Friday, 26 July 2013

Medellin and a trip to Bogota to visit the Trocaire team

The beautiful windy country road up to the Casa de Ciclista
I arrived at the Casa de Ciclista just outside San Antonio del Prado after dark on Sunday evening. San Antonio is a suburb about 15 km south west of downtown Medellin. It had been a steep climb all the way up from the main road so I was pretty exhausted by the time I arrived. Thankfully there was very little traffic as the main football team in Medellin, Atletico Nacional were playing in the first leg of the national football final. The streets were almost deserted after kick off time although every bar and television that I passed had a huge crowd outside it. I now know what it would be like if Colombia were to be in a World Cup final. The owner of the Casa, Manuel very kindly escorted me the last 3 km up out of San Antonio on his scooter. He has the casa at his home in the countryside. Upon arrival I was greeted by Jan and Evit, two Slovakian touring cyclists who are cycling from Mexico to Argentina on their honeymoon (  Just that morning two Argentinian Pan American cyclists had left the casa who I had last seen up in Monterey in California, USA. It was to be an early night for me as I quickly nodded off to the sound of the stream flowing nearby.

The following day I packed a few things in a bag as I was headed for Bogota on the night bus. Manuel had kindly agreed to let me leave my bike and most of my bags at the casa as I made a side trip to Bogota and back via the city of Medellin over the following days. One of the reasons for the trip to Bogota was to meet Tito and Leigh who work for Trocaire in Colombia.

Trocaire in Colombia

Both Tito and Leigh did a great job of outlining for me Trocaire’s work here in Colombia. Trociare have worked with Colombia for over 20 years and have had a presence on the ground since 2008. The Justice and Peace programme which Trocaire runs is designed to work towards a just and sustainable peace in Colombia. This requires complex responses to deal with the multiple causes and impacts of the armed conflict. Justice, consolidation of democracy, rule of law and capacities in building peace are some of the main elements of the programme. Trocaire functions at various levels: responding to the ongoing human rights and humanitarian crisis precipitated by the armed conflict, addressing obstacles that block the implementation of justice, the consolidation of democracy and working to install long-term strategies to ensure sustainable peace.
The main problems that Trocaire’s Justice and Peace Programme seek to address are:
•             Violations of human rights, international humanitarian law and impunity
•             Attacks and intimidation of Human Rights Defenders (37 Human Rights Defenders have been killed in Colombia in the first 6 months of 2013)
•             Violations of territorial and land rights
•             Weak rule of law and failure to comply with international standards
•             Lack of alternatives to seeking a solution to the armed conflict

The four main components of the programme are:
•             Addressing impunity and demanding truth and justice. Trocaire with their partner organisations provide legal and psychological support to victims of armed conflict using national, regional and international justice systems (such as the Inter-American Court which is similar to that of the European Court of Justice). They monitor the application of justice in order to ensure greater adherence with international norms and provide support to cases of sexual violence.
•             Strengthening democratic practices and citizen participation. Trocaire and their partners support Internally Displaced Populations (IDPs), ethnic groups, women, and encourage victims of the armed conflict to change from the process of resistance to the phase of active citizenship to form and strengthen local organisations, build autonomy, democracy and leadership.
•             Increasing accountability and compliance of the Colombian government with international human rights standards through national and international advocacy. Trocaire along with their national and international partners carry out complementary advocacy work calling for the protection of human rights and respect of International Humanitarian Law in Colombia. A few years ago Trocaire had 4 TDs (members of the Irish Parliament) out to visit Colombia to promote Human Rights and labor issues in Colombia/EU trade negotiations at the time. Michael D. Higgins, the current Irish President who has a long standing connection with Latin America, was one of these politicians.
•             The peace building component. Trocaire aims to increase the capacity of civil society to promote dialogue and basic conditions for peace building. This is done through local initiatives with citizen participation to promote peace (eg. mediation, negotiation, conflict transformation). Some of the formats are based on learning from Northern Ireland.

Trócaire supports about 25 civil society and Church organisations in Colombia who work primarily with the following population groups:

Internally Displaced Population (IDPs)
The programme carries out a significant amount of work with the internally displaced population. This population is very vulnerable due to the extent of violations that have occurred prior to their displacement followed by protracted denial of their basic rights and access to justice once they arrive in the receptor town or city. The majority of this population are women and children who live in precarious conditions and in abject poverty in slums on the outskirts of towns.

Victims of Armed Conflict
This refers to people who have suffered or if a family member has suffered violations of human rights within the context of the armed conflict (such as assassination, forced disappearances, torture, massacres, extrajudicial executions, sexual violence). The majority are also victims of forced displacement. They are vulnerable not only because of the horrific violations that they have suffered, but also because of the immense obstacles they face to access truth, justice and reparation. The majority are women and poor, and many have received death threats and have been killed due to their participation in the justice processes.

(Ethnic)Afro-Colombians/ Indigenous
Ethnic groups in Colombia are the most vulnerable in terms of the impact of the armed conflict and see high levels of extreme poverty and social, economic and political exclusion. Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities are commonly located in areas rich with natural resources and often bear the brunt of the conflict. In the past 8 years several communities have been decimated by conflict and some indigenous communities are at risk of complete extinction. The government has done little or nothing to protect and respect their territorial and cultural rights which are outlined in the Colombian Constitution. Multinational and Colombian companies have also played their part in violating their rights.

My stay in Bogota

Tito very kindly put me up in his lovely apartment for my few days in Bogota so it was a welcome recharging of the batteries, engaging in such activitiesas watching mindless television for a few hours at a time as it had been a while since I relaxed on a couch in front of the box! I also got to visit some of Bogota’s sights such as the old town, the Zona Rosa (the trendy affluent going-out area) and the impressive Museo de Oro (Museum of Gold) which features lots of pre-Colobian gold and other precious metal art work.

Museo del Oro
Museo del Oro

Museo del Oro
Then it was back to central Medellin on the night bus to check out that city before I headed back to the casa de ciclista.


Medellin, the second biggest city in Colombia, is a place that lots of people have heard of and probably for the wrong reasons. The Medellin drugs cartel headed up by Pablo Escobar was one the biggest drugs cartels in the world at its height in the 1980s and 1990s and pretty much took over the city during this period. The city has suffered from extreme violence over the years but I’m glad to report from my personal experience that Medellin is a beautiful vibrant city populated by a very friendly and welcoming bunch. It is a city on the up and well worth the visit. A local law states that any new major buildings are required to have a civic space to them which means that there is some nice architecture and some great public spaces as I got to see on my walk around.

Some clown entertaining the crowds
Mujer vestida - Botero 1989
Mujer con fruta - Botero 1996 
The main square outside the Museo de Antioquia has lots of statues by Botero, Medellin’s most famous artist. This country is also famous for it’s beautiful women and within Colombia, Medellin is claimed to be the capital of the pretty girls. I have to say it did not disappoint and I enjoyed my walk around checking out all the sights.

Mujer bebiendo - Botero 1996 ..woman boozing

Rosita - Botero 1973

Pablo Escobar muerto - Botero 2006

Una Pareja - Botero 1989 A couple

Horizontes/ Horizons - Carlos Uribe 1999
The park at the Universidad metro stop in the foreground with some of the neighborhoods up the hills surrounding Medellin in the background.
Medellin is located in a valley and is surrounded by beautiful mountains on both sides... making it a bit of a struggle to cycle in and out of! It has a good metro which is integrated with a cable car system to bring people up the steep hills to some of the different neighborhoods higher up the mountain.

Great view of Medellin from the cable car

Doing our stretches before a leisurely walk around the park?!
A walk in the park with my new friends

I got one of these cable cars up to parc Arvi, a large park located high above Medellin with some great walks and mountain bike trails. While up in parc Arvi I met Soheyla and then a short time later Igor with his two lovely energetic children and we all ended up walking the park together for a fun family day out! ILana was a keen reader and spoke perfect English and Marco hardly stopped running and jumping in all the time we were hanging out. I know most children have lots of energy but Marco brought it to a whole new level. We had great fun swapping and stealing hats on each other but suffice to say that Marco ran rings around me… literally!

Ivan, ILana, Marco, Soheyla and I 

Marco and I having a brief sit down
Despite not having been on the bike this time round I was still pretty tired again by the time I made it back to Manuel at the casa de ciclsita after my city visits. Manuel, his wife Martha and daughter Manuela made me very welcome at the casa.(  Manuel was in the process of doing extensive renovations to the casa de ciclista which is a separate building to his home. He was making it larger with extra rooms to cater for the ever increasing number of cyclists that he welcomes in. They have had over 130 cyclists pass through in the last few years. Tim, who I had cycled with in Baja California had passed through a few weeks previous and was the one who recommended the Casa to me. I look forward to checking out photos when all of the renovations are finished as I it will be an incredible place once complete and this all done out of the kindness of his heart. My cycle probably would not be possible were it not for the incredible generosity of the likes of Manuel and Martha. One of the evenings I was casually talking to them about some of the work that Trocaire does in Colombia such as working with the victims of violence. They informed me that they were victims of the violence both having had immediate family members killed over the years. This was a bit of an eye opener for me as it was different hearing about the high numbers affected by the violence sitting in the Trocaire office compared with sitting in someone’s kitchen hearing how their mother, father and sister had all been killed. It made it a lot more real. I started to think with the huge numbers of people disappeared and killed over the years that there are probably few families in the country that have not been affected by the violence in some way..

The lovely Manuael and Martha
Manuel outlining some of his plans in the casa de ciclista
The Casa de Ciclista
Manuel and Martha also run a bike shop in San Antonio where I picked up the all-important Colombian flag sticker to add to my collection on the bike.

My latest national flag sticker for the bike... Viva Colombia!

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Cartagena and the road south to Medellin

The main gate into Cartagena old town
Cartagena is a city that I have been quite interested to visit ever since I saw that 80's classic "Romancing the Stone" where Cartagena features in the grand finale. The city is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Colombia and for good reason, the walled old town is beautiful. It was great to spend a few days here with Julien and Jesa checking the place out.

Jesa, myself and Julien checking out the fort

Inside the old town in Cartagena

Street mural near the hostel

Vibrant street around the corner from the hostel

Colombian flag over the fort

Square in the old town
It was also a much needed opportunity to do some bike maintenance after all the lugging around on boats in getting to Colombia and previously with all the rain in Panama. I was assisted with the bike maintenance in no short measure by Kurt, a fellow bike tourer that I had originally met in Panama City when I was doing my rounds of the hostels. Kurt and Chris were about to set off to do some bike touring in eastern Colombia and Kurt was continuing on to do a round the world bike trip (

After I had walked all the side streets in the old town and sorted out the bike it was time to finally start cycling South America. I was very excited to be finally back on the bike as it was cycling South America that I had dreamed of for as long as I can remember, the appetisers of North and Central America were more recent add ons when I started really looking into this trip.

Packed up and ready to go for the minor matter of cycling the South American continent
As I've noticed before whenever I've had a prolonged period off the bike, the going was slow and to be honest it took me a few days to get the cycling legs going again. Thankfully the first few days riding were not too challenging although even the rolling hills were more than enough to contend with in some stifling heat.

A father and son pulled alongside me on their motor bike intrigued to find out about my trip and looking for a photo. One of the many friendly faces I met on my first week on the road in Colombia.
The thing that really stood out for me over these few days was the hospitality of strangers. Every evening from about 5pm I would start looking out for a suitable place to set up camp for the night. I had decided that for the moment in Colombia I was going to play it safe and camp beside people's houses. This obviously involves walking into somebody's garden and asking them in broken Spanish would it be okay if I camped in their garden or near their house for the night. Despite my limited Spanish I have a spiel that I stutter through about the length of the journey and amount of time on the bike. Mr. Exhausted-Innocent-Smiley face also helps. I was very pleasantly surprised that almost everywhere I asked over the weeks cycling were happy to take me in and showed me some exceptional hospitality.

Away in a-a manger... first nights camping in an old disused animal feeding barn, at least I hope it was disused.

My second night was spent camping at the back of this incredibly generous family home. This is only part of a big extended family that all lived next door to each other. Apparently I wasn't the first touring cyclist to spend the night.
A different night spent in a family's front porch, making sure to do my best to litter their entire front garden.
After about four days on the bike the rolling hills came to an abrupt end as I crossed over a big river mid afternoon and the proper climbing up into the foothills of the Andes began... gulp.

Crossing over this river marked the start of the Andes...

Some beautiful mountain scenery
The next few days were slow going as I wound my way up into the foothills of the Andes. Two days later I was up at altitudes of 2,500 metres which brought some welcome cooler weather after the hot humidity nearer to Cartagena. I slept in my sleeping bag for the first time in months.

This fella was about a metre long and as soon as I looked away sprinted up a tall tree about as fast as a squirrel.
Sunrise just outside of  Santa Rosa de Osos
The guys where I stayed here were up at 4.30 to milk the cows, I had a lie in 'til 5.30
I was more interested in the winding downhill in the background to bring me towards Medellin. a week after 
Just over a week after leaving Cartagena I had made it to Medellin, which I cycled straight through to get to the Casa de Ciclista at San Antonio del Prado about 15km south of the centre of Medellin. I was going to return to downtown Medellin later.
Was glad to see the bike acknowledged on the way into Medellin which is a bike friendly city.