October 09, 2006 GMT
First Impressions of Colombia

Greetings from Medellin!

The plane ride from Panama City to Bogota was uneventful. At the last minute, the air freight company said I couldn't leave the tank bag and tank panniers on the bike. I wanted to leave them on and stretch wrap them to keep
inquisitive people from unzipping them, but they said no. So, I was carrying more stuff with me on the plane than I wanted to. Immigration was easy, they just asked why I was in Colombia, I said vacation, and they gave me a 60 day visa, no cost. Since i was carrying so much stuff, I caught a cab to the cargo terminal. I was going to just confirm that the bike was there, get a hotel, and come back the next morning to extricate the bike from customs, so I had the cab driver wait. The bike was there, and they said I could get it today, if I wanted. They told me to take this pile of papers they gave me, and go to customs to get a permit so they could release the bike. The cab driver knew where customs was, maybe 1/2 mile away, and we drove over there. She waited while I went in, filled out a form, made some copies, and was told to return to the air freight company, and wait for a customs inspector to look at the bike. The cab driver took me back over there, and I paid her $10. The inspector, who was a woman showed up after an hour or so, took a look at the bike, check VIN number etc., then told me I would have to have insurance and a "chaleca" before I could take the bike.

The chaleca is a vest with your license plate number on it. The story I got was that some years ago, when the drug wars were hotter, there were so many assasinations by gunmen on motorcycles, that they made all motorcyclists wear these vests so the cops could ID them easier. Now if I was going to do a shooting, I think I would use a fake license number anyway, but this is government we are talking about here. You also have to have your number on the back of your helmet. About this time, the inspectors husband, Oscar, showed up for some reason, and he and I started talking travel and motorcycles, and he offered to take me around to get my insurance and chaleca. I gratefully accepted, because I could not folow the directions they were giving me about where to go for them. The insurance place was right down the road, but they didn't do motorcycles, so he made a call on his cell phone and found another place to go. We drove there and I filled out the form and they printed up a card for proof, but they got a digit wrong in my VIN. I hated to make them do it over again, as it had taken awhile, but no sense in not having it right. Then we went to a street that was nothing but motorcycle shops, and got atarted on having my vest made. When they got done, there was a digit wrong here too, so I had to get it done over too. By this time I was really feeling bad about wasting Oscar's night running me around like this, when he asked if I wanted to stay at their house that night, since it was now too late to get the bike. I told him I had money and had planned on getting a hotel anyway, he insisted it was fine and called his wife, who said their two boys wanted to meet me also. So we went to their house which was a townhouse type thing in a gated community, nicer than my place. They fed me dinner, and I tried my best to explian my trip, what I thought of Colombia, and life in the US, hopefully my spanish was close enough that I didn't start any international incidents by saying the wrong thing. The kids were maybe 11 and 8, and I told them I had nieces and nephews their ages. Anyway, we had a real nice time. The next day, Oscar and I went to the freight company and got the bike. I tried to give him some money, but he wouldn't hear of it, but at least he let me put some gas in his car. So, all told it cost me about $45 for insurance, $15 for my vest, and 40 cents for some copies, to get the bike out of customs.

I got some directions to get me started out of town and got on the road. I thought about looking around Bogota a little, but the place is like 7 million people or something and I just didn't want to deal with it. Bogota sets the new standard for poor or nonexistent signage, and after stopping for directions at least 4 times, I was on the highway to Medellin. I was going to Medellin because a guy who posts on Horizons has a hostel type thing there, and I thought it would be nice to get some native info on the country, especially given the reputation Colombia has.

The first thing I noticed was how many people were out riding high end road bicycles on the highway shoulder. I'm sure in the first 50 miles out of Bogota, I saw more bike riders than I had seen the whole trip up to now. A perk of riding a motocycle here is you don't have to pay road tolls. There were about 4 toll booths between Bogota and Medellin, but they have a 3 foot wide lane just for motorcycles that you just ride through. Very enlightened country. I got roughly halfway to Medellin by 3 in the afternoon, and found a motel on the side of the highway and stopped for the night. I also wanted to repack everything, since my packing system was all screwed up from the plane flight, and it was bothering me that I couldn't remember where I put some things.

The next day I was on the road by 7 and was in Medellin by noon. The last 80 miles into Medellin was unbelieveably heavily patroled by the military. Every bridge had a sandbagged machine gun pit. It was reassuring to see all these guys, but at the same time, they are there for a reason. They wouldn't go to the trouble and expense if they weren't. I was planning on staying a CasaKiwi, a hostel run by HU member Paul Thoreson. As I was sitting on my bike on the side of the road in Medellin, reading my map and looking lost, a couple on a motorcycle pulled up and asked if I needed help. I told them what I was looking for and they said to follow them, and they led me right to it. I gave them my blog address, but they didn't speak any English so they are probably not reading this, but if you are thanks again.

CasaKiwi is located in the Zona Rosa, an upscale part of Medellin, with a lot of nice restaraunts, bars, and night clubs. This part of town is where locals go to treat themselves to a night out. It's fairly expemsive, by Colombian standards, but still reasonable by American ones. Dinner with 2 beers at a great Thai restaurant was about $8. More info at www.casakiwi.net , if you are going to be in the area. One night I went to one of the dance clubs with some people from the hostel, but they play the music painfully loud, and I am just too frickin' old to appreciate that scene any more. On the other hand, it was a good chance to see a lot of hot Colombian babes all dolled up, so it wasn't a total loss. Motorcycles are a big part of upper class Colombian culture, and there are Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha, and Ducati dealers, along with a bunch of independent
shops, all within walkng distance. I bought a pair of Joe Rocket pants to replace the ones that were stolen in Panama. Paul has a garage at the hostel, where I have been parking the bike. I have done a little maintenance on it here. One of the welds on my aluminum panniers split, and I cobbled up a fix with some angle brackets bolted around the corner, changed the oil and just looked it over. I will need a rear tire soon, but I didn't find exactly what I wanted here, and it will go to Quito, and I'll look again there.

Anyway, life is pretty good here in Colombia. People have gone way out of their way to make me feel welcome, and I have had no hassles at all. This is Monday, and I will probably leave here Wednesday and head south toward
Ecuador. It will take me 2 or 3 days to get down there.

Posted by Andy Tiegs at October 09, 2006 11:47 PM GMT

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