Another Good Day in Colombia


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I’d enjoyed Colombia so far but the best was left for last. Setting out from Popayan on route 25, I was really in for a change of scenery and altitude. The first thirty miles brought me higher into the hills and probably the worst roads I’d come across in this country so far. The congested, narrow road corkscrewed higher and higher up into the mountains and back into the clouds. I’d seen all this before, but what was new was that every few miles there were road works, complete with uneven, ripped up pavement and stop signs.

My heart dropped when I saw the first construction delay, but then I realized this was a godsend. There was a lot of slow traffic since Popayan, which I’d been struggling to overtake because of the narrow and twisty roads. It was going to be a long, slow day until I realized I could just overtake the slowpokes when they were stopped for construction. Then, once I’d jumped the queue and the lights went green, I was first out of the starting gate , bouncing over the ground up tarmac and dirt. Add to that the bike was faster than any other vehicle over the rough sections under constructions and I was off to the races! In this manner I leapfrogged almost all the congestion along this hilly, twisty part of the country. This is exactly why you want a motorbike if you are travelling in this part of the world.

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Eventually I came down in to a valley and the road straightened out and temperatures picked up. Traffic faded away and, I was on “easy street” again and made good time along a lovely tree-lined roads

This part of Colombia was a lot less developed than the central highlands and all manner of weird and wonderful vehicles plied that highways and byways here.

Bus in Narino Province, Colombia

Colorful Public Transport

Jeep in Narino Province, Colombia

Hauling Supplies Back From Town

I was still on route 25, the “main” road, and principal artery to the Ecuadorian frontier. In fact I hadn’t really deviated from the main road since Cartagena way up in the north, so on a whim I branched off and aimed for the village of La Union, an hour or so off the principal highway.

I was glad I did. The road was even narrower and much more potholed, but there was little traffic, great views and a couple of nice small towns along the way. Here’s a rare onboard video treat of my ride through the country town of Mercaderes (Apologies for all the wind noise – you might need to turn down the volume..)

It didn’t look far on the map but I had to negotiate numerous deep ravines, and very steep hills along the way and arrived at La Union two hours later than I estimated. The challenging terrain was fun without having to contend with traffic, and I rolled into town after a very enjoyable ride.

I didn’t see any hotels so stopped at a motorbike shop to ask if they knew of any nearby. Not only did they know but they insisted on leading me there. Then before I left they gave me a gift of a T-shirt and fresh pastries! I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before but travellers here are very, very well received. I was feeling bad about all the help they were giving be so before they took me to the hotel I asked to buy a bolt that had come loose and fallen off the windscreen earlier that day (no doubt from scrambling over those road works). Well, if I was thinking that would return their generosity, I was wrong. They found the correct bolt, fitted it and got offended when I asked how much. Oh well, I tried!

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Gifts for the Traveller

While all this was going on, the boss of the shop was on the phone telling the family to get down there NOW. It was family photo time!

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Sit Still and Look at the Camera!

So if you ever find yourself in the village of La Union, province of Nariño, Colombia, be sure to stop by at “Motos RPM”. They are on the main and only street and they will be delighted to see you. Good luck trying to pay for anything though.

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La Union Street

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Dinner Time

There wasn’t much in the way of restaurants in town, so I ate at the food stands that circled the main square. The food was cheap so I bought a small plate at each stand before moving on to the next one and sampling whatever they had to offer. This being Colombia, and me being a distinguished carnivore, let me tell you I ate well that evening. All washed down with the finest beer. Plus, since I was going from stand to stand, I exercised as I dined! Think of it as an all you can eat buffet, except with more walking.

Sated and bloated, I stumbled back to my hotel. It was a strange setup there. You entered from the street via a narrow archway which led to a passageway, which in turn opened out on to a roofed-over patio/parking lot complete with living room furniture and sunshade umbrellas. It was cheap and it worked for me though.

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Off-street Parking

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Colombia – The Cauca Valley & Andean Foothills


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As I made my way further south in the Central Highlands the roads became better, traffic lessened, and army checkpoints less frequent. The road wound its way along the mountains through small villages and towns. I was aiming to get through the remainder of central Colombia, reach Popayan and from there push towards Ecuador.

So I didn’t dawdle much on this section. I was already behind on my schedule, in as much as I had a schedule at all. I avoided most of the big towns in the area as I made my way across the hills.

It was less forested here and both the scenery and climate reminded me of my native Ireland.

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Colombia near Rio Sucio

Lunch stop in The Hills

Towards the end of the day I made it down to the sweltering plains of the Cauca Valley, which I had been following on and off since before Medellin. Here, for the first time in Colombia, the roads opened up to wide, four lane highways, and I saw police radar traps for the first time since the US. Not that I was breaking any land speed records, but I needed to keep an eye on my speed for once!

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Great Roads, Little Traffic

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Onboard Shot

The heat really picked up as I descended further into the Cauca valley. The pleasant temperatures of the mountains were left behind as I moved into the sweltering lowlands. A few hours after passing by the coffee farms up in the hills, I was riding through the sugarcane plantations of the valleys. I didn’t know this so much from observing the landscape, rather it was the numerous road trains carrying the sugar beet that tipped me off. From behind they gave same profile as a truck, until I overtook and saw that the “truck
” was made up of multiple trailers!

Colombia Route 25 Sugar Beet Road Train

Road Train

Full Service, Fully Armed Gas Station

All in all, it was a fairly uneventful ride. In fact I’m struggling to write anything interesting about this stage of my Colombian interlude. It was pleasant, but slightly boring riding.

That was until I got to Villa Rica. I arrived at the outskirts of the town right around lunchtime and debated whether I would I go into the town center for lunch or just eat at one of the roadside places. I chose the latter as I wanted to get to the city of Popayan before nightfall.

When I went into the restaurant I knew something wasn’t right. Normally roadside eateries in Colombia are boisterous places, with music blasting through the speakers at concert level volume and the clientele screaming over the din. Here everyone was subdued and glued to the the television.

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A bomb had exploded outside the police station in the town center, just two miles away and twenty minutes before, killing six people. I don’t know what to say about this tragedy. I’m glad I didn’t decide to go into the town centre. I felt awkward being a tourist while so much suffering was happening a couple of miles away, but what could I do? I was here now and might as well carry on.

It was a subdued and somber lunch, after which I got back on the road. Almost straight away there was an army checkpoint that had been hastily set-up after the Farc terrorist attack. In the light of what had just happened, there was none of the friendliness and good humor I’d previously experienced at Colombian checkpoints. They went through all my luggage with a fine tooth-comb, checked all my documents and then told to me to park the bike, hand over the keys and answer “a few questions” while they called in my details into immigration.  They quizzed me on where I was going, where I was coming from, and what was I doing here in the first place. It was understandable under  the circumstances, I suppose that they would interrogate me. Fortunately for me I was able to point them to this very blog to back up my story and the questioning became less intense after that.

Fifteen minutes later a commandant handed me back my keys and documents. He said I was free to carry on. He told me there were going to be several checkpoints down the road, but he had radioed my details ahead so I wouldn’t be delayed too much. As long as I showed my passport there would be no more inspections. He also warned me that under any circumstances not to stray off the main road as the area was “hot” right now and they couldn’t guarantee my safety if I detoured on the back roads.

On paper this was a very tense situation to be travelling through, but for some reason I wasn’t too worried. Sure, I didn’t stop to smell the flowers after that and was nervous about the checkpoints up ahead, but I also figured that the remaining miles to Popayan would be highly secure with all the checkpoints. I just had to worry about the traffic more than anything else. The road went back up into the mountains and rainclouds loomed.

Colombia - Approaching Popayan From The North

Storm Clouds Looming

True to the commandant’s word, I was basically waved through the next few checkpoints, in spite of the heightened security, and arrived at Popayan, my overnight stop.

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Popayan Skyline

Popayan is known as “the white city” for its whitewashed colonial center. There were a lot of hotels and coffee shops, but bizarrely there were almost no places to eat in the city center. Being a university town, there were more photocopy shops than you could shake a stick at, but good luck trying to find a nice (or any) restaurant! None the less, it was a relaxing place and I enjoyed walking around the city center taking in the sights.

Popayan Center

Popayan Center

Popayan Center

Popayan Center

Popayan Center

Popayan Center

Up to now in this country the people were either of European or Afro-Caribbean origin. I was now getting into the foothills of the Andes, as evidenced by the climate, and people’s dress and appearance.

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 Next up was the final leg before Ecuador, and maybe the best of my time in  Colombia.

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Central Colombia


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With batteries literally and metaphorically recharged, I packed up the bike and got on the road south from Medellin. Just like when I arrived into Medellin, the super-highway quickly whittled down to a twisty, narrow two lane road winding up out of the valley and back into the central highlands.

After a week of indolence in the city it was great to be back on the bike, breathing in the country air and taking in the sights and sounds. As I’d come to expect, it was slow going with all the truck traffic, but the scenery was as spectacular as ever. The road snaked along the mountain range just below cloud level. This made for very comfortable temperatures with occasional rain showers that were light and brief enough to be refreshing after the heat in the valleys. In short this was perfect terrain and climate for biking.

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Central Highlands

And just to keep me on my toes, there was the odd accident.  Mid afternoon a jeep screeched past me and less than a mile later I rounded a bend to see this:

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Taking a spill

The driver was standing by the wreck, looking dazed and confused. He kept repeating “I don’t know what happened!”. I could take a wild guess though: it looked like he took the curve too tightly, which put the inside wheel in the steep culvert (done right, this is known as “ditchhooking” in rallying circles) and caused the jeep to flip over. No serious injuries though, just some scrapes, bruises and a wounded ego. They carted him off in an ambulance, just to be on the safe side.

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No Es Bueno

This was a big coffee growing region, with small farmsteads and villages perched on the hillsides.

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There Were So Many Stunning Views Like This One

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Random Mountain Village

There was some small time gold prospecting going on too. At a Café stop down in a valley, I noticed the guy at the table next to me had set up scales and was conducting a brisk trade with machete wielding types who streamed in and out, carefully opening small packages at the table.

Curiosity got the better of me so I spoke to one of the prospectors. He told me that Si, there’s gold in them thar montañas, but business was bad right now as it wasn’t the rainy season so the rivers and streams were low, hence less silt was stirred up making it tougher to get the gold.

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Weighing The Haul

Most of the prospecting here was small time operations of one or two guys with pans. No pumps or dredging here. He said that the day’s haul was worth about $80. Considering that the minimum wage in Colombia is about $800 a month this is a very respectable sum. In season, and on a good day a prospector can pan up to $200 a day which is a small fortune here. Some days they found very little, but still it’s a not a bad way to earn some scratch. Of course, given the instability of the region, this profession is not without its dangers.

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The Precious Gold Dust. Don’t Anybody Dare Sneeze!

All this talk was giving me gold fever. Maybe I should have stopped a few days to try my hand at panning, but from my conversation with the gruff prospectors I got the impression that random tourists weren’t welcome up in the hills.  I was better off continuing south towards the Ecuador border. Who knows what other treasure I’ll come across along the way.

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The Village Of La Pintada

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Tired But Happy After A Long Day On The Road

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Medellin


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Entering Medellin was something I wont forget in a hurry. About twenty minutes out the narrow, winding road I’d been on morphed into a gigantic six lane motorway that was all but deserted.

I was a bit worried about navigating in the city but it turned out relatively easy to manage. The city is in a narrow valley with the motorway cutting a swathe through it so all I needed to do was stay on the motorway until my exit, and from there it was just a few minutes to El Poblado, the area I was staying in.

Traffic got very hectic off the motorway and the drivers here liked to pull straight onto the road rather than waiting for a gap in traffic. I quickly learned that my best defense was the air-horn. It’s an aftermarket item that has three times the decibels of the standard horn and made my life much easier in the frantic traffic here. Rather than swerve or brake for merging cars I would just give them a blast on the horn and it would scare the bejesus out of them and they immediately jumped on the brakes. It definitely got me noticed, and in my mind the air horn was the single best safety feature on the bike, better than brakes even.

As bad as driving here was, I soon realized that being a pedestrian here was even more fraught with hazard than being a motorcyclist. After arriving at the hotel I figured I would park the bike for the rest of my stay here. A morning on foot trying to dodge maniac drivers cured me of that idea and from then on I was back on the bike to get around.

The main reason for staying in Medellin was to get the bike serviced. Colombia has a huge bike culture and service and parts availability were better and cheaper than at home. While I got some urgent work done in Costa Rica, I had the oil, tyres and brakes changed here at a fraction of the price and time it would have taken in the US.

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Outside The Bike Workshop

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The Policia Have A Few Mechanical Problems!

The rest of the time was spent mostly socializing. Most of the bikers from the boat were here too, so much beers were had and tall tales shared. I also caught up with Mark, who I first met in Costa Rica. He was waiting on parts for his BMW after taking a spill up in the mountains.

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Mark, Me, James, Sherri

The hub of all this activity was Shamrock Irish Bar and Grill (Scottish/Dutch managed), in the leafy district of El Poblado. They rent rooms to travellers but were booked out so I settled into a hotel around the corner and joined the nightly congregation there

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Subtle Advertising..

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El Poblado Greenery

One of our group from the boat, Annie from Scotland, got into an accident on  her Harley while en-route to Medellin. She was run over by a bus and broke her arm and leg, and had to be transferred to Medellin for an operation. We visited her the evening before the operation. Albert, the owner of The Shamrock came along and smuggled in a bottle of wine for a pre-operation toast!

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Some Medicine The Night Before The Operation!

Despite (or maybe because of) the wine, Annie’s operation went well and a couple of days later checked out of hospital and settled in for rest and recovery at the Shamrock. More of the “boat people” came by to wish her a speedy recovery.

Medellin might have had a violent reputation in the past, but not anymore. It was very safe and orderly (apart from the traffic!). I didn’t do much sightseeing though . I was happy to hang around in the El Poblado district. It was clean safe and packed with restaurants and bars. Most establishments had Wi-Fi and I frequented so many of them that it got to the point I could walk down the street and have almost continuous Wi-Fi coverage as I passed by the bars and restaurants I had previously visited. I took that as a sure sign I was getting too comfortable in the city and it was time to move on again.

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Would Be Nice To Live Here

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Quiet Streets

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Whenever I Saw A Fruit Cart, It Was Snacktime!

Fresh Tyres, Fresh Oil, Fresh Brakes, Freshly Washed, And The Bike Is Ready For The Next Leg

By now you might have noticed a pattern: Once I get settled in, I’m having a tough time dragging myself away from large cities. Medellin was no different and once I got pulled into its orbit it took significant effort to get away. Eventually, after five days I managed to get going.

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Northern Colombia– The Road To Medellin


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I finally dragged myself away from the good life in  Cartagena and hit the road to Medellin. Most of the other bikers had left a day or two before me but we agreed to meet up in Medellin. I enjoyed hanging out with the other motorbike travelers in Panama and Cartagena, but prefer to ride by myself. That way, I can start when I want, stop when I want and generally do my own thing. It also makes it easier for me to talk with the locals when I am on my own. But as a group we had bonded on the sea crossing so I was looking forward to meeting up with everyone in Medellin a few days later.

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Packing Up And Heading Out

Setting out from Cartagena I made my way across the scorching coastal plains and towards the central highlands. It was so hot I couldn’t stop for too long because I thought I would melt!

Not an hour out of the city I was cruising down the road when a policeman stepped on to the road and gestured for me to pull over. This was my first traffic police interaction in Colombia and I didn’t know what to expect. I had no idea why he was pulling me over, and as I came to a stop I ran some scenarios through my mind:

  • Routine document check?
  • Was I speeding?
  • Gringo shakedown?

No, it was none of these things! I needn’t have worried. There were four policepersons, one of them a policewoman. One policeman grabs the handlebars and says:

“My lady colleague would like to sit on your bike”

“But of course, glad to be of service!” I replied as I jumped off the bike with a quickness (they were armed).

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Bike Inspection

 So they had just stopped me out of curiosity and never asked me once for any form of documentation. The police lady really liked the bike, asking how fast it went, how much it cost, etc. This led on to questions about my trip and she said she was jealous. I jokingly replied jump on the back, I’ll take you with me , I could do with some armed protection! They all burst out laughing at this. Then she said she’d love to, but doesn’t have a passport. More laughs all around.

I though to myself I’m going to really like Colombia if the police are this much fun!

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Colombia: The Long And Lovely Arm Of The Law

On I went after this fun encounter and further away from the coast. One thing became apparent was that the traffic volume on this two lane road was very heavy. I came up behind numerous heavily laden trucks, much more so than in anywhere else on the trip to date.

They say that England is a nation of shopkeepers. I don’t really know if that’s true or not, but I’m here to tell you from personal experience that Colombia is a nation of truck drivers. There were so many trucks on the road it was hard to fathom. Then I realized that this narrow two lane road is the main artery from the Caribbean ports to the central highland cities , the main centers of population in Colombia.

The trucks were everywhere. In the course of the two days it took me to get to Medellin, I think I overtook more times than in my entire motorcycling career up to the that point. No sooner than I overtook one truck, another one would appear ahead of me around the next bend. And remember, this is a twisty road so they were barely exceeding twenty five MPH. They were so plodding, so lumbering, so arse-breakingly slow! And so many of them. It never ended!

At first I hung behind the trucks waiting until I had a good quarter mile strait before overtaking. But all this meant was that I was stewing in a cloud of diesel smoke most of the time. I then got more aggressive and followed the locals’ lead of passing when the slightest (or less) opportunity presented itself. It might not be safe, but at least I got clean air until I came up on the next crawling truck.

And this was just in the coastal plains and lowlands. I hadn’t even gotten to the serious mountains yet. And the road wasn’t going to get any better.

On a bike I had a couple of advantages apart from better acceleration. In the numerous small towns the road passed through there were at least a couple of giant speed bumps. Trucks and and indeed cars needed to brake to a stop before nudging over these. On my much lighter bike I could race up to the speed bumps brake slightly and release the brakes just before impact, stand up on the pegs and zoom over them at much higher speeds, overtaking the slowpokes. That allowed me  pass a whole bunch of heavy traffic. It wasn’t the wisest thing to do, however. I later found out that Annie, and English rider that was on the boat with me, got pinned between a truck and a bus while doing a similar maneuver.  She ended up with a broken arm and leg, and needing an operation. After hearing this I was a lot more cautious in towns.

The other gift Colombia has for motorcyclists is that the toll roads (and most main roads are toll) are free for motorcycles. Each toll booth had a special, two foot wide lane where motorbikes could zip through, while all the cars ad trucks were queued up at the barrier digging up change before paying their way past. I did the happy dance (as much as you can on a motorcycle under way) any time I saw a toll booth, because it usually meant I could get ahead of at least a dozen vehicles in one fell swoop.

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Lowland Scenery

The day wore on in this manner and it became clear I was going to get nowhere near my destination that night. At dusk I pulled into a gas station to fill up and stretch my legs. I asked them if there was a hotel or any rooms in the village. They said we have rooms right here above the gas station. The gas station didn’t look like much from the road, but sure enough there were clean rooms and a small shop and restaurant onsite. All for eight dollars a night, so I checked myself in. The night before I was sleeping at the Hilton and tonight I was sleeping at a gas station. That’s life on the road for you.

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My Gas Station Digs

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The View From My Room

I stayed at a few more of these during my time in Colombia. For motorbike travel they were the perfect facility. No need to waste time looking for a hotel in town. You could eat, sleep, gas up the bike in the one place. Most them of them had a small workshop onsite also so I would check the tyre pressure and oil the chain before leaving each morning. The only thing they didn’t have was good gas. The quality of the gas was very poor in Colombia, and the idling problem that had dogged me since Mexico can back to haunt me here.

Anyway, I got back on the road hoping to make it to Medellin that night. Given it was a Sunday I figured traffic would be lighter. Not a chance. Aside from the usual truck traffic, the road was full of people returning to Medellin from the beach. It was going to be another long, slow day.

The traffic was just something I had to deal with, but it was more than offset by the incredible kindness of the Colombian people I met along the way. During the day I stopped at shop to buy some water. Well they didn’t have any but they said relax, wait right here, we’ll be back in a minute. They came back with a liter of water for me and refused any payment! This happened to me many times throughout Colombia. People would give me small gifts like this or insist on paying for my lunch. The kindness and courtesy extended to travellers there is very humbling.

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Some Very Nice Houses To Be Seen

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Bizarre Roadside Shrine

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Trucks Everywhere

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The Cauca River

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Bridge Over The River Cauca

After lunch the serious mountains began. The road got narrower, curvier, the trucks got slower, and the overtaking maneuvers riskier. Up and up I went, into the clouds. The chill in the air told me I’d left the hot coastal plains well behind.

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I intentionally chose to travel this section on a Sunday, by reasoning being that there would be less traffic. There was only one problem with this plan: it was rubbish. It turned out that there was a lot more traffic due to everybody returning from the beaches to the cities in the central highlands. Nothing to do but carry on.

There was a strong military presence here, unlike on the coast. Every few miles I would pass by four or five soldiers posted by the side of the road. They didn’t stop any traffic, but I suppose they were there as a deterrent against the FARC terrorist group.

The winding mountain roads and heavy traffic wore me down so I decided to stay in the mountain town of Yarumal, a couple of hours north of Medellin and would ride in the next morning. There wasn’t much to the town but it had the steepest streets I’d ever seen, a lot steeper than they look in the photo below. Just going for a walk around the plaza was quite the workout for me!

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The Plaza In Yarumal

It worked out well, because the next morning there was zero traffic on the road. It was so empty I couldn’t believe I was on the same route as all the other vehicles the day before.

It’s a long way to Medellin, but I finally got there! Post on that coming up soon

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Magnificent Cartagena


There were times when I didn’t think I would make it, but I finally arrived South America.

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No sooner had we docked in Cartagena, I got off the boat as quickly as possible and checked right in to the Hilton. I’d been hoarding hotel points for ages, and after my maritime trauma now was the time to burn a a bunch of them. I spent most of the first day sleeping off the accumulated exhaustion of the voyage and on the second day went back to the boat to offload the bike and clear the paperwork at customs.

The boat was moored out in the harbour so we had to winch the bikes on to a dinghy and bring them to a jetty and offload by hand. Tough work in the sweltering Caribbean heat!

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Balancing a Six Hundred Pound Bike in a Tiny Dinghy

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The Policia Arrive For a Look-See

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All Bikes are On Dry Land!

Once the bikes were on dry land the next step was to sort out the import paperwork and get liability insurance. This took a long time, but we eventually got it sorted out.  Now that the bikes were legally in the country we could finally get them washed to remove all the salt water they had been covered in during the crossing. Some of the bikes had serious electrical problems due to salt-water penetration and required extensive repairs. I was lucky to get off with a sticking ignition barrel. I foolishly left the key in the ignition during the sea crossing. Salt water got in the barrel, making it very difficult to turn the key. It was an easy fix, though. After putting some graphite powder in the barrel the problem was sorted.

No rest for the weary! It was a convoluted two day process to get the bikes off the boat and repaired/legalized. We’re finally done with the boat! Now, lets never speak of that unpleasantness again. Its time to explore the city!

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Cartagena Old City Walls

Cartagena has it all. There is a modern section with all the comforts and convenience of an American city, and there is an old section with all the history and architecture of a European city. Combine these with great weather, afro- Caribbean culture, relatively low cost, it was a brilliant introduction to South America. The contrast between the deprivations in getting here and the luxuries to be found in this city was like day and night.

Here are a few photos and videos from my few days wandering around the city.

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I had a very relaxing time here. Life was laid back and easy. Nothing to do but relax at the beach, walk the old town and meet up with my fellow passengers from the boat for dinner and drinks.  At one point I seriously considered renting an apartment and staying here a few months, but quickly convinced myself that was the lazy option. All of South America lay ahead of me, so it was time to move on and see what I would encounter next…..

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Voyage To Colombia Part 2 – Trial By Water


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Last hours in the islands

After our idyllic island interlude, it was time to begin the open sea crossing from the islands to Cartagena. This was, at best, a portion of the voyage to be tolerated. Far away from land and known for rough seas in this time of year, no-one was really looking forward to this last thirty six hour section of the voyage.

We would leave the last island in the chain at night, spend all the next day at sea, and arrive in Cartagena early the following day. There was no partying or socializing that evening when we set sail. Everyone just looked for a comfortable place to sleep for the night. Most decided to sleep in the partially enclosed upper deck behind the wheelhouse area. I opted to sleep down in the cabin as the pitching of the boat in the rough seas was less pronounced in the lower part of the boat. Once I got over the heat and the stink down there it was almost relaxing. The engine ran at a constant RPM, which along with the pitching of the boat, lulled me into a light sleep until it was my turn to go on watch at midnight.

Going back up to the wheelhouse, every inch of available deckspace behind the wheelhouse was covered with people asleep, and with the tossing of the boat in the pitch dark, I may have stepped on a few sleepers as I made my way up to the wheel. Sorry, whoever you were!

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The wheelhouse at night

The reason I needed to go on watch was that as usual, the Captain had one of the passengers sail the boat while he went off for a sleep. The boat was woefully under-crewed, consisting of:

- Michel, the Captain. He generally did all of the sailing, except when he got tired and put the passengers in charge unsupervised (!).

- Majo, First Mate and long suffering girlfriend of the captain. She was nice enough and capably sailed the boat for brief intervals. however she was mostly concerned with the business side of running the boat, such as collecting fares, dealing with customs etc.

- Paola, the Cook. Of all the crew she was the most hard-working and served us great meals throughout the trip.

- Diego, the deckhand/general dogsbody. He was terribly seasick the entire trip but did his best.

So among the crew it seemed Michel was the only one who sailed the boat. Given that this was a five day trip there was no way he could be at the helm the entire time, hence his offer to us passengers to “learn how to sail”.
Among ourselves we decided that there should be two other passengers with Gui, the only of us who was able to control the boat. As I said the radar was never switched on so we had to keep our eyes peeled for other ships in the dark night. What we could do if we came across another ship’s path I’m not sure, since we weren’t allowed to use the radio , and and the only foghorn was one of those handheld aerosol things. I think we were there for moral support more than anything else, and to stop Gui from falling asleep at the helm since he was exhausted from sea-sickness. Several times during the trip, that was the extent of staffing of this eighty five foot boat on the open sea.
The sea was choppy that night with four to five foot waves, but everything went fine on our shift , but I was nonetheless relieved when Captain Michel returned to take the wheel and I could go back to sleep.

During this time I didn’t take many photos because of the constant pitching of the boat, but I did take some shaky video. So without further ado……

On the open seas
Quick Video From the back deck

Sea conditions were more or less the same all the next day and there was nothing to do but sit around and read or play cards and count the hours until Cartagena. Every now and then we would check on the bikes as some of the ropes and tie downs securing them to the deck came loose, causing the bikes to slide into each other (and nearby passengers).

Even though I hadn’t gotten in any way seasick, I minimized my my food intake for this last leg. I just stuck to liquids mostly,and looked forward to eating a huge meal once we got to Cartagena. By this time we had run out of snacks and soda. Normally I don’t think about sweet food so much, but being at sea and having no access to any was giving me a huge craving. Its not like we could stop at the next shop and buy some chocolate and a coke, so the thought of it took up all my waking hours. Eventually one of the Aussie backpackers gave me a fresh bottle of ginger ale since he was to seasick to drink it. I drank it like a man dying of thirst! Seriously, I’ve never tasted anything as good in my life. Of course, when we got to dry land where all sorts of junk food was available, that craving disappeared completely.

I was tired of the claustrophobic conditions on the boat and impatient to get to land so decided I would sleep most of the way there. I went back down to the cabin mid afternoon and slept until midnight when it was my turn to go back up on watch again.

I went back up to the wheelhouse at midnight but instead of Gui at the wheel it was Michel. He said there was a storm and he would sail the boat, there was no need for me to be there and that he had it under control. I didn’t think things were that much rougher than before, but it was fine by me if I didn’t need to be on watch. I went back down to the cabin and fell asleep, fully sure I would wake up in Cartagena.

Later that night I was half asleep, you know the sort of sleep where your mind registers things as a dream but are in fact real things occurring while you are snoozing. I remember hearing screams and plates crashing and then turning around in the bed to try to go back to sleep. However the list of the boat was not “natural” and my head was pushed against the headboard, my feet in the air. Slowly waking up I realized that all of the usual noises of the boat were not present. The drone of the engine was absent, and the normal creaking I’d become accustomed to had been replaced by a thumping noise on he roof of my cabin, which was directly beneath the main sail deck. I don’t know why long it took my slumbering mind to assimilate this information, but I eventually emerged out my doze realizing something was wrong.

When I came out of the cabin the first person I saw was Sherri. I asked her what was wrong and she responded calmly that she was wondering if we were all going to drown. Then I noticed the water sloshing in the corridor. Now I was fully awake.

Up I went to the saloon area. The place was mess. Water was sloshing all over the place with dishes strewn around the floor. The boat was not only listing from bow to stern but listing badly to one side as well. It became clear had no engine or sail power and we were drifting in very heavy seas with sixteen foot swells.

At this point I ran into David (who I rode out of Panama City with), one of the more sensible of our group. He filled me in on what happened while I was comatose down below in  the cabin. The boat had been hit by a succession of larger than usual waves that had washed out the upper deck as well as the saloon area, where one of the windows was jammed open allowing a serious amount of water to come in. The sail had been damaged, and the force of the waves at one point had tilted the boat so much, that a huge tool chest had fallen on the Non-Piece-Of-Shit, Number One Best in All World marine engine (ref: see last post)  and damaged the throttle housing. The boat was being tossed around so much while he was telling me this that I could barely stand up. He concluded that this might be a good time to look for the lifejackets. When someone as unflappable as David was worried I really began to worry.

I was about to go look for the lifejackets when Kevin, another one of the bikers showed up and said he had found them. They were in a cabinet on the upper deck, back behind where all the bikes were stored. This was not an easy place to get to in calm weather, what with all the straps tying down the bikes, let alone the turbulent seas we were in now. Once he removed the bags of chains from on top of the cabinet he found the life jackets. All eight of them……including crew there were twenty eight of us on board.

For a few moments I really started to panic. If things got worse and we really needed those lifejackets, I didn’t want to be part of the struggle to get one. Besides, how would a lifejacket help in these heavy seas with no land in sight? Nonetheless I got an idea and ran back down to the cabin, got my motorcycle jacket, put two empty two liter soda bottles in the internal pocket where the back protector goes, and duct taped (travelling by bike, my tool kit includes a roll of duct tape – I never thought I would use it in a situation like this!) a few smaller bottles to the inside also. At least that way I had some form of buoyancy and didn’t have to count on maybe getting one of the real lifejackets, if it came to that.

By this time, the panic had died down a bit. I cant remember who, but someone told me that they had been down to the engine room. The engine was still out, but there was no water down there in the lowest part of the boat. Well it was a relief to hear that; no more water was coming on board. Then I ran into a German passenger who had checked his handheld GPS and said we were less than thirty miles from land.

During all this there was no leadership provided by the crew. Michel was struggling to fix the engine (fair enough), Majo was bailing water from the salon, Paola was fixing the sail, and Diego was still seasick. Again us passengers had to take things into our own hands and do a headcount to make sure everyone was still on board. There was a real concern that if anyone had been the sleeping on the sundeck at the back of the boat, they could have been tossed overboard in the violent seas and no one would have known in all the chaos. Fortunately after checking the boat form top to bottom, everyone was accounted for.

A short while later the sail was repaired so we had some sort of momentum to help stabilize the boat and get us towards land. To keep my mind off things I helped with the clean up below decks. Some oil containers had also fallen over and spilled and I helped mop this up. Not easy when the boat is pitching wildly!

Little by little the seas calmed. I didn’t know time it was but it was still dark. I went back up on deck and could make out lights on the horizon. What a relief. I was utterly exhausted and went back to the cabin and fell fast asleep.

A couple of hours later, I woke up to the humming of the engine, went up on deck just as we were entering Cartagena harbor. What a sight for sore eyes!

Shortly after dawn & nearing Cartagena

When we got into port, there was much relief at arriving on dry land! However Michel, the Captain, seemed totally unfazed by the emergency of the night before. Maybe we were never in real danger but I later found out that no other boat left Panama the day we did due to the severe weather forecast for the Eastern Caribbean. I truly think Michel is a good sailor, but be he is overconfident in the seaworthiness of his boat , a terrible communicator, and has a bizarre belief system. I mentioned some of these in an earlier post, but here are some more nuggets of wisdom form the man that took us in to a tempest and frightened the living daylights out of us:

He believes that history is a fabrication, that the earth is only six thousand years old, that man coexisted with dinosaurs, and finally that all energy on planet earth is delivered to us through the clouds by extraterrestrial. I shit you not, this was the man we entrusted our lives to. I wish I’d known this before boarding. That’s why I’m posting this for the benefit of future travelers along this route (as well as to entertain my regular readers)

Finally, before we gratefully debarked, Michel had the nerve to ask us to write comments in the guestbook. Here’s my comment at the top of the page:

iphone 1713

Our Comments

Comments from a previous crossing:

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The Australians Say It Best

So all’s well that ends well. However if you are researching a way to get to Colombia from Panama and stumbled on this post, I strongly advise you, DO NOT even consider taking the MS Independence. Sure it wasn’t the luxury cruise many of us were expecting it to be. Turns out not many of the boats that ply this route are. I can get over that, but I cannot forgive the lack af safety equipment on board. Eight lifejackets, for twenty eight people (bundled away in a difficult to get to location.), one lifesaver, and heinous lack of crew. I don’t like to do a hatchet job on anyone – that’s not the purpose of this blog – but if you value your life, do not get on board this boat!

When I booked the passage on this boat, its name “Independence‘ was evocative of carefree days on the open waves. Now I believe the boat is named “Independence” to signify: independence from sufficient crewing levels, independence from meeting minimum safety requirements, independence from bothering with the maritime weather forecast. You get the idea. Board at your peril.

And I though riding a motorbike was dangerous…….

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