Give me a choice on how to explore a city and I’ll pick ‘by bike’ every. single. time. For me, it’s the perfect way to get to know a place. By bike you can:
- Cover more ground than walking
- Go where cars can’t go
- Lock it up and continue to explore by foot
- Get some exercise!
- Impress the locals (or piss them off depending on your biking skills…)
While today’s ride wasn’t my first rodeo when it comes to biking through a city – I’ve biked through Ecuador, Bangkok, Barcelona, Seattle, etc…) it may have been the wildest, in the best sense of the word.
One of the first things I do when researching ‘things to do’ in a new city or country is to google ‘bike tours’. More often than not, I get a hit and for Medellin it was no different – Medellin Bike Tours looked legit.
After spending a day getting acquainted with the city, I met my bike guide, Dan, and Liam, another crazy adventure seeker, in the neighborhood of Laurales, about a 15 minutes by taxi from where I’m staying in the ever so trendy and way too touristy neighborhood of El Poblado. Had I known better, I definitely would have booked an Airbnb in Laurales to 1: save money and 2: not be immediately identified as a tourist. Next time, I guess.
But anyway, I met Dan and Liam in the basement of a high-rise where Dan has set up his tiny one-room, bike-bedecked office. After signing waivers, getting fitted with bikes and gear, and swapping emergency phone numbers ‘just in case’ we hit the streets of Medellin. Right off the bat we were thrown into a crisscross of swiftly moving cars, bold pedestrians, and other bikers attempting to muscle their way through the mess. It was chaos! Thankfully I’ve had plenty of experience navigating busy roads, but I think poor Liam was a bit taken aback at first. All three of us made in through intact, though, and found our way to a pleasant two-way bike path that paralleled the busy street. Only for a short while, of course, then we were back on the defense.
Our first stop was at the top of Cerro el Volador, a small mountain in the middle of Medellin. Cerro el Violator was apparently the go-to place to off poor citizens in the Pablo Escobar era. Not a pleasant history at all, but it had pretty views of the surrounding city.
From there, we cruised back down the hill and made our way to the Botanical Gardens, but not before tasting the delicious and so very refreshing taste of guarapo – a Colombian concoction made solely of sugarcane and lime juices. Dan has his go-to lady for the best guarapo in Medellin and even though it was my first taste of the stuff, I have to agree. It was the best. Think margarita without the tequila. I know that probably sounds pretty disappointing, but after we had been out biking in the hot sun for a few hours, fighting through thongs of cars and motorcycles, it tasted pretty magical! Half the fun was also watching her press the sugarcane and limes through her industrial looking guarapo machine.
After we had our fill of the sugary stuff, we walked our bikes into the Botanical Gardens, which was a great reprieve from the busy, noisy streets of downtown Medellin. It was almost like we had stepped into a different world. Inside, we stopped at a quaint little lake where larger than expected iguanas sat up high on thick tree limbs giving us the cold stare, birds of all sizes strutted and flitted about, and turtles basked one on top of each other in the middle of the water. Families, lovers, and individuals alike enjoyed the peaceful setting as the city whirled around outside the walls.
After the Botanical Gardens, our ride evolved (or devolved?) into even more of a chaotic whirlwind adventure. Dan, apparently impressed by our intracity biking skills, decided to take us into the heart of downtown where the streets were even more crowded with cars and smoke-billowing motorcycles, sidewalks were filled to the brim with people and things, and pickpocketers were on high alert for inattentive gringos. Despite all these potentially day-ruining factors, though, I honestly felt safe. The drivers were all respectful of our space, pedestrians gave us the right of way (most of the time) and as long as we didn’t flaunt cameras or iPhones, I didn’t feel threatened in the least by opportunists.
Somewhere amid all that craziness, we emerged onto the Plaza de Botero – a large square studded with a handful of Botero’s famous and proportionally challenged sculptures. There was a large horse with a small head, a curvy woman with huge thighs and a tiny waist, a soldier man with a six-pack and microscopic you-know-what… the sculptures were both evocative and puzzling and I would have liked to have spent more time wandering among them, but we had a schedule to keep.
Continuing on our way, it wasn’t long before we emerged back onto sane – or what we now called sane – streets and made our way to our last few destinations of the day: Parque de la Luz with its iconic tall pillars that light up like hundreds of beacons at night, the EPM building (and business) that has helped shape Medellin into what it is today through hundreds of forward thinking community projects, and finally the cute but touristy Pueblito Paisa that sits at the top of Cerro Nutibara, another small hilltop in the middle of the city. As we sat on a stone bench and recuperated from the hot climb up, we treated ourselves to another delicious Colombian concoction – salpicón de frutas – basically a delicious tropical fruit gazpacho with chunks of papaya, banana, and watermelon
The afternoon thunderclouds were rolling in and it was looking like it was going to rain, so we sped back down the hill and navigated our way through traffic one last time. At one point, I heard Liam behind me exclaim “I’m getting the hang of this!” And then we were back at the start – tired, thirsty, hungry, sweaty, sunburned, but throughly delighted over the days adventure.