The Bike Scene in Medellin

Colombia is very bike centric, boasting some of the best road bikers in the world and terrain that provides challenging routes all over the country. Bogota closes over 200 kilometers of roads every sunday, offering traffic and stress free riding for its’ multitude of participants. And Medellin does the same on a smaller scale every Sunday, and is also promoting biking as a favorable mode of urban transportation through a number of methods.

One of many  Encicla stations in Medellin

Medellin, like most large cities in Latin America, suffers from chaotic traffic with streets choked with vehicles every working hour, including 75,000 taxis. Conditions are not ideal for cyclists much of the time, as motorists seldom yield to anything other than a motorized vehicle. However, a network of bike lanes has been created to give bikers a safe route to travel around certain sections of the city. These are located close to several of the universities, such as Antioquia, Medellin, and Bolivariana.

The immense Laureles neighborhood is covered very extensively with this network of bike lanes, and is thus the safest place to ride. Situated in this barrio is the massive municipal sports complex which includes the main soccer stadium, swimming complex, and several other fine facilities. This area is also closed to motorized traffic every Sunday, and thousands of residents take advantage of the empty streets.

Ride for an hour, drop off, pick up another bike, free

Another progressive idea designed to encourage biking is the citys’ Encicla program, which offers free bikes that can be ridden at any of a dozen stations located primarily in Laureles. Each bike can be used for one hour, at which time it can be renewed at any of the stations for another hour, and this process can be repeated all day long. Many people like myself, pick up a bike for a one way ride to one of the Metro stations, dropping it off and continuing on with that. Helmets are mandatory and provided, and this system is open to all, residents and travelers, after an easy online registration. Encicla operates 7 to 7 Monday through Friday and is very popular.

The Wednesday night Bike Ride is tons of fun

One of the best examples of Medellin’s bike mania is the weekly Wednesday night mass group ride, which attracts thousands of fanatics every week. The route is different every week, and is created by some of the leaders of the event. It always starts at the same place, Carlos Restrepo Park at Avenida Colombia and Carrera 65, and launches at 8pm. The rides usually last about 3 hours total, with a half hour break for drinks and snacks halfway through. Some of the routes can be quite challenging, including lots of hills, and reaching 30+ kilometers in length. But it’s always a fun ride, with organizers up front to stop all traffic at busy intersections to allow the pack to get through. Another bunch trails the pack to ensure that everybody makes it through on time, and Bob the Rastaman holds court in the middle of the peloton, doling out advice and encouragement with his portable PA system. This is a terrific gathering that attracts all kinds; kids, extremists, and casual riders galore, and is one of the best ways to see parts of the city that would otherwise be unknown and under appreciated.

Bike retailers and rentals are popping up all over the city, and the movement to encourage pedaling gains momentum every day. Medellin is not Amsterdam yet, but it’s certainly moving in that direction. In this city, a bike can take you lots of places.

Medellins’s Metro System

Medellin is, in many ways, a lot like other South American metropolises. It has plenty of poverty and more than a few very sketchy neighborhoods. Traffic is chaotic, with very loose enforcement and a staggering 75,000 taxis, almost twice the number of Buenos Aires. What sets it apart from the others is a magnificent Metro system, built almost two decades ago, that is the pride and joy of the Paisas, which is what the people of this region call themselves.

The Medellin Metro is an elevated model, quite similar to the Skytrain that has transformed Bangkok, Thailand. The main line runs north and south from La Estrella to Niqui, two cities 23 kilometers apart. Along this line, called A, are 21 stations, with 2, at Caribe and Poblado, adjacent to the major long distance bus terminals. Line B runs east- west from the downtown San Antonio station 6 kilometers west to San Javier, with 5 stations in between. San Javier is also the base of the line J metro Cable car, which transports 8 people per gondola 3 kilometers and several hundred feet up to the barrios of Juan XXII, Vallejuelos, and La Aurora. This aerial network has helped develop and improve these neighborhoods, which were serious pockets of poverty prior to this leg of the system. The Metro cable has enabled many disadvantaged residents to gain easy access to the city center, where employment is much more available.

 

There are two other Metro cable lines, K, running from Acevedo station on the northern end of Line A, up the mountain 2 kilometers over the Popular and Andalucia barrios to Santo Domingo. Like the J Line, these are 8 passenger gondolas, very clean, modern, and efficient, and very reminiscent of the gondola that climbs up Vail Mountain in Colorado. Riding this stretch of the system affords an eye popping perspective of this massive sprawl of improvised, low economic level housing. In Colombia they are called Comunas, the equivalent of the famous favelas of Brazil. Countless brick and block dwellings piled on top of each other and rising hundreds of levels up the mountain. It’s a bird’s eye view of some very dense settlements, and like the upper reaches of Line J, not a safe place to be for outsiders at night.

The top of K Line, Santo Domingo, marks the bottom of the most spectacular line of all, L, which climbs quickly and silently another thousand feet in altitude and several miles in distance. This 14 minute journey crosses a large tract of wild terrain, a cloud forest that is relatively untouched by development. The fun ride finishes at Parque Arvi, a national park that is home to hundreds of species of animals and birds. It is possible to leave the furthest metro station in the city and arrive at this pristine environment in less than an hour. The Arvi station sits adjacent to the park visitor center, where guided tours and all the vital information is available, along with many food and drink options. This is a tremendous place to have such easy access to, as it provides an antidote for the city, when it’s time to get away from the noise, traffic, and funk.

The Metro system operates every day from 5 am until 11:30, and fares are 1900 Colombian pesos, which is roughly a US dollar. The l line to Parque Arvi is the equivalent of $4 US, which I consider a bargain. The system is very heavily used, and can be quite crowded during morning and afternoon rush hours. But it has been a game changer for many residents who were previously isolated, living on the fringes of the city, and riding 3 or 4busses to get to work. It also eliminates the need for a car when commuting within the city, thus saving a lot of possible related expenses. The Metro has become one of the symbols of Medellin, and is another reason to love this city.

Tayrona Park, Crown Jewel of the North Coast

Tayrona is the best known of Colombia’s protected natural areas, and the second most popular, with over 200,000 visitors annually. Situated 20 miles from the port city of Santa Marta, Tayrona covers 70 square miles total, with a fifth of that in the marine environment. The terrain includes the lower slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the highest coastal range in the world. The park is a haven for wildlife, featuring over 300 species of birds, 100 different mammals, and 400 types of fresh and salt water fish. Among the critters roaming the park are Howler Monkeys, Pumas, deer, and loads of Iguanas.

A total looker

The park is pretty developed, with lots of private businesses providing accommodations, food, and services, such as horseback riding. On the other hand, it’s not the user friendliest park ever, and is best suited for those that are independent and self reliant. On the contrary, with so many cafes, stores, and campgrounds, it’s not necessary to bring everything with you, but the prices for goods are much higher than outside the park. Another negative aspect of so many conveniences is the large amount of trash that’s left on the trails. There are luxurious eco bungalows available, but the price during high season in January exceeds $200 a night. Camping is also pricier than might be expected, with $15 the nightly rate, and minimal services provided.

The coastline at Tayrona is primal

The terrain itself is stunning, with huge round boulders scattered all along the coastline, and the temperature is usually hot and extremely humid. The trails are well marked and easy to follow, and a shop selling something to eat and drink never far away. The ocean is very rough in most places, and several signs warn that upwards of 500 people have drowned here. That is a sobering statistic, but very realistic as the water has lots of rip tides and powerful surges. Even the areas recommended for snorkeling, like the Piscina and San Juan Point, are often too much for many landlubbers. However, the beaches are clean and lovely, though not spacious, and the offshore scuba diving is among the best in Colombia. Tours can be arranged through any number of outfitters in Santa Marta or Taganga, and due to the difficult logistics of getting around the park this is a good option.

http://www.parquesnacionales.gov.co/portal/es/ecoturismo/region-caribe/parque-nacional-natural-tayrona/

For those like myself more DIY oriented, a shuttle can be taken from any number of stops outside the park that will deliver to one of the main entrances, Neguanje, Calabazo, and Canaveral. These three portal stretch from West to East, with Neguanje used the most, owing to its’ proximity to Santa Marta. The entrance fee for foreigners is $21,000 pesos, about US $7, triple the price for Colombians. There are a few trails that lead to featured spots like Playa de Muerto, renowned for it’s crystal clear water, and Cabo de San Juan, which is famous for it’s massive boulders spread through the rain forest. There are several different eco habitations available near Canaveral, on the far east side of the park, and horses can be rented at any of the entrances to provide transportation into the interior. Hiking is not a problem, although the distances covered range from 4 to 10 kilometers, so energy is compulsory.

Tayrona is a bird watchers sanctuary, for those with the required patience, and although the trails cover only small portions of the total area, wildlife can be encountered if the timing is right. I came across 3 Mountain Foxes late in the day, beautiful gray creatures who fled immediately. The park is really tailored to travelers who don’t mind spending plenty to rent one of the luxury eco habs and purchase everything needed there. It can be a great destination for well equipped campers as well, but distances are hefty and therefore stamina is a must. It is a beautiful slice of the Caribbean coast that will be appreciated by outdoor enthusiasts with a sense of adventure.

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La Candeleria in Bogota

Monseratte rises above he Candelaria neighborhood in Bogota

This is the historic old quarter of Bogota, located directly beneath the city’s most prominent landmark, Cerro Monserrate. Many of Bogota’s sites of interest are situated here, along with dozens of hotels and restaurants. Among the most popular are the Gold Museum, Botero Museum, and the church of San Francisco. There are dozens more, and this is the most scenic, and architecturally pleasing part of the metropolis. Personally, riding the tram or cog railway up the 2000 foot high face of Monserrate should not be missed, regardless of the weather.

The roads are rough at the top of the barrio, and steep enough to ski

The streets of Candelaria are mainly rough cobblestones, so comfortable footwear is a must. In addition, some of the streets are exceedingly steep, so much so that many taxis refuse to navigate them. Many could be skied if covered with snow. It is a very walkable neighborhood, as long as you watch where you’re going and pay attention to the many holes and assorted obstacles. In addition, it is home to many poor residents, desperate for anything that helps them survive, and wandering around alone at night is definitely not recommended. During the day, the barrio is heavily patrolled by police and is reasonably safe.

Bogota at night

There are several plazas that merit a visit, and the two most interesting are Plaza del Chorro del Quevado, and just a couple of blocks away, the massive Plaza de Bolivar. The former is almost as high up as you can get the steep streets below Monserrate, heaped with history, and a very popular gathering place for musicians, surrounded by cafes and beautiful vintage buildings. It’s close to many of the hotels and hostels in the area, and adjacent to a couple of narrow alleys that abound with shops selling very funky arts and crafts. The pizza slices available here are excellent, huge, and cheap, hot and crocante straight out of the oven.

Plaza Bolivar is home to the National Congress, National Cathedral, the Colombian Supreme Court and several other important looking buildings. It is often the site of both political demonstrations and performances from the army and Bogota’s Symphony Orchestra. This is the macro to Chorro de Quevados micro, and adjacent to Carrera 7, a dense pedestrian street with multitudes of vendors, selling every type of local specialty. The streets are chaotic with traffic and crowds sporadically, but this is a fine place to wander and work up an appetite.

Plaza Bolivar in the heart of Bogota

A great place to start exploring La Candelaria is from the top of Cerro Monserrate, looming over the city and impossible to miss. It is possible, and quite popular, to hike the trail to the summit, but this is an energetic trek that should be done in a group, as there have been robberies reported. The much easier option is to take the aerial tram, or very steep cog railway. Both are terrific rides, although the tram affords a better view as the railway spends much of the route in a tunnel. From the top the whole of Bogota is visible below and it’s a sight to behold. There is a pretty chapel, acclaimed restaurant, and several other shops providing souvenirs and refreshments. From this vantage point it’s easy to take in most of the major sites of La Candelaria directly below.

 

There are numerous dining and drinking choices in the old section, and several bars offer live entertainment. It’s the true dark heart of the city, and certainly nothing fancy, but if it’s bonafide Bogota that’s sought, La Candelaria is where it’s at.

Salento, Cream of the Coffee Country

Colorful central Salento with the stairway up to a viewpoint on the hill

Salento is an historic colonial town high in the mountains of the department of Quindio, situated 250 kilometers due south of Medellin. It used to be on the main route between Bogota and Popoyan even further south, and was visited by Simon Bolivar himself back in the day.
Today it’s a premier tourist destination due to it’s proximity to the highest mountains in the area,as the most prominent, Nevada de Quindio, attains 4750 meters, or 15,583 feet. Salento is also a major hub for Colombian coffee, with dozens of farms in the area. It’s a pretty village which has become a very popular place on weekends for locals and tourists alike.

 

The easiest way to reach the town from Medellin is by bus, although this journey can take 9 hours instead of the stated 6. The road between Medellin and Salento, Highway 25, is in a constant state of repair, with several sequences of single lanes where traffic is alternated. There are a number of toll booths, and once up and out of the Aburra Valley south of Medellin, the landscape becomes very scenic. It’s such a windy route, loaded with switchbacks, that it’s a fine idea to let somebody else drive in order to enjoy the stupendous views. However, if one has a tendency towards motion sickness, one is going to get it here, and bags are provided to passengers just in case.

Colombia is as green as the Emerald Isle

The most frequent and recommended carrier, Flotas Occidental, stops along the way in both Manizales and Pereira on the way to Armenia. From Armenia the local bus to Salento takes 40 minutes to an hour, but, it’s possible to have the driver drop you at the turn off to Salento, about 20 minutes past Pereira. This move can save lots of time, as the local bus passes by every 20 minutes or so on the way into town, 15 minutes away. Upon arrival, there are multiple choices for accommodations in the central area, as well as heaps more just out of the center.

It’s a mellow community, except on big weekends, with lots of cafes and restaurants, most featuring the local trout specialties. The main square in front of the very prominent church is where more transportation choices are available. These are the jeeps that will haul outdoor enthusiasts to the assorted features and sites of interest, the most worthwhile of which is the stunning Valle de Cocora a half hour to the northeast. Cocora is famous for it’s absurdly tall Wax Palms, 60 meters high, but also boasts some of the loveliest terrain in Colombia. For those with enough energy and time to spend, it’s surely one of the best day hikes in the world.

Pretty as any picture

A 12 kilometer loop starts at the jeep drop off, and gradually climbs up the valley through very pretty farmland. This trail follows a crystal clear stream through increasingly lush terrain, and before long it’s solid rainforest, reminiscent of Costa Rica or Hawaii. There are a number of small falls, with pools ideal for a quick swim, and the path crosses muddy, rocky earth. Next comes a series of very rickety wooden bridges which only add to the fun, and a trail junction is reached after about 5 kilometers.

This sign leads towards the beautiful Acaime Nature Reserve, and the sign states that it is a kilometer away but is actually at least double that. The trail steepens as it climbs up the mountain, and another junction is reached. A left leads to La Montana, but the right fork goes further up up up to Acaime. This is where guides leave their horses before the last short stretch up to the hummingbird house.

 

The only charge on this loop is to enter the reserve and make it to the Colibri house that is famed for it’s marvelous hummingbirds. 5000 Colombian pesos also provides a hot or cold drink of choice, and this is worth every bit of that two and a half bucks. After a spell watching the hyper twitch little birds, it’s back down the path to the junction, and now up a very relentless, steep climb to La Montanita. This leg attains another 400 meters elevation, but from the top it’s all downhill.

The hummingbird refuge in the Valley of Cocorra is really impressive

This finca is extraordinarily pretty, and seems like an alpine farm in Switzerland. There are no services available, nor food or drink, but it’s a splendid place to sit among the flowers and enjoy an astounding view. After several hours of steady climbing, from here a rough road drops almost 1000 meters back down to the valley floor. First, a pine cloud forest is passed through, and another couple of k’s reaches the first of the Wax Palms, among the tallest in the world. Lots of birds and rodents are in these woods, including at least one dazzling iridescent Trogon, a cousin of the sacred bird of the Mayas, the Quetzal. Gradually the trees thin out and the farmland is reached, and depending on how many pictures are taken, this loop will take between 5 and 7 hours. The last jeep back to Salento leaves at 5, and no matter how long this takes, it’s time extremely well spent.

Take that jeep back to town, get some delicious grub at Brunch on Calle Real, which leads 3 blocks to the main plaza, and reflect on one of the best days ever. I recommend staying at La Serrana a kilometer and a half south of town on Carrera 5. It’s an eco farm and hostel with camping facilities, and all the amenities on a hill you may never want to leave. Salento is that special.

Minca, mejor que mucho

One of several small falls above the Pozos Azules

 

It’s not the kind of place that comes to mind when thinking about Colombia, but this little mountain village gets my vote for best of honors. A slow 17 kilometers up and out of dusty Santa Marta, the route climbs relentlessly through increasingly lush terrain. Coffee farms cover the hills, which are the preamble to the mighty sierra nevada further up, the highest coastal range in the world at almost 4000 meters. This road has lots of semi blind curves where it’s wise to blast the horn if you’ve got one.

One way bridge above the Rio Minca, Minca, Colombia

After 40 minutes or so a metal bridge over the Minca River is crossed and here sits the town. The center is a cafe/bakery, a bar across the street, and a souvenir shop/mini market, with drivers waiting, ready to take somebody someplace. There are lots of places to stay overnight close by and the only way to find is to seek. I followed one set of signs to isolated hostels that led me past the police station, through a small ghetto, up a long muddy hill and then 40 steps down to the first place, rancho de la luna. This was a rough jewel of sorts, triple level, each unit took up the entire floor. lots of open air, bed and hammock, mosquito nets mandatory. Nothing that impressive except for the view from the patio, but that was world class, $40, no breakfast.

I then followed the goofy signs farther on towards Oscar’s Place, another 1/4 mile or so and though I could finally see it below me, but I thought forget it. To schlep a suitcase this far was absurd. So back down the hill, slick and muddy in flip flops, and up another tributary street looking for another signed place.

I never did find it, but I met a friendly old dude walking his dogs and he recommended the Mirador, back down and then up another hill. I followed his advice, and finally made it to the top of the hill and the place. This was a nice, wooden cafe and bar, with plenty of cush seats. It was on top of the hill and afforded that same killer view down to Santa Marta. Karin showed me the rooms, double with a bunk, fan, screened windows and cable TV. $45 with breakfast….sold. I crawled back down the hill to grab my stuff, unload, and get to the water.

The very chill El Mirador, Minca, Colombia

A short while later I was lounging in the fine flow of Rio Minca, which runs right through the middle of town. Some of the finest pads in the village sit on the banks, which is probably the choicest real estate around. Giant trees hang over the river, full of boulders and still flowing nicely in the december dry season. When it’s rainy it has to be high volume and very impressive. But, truth be told, this was below much of the town and notably the slum barrio where public sanitation systems are but a dream. A couple of blocks up from the rio one of the 2 main roads parallels it past the church, soccer field, and various cafes. One had a chess playing owner of a bakery/resto, a very nice guy who gave me some helpful directions. Another a block down has a friendly, efficient crew, along with a splendid deck over the rio. That’s where I dined, sharing the table and tales with a pair of very tired German girls, who had spent the last 3 days in the jungle camping at Tayrona Park. I had only spent a long day in the park 2 days before and sympathized completely.The food was terrific, the first and only burger of the year, and a couple of Club Colombias finished the spell, high in the hills. The next morning I was bound for Pozo Azul, a much acclaimed local spot that was supposedly 7 k up the main road. I wisely contracted with a motor cycle taxi to haul me up, and then come back in 3 hours, for all of $4000, a little over 2 bucks. Even on the back of a bike, and the kid was an expert driver, the distance seemed farther than 7 k. Finally we popped off the road and descended a slightly sketchy side trail and reached the river.

A wooden bridge spans the craw where the river drops 25 feet, but the good stuff is upriver here, past a couple of supremo waterfalls and ultimate swimming holes, with a big canopy of trees providing shade. The gorge can be followed up far enough to spend one of your best days ever, and the local fellas will be waiting to take you back to town if you worked that out already.

There are several other places worth seeing, including Las Cascadas, a series of waterfalls 25 meters high that is 5 kilometers out of town, with a beautiful natural pool beneath. Further away but still close enough to day trip is La Reserva Natural de San Lorenzo, part of the Parque nacional Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Situated at 3100 meters altitude, it provides a fantastic view of both the coastline stretching from Baranquilla to Parque Tayrona as well as the summit peaks of the Sierra Nevada, which can be snowcapped at any time of the year. The reserve is famed for its’ high concentration of endemic birds. And coffee fanatics will want to visit La Victoria coffee farm, which has been producing terrific organic coffee for over a century.

Minca is worth at least a couple of leisurely days, and a very cool and relaxing break from the heat of the north coast just below. The area is rapidly becoming a center of outdoor activities, with several outfitters offering hiking, mountain biking, and river rafting tours. Shared taxis are cheap from Santa Marta and can be found at the central market. The difference between the two neighboring settlements is dramatic, in temperature, terrain, and especially, vibe. You might think you’re actually in Hawaii or Colorado, but it’s another amazing facet of Colombia, land that I love.

Vital Information:

El Mirador Ecoturistico www.miradordeminca.wordpress.com

Parque Nacional Natural Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta www.parquesnacionales.gov.co/…/parque-nacional-natural-sierra-nevada