The beginning of the end: bienvenidos South America

Adios amazing Mexico!

It’s early – too early – on a Friday morning and I’m slumped in a metal chair waiting for 16 ounces worth of caffeine to work its magic. An announcement blares to life like a starting gun, telling all the other bleary eyed passengers to power walk like angry chickens to gate 53 where flight 2930 will soon leave from Mexico City to Bogota.

In the past five years we’ve taken only six international flights (seven if you include the time we were refused entry to China… read about it here) despite having travelled through 26 countries over four continents.

It’s a weird feeling to be back in the mad airport shuffle and an even weirder one to think that the next time we board an international flight will be to return home to Australia.

Rather than the glorious sprint to the Mexican finish line we’d hoped for, we’d all but crawled to the end

We’d spent countless hours on dusty roads pondering life post trip but with our final continent just a three hour flight away it suddenly feels real.

Tajikistan’s a great place to ponder life on dusty roads.

In the early afternoon of a smoggy day we touch down in Colombia’s chaotic capital city, shuffle through a pretty relaxed immigration and haul our bike boxes outside to begin the mad reassemble.

It feels weird getting back on the bike, not just because we’re in a new country but because we’ve scarcely put foot to pedal for the past month.

And that takes me back to land of mariachi bands, phenomenal street food and fireworks at all times of the day and night…. It takes me back to Mexico.

Glorious, colourful and fabulous Mexico. Pic taken in San Cristobal de las Casas

Rather than the glorious sprint to the Mexican finish line we’d hoped for, we’d all but crawled to the end with a damaged hamstring, a belly full of tacos and a sense of regret that we didn’t see more of the country.

Since hobbling into a doctor’s surgery in the Michoacan capital of Morelia we’d taken a bus to Toluca (one of Mexico’s highest cities at 2600m) before setting up camp with Warmshowers hosts Janelle and Memo and planning a four wheeled end to our North American leg.

Checking out Nevada de Toluca – an ancient volcanic crater just a one hour drive from Toluca

From there we’d loaded up two backpacks, booked a bus to San Cristobal de las Casas in the relatively impoverished southern state of Chiapas, and toured the colourful city, the neighbouring world famous Mayan ruins of Palenque and topped off the tour with a few days in the university city of Puebla and epic Mexico City itself.

The view from San Cristobal de las Casa’s stunning Guadalupe Church
Looking out over Palenque
The stunning Cascadas de Agua Azul – en route to Palenque

Despite a last ditch effort to cram as much as possible into the final two weeks of our Mexican adventure we’d scarcely scratched the surface on a nation we’d fallen head over heels in love with. And after pursuing the Mayan ruins of Palenque, sipping lattes in the cosmopolitan hubs of La Condesa and Roma in Mexico City and just kicking back with some of the best tacos of our lives with fabulous company in chilly Toluca, we began formulating plans to one day return and live there.

And so like starstruck lovers ready to defy the long distance relationships odds, we farewelled Mexico and beelined for Bogota.

Just five minutes after putting our bikes together and pedalling out of the enormous airport the city’s chaos and pollution hit us like a tonne of bricks. We joined a sea of cyclists on some seriously impressive “ciclo via” cycle lanes and weaved our way 20km north to the home of our Warmshowers hosts Stewart and Deirbhle.

Cyclists eat your heart out! Bogota’s wealth of designated cycling paths make pedalling around the city relatively painless

Fun fact about Bogota: this city is one of the world’s best when it comes to cycling infrastructure. Second fun fact about Bogota: despite this it’s still incredibly polluted. Like many cities in Colombia, the nation’s capital sits in a valley which means all the pollution acts like the icing on a post apocalyptic cake. After just two hours of cycling in what can only be described as soup a la smog our lungs were burning, our heads were pounding and our eyes were stinging.

It was like being back in China, just minus the steaming hot pot restaurants and noodle stands.

Looking out over Bogota after an easy pedal up one of the city’s many hills during the Sunday Ciclovia

Our host Stewart wasted no time telling us that while things had certainly improved in Colombia (re: safety) Bogota was legitimately dangerous after dark in lots of places. It took just one stroll post sunset in our very classy neighbourhood to realise that just about everyone avoided walking around at night and the feeling was nothing short of spooky.

We had just over a month to kill in order to let my hamstring heal, learn some Spanish and wait for our friend Richard, who’d be joining us on the ride south and while we initially thought we’d spend that time in Bogota, suddenly the northern city of Medellin looked like the better option.

Many coloured Medellin is a slightly more relaxed and balmy alternative to Bogota. Plus it has great street art (you can see this in San Javier)

And so on a polluted afternoon we packed up the bikes, cycled 20km to the bus station and took one of the scariest rides of our lives courtesy of the bus driver cum rally racer.

Where Bogota was chilly and paranoid, Medellin was definitely more balmy and laidback but the pollution was almost worse – so much so that the poor little city made the headlines every day nation wide for all the wrong reasons.

Feeling separation anxiety from Mexico, we nevertheless forced ourselves to stop making comparisons (of which there were many – from the vernacular to the street food) and instead set up camp in a budget airbnb with a local family who spoke largely rapid fire heavily accented Spanish. Despite the language barrier they were kind, inclusive and happy to tell us everything we wanted to know about Medellin, of which we largely couldn’t understand.

Where Mexico is all about the intense flavours, Colombia is all about the epic portions The Bandeja Paisa (ie, Colombia’s answer to the full English breakfast) has enough calories to last you a day … and some

For a week we explored the local neighbourhood, tried out some local dishes, tackled Colombia’s seriously impressive wealth of fruits and began researching appropriate Spanish schools.

Colombia’s food took a little more digging. But underneath the obvious there was a wealth of delicious dishes such as mega sized tamales and ridiculously tasty fruit smoothies

Medellin has become a popular stop on the Gringo trail for foreigners looking to do just that and as a result Spanish language tourism has skyrocketed – along with the prices of courses within the city. Read more about learning Spanish Medellin here and the schools we tried.

Each school seemed set up for package tourists looking for lessons with a side of sky diving, salsa lessons and boozy nights and as a result they were overpriced, under achieving and largely a disappointment. We forked out more than our budget could allow for two weeks in two different schools and while we definitely improved we simply couldn’t afford to do any more.

When we weren’t learning Spanish we were visiting quaint pueblos such as the popular Guatape (just a two hour or less bus ride from Medellin
The incredible view from Guatape’s famous Piedra El Penol (essentially a giant rock that you can climb)

By the time our month long sabbatical drew to a close we’d gotten over our Mexican separation anxiety, conceded that not all the local food was flavourless and fatty (in fact we’d come to seriously love the bakeries) and managed to get a feel for Colombia in general. If Mexico was the equivalent to an all night disco, Colombia was the chilled little bar on a quiet street that closed down at 11pm. It was less intense but also less colourful and while we loved the zest and insanity of our great North American love, we were beginning to see the appeal of its chilled out southern counterpart.

Medellin’s seriously sexy coffee culture is a dream come true for cyclists (particularly those of the snobby Australian persuasion)

We also began to look at the road ahead and with it’s vibrant coffee regions, craggy mountains that run like a jagged spine from north to south and its charming pueblas there was a hell of a lot to look forward to in our very first South American nation.

It was time to saddle up.

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