Although colliding with a motorcycle is not generally recommended, Ben certainly timed his accident quite well. He had planned to stay in Medellin for Spanish classes anyway and was able to repair the bike while I explored the far North coast of South America.
Cycling East from Medellin, the road wound up out of the valley alongside the old Antioquia Railway. Colombia had been opened up from North to South along the Rio Magdalena and the Antioquia railway intersected this artery at Puerto Berrio, allowing agricultural produce and coffee to pump out, while the modern world seeped in.
The engines have been silent for decades, but the tracks are still used by custom motorcycle-carts that zip people from town to town. I crossed the bridge over the Magdalena river and left the mountains of South America for the final time.
The lay of the land to the North neared complete flatness and the absence of altitude made for extremely hot riding. Days blended into each other and I cycled without rest, scenes flashing by as the landscape became more arid. Brahman cattle looked on with mild interest, vultures circled lazily and lizards skittered off into the scrub.
I passed enormous fields of sturdy oil palms, military checkpoints with smiling young soldiers, and pump-jacks sucking oil from the earth. Yellow road signs promised a veritable cornucopia of animals, but unfortunately the only ones I did see were as flat as the signs .
Throughout Latin America, it is common practise to hold a rope across the road to slow traffic and ask for money. Sometimes it is for a sick member of the community, sometimes the people are in costume, sometimes there are effigies.
In one tiny town in North Colombia, three young men were painted head to toe in back paint, dancing in the street as a large drum kept rhythm on the sidewalk. I still haven’t been able to think of a charitable cause that would require blackface.
Had I traveled slightly more slowly, or left Medellin a couple of days later, my birthday would have been spent among day-drunk spectators watching bull fights in a country town. As it was, the evening of my birthday was instead spent in a town adjacent to the huge open-pit coal mine Cerrejon.
It was strange to see the orange shirt and blue jean uniforms that are so common in parts of Australia, but it was all too familiar to be in a South American mining town where you can’t drink the water.
The mine is surrounded by poor villages, ramshackle houses and people selling smuggled Venezuelan petrol on the side of the road. The petrol passes through rudimentary filters mounted on tripods and I wondered how much passes into the vehicles of the mine.
I don’t know how much benefit the people here receive from the mine, but the new uniforms and shiny trucks of the employees certainly bring the disparity into sharper relief.
North of Cerrejon, the road and the coal trains run parallel without bend for more than a hundred kilometres. The landscape quickly changes to sandy earth with low, dry shrubs and the flatness seems to stretch on forever. My mind wanders and I’m transported back to the arid lands of South Australia; dry air, salt encrusted clothes and an unquenchable thirst.
I’m snapped back to reality by the groups of kids pulling ropes taught across the road, holding out their hands to beg. One group screams at me, chases me down the road, grabbing at my panniers and threatening to throw the rocks in their hands.
Most drop the rope, some don’t and I have to aim my bike towards these young kids so that they let me pass. The occasional person who does want a conversation invariably holds out their hand afterwards or asks for the food in my handlebar bag.
I don’t know whether it is better to give them something and reinforce the begging habit, or ignore them and deny them even that small pleasure of a candy. Every person, man, woman and child hold their hands out; the begging seems like part of the culture, like shaking hands might be somewhere else.
I’m on edge and I’m sick of the Wayuu people, I’m sick of having hands grab at my panniers and then finally I am sick of myself.
Who was I to come through someone else’s home and expect certain behaviours, to feel anger at people with none of the privileges I have been afforded, who have lived and will live in poverty that I will never know.
I pushed down my negative thoughts, smiled at the kids and cycled on to Cabo de la Vela.
The town of Cabo de la Vela is roughly a day’s ride from Punta Gallinas, the most Northerly point of mainland South America.
I had been in contact with an Italian cyclist who was assaulted during an attempted robbery near here, and I read of some English cyclists who had hired a local guide in a 4WD to escort them through the sandy tracks.
The Dueña of my shack told me that four people had been murdered out in the desert in December, but other locals quickly and adamantly denounced this story. I talked to the police in front of the station and they were hesitant to answer many questions about local problems. Eventually, the more senior officer scanned the street before motioning me to the side of the building.
He told me that a truck of tourists was robbed on the night I arrived, that everyone here owned guns and that between the Wayuu people and Venezuelan smugglers, the track to Punta Gallinas was not safe for solo cyclists.
It was clear that this region is pretty lawless, but lips are shut tight to preserve the tourism industry.
It appeared my options were to travel in a tourist jeep or hire a guide vehicle to escort me. Instead, I sipped small bottles of smuggled Venezuelan beer and watched kite surfers track back and forth in the setting sun, happy to make Cabo de la Vela my own Northern limit in South America.
The journey down to Cartagena along the Caribbean coast was a tropical dream, pushed gently onwards by the breeze rolling in from the sea. River tubing, reunions with old friends, monkey spotting in Tayrona National Park and a luxurious cleanse in a mud volcano.
In a hostel in Santa Marta, I was asked if I minded sharing a dorm room with an old Italian man, and I might have answered differently had I known that he would be nude.
And suddenly there was no road left to ride in South America. Sixteen months, nineteen thousand kilometres, nine countries, two oceans and all the mountains were now behind me. The final days of cycling had been filled with alternating bursts of euphoria, smiles, and shouting, then hot eyes and a choked up throat.
I rolled Felix up onto the old fort wall of Cartagena, snapped a photo and it was done.
Then a tourist yelled at me and gestured rudely for me to get out of a photo she wanted to take.
The Darien Gap remains more or less impassable by land, and although a small number of people do attempt it, it’s much safer and less hassle to avoid it. Generally people either fly, jump in local boats or take a cruise through the San Blas Islands.
We opted for the latter, strapped our bikes to the railing of the Australian-made yacht “Wild Card” and set sail with three good friends from University. Hopping between islands, we swam in brilliant blue waters and gorged ourselves on lobster, Dorado and fresh coconuts topped up with rum.
I can think of no better way to close out the South American portion of this adventure.
We landed at the lush green bay of Portobelo, the resting placed of British privateer Sir Frances Drake (pirate if you’re Spanish) and his lead coffin. The outer edges of Hurricane Otto swept through this coast in late 2016 and dozens of boats lay on their sides, beached where the wind and waves left them.
We cycled west along the coast then turned south towards Panama City. It was strange to be in a country as small as Panama, so narrow that we could ride from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean in a single day.
Panama was a province of Colombia until 1903, when it declared independence with backing from the United States (big stick diplomacy). In return, the United States was granted ownership of the Panama Canal Zone until 1979 and still partly controlled it until 1999. Construction of the canal took ten years from 1904 to 1914, cost over 5,600 lives and is perhaps one of the most significant examples of US imperialism in Latin America.
Travelling alongside and then across the Panama Canal was a humbling experience; huge cargo ships inch by, two continents cut in half by a thin ribbon of ocean. We sat beside one of the locks, watching water levels rise and fall, huge steel monoliths slowly moving over land.
There are few to no alternatives to the Pan-American Highway in Panama and we were forced to spend days baking on that shadeless road. Happily, one whole side of the Highway was closed for most of the country and we at least had traffic free riding.
Strung along the highway, close to every shop and market is owned and staffed by Chinese – Panamanians. It might seem like an exaggeration, but they have almost complete monopoly on the stores here, and apparently nowhere else in Central or South America.
Other large populations of Panama include the Police, Army and private security groups. There is such a large volume and variety of tough boys, that it is hard to go a few minutes in any town or city without seeing a bored looking person with a sub machine gun or shotgun.
Traffic police, local police, tactical response police, military, bank guards, truck guards, shop guards, general guards. Looking imposing with a gun is probably one of the main drivers of the economy in Panama (after the canal).
For most of South America, I had maintained a reluctance to rely on Bomberos for a place to sleep and only asked sparingly. I think this came from some sense of politeness and not wanting to impose myself on people, maybe partly because I knew I was able to spare a few dollars for a hospedaje. Really, I was missing a potential with connection with people who might be interested in my travels.
I left this feeling behind somewhere and have been staying at fire stations much more regularly throughout Panama and Central America.
Close to the border with Costa Rica, I departed the Pan-American and climbed up and across the central highlands of Panama back to the Caribbean Sea. I was grateful for the cool air and mountain vistas, less so for the strong grades that seemed to shoot straight up the sides of mountains.
Descending back to the coast, I passed the 20,000km mark in the Americas.
We spent a week in the islands of Bocas del Toro during carnival while we waited for two friends to arrive from the UK. The peloton was about to double in size for Central America.