June 14, 2006 GMT
Zona Cafetera

As I race the sun to get back to my hotel before dark I have one more little adventure for the day. I am in the Zona Cafetera, home to some of the best coffee grown in the world. After passing a jillion military and police checkpoints unheeded, I get waved over with an hour of daylight left. Not good. That is how much time I need to get back to Armenia. Not a good plan to be out on a south american highway after dark. Especially a south american highway in Columbia.

On purpose I have left all my valuables in my hotel room in Armenia thinking I'll be at minimum risk from robbers. All I have is my dummy wallet with invalid credit cards, a drivers licence and day money. Forgot the police love documents so when they stop me at 5:20 PM I have nothing to show them but my driver's license. Hopefully they won't notice that's a fake too. When I admit my error in judgement they are understandably incredulous that any buffoon would drive around Columbia without the mandatory papers.

All six of them discuss my crime at length. Then one walks over and asks what the GPS is and how does it work. I take my helmet off and they see my buzzed hair. What do I do for a living? "Yo fue un bombero", I answer. That seems to help. More huddling off to one side. The youngest officer comes over and asks am I travelling with an amigo that can get the documents for me? " No, yo estoy solo", I reply. As if to ease that embarrassment, he politely asks what the toggle switch is for on the cockpit dash. I tell him it is for the heated hand grips. That news requires everyone to gather around and consider what kind of country Canada must be that one would need such a device. More coptalk on the side. Luckily no one thinks to take 8 by 10 glossy pictures with circles and arrows and paragraphs on the back of each one. In the end, bless their hearts, they give me 2 hours to get to Armenia and return with the goods.

As luck would have it another police unit stops me 10 km down the road. When I explain their colleagues have already caught me in the act they laugh. When I tell them, "Yo estoy muy stupido", the jefe (boss) pats me on the back and lets me go. The adventure that ends the day actually ends late in the night what with all the commuting back and forth in the dark, in the rain and through several construction zones (all unlit). When I return we shake hands all around and as is the custom, greet each other with buenos noches. Very civil. I am treated again with respect but this time more like a friendly aquaintance. More chatting while each one looks over my papers then I'm wished a safe journey home.

The whole encounter serves me right but the boys in green could of made it a lot worse. My respect for Columbian police rises considerably. For obvious reasons, as with the military, photos are not permitted.


The long day in the Zona Cafetera actually starts out quite brilliantly. After a refreshingly sunny day cruising along the ridges, I descend into the valley of the three departments (counties or municipalities) of Caldas, Quindio and Risaralda. The valley bottom is at 1400' asl, the coffee here grows on the hillsides around 5000 to 6000 feet. I find an unmarked dirt road leading up a mountain side, turn and follow it. Standing on the pegs, I pick my way along in first gear as the road switchbacks higher and higher. Then, there they are. Those are coffee plants, I'm sure of it. This is the first time I see my favorite bean in its natural state.


The cafe finca, or coffee manor, is king in Zona Cafetera. Increasingly popular, Columbians vacation on coffee plantations here, the cafe finca jefes perhaps taking a page from their brothers in the wine cum tourism industry.


Happy here too are the leafy banana palms. Squat, perhaps 15 feet high, the banana palm grows at the same altitude as the much shorter 6 to 8 foot coffee plant. As Katie and I climb an even smaller, single-lane dirt road lined with these treasures I notice many banana bunches are blue bagged. I forget to ask but my guess is the bags help perserve the nearly ready-to-pick bananas from insects and birds. Or is it from rain? Later I note when the bunches are loaded into a camion the bags are removed.


My chosen mountain road is a business road for the coffee finca workers. It might be the main route up here on the cerro but it is too soft for a heavily laden gravel truck. The ever popular Toyota Land Cruiser is used to offload the gravel weight, one tiny load at a time. I wait while they shovel a jag into the Toyota.


When I get to the top of the hill I find microwave and aviation radar towers. The radar tower has a staircase and observing platform. Service workers Antonio and Heime invite me to climb the 300 foot tower for the coolest view in Zona Cafetera. In spite of protests on my part that I am disturbing his lunch hour, Heime insists, puts aside his hot meal, and gives me the guided tour.


The view from the top is awesome. So much biological fertility no matter which way I look. Everything grows. Is this the garden of Eden?

"Que pasa con son guerillas?", I ask. (In phonetic english, pronounced 'gerr-reeg-jes')?

Quietly, even though we are alone hundreds of feet off the ground, Heime says they are still about but not as bad as before. He suggests I don't follow my little mountain road further north.


Katie and I descend from our 40 kilometre mountain side trip and head for home. Along the way, I just have to stop and get a picture where the vendors have set up shop on the road to Medellin. I can buy the ever present Coca Cola, tropical fruit, cigarettes - or cell time for 300 centavos a minute. That's about 12 cents a minute. If there is one thing that sells more than bottled pop it has to be cell phones. Everyone but me has one. Even fully kitted soldiers with dangling canteens, army helmets chin-strapped up and slung M-16s are talking on cell phones when Katie and I pass by.


The ride from Armenia over the Cordillera Occidental, across the broad Tolima valley, and up the Cordillera Oriental to Bogota has to rate as one of my all-time favourite scenic rides. All on high quality pavement, the road varies from 1400' to over 11000' in altitude. More banana and coffee plantations, terraced mountains, waterfalls, ferns, near the top are big pines; in the valleys, black and white Jerseys on green pastures, vast expanses of tall sugar cane, roadside flowering hedges and overhanging acacias and eucalypts - all in rich Columbian green.

Hand in hand with biological diversity comes political and commercial diversity in advertising. Most blank walls, including abandoned buildings, have some large lettered statement. On this sign you can chose between a candidate for office or pollo asado. From the number of customers in the restaurants eating roasted pollo, I'd say the chickens are winning.


Family run vendedors with bananas, fresh cut pineapple, coconut, papaya, mango, grape, oranges, etc line the route, and are especially popular at construction desvios (detours) and army checkpoints. The checkpoints seem to be every 10 to 20 kms. I have never seen so much military hardware, sandbag bunkers and automatic weapons in my life. As I pass by, car truck lids are up, the backs of camions are being inspected, dogs sniff at lumps of cargo. As a motorcyclist, obviously from out of country, I am always waved through by the boys in camo. Seems to me it'd be pretty hard to be a 'gerr-reeg-ja' along the Pan-Americana.


I don't try any of the delicious looking fruit. As much as it is tempting, I have a rule about food from street vendors. Too bad because I do sympathize with the fact they are just trying to make a peso or two through honest if somewhat unprofitable and long houred work.


I start out in sunshine early in the morning, climb through cloud back into sunshine, then more cloud and a chilly wind starting at 10,000 feet. The descent into the warm Tolima valley, at 37 C, makes the shade of overhanging trees a real treat. My riding gear is totally dry for the first time in days.


As I climb the Cordillera Orientals to Bogota I am hit with another tropical rainstorm. The air turns grey, the highway has sheets of running water for a surface. Even the Columbian drivers slow down to a crawl. Katie and I bravely putter along. There is no place to hide and anyways the rain is likely to last for a while. So much for dry gear, although to be fair, my body never gets wet. This Dainese gear and Alpinstar boots, all with Gore-Tex, really works. My hands get wet but that's because the water runs down my sleeve and into my gloves. Not much I can do about that. Riding in tropical thunderstorms, another great character builder.

But Katie and I are happy. We get through the black zone and ride out into sunshine just before Bogota. Good thing. Seems all 6.4 million inhabitants are on this road with us. What a zoo! It takes two hours to get across town to the KTM dealer. Two hours of no-holds-barred traffic. I think I might be the one needing a 27,000 km service, not Katie. But we make it and we are safe and sound in Columbia's capital city. No sign of bad guys. So far just friendly people, beautiful women and, as it has turned out, Katie and I have saved the prettiest south american country for last.

Posted by Murray Castle at June 14, 2006 06:48 PM GMT

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