Here in Colombia when it’s “hot” it can mean a couple of different things. My ride from Cartagena to Mompox was hot, dry and dusty. It wasn’t till I got to Mompox that I discovered that part of my route had taken me through areas that are considered a little warm in a more metaphorical sense.
Just about everybody knows that Colombia suffered decades of conflict and while the current situation is considerably improved there are still areas where episodic violence is perpetrated by what are generally referred to as paramilitary groups. These groups range from anonymous urban drug gangs to ostensibly politically motivated movements, some organised and consistent enough to be named and some not, listing both to the left and right.
When I start to plan my route from Mompox to Medellin a couple of slightly sinister internet references to the Upper Magdalena Valley and North Antioquia regions prompt me to ask Richard, at Casa Amarilla, what areas are considered insecure. He looks at me and laughs. “Well, Santa Ana, where you camped by the river last night, for one!” “Hum,… well, …OK… So how about we sit down and look over this map together.” He peers at the map, muttering darkly, but eventually just tells me to ride to El Banco where he’s sure that people will let me know if I’m heading somewhere I shouldn’t go.
I arrive at El Banco at around 4PM and I don’t have to talk to many people to work out that I have ridden about 20 kilometres past the point on the river where I should have crossed it to head off on my planned route. Luckily riverside towns in this part of the world have docks where small launches transport people to various remote communities and one of the crowd of men surrounding me, asking questions and offering advice, tells me that I can correct my error easily enough by taking a launch to Barranca de Loba. While people are dubious about the physical state of the roads nobody at all tries to dissuade me on the grounds of metaphoric heat. All towns, of a certain size, can take on a slightly menacing dimension at dusk when I haven’t got any idea of where I’m going to stay so I am starting to get anxious when one of my route advisers suggests that I ask for shelter at the local fire station, reminding me of this classic accommodation option for cyclists.
In the morning, I make my way to the dock to find a launch to take me to Barranca de Loba.
Eventually I cross the river, yet again, in a canoe, after passing through a settlement called Alta de Rosaria, and suddenly the atmosphere changes. None of the villages here are marked on the map. I pass through Las Minas* and true to its name this settlement is surrounded by small low tech mining operations. Richard had mentioned that there is illegal mining in this area and I don’t feel comfortable enough to stop to take photos. Whatever their status, these mines are sufficiently established to support a sizable community that seems largely made up of bars and seedy-looking discotheques, with names such as “The Miner’s Rest” and boasting lurid murals depicting activities that don’t immediately invoke the idea of rest.
However, the next village I come to, a settlement entirely without roads, is called Las Delicias and there a woman at the local shop takes one look at me and my bike and without any form of preamble or request sits me down on her verandah and rustles up a plate of scrambled eggs and fried plantain chips. Las Delicias is linked to the next village by a rudimentary walking path that follows the power lines which, in the fashion of power lines, marches straight up and down hills with no regard at all for gradient.
The sense of isolation here is palpable. The settlement I am trying to reach, which apparently is linked to the rest of the world by more frequently used tracks, is called Puerto Rico but it doesn’t appear on my map either and I start to doubt its existence. The only information that the local people will share with me about this chimirec town is that it is very far away and my sense of uncertainty starts to grow. The next settlement I can hope to reach is called El Sudan, which somehow further exacerbates my sense of disorientation – isn’t the Sudan in Africa?
But, of course, I pass through El Sudan and arrive in Puerto Rico eventually. It’s another town that has grown around small local mines and has the same hard edge quality. I don’t feel the urge to linger until a group of young men sitting under a colourful umbrella selling watermelon on the outskirts of town attracts my attention – water melon can save your life on a hot day so I come to an abrupt stop. They immediately offer me a seat under the umbrella and start to ply me with the usual questions. Every time I try to get up to go they seduce me with further offers of cold drinks and finally lunch.
After leaving Puerto Rico, the pathways widen out slightly and while there are still no cars, motor bike traffic increases again – but the area still is relatively sparsely populated and settlements are small, often without even a basic shop.
Colombians are very curious about a number of things. One of the commonest set of questions I get asked is about my passport and the visa requirements for travel that I am subject to. This is generally followed up with a more uncomfortable line of questioning about Australian visa regulations for Colombians and the potential economic opportunities available there. Next, people want to know what are my personal perceptions of Colombia and then, more generally, how Colombia is viewed by foreigners.
Approaching Nechi and Caucasia, as I start to pass through bigger settlements, the range of these questions broadens to include the extent of my knowledge and apprehension of paramilitary groups. I respond that I have no detailed information about them but I am aware of their existence and a history of violence in Colombia. I say that understand the situation has improved, that I feel safe and I don’t think that these groups have any specific interest in me or particular will to harm me personally – generally eliciting nods of agreement – before inviting people to give me any further information that would prove relevant or useful to me. Most people acknowledge that paramilitary groups are active in this area but only one person suggests that I might be at specific risk.
Interestingly, quite a few people also want to know my opinion of Chavez, the ailing president of Venezuela.
After a final river crossing at Nechi, I am back on paved road, which, unfortunately, I share with trucks, buses and 4×4s. But it’s a smooth quick ride to Caucasia.
My first stop in Caucasia is the bike shop. Despite time and money spent in Cartagena and further adjustments in Mompox, my gears continue to be problematic. The chain tends, infuriatingly, to jump off whatever ring is on, on steep ascents. While the mechanic attempts to tweek my gears, I ask the bike shop people about my proposed route from Caucasia to Medellin. After studying the place names on my map, the owner of the shop nixes one option – El Tigre and the surrounding area are deemed too hot. The other option he seems to think will be alright but it requires a sixty kilometre stint on the highway to Taraza.
When I get to Taraza, however, the people I ask are having none of it. I ask the moto-taxi guys for directions on the assumption that they know the local roads well. First they tell me the road doesn’t exist, then that it is too difficult. These arguments don’t do much to dissuade me. I press and one guy, finally, to the evident disapproval of the others, gives me directions through the town to the appropriate road and a relevant place name to assist in navigation. I figure it’s going to be a four or five day slog on remote difficult mountain roads that ascend over 2000 metres but I am prepared for that.
As I ride the road which leads through the back streets of the town people look at me, not with the usual curiosity but something that feels like suspicion or disapproval. They ask where I am going. Las Acasias, I say. They snort. “Do you have family there?” “Um… No.” I don’t feel very comfortable. Piles of gravel obstruct the road. Clearly cars are not encouraged to pass here.
As I am climbing a steep ascent at the edge of the settlement the man who gave me the directions which led me here suddenly appears on the verandah of one of the last of the houses. “Do you remember me?” I pull up. “Of course.” He starts to talk again of the difficulty of the road ahead. I explain that I enjoy difficult terrain, that paved highways are an anathema to me. “But it’s dangerous!” “The trucks on the highway are dangerous,” I counter. He is increasingly agitated. One of the other men from the moto-taxi group suddenly materialises. “The area is mined!” There it is. It has been said.
I lean the bike against a wall. A woman offers me a cold drink and a seat and we converse.
I ride on the highway.
The pull exerted by a hot shower and wifi internet are strong and I don’t manage to leave Yarumal until around midday. The whole town is built on a thirty degree slope and it is at the bottom of a kilometre of a truly precipitous descent that I hear the characteristic metallic twang of a broken spoke. I have run out of spares and there is nothing for it but to struggle back up the hill to try to find a bike shop.
I finally manage to leave the highway at Santa Rosa and head towards Medellin via San Pedro on a quieter paved backroad. The road rolls up and down along a mountain ridge until suddenly the valley where Medellin sits in a cloud of smog opens up below.
*Las Minas = The Mines