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Cartagena, Colombia to Bucaramanga, Colombia

posted Jun 19, 2010, 8:23 AM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Jul 7, 2010, 3:36 PM ]
Hola a todos! (Hi everybody!)

I'm trying to get back on track with my blog posts. This one will cover 8 days of riding from Cartagena to Bucaramanga, and I'll try to get some of Central America blogged when and if I have the time.

After getting off the last of three boats between Portobelo, Panama and Turbo, Colombia, I got on a bus with some of the other people from the Darien Gapster who were also headed for Cartagena. Cycling from Turbo to Cartagena would have taken about 6 days, roughly heading north, and I was only interested in getting south to the Andes, but I didn't want to miss Cartagena, which is known for it's beautiful colonial architecture. Before reaching Cartagena, we had ridden on three different buses, and luckily my bike arrived unscathed.

I had some things to do in town, including the ongoing search for replacement shift levers, and I wanted to send some unused things home to cut back on some of the bulk and weight I had been carrying. Unfortunately our first day there was a Sunday, and Monday was a holiday, so I wasn't able to do anything very productive on those days. Instead I worked on my notes for Central America, did some route planning, walked around town, and struggled to find some good food to eat. I was surprised that in a city like Cartagena, there weren't more appealing restaurants. Most food is fried, so fried chicken is easy to come by, as well as pockets or balls of fried dough containing meat, rice and eggs. 

On Tuesday I found a DHL Express, and they would have charged me over $100 to send my stuff home. The "stuff", by the way, included backup DVDs of my pictures, my maps of Central America, a Spanish book, a camera lens, my old iPod, a solar charger that I've always liked the idea of, but haven't really used, and a small backpack that was replaced by a larger "overnight" hiking backpack that I bought in Panama City and plan to use on some hikes in the Andes. Additionally, I'll be getting rid of my second hammock (when will I learn?), a foam pad for sitting on (nice, light, but a little bulky), and the tripod for my camera, since I haven't used it since California. All this will save me about 6 pounds. So anyway, it wasn't worth $100 for me to get rid of the stuff right away, so I decided to carry it a little farther and try sending it again in Bucaramanga. 

I did manage to find a bike shop though, and while they didn't have the shift levers I needed, they were able to get them working reasonably well with some oil and a mystery liquid in a syringe. While I was there I had them change my middle chainring, which I think I had used since Jasper, Alberta in Canada. When I got back to the hostel I finished the remainder of the work myself - a new cassette that I've had since Cancun, a new chain, and new break pads. After all that my bike was in pretty good shape, but I'll still need to replace my shift levers at some point, my cables will need to be replaced, and I'll need some new handlebar tape, since mine got damaged on the boats/buses.

I had planned to head out on Wednesday, but I woke up to rain and a thunderstorm and decided to hang around one more day.

On Thursday I was finally back on the road. I had decided to head down the eastern route through Colombia, which would take me through some nice, small colonial towns, some beautiful parts of the Andes, and some cities including Bucaramanga and Bogota. By the way, the other three bikers went right to Medellin from Turbo, missing Cartagena, and opting for the western route through Colombia.

It was about a 70 mile day from Cartagena to Puerto Colombia, and considering that it was pretty flat, it felt like a longer day than I was expecting. Since I had only ridden one day out of the last two weeks though, this shouldn't have surprised me. Along the way, there was the "Volcan Totumo", a mud volcano that is about 45 feet high. The volcano is surrounded by snack and drink stands and buses that bring people from Cartagena. If a person is so inclined, they can pay a small fee to go swimming in the mud. Since I get dirty every day for free, I decided I'd just watch the other travelers and quietly laugh to myself.

There was a pretty heavy rainstorm with some thunder later in the afternoon. The temperature of the air and rain were just right, and it was actually pretty refreshing. While I was in Cartagena, I did a quick search for hostels in Puerto Colombia and since one of the search results led me to believe there was one, I didn't look into it any further. When I got to town I had a pretty hard time finding it, and I'd later find out that the hostel I was expecting to be there was in Puerto Colombia VENEZUELA. Oh well, should have looked into it some more. I ended up staying at a hotel for $10, which was run by an American expat, whose mother had built the hotel in the 30s. I walked around town briefly before getting dinner and saw the pretty shabby looking beach and pier.

On Friday I rode to the town of Cienaga, which was where I'd get on route 45 and head south into the rest of Colombia. I wanted to avoid the city of Barranquilla along the way, which my "Lonely Planet" travel guide describes as "one long, intensely hot, traffic jam hemmed in by heavy industry and Caribbean swamps". Awesome. The road I took around it had it's fair share of traffic, and the road construction and mud didn't help my progress much. After getting through that, it was only a land bridge between the Caribbean and the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta, a big, swampy marsh. It was a pretty enjoyable ride. A few times, there were nice views of the ocean, and the traffic wasn't too bad. It was very tempting to go swimming in the ocean once or twice, but I resisted the urge. I felt like I was climbing slightly throughout this section, which must have been because of the wind, since the road was right on the water the whole time. A note for the people behind me who may be reading this - there is NO food or water along the straight, so make sure you're prepared. 

Cienaga was a busy little city with a population of over 100,000. I still really enjoy seeing all the commotion of places like this. I ended up staying at the first hotel I found, which cost 12,000 Colombia Pesos, or just about $6 US. There were a bunch of bike shops in town, and I went to at least 5 looking for shift levers. One had downtube shifters which surprised me, but none had the bar-end shifters I needed. 

The next day was about 75 miles to El Copey, a little truck stop town just north of Bosconia. Like the previous days, the temperature according to my thermometer never climbed above 80 degrees F, but by the end of this section, since it had never changed I was convinced that it had stopped working. Today was my first day on route 45 and it turned out to be a really nice road. The pavement is new and in good condition, there is a wide shoulder, trees arching over the road and farms with banana trees, palm trees and grazing cows. Half way through the day, I crossed the clean-looking Arataca river and went in for a quick swim. It was great - very refreshing. I stopped at a road-side restaurant for lunch and like the day before, they didn't understand me when I asked for "la carta" (the menu). Finally they pointed to a sign in the eating area, which at the top said "Menu". D'oh! I guess I'll need to learn the new names for everything in Colombia. I found another hotel for $6. It had cable TV and I watched the movie "The Game" until about 10PM. 

On Sunday I rode to the town of Curumani, another 75ish mile day. I was still on route 45 which stayed mostly flat. There weren't many towns, just truck and bus stops, and not many homes. Along the road there was mostly pasture. Like so many other times, I was lured in by a hotel with a pool, but I didn't end up swimming. There was a fiesta happening, so there was a DJ playing loud music, and lots of young people dancing and drinking. The hotel told me that it would be over by 7PM, but after the DJ there was a band that played until 8:30. Could have been worse. When I asked where I could set up my stove, they told me I could use the kitchen in the restaurant. I made a big pot of pasta, canned vegetables and tuna, which I thought would be too much, but after the long day I had no trouble finishing it. There are a lot of toll booths and security checkpoints in Colombia. At the last security checkpoint before town, I asked someone how much farther it would be. It was long enough that I decided to get a drink at the food stand across the road, so he came over and we chatted briefly. Music is big in Colombia, just like all of Latin America, and when a song he liked came up, he started drumming on the automatic rifle that was resting on his lap. Luckily, the song didn't have a drum solo.

Monday was another 70+ mile day and my legs were feeling the effects of the long days I had been riding. They weren't sore, but I just felt weaker than the day before. The road was pretty much the same today, and as usual, a few times today I talked to some local people when I stopped for drinks and snacks. I'm definitely getting to utilize my Spanish more now that I'm travelling alone, but I'm still struggling with all the different accents and dialects I'm finding along the way. For the first time in Colombia, there was a pretty big climb just before town. First the road dropped into a valley, then climbed back out again, probably to higher than it had started, then dropped down again into town. Again I stayed at a hotel with a pool (there were about 6 I think), and I paid a whopping $12.50. The cheapest hotels were about $10 so I thought getting to swim was worth $2.50. I didn't end up swimming though, and the small pools that I thought were hot tubs were filled with cold water. I got a pretty good pizza across the street of the hotel. The restaurant was one of many along the road, which had a wide sidewalk for pedestrians and bicycles. I never got a good feel for the layout of the town, but the population was about 100,000, so there was definitely more to it than what I saw. 

I got a pretty late start on Tuesday, and since it was only 50 miles, it seemed incredibly easy compared to the previous days. The road was flat, and I only had to stop once for a break. Actually, I did stop a second time but someone there told me the town was just about 1.5k up the road. San Alberto was my destination for the day, and its right at the foot of the Andes. My plan was to just get that far, then start climbing the next day. It was good that it was a short day for another reason too. Toward the beginning of the day my front shifter started acting up. I stopped to adjust it, but it just wasn't working right and I couldn't figure out what was going on. Finally I stopped again and saw that my shifter cable housing had completely imploded. My handlebar bag had worn away the plastic casing, letting the metal strands inside rust. They couldn't take all the pressure from the cable and the casing had almost folded in half. Hard to explain, but there will be pictures... :) I carry spare parts and tools for just about everything, and it ended up not taking too long to replace the broken section of cable housing. San Alberto has a population of about 20,000, and had at least three nice looking hotels. The first two were a little expensive (one even had a pool but I wasn't going to make that mistake again), so I finally went for a place that cost about $11. I was shocked to find out the shower had HOT water - I can't remember the time I had anything other than luke-warm water that usually comes from a heated shower head, but even those have been extremely rare lately. The hot water didn't last long though, and I figured it must have just been sitting in a pipe on the roof all day being heated by the sun. Well, it was good while it lasted. 

The next day I got to the Andes! The first climb started very soon after San Alberto. It was a very hot and humid day, and reminded me of most of the days in Central America. I think I counted 4 big climbs in the first 30 miles, and when I got to a hotel/restaurant at a little past 3:30, I decided to call it a day. The views were really incredible right from the start. Since I'm only at the foot of the Andes, there are no exposed rocks on the mountains - they're still covered by grass and other vegetation, and there are usually cows grazing on the slopes. 

Since I had only ridden about 30 miles on Wednesday, I had another 20 miles or so to do on Thursday to get to Bucaramanga. I'm glad I didn't try to do it all in one day, because there were FOUR MORE big climbs, the last of which ends right in the city. It was another hot day and 20 miles was plenty. 

So far in Colombia I've found the people I've spoken to to be very patient and courteous. Everyone is referred to as Senor, or Senora, so when a person doesn't understand me in a small town, I'm used to hearing "Senor?". As usual, in the larger towns like Bucaramanga, I can understand people and they can understand me, so it's just something I'll have to get used to. There have been a number of people who won't wave, or say anything if I pass and say "Hola!", and some people will just stare without saying anything. I've read about other people having similar experiences, so it's not unique to me. 

I took yesterday off in Bucaramanga, did the usual search for shift levers (which I found finally, but only for 10 speed cassettes), sent my stuff home finally, and ate a lot of good food. Bucaramanga is a pretty modern city with 10 colleges and over 600,000 people. The main road is Calle 33, which has restaurants with whatever food a person might want. I'm taking advantage of them all at eating very well. :) 

Today I've been typing this blog entry, and later today I MIGHT head to a little town named Giron, just 6 miles down the road. After that I'll be heading to San Gil, where I might take another day or two off to explore the area before heading through the Andes to Bogota. I haven't decided on which route to take yet, but the scenery is supposed to be fantastic everywhere, and there are a number of small colonial towns and parks to see along the way. 

Hasta luego!

OK, not a very good profile... It was pretty flat before the last two days.
Start: Cartagena
Lines at:
1: Puerto Colombia
2: Cienaga
3: El Copey
4: Curumani
5: Aguachica
6: San Alberto
7: Truck Stop
Finish: Bucaramanga