Heading south from Medellín
When I get back on the road after a long hiatus (more than half of this year!) the first few days seem to entail learning a load of basics all over again. The bike feels absurdly heavy and hard to handle, and I'm not sure how much this is due to loss of strength and how much to excessive kit.
My days since leaving Medellín have been pretty interesting, so I thought I'd share them with my blog readership (of one - thanks Dad!).
On the advice of my friend Stuart I left Medellín on a Sunday morning while the first 10km of dual carriageway was closed for the 'ciclovia'. I felt trepidation about the journey ahead but also ready to move on. On the southern edge of the city I came across a restaurant called The Cyclist, which seemed as good a place as any for a typically calorific Colombian lunch of pork crackling, rice, beans, fried plantain and salad!
Traffic was somewhat heavy near to the city, but boy is Colombian driving a relief after Central America. Major roads are of good quality, invariably with a bit of a shoulder.
The scenery has been unrelentingly gorgeous so far. During the afternoon I stopped for two ice creams at a viewpoint, which were among the best I've ever tasted: chocolate, and guanabana. After turning off onto a more minor road I had my first experience of a suddenly flat (front) tyre while speeding downhill. Thankfully I managed to control the bike and changed the inner tube as it started to thunder and rain. It was time to look for somewhere to camp and I remembered how hard this had been back in April: any land that's flat enough for a tent tends to be inhabited or cultivated and fenced off. I realised I was going to have to ask, which I dislike.
At a little shop/bar a customer - a young man with bloodshot eyes - said I could camp at his finca. He paid for his beer and off we went.
The further we walked away from the asphalt road the more nervous I became. It turned out he was living there alone, minding the place for a presumably wealthy friend. It all felt very odd, especially when it became clear he wanted me to sleep inside the house even though all I'd asked for was 'a flat place to camp'. There was a clean-looking swimming pool, yet no linen on any of the beds for example. I stuck to my guns and insisted I would prefer to camp, preferably under the little shelter near the front gate. He hung about smoking a spliff while I tried to remember how to pitch my new tent. I felt very uneasy, but after a while he left me alone and I relaxed enough to sleep. I was very glad of the shelter as it rained heavily for quite a while.
In the morning Fer said he'd hoped we'd hang out and suggested I 'rest' and stay another night. I said I'd been resting for several months and wanted to continue. Again, thank god, he did take no for an answer. I accepted his invitation to go together to pick sweet oranges for juice, which he squeezed while I scrambled some eggs. So things turned out OK, but it wasn't an ideal situation at all. Lesson re-learned: stop a little earlier so you're not desperate for a camping spot.
On Day 2 I had to climb for a very long time in the heat to reach Fredonia for lunch. Lots of locals give encouraging, human-to-human pips of their horns, which feel a world away from the incessant driver-to-obstacle honks of Central America.
In Fredonia I bought a screwdriver and replacement battery for my DogDazer, which sadly seems to have entirely given up the ghost. After lunch I pushed on towards Jericó, which maps.me led me to believe was only 35km further, most of which I thought would be downhill. The next bit was indeed a long downhill - through the beginnings of coffee country - involving lots of painful pulling of the brakes.
In the valley I understandably overshot maps.me's turn off towards Jericó, which turned out to be an unpaved track up into farmland. Once I eventually found it I didn't hesitate to take it, thinking I had only 6km of uphill slog to connect to an asphalt road. Lesson re-learned: remember that maps.me does not provide elevations, gradients or road surface descriptions. It was pouring with rain when I was thrilled to find a finca with an (unusually) open gate, which I entered to ask for water. What a stroke of luck! The owners of the stunning old place weren't around but a family of caretakers/ employees were friendly and gave me boiled water that tasted of wood smoke. The woman was so smiley and there were various children and pets so I decided to ask if it would be OK to camp and continue to Jerico in the morning.
Now that I know what I had ahead of me I do wonder what they must have thought! Luckily they agreed, and the teenage son suggested I camp under a large, round shelter. The atmosphere could not have been more different to the previous night. I felt totally relaxed as I set up, got out of my wet clothes and cooked my supper. No sooner had I polished off a big pan of spaghetti when the mum appeared with a plate of food for me - I actually had a feeling that might happen! I ate my second dinner with no difficulty at all, and slept very well indeed, waking to unfamiliar bird calls and the sound of cowboy dad and his horse getting ready for the day. I wish I could have had a good snoop around as the place felt like a living museum.
It's hard to know quite how to describe the rest of the day. Bear in mind I had thought I would get up to Jericó the previous night. In fact, it took me the whole of Day 3! The 6km 'road' maps.me tried to send me on turned out to be a private track. The alternative was more than twice as long, and made of stones at best (mud at worst). Climbing steeply uphill, it was almost never possible for me to cycle. Imagine pushing a bike weighing two-thirds of your body weight up a rough track from 8am until 1pm, covering just 12kms! With no breakfast or lunch I was doubly grateful for my extra supper, an orange and my last bit of honey! Mercifully the surroundings were lovely and the weather not too hot. After several hours I found a finca with visible people and asked for more water. At the time I wished someone at my overnight stop had told me to turn back and use the proper road, but knowing me I'd probably have ignored their advice anyway! Besides, it was an adventure and no harm was done.
All the while there was a wall of mountain ahead of me, under which I imagined Jericó to nestle. But oh no, in fact Jericó is on top of the wall of mountain, at 1,900m! On finally reaching asphalt at 1pm I tried to thumb a lift up the mountain but no suitable vehicles passed by so I pushed on, worried I wouldn't have enough fuel in the tank to make it. Luckily I found a little old lady selling crisps, biscuits and fizzy drinks out of a cabinet in her bedroom (!) so at least I got some kind of fuel for the remainder of the climb. Lessons re-learned: always have some emergency snacks; never set off into a wilderness at dusk with insufficient food or water.
And what a climb! Being asphalt I could actually pedal most of it including some sharp switchbacks, albeit in my lowest gear at around 6-7kmph! I finally scaled the ridge at around 5pm and was dismayed to find a few more ups and downs before I reached the pueblo.
The hostel I made for had a rather unkempt feel to it, dozy gringo staff and not enough windows for my taste, so I dug deep and slogged back up to the central square where I paid less for a large room overlooking all the activity in a very run-down but friendly hotel where for three nights I have been the sole guest!
During two full rest days here in lovely Jericó I have mooched about, watched cowboys getting their horses to do a curious high-speed trot which drives the local dogs beserk, ticked off several admin and planning tasks, done some writing, and deliberated hard about my kit. Tomorrow I'm going to send my 10" tablet laptop back to Alejandra in Medellín. The battery charges slowly and runs down fast, so it's become fairly useless to me when on the move. I'm probably also going to leave my heavy-duty D-lock here and make do with a very small chain until I can get something intermediate. This feels wasteful, but after taking all day to get up that bloody hill it's just not enough to jettison a vest here and a corkscrew there. To be honest, I also need to regain my full touring strength and shape, but that will take a few weeks!
I've also ordered some new bits of kit: a 7" tablet and power pack, as well as something I've never needed before: a water filter. These things will arrive with Caroline at Christmas (along with a new, lighter sleeping pad). Until then I'll be making do just with my phone, so not writing much.
For the next few days I am expecting more serious ups and downs on possibly poor roads on the way up to Manizales, one of the hubs of the 'coffee zone'. The scenery gets better and better. It's just a shame it has to rain so much!
People I encounter are very kind and helpful, though I do wish every single one of them wouldn't ask in astonishment if I am alone. I'd bet my bottom dollar they don't ask men that.