Do you have natural juices?

Cartagena to Medellín

In my previous post I said I'd had a strange week of feeling hot, bothered and 'more than usually adrift' in Cartagena. I said I was feeling an imbalance on the dimension of solo-ness and connected-ness, and also exhausted by being so visible all the time. I said I'd decided to alternate moving with not-moving, in order to improve my Spanish to the point where I can hope to really connect with people in that language (as opposed to just having frustratingly repetitive, superficial conversations).

I set off from Cartagena and after just one day realised I needed to get somewhere cooler, stop, have four walls and a roof, and prioritise my Spanish URGENTLY. So I altered my course and made straight for Medellín, Colombia's second city. That's a journey of only 650km, but it felt quite epic nonetheless. Unlike in Costa Rica and Panama I was determined to ride all the way, facilitated by vastly better road conditions than in Central America (shoulders, much better drivers).

The first four days were either flat or rolling, long, and very hot. Oil palm plantations soon gave way to hundreds of kilometres of cattle ranches. I enjoyed being able to maintain a high average speed, which gave some relief from the heat (<35 degrees). At night, though, there was no relief, and I absolutely melted while camping in a very poor family's backyard (not ideal but the road was continuously populated) and at a couple of noisy 24-hour petrol stations.

My first impressions of Colombia were pretty good. Road conditions are 100x better. People are friendly, though I haven't found them as scrupulously polite as Mexicans and Central Americans. Like in Mexico, every restaurant serves a two-course lunch, for between £2.50 and £3, consisting of a hearty soup followed by a plate of rice, beans, plantain and/or yuca, salad, an egg, and your choice of meat or fish. Often a fruit juice is included.

My most commonly used Spanish phrase during this leg of my journey was undoubtedly 'Do you have natural juices?' (¿Tiene jugos naturales?) More than once each day I stopped to cool myself down and satisfy my new addiction to Colombia's extraordinary array of blended fresh fruit drinks in a milk or water/ice base. My favourites so far are mora (blackberry), maracuyá (passionfruit) and guanabana (custard apple), though I've also tried some new fruits such as tomate de arbol (tree tomato) and níspero.

Along this stretch I met more bike-travellers than I've met in the past year, I think! A really nice guy from Guadalajara riding a moped, a macho Italian cyclist riding from Rio to Tokyo, a solo Brazilian woman, and a friendly Australian couple. Perhaps I've been even more 'off-the-beaten-track' lately than I realised!

The fourth night began similarly at yet another petrol station. Then, at 1am, it began to bucket with rain and did not let up until 8am. I woke to find my tent floating in a pool of brown water and - after hurriedly moving everything under a shelter - did not sleep again that night. A low point.

On the fifth day in the final couple of hours of daylight I climbed steeply up to 1,100m - my first taste of The Andes! The scenery was lovely and it was such a relief to feel cool again. I ended up staying for three nights at a £6.50/night hotel in a small town called Valdivia, getting all my gear clean and dry after the flood, catching up on sleep, and making some plans. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the small-town-bustle from the hotel balcony, getting an unexpectedly hipster haircut and enjoying the views.

In Valdivia I searched for a suitable AirBnB in Medellín, found a room in a LGBT-friendly shared house, and decided to commit six weeks to the 'City of Eternal Spring'.

After two more days of relentless climbing my final two nights were at cheap hotels in large, cool highland towns. It's raining every day now and hotels are so cheap I decided to sod the camping for the time being. The final day's ride from Santa Rosa de Osos (Saint Rosa of Bears) to Medellín was - perhaps ironically - my most enjoyable cycling day in a long time. I left the main intercity highway and enjoyed smaller, quieter roads through farm-land with only light, local traffic. The descent from over 2,600m into Medellín (at 1,500m) under a blue-sky was incredibly steep and memorable.

The most interesting aspect of my journey from Cartagena to Medellín was watching my own state of mind change. At times I felt 'I hate roads, ergo I hate bike travelling'. At times I felt strong and grateful to have so much freedom of choice. Finally I felt a huge wave of relief that I can now take a long break from pushing 100kgs up hills to a soundtrack of lorries while being stared at.

Intentions and hopes for Medellín

I'm really, really happy to be here in Medellín, where my intentions are to work on my Spanish every day, get out of the house and meet some people (something I find pretty easy in English but very hard in toddler-Spanish), explore this fascinating city, do some yoga so I don't seize up, and also catch up with all my distant peeps. I'm not expecting any visitors before I head back to the UK in July, so I'll need to work a bit harder to feel connected.

My neighbourhood is leafy and interesting. Downstairs there's a tattoo studio with a cat who wears a neckerchief. Two doors away there are tables outside a little mom-and-pop store where people play chess in the evenings, and another game that looks a bit like dominoes. The AirBnB household seems quiet. My room, though small, is comfortable, light and airy, and opens onto a spacious roof terrace. Importantly, I have a decent desk to write and study at!