The cycling in the countryside around Medellin was some of the most picturesque we can remember. Quiet lanes took us freewheeling down sunshine-covered coffee mountains, and alleys of sugar cane flanked us as we crawled up the other side of the valleys.
We had even more shouted encouragements and gifts of food than normal, possibly benefitting from the reflected glory of Nairo Quintana, the young Colombian cyclist who had just come second in the Tour de France. Despite finding ourselves with only £1.50 in cash, we sailed through the next eight days without a cash machine almost without noticing. We also had a slightly absurd request for ALL of our remaining water from a woman overtaking us on a motorbike, who complained she was thirsty while finishing off a jumbo pack of Doritos. She instructed us to ask at the upcoming houses for a re-fill, just five minutes up the hill by motorbike… or thirty thirsty sweaty minutes on a bicycle…
The towns we cycled through were small, with brightly coloured houses and wooden balconies overflowing with flowers. The lazy plazas, populated by old men lounging in groups, were overlooked by high mountain peaks with clouds wrapped around their shoulders. Three weeks of tranquil cycling, almost excessive hospitality, camping in bamboo groves while skinny dipping daily in rivers (and only getting caught once…) earned this a region a well deserved ‘RebSolomon Recommends’ award.
So what made the province of Antioquia special?
* A taste for art and culture. For many Colombians, the highest praise for a city is ‘well-organised’, i.e. big roads for cars, easily accessible shopping malls and plenty of banks. Medellin, Antioquia’s capital city, does it differently. The streets are wide, clean and lined with sculptures, photography exhibitions are printed on the pavements, paintings cover the walls. We saw preparations in the botanical garden for the upcoming annual flower festival, a week of parades when the city literally covers itself in flowers. Interesting green spaces are tucked into the city: a Barefoot Park, meditation spaces, a recreated mini town of the Antioquia of the past. This creative planning reflects Medellin’s progressive social and environmental mindset, quite amazing for a city that until ten years ago was most famous for violent crime and Pablo Escobar with his cocaine mafia. A poignant reminder of Medellin’s violent past is Botero’s sculpture ‘Bird Of Peace’, damaged by a guerilla-planted car bomb which killed twelve people in 1995. The city left the damaged sculpture, but commissioned a replica to stand alongside, to illustrate the futility of violence.
* Big Rocks. La Piedra del Peñol, the third largest freestanding rock in the WORLD! 740 steps take you up to a 360 degree viewing platform, overlooking the lagoons and rivers formed by the country’s biggest dam. Our legs wobbled worryingly on the climb down, with the rest of the day’s cycling still looming ahead of us.
* Wine-making. Friends of friends of friends, Patrick and Diana, make wine from their house in the mountains overlooking Medellin. Five hours of straining berries and our jelly arms revealed an appealing side-effect of our dreams of making our own wine: a way of keeping fit when no longer cycling. Patrick and Diana hold an annual wine festival, and with them we sampled homemade lulo, blackcurrant, raspberry and strawberry wines, as well as their ginger mead.
* Zócalos: three dimensional sculptures lining the outside of each colourful house in the town of Guatapé. They can represent the home-owners’ interest or work (fishermen, trucks, hospital instruments, bakers and milkmen), animals or scenes and legends of the area. Having already been interviewed on camera and on paper, in Guatapé we made our radio debut. Tales of RebSolomon sure to be coming to a cinema near you one day…
* Abundant, interesting fruit! Wild lulo growing by the side of the road kept us in snacks for days, and we tried a new seed which tasted like halva. One fruit which remained out of our reach was the coconut…one of our hosts was adept at shimmying up coconut palms, but with an arm in a sling, was limited to trying to teach Sol. Sol’s arms, newly strong from straining berries for wine, lifted him up around three feet off the ground before gravity prevailed.
* And finally, the temperature. No matter where we were among Antioquia’s variety of altitudes, it was caressingly warm, as good for river dips as for cycling. It was the perfect holiday temperature, getting us in the mood for our upcoming break to Venezuela and St Lucia.