October 14, 2008 GMT

South America, Colombia, Bogota. Saturday 11th October - I've been here two days now and am at the airport collecting my bike. Its here - exactly as I left it in Panama. Copa Airlines use a handling agent so I have to part with some cash to cover their input (about 70,000pesos - less than 20GBP). They direct me to the customs office for some form filling - but no charge for my Temporary Import Licence. Whats even better, I do the whole process myself - no fixer required. The only way out of the warehouse is via the loading dock - no problem. The cargo guys borrow a DHL truck with a rear lift platform and soon I'm sorted and ready to go. The whole process was amazingly straightforward. There were so many places where it could all have fallen down - but it was nigh on perfect. My only mishap was the taxi taking me to the flight departure terminal rather than the cargo terminal. I thought my instructions were perfect, albiet in english. Maybe some spanish would have helped!!

Driving into Bogota on the bike feels great. I've been here before, but only very briefly on business. I like Bogota - it has a nice feel. Much better than Panama City. Its also refreshingly cool - mid teens deg C through the day, but probably below 10deg in the evening. Much more to my liking. The most obvious feature of Bogota is the use of red bricks - although its a large city it feels very European. Much like a UK town - particularly the older buildings which are in an "olde worlde" style. Very strange. Although I'm cautious, after 3 days of exploring, I feel safe here. Its clean, neat, tidy and I even grasp the bus based public transport system.

I head west from Bogota to Manizales to connect with the major highway heading south. This proves hard work. The road is a major route, but after an easy start leaving Bogota, moves up into the mountains. The road is single carriageway, narrow, winding its way up and down. Progress is slow - the road is busy. Trucks are common. The trucks struggle - 10mph is pretty normal for both up and down hill. The best part of the day is taken up seeking every possible overtaking opportunity. Unfortunately everyone else is seeking the same opportunity - including small bikes, cars, buses and the more powerful (empty?) trucks. Coming round a corner and coming face to face with someone overtaking seemed normal. However the KLR proves itself again - even with 50bhp I make progress and avoid too much frustration. But it becomes tiresome and hard to grasp the scenery which is pretty spectacular.

Manizales is strange. If you imagine a town, built on top of a mountain, with the main street running along the ridgetop and the side streets running down either side of the mountain, then that is Manizales. This place makes San Francisco look tame. Some of these streets looked so steep that I would be nervous about going up or down. The views were pretty spectacular though, including snow capped peaks in the distance. Waking in the morning and being above the clouds was nice.

From Manizales its down to Cali - a much easier run. Its flatter and much of it is dual carrigeway. The roads incidently are very good with only a few potholes and rough gravelly bits. Signposting is pretty good also, although I struggled slightly navigating my way out of Honda (yes - there is a town called Honda in Colombia). The fields are full of sugar cane (I think), where previously it had been coffee plantations up on the hills.

From Cali it should have been an easy run down to Pasto and on to the Equador border following the main road south. However about 50miles south of Cali I come across a stationary queue of traffic - trucks to start with and then cars queued alongside. Being on a bike I do the only thing I can - go straight to the front. The road is closed. Im thinking accident or landslide - I'v seen a few of those. I ask if I can go on and the answer is no. I ask regarding the problem - the people around me make gun gestures - I think they're winding me up. A senior military type arrives - I ask him if I can go on - he says no. I point at my watch - he points at his and makes several rotations with his finger - I guess that means several hours. Not good. I decide to park up. Within 5 minutes there is a commotion, a cheer goes up and everyone rushes to their vehicles - the road is open. Good timing on my part. We proceed in convoy behind a police pick up. The local bike boys are all at the front - I hold back amongst the cars. I feel safer there. As we head off it soon becomes apparent that the gun gestures were correct. It looks like the road has seen some heavy activity. For some considerable distance the road is littered with debris - trees, large rocks and piles of earth. This was more than two navvies and a wheelbarrow. We have to stop several times and wait for the road to be cleared - the local biker boys help.The road is scorched where fires have been lit. Almost certainly barricades blocking the road. At each one broken glass litters the road. Construction equipment has been overturned. We pass a large military armoured vehicle - the front end is badly burned. Further on we pass another three. There is a lot of military and police activity - police in full riot gear, shields and all. Soldiers dressed in black - not the green that I've seen up until now. These guys look professional. A helicopter circles overhead. Locals all stand outside their houses - they look bewildered as the convoy passes. And so it goes for several miles. Maybe this is the real side of Colombia. Whatever happened was very recent. It's now 11am. I feel OK - I am in a two mile long convoy surrounded by military and police. After the police pick up peels off the race is on - the frustration of everyone is apparent. Colombian overtaking rules apply.

By afternoon I have the road to myself. I am back in the mountains, but the road flows with sweeping bends, so make good progress. The mountains here are rugged and bare - not green like previously. Pasto arrives with a certain amount of relief on my part.

But whatever, I like Colombia. It is a well developed country with amazing landscape. The people have been extremely freindly and really interested in me and the bike - everytime I stop I hear the words "moto" and "kawasaki". I think Colombia has a lot to offer tourists - but I've seen few.

From Pasto its about 50miles to the border. At the border, the rather attractive customs officer speaks good english. She is keen to chat and asks about my trip. She asks what has been my favourite country - I have to say Colombia.

Some of my interesting facts about Colombia:

i. Motorcyclists all wear flourescent tabards with the bike licence plate emblazoned across the back. They also have it stencilled on the back of their crash helmet. May sound strange, but initially I thought that Bogota had a lot of bike couriers. After I'd worked it out, I found myself continually checking that the helmet, tabard and bike all matched!!
ii. Taxis in Colombia are mostly small city cars - Hyundia Atos, Toyota Yaris, Daewoo Matis - that type of thing. Makes perfect sense and ideal for nipping about in. They're also pretty good value.
iii. Many roads in Colombia are toll roads with toll booths for payment. However motorcycles are exempt and have their own express lane, even though its only about 2-1/2 feet wide. I can just squeeze through. Tolls have been a pain up until now, from the Golden Gate Bridge through Mexico and Panama. Not because of the money, just the aggravation of fumbling for change with a full set of bike gear on.

Click here for the latest Colombia Photos

Click here for the Trip Log

Posted by Graham Shee at October 14, 2008 10:56 PM GMT

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