©2019 by Jelle.

The last chapter: South-America

28/3/2019

In my previous blog, I shared the news that I am going to cycle with my father from Buenos Aires onwards. I have another update: I will get visitors in Colombia! My friend Tom and his sister Nina will come to Bogotá and we will travel together for three weeks. I’m really looking forward to their visit.

 

Back to Panama: It was Friday morning and it was time for me to say goodbye to the German family. I have had a great time with them and I will never forget that. They will give a big party once they have arrived at their destination, and I’m invited! It was not hard for me to say goodbye, since I was really pumped to go to Colombia. I just didn’t know how to get there, yet. While I was cycling to the ugly port village of Portobello, I received a phone call from Jan- Dirk. Did they miss me already?  Jan-Dirk told me that I forgot my camera…. I took several ‘goodbye pictures’ that morning and I completely forgot to take the camera with me after that. I didn’t feel like cycling back, we would arrange that later.

 

The morning I left

 

In Portobello, I quickly managed to find a way too expensive trip to Colombia with a sailboat. The sailboat would leave on Sunday morning and would go through the San Blas islands again. I have to admit that I didn’t even look forward to going there again, I just wanted to start the next phase of my journey, namely South-America. The option of flying was not much cheaper, so the choice to sail was easily made, considering the hassle and risk of flying with the bicycle. On Saturday, the day before the boat left, I took a bus back to Colon to get the camera back. I stood for hous in an overcrowded bus, racing through the hilly corners while playing deafening reggaeton music through the speakers. It was very uncomfortable, but I got the camera! The only small issue is that it doesn’t work anymore. It has the same problems as I had earlier, so this blog unfortunately only consists of lower-quality pictures of my phone.

 

The next day, I wrapped my bicycle on plastic foil, to prevent the salt water of affecting the bike. We left in the morning. The group consisted of 19 travelers, and I think that at least three quarters of them got seasick within the first couple of hours of sailing. We had very nice and relaxing days on the islands, though.

 

The group travellers going to Colombia

 

It was a nice group of travelers with many different nationalities. In my opinion, the trip itself was not too special. Obviously, I am completely spoiled with the unprecedented luxury that I have had on the German catamaran. This boat was so crowded, that there wasn’t even enough space for everyone to sit down on the deck. It took us five days to get to Cartagena. On Friday morning, 1st of March, we arrived in the port of Cartagena. It gave me a special feeling arriving here. After North-America and Central-America, it was time for the last chapter of the American continent. It took the immigration office a couple of hours to check all our passports, but we were free to go after that.

 

While chilling on the San Blas islands, I had managed to find a place to stay in Cartagena via a warmshower host. Argemiro was willing to receive me there. It felt familiar to cycle towards the unknown again. Argemiro rents little rooms and always reserves one with a bunker bed for backpackers or bicycle tourists. Coincidentally, there was another cyclist. I met the 49-year old British man Andy who has lived most of his life in South-Africa, mainly because he doesn’t like the weather in England. He is cycling towards the north, so we could exchange a lot of useful information. He is waiting for his flight to Panama, and we were talking about the possibility to cycle together for a couple of days. In the evening, I went to the goodbye-barbecue of the group on the sailboat. I met several times with different people from the group, and I’m still in contact with a couple of them.

 

By chance, my arrival in Colombia was at the same time as the carnival in Barranquilla. After the carnival in Rio de Janeiro, it is supposed to be the biggest carnival event in the world. I had the possibility to leave my bicycle and stuff in Argermiro’s apartment to go to Barranquilla for a day. I went on a Saturday to see the big parade. It was extremely crowded, but the vibe was good. Everybody was bombarding each other with foam and flour, it was a colorful madhouse! I had seen what I wanted to see after the parade and took the bus back to Cartagena.

 

Adam, Fabricio, me, Julio, Amarins & Robin

 

I stayed some extra days in Cartagena and moved towards a hostel in the touristic part of town. I met yet another cyclist here, Anatole, a 27 year-old French guy going South. I told him about Andy and we eventually decided to cycle together with the three of us. After a month of doing nothing, it was finally time for some exercise again. I could clearly notice that I had lost some muscle power in that time, it was quite tough. Moreover, we had a very strong headwind. We could work together to minimize the resistance, though.

 

Anatole & I

 

Three days of cycling along the coast took us to Santa Marta, another touristic place, but not as massive as Cartagena. We had some very nice days together, it was relaxing to cycle with Andy and Anatole. I stayed an extra days, because my bicycle had technical problems. I had another flat tire, my spare one exploded when I put it in and I had a broken spoke.

 

Andy in the middle

 

And then it was time to continue solo again. I was a little bit in a hurry, because of the upcoming visit of Tom and Nina at the end of March. I rushed through the sun route (ruta del sol) towards Bucaramanga. This took me four long, hot and beautiful days. The temperature rose to 40 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) and the environment reminded me of North-Mexico. I found some nice detours that took me off the highway, going through the rural and dry countryside, which I didn’t even know existed in Colombia. I thought Colombia was just green and tropical.

 

Hot and dry

 

 

From Bucaramanga onwards, it was time to climb. I was checking the map and I came to the conclusion that my route to Bucaramanga was the last flat section for the coming months. The Andes mountains start here and won’t stop until I get off the mountain range in Bolivia. Shit! I replaced all my spokes in Bucaramanga, since I had another broken spoke. I had also another exploding tube. It is time for proper European tubes, instead of the cheap Chinese stuff that is widely available in the majority of the bicycle shops in Colombia. The technical issues are frustrating me a lot and partly take away the joy of traveling on the bicycle. I just want to pedal, I don’t want to think about whether my bicycle will make it through the next day.

 

I met Diego in Bucaramanga. Five years ago, he pedaled to Bogota and documented his route quite well. I could use that information to make my own route, and I didn’t choose the easiest one. I cycled in six days to Tunja, the birthplace of Colombian cycling legend Nairo Quintana. That might give you an idea about the environment: mountainous! I had barely climbed for months, so those first climbs are pretty tough. My route took me over a high mountain and through some cosy little villages. The highest point on my route was ‘Parama de la Rusia’ with an altitude of almost 4 kilometres that I had to reach via a horrible dirt and mud road. Here are some pictures of these six tough days:

 

 

This was the first serious climb, towards Zapatoca. It really helped that I knew about the tough climb, so I could mentally prepare for the worst. That always helps me to overcome the more difficult parts. Start with climbing, stop to drink something and don’t think too much about how much you still have to do. If your body is unable to continue, you will notice that automatically, but I have never reached that point yet. And before you know it, you made it to the top!

 

Op weg naar de Tao tempel

 

I noticed that there was a Tao tempel on my route to the top of the mountain. Diego told me that this is a philosophical and religious movement that originally comes from Asia and that there are only 8000 practitioners. They have one community in Latin-America, namely on the little mountainous road that I was about to take. I read that there were some bicycle tourists that camped there, so I decided to check it out and camp there if possible. The road was absolutely terrible, it’s a dry river so it consists of many big rocks and muddy ground. Consequently, I was really slow and couldn’t reach the Tao place in time. I had to climb in the dark for two hours on this rocky road to finally see a sign of life. Several houses were lighting up the road and there were several persons with flashlights wandering around on the road. There were speakers on the side of the road that broadcasted a weird discussion that the community was conducting. It’s difficult to explain exactly what I experienced, but it was weird to say the least. After cycling for 12 hours, I reached the entrance of the community quite exhausted. I got bluntly rejected by the guy in charge. I had to arrive before 6 PM, they were not accepting visitors after that time. Shit! It was stupid of me to go all-in on the possibility to camp here. At the same time, I could not imagine that they would reject me, since the only thing I needed was a little bit of space to camp out. I had my own food and everything. But the answer was no, I had to go. The only option was to continue climbing, since there was no space on the side of the road to camp. After half an hour, I came across an illuminated house. A women opened the door and told me that I couldn’t stay there either, but that there was another house further ahead where I could ask. At half past 9 in the evening, I FINALLY found a place to stay. A very friendly women opened the door and told me that I could sleep in the house of her father and she even served me a plate of food. I thanked her a thousand times and fell asleep within a minute.

 

Practically no traffic on the road

 

At al altitude of 3500 meter, almost at the top!

 

Next morning at 7 AM, I was on the road again to reach the top of that bloody mountain on time. And I did. At 2:30 PM, I was a the top. I haven’t really enjoyed my way to the top, but I’m proud that I reached it in a such a short time. It was pretty cold above, but I didn’t really notice a difference in oxygen level, I was quite surprised by that. I descended to the clouds to Duitama where I stayed the night. I continued my trip the next day with a visit to the biggest lake in Colombia, Lake Tota. The last day was relatively easy, with only 60k to reach Tunja. I took a bus from Tunja to Bogotá, to avoid the traffic and to be on time to receive my arriving Dutch friends. I’m really glad I made it and I need a little bit of body recovering. Later!

 

The biggest lake of Colombia, the Tota lake (at 3km height)

 

 

 

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