We were feeling a little low leaving Panama – feeling a bit homesick and not sure if we wanted to take the leap across the Darien Gap which was a considerable investment in time and money. However, we decided to move on and take that leap into Colombia.
It was one of the best decisions we made.
Colombia is amazing, simply amazing.
While at home, Colombia is synomous with cocaine, we discovered that it is so much more than a scary place where drug lords dressed in camo hide out in thick, inaccessible jungles. It is a place with incredible history from fortified old city Cartagena that was central in numerous wars and pirate attacks because of its wealth as one of the colonial Spanish treasure ports to the ancient statues and tombs of San Agustin from the height of South America’s first complex society. Colombia has amazing food from amazing coffee grown locally on mountain slopes and ranches where cowboys transport metal jugs full of fresh milk to local dairy and cheese factories. There is so much fresh juice, cheese and ice cream everywhere and randomly, amazing chocolate truffles in Pasto.
There is incredible and diverse beauty from the stunning skyscrapers and old colonial streets filled with flowers and vendors in Cartagena, the ranches in the rolling hills in the lowlands, the misty hills ascending up to Medellin, the coffee covered hills around Santa Rosa de Cabal, the seas of sugarcane in Valle de Cauca and the dramatic, rugged mountains in Southern Colombia from Popayan to Pasto and beyond.
The people are also very friendly and we were shown amazing Colombian hospitality from being adopted by James in Tulua, a local cyclist who just met us on the street and invited us into his home, to Ramiro Jr, a semi-professional cyclist who hosted us in Palmira, Frederic and Lawerence, a Swiss couple volunteering in Popayan, and Alvaro and his family who we stayed and volunteered with for a few days in Ipiales. Truck drivers would hand us fresh mangos and oranges. The people just before Pasto are small farmers and seem not to have much but they were very friendly with one woman offering me some ripe, orange papaya and another man giving us drinks of his fermented panela (rehydrated sugar cane juice) served in a plastic cup scooped out of a bucket which was actually quite taste. Later, as I was cooking outside huddled behind a mobile barrier of my panniers to block against the crazy wind, the mother of the lady at the hotel came over and gave us a bunch of bananas from her garden.
What really made an impression on us riding through Colombia is that it is a country of cyclists. Everyday we would see local cyclists zooming around on top of the line road bikes and mountain bikes decked out in all the top gear. Sometimes, we would be in the middle of nowhere when a local cyclist flies by us and we would wonder where they started from. Most cities will close one of their main streets or lanes on the major highway on Sunday for bike only and cyclists would come out in force. It was so awesome to see how many cyclists there was from the many people darting around in slick spandex riding gear and speedy light road bikes to the families out cycling together on old mountain bikes. One of my favorite sights was coming out of Medellin where there was a dad and son duo on a little child size bike. The dad was actually just sitting on the back while his young son was pedalling them both down the road. The smile of the young boy’s face was radiant as if nothing could be better than spending this time with his dad, even if he was doing all the pedalling! On July 20, Colombian Independence day, many people celebrated by going for a bike ride. We saw so many local cyclists on the road that day even in the cold rain and wind as we climbed up to over 2800m elevation and literally into the cloud before Pasto. Very awesome! We were very excited to see local cyclists and they always seemed very excited to see us, sometimes turning around and riding up the hill to come talk to us. A country of cyclists also meant that the traffic was used to cyclists and very courteous and there was well stocked bike shops across the country.
Colombia has become our favorite country to ride in because of all these things.
It is not to say that everything in Colombia was and is perfect. Many people are still angry about goverment corruption and that the current Santos government is opening up peace talks with the FARC rebels as if forgoing justice on all those killed in the civil war (while many others are happy that peace is being given a chance). The sugar plantation towns in the Valle de Cauca are very poor and considered dangerous. However, while suffering and injustice needs to be acknowledged, that cannot be the end of the conversation. Without looking at how people have improved things or worked hard to help their families and country succeed, people are denied their agency and rather seen as passive objects in need someone coming to save them. Alvaro from Ipiales is passionate about teaching English so the next generation of Colombians will be able travel and do business in the global market more effectively and funky coffee shops in Popayan show contemporary dance performances on women’s rights to a packed university crowd.
The early investment in the textile industry by turn of the century coffee barons has paid off and Medellin has been transformed from the world capital of cocaine in the 1980s to one of the safest cities in Latin America with also Latin America’s largest open-air mall and cultural centre. Most of Medellin’s downtown seems to be a huge, bustling outdoor mall crammed with people, shops and vendors. Medellin is Colombia’s major textile producer and it is clearly seen with all of the clothes, shoes and everything else you could imagine. Even the Palacio National, an old baroque building with a copper clock tower, has been convered into a mall with the bottom floor completely devoted to bargain shoe stores. There are sometimes very basic homes set up by poor people on the sides of the highway but even the ramshackle stick home covered with black plastic wrap has colourful potted flowers hanging from the roof and I saw a makeshift see-saw with cheerful children playing on it. They have their pride and creativity and dreams for a better life, which can be supported through investment in local schools as many children will probably migrate to the cities when they grow up. It is essential to understand the suffering and inequalities but to always focus on the negative is also an injustice that erases all that people are working towards.
Moving on, you sometimes allow yourself to see some amazing things.
Colombia has been truly amazing to visit and more people need to say that to break it out from the negative perceptions we usually get about this amazing country.