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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..