Though I thought South America and I would be very acquainted by now. But as these things go timing is everything. And in this case, my timing was a bit off. As the days draw closer to my birthday, I hope to have my first day riding my motorcycle through the lush tropics of Central Colombia. Colombia, you ask? For those of you who know me and the others who are getting to know me through this site and my travelogue and photos, you probably know my original plan was to bypass Columbia and head directly to Quito, Ecuador from Panama.
Columbia perhaps has a deserved reputation for being one of the most dangerous countries to travel in the world. I say deserved because there are a number of documented incidents of kidnappings (Glenn Heggsted in 2001 and author of The Most Dangerous Places on Earth, Robert Young Pelton in 2003), armed robberies on buses and most recently a group of tourists robbed and locked up in a building near the Parque Nacional Tyrona.
So why the change in mind? Stories from travelers, on motorcycle or with backpacks , are one reason. Another? For the couple weeks I traveled with J.J., he insisted that Colombia was one of his most anticipated destinations on his journey. Finally, I as I sit in the Hotel Las Vegas in downtown Panama City I ask myself, “Why not go to Colombia?” To be sure, due to weather and misinformation I never made it to El Salvador and Belize. So in a weird way, Colombia makes up for a couple central American countries that I unfortunately missed. So letting whim and spontaneity drive me I decide I better go to Colombia. Porque no?
With a little help from the Horizons Unlimited motorcycle travelers bulletin board and some words of advice from J.J., I made my way the cargo terminal for the Tocumen International Airport and found the office of Girag, one of several shippers providing service to Colombia. Within a couple hours I’ve completed documents, drained the gas from my gas tank and ushered my motorcycle into the dangerous good area of Girag’s Panama City facility. The process was fairly easy. The hardest part was getting a taxi to take me back to Panama City. Two calls to taxi’s and they still couldn’t find the Girag office. How did I find it?
Girag tells me my motorcycle will fly out around midnight and be there tomorrow. Problem is customs in Colombia is closed on Sunday, so I won’t be able to pick up my bike until Monday. So I plan on taking the late flight tomorrow, taking advantage of the hotel recommendation from Girag and pulling my bike out of customs on Monday morning to fulfill my desire to ride my motorcycle on a new continent on my birthday.
Perhaps most important was to clear my motorcycle with Panama customs. Normally this is handled at the border, but shipping a motorcycle requires proper documentation for customs to clear the bike without actually seeing it leave the country. I had the taxi driver stop at the customs office on the way out of the airport and the gold-toothed customs officer glanced at the documents and then went happy with his rubber stamp. He wasn’t going to stamp my passport clear until I asked. Then he simply asked what page. With an exaggerated motion and flashing a shining gold smile he slammed his stamp on my passport taking up an entire page!
My plan to catch the late flight on December 11th backfired. In fact, flights were completed booked until later in the week. I pulled out my passport and explained that tomorrow was my birthday and I must be in Bogota to celebrate. I tried both Avianca and Copa — the two airlines servicing Bogota from Panama City. Why was everyone going to Bogota? I pleaded to stay standby. This became an issue because to fly standby, I must have a ticket for a later flight. Even though I talked my way onto standby/waiting lists for all the remaining flights to Bogota, my 4 hours in the Panama airport were fruitless. But I did manage to get a ticket on the first flight in the morning on the 12th.
Not all bad I guess. I’d wake up in Panama and and have dinner in Bogota for my birthday.