/ 8 August 2014

On the right track in Colombia

A wheel adventure: Greg Mills and Lyal White on their cycling tour of Columbia which included other unusual modes of transport.
A wheel adventure: Greg Mills and Lyal White on their cycling tour of Columbia which included other unusual modes of transport.

Biking offers extraordinary access: you’re face to face with the locals, and usually going at their pace and in places where development challenges are most acutely felt. 

This is particularly true of Colombia where, although only 25% of the population lives in the rural areas, nearly half of those live in poverty. Deciding to tour the coffee region with my friend and colleague Lyal White (aka Leon Blanco) was also a great opportunity finally to start doing something about the extra 10kg (or more) that I’ve been carrying around in case of an apocalypse. Almost all of our cycling would be done off-road, up and down the mountain tracks. Having scoured the net, we selected a local company, retrociclas.co, to organise our itinerary. Its proprietor and our guide, Arvey Granada, had recently given up his accountancy practice to make a full go of his small ecology-focused tourism business, at the same time branching out into becoming the first (and only) company to offer biking tours in the coffee region. 

For those of us of a certain generation, if you think of the film Romancing the Stone, you will not be a million miles away from imagining the region’s scenery and the small towns. Rather than a breathless Kathleen Turner, however, I had a panting Lyal over my shoulder as we took to extraordinary trails, viewed spectacular waterfalls and only occasionally overtook our guide in a topography that seemed to go up more than down.  

The second day was one of the toughest, with three climbs, each the best part of 1 000m. The descents were slippery and often wet, high in the mist, more Alpine than Andes at times, the trails less Romancing the Stone than Dodging the Rocks. We did not cover that much distance overall (just 350km or so) in the week, but we ascended over 7 000m, and most of it at about 1 800m. I have fresh respect for those who do the Cape Epic. 

Occasionally, cycling on the rural passes, we would encounter a chiva, the local bus named after a goat, which Ms Turner famously hitched a ride on in the movie. They are hard to miss, brightly coloured with colourful signs, their big diesels noisily “grrraaa’ing” on overrun down the hillside, horns tooting, and responding with a loud “blah-blah” and a belching smoke ring as the drivers step back on to the gas.  

To leapfrog the busier tar roads, we took a 1954 Willys Jeep, decorated with every conceivable shiny object, including a large silver caballo (horse) on the bonnet, clearly the driver’s absolute pride and joy.  

When we cycled down to Estacion Pereira, a sleepy one-school, seemingly 90-dog town on the fierce Cauca River, the second-largest in Colombia, we took la brujita (little witch), a motorcycle-powered trolley, that runs on the rails of a now-defunct train line to the point where we hitched a ride on a foefie slide to have lunch across the river.  

Back in Estacion Pereira, we took the twice-daily, school-run chiva up to the town of Combia. I could swear that the outside rear wheels were occasionally suspended in the air on the sharper bends, with many metres of nothing below. 

Such mechanical distractions and aids were few and far between. We cycled between coffee, banana and pineapple plantations and under hanging heliconias, and bisected hills of tomatoes, spring onions, oranges, granadillas, avocados, strawberries and yucas. Not for nothing is the region known as the greenhouse of Colombia. Deep in the rain and bamboo forests, in the valleys and atop the peaks were ubiquitous tiendas, kiosks selling drinks and other basics.  

They were not alone. Everyone seems to be “making a plan”, Colombia-style, to make a living, selling fresh juice to the many hostels, cafeterias and piqueteaderos (family restaurants), country homes and haciendas offering accommodation and sustenance. We tried all these kinds of hospitality during the week — their only insurmountable challenge being apparently to find a way to dry wet kit.  

We were not the first to see the advantages of two-wheel travel. The 23-year-old Ernesto (later “Ché”) Guevara also stopped in Colombia during his journey with his friend, Alberto Granado, on the latter’s beloved (if wholly unreliable) Norton motorcycle, nicknamed La Poderosa (The Mighty One) in 1952.  

The initial aim of their adventure was to pick up as many women as possible in a four-and-a-half month journey that would take them from Argentina, through Chile and Peru, to Venezuela. It was a seminal moment for Ché — the poverty, injustice and inequality they encountered conscientised and radicalised both. 

At times I felt a little like Ché, without the engine, and sadly devoid of the hedonism, but with the asthma from which the iconic revolutionary suffered.  

The last trouble around the area of Risaralda, Arvey tells us, was about 10 years ago — not from the revolutionary Farc or ELN — but from right-wing paramilitaries and narcotraffickers. Today any risk is from crime, as inequality and poverty is still problematic. One-third of Colombia’s 47-million people live in poverty and, in the countryside, slightly less than one-quarter of residents live in extreme poverty.  

As with other countries in the region, inequality is high — Colombia is ranked the eleventh most unequal country (of 140 surveyed), though this discrepancy is steadily falling as the impact of economic growth and the government’s social and infrastructure programmes takes effect.  

The variable price of coffee, Colombia’s most important export after oil and coal, makes it difficult for rural producers. One of the most entertaining and enlightening evenings was spent at the home of our Willys Jeep driver, Daniel. His parents are cattle and coffee farmers who live in a modest finca (home) near La Moladora.  

“Two years ago,” said Pappi, in a torn T-shirt and trousers, floppy hat turned up at the sides, gnarled, blackened hands at his side, and with a replica Charles Bronson moustache and machete sheathed on his hip, “the price was P$8 000 pesos [R45] a kilogram. Last year I got just P$3 000. This year I hope to get P$6 000.”  

With a green coffee bean production of 1 250kg annually, it’s a tough living for the likes of Pappi and even some of the bigger producers.  

Santiago runs a farm near Quimbaya, producing 125 000kg of dried beans. He said “half the cost of production is in labour”, because all the beans are hand-picked, with each labourer managing 100kg or slightly less than 100 plants a day. 

Those who can afford it have moved into speciality coffee brands and techniques — and into roasting, which brings in about five times the value, about $15 a kg, with an additional cost of just $2 a kg. But the volumes required by importers that want their own branding demand that much coffee is still exported raw. We were joined halfway through our meal of rice, chicken, arepas (corn breads) and fried plantanas with Daniel’s parents by two policemen doing their neighbourhood-watch equivalent rounds on a motorbike. They were educated, polite and articulate. The only trouble today, they said, was from petty thieving, such as stock theft. “It is definitely connected with poverty and a lack of opportunity.”  

When I asked whether Colombia had gone in a positive direction this century, the older policia enthused: “Bastante!” (definitely). 

The campaign to bring security and good governance to the country was started by the two-term administration of President Alvaro Uribe in 2002, when the Farc had control of most Colombian roads and operated in groups of up to as many as 500-strong, including just 30km from the capital, Bogota. The campaign has been accelerated under the subsequent presidency of Juan Manuel Santos since 2010. The simple lesson from this has been: get the politics right and security and economic progress will follow. 

Just half of Colombia’s countryside was under government control in 2002; 10 years later, the government controls more than 90%. There was a parallel surge in economic growth during the 2000s, averaging more than 5%, with Colombia ranked as the third easiest place to do business in Latin America. There has also been fresh public investment in infrastructure.  

Despite the mountainous topo-graphy and difficult climate, the condition of rural roads is good, with frequent evidence of regular grading and improvements — such as the steep path climbing 1 000m over 16km between Alcala and Filandia, where the labourers cheekily cheered us as we struggled past: “Vamos, Rigoberto, duro, duro, duro!” (Go, Rigoberto, hard, hard, hard). Rigo-berto Urán is a Colombian cyclist. 

A common sign around the region is: “Junto puedemos construir un pais modern” (Together we can build a modern country). Indeed, Colombia’s steady progress is visible in the reassuring presence of the police and military, the obvious organisation of the countryside and the neat facilities of even the remotest school. Offer security, ensure (and not just promise) service delivery and look after the next generation, and you will look after your future.  

These traits were also evident in the Colombians we encountered: trustworthy, staunchly patriotic and conscientious to a fault, epitomised by people like Arvey — his willingness to go (in fact, cycle) the extra mile and ensure we were happy with the hotels, food and bikes was a revelation compared with other tours I have undertaken. Building a tourist business demands assiduous attention to detail and, critically, the basic security of tourists. The two hard-to-miss gringos were never hassled; instead, we were usually the focus of quaint inquiries, or at worst curious stares and smiles. 

As we travelled back to Estacion Pereira, somewhat fitter, stronger and certainly wiser about Colombia, I could positively vouch for something else: no one shrank my Lycra.