Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cycling South America Style

September 2nd to 4th

At last we get to turn some wheels on South American soil!

We leave Cartegena under heavy skies, heavier rain and waterlogged roads. Diesel from the buses makes the road slick and their driving makes progress increasingly treacherous. In one place I am forced off the road and my tyres slide out from under me on a steep edge of Tarmac. I am only prevented from crashing into the road by bouncing off the side of the bus - much to the amusement of it's passengers. Welcome to driving South America style!

Things calm down a couple of miles out of town and thankfully the rains clear as well. It's just incredible how quickly standing water steams and boils back into the sky - the roads are clear again in an hour...

The countryside either side of the road however, is totally waterlogged. Being totally flat, the land cannot drain and fields are flooded throughout the rainy season....

It's an aquatic environment perfect for amphibians and pools of water sing a chorus of 'ribbits' and croaks. It's a musical ride. We stop frequently to try and spot frogs on the lilly pad that carpet the water's surface but they are shy and 'plop' into the water as we approach. The only ones we do see are on the road, confused and slowly baking in the 90+ degree temperatures. Sue turns animal rescue and carries them to safety in roadside pools....

Making sure to rinse hands afterwards as many species are poisonous. It's a crispy fate that awaits the ones not so lucky to be rescued....

The road flirts with the Caribbean Coast and for the first 30 miles or so we get brief glimpses of the sea and some welcome cooling breezes. After that it becomes straight, flat, a bit boring and very very hot. Along with the sound of frogs calling, the air buzzes with a million butterflies and giant dragonflies. Despite the watery world, it is a surprise to ride past huge cacti, the like of which we haven't seen since Mexico. It is a testament to the extreme environment here where the rains disappear for four months, the land turns to dust and the heat balloons; allowing these hardy, dry loving plants to gain a foothold. They also provide hunting perches to the dozens of varieties of hawks and falcons we see riding the air....

First day's ride in S.A. - first puncture. I just can't believe it - I rode six months here previously without a single one and when I get a second on the same day I start to hope the cycle gods have not rescinded my welcome here. Ominous signs!

Reading other people's accounts of riding in Colombia has lead us to believe that finding accommodation is as easy as it gets, so we are getting a bit concerned after 50 miles of seeing absolutely nothing. A little later a sign for a small town sends us off the main road to investigate and suddenly we find 10 in a row! For US$13 we get a private room right on a Caribbean beach complete with balcony and hammocks. The shower is a cold water bucket - but we'll take that deal any day. First South American sunset on the road...

Next day we head into 'Baranquila' - Colombia's third city after Bogota and Medellin. It's huge, sprawling and the traffic is frenetic. Heads down we ride... and pass this monster port and metropolis...

Next is a series of bridges that lead on to a narrow strip of reclaimed land across the Grand Bay of Santa Marta. This narrow earth bridge saves maybe 80 miles compared to circumnavigating the bay. It's hot and swampy, but people still live here amongst the mosquito swarms and sand flies. Their wood huts can be seen from the road, like tiny islands in a pea soup reached along rickety plank walkways....

It gets too hot to ride, but stopping for water paints a huge bulls eye on us and a trillion mosquitoes take aim. You can here the nagging 'Zzzzzzzzzzz' of them zeroing in on us and you get maybe 30 seconds grace before they start to drain blood. We ride fast and straight into the mirage....

At 'Pueblo Viejo' there is a toll booth - they are a common sight here every few miles and road travel can get expensive. The big wagons pay US$10 and it seems that is enough for a village to have sprung up providing a re-loading service. Thousands of card-board boxes are transported along this route for the banana plantations. I guess profit margins are next to nothing on such a low value cargo so wagons unload just before the toll booth. The roadside is littered with piles of flat-packed boxes and teams hurry to load them on makeshift carts, ferry them through the toll for free, then reload them onto another wagon - and all before the unpredictable rains come and turn them to mush. Wagons run as shuttles between toll booths and the village lives in awful conditions in a flooded land. Sanitation is non existent and the pools are edged in scum from the human detritus and rubbish. I see people literally tipping waste into the water outside their front doors and small children playing in amongst the mess. It's a sad and sorry scene and a stark contrast to the magnificence of Cartegena....

I am reluctant to take a picture of the worst of it - but believe me it is way worse than this and some of the worst poverty we have seen on tour. Deeply saddening!

Next day we ride into Santa Marta.

Cartegena and Baranquila were easy - just a quick dart on ring roads. We have to pass directly through Santa Marta and the driving style is best described as 'Aggressive' - with a capital 'A'. It's just odd! Colombians are just the most friendly, tranquilo people we have met, but in a vehicle they just morph into something new. It's all gone a bit 'Ben Hur' - a death race in chariots and no-one gives an inch. If you can capture a piece of road - you own it. To make things worse, there are earth banks across parts of the road where mud is washed from the fields and not cleared away. A couple of times we are forced into them by drivers who just won't budge. Motorbikes zip about like buzzing gnats and the road is bedeviled with deep pot holes. It's a crazy free for all and even the police devise tactics to beat the traffic light grand prix....

I take a motorcyclist's mirror directly in the elbow and the impact ricochets him into another bike, his mirror spinning away to be crushes under car tyres. No-one even reacts or complains - I guess it's too common an occurrence here and just nothing to bother about.... but my elbow sure does hurt....

It's a relief to be out of the melee and finally we climb away from this crazy town....

A brief up-and-over drops us down to 'Teganga' a small fishing village situated in a jewel of a bay....

Looks nice - maybe we'll stay a day or two....


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