Part 1: A crash course in mountains
“If everything you’ve done up until now is just a warm up – then South America is the main game. I’m telling you, the mountain climbs there are no bloody joke.”
It was a few months ago, while scoffing down some fish tacos on a malecon in Mexico, that a fellow cyclist had tried to warn us of what awaited from Colombia onwards.
At the time we thought he was having a laugh, or at the very least a bit hysterical. I mean after all (said while puffing chest out) we’d cycled the Pamir Mountains and China’s epic snowy peaks in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture… how bad could South America be?
It took just one day of cycling Colombia’s back roads to have our hypothetical question answered.
Bad. They could be very, very bad.
Your friend … he’s been in an accident! He’s been hit by a car!
After almost six weeks spent learning Spanish, eating “menu del dias” and sipping flat whites in the nation’s second biggest city of Medellin we’d dusted off our bikes, packed up the panniers and prepared to cycle tour south with our British friend Richard in tow feeling nervous, excited and anxious all at once.
Had we known what lay ahead (even just two hours later) we would have been a hell of a lot more nervous.
As it was, we pedalled slowly out of the bowl in which Medellin sits in the centre, crawling slowly uphill until high-rises faded to shacks and shacks faded to rolling hills that looked as though they’d been lifted from a Jurassic Park trailer.
For 20 kilometres we puffed and panted to the top of the climb, stopping only for a bowl of soup at a roadside café before beginning the descent to the nothing town of Bolombolo at the bottom.
But just six kilometres from our destination a young man on a motorbike came whizzing up to us and urgently gestured us to pull over.
“Your friend!” He exclaimed (while pointing back up the climb). “He’s been in an accident, he’s been hit by a car!”
Fear and shock trickled down our spines. We feared the worst and immediately turned our bikes around to cycle back up the 20km slope we’d descended. We’d last seen Richard while snapping some pics of a distant peak on the side of the road and we’d just assumed he’d been taking more happy shots and would eventually catch up…
Before we could so much as cycle 10 metres back up the mountain the kind local raced back up to us and told us it would take us far too long to get back to him by pedal power, and that we should get a lift instead. He quickly began flagging down any car that looked as though it had space for us and 10 minutes later we were bundled up into a pickup and racing back up the pass.
Richard was standing upright but surrounded by ambulance officers when we arrived and after a quick check it turned out there’d been no cars present when he lost control of his bike and careered into a cement barrier. He’d sliced open his elbow, painfully hurt his ribs, suffered road rash and completed warped his front wheel into something resembling a pringle.
The seriously amazing ambulance officers then insisted on taking us all to Bolombolo’s very rustic medical centre (all free of charge) to ensure Richard could get a couple of stitches and a proper check-up.
The day had started with pastries and ended with bloodshed but later that night, as we sat around a dusty table in Bolombolo’s best (read very shit) hotel we reflected it could have been worse. He’d broken his clavicle twice before and the fact he hadn’t achieved a trifecta was unbelievably lucky.
After three days in Bolombolo (which is three days more than anyone should ever spend in Bolombolo) we’d secured Richard a new front wheel for his bike, helped him get his wounds redressed and eventually decided to fare him well for the time being as his body needed more time to recover and we needed to hit the road lest our Colombian visa expire in that godforsaken town.
Richard had either promised to catch us up or take a bus and so we again hit the road south with the plan of taking backroads to the tiny mountain village of Tarso, an easy 26km away.
We’d known going in that the road would be steep (with 1000 metres of climbing in the mix) but what we hadn’t know was just how bad the goat track could be.
It took five painful hours to make it the relatively short distance to tiny Tarso and for 60 per cent of the climb we were forced to push in 50 metre increments. In fact, it wasn’t so much a road, as a collection of rocks hurled down in a haphazard line that even the local farmers took their motorbikes up with painstaking care.
Every metre was a victory and while the views were gorgeous the way remained relentlessly uphill until the very doorstep of our budget hotel.
Already Colombia was a brutal beauty – and it took no prisoners.
From Tarso the road ran another 25km uphill to the magical puebla of Jerico and with Richard taking a bus there to meet us again we figured day three on the road would be somewhat easier – after all, at least it was paved.
Paved yes, but steeper – also yes.
Through winding valleys up around the side of sheer green peaks our narrow little road twisted and turned while oppressive humidity had the sweat streaming down our legs by the litre. At its best, we managed top speeds of 6km per hour, but at its worst, we had two of us pushing just one bike.
The back-breaking climb scarcely relented and by time we wobbled into a scenic campsite on the outskirts of town on sunset I was almost delirious with fatigue. I offered the camp host a vague “Buenos Dias” (good morning) and when she asked us where we were coming from, I simply said: “I don’t know”.
After throwing up the tent a friendly paraglider from Medellin wandered up for a chat and after seeing our devastated faces, invited us to dinner at the campsite restaurant “as my treat”.
I could have kissed him.
Two juicy burgers later we were tucked inside our tent hoping like hell the road from there was somewhat easier. It couldn’t get worse, right?
It was fantastic to meet up with Richard again but in the time since we’d seen him in Bolombolo his road rash on one leg had become infected and was oozing pus while his new front wheel had begun to play up with the spokes hitting the brake caliper.
We took him to the little local hospital where a very aggressive doctor shouted at us and then bandaged him up, before taking his bike back to a tiny hole in the wall shop where a cheerful young mechanic banged around on the wheel for a bit before presenting it as “good as new”.
By 9am the following morning we were back on the road as three tired and somewhat wary amigos with the plan of reaching the popular puebla of Jardin (just 52 kilometres away) that evening.
While another 1000 metre elevation gain awaited, it looked much less steep. And while the first 30km where on dirt, we figured it wouldn’t be that bad.
We were beginning to figure wrong. A lot.
On the outskirts of Jerico the scarcely paved road turned to a narrow path and another five kilometres on the narrow path turned to mud, rock and gravel.
For Richard, every jolt, slide and bump was pure agony on his still bruised body and while the scenery had ramped up another notch on the beauty scale, the price was high.
By noon we’d made it just 20km through mud, slime and boulder as the road danced through coffee plantations, banana trees and lush hillsides. In the distance it seemed the Andes themselves framed the horizon in a postcard perfect picture of wilderness.
After a memorable stop in the village of Buenos Aires (which was sans everything but a dusty old pub) we began what was a mere 16km dirt descent for us, but a bumpy descent to hell for Richard.
By mid-afternoon we’d made it back to pavement and while just 18km remained it was just about all uphill.
The wild gravel road had sapped our legs of the will to live and over the course of three hours a slow ride turned into a crawl and a crawl turned into a push.
The final two kilometres to “majestic Jardin” will no doubt be etched in our memories for all eternity and while the road flattened out enough to jump back on the bikes none of us could face the prospect of turning one more pedal.
After 6.5 hours in the saddle we’d each left nothing in the tank and by time we’d crawled into our room for the night my body was shaking.
If every mountain we’d climbed before was just a warmup then yes, South America looked as though it was set to be the main game.
And what a brutal game it was already proving to be.