With two days ride to go, and one day to do it in, Willie and I opted to take bus into Cartagena. This goes against Mr Extreme's nature, but he knew that after 10 days of serious riding without a full rest day, my parts were wearing out. Hands, wrists, feet, knees ... and it could go without saying, butt... were sorely in need of some time off the bike. We enjoyed some seaside stops and dips in the Caribbean, but we had also been offered the opportunity to stay in a flat while in Cartagena -- an offer we couldn't resist.
So now after a resting and reflecting, I'd like to offer you a list of some of our favorite things. No thread or story or intended priority of importance; merely snippets of life, experience, sightings and tastes that shape our impressions and love for this country. Willie also offers a few of his favorite photos snapped in the last couple of weeks.
To know me is to know I love food. Love thinking about it, preparing it, sampling new things and collecting ideas of food I'll make when we return home. Cycling offers the opportunity to eat as much as we like while still managing to loose weight, what could be better than that?
Food in Colombia is tasty and filling, but not particularly varied. Mostly we have the plate of the day for lunch which consists of rice and red beans, a fried plantain and some sort of meat grilled or in a sauce. Often there is a small salad of a few tomato and onion slices and not much more. So the day we pedaled past a place up in the mountains that was brimming with people and plates and smells that made our heads turn, we turned our bicycles around as well and settled into our most favorite meal of the trip. The cook was a large women with an easy smile who patiently explained our choices. Other diners offered their suggestions and we settled on a plate with chorizo and a mixed fruit salad. We rarely eat chorizo which can be extra greasy and not well seasoned, but this one was different. This one was worth writing home about. The fruit salad was so different than any other salad we've encountered -- an exquisite blend of melon, tomate de arbol (that's tree tomato), apple, pineapple and others I can't name. The sweet and tangy flavors combined perfectly with the salty spice of the sausage creating the perfect bite.
The varied and brilliant bird life in Colombia more than makes up for the general monotony of the food. We need to look up the names of the common birds we see along our route. The yellows, reds, oranges and blues darting in and out of the trees entertain us each day. In a particularly scenic stretch along the grasslands of the coast plains we stopped for a photo op with some white herons when a large flash of brilliant yellow and blue caught my eye. Then it flashed again and again. Not knowing what I was seeing, I pointed it out to Willie who in an instant knew we spotted our first Macaws. Eleven brilliant Macaws were enjoying a coffee clatch at the top of a large tree. We gaped and giggled to see such a site as these endangered species so close. Thankful again for stopping along the road less traveled.
As stopping goes, our spontaneous stop at the cabana along the dusty road on the way into Necocli wins our hearts for favorite beach visit. We also stayed at a magnificent stretch of light sand resorts in Caverñas, but the quiet seclusion of our little hammock and balcony at Rancho Alejo overlooking the cove is more to our liking. It was cozy and intimate without the blaring music of bars and rows of sun bathers. The small family-run getaway also came with the second best meal of fresh fish in coconut sauce. We spent the evening sitting around the table with the family who owned the place making us feel more like friends than paying guests.
On any trip, it's the people we meet who make the strongest impressions. Sometimes we get to spend days with them, like our wonderful stay with Oscar and Mary Anne. Sometimes the encounters are brief but memorable to last a life time. I wrote a little about this earlier, but the spontaneous invitation from Mancho to park our bikes and visit his finca was one such memory. We followed him down the mountain trail to check the cows and deliver lunch to the workers picking coffee. Followed him back up to the bare shack along the road and were treated to a meal of great proportions. The lasting moment to top them all was when Mancho went to the next room, sat on the bed covered with tatored blankets and indicated it was now time to take a siesta.
It's been our great fortune to encounter cloudy days and afternoon showers as we pedaled along the coast. Coming from Seattle where the rain is always cold, I have to say it's pure joy to cycle in warm rain. Getting soaked means cooling off. We've managed to get to roadside bus stops, juice stands, machinery yard overhangs and other protective devices when the skies really pour. Heavy downpours last minutes, while we hope misty rains would last for hours.
Colombia has a great cycling culture and is one of the reasons we were eager to travel this country. We've met plenty of cyclists along the way, pedaled with them as they get in their exercise on shiny sport bikes or commute to work on rusty clunkers. Most dear to our hearts though, is the evening spent in Guaybal (formerly Armero which was destroyed by a volcano mud-slide in the 1980s). Guaybal is in the low river valley between the Oriente and Central range of the Andes, so it was a hot and steaming evening. As the sun went down we strolled main street and then parked ourselves at cafe table sipping something cool. Bikes paraded by in the evening light. School girls cruising with friends, laughing and gossiping. Boys doing stunts and showing off. Elders out for a leisurely coast down the road to say hello to friends. All makes and models cruised past -- more like kids in cars cruise in American towns. To see community life on the streets, out of their cars and on two wheels warmed our hearts.
While not necessarily in the category of favorite things, we have discovered a few surprises along the way.
Billiards (and not pool) appears to be the favorite past time. Nearly every town, villiage or simply where two roads meet sports a billiard hall.
The most common thing for sale in every town, village or casa along the road is minutes. Cell phone minutes. In large cities it's common to see vendors with several phones, sometimes chained to their vest, while callers each on a phone like tentacles on octopus.
We've encountered plenty of military posts along the way, and to a person they have been friendly, courteous, helpful and often interested in knowing what the heck we're doing. It's great fun to list some stops along our route and watch their eyes light up in disbelief and respect. The military posts have secured the roads for all Colombians to travel now. Years prior, traveling between towns was perilous due to FARC activities, so the military is a welcome sight and their friendliness a bonus.
While Zeb hasn't been mentioned much in this blog, he has his own moment of glory he wants to share. Alejo the parrot came to visit us on our balcony by the sea, walking on our arms, carrying on a vibrant conversation, we thought to capture a photo of Zeb with the boisterous bird. Much to our surprise and Zeb's glee, the parrot was scared -- no terrified -- of little Zeb. I had placed Zeb on the railing of the balcony for the photo op, but Alejo would have none of it. Zeb is usually thought as cute and adorable, mostly by young girls, so he felt particularly macho frightening a parrot 3 times his size.
There so much more to love and share about Colombia, but I hope this paints in a few details of our travels here. We've decided to call Bogota to Cartagena one leg of our journey and now bus to an inland city in Venezuela. The road we would need to pedal would be too hot and trafficed by trucks. This weekend also begins Semanta Santa, or Holy Week, when locals hit their favorite vacation spots by the coast.
We watched the relationship between Colombia with great interest over the last couple of weeks, and are relieved that the conflict over the murder of Raul Reyes, a kingpin of FARC, calmed down quickly. The border was closed for a few days and we feared we would need to alter our plans ... and petition for a visa extension.