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.