Climbing Cotopaxi

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Looking out from the van on the way to the base of the mountain, a deep blue sky permeated above the fresh white peaks from the summit of the Volcano. I was in a group from my amazing countryside hostel in Cotopaxi; and 6 of us paid a bit extra so we could take mountain bikes back down to the starting point after our hike was done.

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After we’d parked and started to climb, the loose gravel-y terrain started to slow our progress, and the altitude was making what appeared like a quick 1 hour hike into a bit more.  For those of you who haven’t hiked at 15000ft, you might start to have a mild headache, and have to stop moving to rest more often than you’re used to- not much else really.  (At least for me)  After we hit the tourist summit (the real summit requires a guide, equipment, and a lot more$), it was time for a photo-

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The bone-jarring descent on the cheap mountain bikes we’d hired was good fun, just remember to tighten your brakes to the max!

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Medellín

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Famed for its association with Pablo Escobar, Medellín was at one time one of the most dangerous cities in the world.  Times have changed though, and now Medellín is known for good weather, great nightlife, and at least when I was there; hosting the world cycling forum!

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A great city for cyclists, Medellín is packed full of cycling lanes, bike culture, and a pristine metro system- the only one in Colombia.

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My first adventure was during a day trip to the nearby Guatape lake region, where I experienced the most colorful town I’ve ever laid eyes on, and a strangely beautiful stone stairwell leading to the top of a small mountain, built smack into the side.

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Some 700 steps later, the view was majestic-

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I spent the day kayaking around lakes, eating grilled fish, and lost in a whirlwind of colors…

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I can definitely understand why Colombians consider it one of the best cities to live in after being there for a week; I could easily settle in to a life here 🙂 When you look up into the sky, this is what you might see…

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The breakdown which almost never happened

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It happens to everyone on a bike tour; flats, broken spokes, snapped cables- but since my bike is a bit different, I was worried about what might happen if one of my welds broke.  Well, it finally did after a solid 3 months of abuse! In the small town of Santa Barbara, far away from the Santa Barbara of home; I was coasting downhill when I felt a bouncing vibration from the steering when applying heavy breaking.  I pulled over to a small bus-stand type shelter and stared to examine things, and my heart sank when I realized what happened; the fork extension had cracked and separated at the bottom, where much of the stress is regularly applied.

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A motorcyclist cruised by and stopped at the small grocery shop next the stand, and saw my collection of bike parts and luggage scattered on the ground.  He popped over and started asking me questions; and I explained with a sigh that I was stuck and needed to find a welder… on sunday morning… at ten…

“Claro amigo, vamos!”

I hopped on the back of his bike as we raced back up to the town I’d just left.  A thunderstorm was rolling in, and soon I was drenched as we rolled into a workshop, fork in one hand, extension in the other.  Aurelio the welder took a look and recommended bronz-ing it back together.  The original weld was done by good friend Adrian, who’d helped me build the bike from scratch, and was traditional MIG wire.  I don’t know a great deal about welding, so I put my faith in hands that looked like they had been doing this for 30 years.

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30 minutes and 6$ later I was reassembling my bike, and waiting for the thunderstorm to fade.  What I expected as a total disaster was made easy thanks to the friendly, helpful Colombians that have always been there since the beginning of my tour.  Viva Colombia!

Tidbits from the road

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I haven’t talked much about the nuts& bolts of bike touring, what lessons I’ve learned so far, or what weird crazy things have happened outside of the very tourist-like posts I’ve written so far… so here goes-

Lessons from the road:

1) The most important piece of kit I have is this:

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I’ve purified river water many, many times using this UV light and I’ve not been sick once so far-

2) The second most important purchase… Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires- I’ve been riding for 2 months so far without a single puncture- unbelievable.

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3)The experiences I’ve had with local hosts are eye-opening, and crucial to understanding what makes the Colombian people tick.  It’s THEIR country, their customs & culture.  I’ve been using both CouchSurfing & Warmshowers to connect with people.

4) Fatty soups are a cyclists’ best friend- and in Colombia they’re specialists, Caldo de Costilla keeps me going!

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One crazy thing that’s happened:

I camped by the side of the road two weeks ago here on the coast between Santa Marta and Barranquilla, in a small grove next to the beach-completed isolated, with a black-sanded beach all to myself.

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I setup my tent and things to dry and jumped into the Caribbean to cool off.  I settled into a deep sleep under a magnificent blanket of stars- all was well… except that the next morning when I stepped out of my tent there was no stiff breeze to keep the mosquitos and other biting insects at bay the way there was last night…

I was swarmed the moment the tents’ zipper opened, only in my underwear, wildly fanning my arms as bugs of all kinds bit me, crawled into my underwear, and even into my nostrils, ears, and eyelids.  I cursed and cried out, frantically running to the sea and jumping in to escape.  The current was strong and pulled me out further than I’d expected within a minute- soon I couldn’t feel the bottom. and was trying to swim back to shore- after ten minutes of swimming parallel to shore, and drinking more water than I ever have before, I heaved myself out and laid on the beach gasping for a few minutes-
After I collected myself and caught my breath, I still had the bug swarm to deal with while packing up my gear.  I figured if I could quickly get on a pair of pants and long sleeve shirt I could reduce the amount I’d be bitten while packing up the rest of my things- I ran back to camp and as I approached my tent the bugs started to swarm- I quickly got on pants and a full sleeve shirt, but the two minutes or so that it took left me covered in bites on my torso, limbs, face, even my bottom lip- I was cursing a storm and pleading for them to stop in vein-
I pushed the bike and all my hastily packed gear frantically the sand path, fanning my face with my hands and struggling to keep the bike upright with one hand and the bugs away with the other.  I made to the road and saw two local fisherman walking towards me.  I was breathing heavily and felt like my body might have been in a slight shock from an allergic reaction.  They asked me what happened in Spanish and I explained to them what had happened. The locals call the bugs “chici ticos”, they’re mosquito-like and super fast, biting anywhere at will.  They looked over my exposed face, hands, and head and saw bites everywhere, exclaiming “Dios mio..”- they held my bike up while I changed into my bike shorts and a t-shirt and I inspected my badly bitten legs, arms, and torso.  Even my bottom lip was swollen-
I thanked them for their help and pedaled away, slowly getting to speed as my body struggled to get itself in gear.  After a few hours the swelling started to fade, and after a few beers and a cold shower that night things were looking up again 🙂
Aside from the bug attack, roadside camping was fantastic- the Caribbean is a truly unique area, and the Colombian side of it left me hesitant to head south for the mountains again- but then again, it’s too cold in the mountains for mosquitos!

Cartagena

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One of the most beautiful historic cities I’ve ever seen, Cartagena lived up to all the guide-book hype and held me captive in its embrace of limonada de coco’s and gorgeous sunsets overlooking the Caribbean.

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This shot was taken from Castillo San Felipe de Barajas (a.k.a “The Fort”), which protected the city from Pirates of the Caribbean… literally.   The audio guide brought me into the age of rich port cities, lepers (the fort had its’ own separate space for them), and the hard life of a soldier who had to spend his days under the harsh sun waiting for pirates to attack.

The old city itself is a walled fortress, but these days it serves as a tourist district.  The beautiful wooden balconies have hanging flowers that  stream down above your head, and dance in the strong breezes that arrive at dusk.

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At night the rum and aguardiente flow quickly, and soon the streets are packed with a crazy mix of tourists; ranging from young Aussies on gap year to retired couples in matching khaki travel pants trying to dance a foxtrot to salsa music.

The cafes, restaurants, and hotels here are undoubtedly high-class, especially a small Cuban one where the owner saw me cautiously rolling towards him on the old cobblestone streets, and invited me in for a free mojito. His humidor was legit-

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I also had my first taste of a Colombian chain which I will now eat at whenever the opportunity is available… Crepes & Waffles.  The name sounded so cheezy at first, and I assumed they only served what their name implied- but after someone told me they had the best salads you can find in Colombia (which is quite rare on any menu in Colombia), I ended up eating there 3 times in a week-

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Cartagena also has amazing street art & performers, both of which you can find in the neighborhood of Getsemani, just outside the old city.  Some of the best murals I’ve ever seen are strewn about the neighborhood, untagged and preserved beautifully.

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Lastly, with a bit of help, I finally got around to making a little clip of how to get on&off of my tallbike.  For those of you who haven’t seen it already…

*Thanks again Elsa and the random cop who helped us!

Minca

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After a few days staying at a party hostel in tourist town Santa Marta, I needed to get away from the noise and crazy dust winds to a place a bit more serene, and took a day trip to a small town nearby to chill out, do some hiking, and jump into a cold river.  Minca was a beautiful respite from the city madness, and the barefoot hike to reach the local swim hole was a good adventure.

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Though it’s so close to beach, the mountains are elevated enough to produce coffee and chocolate, both of which you can find in plenty, with all kinds of interesting local fruits & flavors…

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There is also a very cool hummingbird viewing spot, where you can see a site like this:

Cuidad Perdida (The Lost City)

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Deep in the Sierra Nevada mountains of northern Colombia there is a very famous tourist trek for 4 days to Cuidad Perdida (The Lost City).  I decided to take a break off the bike and touch ground again, and it was very much worth it- I even made a new friend…

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First off, it should be known that there isn’t really a “Lost City” as the name might imply.  It’s no Angkor Wat… there’s only a few stone mounds when you get to the top, and not much else.  With that info out of the way, now I can tell you it’s still great- amazing even!  The thing is you have to be into trekking; if you are, this is the journey for you.  The vistas and landscape are just breathtaking, and there are many times throughout the day where beautiful places to swim are abound.

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You’ll take advantage of them too, as the heat & humidity left us sticky for the ENTIRE duration of the trip.  Seriously, there’s not too many times of the day where you can even dry your wet clothes, so during the 2 hour window when you’re having lunch, make a break for the laundry line-

At night you sleep in hammocks at rest stops where you have dinner and have access to some facilities, but mostly you’ll be drinking with your hiking group and trying to finish your dinner… I was worried that my appetite would overcome the food provided, but no chance- the heaps of rice, potatoes, yucca and fish/chicken put me in check.

When we finally did reach the “Lost City”, this is what we found:

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Unfortunately we didn’t have much contact/conversation with the local Indigenous people of the Sierra Nevadas, but I did occasionally kick around an old futbol with local kids and have some fun.  Our guide Juan did have some conversations with us about their culture, and it is remarkable how remote they are able to keep themselves from the outside- it’s what kept them out of harm’s way from the Spaniards.

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