29th of July till 4th of August 2018.
After 5 days on the boat discovering the San Blas Islands, our first offshore impression of Cartagena with high rise buildings is not very promising. Is Cartagena the same as Panama city? Are the many of the buildings built for drugs money laundering and standing empty or half-finished without further building activities? Big expensive cars, expensive boats, what more to come?
But Cartagena has been lucky that UNESCO decided in 1984 to appoint it world heritage site and protect the buildings within the Old City. The Spanish city has now been restored and maintained, resulting in a colorful city with a steady stream of tourism, supplying work and income for quite some people. It does feel like a fairy tale/mirror city within the real world. Extremes between rich and poor.
Using our apartment just outside of the Old City we mainly focus on discovering the tourist highlights.
Strange encounter (could have been an alien).
On Saturday we already discovered part of town and had the strangest encounter with an other bike-packer. We met him outside the Blue Sailing office. As we always have a chat with fellow bike travelers we also did with this man, who seemed to have already been travelling for 20 years by bike. He didn’t really wanted to explain much and referred to a leaflet he gave to us. When we wanted to leave he asked for money. When I asked why he said just because, didn’t say he ran out of money and needed shelter or food, just wanted money. I don’t mind to share or give things to people, especially locals but this time I refused. He asked why? I said because we also had to work 30-40 years to be able to do this now and we don’t mind to share but need to know why. When Frank wished him “Good Luck” he said it was like saying f*** you. And that we were not seeing the real people, only travelling in the expensive areas and getting pampered in posh hotels. That we did not know how local poor people lived. We wanted to explain how we were travelling and why, but he would not listen. For me he should feel blessed that he could already travel for 20 years around the world without having to work. My view is that if you are tight in budget, you can find work, or if you need money urgently you can ask strangers, but at least explain why. Frank says he had probably been cycling in the sun too long.
Sunday and Monday we use to first relax (benefit of staying 3 nights at the same spot) followed by exploring.
Cartagena was the most important crossing point for silver to the Old World and slaves to the New World.
We start with the outskirts and highest point of the Old City: The convent. Gives a great view of the city,
Followed by the fort, San Felippe, which gave an impressive feeling of the protection created against the English. The largest well preserved fort in the New World with tunnels and cisterns, cannons and massive protection walls. Thunder is this time not from firing cannons but from heavy thunderstorms. Fun to meet Marija, Stefan and Shane again.
After the rain had almost stopped we decide to still walk downtown and further explore the Old City.
Next time I think location should prevail over space, as we would even have explored more, rather than spent time commuting.
Still, being able to return to this huge apartment with own kitchen and washing machine feels a bit like returning home.
On Monday the historical museum is not as good as expected,
only benefit is that you can see the insides of one of the colonial buildings at your own pace and still being in reasonably original state.
At least one of the old building which is not converted to restaurant, hostel or 5 star hotel. After each corner in the city we discover new gems, does not matter to wander through them 2-3-4 times.
Fat Lady (this one does not sing).
One of the highlights is the bronze statue of La Gordita (the big fat lady) by Fernando Botero from Medellin. Interesting to see how this even creates income or inspiration for people. Don’t know if the artist agrees with it though.
After having cooked the first days, we enjoy on our last evening a perfect Italian Pizza.
The street is sprayed with water and public is not allowed to enter until a movie picture scene has been recorded, it took 15 times riding up and down the street. Could be Will Smith’s new movie Gemini Man, that is shot here.
So happy I did not send my new Dutch dress home with Ans.
Cartagena gave a great view on on old Spanish city, with perfect ice-cream, if wanted great shopping, lots of different restaurants and museums. But is this really showing the current Colombia? Lots more about Cartagena.
Hit the road Jac.
And then we are ready to hit the road! And we do hit the road. Biking out of Cartagena we have to bike past the huge local market. So many people, as if entering a market in Africa. Porters have converted supermarket carts to perfect means of transport. (no photos as it did not feel safe/right to take out the camera or use the iPhone). Rough, crowed, smelly. After a few kilometers using the roundabout, scenery is alternating between large industry, slums and new shopping areas. We want to stop for a coffee at one off those fancy places as there is parking in front of the coffee shop. But we are not allowed to park our bikes, only allowed for cars… we would have to leave them at the back side of the shops, so we decide to continue…ok the guy is just doing his job but following his instructions too much to the letter.
We take the 90D and it seems it is a 4 lane highway with a good shoulder. Bit boring to start but not too much traffic and safe.
Said too quick it was a good road as after some miles it turns into 2 lanes and no shoulder. Several times we have to veer off as two trucks pass each other. In Palenque we call it a day, even if it is still early as this seems to be the only sheltered possibility for a longer stretch. And we are lucky, just checked in and a heavy downpour starts.
Palenque was a refuge for escaped slaves and it seems it was the first free town in the Americas.
Next day the culture shock is heavy when stocking up in the small village. I don’t know what and how I had imagined Colombia and I do know that Cartagena only represents a certain face of this beautiful country, but I had not expected such a poor village with dirty shops, counters full of bird poo and spider cobs and almost no supplies. But the smiles and genuine interest of people gives a very positive vibe. After 55 km on the main connection between Cartagena and later HW 25 connection between Barranquilla and Medelin we are tired of the noise of big container trucks speeding by. We are in San Jacinto and because it is only 14:00 we decide to take the back road to El Carmen.
White Roads (some sweet some bitter)
Should be only 25 km of back road, indicated as a “white road” indicated on MapOut. We should have known better by now as this 25km does take a long time as it is dirt but so much better than the HW. What is also fun is that quite some part you can only do by motorcycle, horse, foot or bike!
The best. A few people stop to talk and wonder why we do not take the main road. The houses we see are built from planks and palm leaves.
As this is still a rural area, everything is fences of and we don’t have enough water with us, we decide to push to El Carmen. Biking into town from the back shows a poor settlement with busted sewage. It is a long time ago we have seen so much poverty, except in Colon. Getting closer to the center it is getting better and we find a small hotel where we don’t have to carry stuff upstairs. Again dinner in town as we don’t have any cooking facilities and the room is too small to cook dinner.
Next day we decide to only follow a back road. 50km and on MapOut elevation seems reasonable and it is a white road.
But you never know what you will encounter on a white road.
Already finding the start of the road is a challenge as we have to bike past the garbage dump and through a small river. Up a steep hill with a path only wide enough to walk or horse ride. A worker carrying water downhill offers us two small water bags. It is so heart warming!
Total of 3 km further we hit a concrete road, seems that the part we had done was the old road but it has been changed to a new start. A motor cycle with living pig tied on the back passes us. Quite some +15%-+20% climbs force us to push the bikes one by one uphill. Lucky it is a good road and the scenery is outstanding. Brilliant yellow covered trees dotted along the rolling landscape.
Frank has a chat with Andries, one of the moto taxi drivers who has already passed us a few times. As in El Carmen we hardly see any cars here either. There a quite a few motor cycles, most of them are used as taxi. As a car needs to have at least 4-5 passengers to justify a ride, people are transported much quicker by motor cycle. You often see 2 adults and 2-3 kids on the same motor.
We pass two villages El Salado and Camatalito. Just before the village the concrete road stops and changes to sand or very bad dirt, where you see the effect of previous rainfall. Houses are made of planks, iron or clay. When stopping to buy some water, people want to be in the photo with us and the bike.
At one of the last stretches which we are pushing we get help from one of the motor cycle drivers who helps Frank to push his bike up the hill.
50 km in 9 hours, but a beautiful ride. When we exit the white road we see hotel El Conductor. Very very basic so we try the other hotel in town but there the guy behind the counter is not welcoming and it is as basic. Back to the first one after some grocery shopping. We stay for 10 Euro and have dinner for 6 Euro. What a different pricing here, compared to Costa Rica and Panama.
Next day we still want to try to do a white road and bike pass the church in San Pedro. When stopping for a photo, a group of 30 kids surround us. We spend more than 30 minutes chatting with them and their teacher.
Seems they are all 10-12 years old and are preparing for next year communion. Lots of photos and fun later we finally leave and the first kilometers are a blast on a new, deserted, flat asphalt road. With the wind in our hair and sun on our skin we soak in the surrounding. Yesterday and today we see the first brown areas, as if there is less rain here. Brown it is, especially the mud which sticks and blocks our wheels.
Several times we need to pick, push the dirt out, Frank will remove the mudguards once we are in Mompox. But first we need to bike to San Matteo and from there we have no other choice than the main road. Not so nice as there is a lot of loose gravel, creating an off the road feeling but with more traffic passing by.
We arrive early in Magangue, but to late to still take the ferry and bike further. So an early day and we check in in a new hotel with spotless sheets and great airco. Even if we try to avoid airco as much as possible we are now in an area where, if we are not biking, we love to be inside and cool down. For the first time we even understand why people would stop at noon and shelter until the heat is getting less. Frank “cooks” a pasta salad in the room while I work on the blog of week 59. Looks like more expensive to cook your own food than eating at one of the local small restaurants.
Arriving at the docks we understand why we haven’t seen almost any large trucks. The “ferries” are very small motorboats. There are larger ones but those can’t take a truck or car.
Bikes and luggage are tied to the roof and the captain tries to get an extra 50,000 pesos out of us but we agree on an additional 10,000. We squeeze together with the other 14 people in the tiny speedboat and speed off.
As my arm is a bit outside it is drenched in a minute. Reassuring words of Frank: If this sinks there is no use of the life-vests, as nobody will get out.
The Magdalena river is the principal river of Colombia, flowing northward about 1,528 kilometers (949 mi) through the western half of the country. It is navigable through much of its lower reaches, in spite of the shifting sand bars at the mouth of its delta.
Its drainage basin covers a surface of 273,000 square kilometers (105,000 sq mi), which is 24% of the country’s area and where 66% of its population lives.
Where we cross the river it is a brown, deep fast flowing beast of at least 300 meters wide.
I am happy when arriving at the other side and I can squeeze out of the boat. How do you do this when you are not lean and small?
We chat a while with the moto taxi drivers before taking of and quite a few say hello when they pass us on our way to Mompox. Especially one of the guys who showed me that he had an extra thumb, I explained I had seen it before when I was working in the operation theater but that it is always handy when scratching your bum. We had a great laugh.
Biking on a new dike, watching the bird life from atop, wetlands alternating with lakes is calming to our senses after the wild boat ride. This is really the joy of travelling by bike. Almost no traffic, no noise. Feeling the heat and sweating like hell.
Seems that if you have not seen Mompox you have not seen the real Colombia? Says who?
It is a pitoresque city, UNESCO heritage since 1970. As explained on the UNESCO site: Founded in 1540 on the banks of the River Magdalena, Mompox played a key role in the Spanish colonization of northern South America. From the 16th to the 19th century the city developed parallel to the river, with the main street acting as a dike. The historic center has preserved the harmony and unity of the urban landscape. Most of the buildings are still used for their original purposes, providing an exceptional picture of what a Spanish colonial city was like.
As in the 19th century the importance of the city decreased and thus we now still have the opportunity to wander through the old city plan and admire the beautiful buildings when searching for a hotel. Trying first high-end as I want to check them inside but they are all full due to a nautical event. Lucky us, as it would be way above budget. We finally find a good room with safe bike storage with a Belgium host Nico from Gent and enjoy two nights in Mompox.
Bulls On Parade
For us the real Colombia is when we visit the bull fights at 16:00 the first afternoon (Saturday). We go there with a tuktuk as it is outside town. A wooden stadium has been constructed to host several thousands of people.
More scared that the construction will collapse than anything else. It is a combination between bull fight but with several toreadors, when the bull enters the official toreador will first “play” with the bull.
Then followed by lots of local young guys, trying to get his attention and running away, gliding under the stadium when he is getting too close.
Also some picadors, mainly safeguarding the toreadors.
Within 5 minutes after we enter a bull takes one of the toreadors on his horns but it seems he is not harmed. One of the horses takes a harder hit and needs to be stitched up outside the ring.
To feel the vibe, to see the energy, to watch dads who bring their kids is energizing.
I feel sorry for the bull as he has too much noise and they do stick him with “banderillas” but he does not get killed. Is this animal cruelty? If the bull lives outside all year, isn’t he better off than cows and calves we fatten in small spaces in Europe? And the horses? In other sports they also get hurt. Do horses ever like what they are made to do? Interesting topic and food for thought.
Seems that this is only happening once a year, 5 days rodeo and one day promenade. Each year at a different location. Lucky us, but I don’t need to see it again. We even get a present from the Ganaderia.
What an amazing first week in Colombia. What will next week bring?
Open The Door
How do you welcome people? Cartagena.