Story last updated at 8/21/2013 - 3:31 pm
Venga Aca! (Come here!) A man across the way is shouting and beckoning for us to come over. Dave, one of the duo of South African cyclists we have been traveling with for the past week, pulled over to see if we might want to take a swim in the natural pools cascading down above the river. A busload full of Colombian families is set-up on the outcropping of rocks above the pools. The man, possibly the father of the closest family, is still waving and yelling, motioning for us to join them. The rest of the group is behind us, but we give each other a "why not" kind of shrug, leave our bicycles in the ditch, and make our way over. Immediately they race to fill up bowls over-flowing with the staple stew of Colombia; sancocho. We try to explain that we don't need to eat their food, but it is quite apparent that they are not going to take no for an answer. As we begin to bite into the soft sweet plantains, yucca and chicken, and sip the delicious broth, the rest of the guys arrive.
Upon seeing more gringos there is much yelling; a family positioned further up the creek sends two young boys down-stream with a 10-gallon pot full of rice and beans. Everyone is fighting to put more food into our hands. Then the cameras come out. Adults, children, teens and even grandparents wrap their arms around us and pose as the others snap photos from all directions. Someone calls out a one-liner joke that we don't understand and the whole group breaks into a rumbling laughter. After several more bowls, heaps of rice and salad, and cups of soda, we finally convince them that we can't eat anymore and pick our way barefoot down to the clear pools to swim.
The following day, after a decision to leave the main highway for a back roads route into the mountains, the grandeur of the Andes climbs into view. Pedaling against a gradual incline we fall into rhythm as we slowly leave the valley floor below. Higher and higher we go, following the twisting road upwards into the clouds. Around the next curve a ridgeline unfolds from the contours of the mountainside, revealing yet another spectacular view. Reaching outwards the vibrant green mountain arms are patched with plots of off-colored farmland, some end abruptly in sheer cliff walls. From this vantage I can see three separate towns; one directly below us in clear view, another barely visible atop the next ridgeline, and a third only a distant outline on the horizon. Full of energy, we begin to swoop and fly downwards, hooting and whooping in the warm setting sun. I have never felt so pleasant.
We roll into a town with the last minutes of daylight. It appears to have the same general lay out as the majority of towns we have visited here. A picturesque old Spanish church towers over the central plaza, surrounded by bakeries, Internet cafes, food carts, and sit-down restaurants. Further outwards red brick apartments are stacked on top of one another set into the slope of the hillside. The streets are buzzing with life, an open and social atmosphere that makes it hard to hold back a smile. Yet another hospitable Colombian goes out of his way to find us a camping site for the night, leading us to an indoor soccer stadium on the outskirts of town. We lay out our pads and watch a distant thunderstorm flash and boom before drifting into a deep sleep.
The next morning, we proceed to lose the elevation that we had invested so much effort to gain. After a final exhilarating downhill cruise, the terrain is now level and the sun's heat harsh. Blades of sugar cane stalks sway with the gentle breeze, waves in an endless green sea of plantations spanning the vast space between steep mountain walls. With six now in our group, we form a line into the headwind, taking turns breaking the impeding air. A man on a motorcycle pulls even with us and hands over energy drinks. We come to a stop to talk, and thank him for the much appreciated gifts. All of the standard questions about our journey are asked and answered, "Yeah, we have been traveling for over a year now, we are hoping to make it down to Patagonia, etc." He then proceeds to talk about his job as a controls engineer at one of the local sugar cane processing plants, showing us photos of the machines and explaining the industry. Eventually he gets back on his bike, but before leaving he asks us one more question.
"Durante su viaje en Colombia, ustedes encontraron mas gente mala o buena?"
Translating to, "During your travels in Colombia, have you met more bad or good people?
We assure him that we have had nothing but great interactions with the people throughout his country, and he seems satisfied and proud as he smiles and motors on down the road. This type of question has become a fixture in Colombia; everyone seems to want to know if we have been treated well or if we have run into any problems. I get the sense that these proud and generous people are in some ways ashamed of their countries lingering reputation of cocaine trafficking, kidnapping and violence.
Frankly, I don't know what to say when someone talks about the guerillas in the mountains or the theft in the cities; about the country that breeds drugs and violence. To us, this reputation was unfounded, the negative imagery non-existent. Our interactions were almost exclusively positive, at times it became overwhelming. It seemed that everyone we met wanted to talk, and help us out in any way they could. We were routinely welcomed and guided; captivated by both the people and the landscapes.
So all I can say is, "Gracias Colombia!" I hope that we can share our experiences with the many that may be skeptical, those who cannot seem to overcome the looming stories from the past. It was a brilliant entrance to the continent; we will take our stories with us as we follow the road south.
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