Colombia is frighteningly welcoming. The constant flow of invitations to stay and adventure with strangers among the dramatic and varied landscapes has made it feel like a strange magic-realism fantasyland. The need to disregard of all I’d ever learned of social interaction between strangers and ride the wave of Colombian spontaneity and enthusiasm has been exhilarating. This has produced a feeling of magic that has persisted ever since we arrived in Colombia. It is one of the most wonderful places I have ever visited and we are finding it impossible to leave!
On setting foot on solid ground in Cartagena’s old harbor, we quickly assembled our bicycles and pedaled into the old fortified city. Cartagena’s colonial sandstone buildings cast the city in golden orange light, giving it an angelic savior feel as we wobbled along in search of an emergency shower and nap. African slaves brought over by Portuguese traders built the city in the mid-1500s. High walls were quickly built around Cartagena after it’s riches were plundered a few times by sneaky English pirates, and the port more or less safely resumed it’s noble use of shipping gold, precious stones, exotic fruits and other curious objects back to the king of Spain.
Today Cartagena is a mix of Caribbean, African, Portuguese, Spanish, and indigenous Colombians all dressed in colorful outfits and yelling out “Hello my son, my daughter!’’ as people walk by. The buildings in Cartagena are beautiful—windows with painted wooden shutters open out onto balconies covered in wisteria, and if you look closely you can see seashells and coral fossils mixed into their bricks. The people are even more beautiful. Although we couldn’t understand most of what they said due to the confusing coastal habit of dropping the last syllable of each word, they were always quick to share a smile and ask if we needed anything, even to the point of insisting on giving us free drinks when we didn’t have exact change.
We stayed in Cartagena for a short two days, which was enough to catch our breath, wash our bikes and clothes, and eat a few too many roadside arepas de queso (thick cheesy tortillas).
On a Saturday morning we loaded our bikes once more and said goodbye to the coast as we headed inland. The sleek city center soon faded into breezeblock buildings and slums, and finally countryside. In interest of self-preservation, we literally dodged cars, trucks, and busses that zig zagged and stopped for passengers in the middle of the road, while traffic rushed by on either side of them. Busses and cars would pull up alongside us and slow down to our speed so that its passengers could get a closer look at the strange phenomenon that we were. It was an exciting and terrifying morning!
At midday we arrived at the dirt-road turn-off for Palenque. We sat down at the mango stand at the intersection and asked the man working the little town was worth seeing. “Of course it is! I am from Palenque!” he said proudly. Handing us a peeled mango, he called his friend Ambrosio over from the other side of the road, who quickly invited us to stay in his house in exchange for a ´friendly donation´.
Not too keen to continue cycling in the grueling midday heat and curious about what the town was like at the end of the dirt track before us, we accepted Ambrosio’s invitation. “Just ask anyone in town where Ambrosio’s house is, and they will show you!” He waved us off and continued to his business of driving people from the highway where we were to the village on his little moped.
Palenque, to our surprise, was created as the first haven for freed African slaves a few hundred years ago. To this day only pureblooded Africans are (unofficially) allowed to live there, and everything from the music, to their dress, dancing, and food, tries to stay as true to their Congo roots as possible. Even their language is a dialect that mixes Portuguese, Spanish and African languages, making it a good challenge to communicate. “We aren’t Colombian, we are African!” almost everyone said when they met us. Most people live in mud or adobe huts, and pigs, chickens, and cows freely wander the unpaved roads. Admittedly it was bit of a shock to go from Cartagena to Africa in a morning’s cycle ride, but I suppose that randomness and rarity is what you agree to when you ride into a foreign country without a plan!
Ambrosio’s wife seemed a little suspicious of us when we arrived at his house. But she welcomed us in nonetheless, before returning to the house across the street where the village women were braiding each other’s hair. We spent the rest of the day trying to stay hydrated and in the shade, and talking to the odd person who wandered our way about the history of their village.
Early the next morning we said goodbye to Ambrosio and Palenque, and rode back down the 5 km dirt track leading to the highway. It was a beautiful morning and the heat finally didn’t feel as oppressive as it had in the last few months. Around 9am we caught up with another cyclist, Don Raúl, who was out for his regular Sunday morning ride. We rode side-by-side along the highway as he told me about his family, village, life history, bicycling competitions, hobbies, and political opinions, while pulling the odd apple or candy out of his pockets to share. Within the first few hours of the day we realized how tired we still were from the sprint through Central America and boat trip to South America. Don Raúl’s energy and enthusiasm inspired us to carry on in good spirits though, and it was nice to have the company of someone else as a change of pace.
After an hour of cycling together he said “You must come to my house for breakfast and meet my wife! And see my village! And meet my family!” With total eagerness we agreed, and spent another happy 2 hours cycling together. Soon enough we reached his village, and were greeted with an even more enthusiastic welcome from his wife, Silvia. Within a few minutes we were absorbed in cold glasses of fresh juice, and plates heaped with rice, beans, avocados, cheese, chicken, and salad. Silvia grew up in their village, San Juan, and her mother, who lives next door, wandered in and started stroking my hair and massaging my shoulders as she asked who I was.
We told them we had better get back on our bikes if we were going to make it to the next town by dark, and Don Raúl, Silvia, and Silvia´s mother all exclaimed that it was way too hot and we would have to stay the night in their spare bedroom. Without waiting for an answer, Don Raul hopped up and showed us where to put our things.
After I came out from my bucket shower, I found Jacques tucked into bed, with the curtains drawn, lights out, and the little air conditioner buzzing away. In all the time I’ve known him I have never seen him take a nap, and became quite worried that he was seriously ill. But Silvia, in all her motherly tenderness, had marched in without a word, pulled the covers over him, turned on the cold air, turned off the lights, and, still without a word, firmly closed the door behind her. We got up a few hours later to her bubbling Sancocho soup, a Colombian tradition of chicken or beef stewed with big chunks of potato, yucca, carrots and onion. After another huge and tasty meal, we went out with Don Raul to see the town.
In the village square we met a man with a local type of monkey on his shoulder and Don Raúl waved him over to show us. After the little monkey climbed over us a few times the man invited us back to his house to see his ‘other animals’, and so with Don Raúl, the man, and another boy we had just met in the park, we headed across the town to where his home was. Sure enough, when we got there we were welcomed in by his wife and children and brought to their ‘animal room’, where monkeys, birds, lizards and cats roamed around.
We woke up early the next morning to carry on our journey to the city of Sincilejo, which was little over 100km from Don Raúl and Doña Silvia’s house. Raúl was going to cycle with us until we reached the first little village, and his wife, neighbors, and mother-in-law gathered on the front porch in the darkness of 5am for coffee and to wave us off. We were sad to leave Raúl when the time came to part ways. It was a little less than 24 hours since we met him, but he and his family had left such a strong impression on us that in a way it felt like we were leaving family all over again.
But, as the journey goes, we carried on our way and after another hot and sweaty day riding in tropical heat we reached Sincilejo in the late afternoon. We carefully considered what was before us: hundreds and hundreds more kilometers of tropical heat before reaching the coolness of the Andes. At this point we had lived and cycled in the tropics alone for nearly six months. Heat rashes, blisters, impossible rehydration, dimness of thought, and the occasional heat stroke had been with us for the complete duration, and if we wearing down from anything, it was the infernal sun that chased us wherever we went. In a desperate attempt to escape the unrelenting heat, we decided to board a bus to Medellin, a 10-day cycle ride/10-hour bus ride away. While it was a sadness to leave an un-cycled section of our new favorite country, we felt huge relief at the thought of cooler climates.
We traveled overnight and arrived in Medellin in the darkness of the following morning. It was a novelty to be shivering in only shorts and a t-shirt, and took great pleasure in pulling out our fleeces, which had long since been stashed at the bottom of a pannier.
We called Dario, the father of our Victoria yoga teacher’s son-in-law, who lives with his wife and other children in Medellin. He picked us up shortly, and we were soon, to our immense joy, drinking tea and eating croissants in their apartment, cleaner than we had been in months.
In the following few days we met Dario’s and his wife Maria-Teresa’s children and grandchildren, explored the city, enjoyed good food, and, generally tried to recuperate from the previous few months. We had spent the last year sleeping in tents and eating very simply, and so it was a nice change to find that breakfast was cooked and served to us by a maid each morning, and that after we had finished eating and returned to our rooms, our bed was already made and fresh towels were waiting for us in the bathroom. We were experiencing a very different side of Colombia!
Although it was wonderful to have such a welcome rest and be with such kind hosts, Jacques and I both felt it was time for a deeper rest of a week or two before setting our sights on Argentina once more. We heard that there were several monasteries in a little village around 2 hours away, and began to contact them to see if they offered space for people to take retreats. One by one they all responded saying “no” for one reason or another, or else simply didn’t respond. Undeterred, we made plans to simply show up to this village, called ‘La Ceja’ (the eyebrow) and ask around.
We said goodbye to Dario and Maria exactly one week after we cycled out of Cartagena, and started winding up and down Antioquia’s beautiful rolling hills, in search of a little refuge.