move to an air conditioned room the following day. It costs 40,000 COP. I spend two full days in bed recuperating and just as I'm able to eat normally again, Ali comes down with the same thing. Ciprofloxacin comes in handy once again.

Playing games
Every evening in El Carmen de Bolivar we have heard fireworks, music and witnessed yet another imaginative game with a football. This time though the ball is made out of coconut fibre, soaked in petrol and set alight. As you would expect, the boys get to kick the thing around the streets, while groups of girls (of all ages mind you), run screaming into doorways for protection every time the ball comes into sight. It is pretty entertaining to observe. However, I am a little bewildered at how the females can occupy themselves for so long by simply standing on the walkway, waiting for the activity to come their way and then when it does, run terrified into a building. This is clearly a male orientated game.

We watch for a while, before retreating ourselves behind the doors of a local pool hall. We are shown to the only spare table. It is on a slant. The green cloth is old and worn and covered in white chalk dust used to reduce the sweat on your hands. We are offered to order a beer. Six varieties are advertised on the faded yellow banner nailed to the cement wall, but only two are available: Aquila and Aquila light. Two full strength beers are placed in the wooden tray near our table and a number two is written in chalk on the door opposite us. It is changed to a four half and hour later, when we order two more.

Ali shoots and the white ball is perfect for his next shot. At least for a moment and then it does an unlikely dance move, doubles back on itself and drifts into an impossible shooting position. He is unfairly snookered, but it is worth laughing about. His attempt at a double fails. The corner of the room is motley and crumbling and a pungent wet nappy odour seeps from the concrete. I have no other option but to stand there breathing it in since a hoard of screaming females have taken over the other side of our pool table. A flash of light passes the doorway as the burning football flies down the street. An even bigger mob of guys runs after it. More girly squealing before the group drifts back onto the footpath. I now have room to shoot the ball. I pot it. Passersby stop to stare. I pot another. And another. The crowd gets bigger. This is clearly a male orientated game. I miss.

Carga larga y ancha [long and wide load]
Only a few days on the road in Colombia and we feel incredibly at home. While the highway is in poor condition and not as cycle-friendly as other cyclists blogs have made out, people have openly welcomed us with big thumbs up or enthusiastic waves all the way from Cartagena to Sincelejo. Potholes even have the trucks and buses zigzagging across the bitumen. There is definitely way too much heavy vehicle traffic along this stretch of road and often no or little shoulder to use. In the drivers' defense though, they do try and give you space when overtaking with their long, wide loads.

A little more than 12 kilometres before our destination and we find out exactly how long a cheap $5.00 derailleur lasts: about 2 days of cycling. Mind you, the problem lay more with the fact that the bracket had worked itself loose and spun around on the frame warping the derailleur cage when I tried to change up onto the heaviest gear. We bend it back so I can reach enough gears on my middle crank to get me into Sincelejo (70km; 639m). I am very thankful that the gradients are reasonable today.

From the last couple of days, it appears that accommodation prospects are scattered all over Colombia. Even the small villages have at least one hospedaje. Being quite a decent sized city, Sincelejo is no exception and has numerous places to choose from. It also has a couple of large supermarkets for stocking up on essentials. We find a small room at Hostel Cattleya for 22,000 COP. The building has seen better times and the roof of our room doesn't actually meet the side wall, leaving a gap where the outside has started growing inside. Keeps the air fresh in the room at least.

Talk about customer service
After hunting around town for a half decent derailleur, we finally find something suitable. It's another cheap end of the range Shimano component, but sturdier looking than the last one. While there are some pretty nice looking bikes riding around, finding parts of any calibre is proving difficult. Customer service on the other hand is of the highest standard and not only does the bike mechanic put it on, but he scrubs my bike until it is gleaming. While all this is happening we are pleasantly treated to glasses of icy cold aguapanela [sweet homemade Colombian lemonade] and a chat with an even more pleasant shop owner.

The afternoon is ticking by fast and by the time I have come back from shopping at Exito, hunger has really set in. I had spent a little longer in the shop than expected as my docket had a few discrepancies on it. I always check before leaving the supermarket and my cashier saw me in the corner rummaging through the bags trying to work out why I had paid so much. He came over, without me asking mind you; and enquired as to what the problem was. I showed him the items on my register slip that I hadn't actually bought; he went immediately to the manager; came straight back and apologised profusely that he would need to put everything back through the scanner. He smiled through the whole process; was calm; and apologised again as he passed me my grocery bags and refunded the money owing. I don't think I have ever had a more agreeable experience in a supermarket in my entire life.

Earlier on in the day, the owner of our hotel recommended we go to his brother's restaurant around the corner for our evening meal. Although the choice in the traditional Colombian menu is limited for a vegetarian, it is late and I don't have any desire to cook tonight. Besides, it is worth receiving the big handshake when we walk inside and the genuine patience as we explain our eating preferences. The food is delicious, the service attentive and just the fact that his brother had obviously mentioned that we were coming made it all that more special.

True Colombian
Like everywhere else in Central and South America, Colombians boast that their food is better than their neighbours. Basically, all these countries have exactly the same food with a few minor variations and local specialties. The Comida Tipica [typical meal], or Bandeja Corrientes [normal tray] on offer in most restaurants, consists of a plate of rice, patacones [fried platano], an egg, a piece of meat, and a small portion of sweet vinegar coleslaw, accompanied by a bowl of beans or lentils. As vegetarians, we can eat everything except the meat and more often than not the bean element, since they are cooked with pork.

The biggest difference in Colombia is the bakery produce. They actually know how to bake a croissant and a baguette here. Though not quite up with French standards, they even call them croissants and baguettes. Still, they are a marked improvement on the dry tasteless bread and pastries found in Central America. The only catch is, some outlets sell products that are several days old. Finding something fresh generally means purchasing direct from the trays that have just come out of the oven. Besides the baker's influence, there is also an overwhelming number of Renault 12TS's on the road, which makes me wonder how the dickens the French managed to have such an infiltration on Colombian culture?

Taking it real easy
On the way out of town this morning we meet Vincent, another cyclist travelling in the opposite direction. By the time we get back on the bikes after a coffee and chat, it is 10.30am. Luckily the terrain is easy and in great condition. Unfortunately, it is stinking hot, but images of grassy pastured farmland dotted with grazing white brahman cows and dams reflecting palms and all things lush and green, have a somewhat cooling effect. Besides, we have decided just to amble along the 50 kilometre journey today and that is exactly what we do: stopping frequently to rest and take in the relaxed atmosphere.

Colombia also paints a true artisan impression. For a start, the roof thatching is the most immaculate I have ever seen anywhere in the world and along the way, people are painting or crafting something. Each town has its own theme: the first we cycle through today, Sampués, is inundated with woodwork shops selling beautifully carved furniture and decorations. Just down the road in Chinu, they design and retail leather sandals and shoes. There are footwear shops lining both sides of the street and it is obvious, as we reach our destination of Sahagun (51km; 264m), that we have selected to stay overnight in the town renowned for partying. Bar after bar compete with beer prices and sound machines that send a thumping vibration through your chest bone. Now, it has to be said that there is a definite art in revelry too.

Sahagun's cheap accommodation is not at all up to standard, mostly tiny cement blocks just big enough for a double bed, with no window, so we fork out double the price (30,000 COP) to stay in the only up-market hotel that we know of. Still a little pokey, but tastefully decorated with the bonus of a couple of windows.

Another boring write-up?
Once again the scenery is beautiful, green and countryside is clean; roads are brilliant, terrain is a little up and down, though nothing too difficult. The only complaint would be that the traffic is a bit heavy for a Sunday and our dinner at our roadside hospedaje-come-restaurant in Planeta Rica (72km; 599m) cost 20,000 COP which is almost as much as our room.

The following couple of days are also pretty similar. Still plenty of green pastures filled with grazing cows of all shapes and colours. Makes for a boring write-up really. Well, except to inform you that these animals would have to be the silliest creatures alive. They are not at all phased when a double-semi scrapes past, centimetres from their masticating faces at 100 kilometres per hour. They just raise their heads briefly; batter those long lashes; and continue chewing. And then we, in all our insignificance, come cycling along. Before running as far away from us as possible, they drop their cud, do a freaky little wobble followed by a kick of the hooves, all of which makes me think that maybe they recognise in us the local butcher in the middle of a slaughterhouse selection process. If only we could tell them: we are vegetarians.

Gangly branches of giant marmone trees reach across the road on both sides, keeping us shaded from the harsh sun. We stop under one to eat a pineapple I had bought from a roadside fruit farmer at the start of our journey. The end of our trip sees us cycling into Caucasia (67km; 301m) a moderately sized town with a massive Exito store. The owner of the first hotel we try won't let us take the bikes inside, which is the second time we have come across this in our travels and both instances have occurred in Colombia. The lady at Hotel El Remanso has a totally different attitude and we and our bikes are more than welcome.

There's no problem the next day either at the petrol station on the other side of Tarazá (64km; 394m) where we even get help to carry the bikes up the stairs. Also moderate in size, there are plenty of other accommodation options in town, but they all have the ambience of a concrete jail-cell. As far as we are concerned these days, no window means no stay. Ali checks out a couple in town while I become absorbed in the street life. So much is happening at once, it's entertainment in its purest form: one man is lugging a 1980's television up the hill on his shoulder; a couple of motorcycles have screeched to a halt as another has just pushed a refrigerator-laden trolley in front of them and into a side street; school children in uniform wander both sides of the street; and the raspados man has got several of them crammed round his antiquated ice-shaving device. He puts one block on and turns and then another. Little plastic cups are packed with rasped ice and bright pink and yellow syrup liberally poured over. Looks pretty inviting. It is a very hot afternoon.

Back at the petrol station we are impressed with our accommodation We have seen quite a number of these along the way, but they looked a bit up-market for us. On the contrary, they turn out to be really good value. A room generally goes for anything between 15,000 and 20,000 COP per night. They are clean and with good bathroom facilities and include a fan and cable tv.

The hills are alive
The first kilometres are easy and rolling. After eleven clicks, we strike the first roadside water jets. Waterfalls rush from every available crevice and locals have tapped into the life of these mountains with cunning. The natural force allows them to have permanently running water in their homes and roadside lavanderias (washing areas). Business, in the form of truck and vehicle cleaning bays, have emerged in every village and the hoses here shoot giant jets high into sky. At lunchtime and our 42 kilometre mark we hit Puerto Valdivia . From now on in, we are aware that the journey is basically uphill all the way to Santa Rosa. What we hadn't reckoned on, were the gradients. The next 19 kilometres traverses 886 altimetres straight up with no breaks. It's also a mighty busy road, but luckily the trucks are fairly passive and weave a wide path around us considering the windiness of the route. It is hot climbing and more than once I find myself wishing that the sun would go behind the clouds.

We reach Valdivia (62km; 1101m) quite sweaty, late in the afternoon and along with all the other truckers, stay at the petrol station on the outskirts of town. The mountain views are breathtaking from this vantage point and the food in the restaurant next door just as nourishing.

Non-stop granny gear day
More climbing today and a few kilometres from Valdivia we can see the pass. It doesn't look far away; maybe 5 kilometres or so. But when we overtake a group of young boys on foot and tell them we are travelling to Medellín by bike, the terrified looks on their faces, spell a difficult journey. Their fear turns to delight when I give them a bag of croissants filled with ham and cheese that I mistakenly purchased from the bakers yesterday.

The pass is exactly 15.5 kilometres away from Valdivia. It is an average climb of 6% with a couple of maximums of 17%: one being a little too long for me to keep the pedals going round, so I get off and push. Superman just rises in the saddle and moves on by. Reaching the 2015m pass takes 4 hours with lots of breaks, but the military boys at the top are more than impressed with our efforts.

The rest of the journey continues to take us up and down several steep inclines and reaching another maximum of 2139m at one stage. While it might be almost a non-stop granny-gear day, it is absolutely stunning countryside and coupled with a warm sun and cool breeze, you couldn't want for a better cycling combination. It's fresh, green and velvety and it feels great. There is one grand final climb to a little over 2400m before an encore drop into the surprising large city of Yarumal (38km; 1513m). After all the rural villages enroute with their plastic houses, who would have expected such a metropolis up here in the clouds.

Up there in the clouds
In hindsight, we should have stayed an extra day in Yarumal. Our hotel is a little more expensive at 32,000 COP, but that is to be expected when you stay around the central plaza in a town. It is a great room though, with piping hot water and a wifi connection as well. Everything at our fingertips including a well stocked supermarket downstairs and an entertaining plaza view from the hotel balcony.

Before we have the bikes packed, a crowd has formed around us. One military guard can't contain his curiosity as to how heavy my bike is. ¿Quanta pesas?, he says as he tries to lift my bike. "Ooooohhh, mucho, mucho!" he exclaims as he barely gets it off the ground. He is definitely impressed and tells everyone about it. Our conversations are so simple, yet they still manage to bring a smile to everyone's face. It reminds me of the time in Thailand when we were trying to explain something to a hotel owner with the use of a dictionary. Neither side of the conversation was getting anywhere, so Ali just opened up the book and read out the first funny phrase that caught his eye. It said: "Would you like this dance with me?" and miraculously enough, the guy immediately understood and thought it was hilarious. We all did. Like the Thai people, Colombians love to interact with you: find out about what you are doing; where you are going; and where you came from. Once the conversation gets started, you just can't stop them. Well, we have to at some point, because our Spanish is not that good. Time to stop somewhere for a week for a quick course.

The first drop is exhilarating: double switchbacks through green meadows lit by early morning sun; tamarillo trees like stiff green-painted cotton wool balls neatly dot the landscape. It is then, more or less a continual climb to the town of Llanos del Cuiva at 2721m, where the kilometre marker reads "00". We had been wondering what this place was since the start of the climb a few days ago: not mentioned on our map and still 23 kilometres away from Santa Rosa. Our plan to push for Medellín today is cancelled when we see the up and down nature of the rest of the journey. After an initial climb into Santa Rosa de Osos (51km; 1016m) and finding out that the hotels in town are way to plush for us, we drop back to the highway petrol station. We spend the night in a holiday-like cabin made entirely of wooden panelling. The beds have 4 blankets on them, which gives you an indication of how cold it can get here. Such a contrast to the lowlands.

Give me the mountains any day
The ride from Santa Rosa to Medellín is not one big downhill as people will have you believe. It is up and down all the way and a couple of the inclines are just as energy zapping as recent days. The mountain views, on the other hand are breathtaking. Well at least until you have finished the longest descent of the day taking you 14 kilometres down all the way to 1400 altimetres. We need to stop twice to cool our brakes and rims down. At this point, there is still 32 kilometres left to ride before we reach Medellín and it is not only rolling and stinking hot, but quite unattractive. Even though the six-lane highway is not that busy, I still can't help thinking that you can give me the mountains any day. A bike lane runs on our right, but we renege using it due to it inconveniently stopping dead or turning into a rubble path.

As with all big cities, it gets extremely busy on the outskirts and a little chaotic trying to find our way into the city. One plus is that traffic is used to cyclists and we even have a wide path to use for much of the way. The views of slums and rows and rows of terra-cotta bricked housing stacked on top of one another is nothing short of spectacular; but only in the sense of just how many people can fit into such a small spot. Navigating the centre is not as difficult as Ali thought and neither is the price of accommodation as expensive as we expected. Popular guidebooks advertise private doubles at hostels with share bathrooms for more than 50,000 COP. We opt to just find a local hotel in the heart of Medellín (76km; 735m) and we not only succeed with the central location, but also with price. Just 24,000 COP per night for a really nice room in the friendly-run Mageba Hotel. A few days rest and another big city experience before we hit the mountains once again.

Internet Café, Ibagué, Colombia, 02-08-09
Medellín to Ibagué (7 cycle days; 2 rest days; 437km; 7699m)
Medellín to La Pintada / El Crucero (82km; 1273m)
La Pintada / El Crucero to Irrá (64km; 581m)
Irrá to Manizales *estimated (56km; 1700m)
Manizales to Nevado del Ruiz NP (39km; 1786m)
Nevado del Ruiz NP to Murillo (49km; 731m)
Murillo to Venadillo (88km; 604m)
Venadillo to Ibagué (60km; 1024m)

Worlds apart
Cartegena is a posh yuppy city compared to the underworld texture of Medellín. The city centre smells. No, it reeks: of urine and exhaust; of furniture shelac and cheap perfume; of grilled arepas and marijuana. It is alive with homeless: way too many and many too young. A commotion of street vendors stockpile the streets: packaged snack foods hang from shopping carts with ordinary clothes pegs; colour coded coffee flasks are wheeled up and down the square by wrinkled folk in custom-converted prams; cells phones dangle from strings attached to the vests of merchants selling phone minutes; fruit traders push wheelbarrows yelling the products name over and over again; and the poor hand out chiclets waiting dejectedly for a donation. Seems everyone is selling something.

And that includes the young girls in the back streets near our hotel, solely dedicated to showing more crotch than I have ever seen on public exhibit in my life. Why someone hasn't told them that lycra miniskirts two sizes too small are not the most flattering outfit for someone offering their overweight thighs as a service, is slightly bewildering. Anyway up and down they nonchalantly parade, hitching their skirts up and down, depending on who is walking up and down and whether they are perusing them up and down with the notion of a possible bit of up and down.

We are seen off from Mageba Hotel with a kiss from the owner and well wishes from the men and women standing on the corner, who we have never seen before. Getting out of Medellín is difficult. Three lanes on both sides of the road are roaring full with vehicles and the side exits make it difficult to stay en route. But the hardest part of all is inhaling the exhaust fumes. They burn and constrict our chests making the relatively flat escape from the city an uncomfortable cycle. Both feeling pretty sick, we are relieved to take the left fork in the road after 15 kilometres, hoping that we will weave our course away from all this heavy duty traffic.

The fact that we have to ascend takes us into much fresher air and we can once again breath normally. There is now only one lane of almost constant traffic, which certainly beats three. Somewhere around the 30 kilometre mark out of Medellín, the number of vehicles has died down a little, but this main highway is way too small for the magnitude of trucks that use it. A diabolical shoulder means we have to share their space too. A couple of short ups and corresponding descends are followed by one long hard climb to the Alto de Minas [top of the mines] at 2475m. The scenery is stunning: massive mountains like we haven't seen since Nepal, only these are tightly tiered from the valley floor up with palms, ferns, red gums, fruit trees, vines and silky soft grass: every jungle green, every forest green, and every paddock green combined and then studded with the occasional farm house and plenty of cows, horses and donkeys.

Lucky, lucky, lucky
We had planned to stay in Santa Barbara, but we arrive early enough to continue the next 25 kilometres to the nearest town on the valley floor. While it is not likely that the entire journey is one big drop, it should be relatively downhill for most of the way. But before we get a chance to heat our wheel-rims up, Ali gets a flat in his front tyre while powering past a petrol tanker. He is so very lucky that the vehicle is only crawling along; which is why he was overtaking in the first place. Nonetheless, as I start to go around the now almost stopped tanker, I see Ali picking himself up off the bitumen like a lightning flash and dragging his bike like a feather across to the opposite curb. He is in shock and hurting; I can tell by the facial contortions and the couple of very nasty grazes on his left elbow and knee. Luckily, they are clean wounds and don't take much first aid.

Somehow, his Presto valve has ripped itself almost completely off, which resulted in the sudden tyre deflation and the inability to control the bike. After a half hour or so, we take off again. Not even a kilometre down the road and Ali gets another flat and instead of meeting with the bitumen this time he ploughs into the grass bank on his right. On this occasion though, I am up front and spend several minutes waiting a kilometre below before having to cycle back up the hill to see what is wrong. Not the valve but a bad patch job is the cause: probably from Central America, where it was difficult in humid conditions to get the glue to work effectively. But you know, these sorts of problems come in threes and a couple of hours further on down the same thing occurs.

A subsequent valve problem, which makes me initially think something is slicing into the tube on Ali's rim. I also think it could possibly be the new tyre he has bought, but we sand down the valve hole, put in a new tube and set off yet again. Roughly a week later and we discover another small hole in the valve and decide that it definitely has to do with the recently purchased Bontrager tyre. We also both agree that it is more likely due to its weak walls, which causes the tyre to move around too much, bending the tube valve with it and eventually breaking it clean off. Whatever the case may be, the whole incident has definitely reduced Ali's speed on the downhill runs.

As well as stopping to rest Ali's hand and cool our brakes, we stop for some freshly squeezed juice. This section of the road is full of Jugo Naturales stalls and plenty of smiles from locals, either trotting their horse up the wrong side of the road or sitting on their terraces enjoying the late afternoon sun. Jungle forest turns into farmland the further we descend. The temperature rises considerably as well. La Pintada / El Crucero (81km;1723m) is divided into the tourist section, which we hit first and then the actual town, just over the bridge. It is a happening little place and we head straight to the petrol station and 19,000 COP gets us a tiny but clean room with fan, tv and private bathroom.

With the sound of music
Ali needs an extra days rest and time to get his wrist looked at by a doctor. The other wounds are healing well and when we hit the road the following day he is pretty elated about just being able to cycle. We chase a red silty river snaking its way along the valley floor while traversing up and down the road etched in the cliff wall. The massive mountain range way out in front means we'll have to climb sooner or later, but for the moment we just glide along past village houses. Familiar tunes sung in Spanish about love and happiness blare from cheap speakers perched on wooden tables on the front verandah.

It is almost like cycling in between a couple of giant bowls of spoon heaped icecream, lusciously covered with velvety grass topping, tree-top sprinkles and a few giant palms for decorative umbrellas. The road is smooth until Mamato, but even after that the ride remains easy; which by the way, means tomorrow is going to be a killer. La Felisa is a decent sized town at the highway toll gate and the sugar cane fields surrounding reflect the number of stalls selling jugo de cana [sugar cane juice]; panela [solid blocks of brown sugar]; and dulce de leche [caramel spread] or arequipe as they call it in Colombia. There are also plenty of other sugary sweets to choose from too. At the end of town turnoff, it is 19 kilometres to our destination and just 6 kilometres before we meet with a very dark tunnel covering a potholed surface. It is very short, luckily. Not so fortunate, is the unwelcome greeting from the first hotel we try in Irrá (64km; 581m), but the petrol station next door has one of the cheapest rooms in Colombia. Eleven thousand peso's gets us a very small but newly renovated cement box.

What a day!
Sunday is still a busy road day as far as trucks are concerned. And there is no messing around at the local bars either. Judging by the tables laden with empty beer bottles as we leave Irrá at 8am, there are plenty of customers getting a head start at cooling the palate. For us we have to make do with the shade from the highway trees. The road goes up as much as it goes down which is a worrying thought seeing as we need to rise well over 2000 metres.

By 12 midday, we have traversed more than 700 altimetres and still only at around an altitude of 1300 metres. From the turnoff to Manizales, the road basically continues to elevate for the rest of our journey. We push a slow path up the mountain, along with many other cyclists on a sweaty Sunday work-out. One surprising downhill somewhere in the midst of all that grinding is actually unwanted, considering our goal.

The winding road becomes a real strain for me for the last two hundred metres of climbing. I have to stop regularly and I'm not the only one either. Other cyclists on light frames and no luggage are continually pausing for a pick-me-up drink or just to rest the aching legs. Ali doesn't like cycling like this. He prefers to keep moving for as long as possible. Neither do I for that matter, but after already pedalling 1500 altimetres, I have little choice: my legs are totally zapped.

Even when we come to the sign, welcoming us to Manizales, the road doesn't stop ascending. In fact, the last section is probably the most gruelling of all. The couple of kilometres of thigh crunching finally comes to an end as we peak a few streets back from the main plaza of Manizales *estimated (56km; 1700m). The first couple of hotels are little hovels and not where I feel like spending a couple nights after such an intense day. We return to the outskirts and find out that the accommodation there is all around the 70,000 COP mark, so there is no other choice but to make our way back to the plaza. Hotel Camelot just happens to be in one of the side streets we stumble down and for the discounted price of 40,000 COP we can have a massively comfortable room with hot water right in the heart of the city.

Did I say, "What a Day"?
Ali has his bags lined up on the steps inside the hotel entrance while I am unpacking my bike outside. A tramp whizzes inside and offers to help us with our baggage. Ali says "No" and then disappears upstairs with a load. The homeless guy persists. I tell him "No", but he doesn't let up. I say "No" again and again until he picks up a pile of bags and drops stuff everywhere. This time I scream, "No" at him loud enough to have street onlookers, the owner and Ali come running over to the steps. Ali chastises me for yelling at the guy, but I don't trust him one bit. The street-dweller pretends to be offended and acts as though his intentions were honorable. But we soon find out that they were about as genuinely sweet as my stinking riding socks.

In the room, our conversation had quickly switched from me being horrible to the tramp, to the day's ride and Ali not wanting to traverse the mountains in Nevado del Ruiz National Park, if I can't pull out a 2000 altimetre climb in one day. I really want to go there, but I can't do that sort of climbing in one day anymore. Today was a perfect example. It is way too much effort and I don't see why we can't split the trip into two riding days. Especially at an altitude of 4000m. Ali doesn't want that and it now seems camping near a farmers home is also out of the question.

Sensing that the conversation is going round in circles, I decide to do something useful and check out the Chinese restaurant next door, which, as far as a vegetarian is concerned, turns out to be a waste of time too. Chinese food in Colombia is not the typical Chinese food we are used to. At the foot of the stairs, I find Ali hunting for his VDO bike computer. That lovely, genuine, little sod had stolen it out of top of Ali's handlebar bag. Ali is fuming and rightly so. First of all it is no good to anyone without the transmitter, and secondly it is going to be a real hassle to get a replacement to this neck of the woods.

While we are planning this strategy over a beer in the local bar on the corner, our darling thief has worked out that his illegal acquisition is totally useless to him and is back at the hotel negotiating a buy-back price with the owner. Hard as it is to comprehend, this is the way things operate in Latin America. Ali ends up buying his own bike computer back for the laughable sum of 5,000 COP ($US 2.50), but he is more than happy to have it returned after a no longer than two hour absence.

We decide to hunt for a pizzeria, but pizza is generally sold by the slice in Colombia and you'll be hard pressed to find a vegetarian option anywhere. During our search we meet up with a street poet: the type of poet you tell your name to and he'll write a poem for you. He insists on taking us all over the city to try and find something vegetarian before we finally come to rest at a Chinese restaurant with reasonable prices. We order food from the waiter and a poem from our friend. We end up with both quite quickly, but neither tasks require too much effort. Somehow a take-away portion of our meal ends up on the table as well. How that came about, we have no idea, but there are plenty of vegetables and we are hungry enough to demolish the lot.

Manizales is busy everywhere. You can't walk a straight line down any of the main streets. I'm not sure what everyone is doing here, but I'm on my way to find some croissants without ham in them. The ones I bought last night, which I specifically asked twice for "sin jamon", had little pieces of pig in them. Pleased a local homeless guy though when I handed him a big bag of pastries for his breakfast. Later in the day, Ali checks out the route to the volcano and prices of accommodation or camping prospects. He also finds a decent bike shop to buy a few more tubes. Going into the National Park itself, is way over our budget. For one night, including entrance fees, it would cost $US 60 to pitch the tent and we'd have the added hassle of having to book a guide. Stocked up with supplies, we are ready to head into the mountains and see what comes of it.

Bar Cosmos
That famous black and white Marilyn Monroe print and another of Laurel and Hardy decorate two of the smoke tinted walls. A menu hangs in between while a carved wooden bullfight plaque covers the entire surface adjacent to the bar. Stained in hues of brown and bringing the scene to more life than the barman leaning low on the service counter, the craftsman shows a deep passion for his subject. Way more enthusiasm even than the bar service lady gives us when we enter. We move to the opposite side of the carving and sit on a couple of 1970's blue vinyl and chrome kitchenette chairs. Music from 50's crooners with a sporadic burst of tango gets a local drunk up and swerving a dance between the furniture. He really should have abstained from the last leg kick. Finally, a couple of beers come to our table and in the low light we sit and watch.

David Lynch would love this dim set: For an hour we are confronted by salesmen of all calibre. Little boxes of chiclets chewing gum come first from guys with wooden trays strapped to their bodies and brimming with brightly packaged snacks. A shabby lad flies enthusiastically around to every table leaving behind a single candy per person. He returns after his first round in hope of a donation, but he is not very successful in Bar Cosmos tonight and departs with all his sweets accounted for. A painting recently snatched from another establishment's wall comes next into the selling ring, followed a man with hotdogs and a rather delicious smelling Colombian style piccalillli chutney. The replica landscape photos aren't particularly good and we can hardly see use for the oversized fluorescent tube some other trader is offering us. Two shoeshine merchants try their luck and the colouring book peddler is adamant that we really need some of his merchandise. We can also have a car wash, a steering wheel cover or even a bible, but all we really want is the attention of the barmaid at Bar Cosmos so we can order a couple more beers.

"Muy Valiante" [Very Brave]
We push against traffic and a few hills trying to get out of Manizales. It is a massive city and the sprawl goes on for several kilometres. On the outskirts we drop 120 altimetres in one foul but delicious swoop and then the true climbing really begins. Road marker reads "0" at the start of the 5005 Highway.

It's quite hot initially, reaching 39° Celsius in the sun, but as the day progresses and we ascend a cool breeze joins us for the ride. By the end of the day, it has turned into a cold bitter wind. The road is decent enough, though the shoulder intermittently disappears or disintegrates. Even so, the traffic is minimal and friendly. Roadworkers are amazed as we pass by and one man quite overwhelmed at me pushing the kilograms up the mountain shouts emotionally with his clenched fist punching the air, "Muy Valiante; Muy Valiante".

It is a wonderful change to be on a peaceful road. There is only the faint sound of the industrial grind from the town before road marker "5"; the odd truck battling like us up the steep gradients; and my heavy but steady breathing. Giant white butterflies with iridescent blue undersides flutter past like a silently flicking neon light. Vermillion bodied dragonflies hover in my ascent path and then dart way out front. They teasingly return as if to show me how much easier it is to fly than pedal the journey.

We reach La Margarita (3190m) by early afternoon; after climbing a total of 1191 altimetres. The beauty of the isolated mountain landscape has been worth every pedal. I put on some music to help with my climbing rhythm for the next 240 odd altimetres leading us to the National Park turnoff at La Esperanza (3432m). It is an agonising ride after this point. The road might be paved, but it still dishes up sections with a 7-8% incline; my legs are tired; my breathing laboured and my head slightly dizzy as we approach the 3500 altimetre mark. I regularly get off and push.

We pass through a rain cloud, but it drops less water than my sweat. I'm in my granny-gear. Have been almost all day. Sometimes, the pushing gets a little easier and I drop back down to the 28 cassette ring, but within a couple of pedals I'm back up, wobbling on my highest cog again. I want to stop and rest, but I press on for as long as I hold out. Getting back on the bike is just as painful as riding. No more than twenty pedals into a new start and the calves cramp up and you want to come to a standstill again. But you know you'll never get anywhere like that. The road turns to gravel and my steering is all over the place on these rocks. Any energy I have goes into pushing the pedals around. We are now at 3700 metres. It is a wonder I can stay upright with a mind so blank as this.

I ask a driver how far it is to Laguna Negra. In between a local dialect and finger actions, I am told five kilometres. It can't be that far, surely. I ask for a second time, as another driver descends passed us. Again, five kilometres is the answer. I won't make that: it would take longer than an hour in this terrain. Besides, conveniently to our right is a school yard attached to a farmhouse. It is a perfect campspot, so we decide to go and ask.

Maria and her son answer the door and she hesitantly asks us how many days we want to stay. When she learns that it is just for overnight, it is no problem at all. We have to be on our way by 8am, since that is when school starts. Setting up in Nevado del Ruiz National Park (39km; 1786m) in the late afternoon sun is bitterly cold at 3768 altimetres, but the confines of our tent are deliciously warm and comforting. The last time we had our little home out was in Mexico. Before we have our water boiled for a hot cup of chocolate, Maria has invited us in for coffee. We accept, meet her husband Rodrigo, and watch a daytime soap with two glamorous models sipping balloon glasses half full of red wine. The television image is surreally removed from the undecorated cement brick home with wood fire and dishes piled high in the kitchen sink. And even though our conversation doesn't contain as many words as the actors dialogue, at a guess, I'd say it is warmer here.

Back at the tent, we fumble through the second-nature routine that has been lost in the many months of hotel accommodation. Darkness descends, we eat and then we sleep: very lightly at this height mind you. Every sound, every movement, every thought becomes part of the dream-like doze.

Just around the corner
The next morning we are invited for coffee once again and a piece of ricotta cheese, that tastes so horrible, we both manage to slip it in the coat pocket without Maria noticing. Before we leave we make a small donation to the school, which is accepted happily after a bit of insistence. Turns out that Laguna Negra (3800m) is just 400 metres around the corner and in hindsight, we had actually chosen a better spot to camp.

In the next 8 kilometres, before getting to the turnoff to Murillo (4008m), we scale the gravel road past El Arbolito, the turn-off to Termales del Ruiz and Brisas. And instead of the downhill run, that we thought we would have from this point on, the rest of the journey makes yesterday look like having a slurp on your cocktail drink interrupted by a relaxing massage on a beach in the Bahamas. Each time we clammer to top of one pass and peer around the corner expecting a glorious big drop, we see another climb ahead. We rise and fall around 750 altimetres remaining around the 4000 metre altitude for the next 17 kilometres of unstable path, crossing three passes in total.

Now, I don't need to go into too many details about how strenuous the pedalling and pushing is; and at times I wonder why I ever wanted to do this stretch of road at all. But if you can imagine the pristine silence: we come across one jeep, a motorbike with pillion passenger and a pack of donkeys, and the extreme nature: one of the three active volcanoes in this region erupted in 1985. The high altitude yuccas covering the grassy hills give way for stunning solidified lava paths cutting their way to the base of the valley. Ochre red and pink variations on rock faces as vertically tall as wide; waterfalls with pungent sulfur scent and the worst possible roads you can imagine all make for an extreme but exhilarating mood. We cross seven small rivers, landslides galore and even Superman has to push his bike up some of the untamed pathways.

At 2.20pm we reach the last peak and over the next 24 kilometres plunge almost 1000 altimetres. While that may sound like a perfect reward for all the hard work, in actual fact, 16 of the kilometres are on road unworthy of the title impassible. The two hours that it takes to get to Santa Barbara, where the road finally becomes bitumen, are spent dodging stones, boulders, potholes with hands firmly gripping the brakes. The next 6 smooth kilometres scented with crushed eucalypt leaves and donkey doo are sheer bliss. The sight of Murillo (49km; 731m) is also sheer bliss.

From three blankets and a quilt to kicking the sheets off
I do not want to get up this morning at all. My hands still ache from yesterday's rocky downhill dive. My legs hurt from all the climbing and besides that, it's cold. But Ali is insistent that we move on. Says it'll be downhill all the way. That I do not believe: like the young Colombian woman's stomach, the road terrain doesn't stay flat for long in this country. Anyway, after the morning chores we leave the colourfully painted and beautifully cared for town of Murillo. The downhill run has its fair share of smooth patches with a nice wide shoulder, but it is interspersed with sections requiring full brakes followed by a manoeuvred crawl across the rubble. And each time we think that it is getting better, it gets worse. The scenery is forever green and lush with an ambience smelling of gum leaves, pine needles and a warm, salty sun.

The path continues to tumble downward today marking one of our biggest descents ever. A total of 3087 altimetres to be precise, which means stopping regularly to cool the brakes and rest our aching hands. From Murillo the road basically drops until Líbano. It is a cool plunge and at the roundabout on the outskirts of town, we fall even further into lush jungle growth with fiery tinted heliconias adding a splash of colour to the thick leafy vegetation. The climb back out is steady and steep. While my breathing is heavy, it is of someone working out at full torque in the hot morning sun and not the laboured airy gasps when exercising at high altitude. Neither gradient, nor length will come near to anything that we encountered yesterday at 2500 metres higher and on unbitumised surface.

At the top we happily shed the cold weather gear since we and the day are heating up fast. A town is perched precariously on the side of an adjacent hill. "We have to go over there", I say. "No, we don't", says Ali. We do; but not before a quick drop below and a snack stop where the butterflies are out in full force. We then make the long climb towards that little town: El Convenio. Following is a long spiralled fall which feels like we are pedalling into a giant convection oven. The heat is so intense it makes my eyes water. Spat out at a t-junction, a main thoroughfare and way too much traffic after two days of complete absence, we fly for as long as the road and wind allow us.

Prior to Lérida, we ascend again, but nothing as difficult as the heated headwinds we face as we pull out of town. I just keep thinking: why couldn't they be the other way around? It's the last 19 kilometre stretch of the day and instead of breezing into our destination, we are fighting to keep ourselves on the truck laden road and to top it off, we are confronted with another hellish climb before pedalling into the town of Venadillo (88km; 604m) and finding suitable accommodation.

The cold shower is just a perfect way to end the cycling day in these temperatures and it is pretty hard to believe that last night I slept with three woolen blankets and a quilt keeping me warm and tonight I'll most likely be kicking the sheets off trying to keep cool.

Relatively painful
It is one of the most restless nights sleeps for both of us, but we only have a short distance to go today. Little do we know it will be one of those nasty long, straight and boring 1% climbs, with a slight headwind with menacing consequence to the morale. We start off at around 500 metres above sea level and it is stifling hot. Ali is feeling the strain of the last few days as well and we take forever to get to our destination, stopping regularly to drink and rest the legs that feel like jelly.

The only time the feeling subsides is when we get back on the bike after going to the aid of a motorcycle rider. The poor guy got a flat tyre (sound familiar?) and lost control. He was lucky enough to veer into a creek just a couple of metres after a cement viaduct. Even so, his helmet was a total write-off: I'm glad he was wearing it. Fortunately for him, the police were heading in the opposite direction and witnessed the crash as well and they could help him better than us. So with the sudden clearing of the head and the adrenalin pumping, we both don't notice the pain in our legs for at least fifteen minutes.

It soon returns and we just plod along at 12 kilometres per hour on average, gradually climbing our way into Ibagué. Entering the city is not a pleasant experience either. From the outskirts it is 12 kilometres to the centre and it is virtually all uphill. There is nothing particularly pretty about what we see. Trade and manufacturing business fill the roadside while buses fill every lane. There is literally a constant stream of them: if the exhaust is not enough to bring about loopiness then their aggravating stopping and starting without warning is. The fruitless exercise of trying to keep the pedals turning is amplified as we head further into the core of Ibagué (60km; 1024m).

On Calle 16, we find Hotel Vaticano on second attempt and its old, but majestic character catches Ali's attention. We set the bikes and luggage down for a couple of days. Tonight we are going to commemorate three years on the road, with our favourite celebratory food: pizza and a couple of beers. It has been more than just an eye opening journey totalling 37½ thousand kilometres of pedalling and 280 thousand altimetres of pushing. Our perspective on the world as a whole has changed dramatically. And while some visions have saddened us, there are way too many events that enlighten us and keep us moving on with an renewed anticipation for a greater understanding of our so vastly cultured planet.

Read Newsletter#09 !

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