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.
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?
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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