People never really ask me why. I mean they do but they don’t at the same time. I’ve often been asked why I want to ride in certain weather, up certain hills or through areas perceived as dangerous. But I’ve seldom been asked why I am going to somewhere in particular. That was until I started riding in Colombia. Fellow touring cyclists will be familiar with days where you’re constantly asking directions to a town you know nothing about and that has no significance other than being vaguely pronounceable and in the direction you want to head. On those days it fits that people should be curious as to why I might want to go to these places. However, I’ve just spent four days cycling from the tourist hub of Cartagena to Mompos (also Mompox), another tourist trap of sorts. And people have kept asking me why I am going to Mompos? Do I have family there? Or friends?
In reality it’s a difficult question to answer. Why was I cycling to Mompos? The limp answer is because it’s on the way to where I want to go and I thought it might be nice. The more sturdy reply, which I dole out to curious Colombians is ‘¿Porque? simplemente porque’ (‘Why? Just because’). This rarely satisfies them but hey, to them I’m a weird bearded Gringo on a funny looking bike in their town, nothing about it makes sense. The answer makes me feel good though as it’s the absolute truth. Right now I’m travelling because I just want to go to places and see some things. I’m not looking for anything apart from fun and a bit of adventure.
Currently enjoying my second day off in Mompos after just over 200 miles and 4 days on the bike I have already been struck by two things about northern Colombia. Firstly, it’s darn frigging hot! And secondly, Colombians really are as friendly as I’d been led to believe.
My route to Mompos evolved out of a desire to ease myself in to riding again, my weakness for local advice and necessary flood avoidance. Pedalling out of Cartagena involved a heady dose of hot dusty Saturday madness. Although I quite enjoyed the jostling and felt like one of the boys amongst the motorcyclists, the battle left me drained. 30 miles into the day I gave up, retreated into a Malagana hotel room and collapsed in front of a welcome fan. I’d been on a main road, something that is always a bit crappy due to truck traffic. Combine this with 100 degree temperatures and refreshing but also uncomfortably drenching deluges from thunderous clouds and my return to the tour was rudely announced.
My second day followed suit only this time the bursts of thunder, lightning and heavy rain were more frequent. I shouldn’t be surprised as October and November are the wettest months up here in northern Colombia.
A few miles from San Juan Nepomuceno I was joined by Raul Flores, a 66-year-old lycra clad road biker. He escorted me to his home in San Juan where I was introduced to his entire family and plied with cold Coke. The Flores clan convinced me to change my route. I had planned to go through Magangue via El Bongo but was informed that Santa Ana via Plato would be a better option. There was no road on either of my maps going directly south out of Plato but I asked around and people seemed convinced there was a way. Then I got to Plato and they were all convinced that there wasn’t a way. Back to Latin American directions!
Crossing the Rio Magdalena and entering Plato I had an untrusting feel for the place. But within minutes I was at the centre of a large gaggle of men all determined to show me the way on my map. It was clear none of them had a clue how to read a map but what they said confirmed what I suspected. There is a dirt road south but it leaves the main highway 20 km east of Plato. This is the road I wanted. But apparently it was under water at this time of year and impassable. This tidbit of information was independently verified by numerous people around town. Having experienced the rain and read about the mud in these parts it was time to play safe. So I rode 65 km past Plato to La Gloria before taking the 67 km long unpaved road south to Santa Ana.
The road between La Gloria and Santa Ana is in pretty good shape and was a joy to ride after frequenting the busy highways. Once again I found myself with a riding partner as Juan (from Los Andes) chugged along next to me for about ten miles on his motorcycle. My reward was a cold Gatorade and yet more insight into life in rural Magdalena, Colombia.
As I spun nearer to Santa Ana the surrounding countryside became increasingly flooded. Fortunately the road was raised above the flood water, which is more than can be said for a few houses that obviously didn’t get the memo about the annual floods. With a dry but exceptionally hot day, I’d been kicking myself for not taking the dirt road south. Cyclists are often being told perfectly rideable routes are too dangerous or impassable by locals so I’d taken the Plato residents assertions of the flooded road with a pinch of salt. Seeing the flood waters tight up against the road I was riding provided reassurance that I’d made the right decision in trusting the locals.
At Santa Ana I took a boat over the river to Talaigua and rode into Mompos.
Mompos is a colonial town like no other. It’s history and architecture are both rich but it’s existence has stalled. The rest of the world has overtaken Mompos. Founded in the early 1500’s as a strategically placed port for the transportation of goods up the Rio Magdalena, it’s fortunes declined as the river silted up. By the early 20th century what had once been Colombia’s third biggest city had become largely redundant and lapsed into sleepy retirement. These days cars are a novelty and life is slow. Town life rattles around within the grand colonial infrastructure and architecture that once befit it. All this makes Mompos a tourists dream. Hard to reach and largely untouched by the aggressive byproducts of tourism, it is a relaxing place that slows you down and forces the question ‘why are we in such a rush?’.
When I rolled in to the delightful Casa Amarilla I was it’s only guest. My anticipated day off turned into two as the effects of cycling in the heat caught up with me. I know if I stay here longer than two days I could end up here a while. So off I go again. I have an adventure planned in the mountains of Norte de Santander but I won’t know until I get closer and talk to the locals whether my proposed route close to the Venezuelan border is safe. Wherever I end up I’ll be expecting cooler climes, more challenging landscapes and lots more Colombian kindness.