It's Colombia, Not Columbia: The Riding

In Part I of It's Colombia, Not Columbia I focused on the vibrant culture and delicious food that drew us to Medellin Colombia. Now it's time to turn to the riding - which featured its fair share of ups and downs, literally and figuratively. 

Cycling in Medellin

While food gives me important insight into the native culture, cycling has become equally important as my desired mode of transportation while traveling. The bike allows for visiting far flung neighborhoods and experiencing the countryside firsthand in a way that would be missed in a fast moving car. Cycling was a major attraction for our visit to Colombia so the planning revolved pretty heavily around route mapping. We considered a day trip to a local village or coffee farm in the surrounding Antioquia region but opted to focus on the city and sample every route out of the valley instead. We climbed many mountains, sped along some 4 lane highway roads (completely normal), rode alongside other cyclists during the weekly Ciclovia rides on closed streets and attempted to partake in some early morning airport training loops. The variety of the riding was fairly unparalleled in our travels thus far. It also was not for the faint of heart.

Our Favorite Medellin Rides

Thinking through some of our more memorable rides: We climbed the popular Las Palmas route up to the airport and rode a variety of roads and not-so-roads in that Rionegro area, accessing it also from the Escabero - a brutally steep climb and the shortest of the routes to the plateau with great views into lush jungle enclaves that we of course decided to tackle on day 1 -  as well as a less traveled route via St Helena. Our favorite of the three was by far St Helena. Not only did we get to meander through Parque Arvi - which most tourists access by cable car and thus miss a large portion of the park itself - but our ride up took us through areas of the city we might not otherwise see, including the new tram rail route and some of the more lively fincas in town where battling musical soundtracks abounded along the route. As we reached the higher portions of the St Helena climb we found ourselves immersed in a dense fog that would generate some of our most memorable images and atmosphere of the trip.

We ventured out west of the valley to our favorite of all the Medellin routes and the seemingly least popularized among foreign cyclists - it took us hours of research to find a blog run by some expats who spent a year cycling through Medellin to come across a well reviewed route to take us up towards San Felix. The journey on our last day was well worth the wait - and apparently more heavily trafficked by locals than we had anticipated as we passed a fair amount of mostly MTB traffic. The climb up this direction was long but gradual and though the miles were weighing heavy on our overtired legs and lungs the vistas towards the top were truly spectacular. On the way up we got another great glimpse of the valley with its orange rooftops stacked side by side and on top of one another as well as several adventurous souls strapping in harnesses to paraglide over the valley. Up towards the plateau was the most lush landscape I have seen on the bike, reminiscent of a Windows desktop background that almost looks manufactured. The rainforest-like climate made way for a beautiful landscape among the rolling hills. I only wished we had discovered it sooner and could come back for another ride or perhaps a paragliding adventure.

As you might expect for a city situated in a valley, we had a tough time finding flatter routes for our recovery days. Based on our research there is essentially one route along the center of the valley towards Barbosa that fits this billing but it meant riding on the busy autopista that zips through the center of the valley. While the cars were generally used to cyclists riding along the route and respectful of their distance, the motos and buses weren't always so kind and traffic close to the city made for what would be a less than desired route on a regular basis. If you could pair this route - as we were lucky to have done - with the weekend Cyclovia along the autopista you can at least afford yourself a few miles of car-free bliss.

Air Pollution in Medellin

The mention of traffic brings up a major roadblock to our outdoor adventures - pollution. I knew traffic and subsequent pollution in Bogota was quite heavy and made riding throughout the city unpleasant at times but we hadn't heard anything along those lines related to Medellin. Geographically Medellin sits in the Aburra valley surrounded by mountains in a tropical rainforest climate. The past few years has seen a serious uptick in motor traffic, including a huge increase in the number of motorcycles as a cheap and efficient mode of transit. Many of the motorcycles and cars don’t posses efficient or clean emissions equipment and paired with the humid climate, contribute to a very high probability of smog accumulation.

Depending on weather conditions there are periods of low wind that trap the smog inside the valley and quickly turn the air from clean to dangerous. This is the scenario we stepped into on our trip - low wind and lots of rain that sent air quality levels to red by our 3rd day in the city. It took a few days but eventually we realized that some of our tired lungs were not due so much to the elevation but instead to the poor air quality - which became quite noticeable once we climbed out of the valley and conditions improved.

While the pollution didn’t ruin our time in Medellin by any means it did subdue some of the pleasure of riding in Medellin - at least until we were able to escape the valley into the stunning countryside. When the pollution hits emergency levels the city responds with severe restrictions on vehicular traffic to minimize smog levels but it’s clear the city has a long way to go before the situation will be fully resolved, particularly as continued economic improvement in the region suggests that the number of vehicles on the road will only increase over time. We learned from our apartment host that the wealthier residents compensate for the limitations by having two cars with opposing license plate restrictions so they can drive every day even during one of these air quality breeches.

Don't Miss The Medellin Ciclovia

Due to the vehicular restrictions the heightened smog scare also meant that several of the weekly Ciclovia rides during our stay had to be cancelled, though thankfully we were still able to partake in two of them, which became some of our more memorable moments cycling in Medellin. Organized by Inder Medellin the Ciclovia shuts major arteries through the city to automobile traffic every Sunday and national holiday as well as Tuesday and Thursday evenings (for those of you in NYC think Summer Streets but multiple times every single week as opposed to the handful of hours each year that pedestrians are given in Manhattan). It’s an amazing experience as roads through the busiest areas of Medellin are taken over by cyclists, runners, roller bladers and just about every other form of human powered transportation you can think of. Thousands of people including families partook in the festivities as bike shops set up makeshift support stations and various fruit and food vendors lined mile after mile of closed roadway.

The one famous Medellin ride we were saddened to miss was morning training loops at the old (but still operating) regional airport in town. Our research suggested that Friday morning was a good opportunity to experience laps with some of the fastest local riders but at this point in time we were reaching two weeks on the road and decided to sleep through our 6AM alarm rather than joining in this Medellin tradition. Unfortunately when we attempted to hit the track later in the day it had already been shut down - but at least we have an excuse to go back to Medellin!

Cycling in Medellin: Something for Everyone

Our rides over the course of our 8 days in town took us through some incredible variance in climate. In fact in one day we managed to go from intense jungle humidity, into a hail storm, then back into humidity and blue skies with baking sunshine. All in a matter of hours. The roads were equally as varied as we tackled busy thoroughfares including Las Palmas - which is often hailed as the popular cycling route but felt more like a glorified truck route and definitely not a favorite (see above regarding San Felix) - as well as dirt roads that were impassable by cars and barely rideable on bike (seemingly one of Matt’s specialities when it comes to routing in foreign countries).

Scenery ranged from lush farmland overlooking wide open valleys, jails nearly overrun with visitors, waterfalls and large roadside inflatable pool float displays, kids on bikes catching rides via tow rope attached to any nearby truck (hilarious but also so sketchy), food carts, impenetrable fog, and of course dense urban environments. There was truly something for everyone and lots to keep the mind busy on those utterly grueling climbs.