So we’re off, Curtis and Janet, Roger and Linda, Fred and I, heading out through the early morning rush hour in Bogotá. In the middle of an underpass my bike cuts out leaving me stuck in the middle lane of traffic while I watched my companions weaving through the traffic ahead of me. Fortunately the traffic was hardly moving and slightly downhill so I was able to get to the roadside between impatient buses. Roger and I had discussed my bikes propensity to cut out and he had told me that some of the early BMWf650s had a habit of doing this due to a sticky relief valve in the fuel cap. This caused a vacuum and the fuel wouldn’t flow. I quickly opened the fuel cap and what do you know, she fired up and I was away again. Soon the traffic began to thin and I managed to catch up with the others. The roads in Columbia are quite good and we carried on through the hills towards the Rio Magdalena valley. We had had a little conference the evening before, each explaining what we wanted from the ride. Curtis and Janet had no wish to get into the culture of the countries we were going to drive through, Fred, well Fred wanted to get to ride as much of South America as he could in the few months he had available. This meant that while he was achieving his aim, he would also be riding long and fast, (to get to Ushuaia before the winter set in was a worry for me too); so two plus points for him there, but also he would not perhaps touch the real world as often as I wanted to. Roger and Linda wanted what I wanted, to see the sights, hear the sounds and try and get a real feel for the countries we were to visit. I made it plain that I had no intention of riding over 300 miles at 80mph every day, and if they saw that I had disappeared from their mirror not to worry, if I knew the town and hotel we were heading for that night, I would arrive eventually.
The Colombian countryside
The road was serpentine and rose into the mountains lining the valley of Rio Magdalena. The guys in front of me breezed past the trucks effortlessly but I needed to choose my moments being half the size of their bigger bikes. This meant I would slowly loose them and then with a reckless spurt I would catch up a little. Also my bike had a leaking radiator, so I had to keep one eye on the temperature gauge. I usually don’t stop for lunch, a swig from my water bottle and a chocolate biscuit were usually enough, so when the others pulled into a café or restaurant, I would see their bikes and pull over for a quick cup of coffee and top up my radiator. The radiator cap is quite difficult to get to on my f650, so I took to removing the temperature sensor and topping it up with my hydropack feed tube. Roger was very good at finding good places to eat. His maxim was, ‘If it don’t smell of cooking and no ones in eating in there, there must be a reason, on the other hand if it smells of cooking and tables are busy then it’s ok.’
In response to my feelings we had agreed to overnight in Ibague, a ride of less than 200miles. Riding into Ibague I became totally lost and had no idea where the hotel was situated. I tried to hail a couple of taxis but they looked at me oddly and drove on. In the end I rode in front of one that was about to exit a side street, parked my bike in front of him and managed to indicate that if he would lead me to this hotel I would pay him for his help. Realisation hit him and his slightly pained expression turned into a grin. The streets got narrower and busier as we neared the pedestrian shopping streets in the centre of the town, and luckily for us a van unloading caused us to stop 50 yards short of the hotel. Indicating we were here, the taxi driver pointed out the ramp of a multi storey parking lot, and he and the car park attendant gave me enough hints so that even I got the idea that the hotel used this parking lot and it was free for hotel guests. The only thing that worried me was I could not see the other bikes, but the car park attendant said that ‘si’ the Americanos were in the hotel. ‘Well to hell with it,’ I thought, ‘If it’s not my Americanos I’m about to make new friends and I have at least found a hotel for the night. I was unused to the concept of the hotel being above the ground floor while the ground floor was used by shops, so following directions, ‘50 mtrs and on the right,’ I walked right past the glass hotel door amongst the shop frontages, and turned right into the pedestrian shopping street looking for something that resembled the frontage of a hotel. Not finding one I turned and walked back. ‘No nothing looking like a hotel entrance, is there a sign on one of the buildings then? I looked up and there were Janet and Linda standing by a first floor window drinking coffee. I found the door amongst the shop fronts, yep the one with HOTEL in big gold letters written on it, and joined them with a cup of coffee. Apparently they all arrived in the street by the hotel door and nearly caused a riot due to the crowd that gathered to see, touch and ogle at these big gringo motos. However when they eventually got their luggage off and into the hotel, they realised that the parking was 50mtrs back up the road and the local cops wouldn’t let them ride back to it as this was a one way street, something that normally doesn’t bother us, so they took off round the block, and that’s about the time I arrived, so I wasn’t that far behind them after all. Trouble is they took a wrong turn, got lost again and eventually turned up 10 minutes later.
The lounge of the hotel had a good view on the street below, and I can say that from what I saw Columbian women are amongst the most beautiful in the world. Only trouble is they go for the same understated sophisticated style that Brittney Spears goes for so successfully. (For those who do not recognise it, this is irony) Shame really, but I put it down to the way that Latin men like to see their women. Same on the telly by the way, the presenters often look like tarts, and I’m sure that they are all intelligent women, well some of them anyway!
I took a couple of pictures of the town from my window as we did not get time to do more than walk up and down the shops, eat chicken and chips, and return to the hotel.
Ibague from the hotel lounge
At breakfast I mentioned that for the first time on my trip I had wanted to, but not stopped to take pictures of the scenery. I would therefore be even further behind today as I intended to stop if I saw a nice view. This was not a problem for Curtis or Roger of course, as they had pillion riders to take pictures for them. I don’t think a photo journal was high on Fred’s list of priorities on this trip though.
I was first to the car park but as I needed to fill my radiator, was last out. Reaching the street I saw not a sign of them, but managed to catch them up a few miles up the road. Roger hung back for me and we watched Curtis and Fred swapping lead in the distance ahead. Roger has this one trait though which I found amusing, and I’m sure he does not know he possesses. He can’t abide a lorry being in front of him and would ride quite nicely at 60 until about 100 yds from the lorry, then speed up to overtake it. Me? I’m as like to slow down by 2 or 3mph and follow it until we hit a hill and it started to run out of steam.
This was another easy day and we ended up in Cali through mountains with brooding black clouds in the distance, but we only caught the odd shower as we topped the higher passes. I say we, but once again I found myself alone at the end of the afternoon, although I was sure the others were just ahead by about 10 minutes. Then on the last mountain before town the traffic crawled to a stop. After a while engines were turned off and people began to stretch their legs. I, with my British propensity not to jump a queue, did likewise, while other, smaller, locals rode past. Never ones to miss an opportunity to sell things to passing motorists, some local villagers were walking along the stalled traffic selling hot broth, empanadas, sweets and fruit juice. I became the centre of attention as people asked about my bike, luggage and trip. I in turn learned that there had been a landslide and the way ahead was totally blocked although a crew of about 100 were working on clearing the way but no one knew how long it would be before the road was open again. The sun was disappearing behind the mountains when a policeman indicated for me to pull out of the traffic and go on ahead. The work men had carved a corridor through the landslide with their bulldozers and earth movers and left a clay surface several feet above the original asphalt. This was slippery and not at all nice to ride on, I later learned that it was even worse for the others as earlier they had left a hump in it as well, but when a lorry started to slide sideways trying to get over it, they stopped the traffic and removed it, but first let the motorbikes have a go. I think the guys said they made the ladies dismount because it was so slippery. They knew I was ok because a local dirt bike rider and I had spoken earlier in the queue and he had ridden ahead. Seeing the others he told them I was just down the road a little ways. Anyway somehow or other I caught up just outside of town.
Curtis and Janet
We were going to stay at a hotel run by a German couple that night, one at which both Curtiss and Roger had stayed before, but they seemed to have forgotten the way and while they discussed it on one side of a road junction I waited at the other side for the outcome. ‘Right, that’s straight on then!’ I thought as they rode off leaving me cut off by a sudden swell in the traffic. My own fault, I should have joined them on the opposite corner, but I thought it looked a bit exposed to the traffic. Needless to stay no one noticed I was gone, but when the German hotel told them it was full, they were kind enough to ask them to give me a message. I, in the meantime, stopped at the first really good looking hotel and had a hot bath then ate a five star meal accompanied by a fine bottle of red wine while I watched the traffic go by 6 floors below my restaurant table.
I figured that if I started early, then either they would catch me up and overtake me, or I would see their bikes parked outside a roadside café. In the event, I had pulled in for petrol and was just getting a cup of coffee from the outside cafe when they pulled up for gas themselves. After gassing up they joined me and had their lunch. Just as we were about to leave the local school turned out and Roger, Linda and I, being slower to get away than the others, found ourselves signing autographs for about 2 dozen 13yr old girls and boys. Quite sweet really.
In Pasto there is a fantastic plaza with a modern theme to it and wonderful bronze plaques. Also there is a small museum with articles from the earlier culture that lived amongst the hot springs of this hilltop town.
Bronze Plaque in Pasto
One of the earlier inhabitants
Again I got left behind somehow and nearly rode straight through the frontier area, I thought it was a recreational area with cafes, toilets and stuff. The Columbians just took the copies of the documents we were issued in Bogotá and stamped my passport. I could see on the desk the paperwork from Roger and asked if they were far ahead, I made out from the reply that they were about 10 minutes ahead of me. Riding over to the Ecuadorian side of the border I saw Janet and Linda standing by the bikes and drew up next to them. Fred, Roger and Curtis came out of a small office towards me. ‘The computers down,’ said Fred, ‘It may be an hour of so until we can get our paperwork! They have called the main man and he is coming in, it’s supposed to be his day off!’ He duly arrived, diagnosed a faulty server connection and we all retired to another part of the complex and used another computer there. Fortunately it was Sunday and so a lot of the offices were empty. Armed with our paperwork we hit the road for Quito, and this time I was determined not to loose them.
Janet and Linda at the Ecudorian border
Fred, Curtiss and Janet soon disappeared off the radar and Roger, Linda and I rode towards Quito together. We were headed towards the zero line on the map and knew that there was a park with a monument somewhere. Along the way we saw Fred stopped talking to some other BMW riders and pulled over to find out what was happening. These were a group of guys and girls from Quito out for a Sunday ride. Unfortunately one of them had hit a dog in the village but luckily there was no serious damage done. The dog died on impact though. I should explain to those of you who have not witnessed the canine way of life here why this appears so callous. Dogs roam the streets everywhere in South America with no apparent owners, and strangely it is only in the cities where dogs are on leads that you see dog crap on the streets. In most towns the dogs rummage in the garbage for food and lie in the sun or practice group sex to make more little doggies. They also chase cars and motorbikes through the town but are quite subdued around people. They howl and bark all through the night like in those cartoon films, one setting the next off. In the markets there are dozens of puppies for sale and often a young family can be seen cuddling a puppy as they walk up the street, but I bet it will be left to its own devices when they get bored with it. I think the dogs regard the engine noise as an animal growling at them or something, but half ignore you and the others chase you out of town. Anyway we follow them to a local café and chat and they say they will lead us to the road that leads to the monument before they peel off to finish their ride.
Coffee with the locals
Arriving at the monument park we walked through the shops and booths to take pictures of the line that marks the equator. After a cup of coffee and a pastry we got back on the bikes and headed the short distance to Quito, Fred had already left it was Roger Linda and I that headed into Quito looking for the hotel by the Theatre Plaza.
Cheesy, but you gotta do it!
We got hopelessly lost as we had to ride past our exit from the freeway because the lanes were separated by a series of lane dividers about the size of half a football, which you could get over if you were in a truck or bus, but were out of the question at that angle for a motorbike. We left at the next junction thinking that we could run back parallel to the main road, but ended up in a cul-de-sac after going up one of the steepest roads I have ever encountered. Choosing not to ride down the stairs, which were just as steep, we eventually found a cab and followed him to our hotel, outside of which Fred’s bike was parked. I did not know until later in the afternoon that Curtis and Janet had elected to stay at The Quito Marriot in a better part of town. We all agreed to meet up and go on to The Turtles Head, a British Pub run by a Scot who brewed Real Ale there. Curtis then told me that he and Janet had decided to return to Texas by plane, and generously gave me his maps and guide books to the countries I would be visiting if all went well.
During dinner Albert arrived and introduced himself and we were all having a good old chinwag about our plans, when I mentioned my radiator problem. Albert said that I was in luck because one of his chillers was having the heat exchanger repaired the next day by a guy who was probably the best aluminium welder in town. If I could get my radiator to the pub by 10am the next morning, he would get him to fix it. What a star!
After an early breakfast I stripped out my radiator in the cellar garage, not realising that the spot I had chosen, under the light well, was also the point where the hotel washing machine emptied, I thought the outlet was a rain pipe, and as the weather was fine, was of no threat. By the time the first flush of soapy water gushed around my feet it was too late to move. After delivering the radiator, I returned to walk around the town.
Next; Waterfalls. Volcanoes and more friends lost.
In Quito the University buildings are right next to the main square and house an interesting display of exhibits including, while we were there, an exhibition of photographs from international photographers. After seeing them I walked around the University admiring the Art Nuevo murals decorating the walls, before returning to the main part of town and inevitably to the main plaza where I saw that something special was going on. There were police and army clearing away the old men from their normal seats around the war memorial and cordoning it off. Trumpets sounded, the Presidential Guard marched onto the terrace of the Presidential Palace and a military band struck up. Lancers rode their chargers slowly in from both side of the plaza and formed up in front of the Palace. Dignitaries took their places on the balcony and the Ecuadorian flag was unfurled. Today was Independence Day!
I listened to the presidential speech, not understanding any of it, listened to the band, and watched as the whole thing went into reverse and the old men resumed their seats by the war memorial. An interesting diversion for a little while, and I do like ceremony, especially when everyone is dressed up like toy soldiers.
The Presidential Guard line the balconies
While those on horses line up on the street
and the National Flag is unfurled
We returned to ‘The Turtles Head’ that evening and I was delighted to find my radiator had been repaired and was as good as new. Apparently just a tiny hole in it somewhere, maybe a stone. As good an excuse as any for a few celebratory pints. Also we were bidding farewell to Curtis and Janet who had decided to fly back home from Quito. Fred had told us earlier that he would be leaving in the morning too, as he was anxious to get to Ushuaia before the weather closed in down there. That left Roger, Linda and I who planned to make a leisurely way down to Chile where Linda was to catch a plane home in early April, leaving Roger a month before he too must return.
I assembled my bike amid more gushing soapy water and by late morning was ready to resume the trip. Roger and Linda were taking a guided tour of the city, so I wandered up to the Cathedral for a look. The cathedral in Quito has all of the worst aspects of organised religion built into it. It seemed to me to shout ‘Thou shalt not…..’ from every corner. It was of course built in another age when the church was out to dominate rather than nurture, but where others may have softened their message I felt that Quito had somehow not done so. All the people who looked as if they worked there appeared pleasant enough, it was the building itself that seemed cold and uncompassionate.
The daunting Quito Cathedral
Albert had marked on Rogers map some of the better rides on the way to Santiago and we headed for the first of them at Banos. The dirt road to Banos went through small villages and farming communities before once more getting back to asphalt. After rejoining the main road we came to an area that was under intense construction efforts. Here the local volcano had spewed larva down the mountain and across the road. A year later and they were still clearing up, only to find that the mountain was blowing its top again.
Notice in shop window at Banos.....
'If the volcano blows, run, but run in the right direction!!
The shops had notices posted on what to do if the volcano blew up again and we also saw that there were trips up the mountain opposite to se the lava flows. The bus we got on that night had a wooden seating platform that was a bit worrying in its construction, and we hurled around blind bends in the dark going up that mountain road. Now I know what it’s like for all those poor backpackers who catch country buses.
At the viewing point we had a brief lecture in Spanish which we could not understand, plus a tot of some local drink that tasted of aniseed. We gazed out at the town spread below us and up the valley where the volcano should have been, but all we could see was cloud. We amused ourselves watching the local TV reporter going on air with his night’s bulletin, before returning to the coach for the death defying decent. If it had not been for the actual coach ride, the whole thing would have been a waste of time.
Linda and Roger on the 'Volcano Express'
The road out of Banos towards Puyo, travels along a river valley that leads to the headwaters of the Amazon River. There are many tunnels and lots of waterfalls, the scenery is beautiful. We rode steadily to Payo and after a coffee for me and lunch for the others, we headed back now aware how much time we had to linger and take photos etc. There is one stunning waterfall (I’ll try and look up the name) where I walked down to the bottom of the gorge, whilst Roger and Linda explored the jungle gardens and the top of this spectacular cataract.
Having taken my pictures of the falls from the bottom, I trudged back up the footpath and went searching for my two companions finding them only when I got back to the little café where we had left the bikes, the owner kindly looking after our motorcycle jackets and helmets while we were gone.
Waterfalls tumble through the jungle onto the road....
and swaying bridges cross gorges over torrents....
....while intrepid explorers hack through the jungle
....searching for who knows what?
Roger and Linda getting ready for another leg of the outing
The border crossing near Santa Rosa was our destination as we said goodbye to 3 pleasant days in Banos. As we rode down the mountains there were frequently places where debris had fallen into the road, or where the tarmac had been washed away to be replaced by slippery white or red mud. In most places it had been compacted down, but sometimes we were switching from one side of the road to the other to try and find the best line. Coming out of the mountains at last we witnessed the flooding that the last week of rain had caused the lowland inhabitancies. The rivers were swollen and many of the roadside houses were flooded by a foot of water or more. I felt so sorry for the people here, but wondered how many times it would have to happen before they twigged and built their houses on stilts like in Belize.
Stopping at a petrol station just outside Santa Rosa we had a chat with some local riders before pressing on along the half finished by-pass to get to the border crossing of Macara which is off the main road leading to Loja. Following the signs to Loja, I was puzzled as to why Roger had slowed down at a fork in the road, the sign clearly pointed to Loja. Off to the left. Not stopping, I just took the left fork and carried on, although I did appear to be heading north and not east, but you can never tell as the roads here sometimes do funny things. Just ahead a town looked to be coming up and Roger and Linda overtook me and a couple of lorries just as I saw the towns name; Santa Rosa! We had, I had; taken the road back into the town we had just by-passed. The road met a roundabout and I was lost as to which road to take, so took the busiest looking one and followed it through the town, looking right and left for Rogers orange Buell. I ended up in a suburb and turned back to head once again into town and look for Roger and Linda. Stopping to ask the way to Loja from a family group sitting on their porch I set of an argument. All the older folk said ‘Yes keep going north and the road bends east to Loja.’ All the young men said ‘No, go back the way you came and take the road south and it will bend east to Loja’. And the argument started getting quite heated until I got of my bike and told them all to gather round my motorbike while I took a photo. Handshakes and smiles all round and they seemed to have forgotten that two minutes ago they were shouting at each other, but it did explain why the signpost pointed the wrong way.
Go this way, no that way!
Another beautiful road through Piedras and along river valleys towards Loja. Where the road turns to Macara and the border, there is a little police post and barrier. I asked them if another gringo moto had passed through and they said no. I told them that it was probably behind me and could they tell them I was going for a hotel in Catacoche. Since there seemed to be only one hotel in Catacoche, I expected to see them later that afternoon, and since I had to park in the street, I was pretty sure they would see where I was anyway. I never saw them again, and as I rode to the border at Macara kept thinking ‘should I go back, or is this kismet?’ In the end I decided it was kismet and reached the bridge at Macara that separates Ecuador from Peru, being slightly puzzled why none of the petrol stations had any petrol. This I would find out during the coming afternoon.
In the end, go your own way!
Next; Barriers, Arguments and the £10 bottle of Coca Cola.
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