Did I learn anything at all in Colombia?
It’s been a couple of weeks since we reached the finish line in Locombia 2017. Evaluations submitted by the mission members show the trip was highly successful and there is only a few things we would have done differently.
Biking in Colombia is certainly a thing more people should try out. Those who have followed the journey, have seen us talk fondly about the people and the landscape, and have from the photos probably gathered that the climate is nice and infrastructure makes it uncomplicated to find food, accommodation and bike shops. Yet some advice may cater for an even more comfortable trip, so that if you do choose to follow in our bike tracks, you can focus on getting up those hills and not worry about whether your breakfast will stay down or come up.
Some of these advice may be redundant or even common knowledge to most people. Yet this text is also for us, so that we don’t make the same mistakes on our next trip. Because yes, mistakes were made.
Advice on Colombia
Regarding food, the menu in Colombia is regional. Some dishes, and particularly meat, can be found throughout the country, however. Budget and mid-range restaurants serve the meat very very well done, meaning the texture isn’t very juicy, but at least it’s not a concern when it comes to food poisoining. After a meat-heavy diet for a couple of days, it may be tempting to have some salad. I would, however, avoid uncooked food outside of big cities. Normally eggs of your choice are on offer for breakfast. Try ”pericos” – eggs scrambled with tomato and onion.
Some villages and cities have their specialties, and make sure to try them. These normally stand out from overcooked meat, and can be salty or sweet. Colombians love their sweets.
We have to give another pointer when it comes to food. Colombia has a wide variety of fruits, some of them you won’t see anywhere else. Try them all, both in its natural form and as juice. Our favourite is the granadilla, a sweet sweet passion fruit.
Bring your passport, and as a foreigner, you will get tax exemption for accommodation. Small hotels and hotels in smaller villages or cities do not follow this regime, but it is money to save in bigger cities. The exemption is only on offer at the hotel, and it can’t be claimed at the airport.
Bring cash. Most establishments in Colombia accept credit card, but when you’re going to buy fruit or home-made yoghurt from a street stall, cash is king. Make sure you have those small bills for snacks or souvenirs.
Colombia and biking
Plan ahead and make sure you have an estimate idea of distances and elevation. The distance from A to B may not look too far in terms of distance, but the climb may come as a surprise if you’re not prepared. We used Strava for our planning.
Make sure you have a flexible plan so that you have time to rest if needed. We had to take two unexpected rest days due to stomach problems. You may also want to stay an additional day if you get enamored with a certain place. Or maybe even a certain someone.
Go in December or February. The beginning of the year is summertime in Colombia, and most likely you will be blessed with sunny conditions wherever you choose to go. The odd shower may of course cross your path. If it does, it's almost certain it won't be a light drizzle. Be aware that late December and January is vacation time in Colombia, so it may be crowded in villages and cities popular with tourists.
Make sure to bring a map or a GPS device. There are few road signs in Colombia. We used Google Maps on several occasions.
Try to stick to alternative routes in order to experience some colonial villages. The villages outside the main roads have preserved their authenticity, while those along the main roads tend to be established more recently and offer less in terms of architecture and aesthetics. We visited a couple of colonial-style villages, and there should be much more, particularly along the Magdalena river.
Try to stick to alternative routes to avoid traffic. On a long biketouring or bikepacking trip (whatever is the fashionable term these days), you won’t be able to avoid the main roads altogether. However, there are less-traveled options for parts of your trip. Sticking to these will make the journey so much better.
Bring a light wool sweater and a water-resistant jacket. I’m surprised how much I used my wool sweater. It was very handy when I was sick and had cold fits, and it was very comfortable on cool nights. While Colombia certainly is tropical and during daytime the temperature normally is comfortable, it is also mountainous, and temperature drops at night.
Carry a stick for chasing dogs. The saying goes that dogs that bark don’t bite. I know for a fact that’s not true. I’m working on my ”palo mataperros” - a dog-killing stick – for those of us that can’t count on pure speed and bravery. Patent pending.
Hotels are cheap. Or expensive. You'll find something that fits your budget. Whatever the price you pay, hotels are almost always clean, and almost all have wi-fi. If you want to sleep in a tent, be aware that there is no right to roam in Colombia, so make sure you have permission before you pitch your tent. There are some camping sites, but they may be few and far between.
Don’t take your shoes for granted. Just because your shoes have served you well on short trips, doesn’t mean they’re suitable for longer distances. The shoes you use for riding, are your main shoes for the trip, and they must be comfortable. I can’t stress this point enough, and I’m tempted to highlight this section in bold, underlined, in italics and with a distinct color so that it stands out and I will never forget. You want to try biking in my shoes? I only pass those shoes to my worst enemy.
More cockpit storage space. I had two small bags, one on the top tube and one on the handlebar. Those two were originally intended to contain my camera, my mobile phone and money. During the trip more stuff ended up in the bags, such as a pen, a cloth to wipe my sunglasses, a tripod and a mandarin. Another cockpit bag would have been handy.
Is the frame bag necessary? It wasn’t the revelation that I thought it would be. It’s great for easy access and as storage for the water bladder, but it doesn’t offer much additional storage space. I wouldn’t have wanted to be without it, but thought it would provide storage for bulkier items.
Steel frames rule! Some people may disagree, saying that the weight penalty for a steel frame isn’t worth it. But I don’t think I can ever switch back to another material. Celia felt sturdy and stable going both up and down. And I doubt a kilogram less of weight would have made any difference going up the hills.
Less is more. The rule on packing is you pack everything you intend to pack and then leave a third of it at home. This trip confirms the rule, as I could have brought even less clothes. Of course, Colombia is a tropical country, so packing is simpler. Some observant readers may have noticed that I appear in a yellow T-shirt almost every day. That’s possible if you’re not too fuzzy about cleaning. Footnote: I did actually wash it on numerous occasions.
The next trip is being planned. So many places to roam, so little time.