Hey family and friends!
Here is the next dispatch about our ride through Colombia. The path we took was pretty straightforward -- from Cartagena, just follow the Pan American Highway south, avoiding Cali (there's a shortcut) and leaving the country at Ipiales. Took us about a month. We entered Ecuador July 5 and are currently in Quito with missionary friends from our church. They've been cool enough to let us stay for a couple of weeks while we did maintenance and repairs and just lay around. We'll be leaving tomorrow for the Avenue of the Volcanoes -- riding on the Pan American but veering off to ride around Chimborazu, the highest mountain in Ecuador and taking other detours. Until Peru we will remain in the nice, cool, bug-free mountains! Yes!
Hope that you are all well and happy -- the hard part of this trip is being away for so long! So keep in touch!
Much love, Ann and Kent
Reports about kidnappings, guerillas, and cocaine money color our thoughts of Colombia and we had some trouble deciding if we actually wanted to ride through this beautiful yet enigmatic country. U.S. State Department reports strongly warn Americans to stay away, word from missionaries who were and are still suffering the kidnapping loss of friends said that under no circumstances should we even consider going, our parents were terrified, and we knew that the guerillas are still active in many regions of the country. On the other hand, as we gathered information from other bicycle tourists, we received unanimous glowing reports of safe passage, lovely hospitable people, incredible mountains and "You should not miss Colombia!" After prayer and thought we realized that we truly did not want to miss Colombia and that we would stick to the main Pan American Highway asking people along the way how things were ahead and avoiding "red zones," where guerillas were powerful. Middle ground...
Once we had made our decision, we had to get there. The Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia is a roadless jungle laced with rivers and criss-crossing paths and additionally is a dangerous area known for drug trafficking and guerilla activity. The idea of struggling to transport our oversized tandem on small canoes through a maze of waterways and pushing it up muddy steep root-infested tracks did not thrill us. Neither did the very real danger of violence. (A Russian cyclist and a Swiss cycling pair had disappeared within the last year.) This was a shame because the Darién is also a fascinating jungle peopled by remote indigenous tribes and we felt obliged to miss it. But other modes of travel are available and we decided to look into obtaining passage on a cargo ship from the port in Colón, Panama, to Cartagena on the Atlantic coast of Colombia.
We rode the bus from our friends' home outside of Panama City to Colón on the other side of the country in order to explore the possibilities. Friends and the guidebooks warned us to be careful selecting a boat because many carried contraband and the crews were made up of shady characters. The loading dock at the Coco Solo Wharf was crammed full of ships ranging from derelict wooden vessels to freighters being loaded by crews of sweaty men with, among other household things, Osterizer blenders and rice cookers. So much for the contraband! I guess it was hidden below decks or in secret compartments somewhere. (Later, as we looked in various shops in various cities we saw those same Osterizer blenders and rice cookers. As we walked from ship to ship under threatening skies asking for passage to Cartagena or anywhere nearby, everyone was encouraging, deck hands directing us to other ships (notice, not theirs) that were headed in the general direction. "Yeah, people do it all the time. In fact, there was an Argentine who left just a few days ago...." Well, no promises were made but neither were any blatant no's so we decided to return on the bike in a few days to pursue the option.
Should have taken a hint from that day's threatening sky! Because when we actually arrived on our bike, after a harrowing ride on the narrow truck-filled highway, we spent hours begging for passage. Not one ship was going anywhere near Cartagena and if they were going to any other port they would not take us -- the captains would not listen to offers of money or even pleas for mercy. So much for all of the optimism from the other day! Apparently everyone knows that captains sometimes take passengers but no captain will admit to ever doing it. Why? Their vessels are cargo ships, not passenger ships and Colombia frowns on any cargo ship taking on passengers. For us it meant that they would not accept us as passengers except for one captain piloting a small old creaky wooden tub who said that he would take us to the San Blas Islands from where we could arrange a boat to a port near the border from where we could catch a boat to (lawless) Turbo in Colombia from where we could.... Sigh. We ran out of ships to ask and it was starting to rain. And the security people were making it obvious that they did not really want us around anymore. This task would take more patience than we had.
Disappointed and discouraged, we got back on the bike and rode to Colón needing to find a place to stay. Poor Colón. What a sad filthy run-down city; faded beauty decaying into wrecked depression, shack-like rooms tacked onto what used to be gracious balconies, garbage filling and sometimes blocking sidewalks; all this under a forbidding sky. We were nervous riding through the streets looking for the Bomberos (the fire station) where we wanted to ask for floor space to lay down our sleeping bags because we knew Colón's reputation for theivery and animosity towards tourists. We ended up at the Red Cross where they put us up in a dormitory, fed us and were very welcoming. There we felt safer than in a hotel but kind of weird - we wanted to walk maybe 100 yards away to a small store to buy a Coke and they insisted on an escort so that we would not be robbed. Poor Colón.
That night we decided to scrap the idea of the ocean voyage and instead fly from Panama City to Cartagena. The idea of staying in Colón as we searched for a vessel to take us was too much; it could be anywhere from a few days to a week to never. Which meant that early the next morning we packed up, said good-bye and rode as fast as we could back across the country to the airport in Panama City to catch the 1:00 p.m. flight. We arrived with just enough time to buy our tickets, box up the bike and gear and jump on the plane -- on our way to Colombia.
In retrospect we are glad we flew, especially after our British cycling friends related their experience taking boats down the Pacific Coast to the city of Buenaventura, Colombia. Turns out they shared the last leg of their voyage with a special guest -- the corpse of one of the crew that had been hacked to death by theives in one of the coastal towns....
However, the Colombia we discovered was nothing like that! Cartagena was a complete surprise (we had no prior expectations) -- a lovely Spanish colonial city over 400 years old surrounded by imposing walls that had been protection against the many British and pirate attacks it suffered. For the Spanish (as well as for us) this city was the gateway to South America and the architecture reflects the pride of its people, intricate balconies hanging over narrow streets, strong colors, interesting and impressive buildings. We spent several days exploring and trying to rest in the sticky coastal heat preparing for the month we would spend riding down the Pan American through the country.
We left Cartagena in a rush of traffic, finally escaping the exhaust fumes into the lowland countryside. We could not escape the heat, though, and continued to suffer until we started climbing into the mountains. On and off we rode with several cyclists who are making the same journey, three of whom, Charlotte, Bruno, and Udo, we had met on the flight from Panama. This remained the pattern throughout the rest of Colombia and sometimes we were able to use our numbers to distinct advantage bullying hotel managers into giving us good rates! We also shared the beauty of the Colombian mountains; pleasure shared is twice the pleasure. We tended to string out along the highway and passing cars honked like crazy and flipping us the thumbs-up sign, amazed, I'm sure, by the number of us! Sometimes, motorists drove alongside us for quite awhile, making us nervous by ignoring the speeding traffic headed their and our way. But they were determined to ask questions about what we were doing, where we were from, and, of course, about the bike (our good-will ambassador!). Kent said it rightly, "Colombians never let regard for safety get in the way of being friendly!" At times we rode separately from the rest of the group and during one of those times we visited a crocodile and iguana farm (on a day that I was recovering from intestinal distress, feeling pretty weak and disinterested in crocodiles and iguanas). Strange as the place was, however, it was worth it, for there a woman introduced herself as Nora Lucia Villegas and invited us to call her when we reached Medellín, a woman who would become a quick friend.
Riding through the mountains towards Medellín, we were continually greeted by incredible vistas -- green fertile valleys stretching for miles between the marvelous steep peaks. Towns materialized out of nowhere built into the mountainsides or nestled on small plateaus. We could understand the description of Medellín as "The City of Eternal Spring" as cool clear days and brilliant sunshine made us feel like we were riding perpetually in that season. But as we approached the city we became a little nervous, remembering its reputation as past home of the Medellín cartel and not relishing the idea of the congested streets and smog that accompany cities after having experienced the freedom of the mountain roadway and small towns.
The entire group of us was together at this point and we found a hotel in a less expensive part of town. Everyone had work to do on their bikes, email to write and wash to do and the big airy rooms seemed the quiet ideal place to stay for a few days. That was, until we noticed the stream of couples entering and leaving after short periods of time in the rooms. Then the manager told us we had to pay extra because we used the rooms during the daytime hours. Hmmmmmm -- not being that slow, it did not take us long to figure out we were in a hotel designed to meet the needs of privacy-seeking couples. But, as our gear was by this time strewn about our rooms we decided to stay and just ignore the short-timers!
We called Nora, the woman we had met at the reptile farm, who wanted to show us her home city and through her eyes we saw an image of the city that we might not otherwise have experienced. She and her friend Marta Cecelia drove us into the mountains surrounding the city, took us to a park that preserves the colonial past of the now modern Medellín and shared anecdotes relating past "cartel times." Common during that time was language including references to possessions of people and their hangers-on who had been made rich by the drug trade: "narco-Toyotas" and "narco-Nikes" and entire districts of Medellín that had been built using drug money. But the cartel left Medellín after one of its chief and richest members, Pablo Escobar, was jailed by authorities, escaped and then was assassinated. So the citizens are now free to travel anywhere in the city and visit restaurants and clubs that had in the past been the domain of the powerful cartel lords. We enjoyed the new picture of Medellín that we gained through our friendship with Nora, one of a prosperous city no longer dependent upon the cocaine trade but rather dependent upon its own industry and enterprising spirit.
Of course, being a large city, Medellín still has its problems and one of them is street children. We visited the Talita Cumi House (the name comes from the Bible and means "rise up, young girl") run by a partnership between the Evangelical Covenant Church and the city government, where twenty girls from ten to seventeen years old live, healing and moving on from horrific street backgrounds. We spent the afternoon hiking up the hill behind the lovely house, climbing trees to pick fruit, holding hands with the girls and gathering flowers to make brilliant bouquets. The girls craved love and simple affection and swarmed around Kent as he tossed the squealing younger ones into the air and upside down. Watching them we felt they had hope in this world, hope of living normal happy lives. The warm loving atmosphere of the house, the girls running around playing, studying the Bible and their schoolwork and talking about their dreams for the future supported this hope.
We finally left Medellín and headed south through yet more beautiful countryside. After one long day we ended up in a small town that had been partly smothered by devastating mudslides set off by the eruption of a nearby volcano in the early 1980s. No evidence of the disaster remained that we could see and we rode towards the center of town in the beginnings of what became a downpour, Kent determined to first ask the firefighters if they had room for five of us. We found the tidy brick station and Kent barely opened his mouth to ask for a place before Comandante Rodrigo Villegas Jaramillo rushed over, offering us whatever we needed for our stay in the town of Chichina.
"But we are five..."
"Our friends are out in the rain..."
"No problem! Get in the Jeep; this officer will take you to find them and lead them in.... Are you from America? I loooooove your country!"
And so began a stay marked by the generous hospitality of the firefighters. They scurried around cleaning up a conference room and attached bathroom for us to sleep and shower in, dragged in the Comandante's small refrigerator containing his private stash of Coca-Colas which we were instructed to drink, hauled up the bikes and arranged for us to eat dinner nearby as we got cleaned and warmed up. Turns out the Comandante had spent several years working in Chicago where he received terrific hospitality and he was determined to reciprocate. We surely did not mind being the objects of his reciprocity! He also asked our impression of Colombia and was happy that it was positive. He wanted to make sure that the negative image that the press gave Colombia in other countries would be erased by the hospitality of his people and so the next day he became our tour guide, taking us to the nearby coffee processing plant and research station (this area is an important coffee-growing region), showing us the marks left by the volcanic disaster and taking us out for dinner. Overwhelming!
As we left the mountains for the fertile Cauca Valley, Kent and I rode ahead, reveling in nearly perfect riding conditions: big shoulder on the highway, slight downhill to flat terrain, tailwind, beautiful surroundings; we averaged more than 16 mph over nearly 100 miles - pretty amazing for a loaded bike! In one town, Zarzal, the head of the Youth Sports Organization insisted on putting us up in a hotel and buying our meals at a local restaurant. More incredible Colombian hospitality. We continued our fast riding through the valley and, avoiding Cali (the new cartel headquarters), arrived in Puerto Tejada, a different kind of town in sugar cane producing land. The town and surrounding environs are populated mainly by descendants of the black slaves brought in to work the sugar cane plantations. Correspondingly, the atmosphere is very Caribbean -- steel drum music blaring in the streets, food sizzling over hot fires, people sitting on door-steps talking to passerby, dogs begging for any left-overs. We ended up at a chicken restaurant for dinner and when the soup came out we had to laugh. For floating in our soup, nails and all, were yellow scaly chicken feet! And necks. And innards. Nothing wasted from those chickens!
The departments (states) of Valle de Cauca and Cauca have had guerilla problems in the past and as we approached the old colonial city of Popayán we stepped up our inquiries into the safety of traveling in the area. One soldier, when asked, replied that the Pan American was completely safe because it was completely "militarized." OK, so that can mean that there are lots of guerillas in the area and so the military presence is there to combat them or it can mean that the military scared them all away. So which is it? We rode through with no problems other than getting enough breath on the steep uphills. But when our friends came in the following day, they related the harrowing details of what happened to them. The three of them riding together were annoyed by a long line of cars backed up on the highway. "Must have been an accident," they thought until they got closer and saw an eighteen-wheeler slewed across the road, all of its tires shot out. Their immediate fears that it was a guerilla roadblock were confirmed by the gunfire they heard from nearby soldiers on the road firing into the brush where guerillas were apparently hiding. Leaping off their bikes and falling on the ground behind other waiting vehicles, they cringed. Charlotte asked a small truck if they could throw their bikes in the back and as they drove up to pick up the other two, she ducked down with her bike as more shots were fired behind her. The truck drove on up the hill, carrying our friends to safety. The driver was very casual about the experience: "I guess we're just kind of used to it." Seems like some things are all a matter of timing -- bad timing, or in this case for us, good timing!
Not long after, we encountered other cyclists, none of whom had experienced any trouble. In fact, riding from Popayán, we had a regular convention of international riders! First, a young man rode up behind us, very lightly loaded. His bike sported a Brazilian flag and he was riding home to Brazil from Berkeley, of all places! That very same day we met two cyclists from France who are riding from Argentina to Alaska. So, including our group, we represented five different nationalities -- all sitting on the side of the road in the middle of Colombia discussing routes and experiences. One of the charming things about bicycle touring is the surprise of goooood timing!
That afternoon Kent and I arrived first in the small town of El Bordo, sat on the curb to wait for the rest of our group and asked about places to stay. The firefighters' station was too small so we thought a cheap hotel or place to camp would do. While we sat, a young girl, about ten to twelve years old, came out of her mother's store and started talking to us. Ana is one of the more vivacious precocious young ladies we have known. She was studying English for an exam the next day, and asked us to help her. She was definitely not studying things like "See Spot run," or "Jane is in the house," and we were frankly amazed at the difficulty of the sentences she had to memorize, things like: "There is the tall smart lawyer" and "We go to town to see our friend the engineer." Ana and her mother helped us find a fine place to stay and then invited us all to their house later that evening.
While we talked about more mundane things, Ana's stepfather and Kent discussed coca production and the drug trade. According to José Nelson, the town's economy is tightly linked to drugs. Many work in the mountains growing coca, the precursor for cocaine and the police do not control the problem because they cannot -- the mountain areas are controlled by guerillas. In addition, the pharmacy where he works is owned by an imprisoned Cali cartel member. The police cannot confiscate the store because it is "paper-owned" by the drug lord's son. José Nelson also related that many in Colombia are upset that the big drug dealers are getting caught because if (follow the logic) the drug lords do not make any money which is not then invested in the country which results in increased unemployment, the people end up suffering economically. The solution according to José Nelson? Stop U.S. intervention, legalize drugs, and allow the people to make money however they can!
As we approached Colombia's border with Ecuador, we realized that one single month is simply not enough to explore an entire country. By staying on the Pan American Highway we had traded any number of adventures for safety. Sometimes it's hard to balance the two but safety at this time had to win out. Strangely enough, as we crossed over into Ecuador both Kent and I felt lighter, as if a load had been lifted off our shoulders, a subconscious load of worry. How very sad that a country as beautiful and full of marvelous people as Colombia must be oppressed by the violence associated with drugs and guerilla warfare. Yes, the violence exists but in our minds, it is easily overwhelmed by memories of the oranges passed to us out of the window of a passing car, the people who paid for our two-liter bottles of Coca-Cola, the new friends who invited us into their homes, the thumbs-up signs, whoops of delight and genuine interest that greeted us virtually wherever we went. We already miss Colombia.