Monday, 30 September 2013

Over the Hills - Cycling in Medellin, Colombia

Over the Hills - Cycling in Medellin, Colombia

It must be the most cycling friendly city in South America. Medellin is situated at 1600 metres in a deep valley running North and South in the northern Andes and in the green and hilly department of Antioquia. It is surrounded on 3 sides by hills, some occupied by high rise luxury apartments but in greater part by the poorer 'barrios' such as Comuna 13 where once Pablo Escobar once meted out favours and rough justice. His reign was fuelled by the first Colombian multi-national, otherwise known as the drug cartel, Oficina de Envigado. Medellin was once dubbed the murder capital of South America and was fraught with drug gangs and political tensions between rebels and para-military. It is now much improved with a developing infrastructure and commerce, known as a city of innovation and an unparalleled cycling destination.

When asked, as I often am, what is the security like cycling in Colombia, I can truthfully report that it isn't or hasn't really been a problem. Cyclists here have reached a critical mass and are revered locally and nationally, probably only second to football; that said it is probably prudent to keep to the better known cycling routes that are generally populated by many fully Lycra-clad enthusiasts mostly with high end American bikes bought from the Brand shops of Specialized and Trek. You will see pro and semi-pro teams out on the hills and people of all ages. I usually cycle with friends, Los Marielas a groups of around 40 cyclists sponsored by a local school of beauty. For me at least there have been no incidents during nearly 6 month's on the roads and I would suggest that it is probably more dangerous to go night clubbing in the Zona Rosa Parque de Lleras than to go cycling in the hills.

The other voiced concern is about safety on the road given different traffic and driving conditions. I would describe cycling here as benignly challenging. The roads are generally in good condition and drivers bear no grudges, and unlike some UK motorists have few prejudices towards cyclist. However they drive fast and quite assertively and use their horns a lot. Motorbikes 'motos' are more of a problem and they sometimes make risky right turn departures from main roads cutting in front of the flow of traffic - this requires attention and defensive signalling to prevent their bad behaviour. On the plus side I have not had one shouting match with a driver and other cyclists are friendly and welcoming.

The overriding cycling experience in Medellin is one of hills. If you don't like climbing this isn't for you. There are 5 main exits from the city and all but one of them necessitates a climb of 9 miles, typically at an average of 6-8% but in one case, Escobero much steeper. The most popular ride is to Alto de Las Palmas, a well ridden route, for me a demanding 1hour 20 to the top. Just over the brow one is rewarded by one of the best local restaurants where breakfast is served from open wood fired grills on bare wooden tables hewn from huge tree trunks. I would usually have a modest pan de queso and cafe con leche, baked cheese rolls with milky coffee from a wood-burning oven but locals might opt for the Colombian equivalent of a full English breakfast called 'Bandeja Paisa' comprising meaty blood sausage, crispy belly of pork, egg and rice accompanied by agua panela a drink made from sugar cane.

As well as road cycling there is a lot of mountain biking, an accessible to all open air velodrome and a 1.5km cycle practice track, the latter comprising of daily training from 6am and weekly league races. Stunt cycling and BMX is also a speciality and the facilities for this are excellent. On Sunday mornings and Thursday evenings the city has road closures for cyclists opening 11 miles of highway and some inner-city roads to car free access for all.

It is clear that cycling is becoming evermore popular in a city that has been home of some of the defining stages of the South American tour circuit. Current local heroes include Rigoberto Uran of Sky and Mariana Pajon, world champion BMX. Back in the day it was Martin 'Conchise' Rodriguez who broke the Hour Record in Mexico in 1970 and was and accomplished stage racer.

Further afield from Medellin are some iconic rides and climbs, the longest climb of 90km La Linea dwarfs the great climbs of Europe and the punishing Las Letras, 28 km with some 14% sections, each ride taking you up to an oxygen starved 3000 meters plus. One can easily see why Quintana did so well in the tour and why Colombian cycling is in the ascendancy in more senses than one.

Cycling in Colombia is worthy of serious consideration – for the road and club cyclists seeking new challenges and with a head for heights and spirit of adventure it can be a demanding but rewarding cultural and sporting experience. As yet, as far as I know, there are no cycling holidays in Colombia but it can only be a matter of time. I'll be back in the country between and February and the end of April, avoiding the UK winter and on my bike - I would be happy to assist any lone travellers or groups that feel attracted to this excellent destination – It is so good I can't really keep it to myself can I?

Alan Malarkey, Addiscombe Cycling Club,

Tuesday, 12 February 2013


Bogotá was better than I thought it might be. Mostly it was made enjoyable by meeting up and sharing meals with some nice people. I am becoming more used to navigating Couchsurfers and before coming to Bogotá I had posted my interest in meeting people for language/cultural exchange.To be honest the couchsurfer website is mega clunky and I have been unable to become a 'verified member' not withstanding that I paid for this status - no one takes responsibility for sorting out problems and it feels like virtual anarchy. Well anyway, I now have several good notes on my profile and in the end I received 4 offers for meetups but only had time to meet up with Myriam an  HR manager at a university department offering degrees for doctors and musicians. As a  cyclist and salsa fan, so she seemed like a good bet for a nice conversation. She was very kind in picking me up from the hotel in her car and we went to the unimaginetavely named Zona G which is mostly bars and restaurants where we had a nice dinner of pasta and later checked out a salsa venue, Bar Cubano  but it was pretty empty so we had one dance and left it at that. 

During the day I headed for the Candalaria district in the old part of central Bogota. Basically it comprises a mixture of well maintained and refurbished colonial buildings and others less tidy or in the process of gentrification. There are some nice looking restaurants and coffee bars and the area sits alongside the main State buildings, Presidential Palace and Plaza Bolivar the seat of Colombia's independence. It all has a relaxed feel and the area contains a number of universities and therefore a many young people hanging out between lectures. I walked up through the pretty gardens of one University to get a good view of the city. I was surprised by how quickly the cityscape gives way to small holdings and farms stretching up and beyond the its limits.

The next day I made visiting the national museum the main focus. It was rather disappointing and apart from its setting, an old prison it seemed poorly archived and failed to tell a coherent historical story of Colombia's development. That evening I met up with Ana who had been a member of the Croydon-Spanish group. She took me to a nice part of town and we had a Cauca Valley style meal, a sort of pizza but on a base of Platano

Probably I didn't do Bogota justice - I noticed some quite cool areas and felt that it would be a city worth exploring further - maybe I'll spend a few more days there when I leave.


Thursday, 7 February 2013

Medellin - getting there again

Don't you love travelling? On balance I love it but there are some minor annoyances like the man sitting at the next table at Pret a Manger in Madrid airport, sipping San Miguel whilst playing loudly local news on his portable radio. 

Erring on the side of caution I arrived somewhat early at Heathrow airport. Have you noticed the flawed advice to arrive at least 3 hours prior to international flights but bag drop-off only commences 2 hours before at 5 am. I had a pretty clear taxi run to the airport, the M25 as one might hopefully imagine it. my driver, a Romanian from Transylvania offered me a lesson in Balkan history and Dacian culture and then complained that his profession is unregulated with his cab company owner/boss selling unlimited £200/week contracts to drivers willing to work unspecified hours - no onerous EU regulation or lack of business freedom there then.

Ah well, finding a perch I zoned out and fiddled with modern challenges like pairing my iPhone and Mini iPad and settling to listen to a podcast of the sexiest voice on radio, Kirsty Young interviewing Aung San Suu Kyii on Desert Island Disc. The music selection was uninspired but the resilience of her subject was impressive.

Anyway, I manage to sleep for an hour on an uneventful journey to Madrid. On disembarking passengers were divided and I left with the back exit cohort feeling sorry for an elderly South American grandmother who couldn't work out the ebb and flow and was patiently tolerated by most but scolded by her husband. Once off the plane we boarded a bendy bus, no doubt donated by the London mayor and we skirted the runways with unnecessary urgency fighting centrifugal forces to remain upright. 

Paying €7 for coffee and orange juice staved my hunger until we boarded our Iberia flight. It was so sparsely populated that I am unsurprised that the ex national carrier is the loss making component of BA. At the last minute we were joined by 2 police escorted Colombians presumably being repatriated and who were sat at the back of the plane where I suppose there is little chance of them mounting a realistic challenge to land elsewhere. Lunch was served, overly salty moussaka with 37cl of 14% Tempranillo - this is the Iberia way of applying sufficient tranquilliser to guarantee a quiet ship until dinner - so compliantly I submitted to siesta - when in Rome (or in this case mid Atlantic) .........

Arriving on time we disembarked and went quickly and without problem through customs and immigration. I west to the cash machine then caught a cab to the hotel about 20 minutes away.  I tried to stave off sleep for a while but succumbed around 9 and slept through until 4am waking with a travel and altitude headache but ready to explore.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012


Day 1
I have been lucky so far – no health problems to speak of but following my trip to Cali I have caught my teacher's cold. Worse, I have a nagging cough and visits to successive chemists seemed to have yielded opposite ends of the spectrum – herbal remedies or self administered injections. I really need an decongestant because the flight to Capurgana turned me deaf and created real pain.

Otherwise it was an uneventful and fun flight. The girl climbing aboard ahead of me sported and inflated tyre-tube to cushion her recently enhance bum and she smiled at me slightly sheepishly. 
benefits of surgery
The landing was more abrupt than I expected and onto no more than a gravel embedded dirt runway.
Sea Otter 15 seater

 Two soldiers failed to greet us with any enthusiasm but scrutinised our documentation noting it slowly and meticulously in a book. I was left aside until last and asked where I was from and how long I would be staying, the former a bit oddly since he had my passport I his hand – maybe a trick question? There is actually quite a lot of army presence here and later I noticed a small bivouac encampment under the trees where automatic rifles had been left carelessly unattended – then I came across two soldiers sharing a joint. Generally the soldiers are young, quiet and amble around in small groups and look pretty unmenacing – but they do go out into the jungle on night patrol and can be seen returning purposefully with full kit in the morning.
ready for action?
I was met by Juan Andres and we walked to the hotel where I was greeted with a cold drink. Capurganar has no cars or trucks and is peaceful except for the occasional motorbike – other forms of transport are walk, bike and horse. I actually think I may be the only guest! - no there are two others but they only stayed one night – it is the 'low season' they explained – this is not entirely bad because I feel I need to be in clinical isolation. Tacacuna Lodge is located alongside what passes for the village green and was the first holiday hotel here established 35 years ago. This is both good and bad – it has now been superseded by some more upmarket competitors nearer the beach but it seems to be an accepted part of the fabric of the place. By contrast to Medallin where locals are inquisitive about foreigners here people treat me with polite indifference – which is fine.

Following a power nap in the hammock on my cabin terrace I dined on a too salty lunch of soup and fried fish and then headed off to explore. Turning right at the Caribbean sea I headed away from Panama and I enjoyed a scenic walk along the coast until I could go no further, saw leaf-cutting ants, lizards crabs and fish in pools and I took some snaps of the views.
leaf cutting ants
Returning to the village – it really needs a deep clean and make over. There are plenty of good parts but also piles of rubble, glass in the park and just untidiness. After a throat soothing ice cream I enjoyed a dip in blood warm sea and happily bobbed and floated to adjacent sounds of bachata and regaton from a nearby cafe.

Day 2

OK, so it is nearly 7pm in the evening and the electricity has knocked out for the third time. I have used plenty of repellent but I think I'm being bitten anyway. Last night was not the best - I slept fitfully and surfaced a 5.30am. Bouts of uncontrollable coughing are sapping at my motivation to do stuff but after breakfast I bought £10 worth of decent medicine and resolved to get on with the day.

Taking my face mask and video camera I headed to the beach and was pleasantly surprised at the number of small fish I could see even quite close to the shore. I played Jacques Cousteau for more than an hour and then tried filming the fish since I had recently realized that my cycling video camera is actually waterproof. This worked out quite well but I tired quickly and headed back for the sanctuary of my hammock.

In the afternoon I walked the coat in the other direction and after a couple of miles came across a wacky house mostly fabricated from driftwood where the owner offered reasonably priced coffee or lemonade, a quiet place to sit and access to a cool fresh water pool. It was worth the walk.

The combined effects of illness and medicine zapped me completely and the rest of the afternoon was spent suspended from 2 posts on my porch, swaying gently in the non existent breeze I resumed the prone state after dinner and that was that.

Days 3 and 4

In the morning I took the launch to Sapzurro, a smaller prettier town set in a bay and about 20 minutes away. From there you can head for La Miel which is in Panama. It is about a 2 mile walk climbing steps to cross the frontier at the top – It is guarded by the Panamanians and they simply take note of your passport details – crossing back isn't a problem. La Miel has a good number of soldiers, probably as many as the towns people which number about 150. There is a small primary school but older children of whom I saw 5 cross the border to school Colombia each day. I would love to see their admissions policy!

La Miel has very nice beaches with white sand I shared a quite large bay with only maybe 5 others eventually returning to Sapzurro where I had hoped for a pizza lunch but due to power cuts settled for el Menu which was surprisingly a nice curry.



La Miel
For my last day I resolved to take the line of least resistance and just hung out at the hotel and on the beach returning Friday morning on a plane somewhat delayed by a storm. Overall it would have been a great trip but I just wasn't in a good shape to enjoy it succumbing to illness, heat and humidity.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

A few days in Cali, city of salsa

It was super convenient leaving Medellin for Cali I by way of Juan Pablo II airport. It is close to my apartment - indeed planes fly over it with alarming proximity. My Dornier 328 left promptly and the flight of 45 minutes passed uneventfully.

Arriving at Cali I quickly found shuttle the bus to the bus terminal and then caught a taxi to Hostel Jovita in the bohemian district of San Antonio. The Hostel, themed for salsa and yoga offers free group classes in both, private dance lessons with about 4 different instructors and cycling tours. Perfect! My room, in close by and quiet annex offered me en suite simple accommodation at only £12 a night.

San Antonio looks as if it was the older part of town and seems to be undergoing some regeneration as a fashionably gentrified zone, mainly residential but increasingly focused on the chic restaurants, coffee bars and boutique hotels. There is a nearby park, a few galleries, the usual corner shops. The climate in Cali is such that you can take a few beers and empanadas on the street or eat al fresco on the veranda of small cafes in the balmy evening air.
San Antonio
I have tried group salsa and Yoga and have enjoyed my first Salsa Caleña lesson with Francy a lively and fun teacher who I also found on the Cali Couch-surfers forum. She is very detailed in her expectations pulling all sorts of faces at my native English lack of rhythm and style but a good partner and a fantastic dancer. So I've booked a block of 5 lessons.
Francy, dance teacher

By the second evening all was well with my classes and in the evening I knocked back a couple of beers, the flavourful dark Apóstol Blocs, in a super chilled and lovely bar called Toasky.

I began my third day in Cali with a city cycle tour with Carlos who runs a small tour business from Jovita's hostal. In truth I'm not sure there is a great deal to see in Cali. It is a little grimy, quit busy with traffic. Carlos pointed out various discos - there are loads but only a few dedicated to salsa. There are a few green parts and a nice park by the river with statues of cats themed on real women, the girlfriends of a grand Tom sitting imperiously above his harem.
City cycle tour
park of cats
The rest of my short break passed pretty well. Francy continued to insist on perfection which I was unable to muster and for the evening group session the male instructor schooled us in crossover styles with big movements and lots of arm and body waving. I probably need to work on suspending my inhibitions!

Later I had an overpriced salad and too sweet chocolate cake in a trendy cafe but the next day a nice crepes breakfast back in Toask cafe which I found out is also a B@B. Later I visited Ceramics el Palmomar a wonderful ceramics shop, cafe and garden that is really beautiful and definitely worth a visit. I bought some nice souvenirs and I hope they will survive my journey home.
garden of ceramics

I continued to consolidate my salsa culminating in a group outing to Tin Tin Deo a lively and fun salsa club with reasonable space in which to dance. Francy danced with me a couple of times making me look better than I really am and I performed adequately with other partners - following a few beers and a margarita all I felt well into it and the club atmosphere was really great and there were some talented and fast dancers. But then the club unexpectedly closed at 1am - most of the rest went on to another club but I folded and shared a taxi back to the Hostal with 3 others.

The next morning, nursing a slight headache I decided to walk up the local big hill. It sports 3 large crosses and an assortment of aerials. 

Even at 8.30 it was getting uncomfortably hot - I trusted to luck that I would be able to buy a drink en route but it was half way up before the first walker's rest where an enterprising man had set up shop with a cold box of gatorade other drinks and fresh fruit. The climb up isn't very pretty but the views are ok and there was a police presence to add to the feeling of security for the morning walkers. Although never dangerous the climb is somewhat arduous with some scrambling over rocks. At the top there is a small police station, more vendors and a group of mainly young and buff men working out on weights and benches provided for public use. 
View of Cali from hill of 3 crosses
The descent was quite straightforward and I arrived back for a late breakfast and a snooze before checking out in time for my flight back to Medellin

Monday, 14 May 2012

Riding up Santa Elena

About 15 of us turned up at 6.45 am on this sunny morning for the ride. Leaving my apartment I headed out on Carratera 33 crossing Rio Medellin before looping under the bridge towards the meeting point by the side of the 6 lane autopista, Regional. We went North then East past the centre of the city until we started climbing up through the barrio of Buenos Aires near where Pablo Escobar had built a small town on the proceeds of the drugs cartels and where even now it isn't recommended to cycle alone. 

puncture stop 1 Buenos Aires
We kept it super steady but as soon as the road headed steeply upwards past some new social housing apartments the group parted and as usual I was deselected by the stronger guys, forming a smaller group of 4 and eventually climbing to the 9.2 miles to Santa Elena a small but vibrant farming community high above the city. 

We soon had breakfast from an open air wood burning parilla and I enjoyed chicharon, arepa con queso and chocolate caliente. We then continued on through lanes not unlike Surrey's before joining the main road to Las Palmas where we descended for a further 9 miles at up to 40mph and back to the city. Unusually there were 5 punctures over the morning but even so we arrived back early by mid morning since it was Mother's day in Colombia and people had to make customary visits, buy cakes and flowers etc. The Strava feed is here

Here is a video giving a flavour of the ride

Friday, 11 May 2012

Transport in Medellin

By now I have had ample opportunity to think about my life getting around Medellin so here are a few observations.

Roads: Generally in the city they are in fair but not great condition. There are a few pot holes and lumps and bumps and not a great deal of evidence of repair. Further out of the city the main routes, for example towards Bogota and to the airport are quite smooth and can be safely descended by cycle at speeds of around 40mph. Sometimes lanes are divided by silly plastic posts, mainly on bends, presumably to stop drivers dodging back and forth in the lanes – these can appear without warning if you are overtaking a large vehicle – beware! Secondary roads around Medellin can occasionally give way to sections of compacted mud or sometimes the heavy rains dislodge a large pile of mud blocking the road, and in one case that I saw causing an accident. Marks 7/10

Traffic controls: There could easily be a saving in the cost of white paint by eliminating pedestrian crossings – traffic takes no notice of them and as a pedestrian you may as well ignore them! Traffic lights are generally but not always observed. The green to red ratio is substantially in favour of traffic rather than pedestrians and the somewhat random phasing can leave you stranded on narrow central reservations whilst traffic flies by within inches. Also, pedestrians are rarely protected from traffic turning into a road even though it is being crossed with the benefit of a green man light - so peripheral vision, twitchy eyes and the ability to dodge and sprint are a must for safe crossing. On some roads, for example Las Palmas towards the airport police stand watching at roughly 2 kilometre intervals and cars therefore exercise reasonable restraint. Marks 6/10

Quality of driving: Take nothing for granted, cars generally fail to indicate, they lane hop incessantly, motor bikes, of which there are many, dash in and out of cars. Cars forking right will cut across slower traffic, particularly cyclists and one needs to actively signal intentions to stay in a lane – this is probably the most dangerous aspect for cyclists. It isn't all bad – although there is some impatient tooting of horns some drivers do give way to cyclists; few if any are aggressive and in several weeks I have been here I have only seen a couple of occasions where words were exchanged. Marks 6.5/10

Public Transport: There has been a heavy investment in infrastructure and there is clear connection drawn between the quality of life and improvements in safe journeys. The Metro is the central plank of this. There is one main line running North/South and a shorter cross line with a coupe of cable cars that head up into the barrios. It is safe, clean and efficient – people don't eat, drink or litter in the trains and there are helpful announcements at stations even extolling passengers to give up seats to travellers who seem fatigued and advising of the social and health benefits of using a handkerchief. It is more or less fully wheel chair accessible and it is well used by most people but not noticeably by the better off. 

Metro Map
Metrocable to Santo Domingo

Metroplus is also good and being further developed – these are bendy buses travelling in mainly in dedicated lanes and stopping at special stations with music playing, CTV systems and sliding doors. 

MetroPlus Station
To be honest the rest of the bus system is a bit shaky – it comprises of several private lines and it is difficult to determine where buses are going – it isn't just me, locals are also confused but there is a web site which shows routes and can be helpful. Interactive Bus Map Most buses stop running around 9 pm but start pretty early. Fares are cheap, around £0.75 and there is a civic card that can be loaded at stations and used on the metro and metroplus. Also some fares are integrated between trains and buses, for example to outlying towns reached via hub stations. There are also large 2 bus terminals, North and South for longer journeys where you can find buses to most destinations near and far. Sometimes there are taxi colectivos, again at reasonable prices. I have been to the North terminal and it is very good and well organised and seemingly well policed and safe. Marks 8.5/10

Taxis: There is an over supply of yellow cabs and many wait a long time for a passenger. They have meters and are relatively cheap – a 10– 5 minute ride may cost around £3. I like them. Most of the drivers are nice and helpful – you are not expected to tip but I do and they are always very grateful – a couple of my drivers have seemed a bit coked up but I have fairly high confidence in most of them. Generally there are no seat belts in the rear and it is advisable to lock your door, keep valuables out of sight and wind your window most of the way up. You can also get your hotel or hostel/bar etc. to call a cab in which case you will each have a code number to exchange so as to enhance security. Marks 8/10

Cycling: People here cycle for sport and as an economical form of transport although there are far fewer bikes than motorbikes. There are some helpful cycle paths but they tend to be used by pedestrians and aren't always well signposted. Large drain covers, of which there are many have widely spaced bars and need to be avoided. 
Cycling Hazard
On Sundays and holidays the Ciclovea is opened and there are 2 lanes and about 15 miles of fairly uninterrupted cycling but beware of erratic children on BMXs and skaters who also share this space. Otherwise at weekends sports cyclist head out of town in their droves both for mountain and road cycling. Leaving the city mostly necessitates a steep and long climb but the route towards Barbosa is mostly downhill and towards Caldas the hill is gradual but then steep. 
Road towards Barbosa
There is a dedicated and free criterium circuit of 0.9 of a mile and a cool outdoor velodrome – both of which you are free to enter if there are no events. If like me you are a keen cyclist, Medellin's surrounds rather than the city itself are a major cycling attraction and you can easily hook up with local groups – I have been adopted by club Mariela and I love it. Marks 9/10
Not an exhaustive resume but hopefully helpful – feel free to get in touch if you need more cycling specific information.