Medellin, Colombia is cycling’s Narnia, a hidden world affordably accessible through numerous wardrobes. If being selective, a transfer via JetBlue at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International is the most agreeable with a bicycle.
Writing about it feels like giving away the password to the hottest speakeasy in town during Prohibition on City Hall’s door. Except, unlike Yelping about a new Afro-Slovakian fusion dive bar in the Mission, I doubt even one in fifty who read this will make the inexpensive trip. Instead, they’ll book tickets for far-flung locales like Tuscon, San Diego, and Sedona (note: Aging snowbirds and racing cyclists, not that different at all). Nicknamed the “City of Eternal Spring”, Medellin is situated at 1,500m above sea level, and experiences an average temperature of 72F. Every. Day. This is equatorial Earth, where the daylight doesn’t change, seasons are more or less constant, and temperature is something of an unchanging beast. Curious about a typical training day in the city most gringos only know as the one-time home of the most powerful narco-kingpins on earth?
The ascent out of Medellin’s most wealthy neighborhood, El Poblado, is locally legendary. The Alto de Las Palmas is, from the floor of the Valle de Aburra, a 15.5km long, 980m of elevation gain climb. It’s also a four-lane divided highway, and a major artery to the Department of Antioquia’s international airport, Jose Cordova (known to travel websites as MDE). That said, unlike most American highways, drivers on Las Palmas are frighteningly polite to cyclists – a surprising irony, given that one generally takes one’s life into one’s hands behind the wheel on the roads of Colombia. Here, cycling, secondary only to the omnipresent popularity of futbol, is revered. Donning a kit on a racing bicycle cements one’s place in the pantheon of sport, and even riding two-abreast on a busy road is not only tolerated, but applauded. This isn’t Amsterdam, Belgium, or the revered passes of the Alps – this is Latin America.
Climbing Palmas as it skirts the contours of the Andes provides stunning vistas of the valley below, with Medellin’s El Centro revealing its mid-century modern architecture from afar. The climate begins to chill as the road reaches its summit – temperature here is governed solely by elevation. A slight drop brings the route into the plains and rolling hills surrounding the small municipalities of Rionegro and La Ceja, a popular training ground for Colombia’s professional cyclists – of which there are many. Endless loops and roads abound, with each pueblo proffering at least one or two establishments worthy of a stop – be it a tienda or panaderia.
Should you choose the latter, and should it be in the small burg of San Antionio de Pereira outside of Rionegro, chances of running into fellow cyclists are high. Digging into Colombia’s panaderia (bakery) culture is a life experience I suggest to most outsiders, one rich in Latin social experience, guava and dulce de leche filled pastries, cheese breads to die for, and relatively awful instant coffee. Overlook the paltry tinto whilst being prepared for a flurry of questions about your origins, whereabouts, and opinions on Paisas. Making friends with whom to continue the journey is the norm – not the exception. Just don’t be upset when getting dropped – especially by racers from local pro squads like Colombia – Claro. Making the excuse that the scenery was too beautiful to go hard is perfectly acceptable.
Even Colombians who ride for a living ride early. 6 or 7AM is the norm, if for no reason other than to make it back home in time for lunch, the most important time of the day. Bidding adieu to newfound riding friends by noon is normal, as many small businesses close from 12:30 to 2:30 for the culinary sledgehammer known as Almuerzo Ejecutivo, a three-course lesson in digestive devastation, best spent with family and friends. Stopping by Queareparaenamorarte, outside of El Retiro on the southern flanks of the plains of Rionegro and made famous by Anthony Bourdain, isn’t a bad lunchtime choice. Indeed expensive by Colombian standards (most midday meals of epic proportions run between $2.50 and $5 apiece), the restaurant is a showpiece in Colombian tipica, with incredible takes on traditional Colombian foods and fresh fruit jugo that will cause rethinking drinking juice from concentrate ever again.
Ascending the small hump from El Retiro up to the top of Palmas again with approximately 1,800kcal of the finest food ever paid so little for may prove tricky, but the daredevil descent down the highway amongst busses, motorcycles, and dumptrucks requires almost as much finesse as a criterium in the US. Accepting that traffic behaves in a different manner than any Western city is a requirement – there is a functional flow that must be adhered to. Throw everything learned in Driver’s Education out the window. Signal aggressively and often, slice through traffic as if it were a lineup at Mavericks, and discover the zen of surfing traffic. Arrive home approximately six hours later, content, smiling, and with an eagerness for riding unknown in North America circa mid-February.