When I sat day-dreaming about this trip at my desk (and indulging myself in far more Pan-Am cycle touring blogs than was probably healthy), it was images of epic landscapes that made up my mind’s picture of what this adventure would be. Stunning photos of cyclists blazing a trail through the endless spruce of the Alaskan wilderness; of tiny specks crawling their way up herculean Andes climbs; and of figures bent double battling their way into the ferocious Patagonian headwinds. These were the landscapes I came for.
Yet the reality has been very different. Not that we haven’t already seen some of those epic landscapes – we have seen plenty, and I’m sure many more await us to the south. But a trip that was supposedly all about the landscapes has instead turned out to be as much – or maybe even more – about the people we have met along the way.
The landscapes provide the backdrop, but it is the thousands of human interactions which burn most strongly in my memory of the last year and a half. Most have been fleeting – a few minutes outside a shop or at a junction; others have invited us into their homes or gardens for the night; some have even welcomed us into their families for days at a time.
And nowhere have the people we have met along the way been more at the forefront of our experience than in Colombia. Partly this is because – as every cycle tourist before us has discovered – of the innate warmth and friendliness of pretty much every Colombian we have met. But it is also because after six months here, Colombia will probably be the country in which we will have spent the most time in the whole trip.
We spent three of those months in Medellín, giving us the first real chance of the trip to put down roots and really connect, beyond the usual twenty questions we face in our roadside encounters. We left Medellín with a group of true friends who I hope we will see again on one side of the world or other. And so, it seems fitting to wrap up our Colombian adventure with just a few of those faces that have made our last six months here so memorable.
Jorge, aka George: Friend, riding partner and bike promoter extraordinaire. Jorge was the man who encouraged us to come to Medellín, and who welcomed us into his extended cycling family with open arms and a bottomless stomach that matched even mine - from our first bandeja paisa to Tuesday night hamburguesas. Gracias parcero - buena vibra, buena biela y buen Brooks!
Dorancy, aka La Flaca: Jorge's other half and Sarah's Spanish conversation partner. An endless source of patience in correcting the faux pas of the bumbling English - from Spanish pronunciation to the correct time of day to be eating a buñuelo.
Julian: Julian and his wonderful family initiated us into the world of Colombian hospitality in Bucaramanga. A quick stopover turned into two nights and then three, followed by a beautiful if altitude-curtailed joint visit to El Cocuy National Park.
Carlos, aka Caliche: The man who persaudes up to 5,000 cyclists to take to the Wacky Races-esque streets of Medellín every month in the critical-mass inspired Fiestas de la Bici . Carlos is an ever-smiling, ever-charming ball of pedal-powered fun who has himself toured South America by bike and spent hours poring over maps with us, giving us countless tips for the journey south. He also invited us to spend a memorable few days in his beautiful home town of Jardín...
Don Ed and Toto: ...including the funniest night we have spent for a long time in the company of his dad, Don Ed(uardo), the owner of their favourite local bar, Toto, and several bottles of Antioquia's finest rum. Over the course of the night - in true Mr Ben style - Toto worked his way through the contents of his very deep fancy-dress cupboard. Suffice to say I will never forget his Colombian interpretation of Rod Stewart.
Eduardo: News travels fast in Zapatoca, and so when two gringos on bikes rolled into the village square, local radio presenter Eduardo was there in minutes with his mic and camera. What started as a five minute interview turned into an overnight stay on his finca and a a fantastic ride the next day to Guane with Eduardo and his cycling buddy, Manuel.
Balti, aka El Monstruo: Husband of a friend of a friend (yes, we are becoming masters of the tenuous connection), Balti and dad Carlos welcomed two tired and malodorous cyclists into their Medellín apartment while we found our feet in the city. Carlos broke our porridge and spaghetti routine with delicious Colombian dishes, while Pony Malta-fuelled Balti kept us on our toes with endless toy car races around the apartment.
Milo: You'd think good coffee wouldn't be hard to find in Colombia, but sadly most of the good stuff disappears overseas or into exclusive coffee shops before most Colombians get even a sniff of it. Fortunately there are farmers such as Milo, who are leading a drive to create a mainstream culture of high quality coffee within Colombia. We were lucky enough to spend a day on his organic finca outside Medellín, and returned converts. Cafe Los Alpes: the best coffee we've drunk on the whole trip.
Pacho, aka El Chicharrón Peludo: Dancing around the Christmas natilla, day-dreaming of far-flung bike adventures while sipping Milo's coffee in Kaldi Kaffee, or dropping us on a dirt road climb in south west Antioquia - Pacho and Família López were at the heart of our Medellín experience...
Pacho's feet:...even if his feet did make him look like he'd just stepped out of the lower reaches of the Magdalena.
Catalina: Luckily his partner Catalina was always on hand to keep his feet covered, explain the latest double entendre which had left us baffled, and roll her eyes with her trademark "Ayyyyy nooooo, este Pacho!"
Don Raul: And if you wondered where he gets it from, meet Don Raul - Pacho's dad, and by far the most mischievous 82-year old I have ever met. Us two mugs roll in on bikes with funny accents and, well, let's just say we provided plenty of ammunition. A man whose infectious sense of fun was matched only by...
Doña Teresita:...the sweetness of his wife Teresita. A calm and heart-warming presence amidst the boys' banter, she would often suddenly appear beside you and give you an enormous, spontaneous hug. A truly wonderful lady.
Raul y Lina: For me, no-one embodied the the irresistible Antioquian sense of slapstick humour and fun more than Pacho's brother Raul and his wife Lina. Put it this way - wherever we travelled, they always carried a remote-controlled whoopie cushion (yes, they exist) - and they weren't afraid to use it.
Marta: Pacho and Raul's long-suffering sister who lives in New York, and who we got to know while she was visiting. We took a ride out to the old finca outside Ciudad Bolívar where the kids grew up, where Marta sat in exactly the same chair on the same veranda she used to as a child. A moment full of memories for them, and special for us to watch.
Tinno: "Steel is easy to love, because it loves you back." So says the maestro of the forgotten art of bike frame building and Colombian legend, Tinno - who we were lucky enough to get to know during our time in Medellín. We loitered around his workshop, learned our first words of parlache (a Medellín slang), rode bikes together in the Oriente, and had our measurements taken just in case. You never know, one day we might find enough money to order our custom made Tinno bikes...
Sebastián y Eliseo: We spent some amazing nights in the Colombian campo, where we experienced warmth and humbling hospitality, from people whose lives are far more precarious than ours will ever be. I'll certainly never forget one night high on the páramo with Eliseo's family, huddled around their wood fire, laughing and sharing experiences of our different countries and cultures...
Sebastián:...while their newest-born, Sebastian, slept peacefully in a homemade hammock of knitted coffee sacks.
Nora: Our home for 3 months in Medellín, Los Colores was a haven of peace and tranquility. Our neighbours welcomed us like family, our landlady Nora was the perfect hostess, and we were tempted to sneak her pets into a pannier...
Agata:...none more so than her cat Agata, who definitely ruled the house - except when she was submitted to her fortnightly shampoo and rinse, when she definitely lost some of her cool.
Ana Paulina: The definition of demure, Ana Paulina welcomed us into her wonderful family for Christmas with open arms, amazing fríjoles, world-class chicharrón and slightly too much tequila. Happy memories. We even managed to coax her back onto her long-neglected bike for a Sunday ciclovía.
Peluso, aka Tembleke: After Bedders' farewell bite, dogs really shouldn't be on our list of Colombian highlights. However, the cute ones far outnumbered the vicious ones - from Don Mario's pack of 17 to Pacho's troop of six squeezed into the Turpial on the way up to Santa Elena. Peluso - 16 years old, half-blind, skinnier than a touring cyclist and with a constant tremble - stole my heart.