Las Lajas, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador.

Santuario de Las Lajas, Colombia.

Las Lajas Landscape

Las Lajas Cathedral2Before kissing Colombia goodbye I had to make my pilgrimage to Las Lajas, just 10 miles northeast of Ipiales. Without a guidebook or any prior knowledge of anything but the primary tourist jaunts or major cities, Las Lajas was a mystery to me. But nearly each Colombians who I discussed my travels with strongly urged a visit to Las Lajas. So on a leap of faith I motored out of Ipiales this morning and took the scenic ride through pastures and farms along a river and to a steep and narrow gorge where from nearly a mile away as I rode along the side of this hill I could see an incredible church seemingly sandwiched between the walls of the gorge.

As I rode into the village I saw my first Llamas. The town was nothing more than two cobblestone roads. One chained and blocked and the other with a couple food stalls and a souvenir stand. I knew the Church had to be close, but now down closer to the gorge I couldn’t see it. I stopped at the road with the chain across it and just looked around. Dozens of pedestrians walked up and down and I could see more souvenir stands lining the road. Then a truck pulls up behind me. And in seconds the chain comes down and I”m waved through.

I slowly weave my way through increasing density of pedestrians until a half mile or less down the road I come to the cathedral. It’s ominous Gothic steeples stretched out in front of me, the bulk of the church below. I want to walk down the steps to peer inside this church. But as I look around, I’m sure it’s not safe for I would be out of view of my bike for several minutes. Looking around and then over my shoulder to the Northeast of the church I see a huge waterfall tumbling down to the river below. The driver of the truck who snuck up behind me catches me in the conversation I’m so accustomed. He’s delivering flowers to the church, but agrees to watch my bike and things if I go real fast. I blaze down the steps and go on a five minute photo snapping frenzy.

it’s Santuario de Las Lajas. a Gothic church built between 1926 and 1944 on a bridge spanning this gorge. According to legend the church was built here to commemorate the appearance of the Virgin whose image appeared on a huge rock 150 feet above the river. And the church is designed in such a way that its sitting up against the wall of the gorge with rock and the “image” forming its main altar. Colombians make pilgrimage here year round and many leave thanksgiving plaques along the stairwell and alley leading to the church — I’m amazed at the number of miracles pilgrims have seen come true.

Las Lajas Cathedral

Lajas Waterfall



Crossing The Border To Ecuador.

Real Independia HotelAt the border I’m faced with the longest line and wait for immigration so far. It’s Saturday and the second Saturday border crossing for me. The customs portion in both Colombia and Ecuador is amazingly efficient and fast. But getting existing and entering burns more than an hour, but still giving me sufficient time to be in Quito by nightfall. The road from Ipiales to Quito runs through mountains and arid highlands. While I’m told the bustling market in Otalvo is a spectacular Saturday excursion, I’m anxious to get to Quito and blow through.

Quito is busy and heavy with traffic through the steep stoned streets of old town. There’s a huge Christmas festival and it takes me 15 minutes to get through intersections. Navigating the tight streets where cards and busses try to squeeze two lanes out of one, I’m frustrated after spending an hour and getting no where. But old town is where I want to be. I stop at a 5-star hotel where the receptionist spends 15 minutes calling hotels in the area — many are booked for the celebration — but succeeds in finding me one only 6 blocks away. But the one way streets, lack of signage and traffic contribute to another 40 minutes of frustration. When I finally find the hotel the receptionist tells me that there is parking but we’ll have to wait for her shift to change so that the guy coming on can help me carry my motorcycle down stairs to the laundry room.

“What?!” Carry this motorcycle. I looked at the stairs. 10 narrow steps drop to a small landing and another 10 steps to below. And that’s after getting the motorcycle into the narrow lobby up over a curb and then up a couple stairs. The hundred plus year-old hotel just isn’t set up for motorcycle travelers. I’m already holding traffic up on the narrow street, but someone holds up traffic while I go the wrong way up the street to make a running start to hop the curb, climb the stairs and ride into the lobby. I was most worried about the glass doors. If I lost my balance on the narrow steps going into the lobby the bike would fall into the 15 foot tall glass doors.

I made it. And convinced the owner of the hotel that trying to move the motorcycle anywhere else wouldn’t be easy nor a good idea. She agreed and assured me that it would be secure and watched 24/7.

Welcome to Quito.

Kick-Stand. Side-Stand. Can’t Stand. To The Ecuador Border

Yesterday I thought the ride to Popayán was stunning, and then today the road from Popayán to Pasto amazing, but it was the road from Pasto to Ipiales that stopped me in my tracks.

Road To Pasto2

Can words describe this? Cruising through the lush, green and fragrant cordillera through cloud forests was breathtaking. A sign warns travelers that the road is in bad condition due to geological challenges, but overall it was twisty, smooth and scenic. Passing through poor villages and more children dotting the highway with hands folded or held out for money. Some hold a string across the road and as I approach pull the string. But I don’t stop. The string drops down and I continue my ride.

At one point I can’t take scenery much longer. Pushing some of my caution aside but maintaining vigilance, I pull over to take a picture. In a move that is automatic and executed practically unconscious, I kick the heel of my boot backward catching the kick-stand and then pulling my foot forward extending the kick-stand down and leaning the bike over. As I performed this roadside ritual, I happen to gaze down and notice that half my kick-stand was gone.

My kicks-stand was missing in action.

There sitting lonely like an injured yet healing stub, the kick(side) stand jutted out only a few inches. There was no way to set the bike down. True, I have a Touratech center-stand, but the weight of my bike combined with the location of the Jesse bags interfering with my getting a good grip and the right leverage, it’s impossible for me to get it up on the center-stand alone.

I sat on the side of the road straddled — but stuck — on my steed. What a predicament. What a challenge. No kick-stand.

How did this happen? The standard kick-stand for the BMW F650GS Dakar is notoriously under-designed. It’s too short. With a bike loaded like mine, the stock kick-stand would not be able to withstand the weight. Enter Al Jesse. Al designed a kick-stand extender that lengthens it by 4 or 5 inches. Not only will the bike handle a heavier load on the side stand, the extension lessens the lean angle and therefore makes it easier to life off the side stand. But adding this extension requires sawing the bottom part of the side-stand and inserting the extension between the side-stand and the part that was cut off. I’ve ridden nearly 20,000 miles with this side-stand modification with no problem. The only other modification I did was add a Wunderlich accessory that enlarged the footprint of the side stand foot plate so the bike wouldn’t sink into soft ground or tarmac. I can’t say for sure what happened, but obviously that uneven stone parking lot in Popayán combined with some rough roads spelt doom for my Jesse side-stand extender and left me in this predicament.

Kickstand Repair1What could I do? I took a couple pictures while sitting on my bike. I was still a couple hours north of Pasto, but hoped in that town I’d find a fix. When I rolled into Pasto the rain poured. And poured. I rode through the center of town looking for a bike-shop or a soldera (welder) and for the first time since I’ve been on this journey I didn’t see one. I guess the old adage is true, when you’re looking for something, you just won’t find it. I’ve seen a hundred welder shops on my journey. Pasto’s alluded me.

The gas station I pulled into was a stroke of luck. While there wasn’t a welding shop there, there was a guy who worked in metal fabricating place next door. The attendants helped me get the bike up on the center-stand while I was happy for the chance to be out of the rain and have a fabricator crawl through his pile of metal pipe, bar and scrap. He found a tube that seemed strong enough but a diameter exactly the same as my stand. A little smaller it would fit into the stand; larger it could slip over like a sleeve. He disappeared and then reappeared with the piece ground down just right to slide into my kick-stand. But the small diameter tube would simply sink into the ground like a stake. There was no welder, but he took it back and returned with the bottom bent at 45 degrees giving me a small, but sufficient, footprint for leaning the bike.

We tested his engineering. Hammered the tube deep into my kick-stand. It held. Not perfect, but the best interim solution. He asked for $2 and I was on my way.

Waterfalling Pasto Road

Waterfall Colombia Border

An hour later I was struck with more awe and as I rounded a corner saw a 100 foot waterfall splashing above me and a second tier falling another 100 feet below me. Situated at a hairpin turn which also served as an outpost for Colombian military personnel keeping an eye on the road. I passed their little guard shack and pulled over on the scant sandy and damp miniscule “shoulder”. I performed my kick-stand ritual and feeling happy and confident with my new interim kick-stand, I looked down at my feel and noticed it was gone. It vibrated loose and fell off.

So much for my interim kick-stand and two dollars.

It was funny before, but now I was frustrated. This minor inconvenience was haunting me. I just sat there and took in the scenery. Then buried my helmet in my hands and sighed. Soon two of soldiers from the military oupost were standing next to the bike. I showed them the kick stand and then asked if they could bind a decent rock that I could perch my bike on so I could get off and take a picture. One hobbles down the steep cliff returning with a nice flat rock perfect for my needs.

Jungle Trek Colombia Waterfall Military Colombia

Worldrider Military Colombi

After the usual diatribe, they take me on a walking tour of the waterfall and offer me tips for the next leg of my journey. Hiking through the jungle, I convince them to take a picture of me under the waterfall using their automatic weapon as a prop. And they agreed! With my hand on the trigger, the younger cop cautions me, so I adjust my grip so there are no accidents. Hiking back to the bike they want to pose again with my motorcycle before our tearful goodbyes.

Kickstand Repair2

I continue winding through lush jungle and tropics until dusk starts settling with a misty rain as I roll into Ipiales. It takes three stops but I find my welder. And within 45 minutes with the eyes of every other shop owner, worker and their friends watching me watch my welder repair the kick-stand. After concocting the extender and making a “foot” he grounds the bike with massive alligator clamps my and asks me to start it and keep it running while inches from my feet he welds the new piece solidly to my stubby kick-stand. Five dollars later I cruise into Ipiales just as the city goes black. A power outage. I’m sure triggered by the massive amount of Christmas lights adorning every park, building and office I ride by.

I find a hotel with lights on and underground parking next to the noisy generator. And there I slept just a short football pass from the Ecuador border dreaming that I might find my motorcycle lying on the floor of the hotel garage sans kick-stand.

Popayán. Colonial Colombia.

Road To Pasto

Popayan Church

The ride from Cali to Popayán is stunning. Blessed with good weather, decent roads and lush green jungle that crawls up the mountainous terrain. Glittering reflections off corrugated roofs that dot the hills in the distance catch my eye. I see no roads climbing the hillsides, but along this road young men ride horses or tend to mules with loaded saddlebags. I imagine the mule and horse trails of the remote villages in the mountains.

Small homes of bamboo, fallen branches of other trees and thatched or corrugated metal roofs dot the roadsides. At a military checkpoint armed Colombian guards board busses and inspect luggage carriers. Keep tabs on guerilla and paramilitary movements I’ve been told. Ask police and military if roads are safe. So I enquire as to the safety of the road ahead. The young cadet with his shiny automatic weapon draped around his neck shows me his transistor radio, hanging from a branch on the side of the road, raises the volume to share the music and cautions me to move closer to the side as trucks and busses zoom by shaking me and the bike. The road is safe, he tells me. Except there is no shoulders on the road, as in most countries I’ve visited. Be careful pulling over.

As I move further away from Cali and closer to Popayán, the ramshackle houses clustered around poor communities along the road appear every 5 or 10 miles. Nearly everyone with an opinion about this road, the jungle that engulfs it and the poor communities that abound cautioned me with a strong directive. “Don’t stop.” I could always tell as I got closer to an indigenous community. The roadside lined with young children. Many sitting on their mothers’ laps. Most faces simple pasty, hollow. Deep black round eyes lock onto mine and then the feeble hand outstretched and cupped. I passed fifty or more. Some would sit or kneel on the side of the road hands pressed or clasped together in praying mode. Hoping. Wishing. Wanting. The echoes of my guardian angels ring in my head. Don’t stop.

I don’t.

Along with the darkness the rain falls as I roll into Popayán, a beautiful colonial town founded in 1537. Sitting higher in elevation than the hot, flat and rather boring big city of Cali, Popayán became a center of culture, commerce, religion and government in the 17th and 18th century largely because of it’s proximity between other major colonial centers of Cartagena north and Quito south. Money flowed into the city from sugar barons based in Cali who moved here in favor of the milder climate. This city is more my size, It’s easier to grasp. The large and clean Parque Caldas is decorated with lights celebrating Navidad. Flanked by one of the younger cathedrals in town which was rebuilt after being destroyed by an earthquake in 1983, just one of many cathedrals and monasteries built in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Popayan New Bridge

Popoyan Bridge Old

For me, two icons of Popayán are the two legendary old bridges that cross the river running through the center of town. A smaller stone bridge (Puente de la Custodia) rises at near 30 degrees, crests and returns to the other side at the same angle. It was built in 1713 so priests could cross the river to bring the sick from poor northern neighborhoods holy orders. A second bridge built in the late 1800’s, Puente del Humillidero, features stone construction and 13 arches and is still in use today.

While I found the hostel recommended to me, but it appeared boarded up and closed. Across the street the Hotel Herreria looked like an option, but it’s horribly hobbled together uneven parking lot of large and loose bedrock stones challenged me as the lot attendant had me jockeying around to a specific space even though there were hardly any cars parked there. Then it happened. For the first time since that unfortunate spill in Chiapas in September, I lost balance and dropped the bike. Not a big deal. Except that at the gas station in Cali (the one that accepted my credit card) the attendant pushed the gas cap closed, but it didn’t lock. I forgot to check. So as my bike went over and still with a fairly full tank gas spilled out, onto my Jesse bag and to the ground. I finally was able to park the bike but the loose stones and wacky incline of the parking lot challenged me and my kick-stand. Later the manager of the hotel let me park Doc in the laundry room under the hotel. But it was the smell of gas in my room that really got to me. Apparently my Jesse bag locking mechanism needs some adjusting as gas seeped into the bag tainting my first aid kit, computer case, a few guide books and some miscellany.

I spent a couple hours walking through the old colonial city reeling in the spirit of Christmas with the decorations and lights. And tasted the best bread I’ve had on my trip — pan de café. Bread with a hint of Colombian coffee flavor. Fresh and still hot from the oven, I wish I could stock up on this and enjoy it again and again. Cruising around taking photos, I attract the usual crowd. We are eager to learn about each other. And they all want their photos taken. Temporary but new friends abound everywhere I cruise in Colombia. And everyone takes interest that I’m enjoying myself and am safe.

The plan tomorrow was simple — make it to Ipiales at the Ecuadorian border, passing through more of the legendary terrain famed for guerilla activity where busses have been stopped and burned, or other robberies. Or more recdently I’m told that part of this road in the past has been controlled by guerillas. But recent information indicates it’s safe to travel. But be careful.



Con cuidado.

Popayan Friends

Popayan Graffiti

Cali Come. Cali Go.

Colombian Coffee Bananas

Coffee & Bananas Everywhere in the department of Quindio, Colombia

Montenegro Rooftops

Sprawling rooftops and homes of Montegregro, the heart of Colombian Coffee growing region.

Calarca Scene

I loved getting lost and riding up and down the hills of Calarca, Colombia – also in the coffee growing region.

Horse Carriage Colombia

Moving coffee and other goods is still done by horse drawn carts in Quindio, Colombia.

Ironically, I found this group outside a motorcycle repair shop – “Taller de Motos”

~ ~ ~

Getting To Cali. Leaving Cali.

Juan Valdez-1Rather than simply hop on the Autopiste to take the two hour ride to Cali, I decide to ride through the Ruta de Cafe – The Coffee Route. Cruising through the largest coffee growing region in Colombia I decide to head to Cartago going through Montenegro, Quimbaya and Calarca. This was one of my best days on the road in Colombia. First, there was no rain. Second, there were hardly any cars, let alone trucks. My goal was simple today. Good riding, good scenery and get to Cali by nightfall and take in on of Colombia’s busiest cities’ nightlife.

But soon the scenic beauty of the Andes and the coffee plantations were faded from my rear view I found myself on the Autopiste and happy once again for Colombia’s decision to let motorcyclists ride free. There are a number of good reasons for this. First, a motorcyclist takes more time at a toll booth than a car or truck. I never have change for tolls readily handy and therefore have to peel off my gloves, dig into my pockets, then put the gloves back on and eventually move forward. When cars back up behind me it’s frustrating for them — and for me. Colombia’s free toll “moto” lane eliminates all of this.

Watermelon Stand Colombia Outside Cali Cops

It seemed for miles and miles I was passing through sugar cane fields, processing plants and other large agricultural facilities. I think I even passed one of the largest chicken processing plants in Colombia. There are the usual police and military stops. Usually they wave me on through. But an hour or so outside Cali a cop waved me over to the side of the road. Walking up to the bike he stuck out his hand and said “Buenas tardes!” A huge smile took up half his face as he listened in earnest to where I was from, where I’ve been and where I’m going. His fellow cronies soon joined the party and then invited me to get off the bike and sit down and have a “refresca” to get out of the heat of the day.

As instructed by anyone Colombian, I picked the officers’ brains for information regarding the road from Cali to Popayán and Popayán to Pasto. If there had been more warnings and danger signs, it was about this rugged route in the mountains approaching the Ecuadorian border. They assured me this was a safe road and that I should simply ride it during the day. I finished my Fanta and bid my new friends good bye and headed to Cali.

My Cali experience was like most big cities I’ve visited in Latin America: smoggy, busy, noisy and confusing. Arriving around 2:30 and driving head first into the heart of the city, I soon found myself in traffic. Not so bad because no matter where I sit, someone rolls down their window or rolls up on a Korean or Chinese motorcycle and begins the interrogation. I soon felt claustrophobic and nothing about the city was calling to me, so I made a decision to blow off the Cali nightlife and head to the more tranquil setting of a colonial city just a couple hours south.

But with my reserve fuel light glaring at me in the puff and spew of a nasty diesel truck, I remember that I had no money in my pocket. Unable to buy my police friends Cokes, I spent my last 100 pesos. So I started scanning for banks — an ATM machine — I was getting deeper into the city and at just over 2 hours away and through the rugged mountains famous for guerilla activity I needed to get out of Cali and on the road. But I needed gas.

And I was lost in the big city.

Cali EscortMoments later in stop and go traffic an mini-van pulls up and down the window went. The usual conversation. But I switched it around. Asking about the road to Popayán, safety and timing. The van driver warned me about asking people for directions. There are many bad people, he assured me in impeccably easy to understand Spanish. You must be careful. Then I asked him how to get out of the city on the road to Popayán. He tried to explain. Then indicated I should follow him. Then for the next 40 minutes he guided me through side-streets, major thoroughfares and past stop signs, traffic lights, over bridges until I was finally on the road to Popayán. We both pulled over and shared a few moments. He was with his wife and their mini-van a school bus. I wanted to give him a tip so he could buy a fresco for he and his wife. But I was broke. I gave him my email and website and a big hug and was on my way. It’s this kindness of strangers that continuously reinforces my faith in humanity and the good in people all over the world — and in Colombia. I woulda been lost in Cali for hours had it not been for the unselfishness and earnest desire to see me safely out of the city of these two kind people.

So on my way out of the city, but running dangerously low on fuel and the city and its banks and ATMs behind me. Fortunately the first gas station I came upon accepted credit cards. The first time I’d seen this in months. A miracle? Just good luck? Whatever, I was happy to ride the “danger road” to Popayán just before nightfall with a full tank of gas.

———-

Photos
(not captioned): (1) Juan Valdez. I found him. On the door of a utilities truck on a coffee plantation; (2) Roadside watermelon stand outside Cali, Colombia; (3) My friends the Colombian Highway Patrol; (4) my personal escort out of the city of Cali, Ivan and his wife.

Armenia, Colombia: Where is Juan Valdez?

Avoiding Rain Colombia

Colombia-Driving RiverbedA plan for an early start was foiled by early morning rainfall. I waited. But as the clock ticked, I got antsy. So I packed the bike and headed toward Manizales. Climbing through the mountains the temperature started to drop. Then I descended into a valley and out of the rain. It was in this small town at the intersection of roads to Manizales or Ibaque that I fought with myself and drove in circles for fifteen minutes capturing the curiosity and bewilderment of those on the street of this small Colombian enclave. My experience climbing mountains behind trucks in the rain met me head on at these cross roads. I looked up in the sky. The mountains a dark green with grey and black clouds moving in slow motion obscuring the peaks of the cordillera. A two hour ride through mountains in the rain , fog and behind trucks overloaded creeping up steep inclines and hairpin turns could turn into a five hour nightmare and yield me only a 80 miles or less progress by afternoon. I could take the easy road along the valley paralleling the ominous mountains but this would only delay the inevitable. I’d have to cross somewhere.

So I U-turned. Then my mind started playing tricks. Going to Manizales would mean seeing and riding by some of the tallest mountains in Colombia. Then again, while I’d be making my way west, I would still be moving slightly north. So I u-turned again.

By the time my inability to make a decision passed I was riding the extremely straight road between the mountains I crossed yesterday and the mountains I’d eventually have to cross today. Past cattle ranches, farms and tiny settlements soon I was passing through a ghost town. At least that’s what it looked like. Passing abandoned buildings now littered with graffiti. It was eerie. Then I saw the sign with aerial photographs of this town before and after.

Amero Before After

The Worse Volcanic Disaster Of The Century.

While more than 50 miles away and proudly gracing the mountainous landscape of the Colombian Andes, Nevada St. Ruis is the northernmost and highest Colombian volcano with a summit elevation of 17,680 feet, tthe volcano is covered with 15 square files of snow and ice even though it’s located only 300 miles from the Equator which I have yet to cross. Beginning in November 1985, the volcano began showing clear signs of unrest, including earthquakes, increased fuming from the crater and small explosions.

Amero Colombia1

Amero Colombia2

Amero Hospital

On November 13, 1985 an explosive eruption from Ruiz’s summit crater sent a series of pyroclastic flows and surges across the volcano’s ice-covered summit. Within minutes, pumice and ash began to fall to the northeast along with heavy rain that had started earlier in the day and swept into gullies and channels on the slopes of the volcano as a series of small lahars. (large amounts of material, including mud, rock, and ash sliding down the side of the volcano at a rapid pace) After speeding down the volcano several thousand feet and building up speed and size by eroding loose rock debris from the sides of the volcano, the lahars funneled into all six major river valleys leading from Ruiz. Flowing downstream from Ruiz at an average speed of 40 miles per hour, lahars eroded soil, loose rock debris and stripped vegetation from river channels. By incorporating this additional water and debris from along river channels, the lahars grew in size as they moved away from the volcano–some lahars increased up to 4 times their initial volumes.

By the time the lahars reached this former town of Amero in the Valley of Río Lagunillas where I stumbled upon this site of the worse volcanic disaster of the century, the lahars had traveled 60 miles and left behind a wake of destruction: more than 23,000 people killed, about 5,000 injured, and more than 5,000 homes destroyed along the Chinchiná, Gualí, and Lagunillas rivers. Accounts from survivors indicate Armero was inundated with several pulses of lahars.

Twenty years later and the entire site is a memorial to those who perished. Crosses were littered everywhere. Several cars and trucks stopped and stared at the sign. Others drove deeper into the memorial. For the first time I could remember on my journey, no words were exchanged with locals or passersby. The massive volcano that triggered this disaster was obscured from my view as I stared at the devastation.

Rain. Rain. And More Rain.

Colombian Rain Sky

Colombian Trucks

Colombian Accidente2

Colombian Accidente

Colombian Cordillera

But soon I’m climbing the windy, steep roads over another cordillera of the mighty Andes. Climbing and descending at altitudes from 8K to 11K, the roads are in remarkably good shape. But many of the trucks driving them are not. The trucks throw off my rhythm, but the sweeping, green and lush landscapes of trees and serpentine winding rivers lined with steep plantations of banana and coffee. it’s spellbinding and dizzy as I climb and look down. I am impressed by the amount of roadwork and how organized the construction sites are. A series of well engineered bridges will improve traffic flow through the tightest of hairpins.

Overall, I find Colombia to be prosperous with much building. At no point have I felt to be in danger — that is except for the continuous rain I battled for most of the day. The worst part is the grey skies are not favorable to my camera, while the trucks continue to frustrate me. When I finally reach the summit at La Linea traffic is stopped. It’s still pouring. I wait patiently but soon realize there are no cars or trucks coming from the other direction so I slowly make a move to pass. Two miles later I come upon an accident. Military and police types surround my motorcycle, gawk at the GPS and ask the typical questions. I learn that no one was hurt when a Red Cross vehicle collided with a bus, but the line of traffic backed up on this mountain road was growing. Negotiating my bike between trucks, cards and pass more military and police I count nearly 5 miles backed up on the other side of the summit. Many deliveries are going to be late tonight.

By the time I rode into the bustling town of Armenia, smack in the middle of perhaps Colombia’s biggest coffee growing region I once again opt to find a more tranquil setting for the night. Perhaps I might even find Juan Valdez. Outside the city center and on the road toward Colombia’s Nacional Parque de Cafe (Coffee National Park) dozens of working coffee farms offer accommodations. Many are rented 100% by families from Bogota, Cali or Medillen for retreats. Some are more organized like Inn’s or hotels. I wind my way through fields of coffee down a dirt road and settle on La Manuela where I spend the evening with a family from Medillen, Pacho, a recent college graduate who’s traveling his country for the first time before entering the real world, and handful of farm workers who live there and tend to the needs of the guests.

A small group gathered in the dining room for dinner and everyone was eager to hear my impressions of their country. Proud and with much honor many were disappointed I wasn’t visiting here or there. Sincere and from the heart I was sitting through a sales pitch on the beauty of the culture, geography and people of Colombia. I didn’t need to be sold. Only a couple days in Colombia and I’m assured that changing my plans to visit this country could be the best move of this journey yet.

The next morning everyone wants a photo of me and my bike. And photos of them by the bike. After the photo session I take off for Cali.

La Manuela Colombia

———–

Photos: (1) The sky looking like this helped me make the painful decision to change my route and head south through the valley along the river.; (2) If you don’t like the roads in Colombia, use the rivers as this pick up does; (3) Amero Colombia the site of the worst volcanic disaster this century killing more the 23,000 people, injuring 5,000 and destroying 5,000 homes in the matter of a couple hours; (4, 5 & 6) Abandoned buildings from Amero Colombia; (7) The dark skies occasionally gave way only to return again; (8 & 9) Just glad I’m not on a chicken bus or driving a car because this accident delayed other vehicles for hours on the windy and twisty road over the cordillera; (10) The road despite the rain was scenic as I followed the river; (11) Colombian girls are incredibly beautiful, one for each arm and a couple reserves works for me!

Making My Way To Manizales, Colombia

Colombian Biker VestGetting out of Bogota was easy thanks to Mauricio’s map and the help of my friends at the Capital Hotel.

I had noticed it earlier at the Girag office at the airport, but I finally figured out what was going on. In many of the Latin American countries I’ve been wandering through police officers are donned with reflected vests — particularly those that are directing traffic or are simply “transito” cops. But in Colombia I noticed virtually everyone had a reflective vests displaying a series of numbers. At first I thought all that talk about how dangerous Colombia could be had certainly prompted an insanely large police force, but closer examination revealed something more interesting. Every motorcyclists and his/her passenger wears a vest sporting the digits and letters of the bike’s license plate. Even more, the helmets of each of these riders and passengers were stenciled with the corresponding plate numbers as well.

My lack of such riding apparel would certainly make me standout as the odd ball here in Bogota, but it wasn’t until I had a chance to take in the hospitality, conversation and food of the local people did I learn more of the story. Years before Hugo Aguilar sent a bullet from his 9mm pistol atop a building in Medillen, Colombia ending the life of the most notorious and dangerous drug lord in history, Pablo Escobar would routinely send his hit men two-up on motorcycles through the city streets of Colombia killing police and government officials. The gunman and his get away rider were cloaked in protective motorcycle identities and could zoom through traffic and disappear as quickly as they appeared. To counter Escobar’s assassins, the government required all motorcyclists to don the vests and the inscriptions of license plates on helmets.

Escobar was killed in 1993, but the legacy of his past is evident on every street corner in every city in Colombia. My gracious Colombian host Mauricio Sanchez, a F650GS rider and manager at Finca El Porvenir, believes it’s time to let the reminder of Escobar’s dirty deeds fad

e from the collective Colombian memory. Over an amazing lunch of traditional Medellin treats such as sausages, beans, pork and deserts of cake, caramel custard and fruit Mauricio explained that for most Colombian’s, current president Álvaro Uribe Vélez has dramatically and positively changed life in Colombia. From negotiating with leftist guerilla’s and right-wing paramilitary groups, to increasing military presence in areas commonly afflicted with violence and rampant kidnappings, evidence of Uribe’s efforts are everywhere.

Mauricio Bogota“Five years ago I wouldn’t even consider riding to Manizales,” Mauricio explained. “It was too dangerous.”

But Mauricio and countless other Colombians I talked with are in love with their country and want to share it with the rest of the world. Perhaps unfairly or perhaps deservingly, Colombia isn’t high on the list of destinations for vacationers from Europe or America. But that’s changing as Uribe continues his efforts to sweet the country clean. He has programs designed to teach ex-drug growers how to grow coffee, flowers, vegetables, coffee or graze cattle. There are enough sweeping changes in this country that they are voting on changing the constitution to allow a president (Uribe) to run for a second six-year term. No expert on Colombian politics and my short stint in this country hardly enough to truly take the political pulse of the country, but my new friends have convinced me a second term will be good for Colombia and good for the rest of the world.

Walking through the greenhouses of Finca de Provenir (Falcon Farms) I can see Colombia is serious about business. With locations in Colombia and the United STates, Mauricio’s employer is perhaps the largest supplier of roses to major retailers like Wal-Mart, Safeway, Target and more. Dozens of rose varieties are grown under the Colombian son, harvested, packaged and even bar-coded and priced specially to the retailers requirements and sent to the U.S. via airfreight over night so that you can buy fresh flowers at your local supermarket or Wal-Mart. Today Mauricio explains that the farm is working to hold back the growth of the flowers so that the harvest prior to Valentines Day will be sufficient to meet the demand of once-a-year flower buyers that flock to florists and crowd restaurants on the hottest flower selling day of the year.

Roses BogotaRose Wrap Colombia

As the sun slowly sneaks it’s way west, Mauricio and I bid farewell but committed to staying in touch and agreeing a follow up visit to both Bogota and Medellin is a must, I take the mile long dirt road back to the highway and make my way to Manizales with tenacity and hope I can arrive before the street lights come on. By the time I roll into a Honda, still a couple hours from Manizales a crowd circles me by the side of the road where I’ve pulled over to glance at the map.

Free Ride Colombia

As I make my way toward Manizales I happily discover that even though I’m on a “toll-road” motorcycles pass at no charge. The first time through a toll booth the panicked toll-take stpes out of his booth frantically flapping is arms and guides me through a narrow opening between the guard gate and the adjacent toll booth. He was afraid I’d hit the trip. By the time I got to the second toll booth, a less panicky taker points me to a narrow but special lane build just for motorcyclists to slowly pass through sans payment for passage.

“Tiene que cambiar su ruta,” the middle aged man with a slight paunch tells me. He’s trying to explain that I must change my route because of something. I can’t understand his words. I ask him if it’s rain, banditos or what? I finally realize that the road is under construction and there’s much fog after 4pm. He tells me the road is closed, too. I scan the dumpy, busy and noisy town for a hotel. Next thing I’ve got a 13 year old boy eager to show me the towns hotels. Like a moth on a light, I can’t shake him. Later an older boy speaking English asks me if I trust him, and wants me to follow him to a hotel. After examining two motels all tucked down corridors on third floors with scantly a window and a musty odor, I break away and ride toward Manizales until settling on a peaceful campestre set above a river, near a canyon. I’m the only customer in this beautifully landscaped “resort”. I take a dip in the pool which prompts aerobatics and nose diving bats to alert me of their presence. Tired and tuckered. I pass out.

———-

Photos: (1) Delivering leche (milk) on his motorcycle, this rider wanted to know if I’d trade. Notice the vest with his license number; (1) Mauricio Sanchez, Horizons Unlimited regional contact in Bogota;(3) Roses your way at Finca del Porvenir outside Bogota; (4) The hills climb steeply as you head west from Bogota. This rider decided to “hitch” a ride.

Welcome To South America — Hello Colombia

Hello South America. Happy Birthday, too.

Welcome2Colombia

The little over an hour flight to Bogota was quick, easy and extremely scenic from my window seat as we flew over the Darien Gap and pristine islands with crescent shaped white sandy beaches.

I blast through immigration and customs at the airport and in less than an hour I’m at the Girag office just outside of the airport working on getting my bike cleared through customs. I mention the word “moto” and the girl behind the glass pulls a paper and says “Allan Karl”? This makes my day.

For the next hour or two I walk around the vicinity of the airport, fill out paperwork at the DIAN (Columbian customs authority) and arrange to have a customs inspector visit the Girag shipping doc to “inspect” my motorcycle and process the appropriate paperwork so I can get on my bike and ride. About 30 minutes later the inspector shows up and together we compare VIN numbers and in 15 more minutes he signs the paperwork and I’m off.

Sort of.

I’ve got to get the motorcycle out of the loading dock. The loading dock is set up for trucks that back in and load or unload. They won’t let me drive the motorcycle through the rear of the building for security reasons. No problem. They tell me I can take it out of the warehouse through the lobby. This lobby is quite tiny but I manage to squeeze the bike through the double doors with my Jesse bags in tact. Then the Girag representative opens the two glass doors leading into the lobby from outside. Except that there are two sets of stairs. for a total of about 15 stairs going down including a landing area and a few more stairs to the parking lot.

I fire up Doc and ride it down the stairs and officially onto the ground of South America! I thought I’d hear applause and screaming when I finally hit the pavement. What I did hear was my heart racing and the excitement building in my brain. Now I’m in Colombia.

Colombia, South America and the adventurer’s dream all sounded good. But remember? I hadn’t planned on visiting Colombia. That means I had done no research and had no idea what I would do next. I had no map. No guide book. Nothing. Just me, my motorcycle and my desire to ride and see this country that everyone is so afraid to visit — let alone ride a motorcycle solo.

My next adventure was to find a road map. The Girag rep directed me to the airport but suggested I leave my bike and things with him. I visit two bookstores, the information desk, rental car agencies and the Colombian Tourist Office at the airport and nobody has a road map. This two hour excursion frustrated me. As I trudged back to the Girag office, sweating and tired I sensed that I burned most of my birthday dealing with customs and looking for a road map. No I needed to get to a hotel before dark. After all, I was in Colombia.

The Girag people had made a reservation for me at a hotel just 5 miles down the road. Sounded easy enough. But when the road split into two, one going over a bridge and the other under I soon found myself in the wrong lane and moving down a four lane highway with three medians. I needed to get back to that bridge. But there was no way over the medians. I rode on. And on. Now it was dark and I was heading into Bogota. Slightly freaking but maintaining my cool, I asked directions at stop light. I couldn’t understand the taxi driver so I offered to pay him if I could just follow him to the hotel. He pulls out a paper and pen and scribbles his cell phone number down and hands it to me. I guess I didn’t get my point across. As the thick, diesel choking traffic crawls to another stop, I ask another cap driver. A young boy on a motorcycle pulls up behind and overhears the conversation. We chat and he agrees to lead the way. We do some median hopping, slight off-roading and next thing we are turned around heading toward the hotel. Twenty minutes later we are at the hotel. And to be sure, there was no way I would have found this hotel even if I hadn’t taken the wrong road.

A birthday dinner at the hotel was a bit of a splurge. But I deserve it.

That night I send an S.O.S. message to community forums on the Horizons Unlimited (HU) website requesting tips on a route out of Bogota that would take me through scenic and interesting destinations in Colombia. I knew I wouldn’t have the time to visit Cartagena or Santa Marta. So my direction was southwest toward the Ecuadorian border. By choosing to visit Colombia I had to split the time I originally allocated for Ecuador between both countries.

The response from HU was amazing. Within a few hours I had offers to visit and be guided in Cali, Medillen and Bogota. As luck would have it Mauricio worked just a mile off the road to Manizales, a destination I had set for my first night outside Bogota. The plan would be to stop and visit briefly with Mauricio and then continue on to Manizales. Mauricio drew a map, scanned it and sent it to me via email so getting out of Bogota and finding the “finca” he worked at would be easy.

Capital Hotel Bogata

The next morning everyone from the bellhops, to the hotel manager, tour operators and taxi drivers hover around me as I pack up my motorcycle. I ask for directions toward the main road that would take me toward Manizales and Mauricio’s work. Seconds later the taxi driver retrieves a Colombian road map, courtesy of the Colombian Tourist Agency, and hands it to me. Good god. Yesterday I spent two hours looking for something like this . Grinning and ready, I took of.