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Friday, June 4, 2010

Panama City to Medellin, Colombia (Parties, Paradise, Pirates and Passports)

Marco's arrival marked the beginning of something very special. Over the next 12 hours we were met by a tidal wave of friends and new energy. Eliza (my girlfriend), Hannah and Maddie (Eliza's sisters), Tony and Danielle (on their honeymoon), Eric and Sarah (on their honeymoon), Marco, Sean, Peter, Stephen, Martin and Nessa (fellow cyclists we met in El Salvador), and the infamous Walt and Ross (brothers and owner's of Montanas De Agua in Dominical, Costa Rica) all showed up to join us for our epic journey from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia.

You can imagine what the first couple of nights entailed. Our opportunities to see our friends are so rare these days that our reunion in Panama City created an energy that was nothing less than magical.

Let's also say that it was no surprise the a few people decided that it would be a good idea party through the last night before our boat trip due to our 4:30am departure time from Casco Viejo for the Stahlratte.

The mayhem that insued that early morning was only increased by the fact that we had to fit 14 cases of beer and 24 bottles of rum into vehicles that couldn't even fit the 16 of us. Fortunately any stress that we experienced early that morning was long gone by the time we were enjoying our first night barbeque on an uninhabited, palm tree lined island in the middle of the San Blas archipelago.

Our first two days and nights on the boat were straight out of a fairy-tale. We spent the days on deserted islands, fishing, sun bathing, enjoying beersks and other libations and by night the sailboat would turn into our own dance club, where a certain individual even treated us to a little table dance they'd dreamed up. Thanks to the musical prowess of Peter and a masterful compilation entitled Shmetz we were never short on rhythms or beats.

I'm not sure anyone took the captain seriously when he sat us all down and told us that our final thirty hour sail/motor would include harsh seas and 25 foot waves. I'm pretty sure everyone counted those hours down by the minute. Toby and the deckhand seemed to be the only ones not affected. Even though not everyone got sick, those types of seas strained most people's body to a point we were moving around and operating like zombies.

On the first night into the crossing I awoke in a dream like state on the deck, covered in ocean spray from the waves crashing over the bow of the 40meter boat and the sound of my lawn chair clinking against the boats railing and dry lighting illuminating the night sky. Looking over to my left I saw Marco and Peter in similar conditions. Each time the lightning flashed I could see the outline of the massive deckhand, arms crossed and the other side of the boat staring out into infinity. In my stupor I climbed downstairs into the bunk with Eliza, passing Parker puking over the ships railing as I went.

There was a massive sigh of relief when the ship dropped anchor in the harbor of Cartagena and as it turned out there was no better place to spend the last few days with our friends before they had to part ways and return to the real world.

Cartagena is reported to be the most beautiful city in Columbia. It's cobble stoned streets, bouganvillas covered balconies and churches made the perfect backdrop for our mayhem.

Many months ago, while planning the boat adventure, my friend and number one fishing accomplice, Stephen Mull, seen here...

mentioned to me that there is a small island chain off the coast of Venezuela that we are going to have to fish before we take off south from Cartagena. Despite his attempts to plan the trip from his office desk in Virginia, the three of us found ourselves in Cartagena with no bus or plane tickets, only a desired destination a couple of thousand miles away. As everything seems to do in Latin America, it all worked out and after 30 straight hours of travel on buses, taxis, and planes we found ourselves on the beach on Gran Roques enjoying beverages.

The coming days were marked by a number of very unexpected tribulations. First we realized that thanks to a massive black market money ring we were losing almost half the value of our money when taking it out of the ATM, so the trip would be twice as expensive as originally expected. After swallowing that and letting Stephen know he would have to fly solo on the guided fishing trips, he floored us by telling us that he was going and paying and expected us to join.

In an effort to conserve funds, Parker and I had chosen to sleep on the beach of Gran Roques where we were assured by the locals that it was extremely safe to camp. First night went by without issue but on the morning of the third day we awoke to realize that three of our bags walked off in the middle of the night. I won't go into details about everything that went missing but just say that it's stuff that is irreplaceable in South America including Parker's passport and recently replaced ipod. Thanks to our number-one-sponsor and biggest fan, our Mother, the essentials were immediately purchased and en route to Cartegena within 48 hours of their disappearance. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the best damn girlfriend in the world, a shipping location and address were tracked down.

Rather than let this misfortune spoil the rest of our trip, Parker, Stephen and I went out and enjoyed the fishing paradise of Los Roques.

Voted the number one destination for bonefish in the world, this place truly lived up to its reputation.

The endless flats offered up hundreds of opportunities at fish and the virgin islands, crystal clear warm waters, helped to wash away any negative vibes we were feeling after our loss of gear.

We also experienced a somewhat unique phenomenon to this island chain where we were able to cast minnow patterns to diving pelicans while the Bonefish were actively trying to steal baitfish form the inside of the mouths of the birds as they surface. The topwater, visual takes were spectacular.

We have to give huge, huge thanks to Stephen for affording us the opportunity to explore the Los Roques archipelago, and experience the best bonefishing of our lives.

After an uneventful flight back to Caracas, and a quick trip to the US Embassy to track down a temporary passport for Parker we were on our way back to Cartagena, Colombia.

Colombian Lowlands

Once back in Cartagena, Colombia I spent a full day overhauling our bicycles and installing all the new components donated by our parents and Chris at Roaring Mouse Cycles (the best biycle shop in San Francisco). After a couple rounds of greasy street food we were ready to hit the road again.

The ride out of any large city is usually a little nerve racking. Add rush hour traffic, a few thousand mopeds and motorcycles to the mix and street venders clogging the shoulders and you have complete mayhem.

Our ride out of Cartagena was just what we needed to awaken our senses and remind ourselves that we were no longer on a sailing or fishing trip. Parker and I wove through the traffic like a couple of Formula 1 racers. However, once the adrenalin wore off we both began to realize how much our legs were hurting from our three weeks of beach time. Apparently walking the flats in search of bonefish does not keep your legs in good cycling shape. After less than 50 miles (80km) on the road we had to call it a day.

By day two on the bikes I was feeling dizzy and dehydrated. The sun in the lowlands of Colombia is relentless and unforgiving to the untuned touring cyclists.

Both of us gave thanks that we had 350 miles (550km) of riding to do in order to pull our shit together before we had our first introduction to the Andes.

From Cartagena we opted for the more coastal, sligtly longer, less trafficed route than the Panamerican. We traveled through the coastal towns of San Onofre and Tolu. The scenery was beautiful, green and the countryside was remarkably clean.

The roads were slightly rolling but nothing to difficult and in beautiful condition and the Colombian people.....

The people in Colombia have been amazing. Maybe it's because cycling is the national sport or because this country just breeds the nicest people on earth but everyone treats us like we are their long lost friends. Everyone wants to hear our story, yell words of encouragement, give us a thumbs up, treat us to food and honk their horns.

A few times now we've almost been blasted off the side of the road by an over excited semi truck driver trying to yell out his window and annihilate us with his air horn at the same time.

The first 5 days through the lowlands were pretty similar. Rolling, green ranchlands, spotted with some of the healthiest looking cows I've ever seen. We spent our nights in roadside hospedajes, as the abundance of people and barbwire fence did not lend itself to camping.

Introduction to the Andes
Three days of painful saddle time allowed our legs and bodies to readjust to our lifestyles and by day 4 and 5 we were able to crank out two 75mile (120km) days. As we wound our way along the Rio Cauca and the outline of mountains began to take shape we realized that the Andes were no longer a distant thought or dream. As we made our final approach to the base of the mountains the landscape changed from farmland to dense jungle and waterfalls began to spout from every rock crevice.

The locals all tap into the water sources with flexible piping and pvc, and the natural force of gravity allows them to have permanent running water in their homes and roadside lavanderies. Small car washing business line the roadside and the nonstop water jets act to advertises their services.

Our final stop before the ascent was in Puerto Valdivia, where we rested our legs and prepped ourselves mentally for the next few days of riding. We knew that it was pretty much all uphill from here until Santa Rosa. Thank to the insight of Harry (a fellow touring cyclist we met headed north from Ushuia) we knew we were in for a “steep ass climb.” This information coming from a guy who just completed the entire length of the Andes.

The climb started abruptly the next day and the initial grade made us both laugh maniacally. After about 3 hours in the saddle we'd covered 13 miles (22km) as the grades ranging between 6% and 17%. Those types of grades make for a slow crawl on a bike with nearly a hundred pounds of gear. The intensity of the sun coupled with the climb, meant we were sweating buckets and it had me day dreaming about the cooler weather of the highlands.

Half way through our climb we both got what we were wishing for. Like someone was laughing at us, the skies clouded over, and released one the heaviest downpours of freezing rain either one of us has borne witness too. The road turned into a river of rock and mud and the roadside waterfalls turned into high powered jets that would blast us as we rode by.

After over seven hours on the bike seat, 35 miles (56km) and over 8'000 feet (2,440 meters) of climbing we decided to call it day in a cool little town called Yarumal.

As I sat in the central square waiting for Parker to search around for the cheapest accommodations and crowd began to form around me. By the time Parker returned I was engaged in 10 simple conversations and 30 people surrounded me trying to hear me speak. My linguistical skills limit the amount I can share with people but it really does not seem to matter to them. Everyone is so curious and personable.

We decided to split the remaining 120km into two days of riding. The day from Yarumal to Don Matias was rolling, punctuated with some steep climbs and exhilarating descents through green landscapes and pine forests.

We stopped for the night 10k past Don Matias at a roadside truck stop where we found some cheap food and lodging. The cool climate afforded us some great sleep as we had not experienced a climate like this since our air conditioned room at Walt and Ross' hotel Montanas de Agua in Dominical.

We awoke the next morning to realize that we were perched atop the 10 mile (15km) descent into the Rio Cauca Valley.

After a beautiful, brake burning drop to 5'000 feet we found ourselves on a 6 lane highway headed into the metropolis of Medellin. We passed by terra cotta clad slums similar to the ones we saw in Caracass

and navigated our way through the busy streets into the Central District where we were able to easily locate a cheap hotel.

Medellin is much different than either of us was expecting. Not better or worse, just much different. It lacks the flash and fairy tale nature of Cartagena and instead carries a much grittier vibe. On our ride around town while we were trying to locate a bike shop we passed through plumes of Northern California clouds, passed by whore houses, hundreds of homeless and slums but despite all of this there is a vibrance and life amongst all the grit that you can't deny .(After rereading that last sentence I might as well be describing San Francisco).

This is a place I definitely plan to return to and explore further.

Stay tuned as the next leg of our journey will take us on an off road adventure through the Colombian Highlands up to 10,500 feet (3200m) to cross the Cordillera Central on a rocky mountain road. Many cyclists choose not to ride this stretch of road and instead take a bus, notorious as a road in very poor condition, extremely remote with very few places to stay or get food and also once (and maybe still is) the territory of the FARC-EP (the Fuerzas Armadas Revolutionarias de Colombia - rebel group).


Stephen Mull said...

I think I just cried tears of joy reading this. I can't get this trip out of my head. Definitely fodder for making something happen over the next 6 months. Great stuff bro.

tracy said...

Your pictures and commentaries are phenomenal! I am learning about our world through your travels, THANK YOU for this! I am a friend of Bruce's, a guy from Indiana you met on the start of your trip in Alaska. Bruce started a bike trip in May from San Francisco and is in Kansas now. They had quite a few 10k ft. climbs across the Rockies. I don't see how you guys do it. Again, I love your pictures and enjoy reading about your adventures. I must say, I do worry about you guys even though I don't know you. You are in my prayers, stay safe and I am proud of you, Ride on!!! Tracy, Bruce's friend from Indiana

ECO-MAN said...

Hey dude amazing! I'm Costa Rican always wanted to go from Panama to Colombia but I'm afraid of FARC! Let me know how you manage to travel around over there. Great spirit!

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