Emerald Mountains, Colombia, January 2014

Are you mad? Have you never seen Collateral Damage?

That was the general opinion from most of my friends; I was heading for certain trouble.

David, the guide from the travel company had sung the praises of Colombia for a few years, trying to get me to go. I then get a note from Colin and Julie from the US saying they had signed up.

The flight took a stopover in Madrid, then straight to Bogota, and in January, it was nice to land in the heat of South America.

We had a day in Bogota to acclimatise, seeing it was 25 degrees warmer than the UK, and we were at 2600m in elevation. A couple of us took a walk in to town, to get our feel for it and change some money. I decided to change £300 and walked away with just short of one million Peso. This was going to make calculating how much something really cost fun. I was surprised at how sophisticated the city was and how safe you felt. First impressions, this is going to be a really interesting trip.

By midday we were heading to our hotel in Chia, on the outskirts of Bogota, and an evening at a famous restaurant, Andrés Carne de Res, which was a amazing experience.

At the briefing over the evening meal, the main things we were told was “don’t drink the water”. OK, I’ll make a note of that.

P1010234We started our ride from our hotel and head out for a steady warm up before we launch ourselves up an 8km climb to 2900m. The climb was steep and the first 2km hard, as we got used to the altitude. It was strange to be at such high altitude, but in terrain that looked like home. I’m used to the alps, where all vegetation disappears long before you hit the high mountains.

From the summit we had a great descent of about 15km, until we hit the plateau at 2500m, and rolled along for another 22km, with a final 8km kick up and in to Viani.

We stopped at a little roadside cafe in Viani and regrouped. This kind of cafe designed to cater for commercial drivers and would become a big part of this trip, because the there wasn’t really a tourist infrastructure in Colombia yet.

P1010232When we got to the hotel there was no running water on our floor because of roadworks, so we had to use the shower down by the pool, a cold shower. Thankfully, it was about 25 degrees outside, so not an issue.

The following morning, we wandered up the street opposite the hotel and had a light breakfast in a little bar.

P1010221We started with a 3.5km climb under overcast skies, it was difficult to get your head around how green and beautiful this country is. Once over the top, we dropped into the low cloud and encountered our first poor roads, broken surfaces and random drivers. There are warning signs though, decorated in car/truck parts. Interesting! However, once out of the clouds the views were breath taking.

P1010241We followed long swooping bends down into Cambao, where we had our first true coffee stop of the trip. We learnt that coffee in Colombia is very sweet and not too tasty. I think they must export all the good stuff. We also heard that one of the group, Russell who I had ridden with previously on the Raid Alpine, had taken a tumble on one of the traffic calming humps on the descent. He had road rash on the arm and a large bruise on the hip.

After the break, there was a steady climb, 300m over 20k in length, but the temperature had now started to climb to 36 degrees. That, and the lack of water and food started to hit me with about 15km to go. Colin and Julie stopped, gave me a salt tablet and poured water over my head. P1010244It helped. Then they all dragged me home. As you may have gathered by now, this is not uncommon for me on the first day of a trip. It’s just acclimatisation.

We arrived at an awesome hotel in Mariquita, with a pool and great views. We had lunch at the hotel, a really nice chicken rice and I completely cleared the plate of every scrap. Colin managed two plates!

Today was the big day, the climb of Lestras, 83km in length, topping out at 3700m. Sad to say I failed miserably, and only managed 74km and 3500m in elevation. They say that altitude affects people in different ways. My biggest climb before this will have been La Bonnette, at just under 3000m. Once above that, it really takes its toll on me. I was OK until about 65km, then I found it hard the breathe and had dropped to about 6 kph, covering ground, but not really being aware of it. I stopped at the side of the road, then the bus pulled up, and Russell, who was still recovering said “you need to get in the bus?”, only it was an instruction not a question. He was right.


The ride up Lestras was spectacular, riding through big and little towns, rubbing shoulders with big, slow lorries on the climbs. At one point we are on an 18% incline heading out of one of the towns and I am side by side with this big tipper truck. We are both struggling to get up the climb and we exchange glances and a smile as if to say, “this isn’t easy for either of us”

IMG_0313At the top we wait in a cafe for the others to arrive. It was only 250m higher here than where I got off the bike, but just getting in and out of the bus had become hard work. We warmed ourselves by the fire in the cafe, as it is cold at this altitude.

Note to self: I don’t do high altitude!

Once the group was together, we transferred to the hotel in Manizales, where I sat in the restaurant on my own and had an early night, while the others went into town for dinner. I felt very disappointed with myself and didn’t want to mix that night.P1010265

The next morning David did a bit of bike building in the foyer of the hotel, while I had to nip to the local Specialized dealer to buy two new tyres, as my rear Ultremo had a cut in the sidewall. The roads over the last few days have been hard on the tyres, but I had never spent 200,000 on tyres before!

Today was one of the most beautiful bike rides I have ever done. Fast dual carriageway out of town set us off on a 40k descent, which then dropped us 1200m. We then turned off the main road and continued on to a broken road until we found a true oasis, where we sat and had juice in the sun.

We rode through the town a across the river until we hit the 50k mark, where the 20k climb started and took us back up 1000m, averaging 5% and it was hot. This was coffee country with folks in the fields picking the bushes.

Lunch was at the top of the long climb of the day, where I arrived and rested my bike against the bus, in the direct sun. Big mistake. After lunch I moved the bike ready to hit the road and the front tyre went bang. The pressure in the tyre must have increased due to the heat and change in altitude, enough to take it off the rim. Everyone else set off, while I changed the tube and let some air out of the back tyre, as I didn’t want that blowing off half way down the descent.

The descent was steady on sketchy roads and I sat behind a couple on a scooter, as we went through an area of banana and plantain fields. By the time we had dropped the 250m, I had caught a lot of the others, passing them and heading for our destination town, Anserma.

P1010306I didn’t know where the hotel was, but I guessed I would spot the bus before long. The 5km climb took us 300m up into the town, but as we got to the far side of the town, I realised we were not in the right area.

Eventually we found our way to the Santana hotel, where Channel 6 TV were waiting to interview us about our trip. Cool!

The evening meal was in an awesome little building, which was 150 years old and had played a major part in the history of Colombia. Fish, egg and chips …..Colombian style

The following morning, we headed out of Anserma, along the road we had taken last night by mistake. We soon started climbing, and this was for 25km, taking us back up to 2300m. What goes up……must go down and in this case, down for 35km, until we bottomed out back at 700m, where we found a roadside halt and had lunch by the river. In the trees behind us were large lizards, half a meter long. They had their eye on our lunch.

As we were descending this morning, we hit an altitude where the temperature started to rise and it was like hitting an electric fire, it was so hot. Some of the trees were full of crickets and as you hit the cluster of trees the noise was deafening, then it went silent once you rode back out. What a beautiful ride and down by the river was amazing.

P1010315Lunch was a lovely chicken soup, followed by chicken, rice and chips – sorted.

Only 20k to the hotel now, so I set off up the road with a lady called Catherine, an Australian triathlete, and we had a fast ride on the flat, then continued on the pull up to the hotel. We were out on our own and as we hit the 20k mark she thought we had gone wrong.

P1010322She was with me last night when we went the wrong way, so she may have a point.

The hotel was great, rustic with great views, a pool and bags of character. The views down to the river, which was flowing faster than the 35 kph we had been riding at. There were some cool, rickety steps running down to the viewpoint, where a large vulture sat, waiting for dinner.

Today was going to be a long day, so we had an early, 6:30 start. With a 30km flat start then we went up for the next 80k, rolling on and off until we peaked at 1900m. Once over the peak there was a really technical descent in the middle of the day, which was about 5k of loose stones and on a road bike…very challenging!

Once we had taken lunch, the rest of the day was a bit dull scenically wise, busy and hot, but it was the only way to get to the major city of Medellin. Things looked up when we dropped in to Medellin. We were on a four lane highway, racing the rush hour traffic – great sprint practice and a real laugh.

That evening we split up and a few of us walked to a nice piazza, where there was a busy burger restaurant. A nice way to finish the day.

We woke to a rest day, and some of the group were suffering from stomach issues, which we were warned about, so we needed to be careful.

I took a taxi downtown with Colin and Julie, and Julie used the pages from a guidebook, the ones she had ripped out, to lead us round the city. We went to the museum housing the large collection of work by Botero, overlooking a square, full of Botero statues. We had a coffee in the Botero cafe, overlooking this square.

From there we took a taxi to the police museum and finished up in the central police headquarters. It turns out Julie’s book had got mixed up and the museum was in Bogotá. We all laughed, including the policeman.

We then returned to the same piazza as last night and had a nice lunch. The evening meal was in a very swish Peruvian restaurant. Our numbers were getting low now as the stomach issue had started to spread.

Well, it was finally my turn and I think it was an ice cube in a coke I had last night. I got hit hard during the night and decided I could not ride. I got everything packed and headed for the bus, but while sitting on the steps of the hotel, I got bad cramps and tried to stand up. Once stood up the hot sweats started and I thought I was going down, so I crawled across the foyer and slumped against one of the pillars. Next thing I know they are bringing me round and they had called an ambulance. My vitals were OK, just dehydrated, no surprise there.

I spent the rest of the day asleep in the back of the bus, not eating. I woke at lunchtime, as the bus had stopped. It was really weird because I knew were still at high altitude, but when I looked out of the bus there was a field full of Friesian cows. It was like I had woken up at home.

Once we got to the hotel in Santa Rosa de Osos, I crept in to bed and slept. It was the noisiest hotel ever, with truck alarms and horns blowing all night.

I woke feeling a little better and walked across the road to this large food hall, full of truck drivers, hence the noise last night. This was actually a massive truck stop.

Despite 36 hours with little food, I set of on the longest day of the trip to Tazara. I took it steady as I started the 5km climb, there was only one other climb today of 6km, which took us up to 2400m. Once over the top in the thick cloud we dropped for 50k. These were busy roads, and we could not really see where we were going. The road surface was broken in places, but once out of the cloud, the descent opened up to a completely different Colombia in looks, smell and feel.

By the time we good to Tazara we were a filthy from riding in the clouds, traffic and broken roads. We hit one town and sat waiting for the group to catch up, at which point Josh took advantage of one of the local vehicle cleaning stations to clean his legs.

Once in Tazara we loaded up into the bus and transferred for 3 hours to our hotel, a cool place at the side of the main road, and almost European in its feel.

The plan was a late start, a transfer to a lunch stop, continue the transfer to Sincelejo then ride to Carmen. This was to avoid the dull, busy section and as David had done this route several times, it seemed OK. However, after lunch the consensus was, we should start now and ride to Sincelejo. Big mistake! 1. It was the hottest time of the day at 36+ degrees, 2. the road to, and through Sincelejo, was busy and dull, like riding down the edge of the A1 in mid-summer.

After 35km I had run out of liquid so stopped at a cafe for a Coke. I then needed to rush to the loo again. Not good! I went on for a further 15km, then thought it was a waste of time and this stomach issue was dragging me down. In the bus for me.

Ironically, if we had set of at Sincelejo, as intended, it would have been great, because as we got closer, the temperature dropped, and the road was great. The guide usually knows best!

IMG_0334Carmen was a vibrant small town, and all the streets were dusty stone tracks, none of them made. The centre of town was buzzing, with people eating at street vendors, glued to the large TV screens that vendor had secured to their stall. We found a really cool local restaurant and I forced some food down. We were told to store the bikes in the bedroom for safety.

IMG_0340So to the final day of riding, destination Cartagena. We get an early start from Carmen with a plan to have breakfast at around 40Km. As it turns out it was nearer 50Km when the fast guys found some random roadside stop, which to this day I don’t believe was a restaurant/cafe. The owner looked stunned by our presence and had to go and buy eggs for what turned out to be the worst scrambled eggs I have ever eaten. I ate a load of biscuits and crisps out of the bus just to be on the safe side.

restingWe then set off towards Cartagena, rolling up and down and slowly getting hotter as we got closer to the coast. The riding became a little boring near Cartagena, but it had to be done. Our final stop was in a lovely thatched, open sided cafe, but I did not want to risk lunch after yesterday, so just had a couple of Cokes, and I hate to admit it….a sleep.

The final 30km was into heavier traffic as we wind around Cartagena and finally land a square in the old town.

This part of town was just like a pirate theme park, only for real. A beautiful location and I could just imagine Capt. Jack Sparrow being thrown out of one of the upstairs windows.

The meal that night was in a great second floor Italian restaurant, and everyone had a relaxed, end of journey spirit.

Breakfast the following morning was amazing, and I felt my taste buds suddenly wake up after two weeks of a very similar diet. This was so tasty.

We had a nice walk around the old town, taking a stack of photos, before returning to the hotel for lunch. After lunch we took an organised tour of both the old and new town with a visit to the monastery and fort. A really interesting tour giving us a real feel for the history of the place.

This trip was one of the best I have done, the local people were so friendly, and I really do enjoy South America. I am sure this is not the last time I will be back in this part of the world.


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