The Walled City Of Cartagena
In the early hours of the morning I left Cartagena with Kyle and David, fellow passengers from the Stahlratte, the boat that brought us from Panama to Colombia. They were filming their travels for Chinese TV with Kyle, the Chinese front of camera TV celebrity and David, the cameraman. They were heading to Santa Marta to film a scheme set up to try and persuade farmers to switch from growing the lucrative though illegal coca plant (the raw ingredient of cocaine) to organic, fair trade coffee. I was heading to nearby Minca, a small village in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. David did some filming of Kyle and I eating breakfast at a roadside café, it’s harder than you think eating scrambled egg and talking with potentially billions of Chinese watching you through the camera lens. As we were riding alongside the Caribbean coast we stopped to get some action footage of Kyle and I on our bikes with us riding out of sight from the camera, turning around to ride past the camera then doing the same from the opposite direction. All exciting glamorous stuff!
A Muddy Section Of The Road To Minca
The narrow road from Santa Marta to Minca deteriorated as it climbed up from the coast with more potholes than tarmac by the time I arrived. I had hoped to find cooler weather in Minca but the increase in altitude wasn’t sufficient to make a noticeable difference and the road beyond Minca was too badly damaged from the heavy rainfall of one of the worst wet seasons in Colombia’s history to venture further into the mountains.
Compared to the Central American countries Colombia is huge with much longer distances between destinations. On the long, 423 mile (677 km) haul south to Barichara, most of it on the busy Pan Americana Highway, the traffic was brought to a halt by a tanker that had run off the road. As the motorcyclists congregated at the front of the waiting traffic I got talking to two coal miners heading to work who said that the accident had happened three days ago and we just happened to be unlucky enough to arrive shortly after the breakdown trucks were attempting to pull the tanker back up the embankment. Amazingly I was told that the driver had escaped unhurt. When I walked up to take a closer look there was a guy chest deep in a pool of whatever the tanker had been carrying trying to attach a cable to winch the tanker out. The liquid turned out to be palm oil which had been drained to reduce the weight although while I was there the two recovery trucks hadn’t been able to move the tanker at all. After a couple of hours standing around in the intense heat the recovery vehicles moved to the side of the road to allow an ambulance with flashing lights and siren to come through from the opposite direction. Mayhem then ensued as the oncoming traffic tucked in behind the ambulance and followed it through with the traffic going in my direction inching forward whenever a gap appeared. Eventually the police gave up trying to hold the traffic back and we were moving again.
Tanker Crash On The Minca To Barichara Road
Breaking Every UK Health And Safety Rule There Is
The speciality dish of the small colonial town of Barichara is fried ants so I didn’t dare go into a restaurant until I had learnt the Spanish for the dish to ensure that I didn’t order it by mistake. Some people like to try any exotic local dishes and I am happy trying new dishes prepared from familiar ingredients but having gone this far in my life without knowingly eating ants, grasshoppers, snake etc. etc. I can happily forgo the experience.
Road To Barichara
Unidentified Snake On Barichara Street
Travelling further south in the rain, again mainly on the Pan Americana Highway with all the slow moving trucks to Villa de Leyva the traffic was at a standstill for contra-flow road works. I rode past a long line of stationary vehicles to the front of the queue and although I had to wait a while; thought that once I was moving again I would have a clear road ahead of me. And so I did for three kilometres; then I was flagged down at a police checkpoint, the first time I had been stopped in Colombia. All my documents were checked although it was obvious the policeman didn’t have a clue what he was looking at. He was friendly enough but kept me there until the long line of trucks had overtaken me so it was back to breathing in the diesel fumes again. The 153 mile (245km) journey took five and a half hours.
One nice thing about Colombian roads, the tolls are free for motorcycles. There is a narrow motorcycle lane that bypasses the toll booths, so much better and quicker than having to remove the riding gloves and fish around for change.
Villa de Leyva, One Of The Largest Plazas In South America
Villa de Leyva is another small colonial town with cobbled streets and one of the largest town squares in South America. A popular destination for local and foreign tourists. At the weekend a horticulture market was set up in the main square creating a colourful display.
Villa de Layva Plaza With Weekend Horticulture Market
The Stahlratte motorcycle group continued to keep in touch via emaiI as we scattered southward giving each other advise on places and roads to visit or avoid. Greg who was already well south sent an email saying that he had taken a paved secondary road south from San Augustin to the small town of Mocoa then continued on a dirt road towards the Ecuadorian border. Two hours later another email arrived from Arno, a French diving instructor who lives in Panama City and had visited Colombia before. He had been talking about routes with Colombian friends when one of their phones rang. It was a call to say that a friend of his brothers’ had just been kidnapped in Mocoa where Greg had recently visited. I have been following the security situation in Colombia on the news and there does seem to be an increase in activity by FARC and the other freedom fighters / terrorists over the last few months. Since the government clampdown it is estimated that FARC membership has been reduced from 30,000 to 9,000 and they are restricted to the more remote border regions and the Amazon basin, these danger areas are classified as ‘red zones’. Mocoa, being close to the border with Ecuador and on the mountainside leading down into the Amazon basin is classified as a red zone.
Always one for pushing the fun envelope to the maximum, A few days after riding through a Colombian ‘red zone’ Greg posted some photographs of his F800GS that had gone over a cliff. Fortunately Greg had abandoned ship beforehand and a tree fifteen feet below the road had stopped the bike disappearing from view. A pannier had fallen off (a bit worrying) which caused the bike to veer towards the drop. With local help the bike was recovered and there was no significant damage.
You Know Your Having A Bad Day When The Good News Is That Your Bike Landed On Top Of A Tree Instead Of Plunging Down The Mountainside
Recovering The Bike
Discussing the next leg of my trip to Guatape with the Ville de Leyva hostel manager he advised against the direct route due to the road being damaged by rain and “a little trouble with guerrillas”. The revised route was quite a bit further but I have seen enough washed out secondary roads to know that they are too rough for me and I don’t want to risk even a little trouble with the ’guerrillas’.
I set off from Villa de Layva toward Guatape at 6am while it was still cool but I was also hoping that I might be able to do the 250 mile (400km) ride in a day although not seriously expecting to do so. Following the hostel manager's recommended route, the first 39km turned out to be a dirt road, negotiable but slow going for the first 30km but the last section was very rough, steep and rocky. This idea of mine that you can always turn around if the track gets too bad doesn’t seem to work too well, having taken two hours to do the first 30km and with only nine more kilometres to go the temptation to push on and hope that the track will improve round the next bend won out over spending a further two hours retracing my route back to where I had started. While inching the bike down hill over the rocks I came across a house and stopped to ask how much further the bad road continued although turning the bike around and riding back up the hill wouldn’t have been easy if I was to retreat. A young couple came out and said it was bad for a few kilometres but then improved once the road reached the valley bottom. I set off inching downhill again with the couple helping by clearing rocks out of the way. I was getting pretty tired and hot after a while and the Colombian guy asked if I wanted him to ride the bike for a bit. I figured a younger, fitter, longer legged rider was bound to be better than me, tired as I was so we switched rolls with him gently lowering the bike downhill on the front brake while his wife and I cleared the track. He dropped the bike three times, bending the gear lever on one occasion but I would have dropped it more than that and possibly would have had to camp at the roadside to rest and continue the following day if I had been on my own. Eventually we got to the valley bottom where the road improved. I would have had a hell of a job getting through that section on my own and was really grateful for the help I received. The track was still slow going with mud replacing the rocks and I was pleased to reach the paved road going into Barbosa.
My Colombian Helpers With The Bike Back On The 'Good' Road
The paved road west of Barbosa turned into a dirt road which turned into long sections of mud which had me and the bike covered in the stuff. The tyres were coping well in the mud and I was making steady progress until I went into a deep rut where I had to lift both legs up to keep them above the ground either side of the rut. The rut got a little deeper, getting to around 18 inches (450cm) deep and one of the additional touratech fuel tanks dug into the ground at the side of the rut bringing me off. I was only doing 10mph or so but the tank mounting tube was bent back a couple of inches, one of the panniers was bent out of shape (again) and the brake pedal was bent. When I finally reached the main I45 road I decided to stop at the next hotel, this turned out to be a pricey $30 but it had off street parking, air conditioning and a swimming pool. The first thing I did once I was in the room was step into the shower wearing my bike cloths and boots to wash the mud off, the second thing I did was clean the shower cubicle! I had travelled 147 miles (235km) in nine and a half hours, the only stops were to move rocks, scout the deeper mud and water pools and to pick the bike up when it fell over, that’s an average of 15mph (24kph).
The Colombians are used to these road conditions and just seem to accept them as they are, certainly the Colombians I asked had a different concept of a passable road to mine. Reluctantly I have decided that for the rest of the wet season at least I am going to have to stick to the main roads with all the slow moving trucks.
Having revised the second half of my route to Guatape to avoid a secondary road that might have been fun or might have made me feel like a feeble old man I stuck to main roads all the way which got me there in reasonable time, 155 miles (248 km) in 4.25 hours including a breakfast stop.
I arrived in Guatape to find it incredibly busy with gridlocked roads and packed pavements. It was a Monday and I hadn’t realised it was a three day weekend. Guatape’s cool climate, lake and being only an hour and a half from Colombia’s second city Medellin makes it a popular destination for Colombian and foreign tourists. Tuesday saw normalcy resume as most of the tourists had returned to work.
With the help of Lake View Hostel Co-Owner Greg I found a metalworker in Guatape who straightened the Touratech fuel tank mounting tube and repaired the pannier. He did an excellent job for the princely sum of $23 (£15.50).
Guatape Plaza From My Coffee Shop
I decided to extend my two month Colombian visa and temporary vehicle import permit by a month with the aim of hopefully finding somewhere in the south of the country to stay for a while and let the wet season come to an end without travelling in it. It isn’t difficult travelling in the Central American and Colombian wet season, there are plenty of dry periods each day and areas that don’t get much rain anyway but I have followed the wet season south from Guatemala and have been in it for seven months and feel like having a break from the battle to stay dry.
Medellin Plaza Near The DIAN Customs Office
I headed into nearby Medellin, got booked into a hostel with secure off street parking (Casa Kiwi) and took a taxi to the DAS office that handles immigration. I was given a slip of paper with a list of requirements, photocopies, passport photos and instructions to deposit money into a bank but no application form. Photocopies and photos were straight forward and available around the corner from the DAS office but I had to take a taxi to the bank, pay the money, about $38 and receive a receipt. Next I had to get photocopies of the bank receipt and return to the DAS office. On presenting all my paperwork I was handed a form to complete and had to return to the photocopy shop to make a copy of it. With the paperwork finally assembled I was admitted into a waiting room and when it was my turn I was photographed, fingerprinted and told to return the next day to collect the extended visa. The whole process wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, taking about two hours in total. The next morning I was at the DAS office when it opened, waited half an hour and got my passport back with the extra months visa.
Taking a taxi from the DAS immigration office to the DIAN (customs) office to start the process of extending the bike permit I was disheartened to discover the DIAN office was hidden in a huge complex of government buildings in the centre of town. A policewoman gave me directions but when I entered the building I was told that I needed another office in a different building. At that office I was told I needed the first office and I ended up going back and forwards several times until security at the first office allowed me to go to the information desk where I was told I was in the right building and directed me to the office I needed. At the office I was given a form to complete and a list of all the photocopies I needed and told that I would need to bring the bike into an inspection bay in the basement of the building to have the VIN number checked. I’d hoped this wouldn’t be necessary but knowing Latin American bureaucracy I was disappointed but not surprised. By the time I had completed the form and got the photocopies done it was too late to return to the DIAN office that day but I was there with the bike for opening time the following day. Security wouldn’t allow me into the inspection bay saying I needed written permission to enter so I had to park in a nearby car park, walk to the office and try to explain in Spanish that I needed permission to bring the bike into the inspection bay. The person I needed to see wasn’t coming in until 11am so I settled down for a three hour wait. Once the paperwork was handed over the officer that had the misfortune of dealing with me helpfully said she would come to the public car park to do the inspection instead of using the inspection bay. Inspection completed I was told to return at 2:30pm the following day to collect the extended bike permit. My poor Spanish had added to the frustration of getting the visa and bike permit extended but it would have still taken the same amount of time, four days in total.
After extending my Colombian visa and bike permit in Medellin I returned to Guatapé to watch an international triathlon meeting which was a qualifying event for the 2012 London Olympics. The large Guatapé lake had risen two feet (600mm) in the nine days I had been away, a good indication of the amount of rain falling. There were three triathlon competitors staying in my hostel, a Colombian, Edwin in the amateur race on the Saturday and Zimbabwean, Chris Felgate and American, Brian Fliessman competing in the elite race on the Sunday.
Chris From Zimbabwe (And My Hostel) Really Wants To Go To The 2012 London Olympics
Crowing cockerels tended to wake everyone up early here as in many of the smaller towns and in the countryside. The elite athletes were concerned that their race performance could be effected by the early morning crowing which started around 3:30am in this hostel, way before dawn. These particular cockerels belonged to the neighbours and were kept in small boxes beside the boundary fence at night. Their owner had no hens so the assumption was that they were used for cock fighting, a popular ‘sport’ in Colombia. Greg, the co-owner of the hostel had spoken to the neighbours on numerous occasions about the noise and had offered to buy the cockerels in the past. Mysteriously, the following night the two cockerels were kidnapped. The left wing FARC guerrillas who are renowned for kidnapping were the obvious initial suspects although later rumours revealed that a parked motorcycle similar to Greg’s was sighted ten miles away close to a man releasing two cockerels into the wild. There are no suspects for the crime and with only a vague description of a man and a motorcycle seen in the vicinity it looks like it will remain an unsolved mystery. Everyone except possibly the neighbours slept better afterwards which makes me wonder if crime can pay after all although it‘s a bit late for a career change for me.
Saturday’s amateur race went off fine but it rained heavily all that night and was still raining at 7am Sunday morning when the women’s elite race was due to begin. The start of the race was delayed and a landslide caused by the heavy rainfall had left deep mud across the road that was due to be used for the cycle race. As it wasn’t possible to clear the mud away for the start of the race and impossible to ride a racing bicycle through it; the triathlon was reduced to a sprint triathlon which halved the distance of the swimming, cycling and running upsetting some of the competitors including Chris, the Zimbabwean who were better at the longer event they had trained for. There was one British entrant in the elite women’s race, Vicky Holland who was ranked second. She was in second place after the swimming when the athletes switched to bicycles but dropped back to eighth place at the end.
Vicky Holland From Great Britain In The Elite Triathlon
Guatapé’s two famous landmarks are the lake with its promenade called The Malecón and the giant rock, El Peñón de Guatapé. I eventually got around to riding the short distance to the rock and climbed the 644 steps to the lookout at the top. It is only when looking at the lake from above that you can appreciate how large it is with all its arms creeping into so many valleys.
Guatapé Lake Viewed From The Top Of The 644 Step El Peñón de Guatapé
On leaving Guatapé I continued southward through the outskirts of Manizales and onto Salento in Colombia’s coffee growing region. A few days earlier forty one people were killed with a further twenty missing in Manizales when their homes were engulfed in a landslide following heavy rain. A government warning had been issued and residents were advised to move out but most chose to stay as they were worried that their houses would be robbed if they were left unoccupied during the danger period. A difficult decision if you don’t have insurance and have had previous warnings that didn’t materialise into a landslide.
Colombian Army Parade In Salento Plaza
There was a lot of heavy rain while I was in Salento and the first hostel I stayed in didn’t have covered parking for the motorbike so I walked around until I found the Las Camelias, hostel and dairy farm on the outskirts of the town run by a Colombian couple with three young children. I was the only guest during my stay and none of the family spoke a word of English so I got to practise and improve my Spanish. One rainy afternoon was spent playing a computer card game on my laptop with one of the children which was fine for the numbered cards and the King and Queen although I didn’t and still don’t know the Spanish word for the Jack.
I finally got around to doing a tour of a coffee farm in Salento but I was glad I had waited. Coffee tours in Panama cost around $30 while an excellent tour of Englishman, Tim’s coffee farm costs less than $3 and included a cup of coffee from beans that we had seen being roasted.
Coffee Beans Roasting In A Wok
A short ride from Salento through the scenic Cocora valley, wax palms grow up to sixty metres high (195 feet). These are the tallest palm species in the world and are unique to Colombia. Parking the bike at the end of the paved road I then walked along a track mainly used by horses until the mud was threatening to come over the top of my boots, at which point I decided to make a tactical retreat. On a clear cloudless day I would have been able to see snow capped Andean mountains apparently but unfortunately I never had anything like a clear cloudless day.
Giant Wax Palms In Cocora Valley
I set off to ride to the Tatacoa desert thinking and hoping it might be a bit drier there. I had to cross the Cordillera Central mountain range on the Pan Americana Highway, this stretch is the main road from the south to the capital Bogota. I had heard there had been a landslide on the road a few days earlier but figured it had probably been cleared. On joining the Pan American at Armenia there were miles of stationary trucks pointing east in the direction of Ibague but I carried on hoping I could squeeze through on the bike. After 30 odd kilometres and negotiating one landslide of mud which blocked all traffic except for bikes I got to the front of the stationary trucks but a policeman told me the road was still closed and ordered me to return. Ironically while weaving around stationary trucks going back to Armenia I was stopped by another policeman who told me the road was blocked and that I should turn around! After I explained by pointing and my rudimentary Spanish that I had already been ordered to turn around and was now heading back to my starting point he allowed me to continue. As I had the address of a hostel in Cali loaded onto the GPS I headed there instead. The owner of the Casa Blanca hostel in Cali is a motorcyclist and I had hoped to get information from him about which roads were open but he was away during my stay.
The landside on the Armenia to Ibague road took ten days to repair and all the trucks I had passed had no option but to wait as they were too long to turn around. After seeing photographs of the landslide on the internet it is impressive that it only took ten days to repair. A section of the road had broken away and fallen down the mountain leaving a huge gaping hole.
Landslide On The Armenia - Ibague Road
I continued further south to Popayan which I had been told was a good place to visit thinking that I could head back north if I heard the Armenia to Ibague road was open again or travel further north still and cross the mountains east of Manizales. The police had told me this road was open. I could also ask about the Popayan to San Agustin road. I had heard several reports that this 78 mile (125km) stretch of road was notoriously bumpy and muddy with lots of trucks and buses churning up the road and creating deep ruts. I had more or less discounted attempting this road as I have had problems on roads that I had been told were in better condition than this one. The buses take between six and eight and a half hours which is a good gauge of how slow the road is.
I arrived in Popayan and found a hostel in the main central park near a bank with its roof covered in plastic sheet. There was a heavy police presence in the park with nearby roads cordoned off which meant I had to find an alternative route to the car park I was heading for to leave the bike. Three days earlier there had been an explosion in the bank which was strong enough to blow all the heavy clay tiles off the roof. There was a rumour that a bomb or grenade had been thrown into the bank but it could also have been a gas explosion or one unlikely rumour had it that an armed security guard had dropped a grenade from his belt which had gone off. With my knowledge of explosive devices gleaned from Hollywood movies I thought it unlikely that a grenade thrown or dropped into the building would be powerful enough to take the roof off a two storey building. As is often the way in the weird and wonderful world of long distance motorcycle travelling, the next motorcyclist I met, Dutchman Daan works as an explosives expert back home in the Netherlands when he isn’t riding his Africa Twin around the world. Daan was able to confirm that the damage was caused by something bigger than a grenade. I later read that an explosive device had been placed in an upstairs room the day before the explosion and that seven people had been injured, thankfully non seriously.
Popayan Bank With Bomb Damaged Roof
While in Popayan I met Canadian F650GS riders Jordan and Sandra who were riding on to San Agustin and we decided to ride together for moral and if necessary physical support to push, shove and carry stuck motorcycles. There was very little rainfall for several days before setting off which would have helped dry up the mud. We got an early start and it didn‘t take long to do the short paved stretch out of town and get onto the dirt. The bumpy sections weren’t really difficult it was just a matter of choosing a suitable speed that compromised making progress along the road and rider comfort. The sun had dried out the majority of the muddy sections, what mud there was, usually at road works and in relatively short sections was enough to let me know that I wouldn’t want to tackle the road after or during heavy rain. Both tyres were slithering around and I got wheel spin as I approached the top of one muddy hill but managed to keep the momentum going until I reached the summit. After following a small convoy of trucks at a steady 13kmh (8 mph) for a while without any overtaking opportunities we stopped for a coffee at a small village to allow them to pull ahead. We eventually arrived in San Agustin after six and a half hours of steady riding without any major drama. I have been on much worse roads in Colombia that didn’t have the bad reputation of this one but I think we were lucky that a lot of the mud had dried in the few days of sunny weather.
Popayan To San Agustin Road
Sandra Preparing To Tackle A Muddy Section With Me Ahead In The Distance
The San Agustin Archaeological Park displays the largest group of religious monuments and standing stone sculptures in South America. The stone carvings, some free standing and others carved into the bedrock of a stream represent Gods and mythical animals of a north Andean culture and are believed to have been carved between 1800 and 1100 years ago.
San Agustin Archaeological Park
Having failed to get to the Tatacoa desert earlier because of the major landslide which closed the Pan American Highway I planned to have a second attempt and ride north from San Agustin to Villa Vieja on the outskirts of the desert. Although Villa Vieja was marked on my paper map I had a problem locating it on my GPS map. Eventually by zooming in and scrolling around on the GPS map I thought I had found it and created a waypoint where the hostel should be on the main plaza and set off on the 165 mile (264km) journey. Unfortunately I had selected Calle 3 (3rd Street) in Aipe not Calle 3 in Villa Vieja on the GPS which explained the strange looks I received when I was asking where the hostel was. It turned out that Villa Vieja was two kilometres away but a large river without a bridge separated it from Aipe. I had to ride an additional 69 miles (110km) down one side of the river and back up the other!
I returned to San Agustin where I had a comfortable place to stay at La Casa de Francois to sit out a couple of weeks of the wet season which usually ends sometime in December although this year the forecast is for it to continue to the end of the month. I had originally planned to avoid Mocoa on my journey south to Ecuador as a Colombian had been kidnapped there recently. However a lot of rain had made the Popayan to San Agustin road worse than when I did it three weeks earlier so I didn’t fancy tackling that road again and the only other option was a long, 672 mile (1075km) loop north to Ibague and Armenia then south again through Cali. I had met half a dozen motorcyclists that had done the San Agustin - Mocoa - Pasto route without problem in the last month. The Mocoa - Pasto leg, know locally as the “Road Of Death” is a mountainous dirt road with steep drops on one side and a cliff face on the other but lacked the slippery mud of the Popayan route.
The ride to Mocoa was a good winding paved road following a river for while then sweeping into the hills which I enjoyed despite the rain. It was only lunchtime when I arrived but I had decided to stay in Mocoa and tackle the “Road Of Death” fresh the following morning. There was the usual heavy military presence along the road although now they had armoured trucks with some kind of heavy machine gun mounted in a turret. I guess this could be worrying but the army and police of Colombia have been some of the friendliest I have come across, the army nearly always give you the ‘thumbs up‘ as you pass and unlike Central America the police and army rarely stop foreign motorcycles.
Tiny Monkey In The Garden Of My Mocoa Hostel
The “Road Of Death” from Mocoa to Pasto was a bumpy, slow ride. When the fog wasn’t obscuring the mountain scenery I was too busy looking for the best route through the bumps to look at it. Again it was a case of finding a speed that compromised between nursing the bike and rider to avoid damage to either and making progress along the road. I was doing around 20kmh (12.5mph) whenever I got the opportunity to check. There were narrow sections where you hoped you weren’t going to meet something coming the other way, the traffic was fairy light and most of the drivers would pull over or stop for me if there wasn’t anywhere for me to get out of their way but a couple of trucks stuck to the centre of the road forcing me onto the loose gravel at the edge. It was a relief to arrive at the village of San Francisco and the start of a section of smooth paved road but this eventually changed to a wider, smoother dirt road on the approach to Pasto which would have been fine except that it had started to rain hard enough to effect visibility and to create some slippery muddy sections. It also got cold enough for me to turn the heated handlebar grips on for the first time since I was in Mexico. I arrived in Pasto in time for a late lunch having taken six hours to do 95 miles (152km). Some riders relish the challenge of these roads but my bike is a too heavy for me to enjoy them although there is no way you can avoid rough roads completely.
The Mocoa - Pasto "Road Of Death"
I have a short ride south on the Pan Americana Highway to the Ecuador border which I will be crossing just before Christmas. I will be spending Christmas in the mountains somewhere north of Quito although I don’t know where or who with at the moment. I do know what I want for Christmas though, THE END OF THE WET SEASON PLEASE!!!!
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