Taking Risks on a Cycle Tour of Colombia
“I’m over the border safe and sound”.
This was the text I sent my family when I crossed from Colombia into Ecuador earlier this year, and I could feel the collective sigh even from the other side of the world. It all started several months earlier when a friend and her husband decided they wanted to cycle from Cartagena, Colombia to Ushuaia, Argentina and invited me and another of their friends to join them.
I was getting towards the end of my finances after traveling the world for 9 months but wanted to do something epic before going home. Cycling some of South America sounded perfect. I didn’t know much about Colombia before arriving, and my only exposure was what I heard on the news about how there was a lot of supposed violence around the FARC rebels and narco-trafficking where either the police, military, rebels or drug barons would go around blowing up roads and killing or kidnapping unsuspecting travellers.
Everywhere they told us the next town was dangerous and we shouldn’t go there only to arrive in the next town and receive the same warm hospitality we had received in the previous town.
Colombia was meant to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world to visit, and before we arrived, each of our respective family and friends had spoken to us about how dangerous it was, how the Canadian, Australian and American consulates had travel warnings out for Colombia and basically sent us every negative media report there was on how unsafe it was hoping to dissuade us from going there. We went anyway.
Arriving in Cartagena, we didn’t feel unsafe and happily spent a few days sightseeing and organising our bikes while buying last minute supplies. Again, our family and friends pleaded with us to abort the trip and told us it wasn’t too late to get a bus or fly to Ecuador which was perceived as a safer place to start the trip. Even our Airbnb host told us it was dangerous and that we should not cycle her native country. We went anyway.
Once on the road, we encountered locals who were nothing but warm and generous and tried to help out as best they could despite our language barriers. Everywhere they told us the next town was dangerous and we shouldn’t go there only to arrive in the next town and receive the same warm hospitality we had received in the previous town. They in turn would warn us about how dangerous the next town was, we would go anyway and so it went as we slowly worked our way south.
We knew we were taking a risk by cycling Colombia and were not naive to the dangers. We felt we had safety in numbers as trying to kidnap or steal from 4 of us would have been harder than cycling alone or as a couple. In fact, we had a spot tracker with us and hit the “I’m Ok” button daily which sent emails to concerned family and friends letting them know our GPS location, we regularly checked in at police stations and confirmed the roads ahead were safe to cycle.
My experiences once there couldn’t have been further removed from the hype and negative media about Colombia.
If locals came up to us while we set up camp and said ‘muerte’ while making a throat cutting motion, we would move camp. We regularly checked the news and media for travel warnings and no go zones but we, for the most part, never felt in danger or unsafe.
My experiences once there couldn’t have been further removed from the hype and negative media about Colombia. Sure we had to ride through some serious looking military checkpoints and were occasionally blocked from going into certain areas for our own safety. Yes, we even had the police let us camp at their stations when they couldn’t or wouldn’t advise us of safe alternatives, but overall the risk of cycling through Colombia was completely worth it.
Colombia is visually stunning, the people are amazingly warm and friendly and the fruit on offer is outstanding in variety and quality and puts my assumed knowledge of the types of fruit in this world to shame. A cycle tour in South America is a risk, but cycling Colombia was definitely one worth taking and turned out to be an extremely rewarding experience.