Cadence in Colombia: Kapauking the Andes


The Ogresa is safely stowed at a local bike shop in Liberia, Costa Rica, awaiting much needed rim replacements. With my lady left in waiting, I headed to the Liberia airport for a flight to Medellin to connect with my Sister Sherry and Bro-n-law Jonathan. He’s a Kaplan. She’s a Pauker. They’re the Kapaukers, and we were long overdue for some good Kapauking…


Airports are a cultural phenomenon unto themselves. It is rare that I find myself within one these days, but when I do it is repeatedly striking how the sights, the smells, the languages, and the commerce manifest in these places.  Even in the two-bit Liberia International Airport, the bleached-clean floors were a novelty. The layover in Panama City’s airport was another level. PERFUMES. I’ve not smelled highly odoriferous perfumes in enclosed spaces in a very long time. Not a very popular item in my Seattle community either, so it’s always a little shocking to observe the particular nasal and tracheal sensations that come with that particular range of scents. Of course there’s the barrage of overpriced food chains, cheap electronics, and “local” artesenal work. My critical mind wants to close my eyes and attempt a transcendence of these mundane expressions of superficiality. But it’s all just so damn interesting. People are riveting, especially when they’re from lots of different backgrounds in tight enclosed spaces.


 Arriving in Medellin around 10pm, I changed some cash and headed downtown to meet up with the Kapaukers, perfectly timed for the first night of Hanukkah! Lacking in wine to celebrate the occasion, a good bottle of 7 year Habana Club rum from duty free would have to do…


 The itinerary was full for our week together. After a short night’s rest in Medellin, we were whisked away by taxi through the immense windy mountain roads to the South. We’d be spending the next week based out of Manizales for some mountain biking, trekking and coffee tours.


I of course spent much of the car ride staring out the window wishing I were riding my bike through this amazing land. We climbed to near 10,000’ outside of Medellin, dropped to near sea level, the climbed again to 7000’ in Manizales. I’ll be getting some good exercise when I come back here! 


Sugary snacks. Colombia is FULL of them. From condensed milk treats to breaded goodies to cakes, there were lots of calories available to fuel the activities to come. We preloaded quite well.


Termales del Ruiz. A small but fancy hot springs resort high in the mountains above Manizales, bordering the Los Nevados national park. Nested nearly 5000’ above Manizales one can look down the valley to see the whole city with the Andes in the foreground. Looking up valley it’s just huge rocky peaks.


VERY recently renovated, this beautiful and simple resort was almost empty during our entire visit. Long hallways had a Shining-esque feel at times…


We came. We saw. We Kapauked. These two know how to travel in style. It was way more fancy than I’m used to, and really interesting to feel the differences to see a new place from this lens of comparative luxury. I felt so lucky and honored that they wanted to spend their free time with me and traveled so far to do it. I can’t imagine the time going any better. Sharing beauty, food, drink and best of all, great conversation.


The itinerary continued — next with a day of guided downhill mountain biking! I was excited. We were shuttled up to over 12,000’ and began a 7,000’ descent to the valley below Manizales.


Definitions of mountain biking of course vary depending on person and location. I think this was a ‘downhill mountain bike’ route mostly because it was biking, on a mountain, riding downhill. From a literal sense, totally accurate! The dangers of assumptions… it was more of a partially paved, partial dirt road route. Not particularly technical, but no matter. It was great to be on a bike for the first time in Colombia, in the Andes, with my family. And after spending the last number of months in Central America’s heat, putting on cold-weather clothes was a delightful change!


High elevation jungle during the dirt road descent.


I skidded to a stop around a tight curve, surprised to see a cyclist on the road — riding uphill. Loaded. On a fat bike! Brian has ridden North since Ushuaia over the last year and had just arrived in Manizales. He was exploring the national park for a couple of days before continuing North to his home in Colorado. GREAT to see another off-road touring cyclist out there, it had been a while!


Due to some gastrointestinal adjustments, we chose to spend one full day just resting at the resort. I think we feared we’d be missing something important by not getting out there and “doing” more. But it gave us more time to just be together without distraction. I loved it. I spent a couple of hours bird watching with Jonathan that morning, and am constantly reminded by how selfishly lucky I feel that my big Sis found this man. To genuinely LOVE spending time with an in-law is not a given. It is a gift.


It appears that the area near our hot springs hotel was home to many species of hummingbird, some of which can only be found here.



 Exploring the jungle on a short day hike…



 After a few restful days at the hot springs hotel, we were picked up by car to be brought to the trailhead of our 2 day hike through Parque Los Nevados.


 Above is the tallest peak in the park, Nevado del Ruiz. It doesn’t look that high, but it’s over 17,000’ Stunning.



Looking across the valley at the rolling Andes. Dreamscape.


Lots of dairy farms in the high mountains above Manizales. Most of the small production farms transport their milk by horseback between villages.


A detailed trail and topo map of Parque Los Nevados from the ranger station wall. Write me if you need a high-res copy for personal use.


Driving to the trailhead still. These roads… I want my bike!


Setting off from the trailhead. Our new friend Juan Diego is among the owners of Kumanday Tours, the best guide company in Manizales. These guys were extremely helpful in coordinating all the details so we could pack a great deal of experience into a limited window. I’m excited to meet up with Juan Diego when I ride back through the area. Like all Colombians I’ve met so far, he was sooooooooo nice!


Our hiking guide (name) was a wealth of local plant and animal knowledge. We hiked up to a climate zone called Paramo in Spanish. I think it’s a version of tundra given the vegetation. Really interesting to see how much the land changes with elevation levels!



 Wild Arnica plants. Good to have easy access.


Looking across an enormous valley at Nevado del Ruiz in the distance. This place is vast. The kind of huge, open, uninhabited space that I’ve been craving for months. Again, I’m chomping at the bit to get the bike down here!


Lake Otun



Hiking through a valley of Frailejones plants. Rough translation is “friars”. The Spanish explorers thought the small groups of these odd plants looked like people in the distance, but they were, obviously, not moving. Perhaps they were just friars praying on a hillside? Nope. Just very odd plants.



Sherry getting up close and personal. The leaves are soft and furry like lamb’s ears!



Between our long breaks, stopping to ask a million questions and taking thousands of photos, we were running “behind”. Our guide was visibly stressed because we were supposed to be much further along by this time of the afternoon. He did his best to gently increase our momentum, with moderate success. I felt torn by the dynamic. On the one side, I understood he was coordinating our arrival at a ranch where we’d be sleeping that night, and concerned about the rocky descent to the ranch after dark. On the other hand, we wanted to enjoy our moments in the park and not feel rushed. It must be hard to walk that line as a guide — keeping things fun, loose and organic feeling while still adhering to a schedule. I think he for some reason looked to me to convey his concern to Sherry and Jonathan. Not my favorite position to be in, and one I’m not used to with so much solo travel…


 The views did not get any less captivating despite our time pressure.


Not a trick of camera angles. He’s in that moment walking right next to that huge mountain grass mound (I’m sure it has a more official name).


We entered an area of veredas (small groups of farms that live in community, sharing resources and a common school for the local kids), beginning our rocky descent to our resting place for the night.


The light was fading and we had only 2 flashlights between us. Good enough to get down. Slowly.


 Arriving well after dark to a sweet local farm that host hikers from the park, we were fed a lovely meal by our kind host.


We moved on the next morning, another 25km of hiking to get out to the trail head and our ride back to Manizales. A last look at the sweet farm animals and we hit the trail.


Tree fern. That pretty much covers it. With a little Dr. Seuss for good measure.



“Clown Bug”



A cool trailside schematic of the different climate zones with mileage and elevation.


Two long days on the trail and we made it out the far side of Parque Los Nevados. A beautiful trail, worth taking the time.


At long last, it was time to head back to Medellin to catch our flights. We passed various toll booths and were surprised to see the standard uniform for ladies working the booths are red overalls. Pretty cool!


Medellin. 3 million people worth of enormous.


Rich with art and culture, it was a pleasure to enjoy the enormous works of public art around the city.


Last night with the Kapaukers. I can’t imagine our time together any better than it was. We got to sink into some really important and challenging conversations, enjoy stunning wilderness, all interwoven with laughter and fun. It was hard to leave these two to head to the airport for my 5:30am flight, but we had our lives to continue.

Arriving at the check-in counter in perfect timing to check in for my flight, I was tired. Given the early flight hour I pretty much didn’t sleep the night before. Running on a diminishing amount of adrenaline I was excited to melt into my seat on the plane.


It turns out you cannot fly specifically from Colombia to Costa Rica without proof of Yellow Fever vaccination. I was not aware of this. Tired, frustrated and confused, I asked why the airline didn’t make this requirement clear when I purchased the ticket. They said it was not their responsibility. They would not budge. The ticketing agent suggested I catch a taxi, and have him rush to the nearby hospital where supposedly there was a doctor who could give me the documentation I needed in time to catch my flight. I ran out to the taxis and explained the situation. Tires screeching, we were off and running. Once I took a breath from the stress of the situation, it was actually pretty entertaining — heading to some random small hospital to pay some random doctor for a vaccination card at 4:30 in the morning… Unfortunately the doctor wouldn’t be in until the next morning.

Big sigh here.

Okay, I’ll miss my flight. But probably I can catch one tomorrow, right? Wrong. The next flight from Medellin to Liberia was 4 days away.

Bigger sigh here.

This is one of those moments where I forgot that I don’t actually have a schedule. The only manner in which this was any kind of inconvenience was financially. But I could likely find a cheap hostel in town. Looked like I’ll be getting to know the city a little more!

I found a cheap room around the corner from the hospital where the immunization doc worked so I could get my Yellow Fever card the next day. All went very smoothly and I headed back into the city the following afternoon to find a cheap hostel.


 The food truck phenomenon has fully arrived in Medellin. But with a twist. Many of the food trucks are converted tuk tuks. Even cooler.


Street fair in the fancy Poblado neighborhood. You know you’re not in the countryside anymore when you come across a vendor selling only high end dog collars.


I found a street vendor who was using a laser cutter to make art works with old records…


… and found my favorite. Predictable.


Lots of beautiful mural art on walls around the city.


While scouring the local bike shops for a few odds and ends, I came across this poster in a changing room. Great way to remember the names of bike parts in Spanish!


I spent a day traveling up to a large regional park on a mountaintop above the city. I was confused at first because everyone was saying I had to go to this amazing place, “Parque Arvi”. But phonetically and from an English speaking background, it SOUNDS like Parque R.V. So I’m thinking, “everyone is all excited about an RV park??” Lost in translation. Among the coolest recent developments in Medellin is the construction of various gondola lifts built up the cities hillsides to allow access to/from those communities which had been difficult to access easily.


 Most of the gondolas are built over and through very impoverished areas of the city, which are primarily up in the hills. It was a strange juxtaposition to be a tourist hovering over dilapidated neighborhoods, with minimal resources available to them, just to visit a beautiful regional park above them. The park was beautiful and interesting, but I was much more captivated by these neighborhoods.


With an Israeli traveller I met in the park, we decided to skip the gondola on the way down and walk through the neighborhoods. Very interesting experience. A mix between the  typical situation being a tourist in a place not commonly visited by other tourists — getting stared at — and a curiosity about our safety. The sun was beginning to set and we did not want to be in a bad spot, lost, after dark. The neighborhoods were like intricate mazes, with streets that rarely continued in straight lines for more than a block or two before curving in various directions. We had to ask directions many times. Mostly people were very friendly, but seemed to confirm my suspicions with their expressions that we should not dottle in getting out of the area for our own sakes. A few groups of guys gave me a weird tight feeling when they began to ask us lots of questions as they followed us down a hill, but turned out to be fine.


The graffiti in the neighborhoods was beautiful.


I’m always struck by “no trash” signs surrounded by trash.



Returning to the “safe” part of town, I saw this billboard against a building. That’s an actual mini hanging from the building. The contrast between wealth and poverty here is sharp.

After 4 extra days in the city, I was READY to get back to my bike. 2 weeks away from her at this point, I was going through withdrawal symptoms to say the least. Luckily the flight entrance went much more smoothly the second time around and I was back in Costa Rica hours later. Ready to Ride!

Biggest Sigh.

The parts hadn’t arrived yet. REALLY??? Two weeks wasn’t long enough???? Some customs irregularity got the package stuck somewhere, and I’d be waiting another 4 days for it to finally arrive. Time to find another way to keep myself busy without the bike… Coming soon.

2 Responses

  1. TeriAnn Tibbetts
    | Reply

    …so good this one..
    ..they all are…
    ..just great…!!!!

  2. Mom
    | Reply

    What a wonderful preview of Colombia w
    S&J !!
    Gorgeous pix and def one of your very best blogs. Thank you!!!!

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