Friday 29 February 2008

From the Caribbean to the Andes

I had planned to start the cycle ride from Punta Gallinas, the northernmost point of the continent but, due to lack of time and logistic problems, I decided to begin from Santa Marta. As it´s the oldest town in Colombia and situated at 11 degrees 15´ North, it seemed a good place as any to embark on the journey south.
Here is my bike loaded up on the seafront at Santa Marta at 6am on Day 1. Beyond is the steely blue Caribbean Sea.

On the first day heading south I stopped at Aracataca, the birthplace of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the inspiration for the fictional town of Macondo. His portrait graces the walls of the local billiard hall.

The Highway to Hell
After a while the highway up the Magdalena river became the worst road I´d ever ridden on - the Highway to Hell. A straight flat boring paved road with columns of long semi-trailers and speeding buses and a scorching tropical sun without shade. I perservered for so long until I was pushed off the road twice by overtaking trucks. I was listening to my MP3 player to drown out the din from constant traffic and one ominous song put the shivers up me- Thom Yorke´s ´Black Swan´

People get crushed like biscuit crumbs and lay down in the bitumen.

As I didn´t want to end up as Arnotts Shredded Petemeal, I accepted a lift from a truck-driver who took me 200kms down the road to the foothills of the Andes. I was cheating a bit but more like cheating death.
Arrived late in the evening in Bucaramanga the following day and got lost in the dark alleyways with rain pissing down. At least it was cool at 1000m ASL.

The next 3 days of riding were blissful after the hot and hectic ride on the highway. I took the backroads east of Bucaramanga, mostly steep, winding gravel roads, with very little traffic. And the scenery was superb - small villages nestled in the folds of valleys and, higher up, wet verdant cloud forests. There were many reminders of tragic road accidents on these dangerous roads. Here are three crosses where members of the same family went over a sheer cliff. Check out the road in the distant, snaking its way up to a pass.

This was a typical scene on the road to Malaga. Forest and farmland surrounding a little village called Pangote, with the ubiquitous church steeple.

The air was fresh and cool as I rode over the Eastern Cordillera. The roads were of much steeper gradients than those of Tibet, sometimes climbing 100metres in just 1.5 kms. But with the birdsong and delightful landscape, it was worth the sweat and toil up the hills. In the five days of riding from Bucaramanga to Belen (Boyaca) I climbed over 7000 metres in elevation, an average of 1400m a day. Now I can see why Colombia has produced so many strong hill climbers in the Tour de France. Closer to the bigger towns it´s common to see cyclists out for a climb, individuals as well as large groups.

From the rolling green hills of Malaga, the paved road descended rapidly to the dry dusty cacti-punctured valley of the Chicamocha valley. I left the bike here in Capitanejo and took a short bus ride up to Guican for the trek around the Cordillera del Cocuy.

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