Colombia

Day 1668 Sunday 10th May

Once again the road wound its way around mountains and waterfalls, through villages where the whole family was giving dad a helping hand to wash the very shiny American truck and trailer. The driving standard had plummeted from the courtesy of the Ecuadoran’s back to the depths of the rest of south America. Riding in and out of cloudy rain then sunny warm, almost hot was strange but nice. Getting fairly wet then drying in the sun.

We pulled into a charming log built, moss covered tile roofed roadhouse for a coffee. We asked if dollars were accepted, they were, so we settled into the wood fire smoky atmosphere. The young guy that served us spoke enough English to say hello, please sit here, the rest of the staff laughed at him a little as to say ‘they don’t understand you’. But we did and it made him feel great. Smiling with pride as he bought us our coffee, we were also given small bread kind of cake, my first on tasted slightly like sour bread, the second did not so maybe it was off! But they were lovely and warm on a damp part of our road. Walking back to the bike a small cluster of young men and a family of four were looking at them, a few questions were asked. One of the young guys, who looked well off and a gym goer, offered us his apartment for the night in the next town. We were however expected at a hostel thirty clicks further north so we declined his generous offer and rode on.

The winding road as usual took longer than expected, we eventually parked the bikes at four pm, in Chachagui.

In the small town we obtained cash from a shop and bought a huge bag of veggies and fruit for four dollars, enough for three days feed.

Lying in bed trying to sleep, not being able to ignore the sound of barking dogs the wind had picked up and as it blew through the trees it sounded a lot like rain. Not having camped near big trees for many many months it sounded strange.

Day 1669 Monday 11th May

We spent the morning carrying out research on Colombia as we don’t know much about it.

At midday we hired some push bikes to take an alleged two hour ride around a mountain. The word ‘mountain’ should have given us a clue as to how the terrain would be. Our athletic looking hostel owner gave us directions and we set off. Five and half hours later we were back, exhausted by the steep climes half of them walked as we are obviously not that fit. We were bowled over by the vastness of the valley that we stumbled through it was truly stunning to be able to stop and take in the views that changed at every turn of the stony track. The track was well trafficked by a few small trucks and heaps of two hundred c.c. motorcycles, always with two or more passengers on them, as well as the shopping or five meter long bamboo canes or chickens or goat, honestly.

Day accomplished we ate and slept. Fitfully.

Day 1670 Tuesday 12th May

Took a day out to research more of Colombia, walked the village for veggies and sat on the roof top while the sun sank and the clouds changed colours and shapes.

Day 1671 Wednesday 13th May

We could have stayed in Chachagui for a few more days walking and just watching the shadows changing on the mountains. Three nights was good for us and we made a move ever further north to Popayan, the white city.

As the temperature rouse another pleasing eight degrees we descended a thousand metres and for fifty km or so the road carved its way through deep gorges with sheer drops to the river. The info at the hostel said over five hundred metres. The rock wall that towered above to the left was similar in height and was in the habit of shedding debris onto the road. This made riding interesting, avoiding the larger rocks as well as the gravel. Not to mention the donkeys and horses that roam these remote roads. Most had some sort of rope or head gear on so presumably belonged to somebody.

The mountains eventually gave way to a flat fertile plain, banana trees with their fruit hanging in net bags, potato and many more mystery bright green leaves growing in neat rows in the dark earth. We could have been back in Africa these last few weeks, as the top of Ecuador and so far in Colombia most of the villages we have passed through are populated by Africans, I read, descended from the slaves that were bought here five hundred years ago, by the Spanish to labour in the banana plantations.

The road once more climbed to just over two thousand metres, through road repairs that gave us a surface much worse than when we left Espinar for Chivay, albeit with no river crossings and it was only for a few km a couple of times. We arrived at our chosen hostel to find it was full, asking at three more only to told there was very little accommodation in town that offered parking. Asking at one, the lady said across the road was secure parking. So we settled in the white city for a few days.

Day 1672 Thursday 14th May

One of the first thing that caught my eye was the amount of Renault cars in town, particularly the models ‘twelve’ and ‘four’. They looked quite small compared to the more modern cars and tiny against the north American four wheel drive trucks. I had not seen so many of these old Renaults in years as they ceased production decades ago in Europe, I don’t know if they still make them in south America or they have survived the span of years in the drier climate.

Day 1673 Friday 15th May

Riding through this flat fertile land we stopped off at a road side stall and bought Pineapple, Papaya and Mango, all soft, ripe and smelling very fresh and fruity. Such a purchase in the UK would cost probably four times as much and the food having covered huge distance, we always feel very lucky to buy off the growers.

Needing to get something for supper we stopped at the first supermercardo in the small town of Buga. Before I had taken off my hat a young guy came over and introduced himself and his girlfriend, both spoke very good English and were very interested in travel and bikes. He offered to show us to a hostel, and ask his boss if we could leave our bikes at his work where they would be safe behind locked gates, and a night guard. Thirty minutes late we were enduring a cold shower, with bikes parked under cover, thanks to our new friend.

They told us they had a dinner planned with his mother that afternoon, and would return to take us for a beer at seven pm. By nine we were too tired to wait any more, so went to sleep.

Day 1674 Saturday 16th May

Explaining how long dinner took, they were back home at ten and considered it too late too call. However our local hero asked us to stay on and have dinner with them, that afternoon, the offer was tempting. We thought it was taking a liberty with his boss so, we thanked them profusely and headed out to Salento.

Plantation house backpackers was to be our home for a couple of nights. The rural looking rooms were set in thick tropical foliage, not quite bananas but heaps of coffee trees, and squawking birds.

Day 1675 Sunday 17th May

We booked in for a coffee production tour that showed us the process from cherry bean to hot mug. Very interesting as I knew little of the process, and as with most thing there was a lot more to it than I realised.

Day 1676 Monday 18th May

Left plantation farm for Manizales, the hostel we had booked did not exist at the address given on the website, after two and a half hours of chasing our tale in light rain we gave up and headed on toward the small town of Honda! Once again we wound our way through the mountains up to three thousand five hundred metres, averaging once again, less than fifty km per hour. Stopping off for coffee at about four pm we both felt very weary due to the stress of not fining the hostel and the roads taking full attention. My riding was made more demanding as the back brake was in need of bleeding, again! So having only the front one I rode the wet, shiny roads with much care on the steep descents. Also having to brake as the micro buses pulled sharply in front of me, as the approaching blind corner was even too much for their faith to hold out for.

Passing through a few villages that looked like a full blown street party was in full swing for the public holiday. Horses and quad motorcycles were being ridden fast up and down the main street.

We fruitlessly looked for a road house or hostel. Five clicks out of Fresno we found a great cafe and clean simple rooms at a brightly painted roadhouse. So we settled in for a little light bike maintenance, beans and rice.

Day 1677 Tuesday 19th May

Leaving early after breakie of tea and porridge we headed out, passing through the sweeping mountain roads. Rising up from the small town of Honda we soon joined in the familiar game of passing the semi truck on left hand curves. As the double yellow lines were constant throughout the high mountain land, if one never passed on a solid line the country would slow to a halt, never to gain momentum greater than fifteen km per hour. So all us guys on motos and a few macho types in expensive four wheel drives passed on the best curves and a few more placing their faith in God and trying to pass totally blind on any bend, so has it been throughout south America. We just try to stay out of harms way. With the frequent amounts of shrines at the road side remembering the souls lost on the road you would think that they would take more care. So any how this occasion we passed a couple of trucks and scooters and sped out of the jungle onto a flat open area where three traffic police waited for offenders to hurtle from the trees, that was us. Well and truly flagged down by an officer that may have reached his seventeenth birthday we took off our hats and smiled at his side arm and two spare clips. Asking for our papers and explaining that we were on the bad side of the road, and we were going to get a ticket, and we were speeding, and we were foreign, and probably had too many legs or arms or not enough balls to ride passed his poxy road check point. So providing all documents that were required (in English) to our Colombian Spanish speaking and reading cousin we sat and waited as he examined our paperwork. Ten long minutes we waited until his collogues failed to answer his calls for help, he handed back our papers and said don’t ride like a Colombian on my shift again. We packed fast and sped off, probably too quickly, (again)…

Taking a great hostel with under cover parking in the salt city of Zipaquira we shed our bike gear and baggage into our room through the window. As you do!

We soon headed off to the cathedral of salt. The upper working of the mine were were seven hundred years, or older. The locals scooped up the brine, slowly evaporated the water out it over a fire, in the earthenware pots and made a salt cake. Then breaking the jars to gain the salt. Seemed to me like a waste of jars, I saw in France and Australia vast areas flooded then dammed to let the sun dry the water out. I guess here the weather is not so predictable, and a lot more humid. Later the Spanish mined the rock to gain the precious preservative, carving out chambers where the first cathedral was made hundreds of years later. Only to fall in on itself a couple of centuries later, with no loss of life thankfully. Then with more modern technology people came and carved out linear chambers two hundred meters long in regular lines where the new cathedral was created giving space to the fourteen chambers dedicated to the last day of Christ on this earth. With the centuries of workings gone before it took three years to crate this shrine and place of worship. The modern salt extraction now carry on a further hundred metres deeper under the cathedral. The whole area is a mushroom of rock salt many hundreds of meters deep formed as ancient oceans of very salty water that covered Colombia evaporated in the new warmth. Once again I say was that not global warming on a huge scale that went un-noticed by the local dinosaurs…..

Later having bought a huge bag of veggies for a dollar we skulked under the canopy and cooked our supper behind the curtain of our bikes, thinking all would be shocked at our actions, but in truth they did not care or worry.

Day 1679 Thursday 21st May

Riding to the town of Tunja to gaze at a fresco of African animals, plants and biblical images that the artist gained from a book and plagiarised into his own work, all painted onto the ceilings of a wealthy Spanish priests home. At the time the artist claimed he had travelled, and all the subjects of his artwork he had seen, strange that he was not questioned at the time, as Christ was depicted as well as dragon type creatures.

It took almost two hours to ride out of town as the roads had been dug up for some reason, they had excavated all the westerly roads to thwart our road out. Doggedly we rode round and around till we headed out into a splendid fertile valley snaking down five hundred metres to Villa de Leyva. The old town is ‘must see place’ where modernisation has been halted, we found six hundred year old cobbled lanes, clay pan ties, whitewashed walls and bright colourful painted baloneys. The whole area is littered with marine fossils and many were set in the wall and floors of shops we visited.

Un-necessary in humble opinion, was being stopped and asked for papers by two cheerful policemen, bit odd for such a tourist trap. Maybe its just me, not wanting to dig out my passport and drivers licence to be examined again by a guy not able to read it…

Mostly the street level consisted of tourist must have bags, hats and children’s toys, but here there did seem to be different offerings that may have been made locally. The rest were (wonderful) hot bread ovens, lovely veggies and fruit shops with imperfect fruit from the surrounding fields and orchards. And the usual supermarket. As we paused on the stone bridge to read the dated plaque we sadly saw the usual garbage strew in the small river. Even in an heritage site they can’t always use the refuse cans….

Day 1680 Friday 22nd May

Trying to get a little exercise, we walked to find a waterfall and high lookout point that gave panoramic views over the valley. We failed to find the exact path but had a great fifteen km amble through the interesting out-of-town homes with land that looked like it could be our home. All high, with spectacular views across the valley and town. Terraced veggie gardens, banana, mango and chilli trees filled the gardens where donkey, horse and dogs roamed.

Day 1681 Saturday 23rd May

Raquira was our town to visit today, rumoured to be selling individual pottery items made and decorated locally. Parking in the Plaza, where again old men sat and baked in the sun, noticeably, none smoking, just sitting chatting. On the road in we did see the kilns, broken pots and vast sheds filled with unpainted pots, pigs, bells, figures and everything in-between. In the vast number of shops girls sat painting their designs onto the pale fawn earthenware.

Taken by the look of a couple of tea pots that were on sale we were unsure about their ability to pour in a controlled manner. This was told to us by an old lady, famed for not making tea pots to sell in Salamanka market in Tasmania. Due to the alleged complexity of making a spout. She said it was a bugger to make a spout that poured properly and not just discharged its contents on to the table as well as into a cup. So Diane bought a small pot that we could carry till we can mail it, and hopefully use for our home crafted chilli sauce in the distant future.

On the way back we stopped off at a children’s theme park where the fossilised remains of a crocodile allegedly lay. Found in the late nineteen seventies they decided to leave the monster where it had lain for one hundred and fifteen or so million years, and build a museum around it. So we ambled around the relativity deserted park up to the large round building at the top where we thought the beast lay. Past huge concrete dinosaurs that growled and rumbled just like the real thing, one unfortunate specimen had a ladder by which you could access its belly and view its internals!! Well at the top we found a redundant theatre!! Asking at the entrance gate on our way out the lady said the croc was five km away at the museum….. Bugger.

After a slight halt at a police check point where I convinced the fifteen year old with an AK forty seven that we had the correct paper work for the bike we found El Focil at last and it was well worth the trip. The croc lay on a hillside facing down, now inside a smart stone building, white washed inside and out. It was lovingly surrounded in glass cabinets by remnants of long dead relatives, friends and possible dinners. Was incredible to think it has been there for all that time, and hopefully will stay there and not be moved to Bogata.

Day 1682 Sunday 24th May

Eating our banana leaf wrapped bundle of rice, maize, herbs and unidentifiable meat products for brekkie we felt full, and sad for the street dogs, so we left the meaty bits for them.

Heading out of town on the back road that soon went to good gravel but pot holed to buggery we bounced our way through Herefordshire type countryside where goats and cows roamed our path. The small farms looked poor, however the people were well dressed with good boots and well fed, so life looked good in this pleasant land.

Thirty km and over an hour later we found the highway, filled up and went in search of synthetic oil. The bikes needed an oil change and so far we failed to find a full synthetic of any grade. The country having mostly small bikes it was not a need for this quality of oil.

In the large town of Bucaramanga we filled at a gas station where we thought the oil cabinet held our sought after, sadly it was a semi synthetic. However the attendant did say that we would find it further into town. He was right! At Texaco they had a twenty fifty fully synthetic oil, with seven litres bagged we headed out of town. We covered fifty or so km when a truck stop with a lube bay came into view, the friendly owner said it was ok to use what ever gear we needed to change our oils, the only condition was that we took away the empty containers, he happily took our old oil. After the oils and filters were changed we ate in his roadhouse, enjoying rice, pasta fried chicken and beans, as well as his huge wall of photographs of trucks that have stopped, or been serviced here.

Day 1683 Monday 25th May

Waking at around two am by a truck leaving I then lay awake listening the the torrential rain beating on the tin roof over the stoap, we were very pleased we had not taken the camping option yesterday and ridden on. The tent was safe from a beating and the bike were undercover, small things, but important.

While packing the bike a young guy on a small motorbike with a huge wicker basket on the back rode in selling still warm bread, so a couple were bought to wrap around our fried egg brekkie. Having our own tea bags and mugs, and not wanting sweet coffee, I noted the clearness of the tea before adding the milk powder, no scum or film on the surface. Later asking for hot water to make more tea I noted that the water looked pale brown in the white mugs of the roadhouse. As the cafe was remote and the large mountain stream was twenty metres away it dawned on me were our water was drawn from. Oh well maybe a bacterial check is in order when one is available. Until then my liver and kidneys may be fodder for whatever lies in the water here…..

Trying to leave Salamaga before the heavens opened we made our farewells to the guys that lived and worked there. The KTM had differing ideas and refused to start, giving discharged battery symptoms, again. Even after spending an hour or more of devoted attention yesterday renewing the oil and filter it still wanted more. Half an hour on we had ignition and after a few pictures, more hand shaking we rode out.

Passing (yet again) through a steep sided valley three hundred meters deep, much covered with small trees and undergrowth, the last nights rain spouting from the green vertical forest, like tea from a pot. (with a good spout!!)

Our ultimate goal today, tomorrow, or the next was Santa Marta, on the Caribbean Sea. Not having seen the ocean since Trujillo, Peru or stood in it since Chala, six hundred km south of Lima, we were keen to get our feet wet again.

The land flattened out in to banana and palm tree plantations, after an hour or so leaving the mountain roads and labouring trucks behind, we made good progress. Through vast open fields, farmland and tree canopied straight long stretches of road where we could achieve scary speeds of eighty or even one hundred kph. Sounds daft? So many days chasing trucks down and up mountain roads at fifteen to fifty kph if felt quick. Very surprisingly we covered the five hundred clicks in the one day, only stopping to fill up and grab a water at gas stations were the security guards carried pump action shot guns. Talking with one he said it was his job to make sure no one left without paying. I did not like to ask how he stopped them, or if they could pay after being detained.

The Lying Planet came through once again and told us of hostels that had long since closed, leaving us in failing light with no bed. Knocking on a few doors gave us a nice place, but the bikes had to rest four blocks away in a secure parking lot. In the last twenty four hours the ambient temperature had risen by twenty degrees making me very grateful for the oil we found to be a twenty fifty and not anything thinner.

Day 1684 Tuesday 26th May

Spending the day exploring Santa Marta we realised that it was not the pretty town that the books described. The cathedral was worth the visit though, painted brilliant white and dominating the small plaza. At the front steps huge amber coloured doors studded with iron fastenings remained firmly shut for us non worshippers unfortunately.

We did however succeed in putting our feet in our seventh different body of water, the Caribbean Sea.

 

Day 1687 Friday 29th May

Having pack our bikes the night before we walked the slightly cooler early morning to beat the heat and traffic. Riding with the commuters on their daily grind made me appreciate (again), how fortunate we were. They were off to work, we were off to a new place!

The highway switched from two to single lane often which gave a pleasant variety of riding, passing trucks and cars and time to take in the reality of riding a forty km causeway, with the grey sluggish Caribbean sea on one side, salt marshes and shanty ‘towns’ on the other. Sadly, the whole of this part of the highway on either side was mostly covered in plastic refuse. The folks were living in pallet and plastic sheet covered houses. Fishing for a living. The fish for sale beside the highway looked wonderful, we mused how long they had laid in the hot air for, so we resisted and rode on.

Barrenquillia gave respite from one sadness to another, taxi cab drivers! Not in colourful Tuk Tuks, now but bright yellow micro cars that buzzed us like grumpy hornets. Reaching the other side of town after getting wonderfully lost due to the closure of the main thoroughfare, we revelled in getting back up to speed to have the cooling air blowing into our coats.

Riding into Cartagena still next to the ocean passing by new very posh, (expensive, Holiday Inn) hotels I wondered for whom all this had been built, Bogata wealthy?

East of the old town Cartagena the GPS said four three hundred metres and a left turn, over a small bridge with no railings, into poorer part of town. Weaving our way past huge potholes, abandoned tyres, some wrecked vehicles and of course taxi’s we pulled up outside our hostel. My first thought was I reckon we might be able to sneak back into the car park of the Holiday Inn and hide for a week or two. Unlikely, but they do serve a fantastic brekkie…

Diane was greeted by an enthusiastic young lady with an even more enthusiastic three year daughter. Mum asked us to pose and ride in while she took pictures, she explained how new the hostel was, and they had not had bikers stay before. The parking was not ideal insofar as no undercover for bikes, however if the gate was kept locked it was very secure with two and a half metre high railing around it.

Truth told, once in, the place was clean, simple, quiet, had a kitchen and was the cheapest yet. As usual of late there was only cold water in the shower, not really that cold from the black tank on the roof, and we so hot from the day it was a welcome cool down.

Walking the three km to the old town via a large mall where we checked out the fish availability, we had to be careful where we trod as many concrete drain covers were broken while the iron ones which had not been locked were stolen for scrap.

Day 1688 Saturday 30th May

Diane shopped with the owner in a local market a few km away. We were warned not to go there on our own. Heard it before, as we could get what we needed from local shops we did not tempt fate. Diana, the owner, cooked our lunches, a traditional Colombian fish dish. Yummy.

Day 1689 Sunday 31st May

Went to old town late arvo to avoid the heat. Walking the Spanish fortifications that kept out invaders (!!!!) a few centuries back, I marvelled at the amount of work that had gone into constructing such huge walls and barriers. I also wondered how much Spanish labour was employed, or was it the hapless locals who did not have rifles?

Day 1690 Monday 1st June

Beach day, went with an English couple, shared a cab to keep cost down. Playa Blanco was our place to get burnt today. A very tropical beach with white sand blue water and coconut trees at crazy angles, how they stayed up I had no idea. The lay practically horizontal with the beach. The only slight draw back was the local hoard of hawkers, every ten to fifteen you found yourself saying no thanks to another basket of beer, ear-rings, necklace or bangles made from shells that customs may have a field day with. Maybe they sell them back and they get resold, like pigeons…

Suitable cooked, back at the ranch we emailed agents for shipping the bikes across the Darian Gap. For the uninitiated, a eighty or so km strip of dense jungle that exasperates south from central America. It has been kept that way due to drug traffic, and is a big no go area. It has been walked through and it is said one guy did ‘ride’ it., took a week or more and he was never the same again.

Day 1691 Tuesday 2nd June

Had email from shipper so we hot cabbed it to town, the poor guy had no idea, so I sat with the I pad and directed. Our co-ordinates were wrong!! So he asked lots of people with no idea. As a last chance he put recharge on his phone found out the address and dropped us off. So much effort we seldom see, so I gave him double fare and a tip too, he was delighted and smiled and laughed a lot! With a twenty foot box reserved. We sat and waited for paperwork in thirty five degree heat with a wind ‘chill’ of forty four. Then went to justice of the peace to have passports authenticated.

As much done as we could we walked back the five km via the old bit to mooch through he tourist shops and street food vendors.

Day 1692 Wednesday 3rd June

Slow slow day writing diary research and……….we have been paired with an Argentinian couple with a truck too long for a twenty foot container, so will meet in the morning and hammer out a deal to share a forty foot. Result!!

Day 1693 Thursday 4th June

Met up and agreed a suitable divide for us both, they needed a forty foot box for their over long truck, we both needed to go.

The two of us did not realise how convenient it would be for us to have native speakers with us I a few days time.

Day 1696 Sunday 7th June

Took a fast boat to the isle of pirates, which I’m sure is not its real name. It lay in a group of thirty or so small islands inhabited by the original people. About an hours ride from the city. We had no beach, but did have a set of steps to the water which really was turquoise blue. The local gang of smallish crabs owned the steps and as soon as you passed they clattered back out to hunt again. We lazed the day away and were fed smoked fish and rice. Perfect.

 

Day 1699 Wednesday 10th June

Loading day, arrived too early at agents office, so sat outside and sweltered in the morning heat, feeling overdressed in bike gear while the locals rode in stubbies and tee shirts. Soon we were following the fourbie to the container port. We were told to wait, told to go, weighed in with our bikes and weighed out individually to assert the mass in the box. As I am a total princess about the bikes I said that the helpful guys would not tie down our bikes, we would do it ourselves, which they were very cool about. So a few short hours later we walked semi aimlessly from the office, lighter by a heap of dollars less than we would have been shipping in our own box. To a cafe for beer and buttery croissants.

Day 1700 Thursday 11th June

Flew to Medallin where after checking in and getting stamped out we were refused our flight due to not having an onward passage from Panama. So after a couple of hours fighting with the airline, (Viva Colombia) we were given replacement flights for tomorrow. So we walked back to the road house and wine store and spent another agreeable night in the cool.

Day 1701 Friday 12th June

Had a few beers and brekkie and tried again. Bonus! Got tax rebate from the airline and flew on time across the demon gap. (sorry Darian Gap).

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