Argentina and…

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Our Argentinian border crossing set us back a day and the border town itself was not the most pleasant place to spend some time so the next morning we were happy to hit the road and leave it behind. It was getting noticeably colder as we headed further south still at high altitude, after roughly four hours we began descending towards the town of Jujuy where we spent the night. Our original plan was to continue south to Salta but as we had been held back by illness and a long border crossing we decided to skip Salta and continue to ride east towards Brazil where we planned to visit Iguazu Falls and spend some time in southern Brazil where the weather should be far more comfortable than the Andes. Soon after leaving Jujuy we returned to a normal altitude of roughly 400m it was a fantastic feeling to breathe oxygen rich air again. It took us several days to cross Argentina from west to east. It reminded me of crossing Canada because in the west you have the Andes like the Rockies in Canada then you cross flat lands just like Saskatchewan and Manitoba after that rolling hills with a lot of greenery similar to Ontario although Ontario had many more small lakes. The cities we stopped at were becoming more and more westernised, brand named shops, fast food big names and the majority of people looked middle class driving relatively new cars. It was a far cry from Peru and Bolivia. We rode through Resistencia and Posadas before turning north towards Iguazu. We spent one night on the Argentinian side of Iguazu and crossed over to the Brazilian side the next day as apparently that is where the better view can be experienced. The Brazilian side of Iguazu looked even more like any other generic western city. We visited a bird sanctuary just before the waterfall which was well worth it even if we had already seen most of the different species while on the road in the wild. To visit Iguazu you have to jump through the tourist hoops, park your car in the carpark, go buy an entrance ticket and then take a bus to the lookout point. The views were spectacular it made Niagra Falls seem like a water feature found in a large mall. I definitely recommend visiting Iguazu if you ever get the chance.

 

That evening after visiting Iguazu our trip took an unexpected turn. We were discussing what we would do in Brazil over the next six weeks and we realised that neither of us were very enthusiastic about six more weeks on the road. Actually ever since we arrived in Argentina a sense of accomplishment begun to sink in as Argentina had always been our final goal since the beginning. Crossing Peru and Bolivia had taken it out of us and we found ourselves in the right mood to end the trip. I rang home that night as it was my birthday and spoke to my parents. During the conversation I learned that they would be going to Portugal on holiday in a few days for two weeks. When I hung up Franziska and I discussed it and decided to spontaneously change plans. We would skip southern Brazil and instead ride straight to Buenos Aires where we would attempt to ship the bike to Spain and then ride from Spain to Portugal and surprise my parents by just rolling up the driveway unannounced. Once there we would take it easy and recuperate a little. After all, I had to start trying to gain back some of the 8kg I had lost in South America.

The next morning was Monday, I called the shipping agent in Buenos Aires and they said it would be no problem to ship the bike on short notice. We set off for the border to cross back into Argentina, which unfortunately took a long time as the Argentinians we searching every vehicle crossing over. Because of this delay we didn’t make it as far as we wanted on Monday and had to put in a long day on Tuesday instead. In total on Tuesday we rode 950km, our longest distance covered in one day since the trip began. On Wednesday morning we only had to ride from the outskirts of Buenos Aires to the city centre to check in with the shipping agent dakarmotos.com, although it was a short distance it took us several hours due to traffic. We made arrangements at Dakar Motos to bring the bike to the airport cargo terminal the next day and pack it onto a pallet. We checked into a hostel downtown ate steak and slept like babies that night. The next morning (Thursday) we arrived at the airport cargo terminal and were waived in the right direction by all of the security staff and airport workers who saw us. I supposed that we were not the first lost looking bikers to have arrived there to ship their bike. Before long we were inside the right building and I was asked to ride the bike up onto a pallet. I had to disconnect the battery, remove the mirrors, let some air out of the tyres, and take off the windscreen. The boxes remained on the bike filled with riding gear, tools and spares, in addition we were able to pack our helmets into a dry bad with some other bits and pieces and lay it on the pallet next to the bike. The staff then started securing the bike to the pallet and wrapping it in plastic. Just before it was wrapped in plastic it was taken off to be inspected by customs. All they did was check the VIN number they weren’t bothered about looking on the boxes. By midday the whole process was over and we left to return to the city. The next step would be to pay for the shipping the next day at the company’s office downtown. That evening we booked our flight to Madrid from Buenos Aires, 600USD each with Boliviana Airlines leaving on Saturday afternoon. On Friday morning we went to the shipping company’s office to find out the final cost that would have to be paid. It came to roughly 1,800USD over all but we would be paying in pasos and that meant we could get the blue dollar rate if we changed dollars for pasos on Florida Street (the main tourist area in Buenos Aires). I had been aware of the blue dollar rate for most of the trip so I had accumulated about 1500USD in cash that I was carrying around in the side boxes since Ecuador. The normal exchange rate is something like 8-9 pasos for a dollar but if you change physical dollars on Florida Street with the exchange touts you get 12 pasos to the dollar. It was easy to find somewhere to exchange them, as you walk down Florida Street people are mumbling cambio cambio cambio in tourist’s direction all of the time. We just selected one that had good English and he brought us to a little office off the main street where we exchanged the dollars for pasos at the blue rate. In the end the shipping only actually cost around 1350USD because of the blue rate. Which is a very good price considering it was air freight and would be delivered immediately. Just under a year ago I had paid 1,200Euro to ship the bike from Germany to Canada by sea and that took two weeks! Something to also consider is that last July 1,200Euro was roughly 1,650USD so no matter what way you look at it we got a good deal for shipping back to Europe. Our contact at the shipping company gave us a bank account number and all we had to do was walk next door to the bank and lodge the payment. We went back to the shipping company showed them the receipt and we received the air waybill with which we could track the shipment online. The bike left for Madrid on a direct flight that night. We relaxed in Buenos Aires for the rest of Friday and celebrated the end of our trip in the Americas with a dinner. The final count was 38,000km traveled since leaving Halifax on the 5th of August last year. On Saturday we took a cab to the airport and started our 17 hour trip to Madrid via Santa Cruz in Bolivia.

We arrived in Madrid on Sunday afternoon and went to collect the bike on Monday morning. The cargo handling agent Swissport was very helpful but Spanish customs was a bit of a pain. Even though my bike is European registered they wanted to see a print out of my insurance policy from Germany. I had a credit card sized card with my details and insurance policy number on it but it wasn’t good enough for them they wanted to see the full policy. In the end my insurance company had to email a copy of the insurance policy to the lady at Spanish customs. Once that was done the rest was easy, they stamped the required paperwork and Swissport delivered the bike to us in the carpark at their warehouse. It took about an hour to unpack it and get it road worthy, by two o’clock we were on the road. At this time seven days ago we were in Brazil at the border crossing to Argentina now we were in Spain heading for Portugal. We stopped at KTM in Madrid to pick up a new air filter, oil filter, fuel filter and rear sprocket as I planned to do some much needed maintenance on the bike once we arrived at my parents place. It was too far to reach southern Portugal on Monday so we stayed one night in Trujillo in a hotel called Hotel Peru. Kind of funny because two months ago we were in Trujillo in Peru. On Tuesday we set off early and rode to the Algarve region of Portugal via Seville in Spain. At around two in the afternoon we arrived at my parents place, they heard the bike but didn’t think much of it so we were able to walk all the way to the rear and straight into the kitchen where they were sitting. Well needless to say, they got quite a shock.

We have been here now for a week and are thoroughly enjoying ourselves, we are especially enjoying the food. No more chicken and rice!! The plan for the moment is to stay here for another week or so then start making our way back to Germany through Spain and France hopefully arriving in Hamburg around the 26th of July. We also intend to make one or two more blog posts on the way but for now we’re having a break.

 

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Bolivia

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Bolivia immediately seemed far more relaxed than Peru, we felt it straight away after crossing the border near Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. Once we stamped out of Peru we rode about 100m to the Bolivian border where we had to wait for around an hour because the customs official was on a liberal lunch break. On the door of the customs building it said closed between 12:00 and 13:00, it was around 14:00 when we arrived. Once he showed up it only took ten minutes for the import formalities, he didn’t even bother coming out to check the VIN number on the bike.

It was a short ride into Copacabana which is a small town on the shoreline of Titicaca, we found a hotel easily, checked in and went out to explore. Copacabana is small enough to walk around within an hour. There is one main street where most of the restaurants and cafes are based which slopes downhill towards the lake. The population is mostly native with a fair amount of backpackers hanging around. At one point we strolled through a local market and thought that something didn’t feel right, then we realised what it was. None of the vendors were approaching us or trying to sell us anything you could stop and look at something without being harassed. Completely different to our Cusco market experience and it again portrayed this relaxed vibe we were both feeling from the place. We enjoyed Copacabana but it is very small and we found it hard to spend more than a few days there. However what ultimately caused us to hit the road was that Franziska chipped one of her teeth while eating and we thought it best to go to La Paz where there are plenty of dentists to choose from.

Bolivia seemed less densely populated than Peru which made the roads feel much more quiet and calm to ride on. There were still some nutcase don’t give a damn drivers but far less than we had been accustomed to up to that point. If the road was a paved road it was generally in good condition and if it was unpaved it was general in very bad condition, only about 35% of the roads in Bolivia are paved. After La Paz we encountered some of Bolivia’s new highways, it was strange to ride down them because you could ride for 100km and only encounter one other vehicle.

La Paz itself is a little chaotic but what do you expect from the largest city in the country. Less than 24 hours after chipping her tooth Franziska was sitting in the dentist’s chair in La Paz, the dentist fixed the tooth with a composite filling – cost 80USD. In La Paz and Bolivia in general it is hard to find a large supermarket or well known brand shops. The trading is more individual with people setting up stalls and selling odds and ends, major commercialism hasn’t hit Bolivia yet. The food is almost standardised, you arrive on a street which looks like it has five to ten restaurants but when you enter each one you find that they only serve chicken and rice. In La Paz there were a number of good restaurants that made more of an effort which was a nice change. Usually these restaurants are owned by foreigners.

I knew beforehand that buying fuel in Bolivia would be an issue as it is government subsidised and foreigners are supposed to pay around 2.5 times what the locals pay plus they want all of your details like passport number and vehicle registration when you’re filling up. The day after Franziska’s tooth was fixed we set off north to reach the town of Corioco where we intended to spend the night and we would have to buy our first tank of fuel on the way. It was actually a little difficult to find a petrol station they are not as numerous as they are in other countries. I eventually chose one which had a long queue of cars outside it hoping that the attendant filling the cars would feel under pressure when I got to the pump and skip the normal formalities with the passport and so on. Luckily it worked when it was our turn he saw that we were on a foreign bike, thought about it for a minute looked at the line behind us and just got on with it so we got our first tank of Bolivian low grade petrol for the local price. I say low grade because I’m assuming it is, there is no choice at the pumps it is either diesel or petrol with no numbers beside it I never saw any petrol stations selling super or anything like it. With a full tank we set off north. The intention was to Staying Coroico and then ride the “Death Road” back to La Paz. The death road isn’t really dangerous it just acquired that name because of a few incidents where vehicles went off the edge more due to bad drivers than the road itself. Anyway the normal road to Coroico is also very interesting to ride. It rises up to around 4500m where you experience extremely cold temperatures and if you’re lucky some snow. Then it descends to 1300m and you find yourself in the warm tropical Amazon. We were stopped about three quarters of the way there by a lady with a two way radio she motioned us to take a road leading off the main road into the bush. Later I found out that the normal road had suffered a landslide and this was the detour around it. The detour was pretty unsafe, it was very steep and the ground was loose gravel sometimes with sharp turns. We popped out the other end and continued towards Coroico. Roughly ten minutes later we arrived at the turn off for the town which is situated on top of a hill that we were at the bottom of. Unfortunately this road was also closed because of a landslide and the workers directed us to continue on around the corner away from the road we wanted to take. At this point the road was mud but a very slippery type of mud it was like it had a layer of slime sprayed across the top of it. I could feel it and I rode slowly through a couple of muddy puddles but as I exited the second puddle the bike started to slip sideways. We were travelling at a very low speed at this point, I probably even had my feet on the ground for stability. I had no choice I had to let it go and we both plonked down on one knee. A half a second later we were standing again watching the bike bizarrely slide forward away from us while rotating 180 degrees. It was like watching a bad shot at the bowling alley when the ball slides slowly down the lane and into the gutter. It must have been the slimy surface on the mud that caused it. So we watched it and waited for it to stop. It didn’t slide fast just methodically slow eventually it came to a halt by slotting itself into a gutter at the side of the road in an upright position. All I could think was how am I going to get it out of there. Less than a minute later a small truck came around the corner and the two guys in it helped me lift the bike out. There was no damage at all. In addition we found out from these guys that the road we wanted to take back to La Paz was impassible, again due to a landslide. So with our planned destination for that night inaccessible and the old road back to La Paz blocked we had no choice but to go back the way we came. When we reached the part where we had earlier taken the diversion we were directed to continue on the normal road as the landslide had now been cleared but it actually wasn’t. We arrived at a blocked road and traffic mayhem a few kilometers later where a very annoyed excavator driver was trying to make it to the blockage past all of the vehicles which had been let through the barrier prematurely. Eventually he cleared the blockage and we were on our way again. After a long cold ride back to La Paz I decided to refuel at the same place and the guy gave us the local price again. We spent the next hour in La Paz rush hour traffic inching along towards our hostel. When we were about 1km away it began to rain which is a bad thing for motorbikes in La Paz, reason being some of the streets are sloped at very steep angles and they are made of cobble stones, very slippery in the rain and our hostel was on one of these streets. When we approached the hostel Franziska got off the bike to open the carpark gate, immediately after she got off I found it very difficult to stop the bike from sliding. There was a bus in front of me and cars behind and even with both front and back brakes applied I was sliding forward downhill on the wet cobbles. Eventually I had to let the bike go over on its side it was either that or slide forward at speed into the bus. Some tourists came over immediately and helped to pick it up and nurse it over to the hostel carpark. Inside the carpark I was on tarmac again so there were no more problems. Or at least that’s what I thought. When unloading the bike I smelled petrol, at first I thought it was leaking out of the overflow pipe because it had full tanks and was on its side a couple of minutes ago. But it wasn’t the overflow pipe the petrol was splurting from a small 2mm hole on the left hand tank that I had never noticed before. I looked at the right hand tank and it also has a hole in the same place but it wasn’t ejecting fuel. I looked again at the leaking side and thought there must be a lot of pressure behind that hole to make it squirt and splurt like that so I decided to open the tank cap incase the tank was pressurised. The second I opened it fuel shot out bubbling upwards into the air about 20-30cm like a fountain and ran all down the side of the bike. I must have lost a quarter of the fuel in the tank due to than action. I have no idea where all that pressurised gas came from, the right hand tank was also full but it was fine no pressure build up. It was the perfect end to a long day, I was really looking forward to bed that night.

Salar de Uyuni are the largest salt flats on Earth and they are situated about 730km south of La Paz. On our way there we stopped in Oruro for one night and because I didn’t really trust Googlemaps or the Internet fully when it comes to roads in Bolivia I decided to ask locals what the road between Oruro and Uyuni is like. I even downloaded pictures of a paved motorway and a dirt road and used them in the conversation flicking between each one and pointing to the road on a map just to be extra sure. I asked three different people and they all said it was paved so we set off early the next morning in the freezing cold planning for a five hour ride. The first half of the journey was brand new motorway but then much to our dismay it suddenly stopped and became road works which transitioned into no road. It took us five hours to ride the remaining 180km to Uyuni. It was all off road the surface changed between compacted sand, deep sand, mud, deep mud, gravel, washboard effect compacted dirt and more plus two river crossings. What were those people thinking who told me that the road is paved? Oddly now and then we would find a 2 or 3km stretch of perfectly laid tarmac motorway section in the middle of nowhere which was nice to climb up onto to have a break from the sand for a while. It wasn’t easy to stay on the road either, there is a long term plan to build a motorway over the existing dirt road so the area is criss crossed with diversion signs where the original road has been excavated and you are sent off into the wilderness desperately looking for the next diversion sign to point you back in the right direction. A number of times we had to stop and wait for a vehicle to drive by to ask them if we were on the right road. The adventure side was enjoyable but it was also exhausting. We rolled into Uyuni just before dark.

Uyuni as a town has real out in the middle of nowhere wilderness outpost feel to it. We met up with Greg again just for one night before he hit the road again towards Brazil. His plan was to cross the flats and enter Chile but he had to turn back as the mountain passes were closed due to snowfall. We visited the salt flats the next day, it really is a unique experience. They were dry when we visited but during the rainy season there can be an inch or two of water on them which probably makes for better pictures but must be worse for the bike. We spent a couple of hours out there just hanging around and taking pictures.

The road between Uyuni and Potosi our next destination was brand new and we had it almost to ourselves for the entire three and a half hours. The only danger was the Vicugnas which look like a cross between a deer and a lama. Every now and then they would dart out onto the road either alone or in herds. In Potosi we found comfortable accommodation but could not find a half decent place to eat. In the end we settled for one of the chicken and rice places which backfired on us when Franziska spent the night in the bathroom because of it. We had to prolong our stay in Potosi until she felt better, after two days of cramps, fever and the other usual stuff we headed south for the town of Vilazon which is situated right on the border with Argentina.

Travelling at high altitude and in cold weather is no fun at all when you’re feeling under the weather so we were anxious to start our decent out of the Andes inside Argentina. We just used Vilazon as an overnight stop before crossing the border the next day. There really isn’t much I can say about it other than our hotel room had a giant poster of Barbie hanging on the wall which was pretty inexplicable. Riding the five minutes to the border the next day I felt completely relaxed and happy that later we would start to descend from 3800m to a place where the air is rich with oxygen again. There was a long queue to stamp out of Bolivia then it was straight to Argentinian immigration which only took a couple of minutes. After that we hit a hurdle, the Argentinians would not allow me to import the bike without having valid insurance for Argentina. At first I thought fine where is the office and I’ll buy some because every other country we had entered where insurance is required had an insurance office at the border. That is until now. They explained we would have to go into town and buy it there then return to the border and carry on with the process. During this time the bike would have to remain at the border post. We had no choice so off we set.

 

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This is where the bike had to stay all day as we looked for insurance.

It was roughly a 2km walk to the insurance office where the lady told us she wouldn’t insure a foreign vehicle and sent us to another insurance agency. The lady in the second one said no motorbikes! We eventually found a third one and that lady initially said no but a younger guy working there intervened and said he can issue it. We were relieved because that was the last insurance agency in town. The only drawback was that it would not be ready until five o’clock in the evening! I gave him all of the details and we walked back to the border to let them know what was going on. In the end we had to check into a hotel and leave the bike at the border all day while we waited on the insurance. We finally received it at six in the evening and returned to the border to import the bike. We would have to wait until the next day to start our long awaited decent out of the Andes.

At the moment we are in Buenos Aires, the plan wasn’t to come here so soon but during the ride across Argentina the rear sprocket on the bike went from ok to rubbish in the space of a couple of days. It was completely worn out and Buenos Aires was the logical choice to find a replacement. In hindsight I should have changed it in Lima but I overlooked it.

Once we get this sorted we are looking forward to heading north into a warmer climate for a change.

Peru

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I found the KTM dealer in Lima on Facebook and sent them a message at seven o’clock in the morning asking them if they could help with repairing the rear shock absorber. To my surprise they replied five minutes later positively and said I should drop by when we arrive in Lima. We were in Huaraz at that point so we set off for two bouncy days of riding towards Lima. Without the shock absorber working the spring was having a field day bouncing the bike up and down, the only thing I could do to reduce it was to slow down and start off again slowly whenever the bike had a bouncing fit.

Once settled in Lima I contracted a stomach bug so the visit to KTM was postponed for a couple of days. When I finally made it over to them it was top service right from first contact. The guy I spoke to first named Sidyk explained that their workshop is across on the other side of the city and they could fix the suspension there. He even offered to lead me there if I waited five minutes which I was happy to do. Soon we set off towards the workshop, Sidyk in front leading and me bouncing along behind him. I expected a standard small workshop but when we arrived to a large non-descript looking warehouse and went inside I found myself in the largest KTM workshop I have been to yet. The staff there were all extremely friendly and helpful and the best thing was that the run the Peru Dakar team so they had mountains of spare parts for WP suspension. I left the bike with them and I picked it up 24 hours later with the shock absorber fully serviced and functional again. The diagnosis from their suspension mechanic was that when I left the shock absorber in for a service in Guatemala they had installed a wrong sized o-ring on the Schrader valve which was allowing compressed gas to leak out over time. Overall we didn’t do too badly with the suspension problem, it happened on a Thursday and we were back on the road again by the following Wednesday, it was really lucky that they had the repair kit in stock otherwise we could have been waiting weeks for one to arrive from Europe. We’re in Bolivia now with a few thousand kilometres on the new suspension and everything is fine which is a good thing because Bolivia has thrown every type of off road condition at us which you could imagine.

So how was Peru?

Well we entered Peru from Ecuador with an open mind and began riding towards Trujillo via Piura down the 1N. The landscape in north western Peru is desert crossed with rubbish dump or desert dump to be more accurate. You get the feeling that all of the rubbish in Peru is sent to the north and piled up to let the desert winds blow it away to the four corners. We rode the stretch of 550km to Trulijjo leaning at 45 degrees to the right into the wind blowing inland at us from the Pacific while trying to ignore the incredible amount of refuse strewn across the land or piles of it being burned by locals. The road was relatively straight and this was the first time I noticed the luxury double decker tour buses which passed us regularly travelling north. Through the front window of the top deck in each one you could see two feet wearing flip flops sticking up in the air. Their owner, probably a backpacker relaxing on their reclining seat having been served diner now browsing the internet over the wifi provided on board. That’s how backpackers in Peru get around, I must admit I was quite envious as I concentrated on the road again and leaned into the wind.

We stayed in Trujillo a couple of nights to relax after the desert ride and to visit the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon built by the Moche civilisation. Trujillo was also our first formal introduction to Peruvian taxi drivers. There are quite a lot of taxis on the road I would estimate that they make up 40 to 50% of the traffic at any one time. The problem isn’t their numbers it is their constant beeping of the horn. They beep their horn at anything that moves to see if it needs a taxi ride. It borders on harassment. When we were looking for accommodation I waited outside with the bikes as Greg and Franziska checked out the prices of the hotel. I was standing beside two motorbikes with full gear and my helmet on yet every taxi that drove by slowed down swerved over to me and beeped their horn a couple of times to see if I wanted a lift. During this time I observed a lady waiting for a bus at a bus stop not too far away. She was also being hunted by every taxi that drove by, some would even full stop in front of her and beep a few times. She resorted to turning around with her back to the road looking over her shoulder now and then to see if the bus waswpid-20150513_101228_20150531_191259.jpg coming. It must be torture to live and be a pedestrian in that city. It was the same procedure in other cities and I thought Lima would be the worst but to my surprise it was the opposite. Hardly any horn beeping at all. On our second day there I noticed a banner with a picture of a horn with a red line through it and a law quoted below it. I guess there was enough pressure in Lima from residents to have a law passed banning taxi hunting.

Between Trujillo and Lima we visited Huaraz which is situated inland at around 2800m. We rode their via the Canyon del Pato road (which is where the suspension gave out). The scenery through Canyon del Pato and in Huaraz was much more pleasing to the eye than the desert coastal region. Huaraz is situated at the base of the Huascarán mountain range which has snow capped jagged peaks much like you would see in the Alps or the Rockies. Unfortunately due to the suspension problem we never really got to relax and enjoy Huaraz as we were not sure what would happen next and were anxious to get to Lima. If I ever visit Peru again I’ll definitely go back there.

Lima was overshadowed by the organisation of the repair and getting over a stomach bug. I was surprised at first that Lima is situation in more or less the same sort of dry hot desert climate that you find stretching all the way north to the border with Ecuador. For some reason I was expecting something more green, I’m not sure why. As you enter the city from the north you pass through the less affluent areas and pure traffic chaos until towards the city centre you start to find the more affluent areas but still traffic chaos.

We were warned by Colombians that we would find bad driving habits in Peru and they were 100% right. It is hard to describe the behavior of the motorists in Peru, the only thing that comes close is apathy, they seem not to care what might happen from their actions behind the wheel. We have had plenty of near collisions due to some crazy maneuver from a local driver and when you stop and try to make eye contact you are met with a blank stare into space. It is totally bizarre and frustrating to be a participant on the Peruvian road network. Once in Lima I stopped at a red light only to witness the drivers in the cars behind me decide to try to skip the red light by driving through the petrol station which was on the corner, one or two got through but then the rest just formed another line of traffic through the petrol station blocking cars from entering on the other side who just wanted to to fill up. The petrol pump attendants weren’t bothered they just pulled out their phones and started texting. On another occasion I was stopped in traffic approaching a four way junction with the left lane of traffic turning left and the right lane continuing straight. When the light turned green cars from the left lane which were far back started racing up the outside in the oncoming lane of traffic to turn left. Within a couple of seconds our two lanes of traffic had been turned into four lanes of cars with three of them trying to turn left. They had taken up the two lanes of oncoming traffic and were preventing them from crossing the junction. In the winding mountain roads we would often come across a slow moving truck with several cars behind it because there had been no opportunity to overtake the truck yet as the bends were blind and too close together. Then all of a sudden you’ll get one vehicle come from the back overtake everybody in one go while in the oncoming lane of traffic and drive blind around oncoming corners not caring at all if a car might be coming in the opposite direction. The worst drivers of all are the ones driving the Toyota HiAce or similar vehicles, they are like taxis picking up and dropping off people wherever they want on a general route which they display on the windscreen. Our hostess in Huaraz informed us that these guys even have a special name in Peru, assassin kombis! They swerve and nudge and bully their way into any sized gap they feel like and displaying total apathy for any wrong doing which might come from their actions. These are but a few example of many which we unfortunately encountered. The motorist’s behavior is really hard to understand because when you meet people face to face they are friendly warm and relaxed. It seems that it is just when they get in a car that a sort of collective bad behavior starts to kick in.

After Lima we visited Pisco where we dropped in to say hello to a local family who my cousin Conor befriended roughly seven years ago when he was volunteering to help with the clean up after an earthquake. They are a lovely bunch but we had to converse in Spanish which was a bit difficult but luckily Greg was there to help with translation. After an hour or two we hit the road again and moved onto Ica. Over the next days we continued to move south along the coast, our goal was Nazca and from there we would say goodbye to the Pacific Ocean and start our journey inland to Cusco and ultimately Buenos Aires. On the day we reached Nazca Greg unfortunately dropped his bike in a corner, there wasn’t much damage just some scratches on the crash bars but we pulled in to the side of the road none the less to check the bike and tighten some screws. We happened to be at a very small town where there wasn’t much going on at all. That was except for the local taxi driver who was cruising around the town square randomly beeping his horn. Whenever he saw someone come out of a shop our house he would speed over and beep a few times at them. All three of us were about ready to throw something heavy at the taxi when all of a sudden school ended and we were surrounded by school kids. Before I could react one of them had put on Franziska’s helmet and was riding an imaginary motorbike with sound effects, another one was reprograming the GPS while the heaviest kid was stomping on my foot to see if I could feel it through the protection of the motorbike boot. Everything calmed down after a minute or two, we took some pictures and we were on the road again. Before reaching the town of Nazca we stopped a couple of times to view the Nazca lines from some look out towers, you don’t see much but enough to get an idea of the scale of the glyphs drawn on the ground. To see all of the glyphs you have to take a sightseeing flight from Nazca. Nazca was also the point where we split ways with Greg, he continued onto Arequipa and we headed towards Cusco.

Beginning our ride to Cusco was the start of our journey to cross the Andes in winter. I had thought about a lot this since Canada when we rode through the Rockies in late September and I had always wondered if it would be possible or not due to the cold. Other than the temperature we would have to deal with altitudes above 3000 metres for several weeks until we crossed Bolivia and descended into Argentina. An hour after leaving Nazca at 600m we were at 3600m, twenty minutes later we were at 4500m and so it stayed for most of that day. After two days of riding in extremely picturesque but cold scenery we arrived in Cusco at 3300m. We were somewhat disappointed with Cusco. I had imagined a very authentic old traditional city but it is just a well kept central tourist area surrounded by dilapidated or half-finished red brick housing where the majority of the city’s population lives. As you walk around you’re berated to join this or that tour or to buy some sort of souvenir. There are a couple of markets where they sell “Alpaca” clothing, I say it like that because they lie straight up to you. They say it is 100% Alpaca but it is more like 30% and 70% synthetic. I got suspicious when we visited a shop specialising in Alpaca and noticed the prices were ten times that of the markets. The owner then duly explained the situation. Cusco is a machine designed to extract maximum amount of money from western tourists passing through it, that’s the impression we got from it anyway. The Inca certainly built some impressive buildings especially towards the end of the empire but it didn’t sit right with me the way that it is all seemingly marketed as ancient when it is not really. Most of the later more impressive stuff was done between 1450 and 1550. To put it in perspective work began on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris in 1163 almost 300 years before Machu Picchu was supposedly constructed. We visited some Inca ruins and gladly left Cusco. We rode towards Lake Titicaca with a couple of stops in between and crossed the border into Bolivia at Copacabana.

We were relieved to leave Peru, mainly because of the erratic and dangerous driving habits we encountered there. I think it had an overall negative effect on us which overshadowed the other experiences we had. The people we met in person were lovely and the scenery is astounding but like I said we were happy to move on.

At the moment we’re in Bolivia and the Bolivia post will be coming soon. In other news we have decided to enter Argentina next from the north and visit Salta after which we will ride east staying inside Argentina until we reach Iguazu Falls then we will cross into Brazil and stay in Brazil for the last weeks of the tour. During the last two weeks we will cross Uruguay and arrive in Buenos Aires where we will ship ourselves and the bike back to Germany.

Ecuador

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The border crossing into Ecuador from Colombia was a breeze. We stopped on the Colombian side to get our passports stamped out and I handed in the import permit for the bike. Five minutes later we were on our way to Ecuador, I prepared for the normal onslaught of “helpers” but there were none to be seen. After parking the bike we had our passports stamped at immigration and I imported the bike which only took half an hour. The girl in the customs office never asked for any photocopies either, instead she took photos of my documents with a digital camera, Ecuador was making a good impression right away. The whole border crossing procedure for both sides was all completed within an hour, a breath of fresh air after Central America.

Ecuador’s landscape is as diverse as Colombia’s except the Ecuador is smaller so the changes in scenery seem to happen more quickly and in addition Ecuador has a lot of volcanoes. From the point where we crossed the border into Ecuador we traveled south through Ibarra and bypassed Quito heading straight for the Pacific coast and a town called Puerto Lopez. It took us three days to get there, rode through the mountains to new heights of 4000m where I had to use my heated grips again for the first time since the USA in November. We had heard that there is an island close to Puerto Lopez called Isla de la Plata which hosts multiple species of bird wildlife and Franziska thought it would be nice to visit for some photography so that was basically our main reason for visiting Puerto Lopez. The other reason was that we were looking for somewhere to burn time before returning to Quito to meet up with my cousin Asa who was coincidently in town on business from London but wouldn’t be available to meet for another few days due to work.

Puerto Lopez turned out to be a pretty dirty and dusty pseudo tourist town. It became blatantly obvious after a few days of riding through Ecuador that they have a problem with people littering everywhere. Motorways as well as back roads, large cities and small towns are dotted with signage saying don’t litter or don’t throw your rubbish out of the car window. Fair play to the government for trying to tackle the problem but it still exists as we found out multiple times when riding behind a car and rubbish started flying out of the window and bouncing along the road. Some made the effort to pack it all in one large bag before throwing it out which made it more of a hazard for a motorbike. It just strikes me as odd that it suddenly becomes a problem when you cross the border into Ecuador. We never saw any carry on like that in Colombia or signs telling motorists not to litter.

Anyway back to Isla de la Plata, it was interesting but I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to visit it unless you’re passing through Puerto Lopez. It is sold as a bird paradise on the tourist leaflets and states that the Albatross nests there. We found out later that this statement is technically true, the Albatross does nest there, two couples nest there during some months in the year but when they do the island is closed to visitors. So obviously we didn’t see any but we did see the island’s two other bird species the frigate bird and the blue footed booby.

As well as being dusty and dirty Puerto Lopez was also boiling hot with a lot of mosquitos, it was 36 degrees Celsius as far as I remember and I had 36 mosquito bites to go with it. We stuck it for a couple of days and then started heading back inland towards the mountains. Next on the agenda before visiting Quito was a visit to the tallest active volcano in the world, Cotopaxi. The nearest town to Cotopaxi is Machachi so we rode there and searched for accommodation, Machachi is definitely not on any of the tourist trails so hotels and hostels are at a minimum. We struck out with a bargain room at what seemed to be a funeral parlor hotel combination. The downstairs was open plan with rows seating for people to come and take part in ceremonies while the upstairs had around 10 hotel rooms for mourners who had to travel long distances to get there. Probably two of the best night’s sleep we’d had in long time. When we decided to visit Cotopaxi we were disappointed to be turned away at the park entrance the ranger told us that motorbikes are not allowed into the park because they bother the birds. I wouldn’t mind but they allow cars in no problem, I suppose somewhere there is a bureaucrat or environmental activist that really doesn’t like motorbikes. This was the first national park on our trip that we have been denied entry into in any country. It was also a little frustrating as we had driven on unpaved roads for an hour just to get to the entrance.

 

Another odd difference that exists between Ecuador and Colombia is the coffee. In Colombia the coffee is great, when you order a black coffee there you get a brewed cup of the local crop. When you order a coffee in Ecuador they bring you a cup of hot water and a jar of Nescafe! This happened to me on several occasions but to be fair never in Quito it was always in smaller towns around the country. But still, you have some of the best coffee in the world growing just north of the border and you serve Nescafe?

After the Cotopaxi attempt we set our sights on Quito to meet with Asa. For the next 5 days we explored Quito together, ate well, drank well, went to a local football game, and visited the equator line tourist attraction called Intinan Solar Museum. There is a huge monument marking the equator which you can also visit but the funny thing is that it isn’t actually on the equator. After GPS was invented they realised they had missed the mark by 200m to the south so the Intinan Solar Museum is now able to boast having the “real” equator line running through it. They run a little tour explaining a bit about the native Indian tribes of the area and facts about the equator. We learned how the natives had a custom of making shrunken human heads and wearing them as status symbols. Usually the victims were enemies defeated in battle, they would promptly have their head removed then the skull removed from the head leaving only the skin and scalp this would then be shrunk by a process of steaming and later filling it with hot stones. Where did they come up with this idea?

Quito is quite a nice city to visit it seemed less hectic than other large cities that we’ve been to and it has a very international collection of restaurants to choose from. A nice break from the Latin America standard of a plate consisting of white rice, a small portion of salad, and a piece of chicken or beef. In fact we went to the same Indian restaurant three out of the five nights we were there because we enjoyed it so much, it was so nice to taste some spices and flavor in our food again.

We left Quito with another biker, Greg from Minnesota. The last time we met was in Bogota and before that Costa Rica and El Salvador. He had caught up with us due to our detour out to the coast and waiting to meet up with Asa. As he has the same general direction as us we decided to ride together for a while. Next stop was the town of Banos which was nothing too exciting. It is one of those tourist towns which offers mountain biking tours and rafting tours to backpackers looking for the extreme experience. All good if you’re just visiting Ecuador but as we’ve been through Central America and Colombia already we have seen it all before. San Gil in Colombia and La Fortuna in Costa Rica come to mind. One novelty that we found interesting was something labelled the world’s scariest swing or something to that effect. Someone hung a swing from a tree at the top of a mountain about 2000m high and you can swing in it for a dollar. The view is supposed to be amazing but we wouldn’t know because the day we visited it the whole place was surrounded by a cloud.

Banos was really just a stopover on the way to our real next destination Chimborazu which is a dormant volcano and the highest point on the planet. That’s right the highest point is not actually Mt Everest if you want to stand at the closest point on Earth to space it is in Ecuador at Chimborazu. The reason is that the Earth is not a perfect sphere and it bulges in the middle around the equator, the radius of the Earth measured from the core at the equator is actually around 21km thicker than the radius at the poles. Taking that into account the summit of Chimborazu is around 2.5 kilometres closer to space than Mt Everest. So obviously we had to go there.

We rode into the carpark at Chimborazu at 4300m and were told yet again that motorbikes are not allowed to go further into the park because they bother the wildlife. Who came up with this rule? Meanwhile cars and pick-up trucks are driving up and down the road we are not allowed drive on up to the mountain lodge at 4800m which we had hoped to get to. So we settled for 4300m, it was pretty cold and the peak was obscured by cloud except for about five minutes when the wind seemed to clear an opening. When it did we ran for a good spot to take a picture which was a bad idea because we were at 4300m and the air was thin. It took about ten minutes to catch our breath again after a ten second run.

Photographic Impressions of Ecuador

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With Chimborazu ticked off the list we set our sights on Peru and began riding south west towards the lower coastal plains of Ecuador. Within three hours we descended from 4300m to 150m and the temperature increased from around 8 degrees Celsius to 30-35 degrees. The landscape at lower altitudes near to the coast is packed with banana plantations and looks very similar to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica and Panama. We rested for two nights in two separate towns on our way to the border with Peru. On the second night we stayed in a small mountain town called Celica, I only mention it because of our experience trying to leave Celica the next day was let’s say interesting. We checked into a cheap hotel and when we asked about parking for the motorbikes the owner brought us to a gated car park across the street. She said it didn’t belong to the hotel but we could park there and it would be included in the price that she would pay the owner. Everything looked fine so we went ahead and booked the room and went to eat some food, rice, a bit of salad, and piece of meat of course.

The next morning when we were packing the bikes an old lady approached us in the carpark and asked us for money for parking the bikes there. We explained that we were with the hotel and it was included in the price. Actually Greg said that to her because his Spanish is better but the strange thing is she just ignored him. She asked again for the money, and again and again and again. Greg told her she just has to speak with the hotel (5 metres away) and they will clear up everything. She walked off and paced around mumbling and then continued to ask for the money again. We figured out that she is the cleaning lady and we reckoned that the owner had asked her to collect money from the people that own the motorbikes before they leave not knowing that we were staying in the hotel. No matter what we said she would not believe us, at one point she walked outside the gate and stood there for a minute or two (now only 3 metres away from entering the hotel entrance). I could see her the whole time, then when she walked back in she said she had been over to the hotel and they said that we had to pay which was a total lie. Don’t worry we are quite capable of distinguishing crazy from old and frail and this lady was definitely the former. Our continued refusal to pay her and her refusal to believe us and talk with the hotel led her to move aside momentarily and have a conversation with herself out loud kind of like Golem in lord of the rings. Luckily for us she did this conversation Golem style because we heard her say “Yes I’m going to close the gates and lock them in”. As soon as we heard that Greg who was almost ready started the bike and rode over to the entrance and stopped in it then I followed and we both rode outside. We rode off to the tune of her threatening to call the police on us. What a lovely start to the day.

The border to Peru was only an hour away, we rode through some fantastic scenery with winding roads. It was quite common to turn a corner and one lane of the road would be covered by debris from a landslide caused by heavy rain or there would be an animal standing right there chewing on something then dart off at the sight of us. We had chosen an off the beaten track border crossing in the mountains to avoid the crowds and the heat of the coast.

The last thing we did before leaving Ecuador was to get a full tank of cheap fuel, regular cost around 40 US cent a litre (or $1.50 a gallon) probably the cheapest fuel we have had on the whole trip. The border crossing was almost as easy as the Colombia Ecuador crossing the only thing that delayed us was that the official entering our data into the computer on the Peruvian side was super slow at it. He was an older colleague of two, the younger one was standing behind him and apologising to us through facial expressions every now and then because the process was taking so long. We also had to buy insurance for Peru which cost 35USD for one month as opposed to 8USD for a car. That is the most we have paid for insurance for one month on the whole trip. In under two hours we were out of Ecuador and in Peru. We had been warned by many Colombian riders that Peruvian drivers are the worst in South America, we took these warnings with a pinch of salt but didn’t ignore them so we rode on cautiously towards the low plains and about 1000km of hot sandy desert ahead of us.

Right now we’re in the town of Huaraz in Peru and the plan is to ride south through Lima towards Nazca, then inland to Cusco to visit some Inca ruins and after that onwards to Bolivia. Unfortunately yesterday when we were riding off road my rear shock packed in and all of the shock oil leaked out. This is a direct result of the “service” done to the rear shock absorber back in Guatemala City. Normally the nitrogen should be recharged in the shock absorber with a special tool but the service agent in Guatemala didn’t have the right tool so he drilled a hole in the pressure chamber and installed a Schrader valve which is a valve like the ones found on a car tyre for pumping it up. Ever since this bodge job which I was never consulted over the pressure chamber has leaked the pressurized gas back out over th period of a few days to a week. So yesterday when we were riding on unpaved roads the shock absorber oil found a way out somehow and I’m presuming it had something to do with there not being enough pressure in the chamber to keep it inside the shock. We were 50km from paved roads when it happened so I had to ride extremely slowly to try not to damage the suspension anymore by bottoming it out. I have to say though I am impressed with how well the bike still performs just relying on the spring alone. With two of us on the bike and all of our luggage we were still able to ride another 150km without much trouble although slower and more cautious of speed bumps. Next stop is Lima where I’ll search for someone to fix it…. Let’s see what happens.

 

Colombia Two

Colombia Part One here

Today we visited the Las Lajas Sanctuary near the town of Ipiales which is situated right on the border with Ecuador. The sanctuary is impressive to see more so for its location than anything else. The story goes that an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared in the cliff faceto some people when they were sheltering from a thunder storm about 300 years ago. The area was worshiped as a shrine for years until the sanctuary was finally erected over the space of about 30 years ending in 1949 or there abouts, so although it looks old it’s not really old at all but still impressive and worth the visit as it’s so close to Ipiales and most people travelling south go through Ipiales anyway to cross into Ecuador.

After Bogota we headed west towards the region known for coffee growing. The GPS said six hours but we have learned not to trust it so we were prepared to stay somewhere along the way if going was slow. As it turned out it was an extremely scenic drive through valleys and over mountain passes the road frequently reached 3000m and… the GPS ended up being right for once. We arrived in Armenia and searched for accommodation, we never book accommodation beforehand we have learned to begin searching after we arrive at our destination and always find something reasonable definitely more reasonable than the prices online. But this time it was taking longer, everything seemed to be full or oddly overpriced. It then dawned on us that Semana Santa was just beginning. Semana Santa is the long Easter weekend and a big holiday in Colombia. We were now competing with the whole population of Colombia which had mobilised to get away from the big cities to spend the long weekend with family. Eventually with some help from locals we found a cheap place with a car park for the bike. Our crash course in Semana Santa started the next day when we noticed a lot of shops were not opening or had limited hours plus the streets seemed to have 50% less people on them than usual. Our plan was to visit Salento next which is a small town in the mountains about 20 minutes from Armenia so we packed up and set off. We reached Salento pretty quickly but were disappointed to find out that it was completely swamped by long weekend travelers attending Salento’s Easter weekend festival which is one of the biggest events of the year in Salento as we found out. We were unable to find accommodation, the only offer came from a local woman offering a corner in her house to sleep for 70,000 Colombian Paseos a night, aside from the screaming children running laps around her we declined mainly due to the price. Up to now we have always found a pretty decent hotel room for 30,000 Paseos so she was chancing her arm a bit. We elected to ride out of town and stay somewhere else for a couple of days until the Easter madness had calmed down and then return to Salento. The town is a dead end there is one main road leading in and the same one must be used to leave. It winds down around some steep hills and when we were riding down it there was a good 5km of traffic standing still on the road trying to get up to Salento for the festival.

We rode north and onwards to Pereira and Manizales, one night in Pereira and two in Manizales. In Pereira we witnessed some of the Easter processions through the streets where people carried statues of Jesus and other Biblical characters. They were accompanied by a military band which played Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence over and over again.

In Manizales we stayed at a small hotel situated on the side of a mountain with great views over the valley below. Franziska couldn’t believe her luck with the amount of different types of birds that frequently stopped by. When Sunday finally arrived we made our way back to Salento where things had died down a lot. We cruised into town and found accommodation immediately, most of the stalls and attractions were still up for the festival so we got to see some of it after all. The main reason for visiting Salento was to take a day trip into the Cocora Valley national park a huge picturesque natural area high in the mountains only 10 minutes from Salento. The next day we hooked up with the Belgians Matthijis and Gerlinde again and hiked for 10 kilometres through the park. It was tough because of the altitude but worth it. We were already at 2000m at the beginning of the trail which raised up to 2800m by the end so we felt the strain on the lungs at times. Great scenery and well worth it, we spent another couple of days in Salento then made our way south towards Cali which we had always heard is a cool place so we were looking forward to it.

There is a huge military presence on the roads in Colombia, every 50km or so and in some areas much more frequently we would ride past a unit of armed soldiers standing on each side of the road facing the traffic. When you ride by they give you a thumbs up and I usually do it back. I’ve learned that this is a campaign running in the country to show the people that the military are friendly and on their side. Now and then you see posters on walls with a picture of a soldier giving the thumbs up and in Spanish is written something along the lines of “show your support”. A couple of days ago I saw another giant poster of a scene with soldiers in uniform helping a woman deliver a baby but I didn’t catch the text of that one. Anyway the reason the military came to mind was because as we headed south we saw more and more of them. I found it interesting today when we were riding up to the Las Layas Sanctuary we stopped at a red light and next to us was a military barracks which had a giant poster of mug shots of the FARC and ELN commanders still at large with some of the mug shots crossed out with a red line and the word captured beneath them. Back in San Gil when I was talking to the two policemen I took the opportunity to ask them if it is safe to drive everywhere, they told me it is now and not to worry that the only dangerous areas are far off in the mountains to the east and south east. They also recommended that we don’t drive on mountain passes late at night which we never planned to do anyway.

Back to Cali, even though it has an elevation of 1000m it was scorching hot the day we arrived. We had a little trouble finding a hostel at first, we checked a few but they didn’t have suitable parking. We were all sitting on the curb thinking (the Belgians were there too) when a guy walked up to us and asked us if we needed a hostel. It transpired that he was out promoting a new hostel handing out flyers at the bus station but the Police stopped him from doing it, put him in the back of their car and drove him away from the bus station. Lucky for us they dropped him off at the end of the road where we were sitting so he walked right by us. He led us to this brand new hostel which isn’t even online yet with its own car park and brand new modern facilities. We began to explore Cali the next day and tried to find out why people think it is so cool. Eventually we found out, it boils down to alcohol and salsa dancing. Cali considers itself the salsa capital of Colombia so you can either take lessons, watch a salsa show or just go to a salsa bar and enjoy the atmosphere. So if you don’t like dancing or going out drinking the coolness of Cali may go over your head.

Our next stop was Popayan, which presently surprised us, it is much smaller than Cali and has a definitive centre around a square. It is also a university town with most of the buildings in the old town painted white and looking colonial. On our second day there we were interviewed by two students as we exited the tourist information centre. They are studying tourism and wanted to ask us some questions about our visit to Popayan. It was in Spanish so it moved along in a jerky fashion until they came to the question why did we choose to visit Popayan? For some reason I’m not sure why, I blurted out PARTY! and made a drinking a beer motion with my arm over and over again while smiling at them. Of course we were not there to PARTY we just dropped in by chance but I think I just thought at that moment that they are sure to understand the word party and then all of a sudden I had over done it. The two students looked a little disappointed I think they were hoping for an answer relating to the culture of Popayan. Without the appropriate Spanish skills to undo my mistake I walked away from that interview feeling pretty guilty.

After a few days in Popayan we rode into the mountains to visit a native village which also had some hot springs. We had a hilarious experience at the hot springs but I’ll use my better judgement and not go into detail about it here. I’ll keep that one for the pub some time.

Onwards towards Ecuador we passed through Pasto where we stayed one night and now we’re in Ipiales. Colombia has been a great experience, I liked the scenery, the small towns and the people’s openness the most and I liked the smog the least. Although everyone seems to have a mobile phone and modern shopping malls selling stylish clothes are everywhere nobody seems to have done anything in regards to emissions standards. There are a lot of old vehicles on the road blurting out black smoke as they accelerate and you don’t want to get stuck behind one on a curvy mountain roan where you don’t have a chance to pass for a while. Any day we have made a journey at the end of the day when I wash and put a towel up to my face to dry it the white towel turns black from the exhaust particles which collected on me. Aside from that everyone should visit Colombia its so diverse. We actually clocked up 2500km since arriving in Cartagena, that’s like riding from Guatemala City through El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama to Panama City. Colombia is deceptively large.

Tomorrow, Ecuador.

On the road

On the road again

Colombia One

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The sea was quite choppy during the ferry crossing from Panama to Cartagena which led to most of the passengers feeling sea sick. Luckily we were not too badly affected although when standing in the queue for immigration after disembarking I felt the floor moving and I started to sway side to side I turned around and asked the others if they felt that? They all looked at each other and said felt what? I realised it was sort of a vertigo feeling I must have picked up from the crossing, I just concentrated and hoped that it wouldn’t happen again while I was walking over to the immigration officer to get my passport stamped if it did happen he wouldd probably think I was drunk or something.

Colombian Immigration and customs are so organized and pleasant compared to the Central American borders. For the importing of the bike we only needed ONE photocopy of each document and if you didn’t have it they said don’t worry we’ll make one for you. They took the documents away and returned about an hour later with everything finished we just had to wait for our name to be called so that we could go back to the ferry and collect the bike. Before long we were riding through the streets of Cartagena looking for accommodation with a small convoy of other travelers who we met on the ferry following behind us. At first we headed for the old town area but we soon realised that because of its tightly packed colonial architecture with narrow streets we wouldn’t be able to find a suitable place to stay where the bike could also be parked safely so we turned around and rode out of the old town taking shelter in an underground car park connected to a small mall. Here we waited for the rush hour traffic to calm down and get something to eat. Our first big surprise in Colombia came in the supermarket of that mall, we ate a pretty good meal for around 2.50EURO we all agreed that we could get used to this. With our appetites satisfied and rush hour over we set off again in our convoy eventually finding a nice hotel a little out from the centre for 10EURO a night for two people. It was nice to sleep in a normal bed again and to have the ferry experience behind us.

The next couple of days were spent exploring Cartagena with Matthijis and Gerlinde from Belgium who were part of the group that went to the same hotel as us. Cartagena follows the same rules as any other city in Latin America which receives a lot of tourism, it has an area where all of the tourists head to which in Cartagena  is called Getsemani and the Old Town. Then there is the rest of the city where tourists don’t go, from an outsider’s perspective these areas didn’t appear too different from other large cities we had passed through on the way through Central America. The one noticeable difference was the lack of U.S. brands in advertisements and in shops. Other than that you still had streets with five different shops in a row selling motor oil, five different shops in a row selling shoes, five different shops in a row selling umbrellas and then three bakeries beside each other. Ever since entering Mexico I’ve noticed this phenomenon of not seeing a single bakery, shoe shop, car parts shop etc. for miles only to come across four or five of them in a row next to each other I don’t know why it happens.

As we are tourists we headed straight for Getsemani and the Old Town, I might add that Cartagena was very hot the sort of hot where people are crossing the street to walk in the shade cast by buildings and leaving the path on the other side of the street in the sun completely empty. After an hour or two of exploring we came across a long queue of people disappearing into what looked like an old theatre. We spontaneously took the decision to join the end of it and walked into the theatre without problem. As soon as we were inside an usher closed the front doors and said no more that’s all. We found ourselves in a nice air-conditioned building watching a screening of a Peruvian movie. It turns out it was film festival week and all the people in the queue had been waiting for hours outside for this screening. Lucky we came across it just as they were all entering, it was great to escape the heat for the next two hours but to be honest the film was quite depressing.

After Cartagena we rode along the coast eastwards towards Santa Marta, on the road another nice surprise met us at the first toll plaza we arrived at. My first impression when I saw the toll plaza was damn I didn’t know they had toll roads here but then a motorbike passed us and the passenger who was holding his helmet in his hand instead of wearing it (another Latin American practice I don’t understand) waived at me with his other hand and motioned me to follow them so I did. All the way over to the right of the toll plaza is a lane marked Motos where motorbikes can pass through for free… Nice. Our Belgian friends were following in a car so they had to pay unfortunately. We made a stop in Barranquilla (incidentally Shakira’s home town) for lunch and then continued. Before reaching Santa Marta the road crosses a long sandbar and towards the end of the sandbar is a very make shift looking town called Pueblo Viejo. In the miles leading up to Pueblo Viejo the road is flanked on both sides by shanty town style dwellings where people were living in very basic conditions directly beside the road in an area which looked prone to flooding. Because the road was arrow straight I was able to observe a lot, both sides of the road were teeming with people. Kids were playing games having fun and smiling, adults were smiling too while talking to each other or performing some everyday tasks. When they noticed us the kids would stop their game pick up the football and wave and smile at us while adults would look over and give a thumbs up. I felt humbled when I saw that these people were happy for us even though most of them would probably never be able to do a trip like ours in their lifetime. Us passing by them on that expensive bike on a mission to explore places we haven’t been before would be like someone in their personal spacecraft on their way to Mars passing by rush hour commuters stuck in traffic on the way home from work in a major western city. We both felt very lucky to have the chance to be doing what we’re doing. An hour later we arrived in Santa Marta and checked into a hostel.

Santa Marta is a smaller version of Cartagena so we opted to ride into the hills overlooking Santa Marta to a very small town called Minca. There we stayed at a guest house run by a German man who moved to Colombia 25 years ago. We spent the next three days catching up on the blog post for Panama and avoiding the cicadas. What’s a cicada? Well I think it’s the world’s rudest insect, they are about the size of an adult’s thumb they have wings and spend days in the trees but get active at night. By active I mean they attempt to fly around, however even though they have wings they don’t seem to be able to use them properly to control where they’re going. After the sun set we felt like we were in a pinball machine trying to avoid rogue cicadas because when one hits you in the face you don’t want it to happen again. The other thing they are good at is making noise, when they land their rear seems to expand then a screeching noise starts which can reach 120db it’s loud enough to make you put your fingers in your ears. All of the guests would be sitting around the table talking and having a beer when a cicada would suddenly plonk down in the middle of the table like a bomb and start letting it rip causing us all to reel back. But that’s not all, they pee on you too. On the day we arrived I thought I felt rain and I looked up, sure enough another drop landed right in my mouth. I turned to a guy who was walking past and said did you feel rain? To which he said “oh no that is just the insects peeing on you” and then he walked off as if that’s just normal. Apparently they spend their days in the trees feeding on tree sap and then peeing at will on humans. I’m sure the one that landed it in my mouth got some high fives from his cicada friends. Cicadas the world’s rudest insect.

Along with blog writing and cicada avoiding we also contemplated what our next move would be after Minca. We considered Venezuela but opted out due to the heat. We had been riding in 35+ weather for roughly six weeks at that point and in full riding gear with helmet it can get very exhausting. Going to Venezuela would have meant continued hot weather whereas riding inland would bring us into a slightly cooler climate. We planned to ride to Bogota via San Gil and set off the next day.

We took it easy getting to San Gil and stopped twice, once in Bosconia and the second night in Aguachica. Both of these places are just normal Colombian towns, not a tourist or backpacker to be seen so we got a few looks from the locals. In Bosconia we sat down at a street vendor’s stall and started to play a dice game that Matthijis and Gerlinde had with them. Before long a crowd of men had gathered around us to watch the game it was an interesting experience. Everyone was genuinely just looking and intrigued but the spectators were very close to us trying to get a good look over our shoulders. When it was over the crowd just dispersed. We have spent around four weeks in Colombia so far and there hasn’t been one single time where we have felt unsafe in any way. Colombians are extremely friendly and fiercely proud of their country they want it to have a good image to the outside world.

Colombia has a diverse climate and thanks to it we were re-introduced to rain on our way to San Gil. I really enjoyed being wet and not being hot anymore while riding. Colombia also has a diverse landscape and from being in a Caribbean environment a few days previous we were now in mountains and riding twisty roads overlooking deep valleys climbing slowly in altitude until we would reach Bogota which sits at 2600m. San Gil was a pleasant change, it is a town dubbed as Colombia’s adventure sport capital. The main events on offer are mountain biking, para-sailing and white water rafting. We expected San Gil to be flooded with backpackers but in the four days we spent there we only saw about ten in total. It was just a normal Colombian mountain town where we enjoyed hanging out at the main square On one of the days we were there two police men walked over to us and struck up a conversation. It started slow because my Spanish isn’t that great and neither was their English but the conversation ended up lasting an hour and a half. How? Google Translate. After a couple of minutes struggling we all pulled out our phones and we were able to bring things to the next level. They started asking questions about what we thought of Colombia and that moved onto a lesson in Colombian history. Before long we were talking about Vladamir Putin and current world affairs. I would type into my phone in English and show them the translation, they would read it and nod their heads then type an answer in Spanish which I could read in English and visa versa. When they received a call on the radio to go somewhere else we had spoken for over an hour through the translation app and by that time we were also Facebook friends.

We took a bus ride up to the colonial town of Barichara during one of our days in San Gil. Barichara like many other colonial style towns in Colombia is protected as a national heritage site. While there we opted to walk the Camino Real which is a 5km trek between Barichara and the town of Guane. Guane is known for its local specialty of fried ants, apparently it’s supposed to be like eating popcorn but luckily they were out of stock when we got there.

We just can’t get enough of the food at reasonable prices here in Colombia. Another thing we can’t get over and keep getting caught out by are misleading menus in restaurants. One evening in San Gil I ordered the baby beef, it was written on the menu as “baby beef” in English although the rest of the menu was in Spanish, when I got it I couldn’t believe my eyes it was a huge slab of meat. I couldn’t even finish it or later stop talking about what good value it was to get such a large piece of beef for that price. The next day we went back to the same restaurant and I eagerly called over the waitress to ask what type of meet the other dishes were hoping for more beef. She pointed to each item and said what type of meat it was. Pork, pork, pork, chicken, chicken, goat, goat, pork, chicken. Goat? She pointed to the “baby beef” and said goat! I felt so tricked. Why would you call a goat dish baby beef? Anyway as I said this kind of thing keeps happening, yesterday I ordered a filet minion steak, when I began to eat it I thought this id really fatty then I started finding cocktail sticks throughout it. The cook had taken some random piece of meat and fashioned it into a steak shape holding it all together with cocktail sticks. Once you scraped the sauce off it looked like a meaty piece of swiss roll. Desserts are safe though..right? In Villa de Leyva we ordered an ice cream sundae. It looked great until we reached the middle layer of grated white chocolate. Only problem was it wasn’t chocolate it was grated white cheese! Cheese and ice cream just don’t mix. I wonder what they were thinking, we’re out of chocolate! Don’t worry just use cheese instead they won’t notice.

We rode to Bogota after San Gil but stayed a couple of nights in Villa de Leyva in between. Villa de Leyva is another one of those colonial protected heritage towns popular as a weekend destination for the Bogota wealthy. Its claim to fame is for having one of the largest central town squares in South America.

On the way to Bogota we had another new “first”, we were stopped by the police for the first time on the trip. We managed to ride 25,000km without ever having a police encounter until now. To be perfectly fair it was a routine check where they were stopping every second car and checking the insurance documentation but a police stop none the less. The police man was friendly, after I showed him the insurance he asked questions about the trip and after a couple of minute talking he gave us a fist bump and we were back on the road. Soon after the police stop we needed to get some fuel so I pulled in at the next petrol station I saw. As we approached the pump I realised too late that there was petrol all over the ground at the pump. Someone had obviously spilled it and nobody had noticed yet. It was too late by the time I saw it and the bike went down. We hopped off in a routine manner and I looked over at the attendant. She went white with guilt and embarrassment. While she was throwing sand on the spill she kept apologising and saying please don’t think badly of Colombia because of this, we told her not to worry these things happen. I really didn’t mind, the bike is built like a tank and it can take drops on the ground no problem at all. I tried my luck and asked for a discount but it wasn’t happening so we left.

 

We arrived in Bogota at around three in the afternoon, the traffic was bedlam. Within an hour I counted 4 different crashes, none serious just minor ones but they caused chaos. The GPS didn’t really work that well in Bogota it kept instructing me to make turns where it just wasn’t possible which made things a bit stressful. When driving in a city like Bogota you have to let go of the rules and just go with the flow. Once you’re in the flow everybody makes an effort to avoid each other and it seems drivers only pay attention to what’s on front of them and disregard what’s behind them, that way it’s everybody’s responsibility to not hit the vehicle on front of them even if it does perform a strange maneuver. Horn beeping is constant, it means hey I’m coming through. It is common for motorbikes and taxis to beep once to let the car before them know they are about to overtake. After an hour riding around Bogota we finally made it to the KTM dealership where I hoped to change the oil, last time was in New Mexico in November.

Back when we were in San Francisco we met a guy named Mateo, he told us when we’re in Bogota to contact his dad Gonzalo who is into motorbikes and likes to tour as well. I contacted Gonzalo and he put me in touch with Sebastian who is the co-owner of the newest KTM dealership in Bogota. We met Sebastian at the shop when we arrived, soon after that his brother Andres arrived who spoke good English and he started to give us some tips about Bogota. Sebastian said I could use their workshop the next day to change the oil and if there was anything else just to let him know. We also met Nicolas a customer who has the same type ok bike as me. He led us through the Bogota rush hour to a hostel where we stayed for the next four or five days. The next day I went back to KTM and changed the oil with the technician Hernan. I thought about changing the fuel filter as well but decided to wait until the end of the trip instead. The guys were all a great help if any KTM owners are traveling through Bogota in the future this is the place to stop for advice and maintenance.

Bogota was a mix of hot and cold, one minute it would be scorching hot then the next it would be overcast with black clouds and torrential rain would pour down. It rained about twice a day when we were there. We did all of the usual stuff that the guide books tell you to do all of which the gold museum was pretty impressive. After the gold museum we wandered south and when we were down around Calle 5 a man in a shop came out and told us we should turn around and not to go down that direction any further. I guess Bogota like Dublin too has its bad areas. We waited on a couple of days in order to meet Greg who caught up with us in Bogota, the three of us went out for dinner one night and we set off west the next day while he waited in Bogota to meet his girlfriend who was flying in from the States.

Colombia part two coming very soon..

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Crossing the Darién Gap

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We crossed into Panama from Costa Rica via the border crossing on the Caribbean side of the country at Sixaola. Everything on the Caribbean side is more relaxed even the “helpers” at the border crossing, the guy who approached us gave us the usual run around about how it’s difficult and we need his help but when I told him we don’t need his help he said ok and walked off. That’s how easy going things are on the Caribbean side, at first I was skeptical and I thought this must be a tactic but he actually left and didn’t come back! The border crossing was easy enough, the usual cancelling of the motorbike import permit and stamping the passport out of the country. The only extra thing to consider was mandatory insurance which is needed for Panama. A guy on the Costa Rican side wanted to sell me some for 20USD but I declined thinking I’ll get it on the Panamanian side just in case he’s trying to over charge me.