Archive for June, 2006

Bogota to Bucaramanga

Monday, June 26th, 2006
El Tiempo - Colombia's national newspaper
Bruce guided me out of Bogota

   After a week in Bogota, I departed the city, leaving behind what almost seems routine at this point – a group of new friends, a newspaper appearance, and a city that I hope to return to someday. I was escorted out of town by Bruce, an American who helped me out while in Bogota.

   Heading northwest towards Venezuela (map), I first stopped in the colonial town of Zipaquira, where the locals have converted a salt mine into an underground cathedral. Continuing on, I was told by everyone that this stretch of road was safe, and I proceeded to camp in the countryside next to families.

Main square Zipaquira
Salt mine turned into undergound cathedral, Zipaquira

   My first night I camped next to Marco’s family’s house. Marcos cuts clay out of the roadside next to his house, then forms the clay into bricks, and then cooks the bricks with coal to harden them. The majority of Colombia’s buildings are made out of bricks, and apparently this is where they come from. I helped cut some clay (video center), but I think I was more a source of entertainment than assistance.

Marcos cutting mud to make bricks
I help make some bricks
Marcos' family (I camped behind this house)

   Camping next to families in the countryside, I am inevitably asked about money and about what life is like in the U.S. I try to explain that there is a difference between standard of living and quality of life, and that while you make more money in the U.S., things are also more expensive (just say what rent in Palo Alto is). But, while most families I see seem to have good family and community lives, the health care is poor and they have nowhere near the options that I or my friends have – minimum wage her is $200 a month. (More thoughts on this in my first comment on this post.)

   Heading north, I camped next to the houses of a few more families, and followed long scenic valleys and canyons up and down until reaching the city of Bucaramanga, another of Colombia’s major cities.

campsite and cow
I camped next to the house of Eduardo, Victor, and Arsenio
Chicamochoca River Canyon
Chicamochoca River Canyon and Cactus

The Andean Paramo – the future of the mountaintops

Monday, June 19th, 2006

   Before biking out of Bogota, a young professor from a local university took me into the mountains that overlook the city. Andres and I drove from 8,500 feet at Bogota to 11,000 feet and the national park of Chingaza. At this elevation, the pine forests give way to wet grassland known as the Andean paramo.

The Paramo - a strange grassland at the mountaintops
Andres, my guide, encourages me to follow

   Hidden in the fog, Andres charged ahead, and I followed through a strange forest of dwarf palm like plants, which can be 100 years old even though they stand only a few feet tall. According to Andres’ GPS, we climbed up to about 12,500 feet, where the temperatures were in the low 40s.

   The region is a national park and protected because much of Bogota’s drinking water flows out of these highlands. The ground is rich in organic matter, and thus serves as a huge sponge, which stores water, cleans it, and releases it slowly, so that even in drier months there is a steady flow of water out of the park. You can get a sense of how sponge-like the ground is from the movies below center and left. On the right, I am drinking water straight from the steam (it was really good water).

The Paramo Ecosystem
The spongy ground of the Paramo, and a thanks to my sponsor Chaco
You can drink the water straight from the stream

   Over the past few hundreds of thousands of years, the earth has oscillated between cold spells, known as ice ages, and warm periods, such as we have today, known as interglacial periods. According to recent research, during the ice ages, the paramo grasslands could be found further down the mountains, covering a far larger area. During warm periods, such as today, the paramo is restricted to the mountaintops, literally islands of grassland in the Andes.

   Climate change this century will likely push the planet far warmer than it has seen during these past glacial and interglacial cycles, and the paramo will have to move further up the mountainsides. But the ecosystem is already at the mountaintops, with nowhere to go, and the region is at risk. A drastically warmer earth might remove the paramo ecosystem, removing not only the valuable water storage and filtering it provides for Bogota, but also losing many unique species which are found only in this high Andean ecosystem.

   Before leaving, we ran into a group of park rangers who study small deer that live in the park. Andres pulled out hot Colombian coffee in a thermos, some sandwiches, wine, and chocolate, and we all enjoyed a picnic between mountain lakes. Not for the first time on this trip, I wondered if future generations would be able to enjoy the same place where I was standing.

A picnic with the park rangers
Paramo Lake
Paramo Flowers

Bogota, the Bicycle, and Transportation

Monday, June 19th, 2006
A week in Bogota

   Climbing into the mountains, I reached the high plain were Bogota, at 9,000 ft above sea level, sits. Bogota is far off my route (see map), and you might be wondering why I chose to bike to the capital of Colombia.

   In the 1990s, in the face of horrible road congestion, Bogota did something amazing – it reduced space for cars. The city removed lanes from a number of major thruways to make way for new high-speed busses, and sidewalks that were used for parking cars were replaced by pedestrian walkways and bikeways. A large number of pedestrian bridges were built, allowing people to easily pass over the major roads of the city. In short, the city was redesigned around people instead of around the automobile.

Entering Bogota on the cicloruta, pedestrian bridge ahead
The transmilenio - Bogota's public transit system
Bogota recently invested in a number of very nice pedestrian bridges

   I talked with a number of locals about how the city had changed. Some cited statistics – whereas traveling across the city used to take a few hours, the new bus system, named the ‘transmilenio’ will take perhaps 45 minutes. Safety has improved as well. Not only did traffic accidents reduce significantly, but violent crime also nearly halved (here is an article about this). Most people, though, remarked that Bogota is simply a nicer place to live and people respect the city more. ‘People throw less trash in the street’, I was told, and ‘now people are proud to be from Bogota.’

   I stayed for a few days with Ricardo (shown below on the left), who runs Ciudad Humana (‘human city’), a foundation that promotes improved civil life and transportation in the city. The foundation is a strong supporter of bicycle use in the city, and I spent much time with this group. I helped with a project to fix bicycles in the southern (poorer) region of town and also gave presentations to groups of young people who are learning how to be bike mechanics.

Ricardo, director of Ciudad Humana, riding the ciclovia
I helped ciudad humana fix bicycles in the southern end of Bogota
I gave a talk to a group of students at Ciudad Humana

   Bogota now has over 300 km of dedicated bike routes in the city, and I biked at least half of them in my week in Bogota. According to Ricardo, since the installation of the ciclorutas, bicycle use has increased 5 times in the city, and now there are probably between 300,000 and 400,000 trips made daily in Bogota by bicycle. A large portion of this use is in the southern, poorer region of town, and I joined Ricardo and a few other members of Ciudad Humana one morning to bike across the city and see the rush hour bike traffic.

Morning commute in Bogota
Cicloruta in the morning
Morning commute in Bogota
Bogota's bike lanes mix pedestrians and bikes - which can be a bit scary
Bicycle commuting - there are not ciclorutas everywhere...

   To be sure, the ciclorutas are not perfect. There are many places in the city where they do not connect, and you may find yourself in the situation of the man shown in the photo on the right. Also, they are placed on the sidewalk in such a way so as to put pedestrians and cyclists in competition (you can watch the video on the right to understand this). But the ciclorutas are nonetheless incredibly successful, showing that with more investment, even more is possible.

   I spent my last day in the city enjoying the ciclovia, an event every Sunday where many roads are closed to cars and open only for bicycles. Apparently, I saw it on a low turnout day (blame the world cup – Brazil was playing), but the roads were still filled with bicycles and people out to enjoy themselves. (The clowns on the right are in charge of making fun of people without helmets.)

The Ciclovia Explained
Coclovia and Ciclovia Police
Clowns patrol the ciclovia to make sure you wear a helmet

   The new Bogota has another benefit as well – people are traveling more efficiently, using fewer fossil fuels. Indeed, redesigning Bogota around people and bicycles has not only improved the safety, health, and pride of its citizens, but the city has also reduced its effect on the global environment. This is a win-win situation – better city living and less carbon dioxide emissions. Hopefully, more cities in the world can follow Bogota’s example.

Medellin to Bogota

Monday, June 12th, 2006

   I entered the city of Medellin, Colombia’s second largest, on a Sunday morning. Every Sunday in Medellin, they have the ‘ciclovia,’ where a number of roads are closed to cars (see video on left). I rode in quite happily, and met a local, Lucho, who showed me around to the city’s many parks before afternoon rain showers.

Riding into Medellin and the Ciclovia
Lucho met me on the ciclovia and showed me around town
It just rained hard in Medellin
Brick Cathedral in Medellin

   Most people in Medellin asked me how the city compared to what I had heard about it in the news (‘how does Medellin seem to you in comparison to how it is painted on television?’) I of course tell the truth – Medellin is a beautiful city, and I felt just as safe in the city as any other city on this trip. It is clear to me that Colombians are upset about their reputation, and, especially in Medellin, I felt like they all wanted me to go home and tell everyone what a great place it is.

Bomberos de Medellin - can you spot the fake bombero?
How a bombero in Medellin celebrates his birthday

   In Medellin, I stayed three nights with the firefighters, who showed me the town (this time in a fire truck), helped me get in the local paper and on television, and set up a presentation for a group of teachers. I also now am carrying five items that say ‘Bomberos de Medellin.’ Thanks again to this group of firefighters, who are definitely on the ‘receive a letter from Argentina’ list. (Can you spot the ‘fake bombero’ in the picture on the left?)

   The video on the right above shows how a bombero celebrates his birthday.

   Leaving Medellin, I followed the road over the mountains, into the Magdalena river valley, and then back up into the mountains towards Bogota. It has rained heavily almost every day, but when the rain has stopped, I have received vistas of steep mountains or large rivers high from the recent rains.

Magdalena River
Rain is good for some things
Colombian Andes, road to Bogota

Cartagena to Medellin – into the Andes

Monday, June 5th, 2006

   Leaving Cartagena, I charted a course south, biking through hot lowlands for a few days before climbing into the Andes and the city of Medellin. My advice was to bike in the daytime (which I do anyway), and stay only in the towns – don’t camp in the country side. I stayed with a family, at two firestations, and a series of cheap hotels ($4 to $7 a night).

Bomberos of Sincelejo
Surrounded by curious kids in Planeta Neuva
Institucion Educativa Santa Teresita, Caucasia

   The route sees few foreigners, and nearly every person on the roadside asked me ‘¿de donde viene?,’ or where do you come from. They asked in a friendly manner, and I felt obliged to talk to each person (which can be tiring if you are surrounded by children – see video center). In the town of Caucasia, I befriended a man at the municipal building who then invited me to talk at the local school.

I asked the man with the automatic rifle to watch my bike while I went into the store
Colombian army in the rain

   The military presence along these roads is impressive. Every few kilometers, there are men in uniform with automatic rifles patrolling the road. I found these men to be friendly, and I felt safe with them on the road. I later learned that although it is generally safe to bike this area, it is ‘paramilitary central,’ and one of my email contacts told me that a mass grave was recently found near one of the cities I stayed in. (The men in uniform on the road were from the army, not the paramilitaries – read more about who the paramilitaries are here).

   The last few days of the trip were difficult, including an 8,000 feet climb into the Andes. I was impressed that both in the lowlands and the highlands, the countryside is entirely cleared for cattle grazing.

The roadside from Cartagena to Medellin is all pastureland
Colombian Andes at 7,000 feet
Descending towards Medellin

   Biking through the mountains, encountering occasional cold rain, the road eventually descended into the valley where the city of Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, sits.