Crossing the Darien gap (a wild, dense, and inhospitable stretch of roadless jungle covering southern Panama and its border with Colombia), was not something we wanted to attempt on bicycles. In addition to the presence of guerillas and drug traffickers, its jungles harbor many dangers of the natural kind as well. We originally planned to take a boat across the Caribbean through the San Blas Islands, which would have put us in Cartagena, Colombia. Another couple weeks of cycling and we would have been in Medellín. Instead, we opted to save time and money, take a month off in Medellín to work and catch up on our blog while exploring and acclimating in the mountains. So Medellín it was! And boy, were we impressed. We received a ride from our Warmshowers host Pedro who sent his son and nephew to pick us up from the airport. On our way into the city, we stopped at a roadside vendor and they treated us to a chocolate con queso, a delicious hot beverage of cocoa with melted cheese! Pedro and his wife Diana generously hosted us for an entire week. During our stay we learned that Pedro and his oldest son, who attends university in Bogotá, completed a round-the-world motorcycle tour. We loved their slogan, “School is important... but traveling is importanter.” They were a wonderful family to stay with, and they invited us frequently for meals, took us hiking and pointed us in the direction of some great things to see and do in the city.
The first thing we noticed was how active Medellín's residents are -- parks are found throughout the city with free, public exercise equipment. Well-maintained yet steep trails lead to incredible vistas above the city. We enjoyed staying active and keeping our muscles moving thanks to all the city had to offer.
Medellin is truly an incredible city that has transformed itself over the last three decades. Once the murder capital of the world and a known haven for drug and gang related violence, the progressive city is now much safer with a thriving economy, a great public transport system connecting its barrios across trains and gondolas, a well-planned bicycle path network and a plethora of parks, gardens, cafes, health food shops and more. We also made sure to hit up the critical mass ride at night. This was one of several monthly events where hundreds of cyclists gather at night and cycle en mass through the city. This particular ride had about 300 riders. Amazing! Needless to stay, Medellín was our favorite big city on this trip.
Pedro and Diana told us about granadilla - a sweet variety of the maracuyá (passion fruit) that we enjoyed throughout Central America. This quickly became our sweet afternoon snack almost daily while staying in the city, and we have been very happy to learn that it is native to Peru -- so there won’t be much trouble finding it for awhile! We are still hopeless granadilla addicts as we write this from southern Ecuador. The fruit in South America has been absolutely delightful.
Over the course of the month, we stayed in five different neighborhoods, thoroughly enjoying finding new cafes to work in every week and getting to know the local ways of life in all its varieties. Our favorite area was Barrio Laureles, a quiet and beautiful neighborhood with a plethora of farmer's markets, bakeries and health food stores -- all of which served the best coffee, tea and food at a very reasonable price. The coffee was divine -- brewed in big, old Italian espresso machines. Medellín lives up to its name of the city of Eternal Spring with mild, Spring-like weather. We immediately noticed the difference between South American and Central American spanish, y’s and ll’s are pronounced with a “zsh” sound. Enunciation is very quick in the city but as in every country, slows down the further you travel from the metropolitan areas. Mi amor, mi reina or mi rey (my love, my queen or my king) is used frequently for addressing family and strangers alike. It is a beautiful colloquialism with which we both quickly fell in love, especially when it came to the sweet ladies in the market.
"Se puede preparar dos platos sin carne?" (Can you prepare two plates without meat? we would ask.)
"Claro que sí, mi amor!" (Yes, of course, my love! was usually the response.)
exploring coffee finca la leona in envigado, colombia
Mehedi’s cousin Jacob came for a fantastic week of sightseeing. We explored the nearby towns of Guatapé, toured coffee fincas outside of Medellín, went hiking and explored Parque Arví as well as the city itself via its subway and gondola system. These visits from family really give us a boost!
Bikepacking the Rio Cauca
After nearly a month in Medellín we were ready to pedal some South American dirt roads. We were thrilled about the route we had planned, and couldn't believe how many dirt roads we were able to find. We spent the first 10 days out of Medellin riding along the beautiful Rio Cauca on about 75% dirt roads. The Rio Cauca flows from the central Colombian Highlands in a northeast direction where it empties into the Caribbean. We really took our time getting back into pedaling after being off the bikes for a month!
Our days were filled with some killer climbs and descents through the river cañon, incredible vistas, waterfalls, great wild camping and extremely friendly locals. We passed through quaint farm towns and fincas where we felt transported 100 years back in time. Fruit orchards of citrus and cacao loaded with ripe fruit and very generous farmers along the river yielded continuous fresh snacks.
One of the things that really struck us on our pedal along the Rio Cauca was also the destruction of the natural landscape in the name of resource extraction. We rode alongside and criss-crossed over a massive pipeline from Medellín all the way to Laguna Esmerelda, where our route then headed west. The pipeline continued. We saw both large and small scale mining operations all along the river, and one particularly bad site of mining biproduct contamination - black sludge - pouring into the Cauca. It is a place where two very different worlds exist side by side.
Our route out of the city initially climbed up through Fredonia before dropping down to the Rio Cauca at Puente Iglesias. It was in Fredonia where we heard the news of our presidential election outcome. We pedaled on with heavy hearts and had a lot of great discussions about the state of the world. We find great comfort in focusing on ways we can do something instead of feeling helpless and doing nothing.
We continued along the riverside through the towns of Pintada, Irrá and Arauca, up to Laguna Esmeralda and Santa Rosa de Cabal, then onto La Florida and finally Salento.
As we found to be true throughout Mexico and Central America, South America's hospitality is also alive and well. Many locals fed us from their gardens and kitchens, offering whatever we needed - water, food, a place to pitch the tent, good vibes and laughter. Doesn't seem like they see many tourists around here, but they sure know how to make us feel welcome.
Climbing up and away from the Cauca, we entered the famous Eje Cafetero, Colombia's coffee growing region. We decided to take a few days off in Santa Rosa de Cabal, a lovely little town with a fantastic market and abundant coffee culture. We imbibed in the coffee and fresh fruit while taking some time off to blog and maintain the bikes. Additionally we hopped a ride on a local Willy's Jeep transport for the day to the local Termales de Santa Rosa, a gorgeous hotspring above town.
Pedaling onward, our climb out of Santa Rosa was beautiful and absolutely worth it, filled with stream crossings, bamboo forests and clouds of spawning butterflies fluttering about. We passed through the village of La Florida before linking up with the carretera leading into Salento. Before arriving in Salento, we camped at an historic site where Simon Bólivar and his revolutionary forces camped two centuries before. In the morning, a dog adopted us on our 600 foot climb into the town of Salento.
The famous town of Salento is situated in the heart of the Eje Cafetero. Its colorful building facades and cute cafes make it popular among backpackers, and, as is true for everywhere in the Andes, there is always a plethora of outdoor activities. We spent the afternoon visiting local arts and crafts stores and consuming copious amounts of coffee. Erin picked up a lovely pair of red chalcedony earrings as a recuerdito from the area. Properly caffeinated and restocked on supplies, we headed up into the mountains and out of town.
On our way up and out of Salento, we met a local named Manuel who was commuting home from work on his bike. He stopped for a chat and invited us to stay the night in his house. As the sun was setting, we pulled into the house. We met Rigoberto, Manuel’s brother, and were shown around their farm nestled on a steep mountainside. At dusk we cooked up a tasty stew on our stove for the four of us. We also strung up our PowerLight Minis, which provided light in their kitchen as they had no electricity. They both were very curious and intrigued by our battery powered stove, and that we were charging up our cell phones while dinner was cooking. They probably thought we were time travelers. The next morning we awoke to two pigs being slaughtered at the farm on Thanksgiving Day. We’ve been vegetarian for almost a year now and these experiences continue to reinforce that decision.
Crossing Colombia’s Central Cordillera
The next stretch was one of our absolute favorites in all of Colombia. We found a quiet dirt road that climbed about 4500 feet out of Salento through dense rainforests, pine forests and bamboo groves, over the central cordillera (mountain range), dropping down into the exquisite Cocora Valley, then climbing back out to the city of Ibagué. We passed through the small and friendly villages of Toché and Tapias before descending through cloud forest and farmland. Another stretch full of massive climbs and descents, the famous 100+ meter wax palms, hot springs and more amazing coffee country - we couldn't believe we had the road to ourselves!
We stopped for lunch in Tapias at the only open restaurant in town. and after our meal the señora served us two divine cups of coffee. The coffee was grown and roasted out back, the milk came from the cows out back, and the sugar cane was grown and processed out back. It was probably the best cup of coffee we had in all of Colombia. This is what the Eje Cafetero is all about! We cycled our highest pass of our trip yet, above Salento at 11,000 feet.
We were blessed with great weather, save for one day of light drizzle followed by a downpour in the afternoon. Unsure of where to camp, we found a family finca on a steep slope tucked away on a mountainside (photos above and below). They invited us to stay in their spare bedroom, fed us, and in the morning we got a late start after speaking with us at length about Colombia and FARC. We were told this area used to be a FARC stronghold, but was now very safe.
Our final day on this stretch before dropping into Ibagué ended when we found a secluded guava orchard to camp in with expansive views of the valleys we just pedaled. Our arrival in Ibagué signaled the beginning of our section through Colombia's dry and hot central lowlands, but we’ll save that for the next post.
And just like that, we were up and over Colombia's Central Cordillera, back in the lowlands...