Written May 20, 2016
We’re still in Quito for now - but let’s go back. We were in Medellin (the locals say Med-e-zheen) a couple of posts ago, and much has happened between there and here. Medellin is a place that people my age remember well from the newspapers 20-odd years ago for the murders and other horrifying things that the drug cartels were responsible for. Unfortunately the news media doesn’t keep up on the good news, and the good news is that Medellin is now a city that wins awards for urban design. After Pablo Escobar was killed, the general population had had enough of the drug cartels in Colombia, and real reform started. As well, the Havana negotiations with FARC rebels are resulting in an end to the constant military struggles in rural areas. Of course, it’s more complex than that, but today Medellin, along with most all of Colombia, is a very safe place, and we felt secure.
The day we spent on the transit system was a marvel. We hopped on a bus, and bought a ticket that took us to the Metro terminal, where, on the same ticket, we boarded the elevated rail line that runs north-south through the city. The Metro has many stops along the way, most with wide elevated pedestrian bridges fanning out on both sides that allow passengers to walk well out into the city unobstructed by traffic and other obstacles. Near the north end of the line, on that same ticket, we just walked from the train onto a teleferico, a cable gondola that took us up, up, up to tops of the mountains above town. But instead of going up over rocks and trees, we flew over more streets and buildings, and houses as the city climbed up the mountainside, steeper and steeper, until we were far above the narrow valley floor where the Medellin river runs and the city spreads alongside, sloshing way up the sides of the bowl. Only the photos can convey how they build right up the mountainside, and the streets zig-zag their way as they crazily climb.
We rolled out of Medellin to the east, climbing steeply up the main highway, slaloming around trucks. Eager young men on bicycles hung onto the backs of the slow-moving trucks with their hands, sometimes three and four to a truck. We had a short day of it and arrived in Guatape, a town on a man-made lake filled with islands and undulating shoreline. The big attraction today is El Peñon, a huge chunk of granite over 700 feet high. El Peñon has a deep groove running vertically up one side, in which a set of concrete stairs criss-crosses in a dizzying climb. Seven hundred forty steps to the top, and the view is just incredible out over the rolling hills of the area, and the lake and islands. The steps are numbered, which may be a hindrance or a help, depending on your frame of mind; we took a break to look around every 50 steps and found ourselves at the top in a surprisingly short time. You are climbing at about 2000 meters of elevation, so pacing is the key. The big surprise was when I learned that the original steps, years ago, were built of wood…
We stayed the night there in Guatape and walked around enjoying how the houses and shops all had a painted strip of wall above the sidewalk with bright colored figures, some symbolic of the house, some seemingly just fanciful artwork. Whatever, this was one of the most brightly painted towns I’ve ever seen.
The next day was an interesting mix of terrain and weather. We needed to cut southwest back to the main highway running south, so followed a path over ever-narrowing roads until we hit dirt, and continued about 25 miles over ridges and along deep valleys rich with coffee farms and fruit orchards, gorgeous country with beautiful views along the road and across deep valleys. The road was good, and there were even streetlights on every power pole, with a farm house every mile or so. It was the weather that deteriorated, and our sun turned to clouds, and clouds then lowered to fog. Soon drops were appearing on our shields, and we pulled on raingear. This day was our first baptism in Colombian rain for us, and it did not disappoint. Within a few miles it was coming down steadily and firmly, but it was a warm rain, so we didn’t worry about it too much. Ten miles along in it, and the road started to collect water coming off the hillsides. Soon we were riding up a small creek of a road, but it was a good solid rock road, and so traction was fine. (Jalene here: Dodging the water and rocks was scary. I had to repeatedly remind myself, “Look where you want to go!”) By the time we neared the main highway and pavement again, it was dusk-like, and getting hard to see very far ahead. Rain was bucketing down at a terrific rate, and we were rolling in 4-6 inches of water, with islands of rock where the road poked through. When we stopped, water did not drip off the bikes, but ran like faucet streams. We headed south down the highway sifting through torrents of rain, again slaloming around trucks backed up and stopped, riding up the yellow line until we came to a broken-down wreck blocking the highway. After that it was clear road, thank goodness we were on bikes. Anything with four wheels was stopped in the backup for a long, long time of it.
We eventually rode out of the rain, and found ourselves in La Pintada along the Cauca River. We found a hotel with heated floors (!), and peeled off our wet things and hung them on chairs and doors to kind of dry. While the Olympia mesh riding gear had been a godsend in the heat of Central America, it was here that we realized that the “waterproof” liners just weren’t going to cut it in South America. Friends ahead of us to the south foretold of rain everyday for weeks, and we knew it was time to upgrade. While warm, we were plenty wet through seams and zippers designed for occasional “commuter rains”, not all-day tropical monsoons. Further on, we had another all-day drenching on our approach to San Agustin that cemented our decision to spend some serious travel money. We chose Klim riding gear, because many travelers we have met tell us it is truly waterproof. It’s another compromise, since it’s not mesh, and so is significantly warmer in hot weather. But as we head south, keeping dry at high elevations in south latitudes will prove to be a safety concern. Klim, out of Idaho, is regarded as about the very highest quality riding gear for moto-travelers.
On the leg of our trip that took us south toward Ecuador, we had some seriously beautiful days on the road and stayed at some wonderful hostels. After our drenching day to La Pintada, we rewarded ourselves by riding to Salento, and La Serrana Hostel. So far, this is my favorite place of the trip. Located up the mountains, this is horse country and deep in the coffee lands. With a brilliant view all around from a ridgetop, at a moderate altitude of about 1900 meters (6,200’), the climate is cooler than the valley floors, slightly chilly at night. Weather moves through, as on the coast, but most days enjoyed fine dry weather with broken clouds taming the fierce sun. A few days had brief thunderstorms with bursts of heavy rain in the afternoon, but these always were preceded by plenty of rumbling and flashing to warn you under cover. We spent 6 nights at La Serrana, the first two nights in a big wall tent and the remaining in a private room. I’d have spent all of it in the tent if that were possible, as it was snug and quiet, and the cool air over warm blankets made for perfect sleep. The tent was on a platform off the ground, and we had our own little balcony with a lovely view out over the broad valley to the high Andes peaks beyond. Horses and cattle grazed in fields of deep green grass all around, with rich gardens and heavy fruit trees along the roads. One day I took a horseback ride down a very old trail, crossing creeks, traversing ridges, and even riding through old tunnels to a fabulous waterfall where we swam in cold water right off the peaks. Our stout, strong little horses made their way back up the steep, muddy trail without a pause; they are such good athletes. Though the heat was pouring off the neck of my horse, her deep breathing slowed almost immediately when we made the top. This is just everyday rambling for them, I suppose.
While in Salento, Jalene and I walked to a coffee plantation where we were schooled fairly intensively in selecting land, growing, picking, and roasting coffee. It was quite a surprise to learn how many varieties there are, and some of the issues facing a coffee grower. Coffee prefers a specific band of elevation to produce the best beans, 1300-1900 meters (4,300-6,200’). Only the dried beans are shipped off the farm to be roasted elsewhere, the rest is all composted into a rich soil, and spread back around the plants. Nothing is wasted, and it would be much too expensive to have waste hauled away here, anyway. After we picked some coffee “cherries”, we learned how to extract the beans, then how roasting, drying, and grading is done. Grading is by hand, and watching the women work at the grading screens reminded me of long days in place on “the line” in the seafood plants I worked at years ago. My back hurt just watching them. We learned that it’s the lighter roasts that are higher quality and have more caffeine in them, and that the darker roasts tend of be of a lower grade, as more defects in the beans can be hidden that way. Finally we all learned how to brew – hand grinding the beans, then filling small cloth filter bags with the ground coffee, and finally how to pour the hot water in – just a little at first, a single circle to wet the coffee down. Count to ten and then slowly pour the rest of the water through. I’m a dedicated tea drinker, and haven’t drunk any coffee in probably 25 years. I had a cup that day.
Our photo gallery pages are more up-to-date than our stories so, you can either view all the South American photos (the most recent are on top) or here are the links for the areas talked about in this blog post: Medellin, Guatape and El Peñon, and Salento.