30 December 2010

End of a Feria

The feria was a good one and we were with good people and the days blended together so that we felt we had all been together for a long time. To see the sun rise together day after day has that effect. But the feria was only five days and this one ended prematurely as the group began to break apart and people left before it ended.

The German girls left for the coast at Buenaventura, the French north to Cartagena, the German couple back to Berlin, the Dutch guy and his new Caleña girlfriend to Popayan, and Hector and the American went to celebrate New Year’s in Medellin. They wanted me to come and to leave my bike and gear in Cali and return by bus before my flight on the 4th, but with the uncertain road conditions from the rain and mudslides I did not want to risk it. Also I wanted to cut out the late nights and drinking and get in some proper training rides to prepare for the cycling ahead in Argentina.

At the start of the feria the salsa music playing in the shops and restaurants and bars throughout the city was all the same to me. Then after a few days I found I recognized the songs and when you were in a bar and those songs came on that you liked you would get up to dance to them. If you knew the lyrics you would sing to them. Everywhere there was music and if you were not singing and dancing you were not a part of the feria.

My favorite song of the feria, Son de Cali "Vos Me Debes"

There was a big concert and parade every day and then bars and clubs and dancing and taxi rides in between. The taxi drivers all tried to cheat the gringos but even when we overpaid it was only a couple dollars split 5 ways. Then there were the chorizos on a stick and other meats we ate late in the night from makeshift grills on the streets throughout Cali. The streets were alive at night and there was always someone selling food or hats or ponchos or DVDs and in the bars and clubs there were always Colombians who wanted to dance with you, to offer you shots of aguardiente, or take a picture with you. But towards the end of a feria you are tired, you have slept and eaten irregularly, and you have had too much to drink and you are looking forward to its end.

Official song of the feria

Now it is only me and Israeli girl from that original group in the house. There are new people who have arrived, excited and eager to see the city and to party during the feria’s last hours. But it cannot be the same. The house is full again and noisy but I do not wish to join a new group. I have been to all the salsa clubs and neighborhoods and there is nothing new now. Maybe I stayed too long, but I must begin to think about what I am doing next and to make preparations. I must think of the long, lonely roads and difficult conditions and riding ahead, and what we had at the Feria de Cali will become a very distant memory; something to remember on a cold night with the rain and wind of the Patagone beating at my tent.

27 December 2010


We went to the plaza de toros to see 7 bulls to be killed by 3 matadors and one matador on horseback. I was with Hector the Peruvian, an English guy, a Dutch and an American, all of us staying at the hostel. For everyone but the Peruvian it was to be their first bullfight and I explained to them the three acts of the corrida as simply as I could and did my best to sway them from rooting to see a matador gored, as it is often the case that those who know nothing of the corrida will hope to see a man die or be badly injured.

The corrida began with a Peruvian torero on horseback placing the darts called banderillas into the neck muscle of the bull. He would place two banderillas and then change horses and place another set of increasingly smaller, colorful darts. The bull would circle and chase the horse around the plaza, and the torero would lean back in the saddle reaching out and tempting the bull. It was a very fine display of horsemanship and the bull very narrowly got the horse a number of times.

First act cape work 

Banderillero, second act

After placing 3 sets of banderillas he changed to an elegant white horse, and carrying a long sword he rode at the bull and leaning out of his saddle over the bull, thrust the sword into the bull cleanly and easily. He had missed the heart and got the lungs and the bull stopped chasing the horse as blood dumped out of his mouth. It was shocking to the guys to see the blood and the torero dismounted and waved the bull to the ground. The first bull was dead.

Faena of Jose M Manzanares

Pase natural

Pase de pecho

Of the bullfights I have seen this was on the whole the cleanest and best executed. There was none of the matadors failing multiple times at killing the bull and jabbing their swords at bulls they feared getting too close to; or the members of their cuadrilla running up behind and trying to poke the short knife called the puntilla into the base of the bull's skull to sever its spinal column and assassinate it. Bullfights often deteriorate into a brutal and bloody spectacle if the bulls are not of a good, pure charging quality and the matadors are too frightened to take the risks necessary to fight them.

Faena of Luis Bolivar with the bull 'Sabio' 

Pase natural

Pase natural
But these bulls were mostly good, and the first bull taken by the matador Luis Bolivar, the bull called 'Sabio', was excellent, pure, hard-charging and Bolivar did not waste it and he performed a very moving faena (the working of the bull in the third act before the kill, making passes with the red muleta). The bullfight papers the next day said the remaining matadors of the fights over the next 4 days would be hard pressed to best the faena Bolivar performed. He wound the bull around him, his feet still, his body erect, winding the bull closer and tighter to his body, leading and controlling him with the muleta, and the crowd was quiet and the guys all recognized they were seeing something done very well and when Bolivar passed the bull from his knees with a pase de rodillas the crowd erupted.

Luis Bolivar, pase de rodillas

It was a moving faena and when Bolivar killed the bull cleanly but not perfectly with the estoque and the bull dropped the crowd cheered madly, throwing hats and wineskin botas and flowers as Bolivar circled the bullring in triumph. He was awarded 2 ears by the president and Sabio the bull was dragged twice around the ring to great cheering. He was a fine bull and the crowd acknowledged it. Bolivar had not wasted him.

First act, with the picadores

Bolivar's second bull was not of the same quality but he performed admirably and when the corrida ended Bolivar was paraded around the plaza on the shoulders of his cuadrilla to the cheering of the crowd. It was a good bullfight and we had been lucky to see one of such quality. What Bolivar had done with his first bull was as close to what a bullfight should be as someone who does not frequent the corrida is likely to see.

25 December 2010

Desfile de Salsa 2

Video from the Salsa Parade

Desfile de Salsa

The German couple were both legitimate card carrying journalists and the Israeli girl and I went with them and our fake press credentials to the Salsa Parade, hoping to get in together into the press area. The press area was in front of the end point of the 12 block parade at Calle 50, but it was for photographers and had no seating and we wanted to sit. We used our press credentials to get into the raised bleacher seating and got seats right in front of the street.

Salsa music blasted out of speakers along the road and the crowd sang along to the songs. Caleños  young and old all knew the lyrics and sang them out. We waited about an hour for the dancers to make their way along the route to where we were at the end. It was hot in the sun but later the clouds came down from the mountain and it rained a little. Groups of dancers alternated with floats carrying salsa bands from different countries, the most famous being Los Van Van from Cuba.

It started with very young child dancers and progressed to older ones and the groups of dancers would dance down the street and then stop to perform their routines. The parade lasted from 2pm to 6pm and had some very impressive dancing. 

La Reina (Queen of the Parade)

Israeli and the German couple

24 December 2010


We had a block party outside the hostel for Christmas Eve. The neighbors ordered a lechona, a roasted pig stuffed with rice and pork and vegetables. Chairs were set up in the street and the celebration began with a number of prayers, the singing of hymns, and then religious recitations that ended in many hail Marys.

I had not eaten much all afternoon thinking the pig was to be eaten around 8pm. But we did not eat the pig then and when the religious part of the evening ended after midnight we did not eat the pig then either. We ate sweets and a bit of cheese and a Colombian breaded ball with cheese that is traditional for Christmas. I sat near the pig smelling it and getting hungrier and I worried that the pig was getting cold. It was torture to be so hungry and to sit so close. We watched the neighborhood children open their gifts and we were told the pig would be eaten soon, very soon, and that a man who was gifted in the cutting pigs was on his way.


It was after 1am when the pig was cut. The pig was served in a small box with a square of crunchy pig skin and an arepa. The rice and pork was delicious and I had a few more servings. Fireworks went off and the party was on in Cali, music pumping all over city and people filling the streets and drinking until the sun came up in the morning.

23 December 2010

Soy un Periodista

The owner of the hostel encouraged us to go to a government building called La Fez and present ourselves there as members of the press. As journalists we would be given press passes which would allow us to get in free to all the feria events. For years now the hostel owner has been successfully sending people to get passes for themselves.

The German girls and I took a taxi to the centro to La Fez and we were told that this year the granting of press passes had been discontinued. We would need to use our own press credentials to get into events. The Israeli girl had asked a few days earlier and been told the same thing and for this reason had been talking about forging a press pass.

Back at the hostel the Israeli and I got on the computer and found an example press pass and with a little editing made a couple of passes for ourselves. We found a photocopy shop on Avenida Sexta and for 3,400 pesos ($1.75) had the passes printed and laminated into hard plastic cards. They are the size of a credit card and look and feel official. With the right attitude and confidence I think they'll get us into most events and I'm hoping the bullfights in particular. Everyone at the hostel is now bugging me to make press passes for them.


22 December 2010

Kilometer 18

I had some pastries from the panaderia for breakfast, finished my coffee, and packed a small pannier with a spare tube and my rain jacket and I rode out of the hostel towards the mountains. Following the river through the city the road broke higher and I began to ascend. I was riding out of the Cauca Valley on the road to Buenaventura, a port city on the Western coast.

It was a climb to Kilometer Marker 18 at the top of the mountain and it felt wonderful and fast to be ascending without all the weight. I was riding up a grade that would have punished me fully loaded, but which was now easy second chain ring riding.

Halfway up there were fine views looking back down the mountain to Cali and higher the temperature began to drop and the grade steepened. I could then see the higher range of mountains obscured by the clouds. It was where I was going. I dropped into my first chain ring and the climb began to hurt.

At Saladito there were wooden makeshift stands with tarp roofs put up along the road with goats tethered to them. I stopped and asked a girl what she was selling. It was fresh goat's milk and brandy that was mixed in a blender. The drink was a specialty of Saladito. I ordered a small glass and took a picture of the goat that had provided the milk.

I rode higher and up into the clouds where it was cold and it began to drizzle. I passed the Kilometer 18 sign and ahead at the crest of the climb stopped at a restaurant and had the almuerzo menu. It began to rain and the temperature dropped. I could see my breath as I ate and put on my rain jacket for warmth.

After lunch it was down, descending, bombing down the mountain out of the clouds and back into the valley. The road was poorly surfaced in places and because of the narrow shoulder the cars passing on the corners could make the descending suddenly dangerous. But it was a good ride and the bike felt fast and light and responsive to ride without the bags.

21 December 2010

Avenida Sexta

I had a successful day. I needed to purchase toothpaste and to find 2 cardboard bike boxes for packing my gear for the January flight to Buenos Aires. The toothpaste was easy. There are droguerias across the city. I had made a list of bicicleterias and needed to walk into the center of town and then further south.

It was a long walk but I got to see the city and I passed over the river into the centro and sitting about the main plaza were more armless and eyeless people begging for money than I have ever seen in one place. I find the eyeless, with their empty eye sockets covered in wrinkled skin, to be particularly disturbing and there were just as many women missing eyes as men. A man who was also walking through the plaza began to talk to me and we walked together and he spoke of the coming feria. My guard was up but he was a decent guy and friendly. I finally told him I was looking for a bicicleteria and he directed me to a street that had many bike shops along it.

At Carrera 21 I began stopping in the bike shops and asking about boxes. None had them. I had stopped at 10 shops and was ready to give up for the day but continuing a few blocks further I looked in a larger shop and saw a pile of flattened bike boxes. I talked to the owner who was a fine fellow and wanted very badly to go to Miami. I complimented him for the few words in English he tried to say and I could see it meant a lot to him. I thanked him for the boxes and began the long walk back across the city in the heat carrying the large, awkward boxes.

It was hot in the afternoon in the valley and it felt good to have the boxes and I would now not need to worry about finding them in the few days after New Year’s before my flight. I left the boxes at the hostel and walked down Avenida Sexta and took a seat at one of the off-license bars and ordered a beer. There were two unlicensed bars with the excellent asado restaurant in between that I had had grilled chorizos at the night before. Because these were not legally bars beers were sold cheaply and there were always a few Colombians sitting at the tables no matter the time of day.

I had a Costeña and watched the action along the avenue. The Sexta was a long avenue of bars and clubs and restaurants. Across the street in the park a couple of drug dealers were working a spot and now and then someone would stop and make a transaction. It did not seem to matter that police armed with machine guns were stationed at every other corner. The dealers knew the guys at the bars and the asado and it was simply business along the avenue.

Old and young couples passed by with their children and then later after sunset a pair of prostitutes sat down at the asado and ordered the grilled chorizos. Old men tried to sell you hats or offered to shine your shoes and children begged to sell you candies. There was an old woman selling bags of potato chips out of an battered suitcase. But Avenida Sexta was clean and safe and all sorts of people mixed together there and I enjoyed sitting and watching it.

I went back to the hostel and washed up and then went out with a pair of German girls back to the asado for dinner. Along with the pig chorizos I had an arepa con choclo, which is a sort of sweet cornbread bun filled with slabs of cheese and a hot butter sauce. It is a specialty of Cali and this asado makes one of the best. The girls and I ate and then moved next door to the off-license bar I had been at earlier. One of the Colombians who was there in the afternoon was now face down on a table of empty bottles. The salsa music was still blasting out of the spot onto the avenue and the crowd there would sing along loudly and sometimes get up to dance.

Back at my room at the hostel I drank some water and fell asleep. I hadn’t ridden but the kilometers of the two days previous had reduced me. I also planned to get a good training climb in the next day and wanted to rest up for it.

20 December 2010


I awoke hungry. Crackers and water for dinner after 120kms the day before was not enough food and I had a second metric century ahead to make Cali. I packed and left the hotel and bought a couple pastries and ate them in the plaza at Tuluá. I would drink some coffee later on the road.

Not wanting to ride back through that depressing, dirty industrial stretch I had ridden to get into the center of town, I stopped an older couple and asked how to get back to Ruta 25. They told me to follow the street along the river but first they had some questions. Sure, whatever you want to ask me. The man said he worked for a newspaper and gave me its name. I did not know of it. The woman asked if I had had any problems in Colombia. I had not. She looked skyward. Many thanks be to God, she said.

The man was called Eugenio and he asked if he could take my picture. Certainly. I gave Eugenio a serious, pre-ride pose. He showed it to me on his camera. I had the look of a man who would easily ride a 100kms every day. It was a good picture and he would send it to me by email. Then the woman warned of an inundacion near Buga. The storms had been terrible and parts of the city had flooded and I should go around Buga. I told her I would and thanked them both for the directions and the woman again looked skyward and wished for me God’s continuing protection on the road.

The street passed along the river through a quiet residential part of the city. A man yelled out from his door asking if I was going to Cali? I was and we smiled and gave each other a thumbs up. The street soon merged into Ruta 25 and I was back heading south in morning traffic.

It was cloudy and cool and my legs were heavy until they warmed up. I saw a sign indicating I was 92km from Cali. Then 15 minutes later a sign said 105km to Cali. The stone km markers on the roadside were sometimes repeated and sometimes counted up rather than down. Even my map gave different mileages depending upon which page of the route to Cali you looked at. Whatever the mileage was it was at least a 100kms and I was certain it was flat.

When I was warmed up I started to really crush it. I was feeling vigorous and the sugar from the pastries had flooded my body and I shifted up and was turning a big gear hard. It was flat, fast cycling through the farmland of the Valle Cauca with a range of mountains on either side of the valley. I passed through fields of sugar cane and corn and then I passed through Buga and I saw no sign of flooding. When I drank through my water I stopped in Guacarí for a café con leche and to refill my bottles. The coffee tasted good to me and I had a second one. I talked to the ladies there about my bike and where I was going and they felt that Cali was impossibly far for today and it was not until I left that I think I had convinced them that a bicycle could be ridden such distances.

I had planned to eat lunch in Palmira, about 20kms from Cali, but to get to Palmira I would have had to exit off Ruta 25 and ride some distance to the town. But I could not see Palmira from the road. It was like that on this stretch of Ruta 25, the road did not pass into the towns indicated on the map and there were no roadside stands other than the one at Guacarí. I was feeling hungry but I wanted to eat along the route and I continued riding and hoped a restaurant would appear.

Cauca River

But no restaurants appeared and I crossed over the Rio Cauca and hit the outskirts of Cali hungry and fatigued. The sun disappeared behind a dark cloud and I was in a rainstorm in heavy traffic on a narrow, badly paved road towards the centro, taxis and motorbikes buzzing past, and autobuses stopping suddenly in front of me, deep pot holes in the road in places. I put on my bright yellow rain jacket as much to make myself more visible as to stay dry. For 50 blocks it was tight, dangerous city biking in heavy rain and I was very cautious not to have my panniers clipped by a passing car or motorbike. To crash out here might also include being run over by a car or motorbike.

The Calidad House Hostel was not difficult to find and I pushed my bike up a steep hill and knocked on the door. Despite my reservation they did not seem to be expecting me, though the private room was ready. None of the ladies there had heard of the Esperanza I had wired money to a month before. I insisted there was an Esperanza and then I gave up. I was too tired to argue this further and figured I could work it out later and got my gear into my room and cleaned up. I was delirious from hunger and covered in sweat and grim from the ride through the city.

After I had cleaned up I checked on my computer and it was then I realized I was at the wrong hostel. Where I was supposed to have been was a hostel in the southern part of the city and according to an Israeli girl staying at the hostel it was less centrally located than this one. From the Calidad House you can walk to most places, including the popular Avenida Sexta, but from the other hostel buses or taxis would be needed. I decided to eat the 30,000 COP deposit I had made on the other room and stay at the Calidad House.

I went out to dinner with the Israeli girl and had a churrasco with potatoes and salad. She was from Tel Aviv and she told me that Bolivia was a great place, followed by Ecuador and that she had also liked Argentina. She did not much like Colombia. She had seen less natural beauty here than in those other countries. She was also disappointed in the Cali salsa style. She danced salsa and had come here for the salsa and what was danced in Cali was not really salsa at all. If it were not for tough US visa requirements for Israelis she would go to New York or Miami or Puerto Rico, where the salsa was great.

I told her of the mountains and the natural beauty that I had ridden through and that was unavailable if you were taking night time buses across countries between major cities. I had seen great beauty in Colombia and I had suffered very much to see it. Then the girl began to shake. I don’t know what happened with her but she was shaking and I was chewing my steak and continuing to talk to her but all her shaking was distracting me. Maybe it was the coffee she was drinking. The sudden caffeine had done something to her. We were sitting at an outside table but it certainly was not cold. But then the shaking stopped and she was calm again. She was a nice girl but the shaking had disturbed me.

We walked back to the hostel and I took a nap in my privado. When I awoke I was hungry again and went out along Avenida Sexta, the main street of bars and clubs and restaurants. It was Monday and still early and the street was quiet and I stopped at an asado restaurant and sat outside. I ordered 2 orders of chorizos, chicken and pig, and a beer. Inside the restaurant a red bucket on a rope dropped up and down through a hole in the ceiling. Inside the bucket were chorizos and other meats for the grill. The chorizos came as 4 thick sausages on sticks and they were delicious. I finished them quickly and was still a little hungry but my legs ached and felt like jelly and I walked back to the hostel, drank some water, and fell asleep. I had ridden 250km in two days.

19 December 2010


Outside of Armenia the descending began. It was a long winding descent southwest on Ruta 40 through the hills broken with short climbs, but I did not drop into my lowest chain ring. The road dropped through pasture land and over another crest of hills it fell to follow the Rio La Vieja, then over the river and back into the rolling country. The sun was out and it was hot.

I stopped at a roadside stand for almuerzo before the town of La Paila. The restaurant was a little wooden shack and the meal was cooked behind you over a wood fire. The lunch menu was a meat soup, fried eggs and plantains over rice and beans with a salad. The meal came with a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade which the ladies refilled for me. I had only had an apple and a cup of coffee for breakfast and I was hungry. I didn’t like how the boys of the little town were eyeing my bicycle and I watched them while I ate.

After lunch the road descended gently and at La Uribe Ruta 40 joined Ruta 25, which I had ridden from Medellin to Pereira. Ruta 25 was 2 lanes going south with a wide shoulder and it was good and fast and flat. The route passed through a long valley of pasture land and corn fields with a great range of mountains to the west and to the east the smaller foothills. The skies were dark with storms to the south and it was cloudy now and sometimes there was a sprinkle of rain. I felt good and was crushing it in my large chain ring towards Tuluá. I wanted to beat the storms to the city.

I was riding hard and passed a cyclist. A few kilometers later I turned and saw he had gone with me and was hugging my rear wheel, being carried along behind me. I shifted up and decided see what kind of fitness he had. My training had come in the mountains and on these flats I knew I was strong enough to turn a big gear hard and for a long time. I was crushing it now and was getting dizzy from the effort and when I turned back a few kilometers later he was gone. I had ridden him off my back wheel. It has always given me great joy when touring to crush the racers on my fully loaded touring bike and it is the hard riding carrying your load up into the mountains that makes this possible.

Dark and raining lightly I pulled into the outskirts of Tuluá and stopped to ask the way to the center of town. I had just finished speaking to a guy about directions when a dread-locked guy approached me saying another cyclist had just passed through. A second dread-locked guy ran up with a tiny glass of water and offered it to me. Then two others with dread-locks appeared. It turned out the dread-locked hippies were French and they were coming from Bolivia. We spoke in French for a bit but just as suddenly as they had run up they excused themselves and ran off. I wasn’t sure what it had been about at all but I wanted to find lodging before the big storms hit. The rain was beginning to come down harder.

I rode through the poor, industrial area outside the city and then crossed over a small bridge into the main plaza and stopped at the first hotel I saw. They charged 90,000 a night--too expensive for me and they were unwilling to negotiate a lower price. A block north I found the Hotel Los Cristales wanted 50,000 a night but I talked them down to 30,000.

I got the bike up to my room and unloaded my gear and cleaned up and then I went out and walked through the town. The streets were narrow and busy with people shopping in the little shops and at the sidewalk stands. I had a mango jugo natural and I looked for a place to eat dinner that offered something other than fried meat but I found nothing. I picked up some pastries from a panaderia and went back to my room. It was Sunday night and things were shutting down in the town and I had another 100km of riding tomorrow.

18 December 2010

Armenia 2

In Armenia my appetite returned. I had dropped a belt notch during the days I had difficulty eating and now I wandered through the city eating and drinking and replenishing my body. Every few hours I stopped and sat and ate somewhere and it felt very good to be eating again. My body demanded sweets and I drank jugos naturales, ate bread and sweet things from the panaderias, bars of dark chocolate and coffee with many packets of sugar. I ate lunch and dinner and I bought snacks from the supermercado in between.

Much of Armenia had been leveled by an earthquake in the 1980s and the city had been rebuilt with more open spaces and parks and a long, wide pedestrian shopping avenue where cars were prohibited. It was the opposite of Pereira, which was all narrow streets and sidewalks packed with people and no green areas and a big, heavily trafficked avenue that cut through that city. Armenia was an altogether more pleasant city because of its design and I was glad I had left Pereira for it.

But it rained often and big thunder storms came down from high in the mountains. Each night the rains came in after sunset and the streets emptied. I didn’t go far from my hotel in the rain and had a hamburger at a restaurant across the street where the owner told me Colombia was a doomed country. The violence continued and the people lived in poverty despite what anyone said. That Colombia was different now was a marketing ploy to boost tourism revenue. I said I thought the situation had improved from a few years before. Yes, there was less violence, but the elite in government would not let it end because they would lose the huge anti-drug payments the US government was making to them. This money never found its way to the average Colombian and was mostly taken by those in power. Corruption was holding the country back and this would never change.

Fernando was his name and he dreamed of going to America. He had an advanced degree in marketing and had had a job in advertising for a Colombian beer maker. But the years of violence had damaged the economy and he had lost his job. Now he sold hamburgers and owned one pair of jeans with holes in them. He couldn’t even get a visa to visit America, but it remained a dream for him. He wanted only to escape Colombia. He liked the American attitude toward hard work and risk-taking and he did not understand why I would want to leave America to come here. Fernando made a good hamburger for someone who had never been to America and I hoped business would pick up at his restaurant and that maybe somehow he would get to America.

Going through my gear that night I discovered I had lost 2 pairs of socks. I supposed I had misplaced them at the hostel in Pereira, or maybe they had come loose from where I tucked them under the bungee cords on the back rack to dry while I rode. It was too bad because they were special socks that wicked moisture well and kept my feet warm even when they were wet.

The next morning I found a little shop with low-cut athletic socks near the main walking area and bought 3 pairs for 5,000 pesos. I walked through the city and took some pictures of the angular, modern-looking church at the Plaza Bolivar. I assumed it was built after the earthquake. I sat at an outdoor café and had a tinto and croissant and watched the families and couples and old men walk through the plaza.

Looking down the carreras from the plaza were the mountains, green and high and cloud covered. They were the mountains I had come down from into the city. I liked Armenia and it was a pleasant city to stay a few days, but I was looking forward to the road to Cali. The map indicated over 200km of riding ahead and it would be downhill from Armenia and then flat through the valley.
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