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.