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what’s hot and what’s not

Here in Colombia when it’s “hot” it can mean a couple of different things. My ride from Cartagena to Mompox was hot, dry and dusty. It wasn’t till I got to Mompox that I discovered that part of my route had taken me through areas that are considered a little warm in a more metaphorical sense.

Just about everybody knows that Colombia suffered decades of conflict and while the current situation is considerably improved there are still areas where episodic violence is perpetrated by what are generally referred to as paramilitary groups. These groups range from anonymous urban drug gangs to ostensibly politically motivated movements, some organised and consistent enough to be named and some not, listing both to the left and right.

When I start to plan my route from Mompox to Medellin a couple of slightly sinister internet references to the Upper Magdalena Valley and North Antioquia regions prompt me to ask Richard, at Casa Amarilla, what areas are considered insecure. He looks at me and laughs. “Well, Santa Ana, where you camped by the river last night, for one!” “Hum,… well, …OK… So how about we sit down and look over this map together.” He peers at the map, muttering darkly, but eventually just tells me to ride to El Banco where he’s sure that people will let me know if I’m heading somewhere I shouldn’t go.

I arrive at El Banco at around 4PM and I don’t have to talk to many people to work out that I have ridden about 20 kilometres past the point on the river where I should have crossed it to head off on my planned route. Luckily riverside towns in this part of the world have docks where small launches transport people to various remote communities and one of the crowd of men surrounding me, asking questions and offering advice, tells me that I can correct my error easily enough by taking a launch to Barranca de Loba. While people are dubious about the physical state of the roads nobody at all tries to dissuade me on the grounds of metaphoric heat. All towns, of a certain size, can take on a slightly menacing dimension at dusk when I haven’t got any idea of where I’m going to stay so I am starting to get anxious when one of my route advisers suggests that I ask for shelter at the local fire station, reminding me of this classic accommodation option for cyclists.

The fire station in El Banco is nothing at all like the shiny brand new fire station I stayed at in Costa Rica but I am given an enthusiastic welcome. The station commander arrives, off duty, to welcome me personally and visits again in the morning to send me on my way.

A fire station offers a good secure city camp site - this is only my second experience with bombeiros but it's an option I would do well to remember.

In the morning, before I leave, I uncover this rather dilapidated statue of a fireman in action.

In the morning, I make my way to the dock to find a launch to take me to Barranca de Loba.

El Banco is a busy market town on the river. I like the shade cloth strategically strung up over the street to ward off the savage midday sun.

Massive piles of bananas sit piled up outside the bananera.

...

The bike gets strapped onto the roof with a local bike or two and before long I am on the other side of the river in Barranca de Loba.

Riding out of Barranca de Loba, the single track fairy (manifesting as an old cowboy on a white horse) guides me to this river side path - a far more pleasant option than the dusty road heavily trafficked by speeding motor-bikes that the young army guys at the military post had directed me onto.

I spend the whole day riding along the river, which is the main means of transport here in a region pretty much entirely without roads.

The occasional villages I pass through seem largely deserted in the midday sun.

Eventually I cross the river, yet again, in a canoe, after passing through a settlement called Alta de Rosaria, and suddenly the atmosphere changes. None of the villages here are marked on the map. I pass through Las Minas* and true to its name this settlement is surrounded by small low tech mining operations. Richard had mentioned that there is illegal mining in this area and I don’t feel comfortable enough to stop to take photos. Whatever their status, these mines are sufficiently established to support a sizable community that seems largely made up of bars and seedy-looking discotheques, with names such as “The Miner’s Rest” and boasting lurid murals depicting activities that don’t immediately invoke the idea of rest.

However, the next village I come to, a settlement entirely without roads, is called Las Delicias and there a woman at the local shop takes one look at me and my bike and without any form of preamble or request sits me down on her verandah and rustles up a plate of scrambled eggs and fried plantain chips. Las Delicias is linked to the next village by a rudimentary walking path that follows the power lines which, in the fashion of power lines, marches straight up and down hills with no regard at all for gradient.

In the afternoon, after I leave the river banks, the track gets noticeably steeper and rougher following power lines which, in the manner of power lines, follow the most direct line between two points with no regard whatsoever for gradient.

The sense of isolation here is palpable. The settlement I am trying to reach, which apparently is linked to the rest of the world by more frequently used tracks, is called Puerto Rico but it doesn’t appear on my map either and I start to doubt its existence. The only information that the local people will share with me about this chimirec town is that it is very far away and my sense of uncertainty starts to grow. The next settlement I can hope to reach is called El Sudan, which somehow further exacerbates my sense of disorientation – isn’t the Sudan in Africa?

But, of course, I pass through El Sudan and arrive in Puerto Rico eventually. It’s another town that has grown around small local mines and has the same hard edge quality. I don’t feel the urge to linger until a group of young men sitting under a colourful umbrella selling watermelon on the outskirts of town attracts my attention – water melon can save your life on a hot day so I come to an abrupt stop. They immediately offer me a seat under the umbrella and start to ply me with the usual questions. Every time I try to get up to go they seduce me with further offers of cold drinks and finally lunch.

The water melon guys. To my shame I don't recall any of their names...

... despite gifts of cold water and an invitation to lunch.

After generously feeding me, this woman, insistes that I take her telephone number and call her when I reached the next town safely.

After leaving Puerto Rico, the pathways widen out slightly and while there are still no cars, motor bike traffic increases again – but the area still is relatively sparsely populated and settlements are small, often without even a basic shop.

Most freight here seems to be transported by mules - clearly the ultimate sturdy all-weather, all-terrain vehicles. The roads here would appear to support wheeled vehicles but I have to remember that it is unusually dry right now and that the river systems and swamps make these areas effective islands in wetter times.

A huge number of people in this area make their living from fishing.

This guy rides around on his motor bike selling his fishy wares out of a polystyrene box. In Colombia, people are keen on conducting impromptu interviews with me on their mobile devices. The fish guy, after offering to give me the top he is actually wearing, donates a set of sun-protective sleeves to me to replace the long sleeved shirt I was given and I have already managed to leave behind after hanging on a fence overnight to air.

Colombians are very curious about a number of things. One of the commonest set of questions I get asked is about my passport and the visa requirements for travel that I am subject to. This is generally followed up with a more uncomfortable line of questioning about Australian visa regulations for Colombians and the potential economic opportunities available there. Next, people want to know what are my personal perceptions of Colombia and then, more generally, how Colombia is viewed by foreigners.

Approaching Nechi and Caucasia, as I start to pass through bigger settlements, the range of these questions broadens to include the extent of my knowledge and apprehension of paramilitary groups. I respond that I have no detailed information about them but I am aware of their existence and a history of violence in Colombia. I say that understand the situation has improved, that I feel safe and I don’t think that these groups have any specific interest in me or particular will to harm me personally – generally eliciting nods of agreement – before inviting people to give me any further information that would prove relevant or useful to me. Most people acknowledge that paramilitary groups are active in this area but only one person suggests that I might be at specific risk.

Interestingly, quite a few people also want to know my opinion of Chavez, the ailing president of Venezuela.

After a final river crossing at Nechi, I am back on paved road, which, unfortunately, I share with trucks, buses and 4x4s. But it’s a smooth quick ride to Caucasia.

First stop in Caucasia is the bike shop. My gears are still giving me trouble despite the work and expensive new parts lavished on the drive train in Cartagena.

...

My first stop in Caucasia is the bike shop. Despite time and money spent in Cartagena and further adjustments in Mompox, my gears continue to be problematic. The chain tends, infuriatingly, to jump off whatever ring is on, on steep ascents. While the mechanic attempts to tweek my gears, I ask the bike shop people about my proposed route from Caucasia to Medellin. After studying the place names on my map, the owner of the shop nixes one option – El Tigre and the surrounding area are deemed too hot. The other option he seems to think will be alright but it requires a sixty kilometre stint on the highway to Taraza.

When I get to Taraza, however, the people I ask are having none of it. I ask the moto-taxi guys for directions on the assumption that they know the local roads well. First they tell me the road doesn’t exist, then that it is too difficult. These arguments don’t do much to dissuade me. I press and one guy, finally, to the evident disapproval of the others, gives me directions through the town to the appropriate road and a relevant place name to assist in navigation. I figure it’s going to be a four or five day slog on remote difficult mountain roads that ascend over 2000 metres but I am prepared for that.

As I ride the road which leads through the back streets of the town people look at me, not with the usual curiosity but something that feels like suspicion or disapproval. They ask where I am going. Las Acasias, I say. They snort. “Do you have family there?” “Um… No.” I don’t feel very comfortable. Piles of gravel obstruct the road. Clearly cars are not encouraged to pass here.

As I am climbing a steep ascent at the edge of the settlement the man who gave me the directions which led me here suddenly appears on the verandah of one of the last of the houses. “Do you remember me?” I pull up. “Of course.” He starts to talk again of the difficulty of the road ahead. I explain that I enjoy difficult terrain, that paved highways are an anathema to me. “But it’s dangerous!” “The trucks on the highway are dangerous,” I counter. He is increasingly agitated. One of the other men from the moto-taxi group suddenly materialises. “The area is mined!” There it is. It has been said.

I lean the bike against a wall. A woman offers me a cold drink and a seat and we converse.

I ride on the highway.

It's not until Valdivia that the climbing starts but then it's all mountains and mist.

Even on paved highway mules are still ubiquitous.

Trucks are also called "mulas"...

... and there are lots of them, too.

The state of the highway deteriorates and the shoulder disappears. Groups of women and young people with shovels stand by the road where there are particularly large potholes and areas of subsidence. Other people stand holding out hats for money.

The scene is fantastical: trucks are snarling monsters emerging out of swirling cloud, the shovellers are fairy tale goblins engaged in an endlessly repeated task that undoes itself as quickly as it is done.

Traffic backs up, slowed down by the dips and holes, brought to a complete halt by broken down vehicles. The white car is hauled onto a truck tray but just around the corner sits an immobilized semi.

Pulling in to a truck stop for a snack I am accosted by a voluble woman who directs me to take photos of the view...

...and then her dog. She encourages me to stay in the truck stop hotel in order to gain a greater appreciation of the local attractions but I opt to plow on...

...to Yarumal, where I succumb to the charms of this austere but stylish - in my view - hotel.

It's been a while since I've seen such elaborately decorated buses.

There is plenty of detail to admire...

... and the artists proudly sign their work.

The streets of Yarumal are thronged with stony faced cowboys...

...but the machismo isn't entirely relentless.

The pull exerted by a hot shower and wifi internet are strong and I don’t manage to leave Yarumal until around midday. The whole town is built on a thirty degree slope and it is at the bottom of a kilometre of a truly precipitous descent that I hear the characteristic metallic twang of a broken spoke. I have run out of spares and there is nothing for it but to struggle back up the hill to try to find a bike shop.

The hands that I hope will true my wheel more expertly than I have been. Two more spokes break while the mechanic replaces the one damaged initially. There is, it would seem, something seriously wrong with this wheel.

There is a bike shop in just about every post at the moment... two, in fact, in this one. I've had an inexplicable rash of broken spokes which has left me feeling less than confident about my bike, especially with the gears giving grief, as well. I hope that Medellin I can get things sorted more definitively.

A highway shrine with Mary sitting demurely side by side with a personage that could be holy or perhaps is simply a representation of some anonymous trucker, I can't tell.

The beard seems potentially saintly but I'm not sure about the hat.

I finally manage to leave the highway at Santa Rosa and head towards Medellin via San Pedro on a quieter paved backroad. The road rolls up and down along a mountain ridge until suddenly the valley where Medellin sits in a cloud of smog opens up below.

Medellin.

...

*Las Minas = The Mines

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Sarah | January 29, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Medellin? What happened to heading for Venezuela, did the need for a big bike shop get too strong?

  2. anna | January 29, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I am heading to Venezuela in the zig zag fashion that I favour – or that’s the plan still…

    But I want to see Colombia so I’m heading south first. Then I’ll go to Bogata to ask for Brazilian visa and head back north to Venezuela, then the Brazilian Amazon and finally into Ecuador via Peru.

  3. Seth | January 31, 2013 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    Hi Anna! I’m curious how your framebag is holding up. Any tips on usage/the making of one you could share? Love, (yes love!) your writing. Particularly lately, top notch!

  4. Fiona | September 4, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Hi Anna,

    Great blog by the way, and great routes.

    I’m soon to start heading south from Cartagena. I’m curious about the stretch between Caucasia and Yarumal. I’m assuming you found no alternatives then, either east or west of the highway – is that right?

    Thanks

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