A Gringo Cyclist’s Colombian Cheatsheet

I’m diluting what’s become an overwhelming torrent of sensory overload during the time I’m spending in Colombia (think 5 year-old in Disneyland), so I present to you…the Gringo Cyclist’s Cheatsheet.

I’d love for Gringos to come visit Colombia for the real reasons it’s paradise, and why its people deserve all the love the world can offer. The culture, the cuisine, the cycling, the history, and the warmth. Gringos (read: Americans, and to a lesser extent, Europeans) in Colombia get a bad rap, and it’s not undeserved. Most I’ve encountered, read about, and heard about, are in Medellin for two reasons: Cocaine and sex. Exploitation – a conquistador attitude for the modern times. It makes me a little ill, and I usually avoid other Americans and Europeans at all costs. It’s why I don’t live in El Poblado, Medellin’s richest, safest, and most expat-heavy barrio. I’m quite happy in the middle-class burg of Laureles-Estadio, showering with cold water, frequenting tiendas, frightening locals with my terribly accented Spanish, and gorging on kickass street food on the weekends. Read on for tips on how to survive, and possibly thrive.

A Cheatsheet for the Gringo Cyclist in Medellin, Colombia:

  • Get used to this guy. He’s hard to catch. He’s hard to drop. He’s faster than most Cat 2 road racers in the United States on his 20 year-old department store mountain bike – and he’s just going to work.

  •  Altitude is real. Dwell around sea level? Welcome to suffering. Medellin sits at 5,000ft above the ocean, and most rides only get higher. Do yourself a favor, stay more than a week, and acclimate.

  •  Embracing Colombian cycling culture is also embracing riding at the asscrack-of-dawn early, even on Saturday and Sunday. 6 AM meet times for a group ride are normal, even for the pros who ride for a living. Why? Gotta get home in time for Mama’s lunch!

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  • Coinciding with the above, lunch is enormous. Plan accordingly.

  •  Colombia has, thanks to its violent past and previously drug-fueled economy, enjoyed freedom from the long-reaching tentacles of American multi-national corporations. Don’t expect to find *insert American comfort food* here, or to find it for less than four times what it costs in the US (and it’s been sitting in a container ship for three months). Roll with it, or make your own (see: Peanut butter). It’s a reason I love it here – it’s untouched, and the present culture is shaped less by imported consumerism and more by its own motivations.
  •  Drivers, relative to Western countries, are insane – but incredibly respectful of cyclists. I feel safer on the roads of Antioquia on my bicycle than anywhere in the United States. Get used to the horns. They’re not mad at you, they’re just saying hi.
  •  LEARN SPANISH. Rudimentary Spanish, at least, before you get here. English is not widely spoken in Medellin, and even less so in the rural pueblos outside of town where many rides venture. Don’t be that Gringo. Colombians are nice people, and will appreciate your attempts/butchering of their language, as well as help you through most situations when you’re sounding like a disjointed version of Yoda with head trauma – like me. 
  •  Addresses don’t really exist. I mean, they do, but they don’t. Look at a map of any Colombian municipality, and it will have a logical Calle/Carrera grid system…that no one uses. Streets will have different names than their numbers, and cabbies tend to navigate based on landmarks and simple directions. Hop in a taxi and give the driver a street address? You’ll get a blank stare.
  •  Be open to making friends, and you will make friends. You will make friends on the road. At the group ride. You will make friends in the supermarket. With old security guards atop climbs who are cycling fanatics. You will make friends in the cafe. And they will invite you over for lunch. Or to the family country house (see: finca) for Christmas. Or to a surprise birthday party for…you. After only meeting them once. Colombians are overjoyed that you’re visiting their country, and are proud to show you its best side. Bienvenidos a Colombia.

  •  Don’t stress loading your bike case with all manner of cycling essentials like tubes, chains, spokes, or tires. Colombia has a richer, stronger, and more vibrant cycling culture than the United States by a magnitude of ten. You can find all of those things here, and they’re probably the same price – if not cheaper.
  •  Relating to the above, if you’re a delicate flower and can’t handle riding on the local staples like Milo Cookies, Aguapanela, and Bocadillos, but instead absolutely must have ShotBloks, Stinger Waffles, gels, EFS powder, and Clif Bars to complete a ride – DO load your bike case with them. Nutritionals in Colombia are expensive. But I’d be more apt to suggest you learn to adapt to calories, no matter the origin.

  •  Most services and many products (food, clothing, other essentials) are very affordable in Colombia compared to the US. An expensive lunch or dinner spot may run $10-15 a person, and a typical cafe or restaurant will serve up breakfast and lunch for $2-$5 per person. The ride stop at a tienda or panaderia might run $2, if you’re really getting serious with the pastries and coffee. In that vein, restaurant pricing is not often set by quality of food, but by how much social status one can gain by being seen there.

  •  Medellin is, by and large, is safe. Which is to say, it’s just as safe as any large American city – it’s only as dangerous as you make it. Use your head, avoid outrageous displays of wealth, and don’t be an idiot. Don’t ask about Pablo Escobar, don’t make cocaine jokes. If a Colombian brings it up, feel free to discuss, but it’s akin to walking around New York making cracks about 9/11. Contrary to popular belief, few people want to kidnap broke gringos riding their bikes in Colombia. But, many relics of the past remain. Private security companies are everywhere, and many businesses have armed guards in Kevlar. For a serious “What the hell is going on” moment, take the time to watch an armored car do a cash pickup from a retail store. Two guards will jump out, one with a sawn-off shotgun, the other with a drawn revolver, finger inches away from the trigger. Normal. And awesome.
  •  All Colombian bicycle mechanics I’ve met are incredibly thorough and precise. The majority of the time, a standard tuneup is done within the day – and it’s a far more involved process than in the United States. Your bike will be stripped down, almost to the frame, and every crevice will be cleaned, adjusted, greased and reassembled. A similar service in the US would run $200 and take a week.

  •  Google Maps lies much of the time. Sometimes roads are not roads, and sometimes roads are really terrible dirt. Ask for directions from a local shop or from other riders if you want to venture out on your own, they’re worth it. The advent of Strava here also makes route discovery a less-painful process.
  •  The Aeroparque is the place to be on Friday morning (at 6 AM). There will be more cyclists riding in what was once part of the now-downsized airport in Medellin (after the Jose Cordova International Airport was built an hour away in Rionegro) than you’ll ever see outside of an organized event in the US. Every size, type, and pricepoint of bike and cyclist will be represented, from a 1982 Colnago with its original owner and C-Record, to a 1991 no-name mountain bike, to the 2013 BMC Impec Lamborghini Edition (Retail tag: $32,000). Enjoy the spectacle.

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  •  Another spectacle is the Sunday morning Ciclovia. Medellin shuts down parts of main arteries every Sunday morning and afternoon for use by walkers, runners, joggers, cyclists, rollerbladers, strollers, and delinquents. Think the local bike path through the park on a beautiful weekend morning – times four, with street vendors hawking anything edible and sweet. It’s a truly crazy thing to behold, a fantastic idea to encourage an active populace…and for any sort of “real” riding is more dangerous than riding on the normally-open highway with semi trucks. The last time I went with a group that had to traverse Ciclovia to get to the ride, there were two wrecks – both caused by errant pedestrians and cyclists.
  •  Riding a bike on almost any road in Antioquia is acceptable. This includes freeways – though they’re far slower than in the US. In fact, the Autopiste is a favored method of getting in/out of town by bike, thanks to the lack of intersections and lights.
  •  Climbs are long, frequent, hard, and the rule, not the exception. Expect at least one 15-20km HC climb in a ride, unless noted otherwise.

  • Finally, beyond the incredible riding, weather, food, and scenery, if you don’t recognize that the best part of Colombia is the people…You’re doing it wrong.

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3 Responses to “A Gringo Cyclist’s Colombian Cheatsheet”

  1. Nate,
    The stories you tell of Columbia are simply beautiful. It’s as if you can smell the moisture in the air there. I have really enjoyed seeing the real Columbia from a cyclists perspective.

    • nic says:

      Colombia…not Columbia.

      a little pet peeve of almost all Colombians…specially since Starbucks had spelled wrong for a few years.

  2. Eric Martin says:

    Mike, My wife and I experienced much f the same 2 years ago when we spent 2 weeks in VEN. Wish we could go back…

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