Central Colombia – More than Just Juan Valdez

We are often asked ‘what is it like to be with each other “24/7”.  At the risk of sounding nauseating we have a really great time together and rarely, if ever, even argue let alone fight or get bored with each other.  But, we certainly enjoy meeting new people and hanging out with others as we go.  And, we have met some fabulous people to hang out with in Colombia.

After Mompox, we arrived in the fishing village / beach town of Tula at the recommendation of some friendly Colombianos who had swarmed us and our bikes the day before.  We pulled in before noon and while searching out suitable accommodations we were approached by Adonis and his son, Santiago.  They were drawn to our big bikes and were interested in hearing about where we were from, and about our trip.  It wasn’t long before Adonis recommended we travel another ½ hour to the beach community of Convenas where we would enjoy a much nicer beach.  We took the directions to the hotel they were staying in and agreed to meet up later.  It was a bit of a search to find the hotel – there was no address and we had communicated in Spanish only – but we eventually found it, negotiated a better price than offered, parked our bikes in a garage, and dove into the sea.

The beach view at Covenas

The next morning, we wanted an early coffee – but the restaurant was not open yet.  We pulled out our little camping stove and our camping mugs and made our own on the tiles of the outdoor cafe even though, somehow, it felt like we were breaking the rules.  While studying our Spanish over our fresh-made instant coffee and bread with peanut butter (always in our kit) Adonis, Santiago and Anyela joined us for a more intensive form of study – a 2 hour long conversation in Spanish.  They are lovely people and at an offer we couldn’t refuse, we spent the rest of the day with them in a canoe in the coastal jungle of the north west (actually, we thought they had asked us to accompany them for a short walk… turns out our Spanish needs work). The area is a very popular vacation spot for Colombianos and being the only foreigners as far as the eye could see, we were a big hit.  The locals were so happy to see tourists in their villages and really made us feel welcome & special.

Anyela & Santiago with us on a river tour

Anyela & Adonis pulled a fishing line during our canoe trip, but were unsuccessful… lucky for us, a local fisherman paddled by with his haul.  We bought a number of fish from him and the restaurant at our hotel happily cooked them up for us.  We enjoyed fried plantains with the freshly grilled trucha and Angelica convinced me to eat the eyes (the best part as far as she was concerned) I also found them surprisingly good (a little on the crunchy side, though).

The catch

After a few days at the beach it was time to move on, but we didn’t leave without an invitation to visit Adonis and his family in Peireira, further south on our trail.  We were thrilled at the invitation and looked forward to seeing them again.

We enjoyed our first mountain ride in Colombia from the west coast in to Medellin, once the “most violent city in the world” at 1,500m.  Stops along the way included a fabulous bandeja paisa lunch (band-AY-a pie-AY-sa) which is soup, platanos, yuca, beans, meat, rice, an egg, and canela – a sugar cane drink.  This dish varies a bit by city and village but is the traditional meal in much of central Colombia.  Where served, there is no “menu” you just get the bandeja paisa.

Mountain ride near Medellin - notice strap holding left pannier & broken right mirror

Parapenting is big in Colombia

Bandeja Paisa near Medellin

Medellin is a large, modern city with a great vibe.  We checked in to the Palm Tree Hostel, but the parking arrangement was less than ideal…. we parked our bikes outside the main door, locked them together and put our bike covers on.  We didn’t sleep well because of it, so made our way to the  Casa Kiwi Hostel the next morning.  It s run by another motorcycle traveller and if you do show up on motos, you receive a 10% discount!  Of course, this means there are many other moto-travellers there, including our german friends from the Stahlratte, Josefine and Stefan.  After having our bikes serviced, and strolling around the city for a few days, we planned a trip with them to the lakeside town of Guatapé, about 2 hours from Medellin.

We stayed at the El Encuentro Hostel which is perched on a hill overlooking a gorgeous lake surrounded by verdant hills.  We were thrilled to be able to pitch our tents at the hostel because we all prefer to camp when possible, and at a hostel we get the best of both worlds… a convenient kitchen and hot shower AND the absolute pleasure of sleeping outside.  So we stayed for 4 nights.

Guatapé is a buy & sell meeting place for local farmers in the area and is also a growing area of recreation for citizens of Medellin.  It is known as the Pueblo de Zocalos for its most notable feature; the 3D  decorations and depictions that are on the lower ½ of nearly every building and residence in town.  The reliefs depict the goods sold within a building, beliefs of the residents, or cultural images of the farming heritage of the community.  They are extremely pretty & enchanting.. a full day was spent wandering around the village, looking at the various depictions.  A series is attached here:

From the front of a school

From a tuk-tuk driver's house?

The real things

A coffee farmer's house (or a guy who likes beasts of burden)

We got to know Stephane and Josephine very well over a number of shared meals at the hostel and over a 4 hour hike around the Vuelta al Anillo (ring road) which took us from a simple Benedictine monastery to the top of a 200m high granite monolith.  The rock, El Peñón has 649 steps built into a large crack on the otherwise perfect boulder.  Once at the top you are afforded views of the entire area, which is primarily defined by the Guatapé Reservoir built in the 1970s to supply most of the electricity to the country.  When we arrived at “the rock”, it was getting cold and the top of the rock was completely shrouded by the afternoon clouds.  We scooted past the touristy vendors, and paid our fee to get to the top as fast as we could.  Of course, when we arrived at the top, there were no views to be had in the clouds but at least it wasn’t raining.  So, we sat and talked killing time with hopes of clear skies.  Our patience was rewarded with a break in the clouds that allowed us, even if just for a few minutes, to take in the famous views and snap a few photos.

Simple Monastery

Stefan, Fina and the big rock we will climb

View from the top of El Penon

After 7kms and a 200 meter climb, we welcomed the normally ignored solicitations from taxis and collectivos back into town.

Our final day in Guatapé had Jordan working on the bikes – he installed the fork protectors that we brought with us  Calgary in anticipation of riding some nice dirt roads in southern Colombia, and the rest of South America.  It was then that he noticed my brake pads were actually worn right to the metal.  Hmmmmm, I guess our service guys at Ruta40 in Medellin missed this in their inspection.  This meant a trip back to Medellin for a day or 2 along with a less-than-excellent reply to the ‘how did we do’ service email we expect to receive from BMW in a few days.

bike maintenance in the rain

As for the other S&J couple, terrible landslides, muddy roads and a couple of falls prevented them from getting as far south as they wanted the following morning.  They turned around and made their way back to Medellin as well.  Back at Casa Kiwi for a couple of nights together, we met and were entertained by 6 others doing similar trips as us including Mateo who, get this, rode a unicycle from Canada to Mexico, then a bicycle from Mexico to Panama where he traded in the bike for a dug-out canoe built by the Kuna tribe to paddle 10 days to Colombia, and who is now shopping for a motorbike to finish his trip to Argentina before taking on the rest of the world.

We sat for hours eating delicious popcorn (thanks Mateo) and consuming beer with Roger (Triumph; Canada to Argentina), Wade & Phil (BMW 1200s – Circle to Circle), and Troy (KLR 650 Canada to Argentina).  It is never boring to hear about others stories and experiences and tips – especially from this lot – our robbery story doesn’t even rank!

a re-meat w/ Roger the Kiwi

Not long after Medellin (with new brake pads for Sandra), we found ourselves in the small town of Salento, in the heart of coffee country.  We were attracted to the area by hikes and coffee… but, primarily because our original plan to camp at 4800m in Las Nevados National Park was thwarted by a huge landslide which took out the main road on the way to the park.  Even though Salento borders the park – access would be difficult on foot as we have no backpacks and we have to rely on roads to get us as close as possible.

As it was, with recent heavy rains, we were happy to find some of the only clear and drivable roads in the area.  When we approached the Arriba River near Salento, we could  only imagine what the landslide situation looked like higher up in the mountains.

Salento, as it turns out is located in the gorgeous Cocora Valley and has a lot on offer!  We climbed to a viewpoint known as the Alta de la Cruz (top of the cross) by way of 250 steps marked with the 14 stations of the cross.  It provided a great overview of the town, but more impressive was the immense Cocora Valley backdropped against the Andes (when not in the clouds).  Salento is located upstream from a fresh trout farm, so… fresh trout is the speciality and a delicious fresh fish dinner with soup, rice, and plantains can be found for a pittance.

Salento locals hanging out

While parked in the central square, looking for a grocery store, Ian was lured by our bikes and stopped by to say hi.  Ian is traveling by himself (as a retirement present) and has been on the road from Canada for the last 2 years.  He also rides a BMW F605GS and plans were made to meet for dinner that night at the highly recommended Speakeasy restaurant (which we also recommend…. great curry, great burgers!)

The highlight of the area was certainly our hike through the Cocora valley.  First, we rented some rubber boots from the  Hostel Tralala in town… we were strongly advised to do this the night before from some locals at the Speakeasy.  We rode down to the valley from Salento (not before bumping into our road buddies, Stephane and Josefine in the middle of town) and parked our bikes next to a familiar Toyota Land Cruiser belonging to Cartagena friends, Florian & Beata.

Cocora Valley and the Wax Palms of Colombia

It wasn’t long before we congratulated ourselves on renting the rubber boots.  The first few kilometres take your through a farming community on a track well used by both burro & hiker alike.  In the rainy season, this trail is more like a soupy, muddy river (up to your knees, at points) winding its way through the fields. The farms lie within a cloud forest and walking through takes you past the famous wax palms (national tree of Colombia and the tallest palm trees in the world) before the trail ends up in the rain forest edging Los Nevados Park.  The forest was cool and damp & a cold, quick stream ran through it.  We felt like we could have been in Ontario – except that the numerous, dodgy bridges crossing the river would never receive government sanction in Canada.

That's a lot of mud

milk truck sharing our route

bloody rickety bridges

The following day was rainy, dreary, and the town had no water.  It is strange that with so much rain and water in the area, it is not uncommon for water to be a scarcity in the small villages.  Prepared, many businesses have stored rain water for the bathrooms and quite possibly for our coffee – because that is something we could find… lots of yummy, hot coffee.  So, we hung out and tried to stay dry.

We finished our Salento visit with a mandatory tour of a coffee finca – in our case Don Elias coffee farm with the aforementioned friends, Florian & Beata.  For just $5.00 we met Don Elias (who, with a brimmed hat and full moustache more than resembles Juan Valdez, himself!), toured the grounds, learned how coffee is grown, what is it grown with and why (banana trees for shade), how it is dried, and then made into coffee.  And, yes, Don Diego does make you a cup of fresh brew at the end of the tour – something not offered by some of the other tours in the area.

Coffee: before

...and after (care of Mrs Valdez)

We were ready to leave the Salento area and make our way further south.  We said a quick good-bye to Ian (whom we planned to meet up with down the road) and made an early leave.

Central Colombia has been an excellent leg of the trip for sightseeing, riding conditions, excellent food choices, but it was all made even better with the great people we continued to meet and got to know better along the way.  In fact, I don’t think we were ever alone in the past 2 weeks.  We’ve really enjoyed the company.

2 thoughts on “Central Colombia – More than Just Juan Valdez

  1. Wow unbelievable! Salento is the town where my Mom was born!! You guys are doing the ride of my dreams!! Even though I was born there I have not seen half the stuff you guys did! Awesome. I can’t wait to hear more!

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