Thursday, 28 October 2010

55. Pirates of the Caribbean

Last Sunday we rolled and splashed our way into Cartagena de Indias. Once upon a time the principal port of the Spanish empire in the New World, where the region´s wealth was drained through enroute to the Spanish mainland. This wealth also attracted a lot of interest from sailing privateers and the English buccaneer, Sir Francis Drake, famously laid siege to the city for over one hundred days in 1586. Following Drake´s withdrawal fortifications were built to protect the city from future attacks and the old walls still ring the old city.

While the picturesque old city is home to most of the preserved colonial architecture and museums, most of the city´s population lives in the surrounding modern concrete jungle. As we rode through the flooded Sunday morning streets last weekend, drain covers surfing the gushing outflow of rainwater and sewage, some raggedly dressed, barefooted entrepreneurs got some coins by laying wooden pallets and planks across the flooded streets so pedestrians could navigate their way across the road without taking their shoes off.

Cartagena is the end of the road for us in Colombia and South America. The Pan-american highway fails to live up to its name in the dense and troubled rainforest of the Darien Gap, the border region between Panama and Colombia, where the highway is broken for over 80 kilometres. Many obstacles have led to the completion of the intercontinental route through the Darien Gap, including environmental opposition to the destruction of more rainforest, protecting the livelihoods of indigenous groups inhabitating the area, and a belief that a finished highway would lead to easier overland routes for drug traffickers to use. It has also been argued that the Darien provides a natural boundary for foot and mouth disease that is prevalent in South America from being able to travel north. In recent years, the border area itself has become particularly unsafe for visitors with FARC, paramilitiaries and the Colombian government all trying to control the area.

Prior to the conflict in Colombia affecting the safety of the area since the 1990s, numerous attempts were made to cross the Darien. The first crossing by four-wheel drive in 1959 left Chepo in Panama and took 136 days to reach Quibdo in Colombia on 17 June 1960 - with an average of 201 metres per hour. The first fully overland wheeled crossing (others were using boats to travel up rivers and across swamps) was by the late British cyclist Ian Hibell, who rode from Cape Horn to Alaska between 1971 and 1973, and crossed the Darien with two New Zealand cyclists, Gary Bishop and John Bakewell. The video clip below shows some rare footage of the journey they made and the conditions they faced.

Instead of attempting to follow in Hibell´s tyre tracks, however, we´re settling for the hopefully more sedate option that most overlanders choose these days, namely taking a sailing boat from Cartagena across to the San Blas islands and then on to the Panama mainland where we´ll start pedalling again in a week or two.

Cartagena, Colombia
Trip distance: 37,439 km

Sunday, 17 October 2010

54. Out of the Andes and into the adjectival rain

After seven memorable months of cycling over, along and beside the Andes, a few days brought us over the last of the high passes and a long descent to the sultry, sodden lowlands on the banks of the muddy Cauca. For Ellie the first days of the bike (check out for her take), cycling up 9000 ft passes and dealing with altitude and a loaded touring bike were somewhat a pedalling baptism of fire, but she coped very well and still smiled momentarily at the end of each day before passing out. We both read Peter Carey's The True History of the Ned Kelly Gang in the past few days and so everything is adjectival this and adjectival that.

The descent to the lowlands also saw a rise in the number of military and police checkpoints and a larger display of firepower. Caucasia, the town where I´m writing this, first appears as a relatively bedraggled yet sedate capital of the Bajo Cauca region, lying alongside the swollen river. Yet while many talk about the violence and troubles of Colombia as being a thing of the past, this town and the surrounding area has become an increasingly important strategic city for the warring groups of drug traffickers who wish to control the smuggling routes along the river. According to Michael Deibert's recent article the groups regularly distribute anonymous pamphlets that issue death threats to a particular group's enemies and often use young teenagers to carry out grenade attacks, with 76 people killed in the Bajo Cauca area in the first six months of the year. With political ideologies put aside,  far left-wing paramilitary groups such as FARC cooperate with local criminal gangs and former right-wing paramilitary groups, the former protecting the cultivation process of coca in the surrounding mountains and the latter organising the distribution of the drug. Ok, well there endeth another rant.

Another week or so will bring us to Cartagena and the Caribbean coast... and if you thought the sodden Celtic Isles were wet check out the chart below...

Average annual rainfall for London, Bogota, Cartagena and Medellin

Caucasia, Colombia
Pedalled: 37,022 kilometres

Monday, 4 October 2010

53. Back in Medellin

"Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia." H.G. Wells

Nothing to do with cycle tracks, but this grumpy-looking fella was in Medellin's aquarium

The ciclovia or 'bike path' event emerged in Colombia's capital, Bogota, in the mid-70s as a way of encouraging citizens out on their skates or bicycles on Sunday mornings. For several hours each week, sections of motorways around the capital were closed off to traffic. Today, Bogota's ciclovia is over 120 kilometres long and each Sunday an estimated 2 million people get to experience tarmac that is only congested with the sound of meandering skaters and cyclists. The concept has since spread to many cities around the world.

Why do they all look in the same direction?

On Saturday evening as Seamus, Ellie and myself prepared for a night out in nearby El Poblado, I momentarily disappeared to the bedroom, only to be woken up at 5am by the voices of Ellie and Seamus who had just returned from El Poblado's dancefloors. An hour later the sun was rising on what promised to be another sunny day in Medellin and after the others had gone for a snooze, I pumped up Rocinante's tyres and rode through Envigado to the main Route 25 (the Pan-Am highway) that runs north-south, dividing the valley that Medellin lies in. One side of the highway was closed off to accommodate the ciclovia and although still early, many cyclists were already out on an assortment of bikes from flashy racing bikes with sleek lycra-clad riders with serious faces to rusty old mountain bikes with banana-shaped wheels. As I rode towards the city centre I passed young entrepreneurs sitting on the kerbside with a bicycle pump and an assortment of bicycle spares prominently displayed, ready to jump to the aid of any troubled cyclist. Vendors had parked their carts under the shade of trees or overpasses and were pressing fresh orange juice. I reached the northern suburb of Bello before returning to Envigado, happy for being reunited with Rocinante and also glad to have found a good way to make our escape from the city next weekend, the only other option being a 30km climb with a 2000 metre gain in elevation, not the easiest way to be initiated into cycle touring.


Ellie and I met in Bolivia several months ago and spent a month visiting the Amazon basin and hiking to Machu Picchu in Peru. In a moment of beer-induced euphoria she told me she would love to come cycling with me. Yet she still left to fly to England. However, five months later, having chased her the eight thousand miles to Brighton, made a visit home to Ireland, we were Colombia-bound. We landed back into Medellin airport on Thursday evening and after successfully navigating our way through Colombian immigration and customs we were soon squashed into a taxi with Ellie in the back, asleep on her unchristened bike, and me left chatting with the apparently mute taxi driver whilst we wound our way back to Seamus' apartment in Envigado.

So now there are two. Next weekend we plan to start pedaling from Medellin towards Cartagena and the Caribbean coast of northern Colombia before crossing by boat to Panama.

Medellin, Colombia
Pedalled: 36,714 kilometres