I am not a very good sailor. Seasickness and me, we unite swiftly and embrace antisocial behavior with an abruptness that cannot be captured with the naked eye. Luckily, our journey across the Caribbean from Portabelo-Panama to Cartagena-Colombia was mostly smooth sailing. Mostly.
The calm blue waters of the Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands) indulged us with visions of dolphins, turtles, manta rays and tiny isolated islands that are simply the definition of paradise. Some islands so small they can only support 2 coconut trees and a handful of shells (along with the standard array of washed up plastic bottles and the odd blown-out thong).
We were a well-balanced crew aboard the 50ft ‘Micamale’; 4 Aussies, 2 Pommes and 2 Italians. And it was 5 days of plain gorgeousness. There are dozens of boats doing this trip, and we were nervous that we might get shoved on a back-packer boat loaded with 18 others, but were super lucky to score a spot on this luxury yacht with such fine company.
And fancy food! Crikey! Our Italian Captains Rico & Andres spoiled us with absolute feasts every night and even caught a huge blue marlin in the open sea. It was incredible.
It was such a fantastic trip, but I don’t want to go on about it too much. So just enjoy these shots.
It was a very strange experience to arrive in a new country by sea. The perspective was crazy as we stood on deck beside Falkor watching Cartagena appear through the grey clouds. We kinda felt like we had cheated. But aside from braving the ride through the Darien Gap with a machete in hand to cut a path through the jungle, travelling by sea was the only option for us.
And Falkor loved it! We had heard horror stories of what salt spray can do to a bike on this crossing, so we spent a whole day removing all rusty temptations, and scrubbed & doused every bolt with DW40 (Dad, you woulda been so proud). All the running gear got stashed below deck with us and we wrapped the frame in thick plastic, and tied her down on deck. The first night down in our cabin, the sea felt pretty rough, so we were relieved to see her still there in the morning. And she survived the entire trip without issue. In fact, cleaner and rust free than she’s been since we rebuilt her.
Speaking of, Falkor #2 has TotallyOutlasted Falkor#1 by 3000km and counting! Woohooo!
And with a Total of 13,000km on the clock, we are hoping that luck will continue.
Can you believe we have cycled 13,000km! Yep. And July 10th marked 12 months on the road. It doesn’t seem real to me. I still keep thinking there is a way I can talk Bren out of it and suddenly, here we are in South America! Is this really happening to me? I am really doing this? Craziness.
If you had of told me 2 years ago where I would be today I would have laughed beer out of my nostrils. And I know you can all believe that!
Bren put Falkor back together on the dock of the marina in Cartagena, and we pedaled away from our new friends and into the mental traffic of Cartagena. I have a sneaky feeling that all cities from now on will only continue to grow in their chaotic status.
First impressions of a place count. As do the stories you hear. As we rode though Cartagena it felt as though we were being welcomed home. Not since Mexico have we been met with such enthusiastic whistles and cries of “Bienvenidos!” (“Welcome!”). Our first impressions of Colombians, is that they are warm, generous people with an abundant desire to give. They are a people with intrinsic hospitality to share everything, regardless of the amount they have.
The warnings we received prior to arriving in Colombia were similar to the warnings of Mexico;
“Please just don’t go there!”
“Be extremely careful!”
You will get killed, mugged, robbed or worse ( I am not sure what could be worse)
“You will need a weapon to protect yourselves. At least take mace”
“You can’t trust them.”
“It’s a dangerous place.”
“You are crazy to ride your bike through the country.”
And some of this was even from Colombians themselves. I am unsure as to why anyone would want to promote such a gloomy picture of their country, but it seems to be a common occurrence in Latin American countries.
Is it because people believe that, despite their own experiences, what is portrayed in the news gives an accurate description of the entire country and its people?
Is it that they are sabotaging tourism because of their desire to protect tourists from their own worst fears of their country?
Or is that all of the risks are entirely real but we are just so incredibly lucky that we manage to avoid them all?
What kind of messages are you sending when people tell you of their travel plans? Do you fill them with fear of what you have heard?
All of us are so unaware of the power that our words have.
Having been greeted by what felt like the majority of the city on our first few kilometers riding through the Cartagena, we arrived in the general vicinity of the home of our hosts. There was no exact address given, just a district name with instructions to find ‘the church’. We stopped there to scratch our heads just as our host dad came running down the street, waving and calling-out to us. Who says you need a mobile phone?
We met Arnulfo through the website ‘www.couchsurfing.org’. He invited us to stay at his family home in Cartagena with his father ‘Jose’, his mother ‘Fanny’ and sister ‘Zulma’. He lived in a different part of the country so we never physically got to meet him, but he welcomed travellers into his home anyway. That’s just how Colombians are.
They instantly began to rearrange their lounge room to accommodate Falkor, while preparing us a feast of fresh fish and vegetables. Home cooked meals are always a treat and this was an incredible first meal in our 13th country. ‘Mi casa es su casa’. It really is a Latino philosophy.
That night, we were treated to a tour through the gorgeous old city as Fanny made sure we got our bearings. She shared her knowledge of all the sites and we did our best to understand it all in Spanish. Having spent the best part of a month in Panama speaking only English, it was a rusty inauguration.
Five days passed swiftly as we explored the city, but only once by bike. Once was enough, trust me. The experience reminded us of an amalgamation of places we have been in Asia & Africa, and while such chaos is hilarious, on Falkor it is too exhausting to enjoy. In between the music blaring from every shop-front, the elaborate & constant bus horns, the motorbikes that approach from every angle (despite the direction of the road) and magically appearing pedestrians striking up conversations on-the-go, we opted to try our luck on foot. And it was hot work. We are pretty crap tourists at the best of times, and trying to find inspiration to explore when it is 40 degrees in the shade is exhausting. But we do know of a few good ice cream shops.
It was a stunning time to be in Colombia with the colours of patriotism hanging from every tree, painted on every fence and twinkling in the eye of young and old alike. Watching Colombia play Brazil on a tiny TV in the middle of city was like nothing I had ever experienced. An absolute coming together with pride bursting at the seams. Although they did not win that game, the colours of Colombia continued to light our way to the soul of the country.
Our host family spoiled us with Colombian treats and filled us with a positivity that catapulted us beaming southward. We rode 100km that first day out of Cartagena and relished the clean roads, respectful drivers and a jubilant array of roadside greetings. It had been a good month since we had done any serious riding and we were excited to be heading for Medellin to meet brother Michael on July 16th. It was awesome to have the wind in our hair again.
We ‘planned’ to ride 10 days straight through to Medellin, and had 2 spare days up our sleeves for any unexpected occurrences. Best to plan for these things when you have a deadline to meet.
It was hot going but the riding was truly gorgeous with gentle hills, smiling faces and some of the best riding conditions we had experienced. We stayed on farms, camped with pigs, pitched our tent beside a hotel, in a hail storm, became a circus in a tiny town and found surprise TV’s on which to watch the World Cup.
The city of Medellin sits at 1,500meters, and having started riding at sea level, we knew there was at least that much climbing ahead of us. The closer we got to the city, the more we discovered about the road ahead and the better our Spanish conversing became. We have learned several new ways to talk about hills and steeps climbs. We ascertained that the final 60km into Medellin were ‘all down hill’ and the proceeding 200km was constant climbing. So we prepared ourselves for 3-4 days of climbing and accepted what the road had to offer. I expected some crazy steeps and imagined us pushing the bike for long stretches, but in fact, the inclines were all ride-able and although there were tricky sections, they were mostly short and manageable. It was truly a pleasure and we got some of the best views on the trip so far. Huge green rolling valleys with waterfalls cascading at every bend. We stopped often to bathe in cool waters and were stoked to be enjoying what we thought would be a difficult chore.
On our 2nd morning of climbing the first 5km had us off the bike with a huge ‘crunk’. First guess had us expecting the new chain had snapped, but on quick inspection, we discovered 4 of the 5 nuts holding the climbing chain-ring on, had gone AWOL. Pushing the bike to a safe place for roadside mechanics, I set off back down the hill on foot to try and recover the fugitives. I must have looked a ridiculous sight in my riding gear, scanning the side of the roadside for tiny bolts. I managed to recover only one, but did inadvertently collect an old man and a 5-year-old boy who joined me in my search.
Luckily, Brendo found some adequate spares rolling around in the bottom of the tool bag, so by the time I returned to the bike, Falkor was ready to ride again. By midday we had reached a peak around 1500m with views that took our breath away.
We were feeling strong having reached what we thought was almost the top of the climb and made the mistake of starting to congratulate ourselves on our awesomeness.
“Can’t be much further” we grinned at each other as we pushed out another 50km over 3 hours. Reaching 2000m and still seeing more climbing ahead of us, we started to wonder at the exact height of these mountains. “Must only be another 20m or so” Bren assured me as we pushed on.
I am a goal-oriented person. I never really knew the extent of the power that goals have on me until this day. In Australian-English, we have a saying connected to Aussie Rules Football and we call it ‘moving the goal post’. When you aim for one goal but when you reach it, you discover the goal has moved. So we started aiming for 1700m, and ended up climbing to 2300m. Needless to say, we arrived at the ultimate peak with much less zest than we had at 1700m.
Utterly exhausted, we rolled into the town of Yarumal to catch the last half of the game between Argentina and Holland.
The 3rd day of climbing started as usual, with a muesli bar and a roadside pee. Having reached 2300m, and then rolling down 1000m, we were trepidatious as to what the day had in store for us. Still, the sun was shining and we were hopeful that this could be our last day climbing.
Setting back into a pace of around 5 kmph, we rode up more hills and through this incredible open mountain range. Past farms and tiny roadside shacks, barking dogs and children being bathed in buckets.
When the road is unpredictable, with constantly changing gradients hiding around twisting corners, it can be a real strain on your determination. It can be even harder when you can actually see the steeps that confront your horizons, testing your resolve ‘to make it’. But this road was openly visible with all its twists and climbs and we had come to trust the gradients. It was picture perfect and the temperature was cooler and perfect for a days riding. So we weren’t afraid or reluctant and it came as a complete shock when the front tyre exploded with an enormous ‘BANG’. Stopping immediately, it became clear that the front tube had totally blown apart. Like, totally blown in half.
Now let me pause here to explain something. We take great pride (and pains) to carry with us all the necessary spares. On a journey like this, you consider the usual problems on a bike and supply your kit adequately; patch kit, pump, tools, spare tubes & spokes etc. And having lots of specialized parts for Falkor that are impossible to source on this continent, we also have a very sensible selection of those tricky bits. Other cyclists even marvel at our well-stocked emergency bike kit. We feel pretty organized & prepared for all sorts of difficulties. Really, almost anything could happen to the bike and Bren could fix it enough to at least get us to the next town. So when we get a mere flat or a broken spoke, sure it’s annoying but it’s hardly the end of the day’s riding. Any cyclist can deal with these simple glitches. Unless of course you realize that, when you go to change your blown tube, your spare tube has the wrong valve and wont fit through the hole in the rim. Bugger.
So here we are feeling like total idiots, having cycled the last 5000km with the wrong bloody spare tube. And now we are in the middle of the Colombian mountains, with a very ordinary problem, completely unable to move the bike and absolutely miles from any bike shop. So much for being prepared eh.
What twits! It’s such a simple thing! We know that the tubes we need are a special size, but things were hectic when we bought those last spares in Mexico and, despite asking for the right parts, we failed to check that we were given what we asked for. They were all wrapped up neatly so we swiftly stowed them away in the right spot without a second thought. Doh!
A discussion ensues about our problem; 1 person can stay with the bike while the other hitches a ride to a bike shop. Personally, I hate options like this. I have seen enough horror movies to know that separating in times of crisis is exactly the wrong thing to do. There is not a lot of traffic on the road and it looks as though hitching a ride on a motorbike may be the only possibility. Not a huge fan of this plan either. Cyclists with regular sized bikes have no trouble stashing their bike into the back of a ute when the going gets tough, but as Falkor is so long, we need extra space to squeeze her in. And then there is all of our gear too. It does not look promising and is quickly unraveling to look like a long and frustrating day. And we were so hoping to be in front of a TV by 3pm for the Final of the World Cup.
There are certain special powers a cyclist develops on a tour; the knack of spotting hidden electricity outlets, the skill to accurately guess the weight of any item simply by looking at it, the ability to detect taps from 100’s of meters away and the aptitude to ascertain whether their bike will fit on moving targets.
Before we can even mentally prepare for the inevitable, a twin-cab ute pulls around the bend. I figure the process of securing a ride could take hours so I leap into action. Bren has barely gotten the wheel off when I flag the car down. Much to my surprise, the vehicle pulls straight over and a young couple emerge, the driver speaking perfect English. With much embarrassment, I explain our predicament. The driver ‘Fernando’ simply suggests that we load the bike and bags in the back, and jump into the car with them. Can they take us to a bike shop?
“Yes of course, but the shop most likely to have the size tube you need is in Medellin. It’s only 120km away and we are going straight there. You should let us help you.”
Suddenly traveling at 100kmph and giggling in the back of the ute, we couldn’t believe our luck. Fernando and his wife Monica thought absolutely nothing of their part in our rescue, and insisted they take us to lunch before driving through the chaotic streets of Medellin to find the right part and deliver us to our destination. I honestly cannot imagine being this kind to strangers and believe we must be racking up some serious karma to payback.
And so it was, that we arrived in Medellin 2 days earlier than expected. At exactly 1pm, with plenty of time to catch the game.
It was so disappointing the miss the well-deserved 60km down-hill ride, but sometimes, as in the words of Mick & Keith, you cant always get what you want.
You may remember that we stayed at a ‘Casa de Ciclistas’ (House of Ciclists) in Guadalajara Mexico, when Falkor #1 had to be retired due to the fame failure. Luckily for us, there is another very popular house just 20km out of Medellin, in the mountain town of San Antonio de Prado. What a gorgeous place! It’s such a pleasure to be back in the company of fellow cyclists and to have a safe place to commence the repairs.
We were meeting brother Michael on Wednesday and so had a few days to wash off the road-dirt and prepare for our reunion. Our last meeting was in August 2013 in Reno when he cycled with us to Tahoe. This time though, he assured us he would be arriving by taxi. After all, he was dragging 15kg of much needed spare parts & supplies for us from England. Thanks bro!
Hanging out with family is simply excellent, and in Mick’s brilliant company, we whiled away a week in the city apartment he booked. There were of course too many cocktails, and the time sped past as we all caught up. We were completely spoiled with goodies and even a few incredible care packages from home. It was revitalizing, despite the hangovers. We can’t thank him enough for taking the time to come and find us and for inspiring us to take time off the bike to enjoy another magnificent city with him. Can you believe we have met up in 16 countries over the years! Crikey! He instigates many a cool meeting place and it was downright marvelous to celebrate the journey with him.
We even went paraponting!
Check this video!
After another tearful goodbye with Mick, we made our way back to the Casa in the mountains to wait for yep, more parts in the post. Ahh, the toils touring takes on a bike. But our new SON front hub arrived in record time from Germany so we hope to be on the road toward Ecuador around 4th August. Fingers crossed!
A huge congrats to my cuzzy Benno & his wife Loz for the arrival of the very cute Mia Jane Frail on June 26th. As we were sailing across the Caribbean, this delightful new person graced the planet. Can’t wait to meet her!
Have you seen the latest update on our World Bicycle Relief page?
77% of our overall goal reached and 76 bikes being ridden to school thanks to the combined efforts of you guys! UNREAL!
ALSO, a HUGE thanks to the following companies for the support in getting replacement parts to us while we are on the road;
And here are some more pics;
Thanks so much for sharing so much of your amazing adventure! In awe of you both.