cycling colombia: the only risk is wanting to stay 

Total Kilometers: 72,861 (45,825 miles)

an odd choice for a slogan

Colombia´s official tourist slogan"Colombia - the only risk is wanting to stay" is the country's official tourism slogan.  Not quite sure what the folks at the tourism board intended with that cryptic message.

Our couchsurfing host assured us that Cartagena, on Colombia´s northern Caribbean coast, was one of the safest cities on the planet.  I wondered if she´d renounced watching TV, reading newspapers and listening to the radio.

Still, we took her advice and cycled out of the safety of the arrivals lounge at Cartagena´s international terminal when the clock was pushing midnight.

Deserted streets, shady characters lurking in the shadows, guys with machetes waiting to pounce on us as we pass, stray dogs howling at the wind?  Nah!

Yummy--Arepas, Colombia´s official street food.Bright lights and bustle.  Busy sidewalk cafés, retirees out for a stroll on the beach, lovers embracing on the ancient city walls, tourists partying on a rooftop disco, street vendors hawking arepas—those deliciously addictive fried cornmeal patties filled with cheese that are a staple of Colombia and Venezuela.

Not much risk that I could see.  Except about wanting to stay.  Cartagena captured us for a full week.  Alright, we were waiting for a parcel that was taking its time to arrive.  But still, Cartagena will lure even the most jaded of cyclo-tourists with its charms.

we play at being rich and famous

A fine way to see the city.Sun-kissed plazas and church steeples jutting into an azure sky, cobbled streets and shiny horse drawn carriages full of happy tourists parading past the trendy boutiques and pricey hotels. 

Colombia´s most visited tourist center has become something of a playground for the rich and famous, those pulling up not a bicycle, but on luxury cruise ships that anchor in the port.

Traditional Dance performance in CartagenaAnd--brace yourselves readers, this will come as a surprise—we—the epitome of shoestring travelers--even had the chance to partake in a little luxurious living.

We dined at Cartagena´s most expensive hotel: the Santa Clara Sofitel, described as, “an architectonic jewel from the 17th Century with luxury service and human warmth.”

We indulged in “refined French cuisine with the latest in fusion dishes from around the world.”
Sushi and some exotic sounding fish on a bed of sautéed mushrooms, a basketful of six types of bread, ceviche and marinated artichokes, shrimp cocktail and dainty petit fours for desert.  Followed by a tiny cupful of aromatic Colombian coffee and a chaser of some odd tasting liquid the server informed me was meant to ‘freshen the mouth.’

A delightful change from our daily arepas at the corner stall.  Thank you Hotel Sofitel for supporting hungry cyclists biking around the world on tiny budgets.

back to shoestring reality

With full tummies we lumbered back to the cheapest hotel in Cartagena—El Pirate-- and switched on the naked bulb above the bed.  As a safety measure, I barricaded the door with the bikes.  There wasn´t a peep from the guests camping outside the door.  Yes, I said camping.  For those not wealthy enough to cough up $10 for a room, in El Pirate you can pitch a tent in the lobby.  Bead stringing hippies and long-haired street musicians slumbered in hammocks and under precariously strung mosquito nets.

It was something of a change from the clientele at the Sofitel.

on the road again

Cycling out of Cartagena5A few days later, we made our way through a tangle of traffic in Cartagena´s suburbs and past the shanty towns of the less fortunate.  A headwind took the fun out of the flat road leading to Baranquilla. 

Soon first world Colombia gave way to third world Colombia.  Mangy dogs barking after buses roaring past in a cloud of dust.  Fly-covered meat dangling from sturdy metal hooks in front of makeshift butcher shops.  Mini-buses careening to pick up passengers with bulging bundles wrapped in tattered blankets.  Tough looking boys pushing hand carts piled high with jerry cans full of water.  Women in tight fighting t-shirts showing off bulging mid-drifts raking up litter from the busy streets.  Roadside restaurants filled with tired-looking men around a plastic table overflowing with empty Aquila beer bottles.  An everywhere blaring Latin music.  Colombians are known for their love of fiestas.

As we pedaled further north, the banana and palm plantations gave way to the swamps of the arid Guajira peninsula. Occasionally we spotted indigenous people, the women in colorful embroidered robes and the men in baggy pajama-like suits. 

we do watch the news

Not much out there on the way to Venezuela.Our chief concern on this stretch of road, after water and food, was finding a safe place to sleep.  The grimy towns with their suffocatingly hot guesthouses were hardly enticing.  We preferred to camp.  This was fenced off cow country and the folks running the ranches were reluctant to let us pitch the tent, always claiming that they needed permission from the owner who was conveniently away in Bogota. 

As the brilliant orange sun started sliding below the horizon one evening were getting desperate.  I thought about the tourist slogan. "Colombia - the only risk is wanting to stay"  

Well maybe, but we do listen to the radio and there are definitely some outlaw, bandit, hostage-taking types roaming the country.  Military checkpoints dotted the road at regular intervals and I hesitated between viewing this as reassuring or as confirmation that this wasn´t a place for foreigners on bikes.

a most unusual place to camp

Camping with the Colombian MilitaryAs a last resort, we knocked on the gate of the local Colombian Army Camp.  A friendly fellow, introducing himself as El Komondante, let us in.  Eric gave him our usual spiel:  we´re harmless passing cyclists in need of a safe spot to pitch our tent.  He´d have to check with El Administrador.  The head honcho, a wild-eyed man who´d obviously spent the afternoon downing a succession of refreshing Aquilas, eyed us with suspicion and muttered something to the effect that we´d bring trouble.

It was pitch dark now and we were in a mess.  Would someone be so heartless as turn us away into the uncertainty of a lonely highway?  We looked pleadingly at our ally, El Komandante.   He understood our predicament and after a little negotiating with El Administrador, it was agreed that we could camp up top with the soldiers on guard duty.
We heaved the bikes over a steep gravel path and pitched the tent on the flattest spot of land, right next to the water tank. This doubled as the bathing and dishwashing area,.  The baby-faced soldiers camped inside an old tank perched further up on an embankment. 

A half dozen guys in camouflage with M-16s slung over their shoulders to keep watch.  Now how´s that for security?
Maybe the Tourism Board got it right after all, the only risk in coming to Colombia is wanting to stay.

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ody keen on cycling in Colombia?  

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