View over the Valley - North of Bogota
Miss Piggy and her mounts rolled gently to a stop only inches from the deep gully at the edge of the road yet another checkpoint, 'Routine' we thought after riding almost 2000km from Bogota to Cartegena and return we had become used to the constant military and police presence on the roads.
Friendly Colombian Soldiers
This time we were wrong! The young number 2 hair cut officer greeted us innocently enough, offering his hand and the customary 'Buenos'.
As we dismounted our Suzuki his tone began to change. '¡Documentos por favor!' he barked out. We handed him our documents, which had previously passed the scrutiny of numerous police and millitary personnel.
He flipped through the papers. '¿Donde esta seguro?' he questioned. Seguro? (third party insurance) we thought, what seguro? Nothing had been mentioned to us at customs and immigration or for that matter by anyone since! We both looked at him dumbfounded.
He went on to explain that it was necessary to purchase insurance in Colombia. Our guide book had vaguely mentioned third party insurance, however, from what we had read, we considered that it was not compulsory and we had put it out of our minds.
We both continued to act dumb. Grant with below average Spanish and Jules with her Spanish quickly deteriorating the Officer steadfastly held on to our documents while demanding we go to the nearest town, one hour away, to purchase insurance. We questioned him 'Can we buy insurance there?' To which he replied 'No lo se' (I dont know).... not very reassuring for a two hour return ride!
Sheltering from the rain after the police check
Asking if we could pay an 'on-the-spot fine' he looked at us quite daunted by the prospect of giving us a ticket, even though the fine book sat plainly on the bonnet of his vehicle.
All three of us stood about in the hot sun for about thirty minutes or so. He continuing his demands, we continuing to plead ignorance. Julie began to feign a fainting spell while Grant appeared more anxious. Eventually Grant asked, with as much politeness as he could muster, for the documents and to our surprise the officer handed them back.
We milled about for a few minutes while the officer answered his cell phone, half way through his phone conversation he looked over to us and dismissed us with a wave of his hand. We were on the bike and dissapearing down the road in record time.
Truck Crash - Caucasia
The Colombian temporary importation process is quite easy, however, very time consuming, taking us approximately 5 hours.
* Before leaving the airport go to the DIAN Office to declare the bike and complete their paperwork.
* Go to the Freight Agent (in this case we used Girag) for the necessary customs paperwork (make sure they give you all of it as Customs will send you back).
* Walk across to customs and fill in papers, make copies of title, rego, licence, passport etc etc etc.
* Return to Girag and wait for Customs Inspection.
* When Customs Inspector finally arrives check bike over to ensure clearance.
* Go back to Customs Office for more waiting and final signing of paperwork and make any additional copies they require.
* Return to Girag with all paperwork and wheel the bike out of the warehouse and down the steps.
NB: Customs may demand that you purchase a customised reflective vest (one for each passenger) with your number plate on it as per the locals. This is not necessary, just agree with them and once you have the papers in your hand... leave! We have never once been chastised for not having the vests as foreginers.
Fully loaded and down the steps - Girag Office, Bogota
Grant had been sick and running a high fever upon arriving in Bogota. Our run to Cartegena via Medellin consisted of short days on the road while he was running high fevers then he would sleep for the rest of the day while Jules unpacked the bike and shopped for food, juice, medicine etc. (You can buy almost anything over the counter of the Droguria including anti-biotics! - No prescription required.)
The scenery was spectacular decending the mountains to Medellin, the Flower Capital of Colombia, then through the hot and humid valleys to the coast.
Residence in the mountains
Grants fever had abated by the time we had reached Cartegena, however, his chest infection was not clearing and being asthmatic it was necessary to see a Doctor.
Furniture Stores - Cartegena
As a general rule, in Colombia, small clinics and private surgeries do not exist and most doctors (ie 65%) work in the main city hospitals and the rest work in rural areas. It was necessary for us to visit the emergency room at the Bocagrande Hospital, where we were attended to within 15 minutes of arrival, this is the norm for locals and gringos alike. The hospital was excellent and efficient. After seeing the Doctor Grant had chest x-rays, blood tests, was prescribed and given nebuliser treatment and anti-biotics. Thankfully his condition rapidly improved and we could continue our journey.
Traffic Jam - Cartegena
We stayed in Honda, a small pueblito in the Quindiro department, for a week. Having been warned that the main road bridge crossing the Rio Magdelena was under repair and impassable to all vehicles.
View of Honda from pedestrian bridge
We were concerned on how we would continue our journey without an inconvenient detour, however, for motorcycles it was still ok, as the foot bridge, the oldest bridge in Colombia, was still open.
Grant rode Piggy down the steep rocky decline to the bridge. Here it was necessary to push the motorcycle across and we were advised, because of the size and weight of our machine, to stay directly over the main central bearer.
Waiting our turn
We rode from Honda the 50 kilometers to visit the ghost town of Armero. Several years ago we had watched a documentary on volcanoes which had detailed the story of Armero that in 1985 was devastated by the eruption of Volcán Nevado del Ruiz. The hot molten lava, from the eruption, defrosted approximatley 10% of the ice cap on the volcano. This caused a massive mud slide that travelled some 85 kilometers to the valley and over the Pueblo of Armero.
Tiles & alter of the Church - only remains of the town centre
On the evening of 13th of November, 1985, 23,000 people perished in less than one hour and a further 2,000 people were to die in the ensuing days including 12 year old Olmira Sanchez.
Remains of buildings (outside of the town centre)
The niña (girl) became the face of the natural disaster. Pictures of her trapped in the mud were broadcast around the world. As the muddy waters rose and her rescue became more frantic, her smiling face was a beacon of bravery that three days laters was to end tragically with the rescue failing and Olmira drowning.
The area, for many square kilometres, is scattered with the memorials of the thousands of people now buried deep below the surface where they had died.
Memorials dedicated to the victims of the Armero disaster
It was a somber yet memorable time for us as we found it difficult to comprehend this tragedy of 21 years ago in what seemed a peaceful and secure valley. With the new main road now passing through the remaining half buried buildings of the town.
Former hospital of Armero - note the height of the new road
'Colombia is the second most friendly country in the world!'
'What is the first?' we asked the young man
'I don't know, some island somewhere'
We cannot comment on the mysterious 'island', however, Colombia, we have found, has the friendliest of people to a degree it can become overwhelming. Almost without exception where ever we pull up a crowd would gather. After a while Julie would begin to sing 'Je suis une Rock Star' (French 'I am a rock star').
Je suis une Rock Star!
The second most frequently asked question by Colombians (after 'Where are you from?') is 'How do you find Colombia?'. Colombians are very proud of thier country and conscious of the publicity foreginers receive about thier home.
'¡Aye, muy lindo!' (Very beautiful), we reply as they smile and chat amoungst themselves.
On occasion after Piggy is put away and we are wandering the streets of a small town we overhear funny little conversations.
Old Man 1: 'Who are they?'
Old Man 2: 'Oh I don't know, they arrived a few days ago on a motorcycle?'
Old Man 1: 'Oh'
We ponder... 'How do they know?'
Early morning in the country side
We left Honda and journeyed through the long valley passing Armero and Ibagué, before steadily climbing to an altitude of approximately 3,500 metres over the high Quindiro Pass to La Leña, then almost instantly descending to a fertile valley and Armenia.
Quindiro Pass - Colombia
It was a quiet relaxed Sunday. Julie does her hotel search, while Grant immediately becomes surrounded by, yet another, curious crowd. A few minutes pass and Grant began to realise that most of the crowd were not so curious after all, with many of them seeing the opportunity to make a little money by showing us to a hotel, whether it was what we were looking for seemed to be an after thought!
After trying to converse with many people, all haggling for our attention at once, we called a taxi over and organised him to take us to a suitable hotel, which he did. Our relaxed Sunday had all but dissappeared and we were almost immediately dissapointed with Armenia, until we met a lovely couple from Cali at our hotel and shared coffee and conversation to finish the day pleasantly.
Coffee! Coffee! Coffee!
Zona Cafeteria is exactly that, the Coffe Zone. Litterally, every available inch of land is devoted to the growing and production of the delicious bean.... Jules was in heaven.
The town of Salento, in the heart of the zone, is a popular weekend getaway for Colombians searching for all number of coffee flavoured treats and enormous plates of locally caught trout.
Coffee toffee - Salento
We arrived on a Monday, hoping to have avoided the crowds, only to find that it was a national holiday and the place was absolutely buzzing. Fortunately we met some fellow motorcyclists (without thier bikes) who were vacating a room at one of the hotels - we were lucky! The proprietor allowed us to park Piggy in the courtyard garden, although it was a tight fit, getting her up the steps and through the front door.
Climbing the 250 steps of the lomo (hill) at the end of Calle 6 and passing the 14 stations of the cross Grant helped an elderly gentleman launch his rainbow kite in the strong breezes, a favorite past-time for locals, tourists, young and old.
250 Steps, 14 Stations of the Cross - Salento
Near the aguas termales of Santa Rosa del Cabal we decided on an evening of camping in the country side, our first since Guatemala. It was not as enjoyable as we anticipated. In the middle of the night a small, stinky, flea bitten puppy decided to use our tent as a trampoline until he was 'dog-tired' and the cosy vestible of our tent seemed a nice place to fall asleep.
Country Road - Aguas Termales, Santa Rosa
Santa Rosa is firmly established on the local Colombian tourist trail. A small colonial city, bustling and vibrant, the main plaza is iced with a grand gothic cathederal. Horse and carts race through the narrow streets, battling with trucks, buses, scooters and the quintessential Colombian Renault.
While camping we met Marta and her German friend Carlos, shared a few drinks and were invited to Martas house at Andalucia. Visiting Martas friendly family proved to be an entertaining and enjoyable event culminating in a fabulous ride through the country in a horse and cart to pick manderines and guavas.
Nanna fell in love with Grant as his curly blonde hair, blue eyes and fair skin reminded her of her late husband. Marta was a gracious and generous host while Rosalina kindly found space for us in her home to bed down for the night and Oscar allowed us to put Piggy away safely in his shed.
Piggy safely tucked away for the evening
Some-how-or-rather Grant was talked into taking all the little children (about 10 in total) for a joy ride around town on Piggy, the biggest moto they had ever seen. Squeals of delight and fright could be heard as Grant revved the engine and took off down the street to Parque Central.
Grant with Michelle and Raquelle
We met up with Randy, a fellow V-Strom owner (650 V-Strom) and, to Grants delight, a hang-glider pilot, outside of Cali and were escorted through the heavy traffic to his home for the evening, promising to return to Cali in a few days we visited Popoyan (approximatley 130km south) a beautifuly restored colonial town close to Volcàn Puracè.
Teatro Municipal - Popoyan
Heading out on the road towards Nieva and San Augustine, as far as the town of Coconuco, we became a little aprehensive with the isolation, lack of other traffic and no military presence along this route. Many locals at Coconuco had suggested the road further east towards Nieva could be dangerous due to guerilla and narco traffic occupation, we chose to return to Popoyan dissapointed as we were looking foward to seeing the archeological site at San Augustine.
On the way to Volcán Puracé
Returning to Cali we performed some much needed maintenance on Piggy including washing and inspecting the chain and sprockets, replacing the fluids in the clutch and rear brake.
At Randy's suggestion we chose to ride the 500km's from Cali to Ipiales and the border of Ecuador together.
Grant and Randy
From Pasto the mountains become part of the Andes chain climbing higher in altitude as the road twists and turns on itself, snaking its way to Ipiales.
The change in scenery was spectacular and surprising from the green fields of sugar and coffee to the dry and dusty landscapes of the higher altitudes. The two bikes wound their way through mountain tunnels, alongside deep ravines and over many kilometres of rough road works. On several occasions we were signaled by road workers to continue through only to find half way along the narrow detour a truck bearing down apon us from the opposite direction. All in a days ride!
The beautiful gothic Sanctuary of the Virgen of Las Lajas situated over the Rio Guáitara, near Ipiales, is said to have produced almost as many miracles as Lourdes in France. Once a year a great pilgrimage to the sanctuary occurs from both Colombia and Ecuador.
Ipiales, the city of three volcanoes. We only saw two! However, the morning view was both spectacular and exciting as the full moon sat above the cone of Volcán Cumbal, while plumes of white smoke vented from the crater of Volcán Chile.
Volcàn Cumbal - Ipiales, Colombia - photo courtesy of Randy
Volcàn Chile - Ipiales, Colombia - photo courtesy of Randy
So, for five weeks and perhaps 4,000 kms we travelled in Colombia.
Is Colombia a safe country to travel? Well, we had no problems! Yet we know there is still a very real risk to the traveller, if not, why then are the main roads so extensively patrolled by the military?
The present Government has, and is continuing to make very real progress in securing many of the 'hot spots' of Colombia and this action is felt in the people, who after all, have the greatest to gain.
For the most part we only travelled the Pan-American and other main toll roads (free for motorcycles!). When we did wander, it was only after extensive discussion with millitary police and many of the locals. Often we were warned of a section of road where stopping was considered unwise or of a certain town that was known as a safe haven for many of the less desirable citizens of Colombia. In every case we heeded to these warnings.
In the end, the decision to travel in Colombia was, for us, entirely personal.
Colombias famous Chiva
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