The bustling historic city centre of Bogota
Checking the bike over at the GIRAG warehouse. Everything is intact with no damage.
Just ride away they said after we cleared Customs.
Wonderful Colombian people that we will always remember.
The amazing salt cathedral. The cross is created by light passages and is an optical illusion.
These horses, unique to Colombia, have a unique trotting gait that we were lucky to see as we rode past a local festival.
Inside the village of Guatavita
Wonderful to be able to play a musical instrument. These youngsters entertained everyone at the hostel as they jammed and rapped the night away.
Not a particularly good shot through the bus window, but this is some locals living on the Caribbean coast line.
View from the window of our apartment in Cartagena.
And down one of the streets.
Cartagena is famous for their emeralds and there are many workshops mounting the gems.
Cartagena's colourful streets.
Roadside markets sell a huge range of flowers an export industry in Columbia.
An hour and a half flight time later and we landed in Bogota (1– map) somewhat unsure of what awaits us. There is so much publicity about the war between the drug lords and the government, kidnappings and no go roads etc. but reading other travelers stories has convinced us to visit this country to see for ourselves.
Immediately on landing our first impressions are that Colombia seems to be very organised with a modern arrival hall and our baggage also arrived promptly. We breezed through customs and immigration and were ushered to a small office that issues taxi tickets. To stop visitors being ripped off, a central body issues the tickets with the cost printed on them and that is all you pay for the taxi ride. The 30 min. ride to the Platypus Hostel in the centre of town cost us about $6.00
We had pre-booked our room at the Platypus and were glad we had as this popular stopover for travelers was fully booked, but I had a bad nights sleep as the stiff neck I developed since leaving Costa Rica was really giving me curry.
Next morning we met Herman the proprietor of the Platypus and what an organised helpful person. Nothing was too much trouble and we managed to get through some of our chores quickly. First up we called GIRAG and they confirmed the bike was in the warehouse in Bogota so that was a huge relief.
Bogota is over 2500m above sea level and Dianne and I were both suffering from the effects of the altitude so we elected to take it easy and pick the bike up tomorrow. Still plenty to do though what with posting the web site and going for a walk downtown.
Bogota is a bustling city of over 5 million people with an impressive historic centre. We visited the Plaza Bolivar in the heart of the city encompassing the city hall and cathedral and parliament buildings. Narrow streets with colourful buildings make this a photographers delight and we clicked away merrily.
The main streets are colourful with market stalls and busker's yelling out, but sadly there are also many pitiful beggars that jade the experience a little. We were hustled to buy some emeralds but at $130.00 declined. After being pestered for a while we eventually offered $30.00 for 3 gems and he 'reluctantly' accepted.
That evening we enjoyed the company of the young travelers at the Platypus Hotel, playing guitar, singing and rapping the night away. Interestingly, Colombia is not on the regular tourist map probably because of the internal strife, so those who choose to visit do so for a variety of reasons and it was an interesting evening discussing with these young people from all around the world just why they chose to travel to Colombia.
Caught a cab back to the airport and the GIRAG offices and cleared customs within an hour and a half. Even though GIRAG are the preferred shippers for most overland motorcyclists, they are not really equipped to get a Harley from the warehouse level to the road, nearly 2 metres difference, but with a bit of improvisation we eased El Toro to the road and made our way through the chaotic traffic, mostly old taxis, lots of them Renault 12s.
On the way back to the hostel we found some of the special oil that El Toro likes so he had a quick oil change in preparation for the next leg of our journey.
That evening we met a group of bikers that we had contacted through the Horizonsunlimited.com community. They made us feel very welcome and were so distressed by my stiff neck which was getting worse, that one of them not only contacted his doctor, but arranged for him to come and see me at the café. After a short examination, he gave me a muscle relaxing jab in the bum right there in the café and wrote a prescription for some muscle relaxing tablets. Amazing.
One of the big things to see around Bogota is the Salt Cathedral at Zipaquira which is about an hour and a half north/west of town. The traffic here is hectic so we took Herman's advice and took the bus, for around $4.00 each.
In an attempt to curb the traffic problems of this congested city, locals can only take their car into town on certain days, determined by the digits on their number plate. This is a similar system to that in Mexico City.
In a further attempt to beat the traffic woes, Bogota has recently implemented a central bus system and it must be the envy of every other major city. Flexibuses run through the centre of the main streets on their own roadway devoid of other traffic. They are quick, clean and cheap and very well organised. If Dianne and I looked a little disorientated, a local would ask if we needed help. I cannot stress how friendly the Colombian people are and how pleased they seem to be that we have visited their country.
The city bus system takes you only so far and the rest of the trip to Zipaquira is via local mini bus. This was an experience as these buses will stop at any time to pick someone up or drop them off and they weave through the traffic as if they are blessed, which I'm sure they think they are. No mere mortal would surely overtake trucks on blind corners or over blind hills like these drivers do, and we saw no evidence of accidents. More importantly, It gave me an insight to the Psyche of these drivers and what to watch out for.
The Salt Cathedral was impressive, a massive structure cut into the original salt mine 180m under ground but the tour was in Spanish and we're not Catholic so I'm sure a lot was missed. Nevertheless it was certainly worth a visit, a special place not just another cathedral.
Saturday and we've been invited for a ride with horizonsunlimited.com members Marcela and José to Guatavita where the legend of Elderado originated. Beautiful scenery and winding roads with fun people made for an enjoyable day. When you get the opportunity to travel with local riders you get the chance to see the best of what their local area has to offer and Marcela and José certainly impressed us with their route. They also helped to explain a strange phenomenon we'd noticed since our arrival in Colombia, ie. all motorcyclists have their bikes number plate number displayed on the back of their jackets and their helmet. It seems that in the 90's, the drug lords were so pissed off with the police they were offering $3000.00 to anyone who killed a policeman. Assassins chose motorcycles because of the ease to get away and in an attempt to catch these assassins, a law was introduced making it compulsory to display your bikes number on your back and helmet. It was also illegal to have a pillion back then but that law has been relaxed. This really is a country with a turbulent history.
After a full and enjoyable day we spent the night back at the Platypus marveling at the musical talent of some of the traveling youngsters staying there. They really are a good bunch of people, informed yet inquisitive, wise for their years yet eager to learn and open in their judgment till they have witnessed for themselves. They were also generous with their cheap rum.
We had met a Canadian couple in Tikal, Guatemala who extolled the virtues and beauty of Cartagena and strongly suggested we visit. Since then we've met several other travelers who claim Cartagena is the best place in Latin America to see Spanish Colonial buildings and not to be missed. Cartagena is about 800km north of Bogota though and Dianne and I thought we'd have to leave it till 'next time', but Marcela has an apartment there and she offered it to us if we went there.
We did the calcs, and decided the best way to make a flying visit to Cartagena (2 – map) in the north was by bus. The fare for the two of us on the scheduled 16 hour trip was just about what El Toro would use in fuel and we could sleep on the bus saving accommodation costs and time. Besides it would be fun to take a trip on one of these luxury coaches.
So we packed up and braved the streets of Bogota for some final photos before dropping our stuff and the bike off at Marcela's flat and catching the bus for Cartagena. It would be a long trip, 16 hours, but we'd hate to miss out on this special place.
We've been so impressed with the hospitality of the Colombian people now on several occasions and have heard that sometimes, particularly if you travel certain routes at night, the 'locals' will pull you over and invite you to spend some time with them! Usually you find there are other travellers there and your hosts will even write a note to your relatives explaining that you have been delayed. Amazingly hospitable people, particularly towards travelers. Well our bus route is in a 'sensitive area' but things have been quiet so, what the heck, lets do it.
20 hours later we arrive in Cartagena absolutely buggered. The roads have been washed away in many places and there are huge potholes on long stretches of the route that have slowed our progress. To make things worse, the air conditioning on the bus that froze us during the night has packed up and we're now sweltering with a bus load of Colombians and because we're running behind schedule we haven't had a single 'comfort' stop the whole trip.
Regretting our decision and missing our independence without the bike, we caught a taxi to Marcela's apartment. The ride in through the 'business' sector was a little depressing but when we reached the historical part of town it all seemed worthwhile.
Marcela had arranged for her caretaker to take care of us and after a large cup of Colombian coffee and a short rest we were ready to explore this historic city.
From the World Book Encyclopedia.
The old section of Cartagena has many historic buildings
and narrow, picturesque streets. Near the centre of the old city stand
the cathedral (1575-1612), the Church of San Pedro Claver (1603), and
the Palace of the Inquisition (completed in the 1770's). People can still
explore many of Cartagena's early fortifications. These defences include
thick walls built to protect the colonial city and fortresses, such as
the Castle of San Felipe Barojas. The castle was originally completed
in 1657 and enlarged in the 1700's.
With our guide Omar, we walked the narrow streets of Cartagena soaking in the history of this magnificent city and thankful that we had made the decision to come here even though it now puts us at least 3 weeks behind schedule and we probably won't make Ushuaia for new years eve.
Heavy rain overnight but we still have a morning to enjoy Cartagena before the return bus trip at 4.00pm and again we made the most of our time there, walking the streets and taking many photographs of the ancient colonial buildings with their bright colours.
A little apprehensive to catch the bus back, but this one was even more comfortable than the first and the drivers stopped for a comfort break 4 hours into our journey.
Another comfort stop at 8.00am and with stunning scenery the final haul to Bogota went quickly. A bit of a scare when the army stopped the bus and came in to take ID from the passengers, but It was just a routine check and we showed them our passports and they smiled nicely and returned them. All the other passengers identification was taken off the bus and only returned after each had been checked by phone call to HQ.
The last 4 hours spent climbing from near sea level to nearly 3000m. Sitting on the front seat we could watch the road, not a good idea to watch the bus work it its way through the traffic. Dianne and I were, and still are, amazed at the 'courage' of the bus driver as he overtook semi-trailers on steep climbs and around blind corners. What an experience to marvel how we didn't have a head on with an oncoming semi, yet this is 'normal' practice here and double yellow lines certainly don't mean 'don't cross'. On several occasions we were three abreast on a two lane road, but nobody panics or gets stressed, the other drivers just move over and somehow we all get through.
Heavy traffic between Bogota and Ambrosia.
All along the way there are small stalls selling local produce in this fertile valley.
Anyone for pork? The things you see at the roadside stalls.
Not all the trucks make it to their destinations.
Heavy rain caused several landslides and slowed our progress and make the riding interesting.
Coffee plantations on the hills around Montenegro.
Location location location. What would this land be worth with these views.
Young kids risking life and limb as they hitch a ride up one of the steep grades.
Street vendors ply for business and offer a variety of produce.
Interesting villages along the way.
Stunning views into the valley below.
Roadside stalls with a difference and what a view.
Yes, that's our road down there.
Simple dwellings of the people in a politically unstable area.
Arrived Bogota 12.00pm 20 hours later and caught a taxi back to Marcela's flat. Tomorrow will be a big day so we decided to pack up now and get out of the city. Found a small roadside hotel 2 hours later for $6.00 a night and enjoyed a slap up meal with soup each and a shared main with a couple of beers and 4 bottles of water for only $7.00
The small roadside hotel was actually a truck stop and when I looked outside at 10.00pm the huge parking lot was choker block with semi trailers. Could be an indication of what to expect on the roads tomorrow.
We anticipated a long ride today down one branch of the Andes to almost sea level then up again to nearly 3000m again. The road would be twisty and with all those trucks it was going to be challenging. Would be good to get away early and beat the rush, but from about 4.30am, we could hear those big diesels starting up and by 6.30am the parking lot was almost empty. We got away by 7.00am and the traffic wasn't too bad. Half and hour later though and we saw our first of 3 truck rollovers.
The truck drivers here are the craziest we've seen and regularly attempt, and usually succeed, passing other semi trailers around blind corners either up or down hills and they seem to get away with it. The double yellow lines in the centre of the road do not determine which side of the road you should drive on and are totally and absolutely ignored by all road users. Somehow, and there must be magic involved, 3 trucks are regularly able to squeeze by on these narrow roads. As motorcyclists, we are totally disregarded by oncoming traffic and it's a bit unnerving to be riding along in what you think is your lane and then see a big semi suddenly veer into 'your' lane as it attempts to pass a slower vehicle. The other amazing thing is that nobody gets agro. There is no shouting, fist waving or blowing of horns just friendly little beep beeps as drivers warn each other "I'm coming through, so please let me in senores"
To survive in this mayhem dog eat dog environment you have to behave as the masses do or risk being driven over so before too long we were passing trucks with the best of them. With Dianne fulfilling her role as co-rider and looking ahead through the switchbacks we could minimise the risk although El Toro was seriously down on power at these altitudes. At times the grades were so steep the trucks could only maintain a walking pace which was too slow for for us and meant we had to slip the clutch too much just to maintain momentum. In these situations we just closed our eyes, well I did anyway, and powered past. if you're reading this then you know we survived, as it happens without even what we would call a close shave. We now know why Colombians make such good racing drivers, they get to practice racing type overtaking manoeuvres every day.
However, all was not bad. Today we rode through amazing mountain scenery. The Andes are quite unique and the views either from the valley floor looking up or from the peaks looking down are absolutely amazing and well worth the 'battle of the trucks'. Along the way small villages add character to this unique experience as do unusual things like the numerous truck washes along the way. When I say truck wash, I mean a couple of local kids with a hose who wash the truck by hand. There are dozens of them along the way. Also the local kids who stand at the apex to the switch backs and wave their arms to indicate whether it is safe or not to overtake. They expect and get coins thrown their way but we were reluctant to risk all on their judgment. Also, what if one of them just wanted a little excitement!!!
Into the undulating southern hills covered with coffee bushes, past Ambrosia (3 – map) to Montenegro and the National Coffee Park. We paid the usual higher price of being in a tourist area staying in a local hotel, La Gaviota, but the owner did take us to a restaurant just down the road where we enjoyed the best steaks with salad we've had for a long time for just $4.00 each. Colombia is both cheap and the people hospitable, what more could you ask for.
After a good breakfast we're off again heading south for Papayan about 6 hours away. The roads are good and the traffic light with hardly any trucks. We have heard, and perhaps it's true that trucks are banned from the main roads over public holidays. What a difference from yesterday. It seems that most of the highways in Colombia are controlled by tolls, but joy of joys, motorcycles get to go through a special passage free of charge - just as it should be.
We get to enjoy the good roads without the charge.
The road today takes us down through the hills into the valley between the two mountain ranges and we enjoy the vistas of the wonderful Andes mountains both to the left and right as we head for Cali, a modern city with a population of about 1 million. It seems the further south we go the friendlier the people become and in Cali at almost every traffic light we stop at, a local in the vehicle alongside will ask where we are from. They are genuinely curios and interested in foreign travelers. and nod approvingly when we say we are from Australia.
A feature of road travel in Colombia are the numerous police and army checkpoints where vehicles are randomly pulled over and documents and cargo checked. We've seen this throughout Central America but here there seem to be checkpoints every 20km or so. We haven't been pulled over yet and just offer a friendly wave at the troops, who usually wave back. We know these troops are there for our protection against the bad guys and we're happy to see them.
Just an excellent days riding today with beaut. roads and exceptional scenery. A short thunderstorm as we entered Papayan and the usual anxiety to find a suitable hotel. We asked some locals at a traffic light and, in true Colombian fashion, they said follow me, or words to that effect, and led us to a comfortable and clean $12.00 a night hotel.
A walk into the town centre, then a couple of beers and a light meal before retreating to our room and planning for tomorrow. The trip from Papayan (4 – map) to Pasto (5 – map) in the far south is probably the most dangerous stretch of road we have traveled yet. We know this but every time we ask locals about the current situation they just roll their eyes and say, in their best Spanish, ''it should be Ok, but leave early and go fast and good luck". Yes, a tricky stretch of road and we are a bit apprehensive, if there is a demand for money for our release we hope you will oblige.
Up early this Sunday morning and we hope the bad guys are sleeping in. Light drizzle and a bumpy rough road slow our progress but the scenery is exceptional. More trucks on the road than yesterday, but that makes us feel more secure and I know Dianne is as anxious as I am but neither of us wants to talk about it. Instead we focus on the towering mountains and enjoy watching the morning sun burn through the haze that intensify the colours.
It's a 250km trip from Papayan to Pasto but on these winding roads it will take us 5 hours and we've been warned not to stop so it's going to be a long haul. The army checkpoints that have been so frequent previously are now sparse and probably only every 80km. We wonder why? Along this stretch of road though, we see more small villages and isolated communities than we've seen before and the locals are out and about making us feel more at ease.
To cut a long story short, we arrived at Pasto intact and relieved after riding what we both regard as one of the most spectacular roads we've ever ridden on - and that says a lot. If it were not for the grille issue, we would have been tempted to ride back and do it all again it was that good. Heck, here we were riding in the Andes, what a buzz, but, we do realise that we were perhaps fortunate. Apparently almost 3000 people a year are kidnapped in Colombia and we did see some guerrillas in a small village. We were riding quickly though and caught them by surprise and were through the village before they could say 'what the' or the Spanish equivalent.
Arriving in Pasto we fuelled up the bike and ourselves. A large restaurant across the road from the service station was packed with locals so what better place to sample the local food. The soup of the day $3.00 looked huge so Dianne and I shared one and it was more than enough. Check out her food page later to learn more. El Toro parked outside was well guarded by the 'vigilante' security who kept the ogling youngsters at bay.
Pasto is a fairly large city and although it was early afternoon we decided if we saw a hotel/hostel we would stop there for the night. I guess both the exhilaration and the anxiety of the day was taking it's toll, but as we rode through the city we didn't see any hotels so we continued south to the border town of Ipiales. There we found a comfortable hotel and crashed for the night.
A late getaway today as we just didn't feel like rushing. The border was less than a kilometre from the hotel and we could have just ridden through the Colombian and the Ecuador borders with no questions asked. However we now know that there are certain formalities that need to take place so we stopped to hand in the temporary import permit for the bike and get our passports stamped at Colombian immigration. All told about 10 minutes and no charges. We've had a wonderful time in Colombia and we're sad to be leaving. This country is certainly different to what we had expected and we urge other travelers. to consider visiting.
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