Changes in Colombia
Note: This is 9 Pages of exciting adventures with some BIG news. Print it out on some scratch paper in draft mode & enjoy it slowly.
Photos: Special thanks to Panasonic for the cameras! Check the online pics at:
Kidnappings, murderers and drug dealers. What a bad rap Colombia gets and so VERY unworthy. Deep in our hearts both Cristina and I knew the country was a jewel. Dozens of backpackers heading south spoke of the friendliest people on earth, natural wonders without hoards of tourists and rich cultural experiences. Yes, Cristina and I both had our uncertainties--some of them from our own research but most of them from the rumors and fears of other people. We decided to see the country with our own two eyes, with open hearts and using the latest travel data. As I reflect back on my three weeks in this marvelous country I am so glad we did!
After a blissful month in Ecuador it seemed unlikely any country could top the magical experiences we shared there. With our Christmas holiday break on the horizon Cristina and I decided to b-line right to Cali, Colombia from the Amazon jungle in Ecuador, which turned out to be 2-day bus and bike transport mission. We chose Cali due to its international reputation as the Salsa music and dance capital of the world. Cristina is a nut for Salsa and I’m admittedly a total rookie but with a passion to learn the challenging yet super fun steps. I have had a fear of partner dancing all my life and was (and still am) determined to get over it.
A friend of a friend of Cristina named Nicole was our first point of contact in Cali, who is a Swiss musician playing with the Cali philharmonic orchestra. She was a goldmine of great musical contacts and a smiling gem of a first contact. From there we were picked up late that first evening by our Couchsurfing host and fellow cycling enthusiast Roberto. We immediately felt at home with his brother Ricardo and parents Olga and Roberto.
Our first line of business was diving into the salsa sensation by booking a lesson with one a world class teacher. Before we got started I had him give Cristina a test drive to see a master in action and, wow, this guy could move. We caught the action on the camera and you can see it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kHGm6qA1kc. When my lesson came it started with the very basic steps and we moved right into all sorts of turns and advanced moves until my Gringo self finally got so confused and frustrated I almost quit. But I hung in there and received an awakening reality check during my crash course—salsa is NOT easy. But I’m up for a challenge and still working on it!
Cristina and I really enjoyed Cali and were in no big hurry to leave. Our planned 3-day stay turned into five as it seemed every day we had some amazing opportunity to connect with the locals, dive into the culture or explore the surrounding natural wonders. Roberto and Ricardo took us out salsa dancing where I was able to experience just how far I have to go to learn how to dance those complicated steps. Our desire to explore led us to a world class samba band who gave us front row filming seats to experience and share the African rhythms that come from the pacific coast of Colombia. Roberto took me on a grueling yet beautiful ride from Cali to the fresh jungle terrain almost 3,000 vertical feet up the city. Finally we were blessed to meet just the right people who styled us out with free entrances and filming rights to the opening night of one of the world’s best salsa shows Delirio. Life was good in Cali!
There are dozens of great moments we experienced in Cali but I’ll share just my very favorite with you now—a real classic! On the morning Roberto and I were planning head out mountain biking I was up early and excited to ride. But I saw no sign of Roberto and I assumed the lazy bum was still in bed. So I went up to his room and peeked into his door to see his body under the covers. I gave a friendly reminder, “Roberto, vamanos! Levantete ya!” But nothing, no movement. “Venga, Ya!” I raised my voice. Nothing. I finally reached out and grabbed his foot and started shaking him over and over until finally, to my surprise, his MOTHER Olga turns over in terror as she is rudely awoken from her sleep! Yikes! I was in the wrong room! Roberto’s room was on the other side of the house and he was up and getting ready! Doh! Luckily, Olga was a good sport and we all got a huge chuckle out of it in the end.
The road was finally calling and we set our course for a 500km adventure to Medellín. From Medellín we had purchased tickets to fly to San Andres Island where we planned to take a boat to the tropical paradise of Providncia Island, Colombia. This island adventure would be our reward and grand finale of our 5-country adventure together before she headed off to Spain and me to USA to see our families for the holidays.
After a nice breakfast and long goodbyes to Roberto, Ricardo and Olga and pedaled off in the afternoon sun headed north towards Palmira. Palmira was our planned lunch stop, just 25km north of Cali. A Peace Pedalers volunteer named Micaela, whom I have never met personally, had been in communication with me about her upcoming trip to Africa to support our Good Hope Schools in Uganda and Rwanda. When she heard I was in Cali she sent the names of her father’s wife Gloria’s mother Maria Zoila and family who lived in Palmira to perhaps meet and have lunch. I gave them a ring and they were all excited to have us. Gotta love the adventures of traveling free!
Cristina was riding super slow this hot Saturday and neither of us knew why at the time. She said she felt heavy and weak, so our short trip to Palmira took much longer than planned. By the time we arrived we were pedaling into a stiff headwind that was threatening rain. We were escorted by Maria Zoila’s smiling son John Jairo and his sister Patricia by motorcycle the final kilometers to their house. We had no clue what was in store for us but we were happy to be out of the heavy wind and Cristina happy to be off the bike.
Maria Zoila is a charming gem of a woman and she and her family made us feel right at home. We enjoyed a lovely lunch and the family was encouraging us to stay the night due to the rain and time of day. It was an easy decision to make and before we knew it we were fed, showered up and ready to hit the town for some dancing with John Jairo, Patricia & her husband. It’s always a treat to go out with the locals as they know just where to go, how much to pay and it was a special night of grooving and chatting with our new friends.
As if this was not enough to keep us grinning, John Jairo was free the next day and was up for an 80km adventure to Tulúa! John loves riding and was so psyched for the adventure. Cristina was still feeling weak so we took all her weight so she could keep up. But even with an unloaded bike she was struggling to keep up with the firing Binks n John Jairo duo. This mysterious loss of energy was frustrating Cristina, who is normally right on our tail with a full load. John Jairo and I had some great chats, ran the cameras and shot some great stuff on our first 40km ride to Buga where our friend Juan Carlos from Cali was waiting to hop on for a pedal.
I met Juan Carlos back in Cali and he shared with me his dream to do a 30,000km ride of South America in 2010. He had been working hard, saving, looking for sponsors and was eager to brainstorm with me on further ideas to launch a successful Eco-Expedition. Juan Carlos trusted our friend but, to him, a total stranger John Jairo to pilot his motorcycle to Tulúa while Juan Carlos and I got our pedal time together. On the bike and after our ride we were able to really dig into his dream, his purpose and what his major objectives were for his trip. We offered to help him launch his first website and identity for his trip called “Eco Ciclistas”, and he is now live and on the final steps of his planning stages. Check it out at www.ecociclistas.org.
In Tulúa we were greeted by one of John Jairo’s friend and Tulúa native named Tatiana who became our guide to the city. Juan Carlos headed back to Cali to work a double shift to keep cranking cash into his bank account. He was beyond grateful for our time together and our support for his dream. We are still in touch to this day and we’re all excited to see him make it happen. Tatiana informed us of the fact that the entire city of Tulúa was going to be watching the championship soccer game and, if Tulúa won, that the entire town would go crazy. Soccer is serious business in Latin America and this match would determine whether the small town of Tulúa’s team would become professional or not.
As we rode into town the roads were completely empty. We had the town to ourselves. We landed a cheap hotel room and invited John Jairo to stay the night. His face lit up like a little boy and our room just happened to have an extra bed so we were all grinnin’ big time. We admittedly were not watching the game but knew that if Tulúa won we would hear the roar and if they lost would feel the pain. Just as we finished our shower John and I heard the horns, screams, hoots n hollers from every direction and we knew the result right away—Tulúa was now a professional soccer club.
John and I headed out to join in on the celebrations—hoards of screaming and crying fans packed into cars and paraded into the streets. We did some filming but forgot to take pictures so you’ll have to wait for the show to feel the madness. Live music was starting as the fans tossed handfuls of flour in every direction until everyone was covered in white. We were grateful to share the celebrations but dodging the flour and drunk motorists got old after a while as we made our way to a huge pizza meal to feed our hungry bodies.
The next day John wanted to pedal one more day with us another 80+km to the town of Cartago. Cristina’s fatigue continued to frustrate her so we decided to put her on my bike after our first kilometers and load up John on Cristina’s bike. It was just what we needed to keep our pace up and we had a lovely morning pedal until the afternoon heat became almost unbearable. We were led to a pool-bar combo in a small village to catch some shade and lower our body temperatures during the peak afternoon hours. It was just what the doctor ordered—cool pool, friendly locals and tons of shade.
After a few too many shots of Aguardiente forced down by our friendly bar mates we remounted our steeds for a late afternoon pedal into the town of Cartago. Cristina and I had some long conversations and decided to run the cameras to discuss a few touchy topics we had been working on in our friendship. Cartago was John Jairo’s last stop as he had a job interview the next day that was landed while on the bike with us. We found a another cheap hotel room and sent John back smiling with a custom made T-shirt, Peace Pedalers socks and some new pedals for his bike. (My guest pedals mysteriously disappeared en route to Palmira. We used John’s for our adventure and sent him home with a new set while keeping his on the bike in memory of our great times together).
Roberto was planning to meet us in Cartago and adventure with us up to Medellín but we all needed an extra day. Cartago became a rest stop for Cristina and me after three days of pedaling and filming from Cali. After a long night’s sleep we woke up on December 1, 2009 to start a day that neither Cristina nor I will ever forget. Cristina was a few days late on her menstruation and, although we were quite safe during our infrequent intimate moments together, we decided to be sure and bought a pregnancy test kit at the pharmacy.
Cristina came out of the bathroom looking a bit confused. The test should show two lines if you are pregnant and one if you are not. What I saw was one and a light second line. She saw two but still was not 100% sure. The only way to know for sure was to get a blood test so we headed down to the local Red Cross and were told to come back in three hours. They were some of the longest three hours in our lives. We tried to distract ourselves by going shopping, heading to lunch and strolling around in Cartago’s stifling heat. Finally the moment came and the nurse handed us a folded piece of paper with a sweet yet slightly disturbing smile. We sat down and read the results: POSITIVO. Cristina was pregnant.
“FELICITACIONES” or “Congratulations”, says the nurse in Spanish. For me, my first reaction was shock. For Cristina, a worried look and a small tear. We decided to take a walk as the sun set and pray for guidance on what to do next. After a long walk and some deep conversations we decided that a few days apart to think, meditation and pray would do us both good. Cristina planned to head directly to Medellín the next day by bus as Roberto and I did our 3-day ride north. We decided to let the answers come to us over time and ended up watching movies that night in peace, knowing that the next steps would reveal themselves.
The next morning Cristina caught a bus to Medellín just as Roberto and I pedaled up our first of many hills into Colombia’s coffee country. Our hot late start made the climbs pretty brutal and Roberto was battling a nasty stomach flu so he was not running on all cylinders. I used the tough climbs as a time of mediation to ask for guidance on my current situation. So many thoughts were rushing in—“how could I be a good father from the USA when she is in Spain?”, “How can I afford the expenses without a real career path in place?” just to name a few.
Just as we stopped to catch our breath and grab a drink I received a call from a man named Marcin from Switzerland who works with a friend Dariusz who I met skiing in Chile. Dariusz is a highly successful business owner who expressed interest in financing my film and TV production after he saw a sample episode I presented during a snowed in day in Portillo, Chile. I had sent an email to him to test his level of seriousness and he informed me that he was still very serious and his lawyer Marcin would be calling me. So there I was, on the side of the road, talking big numbers with a Swiss lawyer just seconds after having these thoughts. Hummmmmm.
We got back on the road and something inside me felt lighter. I felt I could simply trust that I would continue to be okay and the right path and opportunities would reveal themselves. We hit the summit of our first major climb and headed onto a smaller back road that I spotted on the map. We turned on some Salsa music from Cali and were crankin’ away in the early afternoon heat feeling great!
We stopped for a huge meal and Roberto was excited to be able to eat a full meal with his sour stomach. I had a divine meal of fresh trout with shrimps and melted cheese cooked in aluminum foil that was to die for . We hit the road in the late afternoon sun and I shared my vision with Roberto to find us a sweet pad with some friendly Colombians to test out the rumor that folks in this region of the valley were the friendliest in the entire country, and perhaps the world. Several other travelers and locals alike raved about the openness, trust and willingness to help travelers so I wanted to put it to the test.
The plan was not only to put it to the test but to document it in a fun, entertaining and soulful way. So we ran the cameras and began our search for a place to call home for the night. We talked about the negative press that Colombia has received as a no-go zone for tourists due to the risks of kidnappings, murders and drug wars. Although it is true that Colombia has had a rough recent past, the real truth is that those days are long gone and the country is a gem for travelers who dare to seek the truth and see it for themselves. Every day I rode, each kilometer that passed, I became more and more grateful for our decision to travel in Colombia.
As the sun was setting and the light just right as we made a few gentle turns on a mild decent through a small rural town. I spotted an adorable house right on the river and a man down below working on the farm. This was it, I just knew it. We stopped the bike and waved the man up with a smile. He came up to the gate led by two barking dogs with a huge smile on his face. I shared a bit about Peace Pedalers and our desire to share a slice of life with him and his wife and, in about 2.6 seconds, his face lit up and he opened up the gate with a “Claro que si!”…”of course!”. So far our trial run of Colombian hospitality was off to a great start.
I could write ten pages on our stay with Julio and Irma. From the moment we entered their heavenly property on the river we were on a blissful cloud. Pictures are worth a thousand words so check the album. I’ll give you a summary of our experience in just one long paragraph and you can use your imagination to fill in the blanks. It goes a bit like this…
A super duper open, caring and cool elderly couple Julio and Irma have never had a stranger come up and ask them to stay the night. They are stoked. Every move we make is on their radar to make sure we are comfortable, experiencing the best of their precious land, and having fun. Here’s some of the highlights: Both of them are eager to be part of my filming efforts and share their life experiences, culture and special spots on the river with hundreds of birds living right in front, brilliant sunrises and sunsets from their miranda, lovely home cooked meals made from ingredients from their farm, deep conversations about topics most people would steer far from until their knew you very well, a perfect night sleep with the sound of the river under a full moon with my bro Roberto, the dogs finally opening up to me and letting me pet them, a smiling wakeup call by Julio and guidance to more unique experiences, the world’s best café latte with Colombian home roasted coffee and fresh milk still warm from the cow, a beautiful breakfast, long interview and an enthusiastic sendoff into coffee country. It’s true what they say about the Colombians in this region, and no doubt all over the country, they are amazing!
So we got a late start due to a gorgeous riverside breakfast and from their house it was pure climbing to move from sugar cane country to coffee country. We hammered the pedals until the midday sun became unbearable with relentless climbs that kept our pace super slow. We finally gave in and hitched a ride up to the town of Anserma where we would continue our journey through the rolling hills. We passed dozens of coffee ranches with breathtaking views that went for miles. The scenery is pure bliss and the roads in excellent condition.
I stopped to shoot a clip and met some coffee pickers who invited us up to get close to the action. Through the dirty, worn hands of career coffee pickers were the bright coffee beans fresh from the branches. They showed us the whole coffee process including picking, peeling, cleaning, roasting and, of course, brewing and enjoying it. It was the very best coffee I’ve every consumed. The secret, they say, and I agree, is to brew the coffee with agua de panella. Panella is a sweet sugar-like product that comes in a huge brick from the sugar making process and many Colombians drink agua de panella on a regular basis as a sweet treat. When you brew the world’s finest coffee with this yummy water you get a perfectly sweet cup of perfection. And add to this drinking it with the people who grew, picked and prepared it in Colombia and you have the ingredients for a happy Binks n Roberto.
We lost track of time out taking pictures, filming, meeting the locals and riding and ended up above coffee country in the higher altitude region. Here it’s more typical to grow things like raspberries and hearty fruits and animals that can handle the cold. It started getting dark and, although we wanted to stay the night on a coffee ranch, we were led to an adorable couple Herman and Janet who was out in front of their house with huge bins of freshly picked raspberries. Their two beautiful children Olga and Yensi had just helped pick and we stopped by to sample their goods and share our intentions to stay the night on their land. They were a bit more hesitant than Julio in opening up their home, perhaps due to the fact that we were two strange men and they have two beautiful teenage daughters. I don’t care how cool you are, you are going to think twice before letting two sweaty strangers in your house.
But after a nice chat in front of their house they eventually warmed up to the idea and soon let us in to join their family in a typical evening at 2,400 meters above sea level. We were led to a shelter to set up our tent with Olga and Yensi’s assistance, followed by a cold shower as the sun set over their raspberries and trees. Janet cooked up a huge meal for us and we spent the evening laughing as we shared photos of our unique life adventures cuddled up on their couch—mine riding around the world and theirs getting married, having two kids and taking local trips in Colombia.
The next morning we had an early wakeup call to dozens of cows being milked below our shelter. Again, it was a fresh milk latte to start the day and a fresh egg breakfast to fuel up for our last day of our cycling adventure together. I was eager to reconnect with Cristina and her friend JJ, a fellow Bay Area vagabond, who was also in Medellín. We bid our farewells to our new friends and pedaled our way north. Unlike the day before, which was almost pure climbing, today we were going to be doing mostly descending as we made our way to Rio Sucio through the coffee country, back down to sugar country to La Pintada.
From La Pintada up to the summit it’s a brutal climb of about 1800 meters just a few dozen kilometers. Even for an unloaded cyclist on a light bike it would be a feat to climb. We opted to take some transport to gain some elevation and finally hit the long descent down to Medellín, with exception to a few tough climbs. All in all, it was an awesome day in the saddle with tons of variety of terrain, scenery, conversations and plenty of hair-raising adrenaline as we burned through brake pads at mach speed.
Medellín was hopping with rush hour traffic when we arrived and struggled to navigate the train tandem through the tight congestion. After over an hour of sweating, swearing and sniffing smog we made it to a new Oasis in Medellín called Ram Hostel. Usually a cheap hostel is pretty basic and run down. But this place was brand new and had a pool, posh facilities, WIFI and the best location in Medellín in Posadas barrio. I jumped right in the pool to cool off and reconnected with Cristina and her friend JJ to share our 3-day adventure to from Cartago to Medellín.
We spent the next few days cooking, eating and enjoying the Medellín nightlife. Cristina and I were excited to get out to the island of Providencia to have time to talk away from all the buzz of the city. The day finally came and we decided to bring just my bike and leave hers in Medellín. We figured we could rent a bike for a few days to go out exploring and filming. We caught our flight to San Andres and treated ourselves to a nice oceanfront hotel with plans to hop off the touristy island to Providencia the next day.
Our plans to hit Providencia were delayed by the fact that the Catamaran does not run every day so we had to wait 2 days to catch the next one. So we hit the south of San Andres with hopes to catch some waves and find some solitude. We struck out on the waves but found a very chill place called the Sunset Lodge where the owners hooked us up with a sweet pad for a few nights. I decided to use the time to work on a mini-business plan our potential investors in our film and TV project were waiting for to free up my time and attention 100% when we landed in Providencia. I was able to put a 13-page document together in 2 days and send it off to Switzerland. Say your prayers for us!
So we finally hopped our Catamaran, called The Sensation, with high hopes to for a relaxing 3-hour cruise to Providencia. Nothing could have prepared us for what was in store. Once we left the protected coral reef protection of San Andres this 40 foot catamaran became the most hair-raising boat ride I’ve ever been on, by far. For three white knuckle hours we were tossed around like a rag doll on the big open ocean as the pilots cranked the engines to keep the pace up. People were tossing their cookies and several simply passed out from sea sickness. If you decide to go by boat to Providencia, be ready for several hours of borderline hell.
We finally touched the charming island and fell in love with it right away. With only 6,000 people living on it and one road it was just what we were after. Our plan was to ride about 2-3 days and relax about 2-3 days. But God had other plans for us. Just as we made our first pedal strokes we had a hill to climb so I shifted into the lowest gear. But as I did we heard the most evil loud snapping noise and the rear derailleur entered the spokes and we snapped it in half! There is no bike shop on the island and the only hope was to go back by cataman and get a new one. Not! We took it as a sign to get off the bike, put away the cameras and just BE. Be on the island, be together to connect and be present.
So that’s what we did. We left the bike and most of the camera gear with a lovely woman Mayo who runs a small B&B. We took just our camping gear, flip flops, sunscreen and the bare essentials. We were traditional backpackers for the first time in many months. And it felt great. We hoped some local transport to the one beach everyone recommended for camping called Manzanillo Bay. When we got there we knew just why—it was bliss. No hotels, just one roots n reggae restaurant/bar, pure tropical paradise. And we had the place to ourselves.
This beach was our home for five blissful days. We set up a tent under the coconut trees where we could hear the ocean, see the stars, skinny dip, lay in the sun, hammock, read, nap, do yoga, meditate and, most importantly, talk. The pregnancy was a huge surprise to us both and mixed emotions were flowing pretty strong. The connection to nature was a great help and brought plenty of peace to us both during the process. We decided to wait until the 14th of December to make any final decisions and just be with different scenarios.
On the 14th we hiked to the peak of the island and, without a shadow of a doubt, we both agreed that we are not going to deny the gift that has presented itself and defied all odds and protective measures to come into our lives. It’s too early to say anything now, but if all goes as we envision, we’ll have a baby in Barcelona in summer 2010, just about when my ride finishes. That’s all I’m willing to share with the world right now—our shared commitment to be excellent parents while still living our unique lifestyles. My Live Big, Give Big philosophy will carry on into the next phase my life as a father :)
Our trip to Providencia was pure bliss. The photos should speak a thousand words and I’m all out of them right now here at 37,000 feet. We’ll be descending soon into Miami. Providencia is one of the last true island paradises so go there before it changes is all I have to say. After the islands we made our way back to Medellín where we had plenty of work to do getting both bikes and all our gear organized and ready to travel to Spain and USA. Not to mention, a list of other tasks like launching the website for our Colombian charity project “Eco Ciclistas” (www.ecociclistas.org). The friendly folks at RAM Hostel gave Cris and I a free upgrade to a poolside suite so we were super comfortable, sleeping to the sound of a peaceful river every night, almost forgetting we were in one of Latin America’s largest cities. Check them out if you go to Medellín at www.ramhostal.com.
It’s hard to believe my South American Peace Pedaling adventures are over. I could not have asked for a more fulfilling and rewarding nine-country expedition. I look back on my three months living, writing and surfing in Brazil and smile. Then adventuring through Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia until my broken bike frame grounded me in Chile skiing the Andres for three weeks with Portillo. Then Cristina joining the trip up to Colombia through Peru, Ecuador where the biggest gift of the expedition so far has come our way—a baby.
This trip back to USA will likely have a different focus and intention than previous journeys. With my book proposal getting nibbles in New York and the film projects turning some heads I’ll be doing my best to move them all through fruition and prepare for a smooth landing into the next phase of life after the wheels of the tandem stop turning. But even if they don’t, I’ll never regret embarking on this grand adventure.
Say your prayers for us! It’s a very exciting and pivotal time for many people and the Peace Pedalers project. Thanks!
Live Big. Give Big. Love Big.
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