Friday, 23 August 2013


Cali, what can I say about Cali?! I planned on staying about 3 days in Cali but ended up staying nearly 3 weeks. Too many distractions; The World Games, The International Salsa Festival, pretty girls and some great bakeries to name but a few. The last few weeks of my journey could be more accurately described as Billy’s Big Salsa Class and obviously no better place to do a class or 12 than Cali, the world salsa capital.
My arrival into Cali on a Thursday evening coincided with the last few days of the World Games which are the Olympic's little brother. I was in a rush to meet Andrea, a local Caleña who I had met through couchsurfing. We met downtown at about half past six and she gave me directions as to where to meet near her apartment while I cycled and she caught a taxi across town. While making my way to our meeting point with my packed bike I stopped to ask directions at a street corner. After a few questions along the lines of where I was from and what I was doing with all the gear on the bike I noticed that one of the guys had a large television camera. A few minutes later I was doing an interview on Colombian national television about my trip with a crowd of about thirty people around me taking photos. It's amazing who people will line up to have their photo taken with once there is a TV camera in front of them... I didn't even have my Trocaire t-shirt on?! There was a big cheer from the crowd when I waved a Colombian flag that had been thrust into my hands! In the middle of the interview I could feel my phone vibrating with Andrea ringing, worried as to where I had disappeared to! She quickly forgave me for my late show and was laughing as she over heard a passer by exclaiming that I was the cyclist from the television!

The World Games feature lots of sports that haven’t made it into the Olympics such as Tug of War, Lifesaving, Sumo, Latin dancing, Heavy Ball and Artistic Roller Skating to name a few. Once I heard it was not sold out and that some of the tickets were quite cheap I was very excited to go off and check out a few sports that I had never heard of twenty four hours previous. First up was Beach Handball in the city bullring. I got to see the local Colombian team get cheered on to beat Australia. Later that day it was off to see the rugby sevens which seemed to be a lot more popular and was being held in the main stadium - Estadio Olimpico Pascual Guerrero.

Colombia Vs Australia in the beach handball
Brazil Vs Hong Kong in the rugby sevens
The Colombia rugby team get great support from their home crowd
The following day I went to see kayak polo with Andrea and her boyfriend Egor. The outdoor Olympic pool was only a short walk from her apartment. Amused to see what kayak polo was all about, it actually did not take me long to become quite absorbed in the matches. When it comes to kayak polo the Germans appear to be a pretty difficult team to beat. They are very efficient at scoring goals.

France Vs Holland in the kayak polo

Taking a break from the kayak polo and the baking hot sun. No better way than with a cholado, a delicious, refreshing fruit, ice and syrup mix.
In the packed out, very warm gymnastics hall

Athletes in action on the floor
Thinking that was me done, Andrea and Egor kindly invited me to the gymnastics which was sold out. There was a fantastic atmosphere in the large arena. We later finished the day off with what I surprisingly found to be the most impressive of all the events witnessed, the climbing. Not being a big fan of heights climbing is not something that had ever caught my attention but to see these athletes sprint up a 30 metre climbing wall à la spiderman was a sight to behold.The competition involved two athletes race up identical climbing walls in a matter of seconds. There was usually only split seconds in the difference.

On a Sunday bike spin with Andrea we passed this river that's popular for a dip on a warm day.
Downtown Cali which becomes a ghost town after dark
A day trip to a waterfall on the outskirts of Cali

As if the World Games was not enough excitement for one city The World Salsa festival was on the following week so I couldn't hop back on the bike without checking that out. Before heading off on this trip I had always hoped to take some Spanish classes and a few salsa classes if the opportunity arose. Having done a weeks Spanish class in Guatemala it was time to tick the salsa box.. in the world salsa capital on the same week as the world salsa festival! Cali is considered the salsa capital of the world due to it's complete dominance over any other type of music in the city... go into a supermarket and salsa music is playing, hop in a taxi and the driver is listening to one of numerous salsa stations. There are over a hundred salsa schools and I heard there are around seven thousand professional salsa dancers in the city. Needless to say, most bars or clubs you visit have salsa playing with locals and tourists spinning each other around to the catchy tunes.

I thought this was great but I wasn't the only Irish man to be enthralled by this salsa city. Richie Kirwan ( is a guy from Waterford who I met and is a dance instructor living here for the last two years. I was happy to take Richie up on his offer of a free dance class for every Irish person that passed through. He also had a great bunch of local and international friends who all loved their salsa, so I spent several nights out in different venues attempting the difficult task of putting into practice the rehearsed moves that I had learned earlier in the day. Things seemed to go from bad to worse with my salsa "skills" over the week with some poor girls receiving elbows to the head or body with the occasional kick in the chin to keep them guessing. There was an Australian friend who was a very good dancer who downright refused to dance with me despite being good pals over the week. She had had laser treatment on her eyes earlier in the week and wasn't taking any chances with flying elbows. She told me that she had actually ended up in Accident and Emergency one time due to a salsa move gone wrong. It was not all one way traffic however and I was on the receiving end of a choice elbow to the head one evening in Tin Tin Deo nightclub. ( She must have been warned. 

Spot the Irish lads..
On my last Saturday night out Richie, myself and some of his pals went to Chango's, one of the better known salsa clubs in Cali, located on the outskirts of the city. It was one of the original late night Salsa clubs and it was like walking into a nightclub from the 1970s. It was a great venue with salsa playing nearly all night. Watching the locals in action with all their impressive rhythm and spins was captivating. So, after hours of classes during the week it was time to put some of my new moves into practice. I shudder to even think about it. At one stage I asked a Dutch girl up to dance who was a very good dancer and thus followed probably the worst two minutes I've ever had on a dance floor. (One of the problems that I had acquired in Cali was that I sometimes found it difficult to identify the beat, thinking a song was a fast dance when in fact it was a slower one and vice versa. See Richie's blog for a rough idea of what I'm talking about; ) Anyway, off we march onto the dance floor and I can't hear the beat, so.. worst thing ever, she starts counting out the "uno, dos, tres, uno, dos, tres..." As the dance continued to deteriorate she had a kinda look of "Is this guy for real..?" and a sense of complete disinterest as if wondering when it would all be over. To be honest by the end of the song, I was pretty relieved it was all over too. 
BUT Billy's salsa attempts are not all over, it'll take more than that to dissuade me. Practice makes perfect, or at least remotely look like you know what you are doing, LOTS and lots of practice..! Girls, I promise to take more care with those flying elbows!

Sunday, 4 August 2013


After leaving the Casa de Cislista I was headed for Salento, famous for being both beautiful and one of the main coffee producing regions in Colombia. It was going to take about 3 days cycling to get there. My day out of Medellin was one of the most enjoyable days on the bike in a long time. The first half of the day was nearly all descending for about 40 km through stunning mountain scenery. I had my work cut out keeping my eyes on the road as I descended at speed glancing left and right at the landscape.

Gramophone shop, (pre Apple store)
The following day I did not seem to be at the races at all. I couldn’t put my finger on it as it was not any steeper than recent days, it wasn’t a bad road surface and I had had a decent breakfast but when I later checked out the temperature on the GPS for that day it was over 40 degrees at stages so that probably explained it. I am a bit skeptical as the accuracy of some of those temperature readings but even if it was 5 degrees out it was still a hot one.

A miners protest that I passed. The sign reads something along the lines of: "We are not illegals, we are miners by tradition"

Riot police standing by in the background. I passed a lot of police on the road for the next hour.
The following night I pulled in to a house to inquire if I could camp and ended up meeting what has to be one of the most welcoming families in all of Colombia! Not only did they go to the effort of giving me a lovely dinner and breakfast the following morning but they even took my water bottle, filled it with an orange drink and froze it so that I had a delicious refreshing drink in the heat the next day. Talk about going the extra mile for a complete stranger!

I got an incredible welcome from Wilson, Jairo Clavijo, Natalia, Ricardo and Milena
A fantastic feed including a large jug of juice. Needless to say I finished every grain of rice.
My frozen bottle of juice to help keep me cool the following day... wow, I'm still blown away by the generosity and thoughtfulness!
As is often the case with places that are said to be beautiful, it was another step climb up to Salento and I arrived just after dark on my third day to a hostel. The hostel took tents and had been recommended to me by Sydney, a Swiss cyclist I had met at the Casa de Ciclista.

Similar landscape to Co. Wickla
A horse of course
The following day I spent the afternoon on my pannier free bike cycling through the beautiful Val de Cacora past Salento. It was beautiful alright and kind of reminded me of parts of Ireland like down past Enniskerry in Wicklow, lovely green hills with a river running through the valley. Salento is a popular tourist destination with both Colombians and foreigners alike. On my cycle back out of the valley to Salento I bumped into fellow touring cyclists Jan and Evit again who were debating whether to camp in the valley or stay in Salento. They decided to follow me back to the hostel and ended up spending a few days there, as did I.

Similar landscape to Ireland bar the palm trees. These are the national tree of Colombia.
Main square in Salento

The main tourist street in Salento
A gang of us from the hostel went out later for "una cerveza". We were keen to check out a local Colombian game called Tejo that involves throwing heavy metal objects, gun powder and drinking beer. What’s not to like? We eventually found our way to a Tejo hall which basically had a regular bar to the front and a large covered hall out the back for the Tejo. There were 3 lanes of about 12 metres in length for the beginners like ourselves and then another few lanes of double the length for the hardened professionals. Tejo apparently evolved from a game originally played by indigenous people in Colombia.  You have to lob a metal object (pictured below) the 12 or so metres and try and hit one of the paper pouches containing gun powder. These pouches are propped against a metal ring and this is all contained in a 1 metre by 1 metre clay box. Sounds like fun? Of course it was and we all even managed to get the gun powder to explode which would scare the living daylights out of you when it does go off. Beer, throwing metal weights, explosions, I can definitely see this catching on for stags in Ireland. Actually who needs a stag? A quiet pint would definitely be complimented by a quick game of Tejo!

You have to try and hit one of the gun powder filled pouches with the lump of metal that you lob from 12 metres away
The longer adults lane
The metal objects that you have to lob, the larger one on the left is for the more experienced.
John, my tent neighbor from the hostel getting to grips with Tejo. He is certainly making sure to play by the rules by keeping his foot behind the yellow line and more importantly having a beer to hand at all times.
Before leaving Salento I made sure to visit a coffee Finca (/estate). I visited the Don Elias Finca which was a steep 4 km decent out of Salento. Although I had visited la Florida Finca with Trocaire when I was in Guatemala it was interesting to see this small family run organic coffee finca go through the coffee making process from start to finish. They grew two types of coffee beans on the finca, Arabica and Colombia. On the 4 hectares there were about 10,000 coffee trees which usually produced between 4-5,000 kg of coffee depending on the weather conditions. Half of this they sold to tourists who did the coffee tour and the other half was sold as the dried beans to a local co-operative.  

It all begins as a flower
The flowers die off and along come the tiny beans
They turn into bigger beans
Then they turn into bananas.. no hold on, that's a different plant.
Putting me to work to pick some beans
Freshly picked coffee beans
The picked beans are initially put through this machine which takes off the first skin
The skin or husk of the coffee bean
The husks in one hand, the inner bean in the other hand
The beans are then laid out to dry, about 7 days here if it is sunny and up to a few weeks if it is rainy.
Once the beans have dried out they are put in this large ceramic bowl to roast slowly
Here's some roasted ones we made earlier
You're probably pretty familiar with the rest of the process, the roasted beans are then ground down..
Somebody likes their coffee
Then you add hot water and drink it being careful not to burn yourself... and that's where your cup of coffee comes from.
Laura, a German backpacker who checked into the hostel at the same time as me had decided that she wanted to give the cycling a go and so was going to join me on the roughly 200km cycle to Cali. It can be enough of a struggle on a touring bike specifically designed to carry all my bags and with a great gearing ratio but to cycle the route on a rented mountain bike carrying a heavily laden backpack is literally a backbreaking effort.

Laura, myself and Gonzalo who we met on the road out of Salento. He brought us along a nice flat dirt road with no traffic the first 12 km into the town of Armenia.
Menu del dia, didn't even have to pay extra for the hens foot.
Mmmmm.... Mingin'
I was highly impressed with Laura’s work and she didn’t complain once! Don’t think I would have managed! We were lucky enough to break up the journey when we stayed in Tulua with Carlos and his lovely family. I met Carlos through “” the website where cyclists look after other touring cyclist by providing them with a warm shower and a bed if you are lucky. This was the first time that I had used WarmShowers in Colombia and it was fantastic meeting Carlos and his family who made Laura and I feel very much at home. Carlos invited us out that evening to give us a tour of his home town and for an ice-cream with his friends. Also being a keen cyclist himself Carlos cycled the first 30 km with us the next day in the Cali direction and gave us some handy tips for side roads to avoid the heavy traffic into the busy metropolis of Cali. Thanks Carlos! By about 4 o’clock that afternoon Laura and I had managed to weave our way into central Cali.

Carlos Snr., Carlos and Laura as we get ready to hit the road for the day
Carlos and Laura

Laura and I bid farewell to Carlos as we continue towards Cali