Colombia carries more mythic baggage than any other South American country. Mention of its name is likely to bring to mind thoughts of cocaine cartels, paramilitary squads, and terrorist guerrillas. It is one of the world’s trouble spots — an area best avoided by those who value life.
But crossing the border from Ecuador this hardly seems the case. Our first impressions of the country are new roads and efficient bureaucracy. While Ecuadorian immigration dug through file cabinets and pecked away on antiquated typewriters, Colombia welcomed us with a few strokes on new computers.
Climbing the steep hill to Ipiales, people hang from passing trucks to shout encouragement. Other cyclists slow their pace to ask about our journey and welcome us to Colombia.
Cycling in Colombia is a passion second only to soccer. We meet groups of road racers daily — streams of lycra cranking up the steep inclines. Even rustic houses have a racing bike leaning up against the wall.
The terrain is a never-ending “scenic places” highlight film. Purple mountains enfold the horizon in cascading grandeur. Valleys buckle with verdant ridges like a chaotic ocean. The scent of wildflowers fills the air and overflows from porches. Salsa and Vallenato music rolls through the hills.
The scenery has its price. Rollercoaster roads take us up and down in a marathon of cranking and braking. In 400 kilometers we have yet to experience a stretch of flatness. To all this, add a heat that turns the midday asphalt into a shimmering black river.
Of course, the myriad problems of Colombia are not illusions. Witness the recent kidnapping of four American tourists outside Bogotá. But news coverage paints with broad strokes, coloring an entire country with the problems of select areas.
We’ve adopted the motto: “Go askingly,” and inquire constantly about the route to come. So far, we’ve hopped one bus — a 30km lift through an isolated and troubled stretch. It’s a small price to pay for experiencing a country as beautiful and vibrant as any we’ve seen thus far.