A whirlwind tour of southern Colombia – and crossing into Ecuador

A gothic cathedral in Colombia

Las Lajas Cathedral in Colombia, just north of the border with Ecuador

10 October – Day 80 – half way!

Pasto, Colombia to Otavola, Ecuador

Distance: 232kms

Today we and visited a unique gothic Church built into the side of a valley and then crossed the border between Colombia and Ecuador.

It was our first border crossing for a while and probably took an hour and a half, which really isn’t too bad as these things go. A first for me was having two bikes to look after instead of one… I was on ‘bike duty’ while Adrian and Jeremy organised the paperwork. Another first was that Adrian was able to use my passport to check me out of Colombia as well as himself – even though I wasn’t actually standing anywhere near the immigration building at the time! Can’t see that happening in Australia…!!?

There were a ton of roadworks along the way, which meant that the relatively short distance actually took most of the day… we only just made it into Otavola by nightfall. We also had a bit of a challenge in finding petrol; the first four petrol stations we went to were either completely closed, open but totally out of fuel or open but only had low grade fuel available! Given that we’d deliberately not filled up before crossing the border because we knew the petrol in Ecuador was significantly cheaper, we did really need some! It was a good reminder of the fuel situation in South America, where it’s not always easy or possible to get fuel.

Adrian and Jeremy wiggling the bike through the door at our hostel

Adrian and Jeremy wiggling the bike through the door at our hostel

We parked the bike inside the foyer of our hostel… nothing out of the ordinary there, other than the fact that the doorway was slightly narrower than the bike’s handlebars are wide! So Adrian and Jeremy had to sort of wiggle it through.

 

9 October – Day 79

Cali, Colombia to Pasto, Colombia (via Popayan)

Distance: 390kms

Today was a bit of a whirlwind tour of southern Colombia, taking in the cities of Popayan and Pasto.

Popayan is also known as ‘the white city’ because all of the buildings in the centre of the town are painted glowing, snow white. It was really noticeable after the bright colours of previous cities.

White buildings in a white city!

White buildings in a white city!

On the ride into Pasto, we met up with another overlander on a BMW, Jeremy from France. He’s in the middle of an epic multi-year world tour combining travelling and working. We ended up riding to Pasto together and will probably ride together for the next few days.

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Tall wax palms in Colombia

Very tall wax palm trees

Some of the trees in the wax palm forest

8 October – Day 78

Salento, Colombia to Cali, Colombia
Distance: 207kms

We visited the Corcora forest just after a big breakfast at the BnB of scrambled eggs, white toast and cheese (not my number one favourite breakfast…). The trees were pretty impressive! Apparently they are the tallest palm trees in the world. My little snotball was too sniffy to do the hike through the forest, so we rode around for a while and went for a short walk just admiring the view before heading back to the BnB, packing up the bike and taking off for Cali. It was a good time to be heading to Cali, where they have a BMW dealership, because on the way one of Beamsky’s warning lights came on… there was apparently an issue with the ABS. It wasn’t hugely worrying, as we haven’t had to use the ABS yet… but it’s also one of those things that you want to have ready and working for when you need it!

Anyway, our hostel – which is owned by a Colombian overland biker who leads people on bike tours around the country – was conveniently near the BMW shop so after we arrived, Adrian headed back there to get the issue sorted. They didn’t have the part in stock.. so the took it off the brand new R1200GSA they had on the showroom floor and installed it on Beamsky, and said that they could just order a new part for their display bike! They also replaced the part under the BMW warranty, pretty good service really.

7 October – Day 77

Medellin, Colombia to Salento, Colombia
Distance: 280kms

Today was mostly a riding day as we continue our journey south through Colombia. The traffic was better than it had been on the way to Medellin and the roads slightly less crazy… but honestly, they are SO CRAZY that slightly less still means that buses overtake trucks on blind corners, roadworks appear out of nowhere, and two-lane roads are treated as 3-4 lanes.

Salento is a little town most famous because the Corcora Palm Forest is nearby. We got in too late to see the palms today; so they’re on the cards for tomorrow morning.

I found a pretty cheap BnB walking distance from the town centre, so after we checked in and unloaded our gear off the bike, we walked up to the town square and then up a number of stairs to a local lookout. The view over the valley was amazing!

Adrian aka ‘my little snotball’ is feeling a bit better but is still sneezing and sniffing like crazy.

A local’s tour of Medellin

Brightly coloured buildings in Medellin

In the old part of Medellin

6 October – Day 76

Medellin
Distance: 0kms

Another excellent day in Colombia, a country which continues to exceed my expectations and has been one of my favourites so far.

As we were walking around looking for a café for brekky before heading off, we for some reason decided to go up a little side street… where Juan, the helpful stranger from yesterday, was sitting at café with his wife! How he recognised us I have no idea; he’d only seen us in all our gear including helmets… but he did, and came and sat with us for quite a while. He was pretty disappointed that we were planning on leaving Medellin straight away, and said that he’d love to take us around the city if only we stayed in town for another day. Plus his favourite local soccer team was playing that afternoon, and we might want to watch it with him? It was an opportunity not to be missed – spending a day with a local, in his own city?!! Yes please!

Twenty minutes after breakfast we were at the designated meeting spot, and the tour began with a close look at the Gaudua bamboo that was growing nearby, and a discussion on how it’s used in construction. It’s apparently known as ‘nature’s steel’ because it’s so strong – and flexible, which is helpful in earthquake prone areas.

We were going to get a taxi into the town centre, but while we were waiting the bus arrived and so on we jumped. It was our first local bus ride in South or Central America. It was pretty obvious that we were tourists, so along the way almost everyone in the bus was pointing things out to us, wanting us to know which street we were on (‘the car street’, where all the car dealerships are) etc etc. They were just so friendly! I know I keep saying this, but really – it’s such a change from previous countries, where people were either not friendly, or just wanted money. Colombians are friendly for the sake of being friendly.

Anyway, we hopped off and Juan was right into the tour, taking us to San Antonio Square which is where, in 1997, the FARC set off a bomb inside a statue, killing 17 people. 1997… it’s not that long ago.

We then went to look at the second hand book sellers’ offerings… on Sundays, the streets are lined with people selling old books. It was bliss. Our tour also took in a couple of the big churches in the town centre, as well as the more famous buildings, made all the more interesting by being with a local who knew the history, including information about the architect, year of construction, any issues or scandals associated with the building, current use etc etc. I wouldn’t be able to do the same thing on a tour of Sydney; I just don’t know enough about the history of the place. So I was even more impressed, and grateful, for the tour. At one point, Juan even sweet-talked a policeman into escorting us into a restricted area so he could show us a couple of monuments and explain some more about Colombia’s history. The policeman must have walked around with us for over 10 minutes, and he got into the tour too, pointing out various things and sharing bits of information.

One of the statues in this area is of Guillermo Gaviria Correa, the former state governer and his Peace Commissioner, Gilberto Echeverri Mejía who were killed by the FARC in 2003 after being held hostage for a year.  They were captured when participating in a peace march.

After a quick refreshment at a very local pub, Juan’s wife Sorel picked all of us up and took us for lunch, and then we went back to Juan’s place to watch his local soccer team’s match over a few more refreshments including a delicious traditional Colombian fried plantain and avocado dish from Calli, which is where Sorel is from.

All in all, it was an excellent day.

Stone arches and a wooden roof inside a church

Inside one of the big Churches in Medellin city

Our lovely Colombian hosts for the day

Our lovely Colombian hosts for the day – Matteau, Sorel and Juan

 

 

 

An(other) excellent day in Colombia

A brightly coloured fountain in front of brightly painted buildings in Guatape

On the street in Guatape old town… see what I mean about the colours!!

5 October – Day 75

Guatape, Colombia to Medellin, Colombia
Distance: 80kms

Today was one of my favourite days on the bike trip so far… and not (only) because the total distance travelled was 80kms!!!

We started with a short ride to ‘the rock’ (actually called ‘the Peñol’) in Guatape, which we’d heard about from the Kiwis. It’s basically a massive granite rock in the middle of a valley/lakes region with an amazing view… once you climb the 700 stairs/ 220m to the top! It was excellent… and really beautiful.

Then we went into the Guatape town centre, which was equally great. Every building was painted in fantastically bright colours, making the whole town just seem so happy. It was on the water, had a cute little town square, it was sunny but not too hot and just really lovely.

We hadn’t decided whether or not to stop overnight in Medellin, which is Colombia’s second largest city after Bogota and has a population of about 2.7 million (in the greater Medellin area). According to Wikipedia, in early 2013 Medellín was chosen as the most innovative city in the world due to its recent advances in politics, education, and social development… so a stop there was definitely an option, and we decided to find somewhere for lunch and then decide whether or not to keep going.

Adrian navigated us to a very cool part of town near one of the universities and with heaps of cafes and restaurants etc… and we decided to stay. Not before, however, I had confirmed first hand what I’d heard from others: Colombians are some of the friendliest people you will meet, anywhere. Already, I was building to this conclusion – what with Arturo yesterday guiding us along the road towards Medellin and buying our lunch, plus Adrian was approached by a pilot in the Columbian airforce for a chat while sitting in the square in Guatape. And then we got to Medellin… There are lots of one way streets in this part of town, and so we had stopped by the side of the road about two blocks from the hostel we were aiming for (Casa Kiwi – it had to be good, right?!) while we figured out how to actually get there. A very well dressed man approached us and asked, in excellent English, what we were looking for and if he could help. He started to explain the way to the hostel, and then his (I think) wife, also looking very stylish, came out of one of the shops… and they both got into their car to guide us right there! And then, once we were at the hostel, he jumped out of the car to give us his name (Juan) and phone numbers and told us to call him if the hostel didn’t have secure parking, as he lived only two blocks away and we could park the bike in his garage. How nice is that?!! People are just so friendly and polite all the time, and for no reason other than they’re just friendly; it’s the norm here. I like it!

As it turned out, the hostel did have parking… and there was another BMW in the garage which belonged to a guy from the US who was a couple weeks shy of finishing a five year journey doing what we’re doing.  Five years?! Wow – good on him; that would be too long for me. There was also a touring bicycle in the garage which belonged to a Scotsman who is riding from Mexico down to Buenos Aires. So – lots of interesting people in a very funky little part of town that reminds me a bit of Paddington in Sydney.

The only downer on an otherwise excellent day was that Adrian is coming down with some sort of cold/tonsillitis thing… it started in the afternoon and I’m hoping that he’ll be fine by tomorrow morning.

The BMW motorbike in front of the cathedral in Guatape

On the main square in Guatape

Flat landscape with a big rock in it

This is ‘the rock’ from a distance – yes, we climbed to the top!

A zigzagging staircase built into a very large rock

These are the stairs built into the side of the rock… they look very dodgy but seemed solid!!

A major truck jam

A group of motorbikers waiting as trucks go past

Waiting with other bikes to be let through as trucks go past heading in the opposite direction… that’s Adrian on the RHS with the orange waterproof bag on the back of the bike.

4 October – Day 74

Botoga, Colombia to just outside of Guatepe, Colombia
Distance: 380kms (time on bike = 8 hours…. grrrr!!!!)

I thought I’d seen traffic jams before, but they had nothing on today!  Wowsers.  A two-lane road with traffic (mainly trucks) backed up for kilometres. And kilometres. I have never been happier to be on a motorbike, able to slide in and around the hundreds (if not 1000+) trucks just waiting. And waiting. And waiting. We saved ourselves hours by being able to navigate to the front by ducking and weaving through the queue. One of the holdups was a group of workmen doing perhaps a 40m patch of what looked to be relatively minor roadworks… and for that, people had to wait all day! Seriously, the queues stretched for miles in both directions. I filmed a small section and will upload it to YouTube and add the link when we get somewhere with a better internet connection… we’ve had no or very slow internet for a few days now.

UPDATE:

Here’s the link to the video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdhwmkMHgyg. It’s shaky, but you get the picture! This represents about 1/5 of the total jam… I had to stop filming as the riding was getting more swervy and stop/go and I had to hang on to the bike with two hands!! And the jam was like this in both directions… ie these are the trucks that we were ducking and weaving between to get to the front of each queue…

 

What made the jam worse was that, on more than one occasion, the road was totally blocked when a large semi broke down or overheated at the precise moment the driver was (stupidly attempting to) overtaking another truck on the wrong side of the road…  so even when roadworks people turned their little stop/go signs, there was literally nowhere for the trucks and cars to go.

Nevertheless, there was a highlight for the day and it was meeting and having lunch bought for us by Colombian motorbike rider who we met while stopped at one of the jams. We rode with him for a couple of hours which was excellent, as he really knew the roads and – through the sections where there was no traffic and we could get a bit of flow going – guided us at a pace that was slightly faster than what we would have done unguided.

Still, the multiple traffic jams meant that it took a long time to make progress, and we were still 100kms short of our intended destination when we got fogged in. This was some of the thickest, most dense fog on the trip so far, and with the windy roads, the cars overtaking buses and trucks (and trucks overtaking trucks) on the wrong side of the road on blind corners – ie in our faces – it actually wasn’t fun. That, plus brand new tyres on the bike, and rain. So with about 35kms to go, we saw a hotel on the side of the road and stopped there. It exceeded our expectations! And we were both just very happy to be off the bike.

Group of motorbikes at the front of a traffic jam

At the front of a second jam…. feeling very happy to be on a motorbike and therefore able to actually get to the front rather than being stuck somewhere several kms back!!!

Getting my city on!

Colourful buildings in Bogota old town

One of the streets in Bogota old town

1-3 October – Days 71-73

Bogota, Colombia
Distance: 0kms

And so phase three begins. Having completed our travels – for this trip – through North and Central America, it’s time to explore South America. Adrian’s been here before; it’s my first visit to the continent.

So we’re in Bogota. It’s really nice being back in a big city for a change! And by big, I mean a city with a population of 10 million… so we’re talking a serious city here!

We’re staying in a hotel that’s close to the financial district in the CBD, or the ‘downtown’ area, and about a 3km walk from the old town. It’s near a couple of universities and lots of office buildings and residential towers, which means there’s a ton of restaurants nearby… from street vendors to fine dining and everything in between.

It’s cooler here than we’ve had for a while – probably because of the altitude; Bogota is at 2620m… which is high enough that I’ve been feeling just a little breathless for the past couple of days. The city was founded in the 1538 and is an interesting mix of old and new, rich and poor, arty and business/financial etc etc. The people-watching is excellent!

There are also some different cultural things… like the fact you can ‘rent’ a mobile phone to use like you would a payphone! Every 20-50 m in the CBD, if not more often, is a person wearing a small placard around their neck and/or holding up a sign saying something along the lines of “Minutos 200” or “Minutos 150.” That sign means they have mobile phones available for rent. The phones are generally on chains (that look very much like a dog leash) and are attached to a pole or board or the owner themselves… it’s the modern payphone, at a cost of 150/200 pesos per minute (about 20c)! And they are very popular; we saw loads and loads of people using them.

Also popular on CBD streets is guinea pig racing, where people bet on which upturned dish the racing guinea pigs will reach first…

We met up with a couple of other bikers in Bogota … Andi and Ellen, of www.twomotokiwis.com fame, who are essentially doing the same trip that we are but are taking three years instead of 6 months to do it (!!), and Austrian Juergen, who has ridden to Colombia from the East Coast of the US and is now riding south, aiming to arrive in Ushuia about the same time as us… so it’s highly likely that our paths will cross multiple times from now on. We spent a full day with Andi and Ellen walking around the old town, sharing stories… and hiking the +/- 1500 steps up to the peak of Cerro de Montserrat (3030m high). There’s a church at the very top – and an unrivalled view over the city sprawl. We were lucky to get a really clear day and so could see all the way across the city to a mountain range on the horizon. It was excellent!! And yes – at this altitude, I definitely feel less fit/more puffed than normal. It’s not a feeling I’m used to, being puffed from walking?!!

We’ll be keeping track of Andi and Ellen now and long after our trip is over and highly recommend their blog for a good read and photos of places that travellers don’t often visit.

I like it here, and could easily spend more time in Bogota, exploring more of the old town and also some of the other parts of the city… however time is ticking and the road is calling us southwards… so we’re off tomorrow towards the city of Medellin.

 

By Adrian

I had quite a few bike things to do while here, including obtaining the obligatory insurance, getting the bike serviced and getting new tyres… three fairly straightforward objectives that took the best part of a few days to achieve. Unlike in Central America, insurance wasn’t available at a shack immediately at the border crossing. I’d heard that other travellers had been stopped by police for a paperwork check and made to leave their bikes to find insurance before proceeding… so insurance was high on the priority list.

SOAT (auto insurance) is available at petrol stations and bike shops everywhere, however after visiting four or five, none could offer insurance for a period of less than one year. Upon a recommendation to proceed to a main office for a particular insurance company, we finally found Seguros del Estado could issue a one month policy for a princely sum of $17US (as opposed to $115US for one year). Insurance done.

Next was servicing and tyres. Autogermana (BMW dealer) have received a very good rap by most people who drop their bike off for service, and tend to make space available even without booking in advance. I managed to find my way to the nearby service centre without realising it was for cars only and the service centre I was after was some 90 blocks North through the city (on Calle 127b). I had thought that the perilous driving of Central America was behind us however the ride from the airport to our hotel on the previous day had opened my eyes somewhat. Lane splitting in Bogota is the norm with hundreds of 100-200cc bikes rushing past precisely carving up the traffic. Taxis merge without thought or indication, buses too, and if you’re not ready for it, well you shouldn’t be driving here. It’s not exactly aggressive driving if it’s simply their normal manner and seems to work well most of the time. The traffic was slow and thick and the only way to make decent headway was to join in on the fun. Even though I had the panniers off, trying my hand at following these little bikes through the gaps was difficult, while aided by my turn of speed off the lights, I simply got in the way through the narrow stuff.

Upon arrival at Autogermana, the barriers of my Spanglish were quickly realised and an interpreter arranged (in the form of one of their engineers) to relay what I was after. What I thought was a quote of US$450 turned out to be COP 500,000 (US$250) for a complete service including changing the driveshaft oil. The only thing missed was re-setting the service reminder on the dash, no biggy. Tyres were offered at a premium + fitting and so advrider.com (motorcycle forum) offered the solution of Moto Service on Calle 100. They had better stock of different tyres to suit my bike than any dealership in Sydney all in the space of a tiny garage. While the current tyres we had were good for a few thousand more kms, the timing and convenience offered by switching them out here outweighed their premature demise.

A crowd of people ready for a guinea pig race to start

Guinea pig racing on the street in Bogota

Ellen, Adrian and Andi in the main plaza in Bogota city

Adrian with Ellen and Andi of twomotokiwis.com in the main plaza in Bogota. This square was where recent riots took place (if you click on the photo to open a larger version and look closely, you’ll see paint marks on the building from paint balls/bombs that were thrown during the protests).

 

Brightly coloured graffiti in Bogota

Some of the pretty impressive graffiti in Bogota old town

 

Patience is a virtue…

30 September – Day 70

Panama City, Panama to Bogota, Colombia
Distance 771kms (by air!!!)

It was kind of nice using a different mode of transport for a change… especially one that covers a few hundred kilometres in the space of less than two hours, and one where I can sleep while in transit!!

So yes, the flight was good. The subsequent six hour wait in the cargo terminal of Bogota airport, inhaling truck fumes and cigarette smoke, while Adrian was off doing bike-related import paperwork was not!! Seriously… six hours… sitting outside the shipping company’s office, next to their loading dock. Not the ideal way to spend one’s first day in Colombia, that’s for sure.

The good news was that the bike got through totally unscathed and – other than lengthy delays in various bureaucratic offices* – there were no issues with the importation. We’d heard stories of people having to wait up to a week for their bikes to arrive, so the fact ours made it in a couple of days was positive too.

It was getting close to sunset by the time we had got the bike out and repacked it, and the peak hour traffic and dim light, combined with a street naming and numbering system that is hard to understand at first, meant that we struggled to find our hotel… a couple of times, Adrian parked and walked around looking for it while I watched the bike. Eventually we found it and pretty much crashed for the night.

 

* Two examples of bureaucratic delays we have experienced first hand:

  • The ‘right’ person has gone to lunch/is not currently available = wait for up to two hours for them to return (and spend maybe 60 seconds stamping our papers twice)… note we have experienced this on multiple occasions
  • Wait right at the counter while the immigration officer rips individual pages from his pad of immigration forms (like one of those notepads with glue along the top edge) until he has completed the whole notepad of forms so that they are now all loose-leaf. For no apparent reason!