Foreign and exotic- not, how does Colombia work? Magic potion for climbing

Dear friends and family,

This morning my task was to re-assemble my bike after having packed it in the bag I carry for the bus trip and flight inside the country. I am now in Armenia, in the middle of the coffee country. Armenia is a working class city of about a half a million people that sits in the middle of a very green and mountainous coffee farming country. 

I went out for a breakfast and coffee first thing  to ease myself into my day. There was a big screen television on at the restaurant with their version of morning shows. Ordering in Spanish, having quite different choices of food, and feeling really a long way away from anything familiar, until. Until the news showed Taylor Swift and Travis in Vegas partying post super bowl. Yup, really feeling far away and foreign, away from my American world and life!

Since I’ve changed my plans from crossing  the entire country and instead to enjoy the people and small towns, I sure have gotten my money’s worth. I have had the opportunity to learn more about the country from my meetings with middle class Colombians who speak English, so we can discuss more than what I can translate” “where are you from” “how long in the country” where are you going” “what kind of work did you do?” And “meat or chicken?”

Both outside the little town of Togui where I stayed with my new “family” (felt like it anyway) and then in another tiny town of Santa Sofia, where as I walked out of my room to see a bike packer unpacking his bike in the hallway, I could finally spend a good amount of time to hear what these Colombians thought was going on in their country. The bike packer was Rodian, a professor of biology in Santa Marta. In addition, other Colombians that I met at the various hostels shared their views.

All these Colombians were proud of their country, but seemed resigned to the corruption that they thought pretty much underlies all of everyday life. I mentioned that I thought, for all its foibles, that things seemed to run pretty well and they scoffed at that. The general philosophy was to keep one’s head down, don’t confront the corruption and live the best life possible in this beautiful country. I have to admit that now, when I see something not working, I think that it is because of the corruption behind it. 

My question about how these nice restaurants in tiny towns stay in business with few customers was answered with “these are money laundering places for the drug people”. I never even considered that, but now do think of the possibility when I’m the only customer in a nice place with four people working. I was also told that since these places could be paid for by having been in the same family for many generations so no rent to pay, that even very few customers could support a family and even the hired help, based on what it takes to live in this country. As someone who studied and worked with small businesses my whole career, I try to figure it out as I sit and wait for my food.

My own experience with the people I’ve met has been nothing short of wonderful. Yes, I am often spending money at their places, but others that have nothing to gain financially from me have been friendly and helpful. 

I was given the secret ingredient to hill climbing by Aldemar at he and his wife’s beautiful hostel. No wonder I was suffering as before this, I had to do it on my own. There are two products, the bodadillo and panela are famous for powering the Colombian riders in their early attempts at the Tour de France in 1985.

The bocadillo is a hardened cake of guava paste and the panela is a unrefined sugar melted down into cakes that harden. When the other Tour riders could not keep up with the relatively unknown Colombian riders on the mountain stages, they cried foul and had them drug tested. Turned out that it was simply the “magic potion” of their sweets that powered them. Because of this, until recently, these two magic potions stood as a cultural pride of Colombian bicyclists because they often came from simple backgrounds and couldn’t afford the modern energy bars and drinks and still competed well on these simple foods. 

Now that I was using the traditional energy foods, the hills became much more ……….

Just as hard as….

Lots of pushing the bike up the steep inclines, as before. 

Maybe it just takes growing up riding in these hills to make that work.

On a Sunday morning, on the country backroads, I encountered a couple of hundred bicyclists riding up and down the hills in both directions, riding skinny racing bikes and unencumbered mountain bikes. At the top of one especially steep and long hill a half dozen riders who passed me earlier were resting and enjoying a fresh orange juice from a vendor who parked at the summit just to sell juice to bikers. They quickly bought me a juice and asked how far I had ridden so far. A couple of the macho men went to inspect my bike setup and tried and failed to pick it up. Suddenly, the respect for my riding notched up and they had to have pictures with this big gringo.

In bigger or tourist towns I stay at hostels. Smaller towns offer only hotels. The hostel attracts the backpacker crowd, mostly from Europe, and it’s easy and fun to share stories and gather information about future destinations. My hostel in Villa de Leyva, a major tourist destination, was owned by a French and Colombian couple. A few reviews were in French, so attracted more French backpackers than most. There’s a nice energy amongst this crowd of curious world travelers and I find quite an openness to meeting new people. I’ve shared many dinners with people I’ve met at these hostels, and get to discuss world politics, economics and social issues. I get to represent America’s views from my quite liberal stance. Their question about US politics usually starts with something like “ What the fuck…?”.

In hostels here you can choose between dormitory shared rooms, typically men and women separate, or single rooms, like I usually get if available. Turns out that a single room at the hostel is more expensive than a room at a hotel, but often worth the extra price for the people part. I like the mix of locals only in the small town and then the foreign travelers in the tourist towns. One more very touristy town and then most of my remaining time will be dirt roads to small towns. No guidebook to follow, no blogs to follow. Could be interesting. I’ll of course, let you know.

Sending love,


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7 thoughts on “Foreign and exotic- not, how does Colombia work? Magic potion for climbing”

  1. liz hoenig kanieski

    Carlos –

    I’ve always loved traveling through hostels too – typically such a community based and interesting crowd. Enjoying your stories, and thank you for representing the USA 🇺🇸 so well!!



  2. Looks like a lot of cute places. Everyone trying to make their place look inviting. Sounds like you’re meeting a lot of disparate and interesting people.
    Too bad the “fixes” didn’t work. Always looking for a miracle.
    Keep on truckin’.

  3. Charlie, loving your attitude. Great life experience for both you and the Columbians you meet. Your a great story teller too…

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