"Why would you want to go to Colombia?" asks my professor from Chile. "Go anywhere else. Two gringos on fancy bikes in Colombia is a bad idea. But I guess if you are always scared of what could happen, you would never leave the couch."
The dirt roads connecting the small towns of Colombia's coffee region are often times the old forgotten routes, replaced by pavement winding it's way more gradually through the mountains. With words of caution and fear of Colombia's reputation echocing through our heads, our anxiety would often skyrocket during the infrequent encounters with a moto or jeep. Travelling by bicycle had us feeling very vulnerable. With thousands of dollars worth of gear and bicycle between our legs, we were worried about becoming a victim or somehow used for the gains of a guerrilla group.
Within a week, however, our fears started to fade as we interacted with the nicest people we have ever met. Person after person was not only excited we were exploring their country, but they would go out of their way to help us. Road construction workers literally carried our bikes over the wet concrete of a fully closed road. When we got to a cafe that had full tables, a couple shared their table with us. When another biker saw us on the road he insisted that we stay in his home. We never asked for this help or kindness, and when we would offer to pay, most would refuse.
As we chatted with one local woman she told us that it is cool people are beginning to visit her country. When we told her that many foreigners used to be too scared to travel to Colombia, she replied "we were scared too". After countless encounters and conversations with locals we began to understand that Colombian's, as a whole, are fiercly proud of their country. Seeing two gringos riding fancy bikes over their dirt road mountain passes was symbolic to them. We were told our very presence was a reminder of just how far Colombia has come over the last 20 years.
The Eje Cafetero, as the coffee region is known, is primarily a patchwork of hillside farms and cattle grazing lands. Coffee plants and banana trees, the perfect marriage, stretch as far as the eye can see. From stunning 12,000 foot mountain passes to crossing major lowland rivers, the route we planned took us through some of the prettiest places we have ever been to. Puebliando, the term locals use to describe their penchant for visiting small towns, took us through 30 of these towns. Our route was 780 kilometers, consisting of about 70% dirt and took us 20 days of riding. We averaged about 4000 feet of climbing and about 25 miles a day. We went through so many cute towns and such breathtakingly beautiful areas that we wanted to take it slow and enjoy it all.
We try not to travel with too many expectations about an adventure, but Colombia exceeded any possible expectations. If you do decide to travel to Colombia remember that you are an embassador, in the minds of the people you interact with, of the country you came from. Help keep alive the people of Colombias desire to be kind to visitors, because kindness to strangers feels like pure magic.
Words and Pictures By Chris Scheller