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The Gringo Diaries - Motorcycle Adventures in Colombia
Travel Misadventures - Ottawa to Cali Colombia
I am waiting in my room at the CasaBlanca Hostel in Cali Colombia. Mike from Motolombia Tours and Rentals has offered to drive me out to the Cali International airport to find out whether or not my missing luggage came in on last night's flight out of Miami. I am now into day three of my motorcycle adventure trip to Colombia and so far things have not been going as expected. What should have been a day's travel down to Cali Colombia from Ottawa Canada has turned into a travel nightmare of canceled and missed flights, security harassments, mechanical failures, thunderstorms, endless hours waiting around airport terminals, and now this last travel indignity my luggage has gone AWOL.
They say that bad things happen in threes, I wonder if that axiom applies to my traveling woes. The trip started off on the right note, my taxi arrived at my house at 4:30 am that morning to get me to the Ottawa airport for my 7:00 flight to Chicago. The flight from Ottawa to Chicago would be the first leg of three flights from my home in Ottawa Canada to Cali Colombia.
My itinerary would be Ottawa - Chicago - Miami - Cali Colombia. As a seasoned traveler I should have known better than to have included so many connections in my flight plan. The more connections the greater the odds that something will get screwed up along the way. The most direct flight I could have booked would have been Montreal to Bogota with a local flight the next morning from Bogota to Cali. My flight with American Airlines though would get me to my destination on the same day and save me a few hundred dollars.
I arrived at the airport carrying all my motorcycle gear that I would need on my two week motorcycle tour. Everything that I would need for my trip was crammed into my OGIO motorcycle gear bag and my BMW seat bag, 85 pound of motorcycling touring essentials. I am sure that people have gone off on year long expeditions with less gear than I was taking along with me. After 30 years of motorcycle touring and numerous oversea adventure trips, you would think that I would have learned to just pack the bare essentials. But today's 21st century adventure traveler, bare essentials now include GPS,camera(s), SPOT device, camcorders, cell phone, IPAD computer, chargers, batteries, adapters etc.
At such an early hour in the morning I was the only one checking into the American Airlines counter, I was relieved to find out that passengers flying to South American destinations were allowed two pieces of luggage, no charge. Its been a few months since I last flew out of the Ottawa airport and as I approached the security screening area, I could see that there were some new changes in place at the airport. American security paranoia had crept across the border into Canada. They now had one of those new total body scanners, the ones that does a virtual strip search of you when you go through it. When I approached the security area, the security personnel asked whether I wanted to be scanned or patted down. The idea of having to bear all to some minimum wage CATSA employee was not very appealing so I reluctantly said that I preferred a physical pat-down (wrong choice !!)
In a stern tone the security screening personnel directed me to go stand inside the designated circle a few feet away and wait for a CATSA person to conduct the search. I am not sure what I was thinking, but I was expecting that the search would be no more than some guy passing a metal detector around my body and do a quick pat down. No, what I got was some guy kneeling on the ground in front of me who then began to grope my body from my ankles up to the inside of my crotch, next he stands up and repeated the process on my upper body. After he had completed frisking my upper torso, I thought he was finished and started to walk away, at that moment I had an image in my head of drop kicking this guys gonads into the next county. The security dude then then yells over to me "Sir I am not done, I need for you to turn around so that I can search your backside". It is at this point that I lost it. "F**ck-it I am not going to be subjected to anymore of this humiliation". My outburst had caught the attention of the other screeners. "Sir you have the choice of still going through the scanner if you do not wish to continue with the enhanced pat-down". "In that case", I said, "I prefer to have my balls irradiated by this machine than to have them manhandled by any of you". If this incident had taken place across the border in the USA, I am sure that half a dozen burly security officers would have gang-tackled me, tasered me into submission and then accused me of being a sympathetic terrorist for having questioned airport security measures. After passing through the security area I made a mental note to myself, "I will have to behave myself when going through airport security in the states.
My flight from Ottawa to Chicago arrived on scheduled, my next flight from Chicago to Miami was not for another 2 hours so this gave me some time to chill out at the airport. For those who have never been to O'Hara, it is one freaking big airport, 4 terminals, 9 concourses and 182 aircraft gates. Usually when I fly into one of these mega-size airport facilities my connecting flight always seems to be at the furthest point from my arrival gate, but this time, my connecting flight was only a few gates down from where I deplaned. Things were were looking promising for my Chicago to Miami departure. First class passengers had started to board the plane, while the rest of us who were flying steerage class awaited our turn. I knew something was up when some of the passengers who had previously entered the plane return. Next that was the expected announcement that there would be a short delay as there was a mechanical problem with the plane, they were unable to secure one of the latches on one of the cargo doors. "Not to worry" we were told they would have the problem resolve shortly. An hour went by and we are all still waiting around with no news from American Airlines as to the status of our flight. After two hours, the mood in the terminal waiting area was getting tense as the natives were getting restless. At first I was not too concerned, my flight out of Miami to Cali was not to leave until later that afternoon and it did not matter if I was waiting at an airport terminal in Chicago or Miami so long as I was able to board the Miami flight at 4:30 that afternoon. A delay of a hour of more would mean that I would miss my connecting flight. This charade by American Airline of announcing a new departure time for this flight played out a few more times until finally at 5:00 pm they announced that the flight was canceled and advised passengers to rebook themselves on tomorrow's flight or make other arrangements. By this time the 200 or so disgruntled passengers had started to form a mob in front of the AA customer service desk demanding attention for themselves. The American Airlines staff look extremely frustrated by the events, I was waiting for them to call in the airport swat squad to clear out the unruly rabble from the airport. I spent another hour in line waiting to talk to a AA customer care rep about my situation, only to be told that I would have to rebook my flight at the main AA customer site in a different part of the airport. Bollocks !! So I race over to the other terminal where the main AA offices are, wait another 30 minutes in a another line before I can speak to AA personnel. They rebook me on same flight for tomorrow and found accommodations for me at a local hotel near the airport at no cost to me. It would have not been so bad if the Hotel they sent me off to was near the downtown area of Chicago, so I could at least I would have the opportunity to do some sightseeing around the city of Chicago, but instead I was dropped off at some bland Holiday Inn hotel located in an industrial areas surrounded by urban sprawl and nearby a busy freeway. Chicago that week was in the mist of a heat wave with temperatures hovering around 100 F. With no where to go and Not much to do to I hung around the pool to try and stay cool and drank lots of cold to keep myself
Day 2:Chicago to Miami
I was up early the next morning to get to the airport for my 10:30 flight to Chicago. Things go better for me this morning as I get through airport security and my flight for Miami leaves on schedule. Instead of flying down on one of those flying cattle cars (Boeing 737) they have replaced the regular plane on this route with a Boeing 777-300. "Great I thought to myself, I should have all kinds of leg room on this flight". My hopes for a leisurely flight down to Miami were soon dashed as I made my way to my assigned seat 29-B. Already seated in the two adjoining seats were two good old boys whose combine weight was that of a small pick-up truck. Their body masses spilling over to occupy my seating area. I am not the smallest of men myself so this was going to be a tight fit. After squeezing myself into my seat. I thought there could be only one thing to make this flight more unpleasant and before I could finish my thought a child across the aisle began to holler and scream at the top of their lungs followed soon after by a second infant and then a third, an entire symphony of little screaming kids. I am a tolerant and patient person, but after about 30- 40 minutes of this, myself and most of my fellow passengers were ready to open one of the airplane doors and bail out. About the halfway in our 3 hour flight the kids finally seemed to have calmed down or had cried themselves out.
After a 3 hour flight we were nearing our destination, and I could hear the plane lowering it landing gear in preparation for our landing in Miami when next the pilot came on the intercom to announce that he would have to delay his landing as there was a thunderstorm cell directly over the Miami Intl airport. For the next 30 - 40 minutes we flew around in circles waiting for the storm to move on out of the area. The pilot again comes on the intercom to say that the plane was getting low on fuel and they would need to land at an alternate airport for refueling. The alternate airport was Fort Myers which was 20 minutes or so east of Miami. We should be able to land, refuel and fly back to Miami. Even if this delay cost us 1 - 2 hours I should still be able to make my flight to Cali. Well that was not to happen, we landed in Fort Myers, fuel trucks came in and fueled up the plane, then began a waiting game with the pilot seemingly announcing every 15 minutes our imminent departure. For the next 3 1/2 hours American Airlines kept us hostage on-board the airline, not allowing us to deplane. During that time, we were given a bottle of water and nothing else. The AC in the plane was not working right so things inside the plane were starting to really uncomfortable. I turned around to my seat mate and asked if he had a cell phone, and if so could he could get a message out to Amnesty International and report that we were being held hostage by American Airlines.
Finally around 7:30, the pilot came on the intercom to say that the storm that had closed the Miami airport had passed and they would now be allowed to fly into the airport. Our plane eventually landed at Miami 30 minutes latter. The storm that had closed the airport for the last 4 - 5 hours had delayed or canceled 50 - 60 other flight. My flight to Cali had already left some hours ago. I would be forced to spend the night in Miami and fly out on tomorrow's flight to Cali. There would be no free hotel room or other courtesies offered to me by AA for the late flight, weather delays they said are not their fault. I re-booked a seat on tomorrows flight and then looked into trying to find a hotel room for the night. The scene at the Miami airport at this hour could only be described as complete and utter chaos. Picture this, 5000 - 10,000 tired and irate passengers milling around the airport looking to sort out their travel plans.
My immediate concerns was to locate a hotel for the night, I spoke to one airline official and he said that the storm had stranded thousands of travelers in the city for the night and he did not think that there would be enough hotel rooms in the city to accommodate everyone. I did not have a cell phone with me so I went in search for a pay-phone. You would think that in an airport the size of Miami Intl there would be dozens of public pay phone. No !! All I could find was 5 - 6 phones near the main entrance with a 70 - 80 people standing in line, all looking to do the same thing and that was to call a hotel and reserve a room for the night. Just then an airport staff member came by and must have read the distress on my face and asked if I wanted to use her cell phone to call a Hotel. I had a couple numbers of hotels in the area. I called two or three places but no one seemed to be answering their phones. I finally gave up, went outside and hopped on the first courtesy shuttle bus that came by. Things worked out, the shuttle bus from Travel lodge dropped me off at the hotel, they still had some rooms available. There were several shuttle buses that arrived at the same time, so I had stand in line with 30 - 40 other people while one overwhelmed clerk processed everyone. It was not until around 12:00 that I finally got checked into my room
Day 3: Miami to Cali
My flight to Cali was not to leave until 4:30 in the afternoon. With nothing to do at the hotel I headed over to the airport even though it was still 5 hours before the departure time. I checked in with American Airlines customer service and expressed my concerned about my baggage and whether it would be on this afternoon's flight to Cali, they assured me that that would not be a problem. Well I did not feel reassured. I have been wearing the same clothes for the last 3 days, I was beginning to feel like a vagrant wondering around the airport in my now well worn and rumbled clothes. I meet another fellow traveler at the airport. He was traveling from Chile back to Belgium. His initial flight from Chile to Miami had mechanical problems and had been forced to layover in Lima Peru for the night. While on his way from the airport to his hotel, the taxi driver took off with his luggage. That same evening while walking around the barrio near his hotel, he was robbed of his wallet leaving him with nothing more than his passport and the clothes on his back. His flight over to Europe was to leave this morning was cancelled, so he was stuck in Miami for another day with no money and the prospect of having to spend the night sleeping at the airport. He was not asking for any money or anything, but I gave him a few bucks to help him out. After hearing travel stories like this, my own travel woes seemed minor in comparison.
The flight to Cali left on schedule. I am not sure which variant of the Boeing 737 we were flying on, but I think it was the one they designed to see how many humans they could cram into the airframe of a 737. The seats were so narrow and cramped, even a child would not have felt comfortable sitting in one of the seats. For a normal adult, the experience of remaining in a contorted position for 3 1/2 hours was akin to a form of medieval torture. The plane at long last touched down at the Palmaseca International Airport in Cali Colombia. There were a couple of other flight arriving at the airport so there was a long queue of people waiting to clear immigration.
The first impression I had of Colombia was the heighten sense of security in place at the airport, there were military soldiers and police everywhere. After being photographed and finger printed by immigration, my passport was stamped and I was now officially in Colombia. As it had taken over an hour to get processed through immigration our luggage was already waiting in the baggage claim area. My bags are pretty unique looking so it should not be a problem to spot them amongst the jumble of bags, boxes and suitcases scattered about the baggage claim area. After 5 minutes of walking around the baggage terminal, a sickening feeling began to come over me, my luggage was not on the airplane. I looked around there were 7 or 8 passengers wondering around the terminal with that look of despair in their eyes as they realize that their bags were no where to be found. After another 20 minutes most of the passengers from the Miami flight had collected their luggage and left the airport. Over at another counter a couple of representative from America Airlines showed up and asked that all anyone who needed to file a lost luggage claim to come over to the counter and fill in the paper work. After another half hour or so I had a form filed out, the AA rep gave me a phone number and told me to call them back tomorrow evening after the daily flight from Miami had arrived at the airport, my baggage should be on that flight.
I had made arrangement with Mike from Motolombia to come to the airport and pick me up. I had told him that the flight was to arrive at 7:30 pm and it was now 8:30 or so I was not even sure if he would still be around or not. As I exited through the main door of the terminal there was a large crowd of people standing in front, many waving banners, singing and yelling. I am not sure who were waiting for but they must be someone of importance to attract this kind of attention. I scanned the sea of Colombia faces and in the back holding a sign was a big Scandinavian looking fellow, that had to be Mike. There was nothing else I could do tonight, so I went back to town with Mike and made arrangements to stay spend the night at his hostel in Cali the CaseBlanca. At least I have made it down to Colombia. Tomorrow is another day and what problems I still had with my lost luggage could wait until then.
The Gringo Diaries - Motorcycle Adventures in Colombia
Day 4: Finally in Cali Colombia
This is not my first trip down to Colombia. I lived and worked in Colombia for 7 years back in the 1980's. Back then I was employed with an American oilfield services company, working as a wellsite geologist. As a field geologist my job took me to just about every part of Colombia in the search for oil, so I was no stranger to the country. Colombia is not a country on most people's travel list and even less so as a motorcycle destination. People's view of Colombia has unfortunately been colored by the many media reports on the Colombian drug cartels and the continuing violent conflict between the Colombian government and the various revolutionary insurgent groups like FARC and ELN. The situation in Colombia compared to most other places is still risky but the situation over the past few years has been slowing improving and more and more tourists are now making their way down here. For myself I knew that there would be some risks in visiting Colombia, especially since I planned to be riding a motorcycle through some of the more remote parts of the country and through areas where there is known guerrilla activity. A few days before coming down here both the US and Canadian foreign affairs websites posted travel advisory for Colombia reporting a spike in guerrilla activity over parts of Colombia and warned against visiting cities like Cali.
When I lived down in Colombia back in the early 80's Colombia was going through some of it worst periods of violence in its troubled history, so although there are still serious security issues, compared to when I was last down there, things have been improving.
In plotting out my travel route around Colombia, I made use of a website I found that tracked all reported incidents of guerrilla activity across the country, where guerrilla attacks have occurred and when they happened. With this list I geo-located all these incidents in Google Maps and planned my route to avoid these areas if possible. Mike from Motolombia has been giving bike tours around Colombia for the past few years so he was able to provide some advise on my route selection. The only things definite about my trip is that I would start off in Cali and eleven days later find myself back here. I have not booked any hotels in advance, wherever I find myself at the end of the day is where I will be staying. I have a general idea of the route I will be taking, but beyond that my travel plans are pretty open.
The weather in Colombia has been pretty bad for the last 6 months with most parts of the country suffering from the affects of La Nina which has resulted in some of the worst flooding in the countries history. Normally in the Andean part of Colombia they get two seasons, a dry season and a wet season, June and July is normally considered to be the dry season.
Weather in Cali
Cali is the third largest city in Colombia. It has a population of 2.5 million inhabitants and is the capital of the western region of Valle del Cauca.Its in a valley sitting at an elevation of 3200 ft. bordered in the west by the Farallones mountains and by the Cauca river to the east.
Next morning I am up early and head over to a nearby sidewalk cafe that Mike recommended for breakfast. Not a whole lot has changed since I was last here. Colombians are still as boisterous as ever. The outdoor cafe was a bustling hub of activity even at this early hour in the morning. I order a large breakfast from the menu. There is a musician standing on the sidewall a few yards from me singing off key and strumming a beat up guitar, no one seems to be listening to him but that doesn't seem to distract him from trying to extract a few pesos from his audience. I am sitting back in my chair having a coffee, taking in the ambiance of my surrounding when down the street I see a young fellow on a small motorcycle come racing by, he is being pursed by two police officers on motorcycles, half way down the block I see a small truck pull up into the intersection directly in front of the on coming rider, he t-bones the truck near the driver's door. Even from where I was sitting a few hundred feet away, you could almost feel the impact. I am not sure why the police were chasing him, but they were on the scene in an instant, miraculously the young fellow did not appear to be injured, as I could see him get up on his own, next I see the police who had been pursing him, grabbed him by the collar and then commenced giving him a few whacks with their batons. While all this was going on, the people in the restaurant gave no notice or showed any interest to what was happening in front of them. It was although it was just a common every day event. Welcome to Colombia !
I had no real plans for today. The flight from Miami (with my missing baggage) would not be here until 9:00 this evening so I spent the rest of the day wandering around the city playing tourist. It would have been a better day if I had my camera to take along with me, but my camera battery was dead and my charger was in one of my missing bags.
Anyways, I found a tourist map for the city and spend the rest of the afternoon in the downtown area of the city. There are a number of old historical churches and museums worth seeing if that's your thing.
After an afternoon of walking around I came across a gringo bar, I think the place was called Bourbon St. There was a couple of guys in there from Vancouver, they had completed a ride down to Ushuala and were now on their way back to Canada after having spent 4 months on the road. Hopefully in a few years time I will have a chance to do a similar ride.
I got back to my hotel later in the evening and contacted Mike, his wife called the airport trying to contact someone from American Airlines. As expected no one was answering the phone, so Mike and I headed back out to the airport (20 minute drive from his place). We got there just after 9:30 pm and managed to find an airport official who was able to check on the status of my bag. "Good news he told me your
luggage came down on this evening's flight but he can not give your bags until they clear customs". And wouldn't you know it, the customs people have all left for the night. He tells me to come back again in the morning to claim my bags and clear them through customs.
[/COLOR]Photo in front of CasBlanca Hostal in Cali
Inside CasaBlanca. With Mike, proprieter of CasaBlanca Hostal and Motolombia Rentals
Early morning saw Mike and I head out to the airport to pick up my lost luggage. As we are making our way down to the customs area, I am feeling apprehensive, will fate deliver another means to delay my motorcycle trip. It is Sunday morning and I am not even sure if these custom guys even worked on the weekends. Over near the terminal entrance I recognize some of my fellow passengers from the Miami flight, they are here to try and reclaim their baggage. I show the custom official my boarding pass and luggage, he tells me to follow another official who leads us to a small room at the back of the building where they keep the unclaimed baggage.
The customs person opens the door, I take a quick glance around, "Praise be to the motorcycle Gods" both my bags are here. My main gear bag is buried under 5 or 6 other suitcases that have piled on top of it. I quickly grab my gear and follow the official back to another area for a customs inspection. Another passenger is standing there watching a Colombia custom official go through her suitcases. He has removed everything from her bags and is meticulously inspecting every item. Another customs person tells me to place my two bags on the counter. He spots the Canadian flag on one of my bags and asks if I am from Canada, I say yes and in broken English says that his sister lives in Toronto. He looks again at my bags and over to me, then waves me to the exit door. Finally I am ready to start my trip
We drive back to the CasaBlanca. I accompany Mike to where he has his rental bikes stored. When I first contacted Motolombia and Mike about a bike rental, I had that there would be a BMW F650 GS waiting for me out. I had rented the 650 GS on previous trips over to Costa Rica and Europe and was familiar with the capable Bavarian two-wheeler. Instead Mike told me that he had just recently sold off the 650 GS and had not yet gotten around to replacing it. In its place he offered as a replacement an Aprillia ETV 1000 cc CapeNord. The CapNord (Rally Raid model) is Aprillia's offering for a big trail bike.
I have to admit that I was not very familiar with the bike. You do not see many Aprillias in Canada let alone the CapNord model. It looked just as big and ugly as my own BMW R1150 GS back home. Its has a v-twin engine, bash plate, engine guard, hand guards and a fairly beefed up looking rear suspension. The bike was kitted out with a set of HEPCO & BECKER panniers. Mike uses this bike when he takes clients out on one of his adventures tours, so it should be up to the task.
It did not take me too long to get my gear loaded onto the bike. Getting my Garmin GPS installed and working was a bit of a pain. I had some issues adapting the 12v power outlet to work with my Garmin unit. Finding digital maps for Colombia was a challenge. Garmin does not sells GPS maps for this country. So I had to go and create my own set of maps. After some search on the internet I came across "Open Street Map" (OSM) which is a open collaborative project to create free digital maps of the world. From their site I located a GPS map for Colombia in the correct Garmin Mapsource format. The GPS data from OSM does include address locations but they do provide you with the ability to route between place locations, you can also enter and store waypoints and it comes with a fairly complete POI (Point Of Interest) file for the country,including locations for gas stations, accommodations, banks, ATMs etc. The data is not as good as what you would expect from a commercial vendor, but when its free who is to complain.
At long last the last of my gear was strapped on to the bike, the paper work for the bike rental was completed, I was now ready to hit the road. Up until this morning my plans were to head west out of Cali and follow the road north up into the mountains to the village of Lobo Guerrero where the road branches and continues east to Lake Calima. Lake Calima is a large artificial lake situated 5000 ft up in the mountains some 60 kms north of Cali. By all accounts the lake is a very scenic place to visit and a favorite hangout for many of the locals. I was told that there is a nice little windy road that skirts around the north side of the lake and is a road favored by many motorcyclist in the area. I was looking forward to riding up to Lake Calima but because of all the pissing around with going to the airport, problems with the GPS and getting all my gear sorted out I didn't depart until well after noon. So plan B was to get on the main road and head north out of Cali for Buga, to Armenia and by day's end I should find myself in Salento. Salento is a little colonial village in the heart of the Colombian coffee region and according to my copy of Lonely Planet, a favorite tourist destination.
For a first time driver in Colombia the experience of riding a motorcycle or driving a car through the street of a large urban city can be a life changing experience that is if you survive the ordeal. The first rule about driving in Colombia is realizing that there are no rules. Every intersection, every roundabout, every lane merge becomes a game of chicken and the driver with the biggest pair of cojones rules the road. And down here the drivers with the biggest set of cojones are the bus drivers, followed by the truckers and lastly by the army of kamikaze taxi drivers. Now put into this mix, swarming hordes of 100cc and 125 cc motorcycles piloted by individuals with a strong death wish and you begin to get some idea of the chaos that governs the roadways in Colombia.
As I rode out of town along one of the main carreteras I soon discovered one of the issues in riding a large adventure motorcycle and that is the unwanted attention that it draws from everyone around you. Other passing motorcyclists and drivers would spot me in traffic and then risking life and limb cut across multiple lanes of traffic just to get a closer look at the bike. There would be times when 5 or 6 riders on their little 100cc motorcycles would suddenly appear out of nowhere and swarm in around my bike for a closer view.
The route out of Cali to Buga should have been dead easy, just follow the signs north. I was on route for about 10 minutes until I came up on a section of road that was all tore up and under construction and if there was a sign for my turn off I think I drove by it. My GPS was of no use, all it was showing was a dense web of roads with names that had no meaning to me. I stopped at a gas station and asked an attendant is this was the road to Buga, he nodded and pointed down the road I was going. After another 5 minutes, it became obvious that this route was not taking me in the direction that I wanted to go. I stopped and asked another fellow, this guy seemed better educated spoke English, he told me I was headed in the totally wrong direction, I am usually pretty good with finding my way around, but with the chaotic traffic and lack of signs here to direct you it is pretty easy to get turned around. After some backtracking I came upon my turn off that I had missed earlier. It was good to finally get out on the highway and away from all the urban sprawl. There is a whole series of road that spread out from Cali and north along the valley towards Buga.
There is a good multi-lane highway from Cali east over to Palmira and then there a series of secondary road going north from there towards Buga and on to Tulua. From Cali to Salento is only 200 or so kilometers so I thought it would only be couple of hour riding at most to get there. But in Colombia with the state of the back roads, numerous delays because of construction, accidents, slow moving trucks etc, you are lucky to average 60 kms-70kms an hour more when riding and even less when going through mountainous terrain. The drive up north through Valle de Cauca is through some of the most fertile land in the country, everywhere you look there are sugar cane fields.
A note of caution when you are traversing the roads in this area, beware of the sugarcane trucks trains. The sugarcane after it has been harvested from the fields is then transported in these enormous truck vehicles called truck-trains, these units can be anywhere from two to four trucks bodies in length.
The first time I encountered one of these was when I was trying to make a quick pass around one of these trucks only to discover that I was not just pass a single truck but 4 of them at once. I was glade to have all that extra horse power afforded by the Aprillia. As I neared the town of Tulua, I stopped off for a late lunch at a roadside restaurant. There is one aspect of Colombia that I find to my liking and that is the availability of restaurants where ever you go. Colombians really enjoy their food and drink. I stayed longer than I should have at the restaurant, there was a couple I met there from Australia and we got on to talking, exchanging travel stories and drinking Colombian . By the time I got back on the road it was already late afternoon and I could see that the sun was getting low in the sky. Unlike up north in Canada and the US where we enjoy long days and extended periods of twilight, Colombia as it is only 4 - 5 degrees above the equator, days and nights are equally 12 hours long and come 6:00 pm nightfall comes in a hurry.
North of Tulua the road branches east to Armenia along route 40 and up into the mountains. The surrounding scenery starts to change and the twisty winding road makes for some interesting riding. You know you are now in coffee country as all around you are coffee farms spread out across the rolling hills. With the increased altitude the air feels cooler than down in the Cauco valley. I arrived into the town of Armenia just before 6:00. I would not be able to reach my intended destination of Salento as it would take another 30 minutes to reach the town and with darkness falling I was not keen on riding in the dark along a narrow mountain roadway. I went off in search for a hotel for the night, you find that most hotels are found in the center of towns. Back home in north america, my preference when traveling on the road is to stop at some motel for the night. Here in Colombia and for that matter in most south american and central american countries, motels serve a different function than they do back home, these places are not your Motel 6 but rather your Motel 69. They referred to these motels down here as "Love Motels" and rent out rooms by the hour. It took me 15 - 20 minutes of driving around Armenia to find a hotel for the night. I pulled over on one of the main streets in the center of town and was about to ask someone where I could find a good hotel and realized I had stopped on the door step of the Hotel Caf Real. As I dismounted from the bike an excited door man came out to greet me and ushered me into the hotel lobby. The place was more expensive (by Colombian terms) than I was expecting but I was in no mood to looking elsewhere. When I asked where I could park my motorcycle for the night, the door man lead me over to the end of the hallway and to a room with a sign indicating " Hotel Spa and Gym", he opened the glass doors to the room, inside the room contained gym equipment and a jacuzzi and said I could leave the bike in here for the night. Riding the fully loaded Aprillia up the street curb and up the slippery polished marble steps of the hotel lobby was a trial in itself with the width of the motorcycle handlebars almost as wide as the entrance door. Everyone in the hotel was very accommodating to me. I parked the bike in the far corner of the Spa, thinking to myself that it was going to be a real chore in the morning when I would have to get the bike turned around in order to exit the room. However after unloading my bags and settling into my room, I came down later to discover that some of the hotel elves had been at work and had turned the bike around for me. Fantastic !
Tomorrow I planned on getting an early start as I would have a long day riding up into the mountains and through some fairly remote areas in Los Nevados Parc so I made it an early night. Tomorrow should be an interesting day's ride.
Parting photo I found on some else flickr site. I saw similar thing in few boutique shops in Cali and Armenia, not only are many of the women in Colombia surgically enhanced, even the store mannequins are as well.
The Gringo Diaries - Motorcycle Adventures in Colombia
Day 6: Ride through Los Nevados Park
I was up early next morning. I didn't get a very restful sleep last night. My hotel room did not have have air conditioning and the only window in the room was sealed shut and looked like it hadn't been opened in a decade. The room did come with a ratty old pedestal fan. One of those early models that may have been used during the time of Queen Victoria. The contraption had fan blades on it about two feet wide. I plugged it in to see if it worked the fan blades quickly spun up to speed. The controller on the unit was broken, it only worked in the "hurricane wind mode" setting. After running for a while the whole system would begin to shimmy and vibrate on the verge of self destruction. I was expecting the unit to explode at any moment with shards of metal flying out in all directions. I had a room on the party floor, there was a group of Colombians in the room next to me who were having a party, they were up celebrating well after midnight until the hotel clerk finally came up to tell them to "shut the hell up". Things were quite about 3:00 am. I was woken up by a noise near my door, sounded like someone was trying to open the lock and open the door, after about 20 or 30 seconds, whomever was at the door began pounding on my door and yelling out for "Alfonso". It took me a few second to regain my senses before I rushed over to the door and opened it. Standing in the hallway was an obviously very inebriated fellow who could barely stand up. In a slurred voice he uttered out loudly in Spanish, "where is Alfonso and why are you in my room". I looked down at his room key that he was clutching with his hand, it was the key for room 305, my room was 303. I pointed at the room number on my door, told him , senior this is room 303 and gestured down the hallway to where his room was. As I was getting back into bed, once again I could him pounding on the door just down the hallway and was again yelling out for Alfonso. The drunken sod probably went to the wrong room and woke up someone else.
My hotel stay came with breakfast, but it was nothing more than coffee juice and a toast, not enough to get me started for a long day's ride, so I found a nearby restaurant. Typically Colombians like to have a light breakfast and save the main meal of the day for lunch. One favorite breakfast dish in the Andean part of Colombia that I tried out is Changa which is a milk soup with eggs served with bread rolls. Every meal in Colombia is always served with lots of fresh fruit and juices. The cuisine in Colombia is very regional and changes with the climate and the altitude that you are at.
I went back to my hotel and checked out. Half the hotel staff showed up to watch me ride my motorcycle out of the hotel lobby with everyone me giving me a different set of directions for the road north to Manizales.
Today I was planning on riding up north to Manizales from where I would enter into the Los Nevados del Ruiz park. The park is home to the Nevados del Ruiz and a number of other active volcanoes. Nevado del Ruiz is one many active volcanoes in Colombia. This volcano erupted back in 1985 causing a massive lahar (mud and debris flow) that buried the town of Armero, causing an estimated 23,000 deaths
I will be riding through Los Nevados National Natural Park on my way from Manizales to the town of Libano. The ride down from Manizales through the park should take me through some challenging mountain roads at elevations of near 14000 ft and through some of the most scenic areas in this part of Colombia. The ride from Armenia to Manizales is along a well maintained mountain road.It is through lush green mountain valleys and numerous coffee plantations. This part of Colombia is home to a species of Palm call the Wax Palm, the tree can grow to heights of a 100 - 150 feet and more. The tree is considered an endangered species and is protected by law.
A fact of driving down here in Colombia are that most primary and secondary roads are toll roads. Every every 50 kilometers or so you will encounter a toll booth. Fortunately for motorcycles, bikes are exempt from having to pay for passage along the roadways. At each toll booth there is a special lane for motorcycles allowing them to drive around the tolls booth. For cars and other vehicles they charge anywhere from 3000$ to 5000$ pesos ($1.50 - $2.50) which on a long trip can get expensive.
I reached Manizales around noon and stopped for lunch at what can best be described as Colombia's version of a truck stop. I ordered a Chuleta de cerdo which is grilled pork dipped in a seasoned batter. I must of mistakenly ordered the family size portion because the piece of meat they brought to me could of fed a family of 4.
Not to far outside of Manizales on my way to Los Nevados Parc I found my route blocked by a recent landslide. It is a fact of life when living in Colombia and especially during the raining season that you will find your way blocked by a rock fall, landslide or other act of nature. The weather in Colombia in the last six months has been extraordinary for the amount of rain that they have received and has resulted in a lot mudslides through out many parts of the Andes. This landslide was about about 100 feet or across.
Landslide blocking my route
I parked my bike near the slide and dismounted. My initial thoughts were that I would have to find another route to bypass this obstacle. Looking up I could see the scar on the side of the mountain left by the slide. The slide was made up of car size boulders, broken trees trunks and mud. I was about to resign myself to looking for another route when a couple of young fellows showed up each riding 125cc Honda motorcycles. They stopped and came over to where I was standing. I asked them what the fastest route was around the mudslide.
How am I going to get the bike across this ?
They questioned why I would want to find another road, "just ride your bike through this" they said to me. And with that one of the Colombians started up his bike with his friend walking behind and began to navigate a route through the mud and debris. Surprisingly after a lot of pushing and pulling they managed to drag the bike across to the other side. After seeing that they were able to get their little 125 cc bikes through the debris field, I fired up the Aprillia and followed suit alone the path that that they had just taken. The ground was pretty muddy with lots mud berms, big rocks and other obstacles in the way.
I was slowly making progress across the slide and was about halfway through when I came up on a tree trunk directly in front of me, as I approached the fallen tree, I accelerated, the front wheel went over the top and just at that moment the engine stalled out, the bike lurched to a stop, the full weight of the bike was now resting on the bash plate with the front and rear wheels suspended in the air. I quickly reached down with my foot to try regain my balance, but on the mud covered tree trunk I was having problems trying to get a proper footing, both myself and the bike were about to topple over. My two Colombian amigos who had gone across first, saw I was in some difficulty and immediately came over to assist the gringo. They held the bike up while I dismounted. We then tried to push the trapped bike off the tree to the other side, but even with the three of us, it was an effort to try and get the bike over the trunk. Others standing back near the road saw that we need more help and three other locals came to our aid. Between the 6 of us, we picked up the Aprillia and practically carried it the rest of the ways. I thanked my Colombian friends for their help. There would have been no way for me to have crossed the mudslide if I had been there alone. That is the problem with these big adventure bikes, in situations like these, the bike is sometimes to big and heavy to handle alone.
I continued heading east along route 50, the road continues to climb in elevation. Up until now it has been a mostly overcast day but as I continued my ride up into the mountains it began to rain, at first just a few drops of rain which quickly turned into a deluge. Luckily just as the skies opened up I found a tourist facility near where the road turns off for the Los Nevados park. I parked my bike and quickly went in. It was only until I was off the bike did I realize how cool it actually was up here. The restaurant was a large open rotunda, it looked like it was just recently constructed.
At the same time that I had arrived, a tourist bus pulled up. All the passengers were dressed up in parkas. I spoke to some of the passengers they said that they had just come down from a visit to Los Nevados del Ruiz. The top of the volcano is covered in a glacier and at 15000 ft it is pretty chilly. While I was talking with some of the other tourist, an army truck pulled up and 8 soldiers quickly exited out the back of the vehicle.
Within a few minutes of their arrival they had setup a road block just past the exit leading into park.
Military check point
Route north to Los Esperanza. Already at altitude of 3400 meters (12,900 feet)
Looking around at what was just happening I figured this would be a good time to leave while the road into the park was still open. The heavy rains had stopped, but the skies overhead still looked ominous, so I put my rain gear back on before continuing my ride. I followed the road into the park, the road for first few kilometers is paved and in good shape before becoming a well used dirt road. About 7 - 8 kilometers along the road I came up to a junction where the road branches off. The sign said Murillio 44 kilometers.
Along route into park.
Along route into park
Along route into park
The road headed in the direction of Murillio appeared to be nothing but a jeep trail.
Road to Murillio
Whereas the road leading up to Los Nevados del Ruiz was hard packed and graded, the road to Murillio looked as though it was never maintained. In the first few kilometers of riding I had made two stream crossings and crossed a mud pit where a truck had previously ridden through,that passage left deep ruts on the road. I had just enough ground clearance to ride the motorcycle through the ruts without getting my side panniers hung up on the sides. Over the next 5 - 6 kilometers the condition of the road deteriorated. I came across 3 or 4 rock and mud slides. One rock slide looked as though it had just happened. I had to get off the bike and move a couple of heavy rocks out of the way. As I move one of the boulders off the path a another motorcyclist, a local Colombia came by. He stopped and we talked. He was riding 2 up with his girlfriend on the back.
They were both from Murillio headed for her parent's place in Manizales. I asked him how the road conditions between here and Murillio, he said "Muy, muy malo" - very very bad. He said that it had taken him 3 hours to ride from Murillio to here. As he rode off, I looked at my watch it was already 2:30 in the afternoon. I had concerns about not being able to reach Murillio before night time. The last place I wanted to find myself was alone on a mountain in Los Nevados park. I was prepared for any eventuality. I had plenty of water, a weeks worth of energy bars, sleeping bag and a tarp that would do as a tent if needed. When you are riding solo on these trip you have a different mind set then with a group of riders. In a group you have the security of the group behind you, if something goes wrong there is someone around to help you. When you ride solo there is no one to back you up, make a bad decision and you are the one who pays for it. I stood there on the trail for about 10 minutes having these internal discussions with myself. I looked back up the trail and decided to turn the bike around go back the way I came. I rode about 100 feet, stopped the bike and thought "screw it, what's the worst that can happen, the bike breaks down and I land up having to walk off the mountain". I turned the bike around, now fully committed to finishing the ride to Murilio. I reached the half way point along the trail, it continued raining off and on and the road conditions kept changing at every turn. You would get some good patches of road followed by a kilometer or more or mud and ruts and more mud slides. It was now becoming discernibly colder as I rode higher up into the mountains. Near the top of one of the mountain passes I came across a group of men standing at the side of the road, there were two motorcycles parked beside them. As I rode up to where they were, I was apprehensive as to why these people were here. I had not passed a single person in the past hour. I am wondering if the incident with the military this afternoon had any thing to do with possible FARC or ELN presence in the Los Nevados park. As I approached closer to the group I could hear them shouting and arguing with each other.
Not a good situation. I stop in the middle of the road, with the engine still running in case I need to make a quick exit. My gang of potential FARC rebels turn out be just a group of young Colombians making their way back home to Murillio. There was four of them, three guys and a young woman. One of them had just suffered a flat tire. I told them that I had a tire repair kit and an air compressor. One of the locals held up the remains of a shredded inner tube and asked if I had a spare. I shook my head and tried to explain to him that my motorcycle had tubeless tires. I got off my bike and asked him to show me his motorcycle to see if I could do anything for him. I looked at his tire, it still looked to be in good shape, although the young Colombian had said that he had ridden it flat for the last kilometer.
He had what looked like an off-road tire mounted on his little 125cc Honda. The tire looked to have plenty of side wall strength to it. He said that he would try to continue riding the bike on the flat tire as he had no choice. I went back to my motorcycle and dug out my tool kit. I had a stash of heavy duty cable ties. I gave him four of them explaining that he should wrap them around the tire and the wheel rim to keep the tire from coming off. I have never had to do this myself but I have heard that others have done this when faced with this situation. I was going to suggest to him that he perhaps should try stuffing something into the carcass of the tire for support, but where we were there was nothing but rocks. I waited until they had the tire fastened back onto the bike and the cable ties firmly secured. Hopefully this would help them get back home.
Stopped to help some stranded motorcyclists
Over the next few kilometers the road continued to present challenges. There was one stream crossing that was a lot deeper than I had anticipated, it must of been about 2 1/2 feet deep. Surprising the Aprillia had no problems riding through the loose mud and greasy road conditions, even on some of the difficult descents, the bike continued to handle well. According to my odometer I has only 18 kilometers or so to go before reaching Murillio when I came to a road intersection. There was no sign indicating the road to Murillio, the road just split with one following the valley bottom and the other climbing a ridge back into the mountains. I checked my GPS, it was of no use as it did not show any of these trails. I pulled over at the intersection and walked up and down both trails looking for an clue to which way to go. Neither road showed any evidence of recent traffic.
And the ground around here was hard and stony with no tread marks from a passing motorcycle or jeep. So to the right I went,
Following the trail up the mountainside.
If the road dead ends I can always come back and try the other route. I had pretty of fuel in the tank so that was not a concern. The road ascended some of the steepest section of road that I had encountered so far, over the next ridge the road descent into a serious of tight turns and in front of me was what looked like a bad wash out, a deep v was cut into the road surface, there must of been a flood that eroded away the road leaving this deep water filled trough across the road. As I rode towards the washout, I realized that I was carry too much speed and the surface under neath me was large smooth pebbles, the kind of surface you would find on a stream bed. I downshift and gently hit the front brake, I jump up on the pegs as the bike careened into the water and then up the other side,
for a moment I begin to loose control of the bike as I climb up the other side of the washout. I give the rear brake a quick tap and this seems to straighten out the bike. In front of me is field of loose rocks deposited from a recent deluge. I get to the top of ridge and pause for a moment to collect my nerves, that could of turned out badly. From here onwards the road began to improve and for the first time today I actually saw the sun break through the clouds. Up in these high elevations with the sun filtering through the deep mountain haze, it bathes the landscape in a strange ethereal lighting.
After 2 hours of riding rewarded with some spectacular scenery
I was now 7 or 8 kilometers from Murillio when the road from hell is transformed to a perfectly paved road surface. For the next 5 or 6 kilometers I descended down the mountain along the beautiful twisty lane-way which before entering into Murillio degraded back to a goat trail. I had planned on staying overnight in Murillio but after
seeing that the town was nothing more than a collection of a few streets around a main plaza I instead decided to ride on for Libano which was another 20 kilometers east of Murillio along a very mountainous torturous road.
I reached Libano about 6:00 just as darkness was falling. Libano is a larger size community than Murillio with a population of around 40,000 people and so I hoped would have a hotel. I immediately found my way to the center plaza in Libano. In most Colombian villages and towns, the plaza is where you are most likely to find a hotel. At first I rode around the plaza looking for a hotel sign found nothing, so I stopped and ask a taxi driver where there was a good hotel. He directed me to a hotel just off the main plaza the "Hotel Calle Real Del Libano". The owner of the hotel spoke some English and was very welcoming and interested in hearing about my trip. I told him that tomorrow I planned to ride back to Murillio and take the mountain road down to Santa Isabel and then head east through the mountains to where the road joins backup with Hwy 50 near Vinadilo. He looked at me and shook his head and said that route was closed, The road was blocked at 2 or 3 places due to landslides. And also the main road east to Amerio was also closed because of a recent mud slide. Until the road crews repaired the roads, no one was going anywhere. Hopefully they will get the roads repaired by tomorrow.
There were a couple of good restaurant close by the hotel serving some good Colombian cerveza (). As I sat there in the restaurant nursing my , after such a hard day's ride I began to feel a sense of euphoria over having survived my day's ordeal. It was a good day.
The Gringo Diaries - Motorcycle Adventures in Colombia
Day 7 Libano to Guamo Colombia
I had a restful sleep during the night No drunken louts running about the hotel during the night. There was no AC in my room, but with Libano at an elevation of 1600 meters these mountain communities have fairly temperate climates.. From my hotel room window I could hear the sounds of a small Colombian town getting ready for a new day. My immediate concern was to find out the status of the roads in and out of Libano and If the landslides from yesterday had yet been cleared. As I was making my way out of the Hotel on my way to find a place for breakfast, I came across the owner of the Hotel. I asked him if he had any news about the status of the roads around Libano, he said he did not know but had a friend who worked for the local bus company, he would call him and find out for me, he told me to come back in an hour he should have some news about the landslides by then.
The town of Libano early in the morning and under a brilliant blue sky looks like a totally different place then the town I had ridden into last night under the cover of darkness. I followed the side street where my Hotel was situated and followed it for about a block to where it lead out to the main town plaza.
Scenes from around of Libano
All the little towns in Colombia are built around a main town square. Usually in the middle of the square is a treed park, with a church set prominently on one of the plaza surrounded by a number of restaurants and merchant shops. And as it seemed to me, in each of these parks there would be a statue of Simon Bolivar. If the town cold afford the cost of a more elaborate statue they would have him mounted on a horse. The town square is the focal point for many who live in these little communities. It is where every body hangs out and socializes.
I found a local restaurant near the corner of the plaza, the place was crowded with customers in for an early morning breakfast. From the way that people were looking over at where I was seated, they must not get many foreign visitors coming into Libano. The town is fairly remote and I doubt if even many Colombian have visited this part of their country. I had a full breakfast, it cost me the exuberant amount of about $1.50. The further you get away from the major cities in Colombia the cheaper everything becomes.
I went back to my Hotel, the owner was not about but his daughter told me that he had talked to his friend and was told that the roads south of Murillo were still closed but the road east out of Libano was now opened. Time to depart !!. I rolled the Aprilia out of the hotel foyer and into the side street and then headed back to my room to retrieve my gear. By the time I returned a small crowd had gathered around the bike and for the next 15 minutes people stood back and watched as I loaded my gear onto the back of the motorcycle. A few came up to me and asked the same questions that I would get asked a hundred times on this trip, how big was the motorcycle? how fast would it go? and how much did it cost? Everyone down seems to have a cell phone and as I
climbed onto the bike and started up the engine, those with cells phones were all keen to video the gringo motorcyclist as he rode away.
The road east out of Libano follows a windy twisted path through the mountains. And as with most remote mountain roads in Colombia, the road surface was in rough shape with lots of pot holes and ruts from the constant truck traffic. And every kilometer or so the road would be washed out evidence of some past mudslide. Since they had been having a lot rain over the last few months there were numerous road crews out and about making repairs to the road. Judging from the state of the roads I wold say that they are fighting a losing battle with nature in trying to keep the roads maintained.
There was lots of traffic on the road this morning especially truck traffic, so it was hard to keep up a good rate of speed. Around every turn there would be a truck in front of me, belching out plumes of black arid smoke from its diesel engine. It didn’t seem to matter how many trucks I passed as there would always be another lumbering truck there to impede my progress.
I was now about at the half way point between Libano and Armero, when the flow of traffic came to a stop. The road in front of me was blocked by a large landslide.
Video of Landslide
Construction crews had created a detour around the landslide by bulldozing a new path around it. There was a large truck in front backing up the traffic as he attempted to navigate his vehicle over the deeply rutted dirt track route around the landslide. While I was waiting my turn to enter the detour I imagined what this make shift road would be like in the rain. These clay covered roads turn into a slippery mess when wet.
The rest of the of the ride between the location of the landslide and the turn-off for Armero was slow going, many sections of the road was torn up and often covered in pools of water. The road continued it torturous climb up through the mountains. As I climbed further up into the mountains the thick green foliage on the adjacent hillside encroached ever closer to the road.
I soon arrived at the intersection with the main Hwy 43. The route leading North would take me to the town of Honda and south would bring to Ibague. Ibague was my intended destination for today but that was when I had planned on taking the long way around by following the dirt roads from Murillo through the mountains. From where I was now, it was an easy 2 hour trip to Ibague. I would be there by noon. I thought about stopping off in Armero which was a kilometer or two from the turn-off. This was the Colombian town that was infamously destroyed back in 1985. The town was buried under a mud flow triggered by the eruption of the Los Nevado del Ruiz volcano. The town was built on a debris fan at the bottom of a mountain valley. Some 23,000 or the 30,000 inhabitants who lived in the town of Armero were killed. Many were buried under the 40 meter mudflow that swept over the town. The place today is a ghost town and what remains has been turned into a cemetery for the thousands whose remains were never recovered.
I arrived into Ibague just after noon, I still was not decided if I would stay the day in Ibague or head elsewhere. Ibague is a moderately large city with a population of half a million people. My Lonely Planet guide book suggested that there were a number of interesting things to see and do in the town. As I entered the town, it was very hot, and as I made my way for the town center the traffic was the most congested of any town I had seen so far in Colombia. Fighting my way through the congested traffic all my previous held opinions about local Colombian driving habits were confirmed. I come from a country (Canada) where lane splitting for motorcycles is not permitted. Here in Colombia not only do motorcycles lane split but they also jump between lanes
squeezing perilously between trucks and buses. I had one taxi cab driver who after spotting my big foreign motorcycle kept following me closely down the main avenida, he had his cell phone camera out take pictures of the bike as he drove, he was literally driving with his taxi inches away from my bike.. After 30 minutes of riding around in this traffic chaos and narrowly escaping becoming a hood ornament on one of the kamikaze buses, I had enough, and when I saw an exit sign for Nevia was out of here.
The road south out of Ibague heads south west along a flat bottom river plain, road is not very inspiring for riding with lots of truck traffic, the only positive was that I was riding on good tarmac under a clear blue sky . There were little towns spread out along the route where the traffic would slow down as the big trucks inched their way through the congested streets.Near the town of Topacio I exited Hwy 43 and turned south along route 45. Hwy 45 runs south from here following along the Rio Magdalena. The Magdalena river is the most important river in Colombia. The headwaters of the river starts south of the country near where the two Andean sub-ranges, the Cordillera Central and Cordillera Oriental ranges separate. From there the great river courses it way north for a 1000 miles until it spills out into the Caribbean Sea near the coastal city of Barranquilla.
For the next hour or so I had a leisurely ride through the plains and gentle river valleys along the Rio Magdalena river system. There looked to be a strong army presence in the area, I passed a whole contingent of soldiers riding two up on what appeared to be Suzuki DR650 motorcycles. Each of the soldiers riding in the back of the motorcycle had two machine guns slung over his shoulder, a common motorcycle accessory down here.
Just outside the town of Guamo, I pulled over at a roadside restaurant to give my butt a rest. After a long coffee break, I stopped and asked the waiter if there were any good hotels in the area, after a bit of a pause and a few mental contortions he finally replied that there was a place not more than a few kilometers down the road just before you entered the town of Guamo, it was called the Hotel Floresta, it was a new Hotel, it even had a swimming pool. Its 100 degrees F outside and with the sweat rolling off my forehead I headed down the road in search for the Hotel La Floresta with visions jumping into a swimming pool filled with crystal clear cold water.
A few kilometers outside of the Guano I started scanning the roadside for the Hotel. After having ridden into the center of Guano which was nothing more than a collection of 4 or 5 streets clustered around a gas station and a few stores, I turned around and went back down the road again, about a kilometer outside of town I spotted the signage for the Hotel La Floresta. The hotel from the exterior was to put it mildly, pretty underwhelming, it was nothing more than a single storey building with a soiled red brick facade
In front of Hotel La Floresta
Inside Hotel Lobby
I parked the bike near the entrance (so as to keep an eye on it as I went into the lobby). When I entered the lobby there was no one at the front desk except for a 4 or 5 year child. I stood there looking down at him and he looked back at me quizzically for a moment then ran down the hallway to the back of the building yelling out in Spanish, “Papa Papa there is a man out front and he is dressed in strange clothes”. Dressed up in my full motorcycle gear I probably did look like an outcast from a Mad Max movie. I asked him if he had any room, and what the price was. He told me 35,000 pesos ($18). In the inner court yard I could see the hotel swimming pool, so with that I told him I would take the room. He went outside with me to have a look at the gringo’s bike and went over and opened up the front gate which led to a parking area in the back of the hotel.
Access to the parking lot was down a steep muddy earthen ramp which was deeply rutted from other vehicles that probably struggled to ascend or descend down the ridiculously steep incline. The parking area was even more tore up than the dried muddy ramp. I was afraid when riding the Aprilia down the ramp that I would get the front wheel caught up in one of the large tire ruts.
After a bit of hesitation I launched the bike down the ramp, I manged to keep it upright up until I came to a stop, when I put my foot down, it was right into a deep hole, so now I am tapped with the bike kilted over at a 45 degree angle with all the weight of the bike and myself pressing on my left leg. As I am trying to find a way to extricate myself from my situation, this huge rabid looking dog comes bolting out from behind the building, he stops a foot away from my trapped leg and starts barking and snarling at me. Just then the owner came down, he yelled something at the dog, probably “Don’t bite the gringo, he is a paying guest.”. The dog backed off and the owner came over and help me regain my footing. I got all my gear off the bike and began carrying my bags up the also ridiculously steep set of steps leading back up to the front of the hotel. Three or four steps into my climb, I stubbed my foot and came crashing down on my knees. I stepped back and picked up my gear again. As I cast a look up the rise of steps above me, I could see the reason for my clumsiness, not two steps looked to be the same height, whomever built this stairway should be barred from ever swinging a hammer or practicing carpentry. Back upstairs in the main lobby with all my gear around me, the owner now says to me, “Senior I am sorry but I was mistaken when I told you the room rate was 35,000 pesos, it is 40,000 pesos”. I looked at him and shook my head, this is the second time in as many days that this has happen
they quote a price and then once you unload your suitcases then jack-up the price. For the sake of 3 bucks I wasn’t about to argue about it, its probably just part of the Colombian way of doing business.
I got my gear sorted away in my room and headed down to the swimming pool to cool off. The water was far warmer than I had anticipated, it almost like being in a hot tube. Except for some young local there was no one in the pool.
Swimming pool at hotel
My spartan accommodation.
There only seemed to be a few guests checked into the hotel. The young kid, who may have been the owner’s son or hired help was busy scrubbing the grout lines between the pool tiles. His owner tool was a worn out looking toothbrush. Every few minutes you would see him taking a deep breathe and submerging himself below the water in his attempt to clean the grout below the water’s surface. He didn’t look too happy with his job I suspect that he was being forced to do this as a form of punishment. They should have at least given him a bigger tooth brush. At the rate that he was working, it might take him the rest of the summer to complete his task.
I left the hotel sometime after 7:00 to find a place to eat at. Outside of the hotel it was pitch black. It was a moonless night and there were no street light or outside lighting. The hotel guy had told me that I could get a meal at the place across the street. There was a Salsa club or bar located in front of the. The place was just a large thatched covered gazebo with a few cheap plastic stair
scattered across the concrete. There did not seem to be any one in the place. There were a couple of cheap audio speakers in the corner of the room blaring out Salsa music. I was about about to leave when a tired and weary looking girl came over to me, she asked if I wanted a , I said no, I then asked if they served food here, she shook her head and so I would have to go into Guano.
I got the bike out of the garage area and headed into Guamo. As I mention earlier Guamo is not much more that a village, I was not sure if there would even be a proper restaurant there or not. I was surprised went I came into Guamo how busy the main street of the town was, there could not be more than a few hundred people who actually lived here. From what I could see only the main street seemed to lighted the rest of the town was shrouded in darkness. So like moths to a light bulb everyone seemed to be gathered along the main street. I rode up and down the street a few times looking for a restaurant, I stopped and asked someone, they directed me to a little shop on the corner, there were a few tables set up on the sidewalk. I found a parking spot just a few feet away from an empty table, I parked the bike and went in. The place was just a coffee shop they did not sell anything more than sandwiches,. I ordered some food and went back to my table. When I first came into town there was a military checkpoint setup. This checkpoint seemed more serious than others I had passed through today. There were a lot more soldiers around, they definitely looked serious about their business. While I am sitting there waiting on my food order, I hear a commotion just down the street and see some uniformed men chasing a guy down the road. The uniformed men were not dressed up the same as the solider, they may have been police? anyways the guy being chase runs by my table and trips over one of the chairs near one of the adjoining tables. The two uniforms jump on him, give him a few kicks for good measure and tile his hand up behind his back. This is better than reality TV but without the commercials. I have no idea why they were chasing him, after about 10 minutes a truck pulled up and they literally threw him into the back of a pickup.
While all this was going on another couple of army trucks pulled up near where I was, and another 15 - 20 soldiers piled out. I start thinking about leaving and see a couple of motorcycles pass on by. Each one of the riders was wearing a reflective vest with their license plate number on the back. As well, the same number appeared on the backside of their motorcycle helmets. It use to be a common for drug cartel assassins in Colombia to carry out their hits on motorcycles. One guy would drive, the other guy riding pillion would do the shooting. This form of assassination became so common in Colombia that the government finally had to pass a law requiring everyone to wear these self identification vests. Mike from Motolombia had told me that they had recently changed the law and now motorcyclists only had to ride with the vests at night time. It was now night time, I had no vests and there looked to be a hundred soldiers and policemen between where I was and my hotel. And crap hadn’t I left my passport back in my room. I got back on the bike and rode back down the now crowded road,fortunately the police and soldiers payed no attention to me as I made my way past them. When I got back to the hotel I asked the owner if I could park my bike in the lobby instead of around the back of the hotel. He had no objections so I left the bike there for the night.
Tomorrow's ride should be more interesting than today’s as I would be headed south to Neiva,I would be ridding through the Tatacoa desert another main tourist attraction in Colombia.
Good morning Colombia.
I got to bed early last night in anticipation of a long day of traveling . My sleep was interrupted several times during the night by a couple of roosters who started crowing at odd hours of the night. I saw the birds earlier yesterday wandering around the hotel courtyard. Not being a country person I did not realize that our feathered friends crowed so much at night. I thought they just crowed early in the morning. Maybe during the night they were feeling horny and were just calling out to their lady friends.
Looking out the window of my hotel room to the busy highway in front of the hotel I could see that it was going to be another great day for riding. I found my bike in the hotel lobby parked where I had left during the night. As I was packing my gear onto my bike in preparation for an early departure, the hotel guy showed up, he asked if I wanted breakfast, I told him I would get breakfast in town, he insists that I have breakfast here and that there were no good restaurants in town anyways. So I relent and agree to have breakfast here. There is another hotel guest seated at one of the tables in the breakfast area just off the lobby. He asks me in broken English to join him. His English is worst than my Spanish so I start talking to him in Spanish but he says he prefers to practice his English. I look down by his chair and I can see what looks like a set of canvas motorcycle panniers. There is another small motorcycle parked in the hotel lobby beside the Aprilia. I point over to the bike and asks him if the bike was his. He says that he is a salesman for an agricultural company and the motorcycle is the company vehicle he uses to get around. While we were talking I asked him what he got charged for his room, he tells me 35,000 pesos which is 5,000 pesos less than what I was being charged, and also his room rate included a full breakfast, so it just confirmed my earlier thought, I was given the special foreigner’s rate. As I got ready to leave I went over to pay the hotel keep for my breakfast, even though I knew I was being overcharged, I was not about to make a big deal over $6.00 but when I went to pay the hotel guy says to me that I used the swimming pool yesterday and there was an extra charge of 4000 pesos for that on top of the 5000 I owned him for breakfast. I handed him what I owned for breakfast and told him the gringo was not paying anymore. I get the rest of my gear on the bike and as I am reeving up the engine getting ready to leave, the hotel guy comes running out, he hands me a bunch of business cards for his hotel asking me to tell all my motorcycle traveling friends about his hotel, I nod my head and rode off.
To All International Travellers to Colombia
Hotel La Floresta Sucks
From the hotel to the town of Guamo was about a kilometer, the traffic on the roadway going into town was completely congested with large trucks and buses. I don not know if it is by design or not but traffic coming into any little town or village is forced to slow down to a minimum speed and forced to pass through narrow and congested streets in the center of town. Buses driver think nothing of stopping in the middle of a crowded village street blocking all traffic to unload or pick up passengers and cargo. It must of taken me 30 minutes or more to get out of Guamo, the entire time I was stuck behind half a dozen trucks that slowly inched their along the narrow streets of Guamo.
I planned on following Hwy 45 south to Neiva with a side trip over to see the Tatacoa desert and the the nearby colonial town of Villavieja. The road south follows along a flat river valley of the Rio Magdalena.
Route Guamo to Villavieja Colombia
As you drive south the vegetation is becoming more sparse and the land more arid looking.
I think I may of located JuanValdez's lost burro
After riding for about an hour along Hwy 45, I came across a sign post with the words Tatacoa desert painted on it. The sign directed me to a dirt road that lead away from the main road and to the direction of the Magdalena river that I could see in the distance a couple of kilometers away. I followed the dirt road, which after a ride of a kilometer or so led me to a little village.
Pigs and dogs running around road in Colombian village
The place was no more than a collection of a few cinder block houses, with trash strewed all around and dogs and pigs roaming about. I continued down the road that eventually ended a a few kilometers away near the water edge of the Rio Magdalena. There was a van truck parked near the waters edge and 3 or 4 men were busy unloading what looked to be milk churns off a flat bottom boat. I parked the bike near what appeared to be a large steel barge that looked as though it might of been used for transporting cars or trucks across the river. It was now pulled up on the shore and not in use. I remember later talking to Mike from Motolombia about this and he commented that the government was trying to set yup a car ferry here to allow vehicle traffic to cross the Rio Magdalena river at this location but someone stole the steel cable that was strung across the river to be used by the barge and dismantled part of the tower structures on either side of the river where the cable was to be attached. So the only transportation was this flat bottom barge boat.
I stood by and watched the men as they completed the unloading of the boat. There was a young girl down near the boat with a motorcycle, she told me that she was waiting to cross the river on the boat. The fellow who ran the boat came up to me and asked if I wanted to cross the river with my motorcycle. I shrugged my shoulder and said I was not sure, I told him his boat looked pretty small and my bike was big and heavy and that it weighed 3 times as much as the little 100cc motorcycle that the young girl had. While all of this was going on I could hear the men in the truck talking, they must of assumed that the gringo did not understand Spanish. I head them say in Spanish “The gringo looks nervous about his motorcycle, I do not think he will go across the river”. I ignored them and asked the boatman what the price was for the crossing, he said 3000 pesos then quickly corrected himself and said 4000 pesos ( $2.00). I told him ok, he said that he would be ready to leave as soon as the men were done. I turned around looked over at the Colombian who had made the comment earlier and said “The gringo and his motorcycle are going across the river”.
Video crossing the Magdalena River with my motorcycle
I went over to where the Aprillia was parked and rode it down to where the boat was beached on the shore. I still was not sure about how we were going to about getting the motorcycle loaded into the boat. The boatman came over to me and told me to watch him as he loaded the smaller 100 cc motorcycle onto the bike. In a very choreographed series of maneuvers, he put the bike in neutral gear and then expertly rolled the bike backwards onto the 10” wide plank, over the top of the gunnel then held it there while his young assistant grabbed the back end of the motorcycle and held it in place while he got into position to maneuver the bike down a second plank inside the boat. It all looked pretty easy and I am sure that he had done this literary a thousand times or more before
Boatman loading smaller 100cc motorcycle into boat
but that was with a 200 lb motorcycle, the Aprilia burdened down with the panniers and all my gear probably hits the scales at over 600 lbs. This could be a real handful to get it on board the boat. The boatman told me to get down in the boat and be ready to grab the boat when it was being rolled down the plank, he and his assistant would look after loading the bike.
Right away I could see that this was not going to be easy. As soon as they rolled the rear wheel onto the narrow plank, the wooden plank twisted and contorted under the full weight of the Aprillia. Time for plan B. They found a block of wood and placed it under the plank for additional support so that it would not sag so much with the weight of the bike on it. That worked and they were able to push the bike over the top of the gunnel. I went over and helped them position the bike and slowly allowed it to descend down the ramp into the boat. Success.. we were all feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, we got the bike in the boat, did not bang up the bike and or drop it into the river.
Boatman directed his young assistant to stay in the front of the boat and keep a firm grip on the front of the bike while I steadied the back end of the motorcycle. The bike laid on its side stand positioned in the middle of the boat for stability. Boatman using a long pole pushed the boat away from shore and into the fast flowing current of the Rio Magdalena. From where we were to the other side of the shore was no more than a distance of a 1000 feet or so. Boatman went to the back of the boat and started up his 25 HP outboard engine and started to head over to the other side. Instead of heading straight across the river to our landing, he instead navigated the boat upstream across the current, once he was about half away across he throttled down the engine and let the current carry the boat down the river towards his landing area. The fast flowing river was full of floating debris and numerous deadhead logs. I watched a few of these half submerged logs go floating by our bow, I can imagine that getting hit by one of these submerged torpedoes would certainly have ruined my day. It took less than 10 minutes to make our was across the river. As boatman steered the boat up onto the shore, I held onto the bike as he ran the boat up onto the landing ramp. I am not sure if it was deliberate or not but he had drive the boat quit a ways up the earthen ramp that was his landing area. The bow of the boat was resting at an incline of at least 25 - 30 degrees. Young assistant got out and attached the small wooden planks on either side of the bow. Boatman now tells me that he wants me to start up the motorcycle and put it in gear, from his position in the boat he will walk the motorcycle up the plan using the power from the bike’s engine, my job is to hold onto the bike from the backside and keep the bike upright as he coaxes the bike up the ramp. OK.. he keeps repeating to me that he has done this a thousand times and not to worry. He lets out the clutch a little and the motorcycle begins to climb the ramp, we get the bike near the top of the ramp, the bottom of the bash plate is now directly over the top of the stern of the boat, I am at the back of the motorcycle with both hands firmly gripping the luggage rack, with the bike now on top of wooden plank, my arms are almost at head level and the twin exhausts from the Aprilia are inches away from my face, boatman pulls the clutch out and twists the throttle a bit too much sending a blast of hot exhaust right into my face. Suddenly the engine suddenly dies and the bike begins to roll backwards down the ramp, I quickly react and grab the bike, I am now pretty much holding back the full 600 lb weigh of the motorcycle by myself. Boatman is anxiously trying to restart the engine, it takes him 4 or 5 attempts before the Aprillia finally comes back to life. Between the three of us, with me doing most of the pushing we get the bike over the stern, down the other ramp and onto terra firma. The land area was covered in deep loose sand, not the best place to be trying to maneuver a heavy motorcycle. The landing zone was only an area about six feet by ten feet. I climbed on the bike thinking that I could ride the bike up the steep ramp from the shore, but discovered that my front wheel was lodged in a deep hole. I looked over at the boatman and down at the hole, I did not have to say anything to convey to him what I was thinking. “ Why the hell do you have a big f*cking hole in the middle of your landing ramp”. Young boatman assistant, held the bike upright as I wrestle the front wheel out of the hole and pulled the bike around so that it was now facing in the direction of the boat ramp. I started up the bike and rode it up to the top of the ramp and to a dirt road that led out of here. Boatman came over and I handed him his payment for the boat trip and gave him another 4000 pesos for his efforts, the poor fellow practically had a heart attach in helping me lift the bike out of the boat.
The road from here should lead me south and down and into the village of Villavieja
One of the reasons for my crossing over to this side of the river was to ride through the Taotacoa desert. The Taotacoa desert is one of the most arid areas in Colombia. Tourist come here to view the unique desert scenery, giant cacti, strange rock outcrops, eroded gullies and valleys. The area is similar in appearance to the badlands found in South Dakota and across southern parts of Alberta in Canada.
Before I headed off down the road to Villavieja, I had to take a moment to recuperate from my recent physical exertions in unloading the motorcycle off the boat. The temperature down here near the shores of the Magdalena river was well over 40 degrees Celsius. Dressed up in my full motorcycle outfit, it felt like I was in a hot sauna. I should have really looked at getting some proper hot weather gear for this trip.
The hard pack dirt road from the boat landing led into another little village, just as poor and impoverished looking as the one I had passed through on the other side of the river.
At first I was riding along a forested road that eventually came out onto an arid and treeless looking landscape.
I must of arrived into the Tatacoa desert. For the next hour I made my way through this hot dry desert landscape. I stopped a number of times to check out the vistas and walk amongst the tall cacti and strange looking rock formations. I am not sure if it was because of the stillness of the wind or that the area seemed complete devoid of any life, because the area seemed to have an eerie silence about it. Standing there in the middle of the Taotacoa desert and listening to the desert around you, you would not have head the sound of a single bird passing by, an insect chirping or the wind blowing across the desert floor.
The road wound itself across the Taotacoa desert, through hills and dry out gullies eventually ending near the town of Villlavieja. Its a small colonial town of some 8500 inhabitants. I made it a point to small in town for lunch. My passage into town was along a number of small narrow side streets that led me to the center of town. I found the town to be a bit underwhelming, no impressive buildings or sights that made any sort impression on me. I found a couple of restaurants on one side of the town square. As I was busy with parking my bike, a few Colombian locals who observed me as I rode around the plaza beckoned me to come over to where they were sitting. The pace of life is pretty slow in many of these little Colombian villages and any event such as a gringo riding into their town on a big foreign looking motorcycle would be a welcome distraction to them on this hot afternoon. I took a table in the restaurant and soon found myself befriended by a group of locals. As usual when I get stopped, everyone wants to where you are coming from, how big is your bike, how fast is it, how much does it cost and what I think about Colombian women. When I tell them I am from Canada, one or two of them in the group said they had a relative in Canada and if I knew them. As I ate my lunch and converse with a few of the locals in the group around around, I found out that one of them had worked on the same the same off-shore oil drilling platform I had some 30 years ago, neither of us of course recognized one another but he remembered the names of some of the American drilling crew whom I had worked with back then.
From Villavieja down to Neiva is about two hours of slow riding along a narrow highway. Not much f interest along the route.
I was glade the finally reach Neiva by late afternoon. I plan on spending the night here. Again I did not bother to make an reservations at any of the hotels. I knew from a google search I had done while preparing for this trip that all the main hotels where located in the downtown vicinity.. Neiva is the capital of the department of Huila. It is situated on the the Rio Magdalena, about a 5 hour car ride west of Bogota.With a population of 375,000 people it is a fair size city.
Not before too long I found myself in the middle of Neiva. I rode up to a taxi stand where there was a group of cab drivers standing around and asked them where I could find a good hotel, of course everyone had his own opinion about where I should go, but it seemed that all the better hotels were just a few block up the street from where I was.
I circled around the downtown streets for some time before I pulled up in front of the Hotel Andino.
In front of the Hotel Andino
It was on a narrow crowed side street but only a few blocks away from the center of town. I left the bike parked in front of the Hotel entrance and took my camera out of my tank bag thinking to myself, what isn’t there on the bike can’t be stolen. The young girl at the desk was busy painting her nails and seemed a bit miffed that I interrupted her while she was performing this all important task. They had some rooms on the second floor for 30,000 $ pesos ( $16.00). She brought me upstairs to show off the room. There was a row of rooms alone one side of the upstairs. Each room had a window covered by metal bars and a large steel latched door. I have wondered whether this place was was used as a prison facility. Inside the room was no more that 8 x 6 ft in size, just large enough to fit in a queen size bed and be able to swing the door open. There was a bath and shower with hot water and a TV pretty spartan looking, but at least it was clean and cheap. I asked where I could leave my bike for the night, at first the young girl suggested I just leave it parked on the street, I looked at here and shook my head and said that would be a very bad idea. While we were talking a older gentleman, whom by the way that the young girl deferred to him must of been her boss, said I could bring the bike into the lobby and park it there. There were 3 or 4 steps leading up to the narrow front door of the hotel. The door looked to be only a few inches wider than the width of my handlebars. I position the motorcycle directly in front of the door and was able to ride into the hotel foyer without bashing in to anything.
I removed all the bags and side panniers from the motorcycle and hoped that nothing on the bike would get stolen while I was here.
The Hotel Andino I found was only a few blocks away from the main commercial area of the city.
Interesting looking Hotel in Neiva
Main downtown area in Neiva Colombia
Main downtown area in Neiva Colombia
The main street street in the downtown area is closed off to vehicle traffic. The street is lined with shops and restaurants, bars and the like. The street was crowded with people and as it was a Friday night, all probably out looking for a good time. I went out in search for an ATM machine and was able to find one only a block or so from my hotel. There is no problem trying to find an ATM machine Colombia, just about every town and village in Colombia has one. Likewise as for Internet access, most hotels have free WiFi access or a computer in the lobby that guest can use
usually for a small fee.
For the rest of the evening I checked out a number of restaurant and bars, did I mention how very friendly Colombia woman are in this country. Lets just say that I had a very adventurous evening
I've been there twice - I love Colombia ! Nicest people in South America - well Argentines were cool too. I'd like to go back.
If you get to San Augustin look up Miller Bravo at Miler Motos in town and say hi from James, Agent 006.5 - he'll remember me !
I am lying in my bed at the Hotel Andino, the noise from the door in an adjoining room being forcibly slammed awakens me. My brain revolts from being disturbed from it slumbers. As my mental haze began to fad, remembrances of events from the previous night began to come back to me. I had not gotten back to the hotel until about 2:00 that morning. When I came back to my Hotel the outside door was locked and there did not seem to be anyone at the Hotel front desk. I rang the outside buzzer a few times and after about 10 minutes someone appeared to let me in.
Last night's activities I remembered now included a stop at a Salsa bar, a number of friendly Colombian women, too many Coba Libres and shots of Aquardiente. For those of you not familiar with this Colombian drink. Aquardiente is an anise flavored alcohol fermented from sugar cane. it's a very popular drink down here in Colombia. After a few shots of Aquardiente, you definitely will feel a buzz. What would you expect from a drink that when translated into English means fiery water. It was still early in the morning and with my head still feeling the affects from last night,I laid there in bed for the next hour looking up at the ceiling and resolved to myself that would abstain from consuming anymore Aquardiente for the rest of the trip.
I got up showered and went downstairs expecting that The Hotel would serve breakfast to their guests. No such luck, they did not serve breakfast, the young girl at the front desk said there were a few cafes down the street. before I left the Hotel I checked out the Aprillia which was still parked near the front door and the Hotel's front desk. All the shinny bits still seemed to be attached to the motorcycle. I found a restaurant a few blocks away from the Hotel Andino. The downtown area seem relatively empty this morning, probably because most were still at home sleeping off their hangover from last night's festivities. At the restaurant, there were only few patrons seated down. The place looked like a Colombian version of a McDonalds with the gaudy yellow and red painted interior and similarity colored plastic chairs and tables. when I went up to the front counter to place an border for my breakfast my attention was immediately drawn to the girl standing behind the counter. At first I thought that she must be standing on a raised platform or something.
Colombians for the most part are not that physically tall a people as compared to most North Americana and Europeans.. So I was taken back when I saw this Colombian woman who must of been 6 ' 7" to 6" 8" in height and probably over 250 lb. There is a department (state) in Colombian in the southern part of the country called Amazonas, and I thought to myself that she must be an Amazon from that region. After breakfast I returned to the Hotel Andino and checked out of the hotel. With my gear now packed up on the bike and ready to ride away, a few of the hotel employees came out to see me off and take a few souvenir photos of the foreign motorcyclist. I followed Hwy 45 south out of town stopping at the first gas station along the route. While I was fueling up a bike another rider on a Suzuki VStrom 650 rode into the gas station and pulled up along side me. we got to talking, he was an American working down here with an American based mining company involved in gold exploration. There was a little coffee shop across the roadway from the gas station, I invited him to sit down and share a coffee and a few road stories. I told him that I was heading down to San Augustin, but was not sure if I would first make a trip over to La Plata and then make my way up to see the archaeological ruins around Tierradentro. When I mentioned that I had planned on taking route 45 down to La Plata and from there ride up to Inza to visit the archaeological at Tierridentro before heading for San Agustin he mentioned that he had taken the road out from Popayan to Inca and down to La Plata and from there took route 43 north to where we were presently stopped. This was the same route I was planning on taking. He told me it had been two days of hard riding over absolutely miserable road conditions. Some sections of the road from Inza to The ruins around Tierridentro were nearly impassable. Route 45 North of La Plata was under construction and with all the frequent stops because of the construction activities and poor road conditions, it made for a long day's travel. His comments and advise was enough to alter my travel plans and instead continue along route 43 to San Agustin. Instead of only spending 2 days in San Agustin, I would add another day to my sight seeing around the San Agustin area.
Alternate route to La Plata and Tierradentro
Route 45 down to Pilalito and San Agustin is along a very good paved road. Traffic for the most part was light and the traffic that I did encounter was usually some slow moving truck or bus. Route 45 parallels the course of the Magdalena River or the Yuma River as it is also called in these parts.pass the town of Altamira the roads starts to get interesting as the roads starts to climb in elevation and the scenery becomes more interesting.
Overlooking the Magdalena River
Magdalena River from Route 45
Stop for lunch along the way
Past Altamira the road starts to get interesting
Video of Ride between Neiva and San Agustin Colombia
I finally arrived into San Agustin late in the afternoon. I followed the main road into the center of town and soon found myself in what looked like the main town plaza. I pulled up in front of a church on one side of the town square. I was preparing to pull out my copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Colombia and check what accommodations could be found here in San Agustin when a local who had died me riding into the plaza came running over to where I was still seated on my motorcycle. As he was running to where I was, he called out to me "Señor, Señor, need Hotel." Si " I answered. In halting English he responded. "Bueno hotel ! very close, very quiet, clean, cheap, all motorcyclists stay here". "OKI said show me the way" With that he ran off down the street beckoning me to follow him. He led me to a two stores building a few blocks away from the downtown square. The only Indication that the place he brought me to was a Hotel was the sign on the side of the building which read "Hostal Diosa Lunar San Agustin".
Hostal Diosa Lunar
Looking down from my balcony
I followed the local into the Hostal, while I waited downstairs he went upstairs and came down accompanied by another fellow who seemed to be the guy in charge. He was wearing a vest indicating that he was an official tourist guide or something. He also spoke some English. I told him I wanted to inspect the Hostal before deciding to stay there or not. He said he still had a few rooms up on the second floor that he could show. The Hostal had just recently opened up and still had that look of a building that was still not completed.The streets around the side of the building were dirt roads with the main road in the front of the building having just been paved. Anyways I followed the fellow with vest up to the second floor. The inside of the Hostal looked better than from the outside. The first room he showed me was no more than 10 ft by 15 ft in size and had two large beds set up in it which pretty much filled up the tiny room. I asked the price he told me 20000 peso. I was about to say ok I would take it when he quickly corrected himself and said that was 20,000 peso per person in a double room but since I was alone I would have to pay 40000. breakfast would an extra 4000 pesos.Here we go again with the selective gringo pricing. I feigned disinterest in the room and asked him if he had any larger rooms. He opened the room across the hallway from us, the room was twice the size of the first room. The room looked as though it was currently occupied. He said that there were 4 girls from Brazil who were now occupying the room, but if I wanted the room he would move them to another suite.
This immediately told me that he was trying to overcharge me on the room rates. Again another example of the two tier pricing I have been experiencing while traveling around Colombia, one rate for the locals and another for foreign visitors. As I did want to kick the Brazilian girls out of their room, I told him, I would take the first room. I offered to take the room at 35000 pesos per night but only if that included my breakfast. He them made a big show that he could not possibly give me the room at that rate and that I would not find any cheaper accommodations in town, with that I started to head for the exit, I got about halfway down the stairs when he called me back and agreed to my price. He was still getting the better of me at 35000 pesos but I didn't feel like spending any more time looking around San Agustin for better accommodations.
The word must have gotten around that there was a new gringo in town when another local, also wearing a vest advertising him as a tour guide. He spoke better English better than the others. Carlos asked if I was interested in going horse back riding up to some of of the archaeological ruins nearby San Augustin. The reason for my coming here was to visit the local ruins in the areas. The archaeological ruins around San Agustin are one of the best preserved Pre-Colombian ruins in Colombia. The archaeological ruins are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of of the most important tourist attraction in the country. At first I told Carlos that I was not interested and had planned on riding up to the ruins on my motor bike. He said I could visit the main archaeological park as that had a paved service road leading into the park but the the other sites were only accessible along a rough muddy trail and with all the rain that they have received recently it would be very difficult to get up to the sites even on an off road motorcycle. He had brought a group of Germans on a trip just a few days ago up to El Tablon and even the horses had a hard time making it through the muddy trail. Well Carlos was a good salesman because he sold me on going along with him on a horse back ride to some of the local ruins. He said he usually only goes out when his has a group of 3 or 4 persons but business has been slow this week so he would still take me out if I was interested . I told him I had no riding experience, he said that did not matter, all I had to do was sit on the horse and let him lead the way. Carlos told me to be ready to head out in the morning at 8:00. He would be there with the horses.
After unpacking and getting cleaned up I headed into town to check out things.
Street near my Hostal
San Agustin is said to have a population of 18,000 but the place seems much smaller than that. For a place that is suppose to be one of main tourist attractions in Colombia I only came across a few foreigners when walking the streets around San Agustin. Carlos the tour guide had mentioned that there were few tourist in town and that the last month or two had not been very good for his business.
This would be my first visit to San Agustin. When I worked and lived down here back in the 80's, I never considered visiting the ruins. At that time with all the guerrilla activity, San Agustin was a no go zone. For the rest of the evening I wandered around the central part of San Agustin, I found a good little restaurant run by some Italians who had moved and settled in San Agustin many years. As it was a Sunday night not a whole lot was happening in town. I decided to call it an early night and put off my exploration of San Agustin for another day.
Tomorrow I would go off on my horseback trip into the surrounding mountains and the search out some of the Pre-Colombian ruins in the area
I was awaken early in the morning by the sound of a harsh rain pelting against the exterior window of my bedroom. I had made arrangements this morning to go on a horseback ride to the Pre-Columbian ruins up in the nearby mountains around San Agustin. I had Carlos my guide that I would meet him at the Hostal for 8:00 this morning for the start of the ride.
I got up and headed downstairs hoping that they would be serving breakfast at this early early of the morning. I found a couple of other guest already seated at the dinning room table. I learned that they were a young couple from Panama who were backpacking on their way down to Argentina. They were artists and were on a working vacation of sorts. They are a commission do paint a mural for a restaurant down in Quito Ecuador and also had a similar job to create some out door mural for a school down in Argentina. They had stopped off in San Agustin for a visit on their way down to Quito. They had planned on leaving this morning on the bus to Pitalito and from their catch another bus to Mocoa and then onto Pasto and Ipaeles where they would cross over the border into Ecuador. After a couple more days of travel on a slow moving bus through the mountains they would be in Quito. I was interested in their travel plans as I would be following a similar route down to as far as Pasto. My interest in riding down to Pasto was to ride the section of road between Mocoa and Pasto. They refer to the road down here as “Carretera de la muerte". It has an infamous reputation as being one of the most dangerous mountain roads in Colombia. Any time I come across a road labeled as the most dangerous I am sucker for wanting to ride it. I have ridden across a number of other roads in my travels labeled as the Death Road. Ones that come to mind is the section of the Panamerican highway out of San Jose Costa Rica, the road between Mocoa and Pasto and of course the most infamous and best known,the Yungas road in Bolivia between Las Paz and Coroico. In Bolivia they have morbidly turned the road's deadly reputation into a tourist attraction for extreme mountain cyclist and motorcyclists. As we were talking Carlos enter the Hostal. I could see out the side window that there were a couple of horses saddled up in the alleyway. I told Carlos I was ready to go, I just stopped to collect my backpack that contained my cameras and rain gear.
I followed Carlos outside and he led me to where the horses were. Again I reminded Carlos that this would be my first time riding a horse. The horse that was to be my mount for the ride up to the ruins was a small chestnut colored horse. I would later learn that this breed of horse down here are called PaseoFino. Horses are not native to South America. They were first introduced by the Spanish over 500 years ago. The Colombian breed has a natural fine gait and are said to make a good trail horse. My horse looked to be on the smaller size. Carlos helped me into the saddle, it took a few minutes before I felt comfortable. Then he gave me a five minute lesson in how to ride the beast. Throttle and accelerator - Squeeze the horse with your thighs and/or use your feet to nudge the horse into action, Steering - Right Pull on the reins right - Left - Pull on the reins to go left. Braking - Pull up on the reins. I commented to Carlos that I thought the horse was pretty small and if the horse would struggle carrying my 210 lb body up and down these mountain trails. With that the horse raised his tail and let loose with a series of cannonading farts that resonated between the buildings. You would have thought that I was on board a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
After my quick lesson on How to Ride a Horse, we were off. For the first first minutes I felt comfortable perched up on the saddle until we turned on to the main highway leading out of town. As the horse trotted down the roadway, I was feeling the impact with every footfall "My boys" were feeling the abuse. I am not sure if it was because of the type of saddle I was sitting on or what. We soon turned off the paved highway and continued along a trail. Cowboys must have an iron crotch to be able to sit on a horse all day. From the turn off Carlos aid that was 3 kilometers or so to the archaeological site of "El Tablon". At this early in the morning we seemed to be the only riders out on the trail. The first section of the route was along a narrow muddy trail. On all side of his we were surrounded by sugar cane and tall fique plants. Soon the trail began to get more difficult as the horses had to descend up and down the narrow mountain pathway. Along the more difficult parts of the trail, Carlos tethered my horse to his, so I was now no longer riding my horse but now sitting on top of a pack horse being led by my Colombian guide.
Video of ride along trail to El Tablon
The path in parts were extremely muddy and there were a number of shallow streams that we had to cross. At one especially deep muddy bog, Carlos instead led the horse up the side of a steep embankment and along a narrow ledge. My horse had already stumbled a number times along the trail and so I did not have a whole lot of confidence in how sure footed my 4 legged beast would be in making its way across the top of this narrow ridge. One misstep and its me and 800 lbs of horse falling into the quagmire below. Carlos assured me that the horse had been up and down this trail a thousand times.
Finally we arrive in front of an old farm house, hanging upon the gated entrance to the courtyard was a sign say "Museo Etnografico".
This was the site for El Tablon. We enter the courtyard, for the next 10 minutes Carlos spent educating me on the various coca plants to be found in Colombia.
There were a number of different species or plant growing in the garden area. Each plant was 8 - 9 feet tall, he said there were a many different varieties of coca plants. The species of plants that he was showing me are mainly used for making coca tea or used in medicinal treatment of altitude sickness. For many of the indigenous peoples in the central Andes, coca leaved are chewed. They roll the leaves up into a ball and hold the masticated plant fibers between their teeth and gum. To this they usually add a mix of some alkaline component like baking soda or lime ashes which aids in releasing the pharmacologically active ingredients in the coca leave, its not the same reaction to a purified cocaine, instead the user a feeling of stimulation. The coca plant has been part of the culture of the indigenous communities of the Andean people for many thousands of years. The people down here were getting high on the coca leaf long before Christopher Columbus even discovered the Americas. Carlos said that many people down here keep a few plants in their garden for personal use, so long as you are not into setting up a commercial operation, the police or army don't care.
After Carlos's lecture on the medicinal uses of the coca leave, he led me to a clearing on top of a small hill, the site of El Tablon. Under a covered thatched roof were 5 upright stone carvings or stelae.
Stone Carving at El Tablon
Stone Carving at El Tablon
Stone Carving at El Tablon
The Pre-Columbian artifacts were created by a fairly advance civilization that inhabited these regions between the 6th century B.C and 12 century A.D.My guide explained that some of the statues represented the moon goddess, who was the deity responsible for ensuring that they would have bountiful harvests.Carlos seemed quit knowledgeable about the archaeological significance of the statues. Although much of the history and knowledge about the Pre-Columbia people and the makers of the statues has been lost to history and so what ever Carlos was telling me was probably just speculations by current archeologists.
Before we got back on our horses and headed for our next site, we ordered up a few espressos from the little on-site cafe. Although Colombia prides it self on growing some of the best coffees in the world, I do not think I have had a good coffee since I have been down here. It must export all the best quality coffees and keep the poor grades of coffee for local consumption. From El Tablon we journey on on the horse trail to La Chaquira. It was only about a kilometer from El Tablon to La Chaquira. I t was an easier ride with fewer hills to climb but he trail was muddier than on the earlier sections. Again we arrived and dismounted in front if a little farm house.
Again Carlos showing more local plants with hallucinogenic properties
There was a sign directing tourist to the archaeological site.
For the next 15 minutes I followed Carlos down a series of steep steps that descended into a valley below us.
At the bottom of the gorge was a river that Carlos said were the head waters of the Rio Magdalena. From where I was standing the river funneled through a narrow gorge of dark volcanic rocks. At this point the river did not seem to be more that 20 or 30 feet across, hard to believe that this is the source of the mighty Rio Magdalena.
Rio Magdalena River at bottom of valley
On way to La Chiquira
On way to La Chiquira
After a few more descends we went off the main pathway and climb over a series of rocks and boulders to reach the site. The La Chaquira site has a number of naturalistic animal and human figures sculpted onto the surfaces of the surrounding volcanic outcrops.
One of the stone sculptures at La Chiquira
One of the stone sculptures at La Chiquira
The most important of these figures is that of a big head bug eyed dud with his arms and legs spayed out to the sides, I cynically thought to myself that it looked little someone with their hands being held up after being robbed. Perhaps it commemorates when the first Spanish conquistadors came into these parts 5 or 6 hundreds years ago and robbed the indigenous Indians of their gold. Before climbing up back up the hill to where we had left our horse, we spent some time just sitting on the hillside taking in the natural panorama of the mountain landscape with the cascading waterfalls directly in front of us and the waters surging through the valley below, it all made for a very serene experience.
Waterfall across the valley from us
Some of the scenery
The ride back to San Agustin seemed to take less time than the ride down, perhaps it was because we were riding most of the way downhill than climbing up the mountain side. We passed three or four other groups of riders making their own way to view the archaeological sites.
The weather had begun to clear up and by the time we finally reached the Hostal the sun was out and the last remaining clouds hanging over the mountains had almost completely dissipated.
We arrived back at the Hotel shortly before noon. I had nothing in particular planned for the afternoon, so with that in mind, I grabbed my camera and headed into town.
Some scenes around San Agustin - Around main plaza
Some scenes around San Agustin - Another statue of Simon Bolivar
Around San Agustin
Around San Agustin
Some kids on their way to school
I found a restaurant along the main street near the center of town. I presumed that it was the main street as there was a military's check point setup directly in front the restaurant. Although it just after noon, there were only a few patrons in he restaurant. I took a table nearby where they had a large LCD television setup on the wall opposite me. Right across from from me were a group of soldiers seated in a corner table. As I sat down they all gave me a quick cursory look and continued with their lunch. Across from me was a television set, there appeared to be a news program on, from what I could understand from what the ammo under was saying and from the graphic videos they were showing, it looked like a family of 8 had been murdered by the FARC guerrilla group. It appears that a group of local criminals had gone into the kidnapping and extortion business, telling everybody that they were part of the FARC organization. The real FARC eventually got wind of what these guys were done and sent out a commando squad to close down there operation permanently. This all occurred not to far from where I was in San Agustin. The next story on the news caught my attention, a local bus traveling between Pasto and the town of Mocoa was stop and the passengers robbed. My travel plans was to ride the same road between Macoa and Pasto. Over at the other table where the group of Colombia soldiers were seated, one of the soldiers looked over at me and said in English. "Things now very bad down here, where you going Americano". After correctly him on my nationality, I told him I was on a motorcycle trip and was planning on riding the mountain road between Mocoa and Past. To that that he said, "Mocoa very bad place, many bad people down there". His fellow soldiers nodded in agreement and each gave me a derisive look, all to imply that I must be crazy to want to consider traveling through this part of Colombia. So I thought to myself that maybe I should reconsider my next travel destination. According to what I had read on a number of adventure rider forums, there was a mountain between San Agustin and Popayan. Depending on the weather conditions, other riders reported that it could an easy 120 kilometers of easy riding if the road conditions were good, but that same road could quickly turn into the "Road from Hell" during the rainy season. Knowing that they have had a lot rain over the last few weeks, I was not sure if the route to Popayan would be a safer alternative or not. I was not planning on leaving for another day or more so I would have time to make a decision where I would go next.
For the rest of the of the afternoon I wonder around town taking photos and enjoying what turned out to be a particularly sunny afternoon. As this is a tourist town next to one of the most important archaeological sites in the country, there are numerous handicraft shops around town, most clustered along a three block area near the center of town. They sell a lot of replica Pre-Columbia artifacts, jewelry and other locally made goods. The town of San Agustin although an interesting place to visit for its Pre-Columbian history and mountain scenery, outside of that there not a whole lot to do. So when I came across a pool bar, I had to check it to find my game, out. Pool seems to be a popular pastime down here, I must of count 3 or 4 other similar places on my walk around town earlier today. The place I was in was located on a busy street corner. The pool hall was wide open to the street as there were no walls enclosing it on either side, so passer-byes could look directly into the place and see what was going on. I grappled one of the tables in the corner of the room. At this early in the evening there were half a dozen locals playing amongst themselves. After a few practice sessions one of the Colombians challenged me to a game. None of the men in the bar spoke any English, so I was forced to practice my Spanish. I lost the first game but after that I began to find my game. Two hours I had played against and beaten everyone in the bar, as the night progress and as my competition became more inebriated the better I seemed to play. By nights end, I had to hang up my cue stick and return to my Hotel as most of the local still in the bat were to drunk drunk to play.
Video of walk around town of San Agustin
Tomorrow I would be paying Indiana Jones and checking out some of other the Pre-Columbian ruins I the area.
You must be looking way to flashy since they try to cheat you with the hotel prices :-)
I enjoyed colombia tremendously as well and it has an unspoilt feeling about it.
Not so much that everyone is trying to cheat you, none of the places down here
bother to post prices for hotel rooms etc, so you are always forced to haggle over prices on everything. Compared to prices to traveling through North American countries or Europe, Colombia was an inexpensive place to travel through.more expensive perhaps then other central American countries I have visited but still relatively cheap.
I find myself in San Agustin Colombia for another day. Today I plan on heading over to the main archaeological park just outside the town. In the park is to be found many of the most important Pre-Columbian monuments and megalithic statues the country. From my hotel the entrance to the archaeological park was only a few kilometers always, a short ride by motorcycle. I had breakfast again at the Hostal, This morning I seemed to be the only guest in the hotel as most of the other guests had already checked out over the weekend. Many the tourists who come in San Agustin are local Colombians who come down here for a few days over a weekend and then leave, so between Monday and Thursday San Agustin remains pretty quiet.
After breakfast I went outside to check on the motorcycle. It was parked just outside the main door sheltered under a portico. I had come out just at the right time, as there was a stray dog standing beside the bike, he was in the act of lifting his hind leg and was about to take a pee on the rear wheel of the bike. After noticing that someone was watching him, he paused glanced up at me and quickly buggered off. Once of the changes that I have observed in Colombian since I last lived her 25 years ago, is that there now seems to be many more stray dogs wondering around the back streets. No matter if its a little village or large urban city, there are always some stray mongrel mutt or pack of dogs wondering about.
The archaeological park is located only two or three kilometers west of San Agustin, only a short ride from my hotel. In the park is to be found many of the most important Pre-Columbian monuments and megalithic statues the country. The archaeological park is situated about 2 kilometers west of the town of San Agustin. This renown World Heritage UNESCO site covers an area of over 2000 sq kilometers. Within the park are numerous burial pots, stone carvings depicting various deities and mythical creatures. Evidence uncovered by archaeologists has shown that that this region around San Agustin has been occupied from as early 3300 BC. Except for some early artifacts uncovered from this time, little is know about these early people, where they came from and what happened to their civilization. The first early groups to inhabit San Agustin were a simple primitive stone age society making their existence as nomadic hunters. Between the 7th century BC and 2nd century BC a new group appeared in the region, they were a farm agrarian based society who cultivated maize on the surrounding mountain slopes and river bottoms. The height of early Pre-Columbian culture was established around the 1st century AD to about 800 AD. Most of the best examples of Pre-Columbian stone carvings and early Pre-Columbian art comes from this period. Within the park there are to be found hundreds of elaborate stone statues and burial mounds with many of the most interesting setup on display.
When I rode into the main parking lot, a security guard motioned me over to a designated area reserved for motorcycles. I found a ticket booth near the entrance and paid the entrance fee. When I came back out and walked by where I had parked the motorcycle, there was a group of 5 or 6 people standing around the motorcycle each taking turns having their photo taken posing beside the bike.
To get into the archaeological park I had to pass through a gauntlet of tour guides offering up their services. There were only a few tourists around this morning so the tour guides were aggressively trying to convince me to hire them for a private tour of the park. For the next hour I followed the path through a dense wooded area, every 100 feet or so you would come across a free standing monument usually depicting some fierce looking god or mystical animal. The path eventually led me to a wide open area called Mesita A where there was a large collection of statues and burial chambers on display.
Scenes from San Agustin Archaeological Park
Rock carving of Snake
Some of the Statues in main viewing area in Mesita A
Pre-Colombian grave-site as seen in the archeological park near San Agustin Colombia
Some cool statues
A closer view of statues
Whats its all about ?
There were three or four of these Mesita sites scattered through the main park. To reach the main sites required following a steep climb up a series of steps ascending up the side of the mountain. It was an exerting 20 minute climb up the several hundred steps that leads to the top of the mountain.
Climbing stairs on way to seeing archeological ruins around San Agustin Colombia
The three Amigos. Some young Colombian kids posing for a photo
YouTube Video from tour of Park
During the entire time I was followed by a group of young Colombians who wanted to practice their English by speaking to me. My new posse followed me around for the next hour. They had seen me ride into the parking lot on the Aprilia motorcycle and thought that the idea of touring around Colombia on a motorcycle was pretty cool and they all said that one day they would do the same thing.
Scenes from inside the Park
Statuary from site on top of mountain
Later in the afternoon a sudden rain storm passed over the area sending many of the park visitors scrambling for cover. Myself along with a dozen others found shelter under a gazebo and waited out the passing storm. While I was there, I got into a conversation with an older gentlemen and his wife. They were both originally from Colombian and are now living in the US. When I told him I was from Canada, he mentioned that he had a brother who lived up in Canada. After a few more inquires, it turned out that his brother lived in the same town in Quebec where I grew up and coincidentally his brother lived only a block away from my parents house. It's a small world out there.
More scenes from inside the Park
More scenes from inside the Park
More scenes from inside the Park
I had a bit of an incident when I returned back to the parking lot where the Aprilia was parked. As I came out into the main parking area I found two guys near the motorcycle, one of them was actually seated on the bike as his friend was taking his photo, he looked up and saw me walking towards him, he had that look of someone who had just been caught in the act of doing something that they shouldn’t. He quickly climbed off the bike and in the process almost allowed the bike to fall off its side stand. I was pretty pissed off with finding this guy seated on the bike like that. There are many parts of the US and Canada where its a shooting offense for getting caught sitting on another man’s bike without their permission. After curing the fellow out I pretty much told him that if he were to do that in Estados Unidos that he would get his ass shot.
I like Colombians, but too many of them down here have no understanding of the concept of private property.
After visiting the park I return back to my hotel. Not long after returning to my room, there was a knocking at my door. When I went to see who was there, it turned out to be someone I had met on my arrival to San Agustin. He was one of the the many local tour guides. He was asking me if I was interested in buying some authentic Pre-Columbian artifacts. As San Agustin is a major archaeological site, there is a thriving underground industry in selling both authentic and fake archaeological artifacts to tourists. Many of the locals in San Agustin are involved in antiquities recovery. The region is a treasure trove of undiscovered burial sites. My tour guide Carlos who escorted me on my horseback ride yesterday, confirmed that many people down here were involved in the antiquities trade. When I asked him if that was illegal, he shrugged his shoulders saying so long as they told the government people the location of newly discovered sites and left the larger artifacts in place, then everyone got to profit from the find. I invited my Colombian friend (Tomb Raider #1) to enter the room. He cautiously closed the door, taking a final look down the hallway to see if anyone had observed him entering my room. Soon after entering the room he took out a cloth bag and carefully placed on a table. From the bag he proceeded to pull out a number of objects which had been carefully wrapped in newspaper. After a few minutes spent unwrapping his stash of Pre-Columbian booty, Tomb Raider# 1 laid out his collection of Pre-Columbian items on the table. Laid out in front of me where a couple of ritual burial masks, a few clay figurines and a number of small pots.
I examined the artifacts, everything look authentic, but I have no way of discerning whether the items were real or manufactured last week in the back of a local craft shop. I remember some one once telling me that one way of telling if a clay pot was old, was to wet the surface with water, if the item was really old then it will give up a dank earthy smell, also old pottery will readily absorb the water from its damp surface.. I tried these simple tests and they seemed to confirm that the objects were real enough. As we were talking there was another knocking at the door, someone outside in a low whisper called out to Tomb Raider # 1. I opened the door, it seemed that Tomb Raider #1 had invited a friend to join him in his nefarious activities. Tomb Raider #2 also had a satchel of Pre-Columbian goods that he wanted to show off to me. He had a number of bronze colored jewellery items which he said was gold. When I asked them where the pottery and figurines came from, they were a little evasive, only admitting that they were dug up from some ancient burial site. I told them that Colombian like many countries have signed on to the UNESCO convention prohibiting export of cultural antiquities. Now I was just talking bullshit to them, I had no idea what the laws were about selling and exporting cultural artifacts, but they all immediately looked guilty about what they were doing. Again with a straight face I told him if I got caught leaving the country with the items I would get thrown into jail or worse. Tomb Raider #1 looked at me then over to his friend and realized I was only pulling his chain. He told me they had very good jails in Colombia and so not to worry. We concluded our business and they left not having sold me anything. The fact is if they had been selling good replicas of Pre-Columbian art I would have been interested in some of the items. I was not interested in buying looted antiquities (aside from the fact that most of the stuff was probably fake). Later that evening I found an Internet cafe and did some further research on the legality of buying Pre-Columbian art. It does appear that Colombia did sign on to the UN convention on the protection of antiquities and they have have their own laws governing cultural patrimony. Not only is it illegal to take looted antiquities out of the country, it is illegal to bring them into the US or Canada. Regardless of how many laws a country institutes to protect their national treasures, there will always be sellers and buyers for this kind of stuff, the trade in black market antiquities has been going on since the days of the pharaohs.
As events unfolded, I wound up spending one more day in San Agustin and decided not to take the road south to Mocoa and Pasto. Instead I decided to tackle the mountainous and challenging road between San Agustin to Popayan.
I was up early this morning. This is now my third day in San Agustin and after two days of playing tourist I was now anxious to get back out on the road. After a hurried breakfast and settling my bill, I quickly got my gear packed up on the Aprillia. The Hotel manager came outside, he was keen on taking some pictures of me sitting on the bike. He told me that he wanted to post them on his Hotel website. So there I am sitting on the bike all set to ride off. I hit the start button, the engine cranks over and nothing, Nada. I try a few more times and still the engine refuses to kick over. With each failed attempt the battery was being further depleted of its power. Up until now I had not experienced any problems with the bike. it was a rental bike so I was not that very familiar with it. Compared to my own BMW 1150 GS I was finding the Aprilia to be very cold blooded on start ups. The bike had to be warmed before riding off otherwise the engine would die. In The last few days I had been noticing that it was taking a few extra cranks on the starter to get the engine to turn over. I got off the bike. If I was fated to have mechanical problems on this trip better that they happened here in town and not on some 12000 ft mountain pass in the middle of nowhere. This is not how I wanted to start my day. I pushed the bike out from it was parked into the middle of the street. Fortunately for me the road in front of the Hostel Dios de Lunos had just been newly paved and as it was a side street there was no traffic on it. I checked the bike for any obvious loose connections, I had fuel in the tank and a good spark. So from the way that the battery drew down after only a few false starts I was thinking that it's a problem with the battery.
The hotel keep tells me that he has a friend who is a motorcycle mechanic, perhaps he can look at the bike. Maybe so, but I am pretty sure that he has never seen an Aprillia Caponord before. I tell him that I wanted to try a few more things. I wanted to see if I bump start this beast. I wasn't very confident of being able to bump start a large high compression V-Twin. I have tried to bump start my own BMW GS on a number of occasions and with little success, so I was not hopeful of this working with the Aprillia. While I was explaining to the Hotel Keep what I wanted to try, he called out to two young Colombians on a passing motorcycle. They stopped and came over to where the bike was parked. Before you knew it had my newly enlisted recruits pushing the Aprilia down the street. On the first attempt, we got the bike going as fast as three persons could push it, with the bike in second gear I let the clutch out with the hopeful expectation that the engine would start up, but no, instead the rear wheel locked up as soon as I had engaged the gear. We tried again a few more time, this time I let clutch out while the bike was engaged in a higher gear but still could not get the bike's engine to fire up. After the third or fourth failed attempts my group of young Colombians were quickly losing their enthusiasm for this task., so I thanked them for their efforts and watched as they rode away. I was about to ask the Hotel Keep if he could call his mechanic friend, but decided to try one last attempt at starting. I got on the bike put in neutral and hit the starter, instantly the Aprilia roared back to life. With the motorcycle now running, the last thing I wanted to do was to switch off the motor. I did not really know if the Aprilia would continue to idle in neutral with the side stand down, so I continued to sit astride the bike and asked
the Hotel keep to bring over my jacket and helmet. I checked the fuel gauge on the bike,it was showing only that I had only a quarter of tank of fuel not nearly enough to get me all the way to Popayan.
Hotel Keep told me that there was a gas station on the exit out of town near the turn for Popayan. He was insistent that he would direct me to the gas station. He hurriedly went out back of the Hostal and a moment later appeared aboard his little Honda Super Cub. I follow down a number of back streets and alleyways and 10 minutes later he delivers to the station. I was hesitant about shutting down the engine after such a short ride, if I was correct in thinking that my problems were due to a drained battery, 5 to 10 minutes of riding would not be nearly enough time for the alternator to charge up the battery. I kept the engine running while I fueled up. I thanked the Hotel Keep for his help and for the next 30 minutes I followed the road out of town and after 15 minutes of riding I turned around returned to the gas station where I had previously stopped. I felt more confident in now attempting to turn off the engine and seeing if the bike would restart. Better to find out while I was in town and close to help them out on some lonely stretch of roadway. I turned the engine off, waited a few minutes and then hit the starter. Without any hesitation the V-twin fired up. The motorcycle gods must be looking down on me favorably this day.
Just a few miles down the road from where I was, I found the turnoff for Popayan. According to the signpost, the city of Popayan was only 126 kilometers away, a distance of only 75 miles. According to my Lonely Planet Guide book, the trip from San Agustin by bus takes over 8 hours or more depending on the road conditions. I remember Mike from Motolombia telling me that by motorcycle it takes 5 to 6 hours. The first section of the road from San Agustin to the village of Isnos was along a Tarmac surface road. There was a lot construction going on and many stretches of the roadway was torn up with a few tricky sections where they had just laid down a bed of deep gravel.
The weather this morning was looking overcast and ominous. And as I rode into the village of San Vicente it started to rain. The quality of the roadway leading out of San Vicente quickly degenerated into a pot hole infested road and with the steady rainfall, the hard packed dirt surface was turning mud. It was going to be a long hard ride to Popayan.
Church in San Vicente Colombia on way to Popayan Colombia
Mission Building in village of San Vicente
Road leading out of San Vicente
For the next hour I followed the road up into the higher mountain elevations, the only traffic I encountered were a few buses making their way between San Agustin and Popayan and the even slower moving trucks lumbering along the ill kept road. Even at a slow pace of 25 to 30 kilometers an hour I was still the fastest vehicle out here.
Buses along the Route to Popayan
About 40 kilometers along the route I came across my first military checkpoint. The checkpoint was nothing more than a crude wooden shelter with a plastic tarp pulled over the top for protection from the element. As I approached the checkpoint one of the three soldiers manning the post stepped out and motioned for me to stop. He asked me here I going, I told him Popayan. From inside two other soldiers who were huddled inside, called for me to come and join them for a coffee.
Stop near first military checkpoint
Another bus on road to Popayan
I was not really interested in stopping right now, but I did not think it wise to be discourteous to a group of soldiers armed with automatic weapons so I took up their invitation and entered their outpost. All of the soldiers were young conscripts, they looked to be no more than 19 to 20 years old. All Colombians once they reach the age of 18 are obligated by law to serve in the armed forces. If you can show that you have a high school diploma, then you only need to spend 12 months in military service if not then you are forced to spend upwards of two years wearing military garb. If your family is rich, well connected or willing to pay a bribe to the right official, then you can usually find a way out from serving in the army, which I was told happens a lot. That is why the majority of the young recruits serving in the Colombian army are from the poorer,underprivileged sectors of Colombian society. I remember when I was living down in Colombia it was a common practice for the military to send out what can only be described as Press Gangs who would go into the poorer city neighborhoods and pull youths right off the street and conscript them into the military.
I joined the young soldiers inside their outpost and over the next 15 to 20 chatted with them as best I could in my fractured Spanish and their very limited English. After answering their many questions about where I was from, where I was going, how fast was my motorcycle etc.. I questioned them about the road between here and Popayan, if the route was secure for traveling, if there were any concerns about FARC activity in the vicinity They were quick to reply that there was no guerrillas in the area. They told me that one of the buses running between Popayan and San Agustin had been robbed a few weeks ago but I should not expect any problems with FARC. That was good to know. Answer continued talking, the guard who was standing outside suddenly called out to his friend I side. "El jefe esta aqui". .." The boss is here". With that both the young soldiers jumped to attention. It was time for me to go. I went outside just as a pickup truck with military insignia on it pulled up alongside the checkpoint. One of the soldiers was making a pretense of inspecting my bike. I got on my bike and started it up. (No. Starting problems !!) in the background I could hear the young soldiers being berated by their senior officer, I am not sure what he was pissed about but he was giving all the young recruits an ear full. I hope it wasn't because he saw them fraternizing with the gringo. I continued along my way, the road slowly climbing up to higher elevations. After about 30 minutes of dodging ever increasingly sized potholes and worsening weather, I came up on what appeared to be a collection of ramshackle buildings. I pulled off the road near a building that had an old rusty sign on it for some soft drink company. I dismounted from the bike, there was still a light misty rain falling around me. On either side of the road were a couple of decrepit looking buildings elevated 5 or 6 feet up on the side of a muddy hillside. The road surface I was standing on was covered in a pool of mud about half a foot deep. Every surface around here seemed to be covered in a grimy layer of mud. There was a car parked across the road from me, it was hard to know what color it actually was, as it was buried in multiple layers of mud. The location where I had stopped had to be above 10,000 ft elevation. The place was eerily quiet, I was being watched by a number of preying eyes from behind closed doors. I climbed up the steep muddy embankment and made my way to what looked to be a restaurant in this hole-in-the-wall outpost. Through an open door I could see a couple of tables and someone in the back of a counter preparing food. There were a few others in the room having lunch. The room was dark, dank and depressing, there was a single light bulb hanging from a ceiling fixture, the dim light did little to illuminate the dark surroundings of the room. I had just stopped for a quick coffee.
A young girl came out from behind a counter to take my order. I told her I wanted a coffee. "No tenemos". "We do not have". I will have a cola, No tenemos. Bottled water ?? Again "No tenemos". What do you have to drink. She brought me a bottle of some soft drink that was filled with a liquid that had the color and appearance of swamp water. I tried a bottle, my first impression was right, what ever was in the bottle was pretty foul tasting and unfit for human consumption. The other two people in the room where huddle over their meal. Both of them casting glances my way, I knew that I was part of their whispered conversations, as several times I overheard the words extranjero (foreigner) and motocicleta (motorcycle). I was starting to feel out of my comfort zone here ... time to leave.
I continued along my ride, I had now reached the halfway point on the road to Popayan, I had crossed over a few mountain passes and aside from from a few stretches of slippery clay covered roads the ride had not been that difficult. All of that would change as I was making my way down a mountain pass that led to a small village. At the bottom of the descent I could see that the color of the road surface was a different color from the road above it. As I neared the bottom of the hill, I stopped and pulled off to the side of the road. What I saw before me would induce fear into even the most hardened motorcyclist. Before me extending for several hundred yards was a sea of mud. I watched a large truck making its way across this quagmire, its wheels displacing mud as it pushed ahead. I could see now that the mud was at least a foot and half deep which by itself would have not been so bad, but what made the situation even worse and made me fearful was the deeply rutted road hidden underneath this ocean of muck. The ruts caused by the heavy truck traffic looked to be at least a foot deep. Getting a wheel caught up in one of these ruts could lead to ... you can conjure up your own images of bike and rider covered in mud after getting a front wheel trapped in a deep hole. Looking up the side of the road adjacent to the mountain side, it was evident that there had been a landslide here and the road crews just bulldozed over and flattened the loose earth into the road bed. The last few days of rain had turned the road into this mess before me. I started my run down the hillside into the town, there was a couple of truck following tailgating behind me. With the bike in first gear I moved ahead, right away, my front wheel dropped into a rut, I accelerated a little and the bike lurched out of one rut and into another, I was now riding with my feet spread out on either side of the bike like outriggers, my feet touched down a number of time as the bike lurched from one rut to another but I managed to keep the bike upright and going forward. After the longest minute I got the bike safely to the other side of the mud bog. The only road in this place was crowded with trucks and a couple of buses making their way between San Agustin and Popayan.
Another military checkpoint
I stopped in front of a restaurant (a wooden shack with a corrugated roof and a Cola sign) there were a couple of buses parked out front. I walked into the building and found an unoccupied table. The place was as bright and cheery as the previous place I had stopped at. I sat down at my table waited to be served. While sitting I now realized how cold it was in here. According to the last reading on my GPS, the elevation here was over 10,000 ft. The room was full of people, many from the bus stopped out front, as well as half dozen soldiers. I had spotted a couple of army trucks situated on either side of the entrance into this mountain hamlet. After a few minutes an elderly lady came over to take my order. The only thing on the menus was the special of the day. She spoke so quickly that I was not able to understand exactly what she had said. Whatever the special of the day was, it was being brewed up in a large black cauldron simmering over an open fire pit. After a few minutes my server returned with the "especial del dia". Lunch was a watery soup with a few pieces of yucca and carrots floating around a large beef bone, for flavor there was an iridescent film of grease floating on the surface. I imagined that this would have been the kind of meal served to prisoners in a Siberian Gulag. Done with my prison fare, I paid my bill and headed out the door hoping that maybe the weather had improved in the last half hour. The weather had changed all right, from a light drizzle to a heavy rain. When riding out in these mountain areas it's a necessitate to have good rain gear. It was nearing 12 noon and I still was only at the halfway point to Popayan so I did not want to spend any more time here waiting for the weather to clear.
The road onwards from here was the most challenging I had encountered so far. Over the next few miles the road continued to climb to higher elevations. Along the way I found myself stuck behind a trio of slow moving trucks, the trucks were almost as wide as the road so trying to get by these vehicles was proving difficult. Finally around one downhill descent I was able to pass two of of the trucks. It was at the bottom of this last descent that the road began to deteriorate. Up till now the road surface although muddy was at least hard packed, the road surface had now turned to a soft clay, and with the hard rains and heavy truck traffic the road was now rutted and tore up. The tire treads on the Aprilia were quickly becoming clogged with mud leaving me now with little or no traction. I was now slip sliding my way up and down these steep mountain roads trapped between two large trucks who were having as much difficulty as myself in getting up and down these roads. The next 15 minutes of riding turned into a white knuckle butt clenching experience, in many places rivulets of water and mud was streaming down the mountainside across the road washing it out in many places. I was more than relieved when the road surface improved and I was finally able to get past the last truck. The weather was even beginning to clear up and the further west I rode the better the road got.
Weather is finally improving
Once the weather cleared, scenery is spectacular. Trip would have been a lot better on a good day.
Some more scenes from route to Popayan
I was now more than 3/4 of the way to Popayan, in the last 20 minutes I had not come across a single vehicle. With so little traffic on the road I was not really paying any attention to what was behind me, so I was a bit startled when out of nowhere a SUV without any warning accelerated quickly past me almost colliding into one bike, I maneuvered the motorcycle to the far outside of the road to allow him to pass, the driver drove by me but instead of continuing to accelerate past me, he slowed down once he had gotten by me, I thought this behavior to be unusual, I then looked in my mirrors and saw another vehicle quickly coming on my rear, I slowed down and waved the driver to pass me but instead he seemed to deliberately slowed down instead of trying to go by me. My mindset immediately went into survival mode, I dropped a gear and tried to accelerate past the SUV in front of me, I could see that he was watching me in his rear view mirrors and as I tried to pull past him, the SUV pulled sharply in front of me to block my way,
“ F@*king son of a bitch” up ahead the road widen just before a long ascent up the mountain, there was a lot of large potholes in the road, the SUV was bouncing all over the place, he hit one especially deep hole which sent the SUV lurching to the right, doing my best impression of Jonah Street, I gunned the engine, jumped up on the pegs and quickly flew past him on the outside, as I went by I caught a glance of the driver in the SUV and for a split second we both made eye contact, the guy in the SUV looked like someone out of Hollywood central casting chosen to play the part of a Colombian hit-man, he had a deep scar across his cheek, slicked back hair and a maniacal expression on his face, within a few seconds I was flying up the mountain at 100 km an hour, for the next 5 minutes I rode like a maniac, the road was pretty tore up but the Aprilia’s suspension was able to handle the abuse I was putting it through. I was hoping that I would come across another of the many military checkpoints that I had already come across, but there was nothing ahead but empty road. I now started to check my mirrors to see if the SUV and the other vehicle were pursuing me. I could see nothing behind me. I continued riding at a fast but less frantic pace for the next 15 minutes. It may have been nothing more than paranoia on my part and just a case of another reckless Colombian driver but my credo is when riding in foreign lands, “When in doubt ride like hell”.
The road from here onwards started to descend to lower elevations, the rains that had been pursuing me all day had now stopped falling and in the distance I could see patches of blue sky over the horizon. Around one corner I came up on a spectacular waterfall cascading down the side of the mountain side right next to the road. I pulled over to view this work of nature.As I stood there admiring the falls, all the remembrances of today’s hardships and ordeals were washed away and replaced by the memory of this one moment.
View of waterfall
Video of ride between San Agustin and Popayan
On road just outside of Popayan - Stop for late lunch
Not too further along the road joined up with Hwy 24 and I found myself riding on smooth tarmac into the town of Popayan. It was now late in the afternoon, I had stopped at a roadside restaurant before coming into Popayan. I had been to Popayan many years ago but there was little of the town that seemed familiar to me. The last time that I was there was back in the early 1980’s. I was passing through town with a couple friends, we were all working down in Colombia at the time and had decided to spend a few months riding around South America in a jeep. We were there in Popayan for only a few days. On the first day of our visit, some thieves broke into our jeep and made off with all our luggage, the following day, Popayan was struck by a strong earthquake that destroyed 10 % of all the buildings in the city, over a 100 people were killed and many more than that injured. The Hotel I was staying at only suffered minor damage but many of the buildings nearby were completely leveled. Between the crumpled buildings, the debris filled streets, the fire and smoke, the city looked like a war zone. I had no set plans on where I would be staying in Popayan. I had the names of a few Hotels and B&B’s sourced from our Lonely Planet guide but no idea where in Popayan these places were located. I stopped at a gas station for a fill up and asked the attendant where all the good hotels were located, all he would say is that all the best hotels were in El Centro of Popayan. The roads around Popayan are pretty chaotic, I got on what looked to be a main thoroughfare going through the city, hoping that there would be a sign showing the way to the city center, every route I took seemed to lead me to some crowded barrio with no hotels in site. After wondering around fruitlessly for half an hour I pulled over on a side street to check my GPS and get my bearings.. As I was sitting there on my bike a young Colombian came up to me and in perfect English asked if I was looking for a Hotel. I told him I was. I could see a sign for a Hotel just down the street, I asked him if that place was any good. He said “ No my friend you do not want to go there, they only rent rooms there by the hour, all the good tourist hotels are located in the old part of the city, I will show you the way, just follow my car”. I was soon following his car through a warren of back alleys and side streets and soon we pulled up in front of a more respectable establishment. There were 3 or 4 other Hotels along the same street along with a number of trendier looking restaurants and stores. My new Colombian acquaintance helped me bring my gear into the hotel and waited around while I got I signed in, he refused to accept any gratuity that I offered him for his help, he said that he was glad to be able to offer his assistance to a foreign traveler to his county. Another example of how warm and welcoming Colombians are to foreign tourists.
With the help of some of the hotel staff I wrestled the Aprilia up the narrow hotel entrance way and into the main lobby. Tomorrow I had planned on spending a day sightseeing around Popayan and giving my backside and the motorcycle a rest.
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