Monday February 12th

Its always an early start but the endless problem of what to wear, how many layers, food, drink, route, weather prospects and general bike checking normally means the target is missed.

Another climb out of another town. Cool but sunny and only 25 km to go. To the top of the first hill that is. After that David id very keen to give further advice about a treacherous section of descent. Actually quite gentle with more glorious views, sunshine and warmth. We come across a motorcycle accident which gives us a genuine pause for thought. Further down the road we cycle by a very long line of buses and trucks leading up to the meeting point where we are to regroup prior to the ‘careful on this hill’ talk – but is no longer just a cafe but a militarly checkpoint. This entire area has long been restless throughout the 50 year civil war between drug cartels,  revolutionaries and government forces. There’s a substantial military presence but no real sense of danger.

It emerges that somewhere further down the mountain a bus has been burned out and destroyed and that these large vehicles are a frequent target for this kind of activity – attacking an economic target and causing huge disruption and concern. After some negotiation, we are to be allowed through under military escort. Later David, the tour leader, explains that since the first tour they have always given the authorities full details of each tour so it’s likely that they were expecting us. There’s a representative of another department for public safety who actually accompanies us. The escort really doesn’t work as we are far to spread out. But this is another staggeringly beautiful descent – the road is almost empty and you can see down the longest, deepest forested canyon imaginable. In all the splendour we’ve seen, this is close to the very finest.

There are reminders of the other side of Colombia. Tiny homes pressed between the roadside and a cliff or a jungle are made of recovered timber and cardboard covered on polythene. Its still quite cold up here, mums have their babes in arms and the washing is out to dry. The people who live like this, scratching a living (some quite literally breaking up stone) still tend a garden and must work so hard to have the most life, are the dispossessed – people driven or removed from their homes and land by the wealthy and powerful who are no more than modern day robber barons. In all of this natural beauty it makes for a discomfiting ride. Colombian is estimated to have over 7 million dispossessed people who the government can neither defend or provide for and in many instances the government is responsible for evicting – and it still continues. Some 250,000 are thought to have been killed.

Not our checkpoint but similar

It comes to an end at a predetermined place for a ‘now be really careful on this downhill’ talk but it has become another military checkpoint, more men with guns. Discussions finally produce the decision that this is it. No more riding, the military want us in vehicles and out of the area. No explicit danger but no argument either. Still no traffic descending the hill and the military have to process our vehicles down the mountain. Bikes are loaded and we’re shoehorned into the bus. Mid 30s probably.  Lower down, the economic impact is clear as the shops and restaurants are all closed.

From the bus, the winding descent is still beautiful and we cross the Cauca River following it for many hot miles before an open place to eat is found. By this time it was 4.00 (sunset is sixish and instant and certainly not wise to be on the road) and we’ve done 50 miles out of 110 so that was it. 

Still another two hour transfer to go and a late arrival to a hotel in the middle of nowhere. A place (?) called Valdivia. Or is it Chinu? Hot water in the taps but on no account drink any of it.

A few more insights into travelling in Columbua from our leader. For their first tour the government wanted passports and professions of all riders – were there any high value targets for a kidnap? Unbeknown to David a military escort arrived in Bogota on day one and stayed for the duration of the two week tour. In Medellin they provided a rolling roadblock to escort the group on their way and out of town. In another town everyone was summoned to the mayor’s office, a speech was given thanking them for coming and please spread the word about Colombia, before being given a gift. This was only seven years ago.

I’m writing this on the next morning in the bus, on our transfer across flatter scrubland so a few thoughts. My impressions and view of Colombia is quite literally almost exclusively as seen from a bicycle. 

Cycling hazards in no particular order. Dogs. Most dogs are strays and whilst they scrounge they are an integral part of the scene everywhere, especially in restaurants. Restaurants are not as in Europe but more open air places with limited things to eat – there is no real variety or choice. Dogs wander, sleep or chase bicycles at will and scrounging remorselessly in places where there is food. Even if a dog us not a stray, many are just put out in the morning to hang round with their mates until the owners return. Few Columbians seem to notice the dogs or bother with them, though they often feed them and many look to be in good condition. Dogs copulating in restaurants is the exception to this general rule, probably because they get a bit rowdy.

The roads themselves are a traffic calming method, subject as they are to subsidence, water damage, pot holes, dramatically uneven surfaces, sudden narrowing through landslip or even a sudden drop in surface level. Pot holes occur even in the middle of a recent repair. These can be “lose your front wheel” holes becayse they are so deep and long. Storm drains with grids parallel to the road. Other road users rapidly approaching on ‘your’ side of the road.  This can easily be a very slow truck being overtaken on a corner by a motor bike being overtaken by a bigger, faster truck.

Official traffic calming are big yellow humps, shallow (about 2 cm deep) but hard edged concrete strips bunched together, metal hemispheres planted across the road, rumble strips of varied severity. There’ll be others I’ve forgotten.

People. In villages there are no pavements so entire families will walk abreast across and cross a road with no sense of looking for a vehicle of any description never mind a foreign cyclist. They may have a dog, or a pram, a wheelbarrow or similar home have wonky wheeled carrier; perhaps they’ll carry something awkward. Very elderly people will set off, very slowly. 

Horses, cattle, general livestock including turkeys and chickens.

If traffic is congested  there is no part of the road which is ‘yours’. Each user will weave, change course adjust speed and direction at will; they may or may not indicate or they may have the hazard lights on 24/7; perhaps they’ll stop abruptly to chat to someone on a blind corner; they rarely use their horn or show frustration because everyone behaves like this. Somehow this works; everyone concedes, gives ground, pushes in, smaller vehicles squeeze through impossibly small spaces. Most are incredibly courteous to us on two wheels. Gentle horn peeps mean ‘get out of the way, I’m coming through’ or perhaps ‘I’m here and giving you a wide berth’ or ‘Well done, this us a steep / long hill’. Road works often close a road. A cyclist can go to the front and be waved through or perhaps given a closed road priority and no one seems to be bothered they just give you a thumbs up when they pass you later. One dodgy area is lane changing in the cities. Most villages in the mountains seem to be built on the really steep bits so old folk watching the day go by can take a long, slow look at your technique. Looking at someone in the eye is a tricky one. Most cyclists have sunglasses so are unreadable and one interpretation of eye contact could be that you’ve seen him so he can drive off.

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