Part Thirty Three – Northern Colombia

20th April (Cartagena – Maria de Baja) (75km)

21st April (Maria de Baja – San Onofre) (43km)

22nd April (San Orofre – Sincelejo) (60km)

23rd April (Sincelejo – Planeta Rica) (118km)

24th April (Planeta Rica – Caucasia) (67km)

Freshly squeezed orange juice reward at the top of the 2,200 metre climb

The road south of Cartagena is the beginning of the ride through South America. Its quite a thrill to be heading south on the final chunk of land for this trip, even though its not really a piddling chunk given that it will take a good few months to get all the way to the bottom. The ride towards Medellin is a pleasant flat run for the first 470km and then a big climb over 2,780 metres before the plunge into the valley to Medellin. The road is very good with a nice wide shoulder, not much traffic and people along the road side who are very friendly indeed. The little towns along the road provide all of the freshly squeezed orange juice and food (rice, beans and  beaten/tenderised to death steaks) that a touring cyclist could ask for. At Causacia I join the quickly flowing Rio Causa which I follow up-stream for a day before crossing at Valdivia for the huge mountain climb between here and Medellin. Caucasia is a pleasant town for the night with a bit of a rough edge from the mineral prospecting from the river silt so there is a definite army presence in town and a profusion of ore traders and pawn shops. The roadside scenery is lush and beautiful with rolling fields of cattle in what look like neat affluent country estates. As the road rises into the mountain range the scenery is lovely without being stunning but the towns become more and more beautiful as they cling onto the hillsides (especially Yarumal). The Colombians are laid back and engaging along the side of the road with little of the nauseating “hey Gringo!'” etc of most of Central America. People are very forgiving of my terrible Spanish and they persevere even when its pretty clear that I have little or no idea what is being said – i.e. most of the time.

Underestimating the strength of river flow erosion in Caucasia
Steep streets of Yarumal at 2,200 metres cling to the hillside
Passing time in Yarumal
New Florida?
Grandiose Hotel name - Hotel Universal

25th April (Caucasia – Valdivia) (106km)

26th April (Valdivia –  Varumal) (56km)

27th April (Varumal)

28th April (Varumal – Medellin) (125km)

A ride of 56km between Valdivia and Varumal doesn’t look like much of a riding day but this doesn’t tell the whole story as it also involved 2.2km elevation in pure climbing. This was quite an introduction to the big hills of South America. At 6 or 7km an hour the ride took all day, basically putting the bike in ‘granny gear’ and settling in to grind the mountain out.

Beyond Yarumal the road rises again to 2,780 metres before plunging through a long series of switch-back turns down through some absolutely gob-smackingly beautiful scenery to then follow the long valley into Medellin. Cooked all of the remaining brake pads on the way down so was just hanging on for the bottom of the hill at the end of the descent. About 15km out of Medellin the Gates belt drive (‘chain’) snapped but luckily I had a spare so managed to make it into the Zona Rosa district albeit in the dark and pouring rain through the last hour of the ride. The video is from the top of the hill. Although the role of the bouzouki in Colombian music is not something of which I was previously aware (its not too clear in the audio above the bloody ubiquitous accordion), I will research the introduction of this instrument into Colombia to confirm]. [*”Shut that bloody bouzouki up!” – Python]

Medellin is base camp for a week or so while I take in the nightlife around Zona Rosa and perfect the salsa and the Spanish skills. Just two blocks away from the square around which Zona Rosa pulsates (till 4am) I came across a lovely ‘Specialized‘ bike shop (the first serious top-end bike shop I’ve happened across on this trip for a long long time) sporting even more lovely good quality tires and a mechanic to give the bike a check up. The bike is therefore now enjoying some serious love and attention here in Medellin. After all that the bike and I have endured together thus far on the road south, it would seem remiss of me not to follow suit.

Hilltop town north of Medellin
Great Garden Feature
Lush countryside of Colombia
Kids hamming it up at the top of the hill (2,200 metres)

Part Thirty Two – Cartagena Colombia

Have now arrived in Colombia by sea from Panama and have decided to spend a week in Cartagena to rest and prepare for the coming road south. This city gets a post in its own right not only because it is a pit stop prior to taking on the rest of South America but it is also highly recommended for any to come here and sample the picture postcard streets of this beautiful city.

Am not whiling away the days merely taking photos of leafy balconies (along with the army of other clicking tourists here), but have signed up for some Spanish language and salsa classes (thankfully not simultaneously). After just two lessons I appear to have become the King of Salsa and can also freely converse in upward of 17 Spanish words. Much to my chagrin, due to the similarity in pronunciation of the Spanish word for ‘years’, phonetically ‘anyos’ and the English ‘anus’, I have come to the belated and embarrassing realisation that I have been proudly announcing to all and sundry along the cycling route that should I make it to the south of Chile that it will take me “one and a half bottom holes”.

The Meeting of the Americas has been in town bringing with it convoys of heads of state, road blocks and a clearing out of garbage bins and street carts. One bonus, however, has been the form of the security provided by Colombia that has included undoubtedly the most sexy instruments of state oppression of the unruly masses imaginable, personified by the unrelentingly cute Karinita and her riot police squady friends.

My little hotel in the old city has a coffee shop across the square and a pastry shop downstairs. Its going to be very difficult to drag myself away from this city but drag I must as all points south of this continent await.

Horse at Night

Picture selling Cartagena
House facades Cartagena

Historico Central Cartagena
Buff3y doing his bit for police /citizen relations
Karinita and Buff3y
Sexiest riot cops in the world
Church in Cartagena
Getsemani Cartagena
Watching Soccer Cartagena
Graffiti Getsemani - Resist Gentrification!
Graffiti Getsemani
Getsemani Cartagena
Graffiti in Getsemani
Cartagena Parrots
Door Knocker Cartagena

Part Thirty One – Sailing from Panama to Colombia

Bike strapped to catamaran

San Blas Islands lady
Kids on San Blas islands

The good ship ‘Fritz The Cat’ (a 15 metre sailing catamaran) provided the transport between the Panamanian port of Portobelo and Cartagena in Colombia. The trip was five days of sailing, the three of which were cruising through the idyllic San Blas Islands. After that it was a case of setting the course at 78 degrees east-nor-east and heading across the corner of The Caribbean for two days to the northern coast of Colombia. It was a lovely relaxing five days off the bike which is strapped to the deck collecting rust for the duration. I managed to make it to Cartagena without losing a lunch so happy with that. OK, the boat was a bit rough and ready and some of the peripheral equipment (eg. sails and motors) had a few performance issues along the way but the vessel is as tough as nails and everything was held together somehow by Fritz and his hard-working First-mate Jose. Photos of boat trip attached.

I’m now actually north of Panama but on the South American continent and will resume the ride south through Colombia and South America in about a week after a week or so sucking up the beauty of Cartagena (X number of photos of leafy wooden balconies and windows to follow).

Waves over the trampoline on cat
Colombian girl on Cat
The crew sleeping in the Saloon of 'Fritz The Cat'

San Blas Islands
Captain Buff3y takes control
Captain Fritz coming aboard
Snoozing post lunch - Pots of beany stuff were delicious
Modeling on Cat

Part Thirty – Costa Rica & Panama

22nd March (St Jorge – Border – Liberia) (117km)

23rd March (Liberia – Caldera) (80km)

24th March (Caldera – Jaco) (58km)

25th March (Jaco)

26th March (Jaco – Dominical) (105km)

27th March (Dominical – Charcarita) (100km)

28th March (Charcarita – Border – David) (108km)

As you can see from the above, I zipped through Costa Rica with only a few brief pit stops at beaches along the Pacific coast. Strong cross winds in north Costa Rica near the city of Liberia and an ugly or non-existent road shoulder made for difficult and dangerous riding so as soon as possible I turned south off the Pan-Am for the ocean road that was a dream by comparison. After stops at Jaco; a very touristed resort town and Dominical; laid back surfing village, I made easily kilometers and crossed the last central American border of the trip into Panama.

29th March (David – Las Lajas) (73km)

30th March (Las Lajas – Santiago) (118km)

1st April (Santiago – Penonome) (100km)

2nd April (Penonome – Chorrera) (111km)

Panama in the main is a tatty version of a place just slightly less tatty. On the positive side, for the cyclist at least, the main highway is comfortable, the wide shoulder making for safe and comfortable riding. The towns, however, along the Pan-American are sadly devoid of any redeeming feature whatsoever. With municipal art fashioned on soviet concrete recycling projects and streets thrown together with scant regard for anything but the basest function, the cities of David and Santiago just make you sad. To say the cities of David and Santiago a disheveled implies that they were ‘sheveled’ at some point in the past, which is highly doubtful. The concrete looks pre-stained and the plumes of rusty reinforcing steel rod look as if they have always been that way.  The guidebook tries to paint David as having a “lovely central square”. Balls! Charming cafes and patisseries are cleverly disguised as bulk outlets for plastic things. I search and eventually find another Pio Pio (rubber greasy fried chicken).

Met Erik the touring cyclist heading north along the Pan-Am

If the world sits on the city of ‘David’ then regrettably ‘Santiago’ is what comes out of David. There are no hotels in the centre of Santiago as no one but foolish touring cyclists who couldn’t make it to somewhere nice could be bothered stopping there. The centre is plagued by young guys blasting unrelenting waves of distortion from their ‘pimped’ little shit box cars. Surrounding venues devoid of any clientele blast similarly distorted  accordion music into the night creating a cacophony of Bad. Chorrera is another truck stop town that functions to dampen the spirits again but provides another $15 hotel room with soothing cold shower sans shower head yet again.

3rd April (Chorrera – Colon) (93km)

4th April (Colon – Portobelo) (45km)

Brightly coloured buses in Panama

It is on the Caribbean coast of Panama where you can find some towns with real character. Colón and Portobelo are oozing the stuff from every decaying brick of their neglected beings. In order to board the boat to Colombia, I ride north east, crossing the Panama Canal north of Panama City and then spend a rainy afternoon pedaling to the coastal free port city of Colón.

Crossing the Panama Canal

The guidebook describes Colón as a “dangerous slum” but I think that’s inaccurate. There are parts that are industrial waste swamp as well. The colonial buildings in the centre of town are in various stages of collapse. It is painfully apparent that near the centre of town one false turn into an ill chosen side street would definitely see you relieved of your wallet or worse. This is the only city I have encountered so far on this trip that I’ve felt a palpable sense of immediate threat. My one brief nocturnal outing of a mere 100 metres around the corner from my hotel for a pizza was enough to convince that there was definite ill will and opportunism lurking all around. A glance down a street reveals pure post-apocalyptic movie set (refer photo).

However, the place has character and that’s to be applauded in any town. The people are obviously set upon by the crime situation but they hang out on the street and are friendly and talkative – some sort of comradery in adversity. They mingle seamlessly with those who have apparently become completely unhinged somewhere along the line, wondering about aimlessly, one with a colostomy bag hanging out, another at a bus stop with trousers around his ankles. This place deserves a song and by god it shall have one: ‘If ever you’re passing through Colón’.

Something wrong about this.










If ever you’re passing through Colón

Don’t get stuck too long

Watch out for the crud and the muck there

And try to ignore the pong


If ever you’re passing through Colón

Don’t linger there too long

Give a wallet or a finger or two

And be glad that it wasn’t your schlong


I ride out of Colón the next day east along the coast with a mere 45km to get to Portobelo and the waiting catamaran that will take me to the north coast of Colombia. The Darian Gap in the south of Panama is impassable due to the lack of road and the tenuous security situation there so a boat ride North-East to the north coast of Colombia is the best option (and keeps the ‘every km south’ travel by bike intact).

The short ride to Portobelo should have been an easy cruise along the flat winding coastal road but as is so often the case, the short rides throw up challenges to frustrate your correspondent. This time it is the turn of my $6 rear tire that after 3,000km is now threadbare and is deflating or just puncturing every 10km or so. Three repairs later and I’m in Portobelo which is a cracker of a little town. The brightly painted shacks are thrown up higgledy-piggledy over the ruined Spanish fortifications and a few of the administrative buildings remain sporting coats of mildew and agricultural gutters. The locals are a laid back bunch and the local campanologist even gives the church chimes a bit of Caribbean percussive flavour. If the boat wasn’t leaving tomorrow this would have been a good place to linger and soak up the relaxed atmosphere for a while.

Portobelo buildings
Portobelo Spanish port ruins

So be it, stocked up with beer and rum for the boat ride I begin the nautical part of the trip and begin what will be two weeks off the bike including some time in Cartagena.