Canyons, Mountains and Desert Oases in Peru

Peru is a country of contrasts; from dirty coastal towns to cute and honest fishing villages.  Unrelenting hot, sandy, and flat desert riding to exciting and chilly mountain passes – some of the highest in the world!  So, after the barren desert-scape we had been riding for days, we were so much looking forward to the Canon del Pato!

OK, maybe barren is a strong word

The Canon del Pato is a dry, rocky canon in the Santa Valley renowned for motorcycle travellers and cyclists.  It is often cited as one of the 10 best rides in South America due to the incredible scenery on low-traffic roads, not to mention the fact that you get to ride through no less than 30 tunnels during the 140km trip.  In some places the canyon is just a few meters across, in others it is massive.  The canyon proved to be a real adventure, the rough gravel road provided its fair share of challenges, the views were stunning, and we had a surprise reunion with some fellow Canadian motor-bikers. Gas was purchased from 40 gallon drums and we even got to camp outside a police station in the middle of nowhere.  It definitely qualifies as one of the best rides of the entire trip, without question.

We posted a detailed ride report for our friends at eatsleepRIDE.com.  You can read it and check out the photos & videos by clicking here (a new tab will open).

Teaser photo - check out the above link for more

After riding the canyon with fellow Calgarians Jay, Merecedes and their pillion/son, Eric we searched for a big meal in the small mountain town of Caraz.  Because of the large number of Chinese Peruvians which make up ~ 3-4% of population – (the largest Chinese population in South America), Chinese food is extremely popular in Peru and every village & town has numerous restaurants that serve excellent sopa wonton & arroz chaufa (fried rice).  So, it was Peruvian beer & Chinese food on our menu that night.

While the other Calgarians left the following day, we spent a sunny afternoon doing some much-needed motorcycle maintenance and fixing the GPS, whose internal wiring came loose after bumping along the gravel roads.  So, while Jordan worked on the bikes, I took apart the GPS and got it working again.  Then it was off for some more, outstanding Peruvian scenery – this time at over 3,000m – a far cry from the hot coastal roads we have come to know.

Shortly after leaving Caraz (2,250m) the road climbs steadily to the outdoor-adventure hub of Huaraz, at 3,052m.  Maybe we didn’t look hard enough, but we didn’t love Huaraz as much as the guidebooks do, so we just continued on (and up) enjoying the great roads and scenery through the Callejón de Huaylas Valley.  This alpine valley runs between the mountain ranges Cordilleras Blanca & Negra and on clear days the scenery is reminiscent of Canada’s Icefields Parkway, with snow-capped mountains everywhere you look.  Of course, in Peru, the mountains are over 6,500m high – the highest in the western hemisphere.

stunning views!

Not long after stopping to put on our rain gear, we approached the most incredible series of switchbacks that would take us from about 4,500m  to 2,300m in just 65 kms and finally back down to just 49m after another hour or so.  The road was newly paved and completely empty, winding it’s way down and around the mountains.  It was, essentially, the PERFECT sports bike road.  Unfortunately we were on our old, overladen workhorses, but we still had a go and really enjoyed it.   This part of Peru is our favorite – clean, fresh air, little traffic, few tourists, and mind-blowing scenery.  We like hot weather as much as the next person, but you can have the coast of Peru.  We’ll stick to the altiplano.

Clean, fresh and empty!

You say road, I say racetrack

To further make that point, the second we landed back at sea level, I started to suffer from a nasty head cold.  Once we entered the hell-hole of a town called Barranca, I could no longer see or breath… every facial orifice was leaking.  We grabbed some food from a gigantic and super modern grocery store (even hell-holes like fresh produce!), and tucked in to a cheap, no-frills joint that provided some very cramped parking for the bikes.

I was still suffering when we entered Lima the following day, however I did have enough wits about me to recognize the first bribery attempt about to hit us.  Since entering Latin America everyone has warned us about corruption of every kind.  We’ve heard lots of stories however, we had yet to experience even the slightest inclination of unscrupulous behaviour first hand.

Throughout Peru, if you have to ride on the main highways you will pass through toll stations.  However, in the southbound lane, most were simply used as police check points.  We passed through this one… then were flagged to pull over.

The police officer smiled at us as he shook Jordan’s hand and pulled out a booklet which detailed a list of infractions and their associated fines.  We listened to him tell us how ‘we sped through a school zone’ and watched his finger as he pointed out the fine of 450 soles (about $170).  He went on to explain that if we were willing to pay him directly on the spot, we could settle the matter for a mere 50 soles ($20)…  The interesting thing about this situation is that this check point is located at the entrance to the city of Lima.  There were no school zones on the highway… and even if they were, and even if we had sped through them, how could he possibly know?  Joker.

We deployed our ‘confused foreigner’ strategy; we smiled back and made like we thought he was telling us not to speed through school zones in the city else there would be some hefty fines to pay.  We agreed a lot, nodded and explained how, like in Canada, speeding through school zones is very bad.  We went on like this for a few minutes until, out of luck and out of patience, he waved us ahead.

We feel it is really important to never pay a bribe, if at all possible.  If you pay a bribe because you are tired or because you have more money than time, then everyone behind you will have to pay as well – it reinforces nasty behaviour. Don’t do it!

Because I was still not feeling well, I slept all of day 1 in Lima while Jordan walked around and soaked up the Miraflores area we stayed in.  Day 2 was my turn to walk around… that produce in Barranca?  Not so fresh, after all!  We’ve singled out an unwashed apple as the cause of a hellish, 2-day gastro-nightmare for Jordan.  On a positive note, the aforementioned gastro-nightmare did wonders for his figure, losing  something like 6 kg in less than 48 hours is an impressive result anyway you look at it.

predictable thermals make parasailing very popular in Lima

Some good messages, here.

Our back-to-back illnesses were seriously ill-timed.  The Dakar Rally (The famous 2-week desert race from Argentina to Peru) was finishing up in Lima and our plans were to meet our Dutch riding buddies, Daan and Mirjam in a town just south of Lima to camp at one of the desert bivouac stations on the race route – the area designated for night-time repairs and maintenance for the racers’ vehicles.  However, all we got were reports of great fun camping out in the desert, attending drivers briefings and meeting international racing teams from our friends.  In the end we got to see a bit of the finale parade in Lima’s Plaza de Armas, but it was just not the same.

The Dakar entering Lima

But, in the spirit of the Dakar, after Lima we found the little desert oasis town of Huacachina.  This is a local and international tourist town – no doubt about it, but what a cool little place!  In the middle of sand dunes so high they look like mountains, a small, natural spring has created a lagoon and supports trees and vegetation in the middle of no where.  It looks like something out of a Bugs Bunny episode.

The oasis town of Huacachina

Jordan walking in the dunes

Jordan and dunes as far as the eye can see

When we pulled into town on our big overland bikes and dusty riding gear, everyone seemed generally impressed – they just assumed we had completed the Dakar and were in town to unwind.  There were a lot of photo requests and some pats on the back.  One hotel owner asked Jordan if he was interested in a desert tour, then took it back, saying “But of course after the Dakar, you must already know the desert” to which Jordan responded, “Yes, I know the desert”.  I guess having a dirty, sand encrusted face gives you a lot of desert racing credibility, regardless of whether you’ve actually earned it.

So, what does one do in a town surrounded by Sand Dunes?  Dune Buggy tours and sand boarding, of course!

Dune Buggies!

Jordan was the braver one here… trying to sand board standing up (most of us tobogganed).  This is where he learned that, although falling at Lake Louise on your snow board can smart a little, snow is much more forgiving than sand – which stops you dead if you take a fall.  Having a bruised tailbone is not ideal when you spend most afternoons in the saddle.  No one was allowed to stand for the big dunes and, while I only watched from the biggest of them, he zoomed down like a kid on a crazy carpet.

We continued further south the town of Nazca, famous for the Nazca Lines, but we didn’t stick around.  We have stopped at a number of world famous cultural, architectural and natural wonders on this trip, and this is (hands down) the least impressive.  Underwhelming (it’s not a word, I looked it up – that’s for all you Sloan fans… you know who you are) best describes the experience.  The lines themselves are impressive, but looking at them is far less exciting.  Granted, we did not opt for the over-priced Cessna flight to view the lines, but we did pay 2 soles ($0.75) each to climb the observation tower.  We walked away feeling we almost got our money’s worth, but it was an opportunity to pose for more Dakar-related photos for our fellow tourists, so it was not a complete bust.

Nazca Lines - this is an upside down tree

Although we did not necessarily start off on the right foot with Peru, the situation had dramatically improved and we were loving it.  The riding was fantastic, the scenery was gorgeous, and the company was excellent, what more could you want?

So, This is Peru?

It’s a new year and we’re off to a new country.  Even though we had quite a bit of fun on New Year’s Eve, we didn’t have so much fun that we couldn’t leave before noon. Since we had promised ourselves some coastal sunshine, we chose a route south to the little town of Loja where we would stay for night before heading west to the border crossing into Peru.

Loja is a bit of a quite town to begin with, but even more so when you arrive on a holiday Sunday. It was like a ghost town.  We parked to find a place to stay for the night, but quickly became dejected when it looked like we had to choose between expensive hotels (as defined by our budget) or something that was beneath even our low standards.  Just as we came out of Hotel Mexico ($8 for a room with rotting floors, visible bed springs and a shared bathroom in worse condition than even we could imagine – and we can imagine a lot), a woman in a van called out to us and asked if we were looking for a hotel with parking. If so, she could offer a room at her hotel for $16 with great parking, hot water and rooms as tidy as a pin.  Deal!

Loja, this ‘quite little ghost town’, also delivered one of the best hamburgers we’ve ever  had.  The CHESS burger (no, we did not spell this incorrectly, though maybe they did… no one was playing chess) comes with a delicious picante sauce on it (aji) and, in an effort to combine space efficiency and burger ergonomics with a flavour thrill, they actually put french fries IN the burger!  And, this turned out to be a regional speciality…happily, it would not be our last burger or with fries piled inside

The following morning, while Jordan adjusted the chains, I went in search of coffee-to-go and some buns for a simple breakfast.  The buns were easy to find – panaderias are everywhere, but take-away coffee was more of a challenge and it finally came in a re-used, 500ml coke bottle.  I’m sure they wondered why I wouldn’t want to sit and enjoy my instant coffee there, in their restaurant and walking back with cooling coffee, I started to wonder the same thing.  As odd as it was, though, I liked the used coke bottle idea.  We recycle more than we throw out, and we refuse to buy bottled water back home, but I think we are terrible at re-using perfectly good ‘garbage’.  Something to think about.

As we departed Loja, we received a stern warning from the hotel owner’s mother… “Be careful in Peru.  They are all robbers.  They are poor and will be grabbing for your things… it is not like Ecuador… be especially careful at the border you are going to… it is terrible.”  This coincided with Lonely Planet’s description of the Tumbes border: “…the worst in South America” rife with corruption. As we zipped through the mountains on good, twisty roads, this was always in the back of our minds.

Roadside Lunch spot

A few hours later we took the turn-off for the border.  Then, we were on the bridge to Peru passing a sign that said ‘Welcome to Peru’.  Then, we were in Peru.  What?  We hadn’t officially left Ecuador yet!  The normal border crossing process includes cancelling the temporary importation papers and exporting the motorcycles at the Aduana (Customs) and then getting an exit stamp for ourselves at Migracion (Immigration) before actually leaving the country, but somehow we had bypassed this entire process. We approached the Peruvian border guards who asked to see our exit stamp – which of course we didn’t have.  Isn’t this how you get into those bribery situations you hear about?  The nice man told us to go back over the bridge to the big blue building on the right and check out.

Entering Peru before leaving Ecuador

In that big, obvious blue border control building clearly marked Migracion that we rode by 5 minutes earlier, we learned that the Ecuadorian Aduana was actually 6 kms back up the road and that we had passed it as well in our haste to get to Peru.  We’d have to go back.  They were happy to stamp our passports out of the country at that point, even though we still had to ride a further 6km back into Ecuador to process our bikes.  So we rode back into the country illegally… but this was Ecuador and everyone is friendly so it wasn’t a problem.

We were not the only ones confused – a car and 2 other bikes were in the same boat.  We rode back to the Aduana together, which is a small, nondescript building in a dusty parking lot on the northbound side of the road.  No wonder the nice Peruvian guard knew to ask about our documents before letting us proceed to Peru customs… he has clearly seen this before.

The Peruvian  border was friendly and free of any corruption, and we met up with 5 other bikes – our second meeting with this crew, the first being in Quito.  They were finishing up so it was only us, a van and 2 other bikes to be processed, yet, it still took a full 3.5 hours to get through.  It wasn’t bad compared to the border crossings in Central America, but it was not the bedlam that we were expecting and no one grabbed at us or tried to take our stuff. Actually, there was no around and it was very quite and calm.  The warning we received was just more of that ‘watch out for the people in the other country’ phenomenon that we’ve encountered numerous times before –  everyone seems to say the next country is the one to watch out for.

Peru border - not crazy and overrun

But if we weren’t disappointed by the border, we were quickly disappointed by the condition of north-western Peru.  The scenery was stark and beautiful, it is a coastal desert after all, with nothing around but water and dunes.  But the roadside was dirty, littered with thousands of plastic bags.  Piles of rotting garbage sitting in the hot sun ensured this was an olfactory experience as well as visual.  Our extended time at the border meant we had to find a place to stay in close-by Tumbes, Peru.  Circus-like and dirty –  just like you’d expect from a border town.

The town of Tumbes. Looks quieter than in reality

But again we found a nice clean place to stay and enjoyed a street version of the ‘chess burger’ from Loja – this one made with a fried egg, spicy sauce and yes… french fries.  We each ordered two and watched kiddies enjoy some unstructured play in the town square. While they decided what to play and sorted out their own differences, their parents cuddled and kissed on park benches – not too concerned about hovering.  One of our favorite parts of Latin America life is the importance of public squares and the ways families interact down here, it is really something that should be embraced back home.

The rest of Northern Peru was much the same.  Impressive deserts, great looking surf, dirty beaches and incredible winds.  We spent a couple of nights in Mancora – a beach town located right on the Pan Americana.  Everyone in Tumbes raved about it and directed us to it, but it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.  ‘Town’ is an overstatement, there aren’t any roads or residential areas…really, it is just a series of restaurants, bars and hotels lined up on either side of the highway over the course of a few kilometers. There are a couple of ATMs, possibly a grocery store – although we couldn’t find one – and many of the hotels were in various states of disrepair, despite their high prices.  There were a couple of nicer hotels as well, but they were well out of our price range.  It is basically a small, dusty and very loud party town with a great surf scene.

party girl passed out in Mancora - she was there most of the day

Gorgeous desert

Irrigation projects green the desert - this is rice growing

"zona de dunas"

We were looking forward to a great ride through some canyons a few hundred kilometers inland, but had to continue south before heading east. We stopped at the Chan Chan Ruins for a look… we had heard that you can pitch a tent in the parking lot and we thought it would be cool to stroll around the ruins in the evening.  Though we could have pitched a tent, it was very hot and dusty and it didn’t seem as promising as we had imagined.  On our way out, a few locals advised us of a place to stay in the historical fishing village of Huanchaco – 10 minutes away.

Road to Chan Chan ruins

Then Jordan’s chain fell off its sprocket.  A quick road-side fix, but the beginning of a series of events that would later shape our route.

Chain off its sprocket

The area of Huanchaco was settled centuries ago by fishermen who supplied  fish to the pre-Hispanic city of Chan Chan.  Not only is fishing still economically & culturally important to the region, the fishermen paddle out on the same reed boats as their ancestors.  The boats are called caballitos de totora (small horses of reeds) because the fishermen straddle the boats in the same way one would straddle a horse.  The reeds grow in the desert thanks to underground springs that produce reed marshes.  However, in the area of Huanchaco, only 40 reed marshes still exist due to construction & expansion which is taking its toll on underground water levels.  At the end of each day, the boats are planted in the sand on the beach for the night – an iconic picture of Huanchaco.

Huanchaco reed boats

We walked along the beach and through the town looking for the hostel that was recommended to us.  There seemed to be a lot going on and the streets were lined with restaurants serving delicious looking seafood.. always a good sign!  When we finally walked through the Hostel Ny-Lam (see Accomodations) to check out the camping area, we bumped into our Calgary friends, Jerome, Mercedes & their son, Erick again.  It was a fun reunion and we all camped in the gorgeous garden for a few days, lounging in the hammocks, reading and enjoying great weather.

first camp since Colombia

The Humbolt current is created by an upwelling of deep ocean water and it flows north along Chile and Peru.  A whopping 20% of the world’s fish catch occurs in this region due to the current, and it is responsible for making beaches in Peru & Chile very cold, despite the tropical temperatures in this area.  So, when Jordan & Jerome tried their hand at surfing without bothering to rent a wetsuit, the locals thought them completely crazy.  It was way too cold for me… Mercedes & I sat on the beach in the warm sun and watched.

Every night, the sunset is the evening’s entertainment.

People gathering to watch the sunset - Huanchaco

Sunset & waves - Huanchaco

Ecuador – The Most Photogenic Country So Far?

With the last 10 days spent waiting for my bike to be serviced, we had to write off a part of Ecuador.  We had a choice to make: the coast or the mountains.  We chose to forgo the coast and catch it further south in Peru.  Instead, we would devour the views and culture of the Andes, one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world.  In Ecuador, the Andes divides into two parallel ranges, the Western & Eastern Cordilleras and they run the entire length of the country from Colombia to Peru.

Our ride from Quito took us through the Avenue of Volcanos, which runs between the two ranges in the central highlands.  Our destination?  Lago Quilotoa , via the Quilotoa Loop – a spectacular ride on a combination of newly-paved and bumpy gravel roads through remote andean villages and communities situated at 3,500+ metres.

Unlike Colombia, there is a strong indigenous presence in Ecuador (Quechua is still spoken as a first language by more than 50% of the Andean population more than 500 years after the Spanish conquered the Incas) and we love the  traditional Andean clothing – especially me.  The typical Andean woman’s’ wardrobe consisting of a cardigan, scarf, skirt, tights, and fedora looks fantastic.  In fact I’m pretty sure sure I wore that outfit myself in 1984.

Modern take on the Ecuadorian Andes costume

Young girl in Quilotoa

Great riding to Quilotoa

...with inspiring scenery

Lago Quilotoa is an alpine lake at 3,914m formed in the collapsed crater of a still-active volcano.  The crater is 2km across and 300 vertical metres deep, and although the walk down only takes about 30 minutes, the climb back up in the altitude and heat can take over an hour.  Anxious for some exercise, we pushed it and made it back up in 45 minutes, albeit red-faced and breathing hard.

Just back from a steep walk

Great view of the Quilotoa Crater

The trail down to the shore is very basic and quite steep.  At the moment, a gentler graded trail is being created, complete with stone walls to guide and protect.  No machinery is being used in the building of this trail.  The men and women (in skirts and high heels!) are manually hauling and lifting the boulders up and down the rough slopes to create the trail.  Though most of their methods would fail every single health & safety guideline issued by the Canadian Department of Labour, their efforts and abilities are impressive!

No machinery necessary

We slept overnight in the village of Quilotoa at a cute hostel complete with dinner, breakfast and a wood fireplace in each room.  They even had space for our motorbikes in the dining room.  A number of other travellers joined us late in the day as part of a bicycle tour and we were reminded how lucky we are to be travelling overland when we watched a Dutch tourist succumb to serious soroche (altitude sickness) – he had flown in from below sea level, after all – with no opportunity to acclimatize.

Alpaca in the village of Quilotoa

more great parking!

The second half of the Quilotoa Loop is just as amazing – or more so, in Jordan’s opinion.  Completely paved, but incredibly twisty as the road clings to the edges of the valley walls, with heaps of tight hairpin turns.  We rode to the village of Sigchos for lunch and on our way, noticed a Land Rover parked in a much smaller, unnamed village.  Jordan, having an obsessive memory for all things cars, knew immediately that this was Helen and Paul, whom we also met in Panama at the now-defunct hostel popular with overland travellers.  We stopped for a chat to learn that they, travelling for years, had been stuck in the little village for the last 6 weeks awaiting parts for the broken-down Land Rover.  They set up their new home in the community hall, and became part of the local scene, helping with building projects and being part of the day-to-day life in the tiny village.  Now that’s embracing your situation!

Helen & Paul

Christmas was approaching, and our plan was to camp at the gorgeous Secret Garden Hostel at the base of the Cotopaxi Volcano.  This meant a bit of a back-track up the Avenue of Volcanoes.  Normally, we don’t like to ride a road twice, but this was an exception… on our way down, we thought the road was nice and all, but we didn’t fully understand the attraction until our second ride on a crisp, clear morning.  Avenue of Volcanoes is lined on both sides by numerous snow-capped volcanoes both dormant and active.  We saw Tungarahua spewing smoke and ash to the south (last December, it caused an evacuation), Chimborazo volcano to the west and the magnificent Cotopaxi awaiting us in the east.  You just have to be on the road early to take in the sites before the afternoon clouds obscure the views.

We rode the stressful 17 km, wet & steep cobblestone road from the highway to the dirt road that would take us on to the hostel’s grounds.  Gorgeous scenery if you dared to take your eyes off the road for even a second.  And, there to greet us at the hostel were 5 other Canadians, cold beer, hot coffee, and promises for a great Christmas dinner.  We were very lucky this Christmas… I got my bike back, our parents generously plied our bank account with some cash with which to treat ourselves, and the nice people at The Secret Garden bumped us from a tent to our own luxury cabana at no additional cost.

17 kms of these

This road was much nicer

Cotopaxi from our cabin window

We enjoyed a few days at the hostel, hiking around, lounging, reading and eating very well.  Christmas dinner was much anticipated… we had hoped for something traditional and were more than thrilled to enjoy a turkey dinner complete with mashed potatoes, gravy and stuffing around a large wood table with every chair occupied.  The ecuadorian staff ate with all of us and while the gringos were devouring the amazing dinner, I couldn’t help over hear them comment to each other about the “comida mala” (bad food).  I waited then politely asked them what they would have as a traditional dinner for Christmas… ‘pollo, arroz, frijoles…’ (chicken, rice, beans).  So, basically what they eat every day, twice a day (and, something we now miss terribly as we write from another country).

Christmas in Ecuador

In Cotopaxi National Park

Near The Secret Garden Hostel, Cotopaxi

Hostel grounds

Ranchland surrounds the park

After a few days in our favourite spot so far on our trip, it was time to leave.  We tried to take a different road out, a 4×4 route recommended by the staff, that would allow us to avoid the cobbles, only to find this was a rougher, equally steep track of loose rocks and gravel.  The worst of it was it lead to the highway via Cotopaxi National Park, which… prohibits motorcycles.  We only learned of this after bumping into some travellers on horseback 10km into the trip.  This meant another 10km back (slowly) only to be presented with the aforementioned 17km of cobbles that had to be traversed in order to get back to the highway…  But, it was a gorgeous day following a gorgeous week and nothing could ruin it for us.

We planned to meet our fellow motorbike travellers, Daan and Mirjam for New Years in the town of Cuenca, located a few hundred km further south, so we spent the next couple of days visiting the resort town of Banos and enjoying the amazing mountain roads.  Cuenca turned out to be one of the nicest towns we’ve visited on our entire trip.  We had a great time wandering around the town and visiting one of their great (and free) museums.  We couldn’t help imagining what it would be like to move there… A beautiful colonial style city located in the mountains, what’s not to like?

Cathedral in Cuenca

More Christmas parades

We were  more than a bit intrigued by the local New Year’s Eve preparations.  In addition to the street markets being crammed with every conceivable type of fireworks (we bought more than our fair share), they were also selling paper mache masks on practically every street corner, so we had to have those as well.  Even more intriguing were the hundreds of stuffed ‘dummies’ and paper mache statues and dioramas that were popping up on everywhere across the city.

A selection of masks

Sandra and the effigies

Detailed paper mache character (will be burned)

We soon learned that these dummies and represented the old year and important issues for the new year, and that they would all be burned at midnight.  There were paper mache mockups in the form of politicians, local civic issues like public transport, and even a giant Smurf village complete with a full compliment of Smurfs.  Who among you wouldn’t want to see a giant Smurf village go up in flames at the stroke of midnight?  As you can imagine, the four of us were very excited.

The evening consisted of a lot of unregulated fireworks use and the air was thick from the smoke of hundreds of paper mache effigies set ablaze on every street corner.  It was pretty cool and from our vantage point overlooking the river, we would see fires and explosions all across the entire city.  Although it did not turn out to be the all-night party were kind of anticipating, it was great fun and a very family friendly and fiery way to ring in the New Year.  We ended the night with a long walk in search of some traditional late night Ecuadorian street food, however we settled for some delicious shwarama.  All in all it was a very memorable evening spent with good friends.

Mirjam, Daan & Jordan

Ecuador – The First (frustrating) 10 days

With our Dutch amigos Daan and Mirjam, we were ready to leave Colombia for Ecuador – a short and easy 3 hour ride.  We pulled our 4 bikes onto the sidewalk in front of the Koala Hotel to pack them up, not realizing the consequences of our actions.

Within minutes, 40+ people gathered round to watch and pepper us with the usual questions – Where to?  Where from?  How fast?  How much?  The crowd size was laughable, but we really enjoyed their interest in us.  It was a great send off.

Leaving Pasto, Colombia

The 4 of us rode the winding highway south to the border of Ecuador.  When we tried to fill our ever diminishing fuel tanks, we were greeted by empty gas station after empty gas station with signs reading ‘No Hay Gasolina’ (there is no gas).  It seems that Colombia recently had a ‘3-day sale on gas’ in these parts.  Result?  No petrol in the region for the next 3 days.  More likely: a black market for cheap Ecuadorian fuel ($1.48/gallon vs. $5/gallon in Colombia) in the border region makes it unnecessary for Colombian gas stations to stock much, if any fuel.  Jordan was 20kms into his last 30km of fuel and we were still 20kms from the border.  Luckily we made it without having to resort to what our friend Len from Nova Scotia refers to as the Cape Breton credit card to siphon gas from any of the other bikes.

With an easy exit from Colombia we proceeded to the Ecuadorian immigration where we saw two more motorbikes with Alberta plates.  Now, for those who don’t know, Calgary is actually a fairly big city of about 1 million people with a healthy motorbike community.  But, yes we knew these Calgarians – the 2nd pair we’ve bumped into and known.  Mercedes (BMW F800GS) and Jerome (BMW R1200GS) are riding from Calgary to Argentina with their 13-year old son, Eric in tow (they take turns riding with Eric as pillion).

After a lengthy, if not highly orderly afternoon with Ecuadorian customs, and the best bloody empanadas verde we’ve ever had we were off – now as a group of 7 on 6 bikes.  Everything had gone smoothly, however, upon leaving the border, my bike started to act out again.  It was now bucking as if I were breaking in a mare for the first time.  Thankfully, after 5 minutes the extreme bucking and surging stopped and though I was having some power issues when riding uphill, we all made it to the charming town of San Gabriel, Ecuador where we stayed for an amazing $5 / night (wifi and parking included!).

Great bike parking

The town is small and there wasn’t much to do so we split up the ‘pink and blue’ chores like two dutiful 1950’s families; Mirjam and I did laundry while Jordan and Daan worked on my bike all day, which would no longer even start, let alone run.

Laundry day

... and not only for us!

To make a long and arduous story short, while we had clean, dry clothes, the guys could not get my bike going and it took, yes, another pick-up to get my bike to the dealer in Quito.  The ride was gorgeous (even in a pick-up cramped with 3 people up front) and I got to practice my spanish with the nice couple who helped us out.  About an hour out of Quito we crossed the equator and entered the southern hemisphere for the first time, making the ride even more memorable.

Quito is a great city – don’t listen to the bad press.  It has a gorgeous old town, fantastic public parks, and the museums are free.  That said, it has a shelf life of about 3 days when the rest of Ecuador is calling.  So, when it took TEN DAYS to have my bike properly fixed I was practically in tears (okay, I was in tears at one point).  The most frustrating part of the whole ordeal was that on day 1 we told the dealer that we thought the problem was with fuel filter and possibly a clogged injector.  After a number of incorrect diagnosis and repairs (they even machined my cylinder head), it turned out my poor bike needed a new fuel filter and had to have the injector cleaned, exactly as we suggested.  Time required to complete the repair: 1 day.  To their credit they did not charge us for any of the extra work, but seriously, 10 days?  However, as I write this 6 weeks later,  I’m over it.  Really, I am.

Images around Quito:

Ecuadorians love sweets so much, they add sugary sauce to candy floss!

Quito's old town

Coffee: hot water mixed with 'coffee essence' from the genie bottle

old school barber shop in Quito

courtyard of the art gallery

Quito growing up into the mountains

To kill some time, we took a trip to the edge of the eastern Amazon 2-up on Jordan’s Dakar.  We met up again with Daan & Mirjam in the unremarkable village of Tena, near the kayaking and river rafting heart of Ecuador after a beautiful 3 hour, roller coaster ride that took us from 2,400m in Quito up to 4,200m, and back down to 500m.  We got mildly lost on a self-guided tour through the jungle where we saw trees that walk, exotic butterflies, small & gigantic spiders, and listened to strange jungle calls while Jordan climbed a dodgy 30m metal ladder to above the jungle canopy.

We enjoyed the warm weather and devoured a large stack of home-made, Dutch pannekoeken at a local river guide’s house with 2 more Dutch travellers.  Are there any Dutch left in the Netherlands?

A walking tree

silk art

Something a little bigger

Owl Butterly

Jordan climbing 30m above the jungle canopy

jungle view at 30m

When we picked up my bike – all clean, and ready to go – I was giddy and almost forgot about the 10 days that plagued me.  Truth is, we had a nice place to stay, met numerous fellow travellers (we were the old locals by the end of it) and had a great opportunity to plan the rest of our Ecuador trip.

While trying to trouble-shoot, we communicated a lot with other experienced moto-travellers via Horizons Unlimited and Adventure Rider – they were all extremely helpful, supportive and quick to respond to our cries for help.  They tried to console me by saying these obstacles are part of the adventure.  Though, I’m more inclined to believe our rider friend Jeremy, author of Motorcycle Therapy, who insists that at the time, they are ordeals and only become ‘adventures’ once you get home.  We’ll see.

I’m just glad to be in Ecuador with a working bike!

Mysterious Ruins, a White City and The Trampoline of Death – Colombia’s Finale

From Foreign Affairs Canada Official Warning – Avoid All Travel …The presence of armed drug traffickers, guerrilla and paramilitary organizations, including the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army), poses a major risk to travellers. These groups continue to perpetrate attacks, extortion, kidnappings, car bombings, and damage to infrastructure in these areas.  You are also advised against all travel to the departments of Cauca, Caquetá, Guaviare, Putumayo, Valle del Cauca…

Well, where do you think we were headed?

After numerous rainy days and chilly nights in the mountains we were ready for a descent to a warmer climate, so we packed up from Salento early in the morning and made our way on fast, clean, if not categorically boring roads.  We rode all day and ended up in the small village of Santa Rosa, known for its popular hot springs.  We pulled our usual routine: park the bikes, and while I look for a place to stay,  Jordan watches the bikes.  Not unlike the other small, Colombian towns, we drew a crowd immediately upon entry including a very drunk but amiable fellow who insisted he was a tourist police that could find us a great place to stay.  When I ended up in a dark hallway with no foreseeable exit with said drunk guy, it was time to turn back and move up the road.  Just in time, too, because the actual police were in the process of asking Jordan to move our illegally parked bikes.

3 blocks later, in the central square, Annelies, an Austrian cyclist approached us upon parking our bikes.  She and her husband, Hannes, have been riding their bicycles in South America for the last 2 ½ years.  She directed us to their hotel, which had excellent parking facilities and was (sort of) in our price range.  We were also approached by a nice man who ran after us for 3 blocks with my now-broken eye glasses in hand.  Apparently, in trying to escape a parking ticket and a nice, drunk guy, I left my glasses on my bike.  Both they, and I, were crushed.

We contemplated an early-morning hot springs, but in the names of budget and time, we declined.  We were off to Buga – a suggested stop from Annelies, in the heart of Valle del Cauca.  We started to notice more and more military presence as we headed south.  In some stretches, we’d see 20+ military personnel spaced out along the road every 100m, or so.  One hand with a machine gun, and the other one is giving a ‘thumbs up’.  We took this to simultaneously mean ‘hello’ and ‘all’s well ahead’.

Power lines in Buga

After being turned back from the mountain parks in the north due to impassable roads, landslides & outright road closures, it was our craving for some more interesting scenery that brought us to Popayan – the launching off point for 2 great dirt roads that would take us, criss-cross through Valle de Cauca towards Ecuador.  We reached the ‘white city’ and, despite our own paltry hostel accommodations, decided to stay for 2 days.

All the buildings in the historical centre of Popayan are white washed, and though most have been re-built or repaired in modern times (much of the town was destroyed in a 1983 earthquake), Colonial architecture is very much evident and it might be the most impressive historical centres we have visited.  We met up with Ian – our travelling buddy from Salento – and toured the town, surrounding parks and hills.

centro historico - Popayan

White washed Popayan

We were anxious to get to San Agustin and although it was only 135kms long, Google Maps insisted the ride would take us 7 hours.  So, we met Ian for an early morning leave.

The ride was spectacular and so was the weather, thankfully.  When wet, this road succumbs to washouts and landslides, not to mention it is very difficult to travel when a sloppy mess.  The road cuts through spectacular scenery and hills as it winds its way south east.  Despite its remoteness, it is a busy route for trucks of which, we were stuck behind many times on the single track route – sucking in their dust.  Thankfully, a few villages dot the road… we took advantage of a small restaurant to let trucks get well ahead of us while we had breakfast.  We stopped a few more times for the same reason.  A few times we were lucky, and trucks let us pass on the 12, or so inches that separated their wheels from the ditch on the side of the road.

Our three F650GS's

Ian & Sandra

That looks slippery ahead...

The dirt track ends at a small village just before San Agustin and as we cruised through the town, looking for the correct turn, who zooms up beside me, last in line?  Our good friends, and super fast riders, Daan & Mirjam!  They knew we were on our way to San Agustin and wanted, if possible to meet us there.  But they were hundreds of kilometres north of where we started in Popayan.  We fully expected to see them the following day.  Daan made a sport of catching up to us… he confessed to asking the roadside workers (the road is being prepared for pavement – you should ride it before that happens) if they’d seen us.  When the last response was ‘yes, 5 minutes ahead’ – they really twisted the throttle and, despite now being the butt of all their speed jokes, we were thrilled to meet up with them this way!

Almuerzo with Daan, Mirjam and Ian

So it was 5 of us who headed into San Agustin for 2 great days of camping at Hostel Francoise.  Coincidentally, if not unfortunately, San Agustin was in the middle of a 4-day, 24-hour celebration.  We aren’t sure of what, but from our vantage point on the hill, where we could hear everything, we dubbed it the La Fiesta de Musica Mala (the bad music festival).

If there's no room on the bus, just hang off the back...

We spent a day doing nothing and a day exploring San Agustin and the mysterious ruins in the area; statues carved out of volcanic rock by an unknown pre-Incan culture between 100 and 1200AD.  No explanation exists, but the statues look cool!

Carvings at the San Agustin ruins

... and a few more

Since D&M are much faster than us (i.e. me) Jord & I left a day ahead of them to take our next road – back across the valley, but a much higher altitude on a road through the hilly countryside between Mocoa, Putumayo – south of San Augustin & Pasto, Narino – gateway to Ecuador,  it is known in Spanish at the Trampolin de la Muerte (the Trampoline of Death) due to very rocky, very narrow, high altitude roads (read: sheer drops) that cannot fit 2 cars widths, never mind buses and lorries.

Not only did we get stopped by two military check points on our way to the road (for long discussions about our bikes and our trip – how fast does it go, how much does it cost, etc.), we got caught up in a long conversation with a crowd in Mocoa when we stopped to pick up bread & water, AND we missed our turn, adding 80kms round trip to the clock.  Needless to say (though, I am saying it) we started the trampoline road at 1:30 in the afternoon, not the best plan.  Google maps says this road takes 3 hours… people with experience say the full trip takes  7+ hours.  In these parts, the sun sets at 6:30.  You do the math.

Thrilling’ doesn’t really describe the ride for me.  ‘Treacherous’ and ‘What did I get myself into’ come to mind.  But that is because I’m novice to all these steep, gravel, and cliff-hanging roads.  Jordan didn’t seem to mind a bit – and even questioned why I was riding so slow.  (!!??).  After numerous hair pin curves, waiting cliff-side for busses and truck to pass us and a few lumpy water crossings (thanks to Jordan, my bike made it across these, too) we came across a huge military installation complete with a bunker and 10s of military personnel perched on a mountainside outcrop.  We inquired how long it would be until we reached the next town on them map – 3-4 hours we were told. It was already 3:30pm.

GPS depiction of our track, how's that for a twisty road?

the real road in the clouds

An hour later, we found ourselves in front of what can only be called a truck stop.  It was a rustic home/corner store/bathroom spot on the side of the mountain with some space for parking – the only such space we saw all day.  The owner advised us it would be at least 2 more hours (3 at my pace) to the next town.  It was 4:30pm and there is no roadside camping on this track… none.  So, we asked if it would be possible to pitch our tent behind their place and park our bikes along the side of the building.

The very nice people obliged and we proceeded to set up camp in their backyard chicken coop (this is literal, not metaphorical).  We weren’t the only ones.  A young family in a pickup truck going the other way asked for the same favour.  They ended up sleeping inside the restaurant.

Our camping spot

The 'truck stop'

Speaking of restaurants, as luck would have it that they could also feed us dinner and breakfast the next morning.  They were a very generous family of an elderly father with his adult daughter.  This was their life – living on the side of a mountain hours from anywhere, with no electricity, servicing travellers and truckers with great home cooked food and some conveniences along a tough route.  Such an honest living!  I’m not sure we’d would be so inviting to complete strangers back home, it was a great lesson in hospitality.

The shop keeper's daily view

The next morning, we made our way down the steep, narrow road for 3.5 hours to the city of Pasto, staying overnight on the mountainside turned out to be a good idea.  We checked into the hostel agreed upon with D&M and they met us there a few hours later.  Sadly, this would be our last night in Colombia.

We loved every second of our time in Colombia.  We felt warmth from all the people we met in the north, on the coast, in the wetlands, in the mountains, in the ‘big city’, in the small villages and yes – even in FARC territory.  We met no corrupt police or military officials, whatsoever.  From our vantage point, the Colombian government has done a great job of securing the country – even if their methods are controversial (some say it is still a narco democracy… some say they should be talking to FARC not eliminating them…).  And despite hearing distant gunfire on 3 separate occasions, it was distant – as in in the hills, we never felt insecure or unsafe.  Not even for a second.

Visit Colombia!  You will be so glad you did, and they will be so glad you did.  You will feel special, you will become part of the fix, and you will see spectacular scenery, eat great food and have memories of a lifetime.

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.

Playing in the Mud – first impressions of Colombia

We arrived in Colombia on a Friday afternoon.  Our mandatory insurance wouldn’t be available until Monday morning so we took the weekend to hang out with our new friends and explore a little of Cartagena.  Most notably, we were impressed with the Getsemani neighbourhood, which is most representative of Cartagena and full of great street vendors and excellent pizza (best so far!)  and with beer at just 60 cents CAD a bottle we knew we would love Colombia.

Getsemani charm, Cartagena

Entrance to the Old Town

Old town, Cartagena

With 2 running bikes, insurance, and importations taken care off, we were ready for a test run on Monday morning with the aim of ‘bathing’ in a volcano.  As we left the city, we became very aware of just how many motor bikes are on the road in Colombia.  Weaving between cars and trucks took on a new meaning and in the middle of the packs of bikes we literally felt like we were being swarmed by bees.  The locals were also very interested in our motos, which were giant compared to theirs and often, while driving in thick, slow traffic, we chatted to the them about our bikes.

just grab a spot near the stop light. Cartagena

Within an hour we crested a hill to see a large fresh water lagoon with what looked like a giant ant hill in front of it (El Totumo).  As we approached the hill we could see that 2 wooden, rickety ladders flanked each side 15m to the crater at the top.  Peering into the crater we were presented with cauldron of thick, bubbling grey goo.  With a little apprehension, we eased ourselves into the goo which is said to be anywhere from 1,000m to 2,300m deep.  But, because it is so viscous, there was no way to submerge ourselves regardless how hard we tried.  Every once in a while large sulphurous bubbles would slowly float to the surface and rudely belch at us.  After about 45 minutes we made our way down the ladder and to the lagoon where we washed the mud off each other surrounded by lily pads.

– El Totumo, the mud volcano

floating in the mud

The next day we left for the town of Mompox, a UNESCO town located in the swampy lowlands about 250 kms from Cartagena.  To get there, you must catch a river ferry or private lancha.  The ride was spectacular – through river and swamplands with breath-taking scenery to keep us occupied for the 45 minute trip.  Once on the other side, the ride consisted of good road and gravel track to the actual town of Mompox.  It was getting late and dusk was approaching.

cart & horse are a common sight... big, overland bikes are not

bikes ready to board the river ferry

Ready to disembark

Not long after we got on to the gravel stretch, with the intent of keeping pace with the diminishing sunlight, I crossed paths with a large truck at the exact part of the road which temporarily ended for the oncoming truck due to a large hole.  Because the truck is bigger and it took my ‘lane’ to pass the hole, I was forced to move right – and ended up riding through an unexpected soft, sandy rut which took me down at about 40kmph.  Although my left pannier was ripped off the bike and the pannier frame was now bent, the slow slide caused no injuries.  But, this meant we had to fix the pannier to the bike with straps at dusk, and ride the remainder of the gravel & pot-holed road in the countryside of Colombia at night (everything everyone says NOT to do) but, since there were four of us we felt safe, many locals stopped to ask if we needed help, and it all worked out in the end.

The next day we learned just how resourceful Colombianos are.  A local mechanic made a house call to our hotel to look at the damage.  He then took my pannier while Jordan took my bike to his ‘garage’ – a small non-descript hut next to his small home 5 minutes away.  Within just 2 hours, he returned the pannier frame to normal and, proving that necessity is the mother of invention, he used some bicycle parts to re-create the locking system that secures her pannier to the frame.  Total cost?  $13 CAD, and that included picking Jordan up at our hotel to get the bike once he was finished!

Cementario de Mompox

Mompox countryside

Our stop in Mompox was part of a larger off road trip to El Banco that we had planned with Daan and Mirjam, as we knew the rest of the trip would be pretty intense, Daan and Jordan decided to do a little reconnaissance and scout out the 1st leg of the off road trail.  As it turned out, the conditions we excellent, we had feared that the recent rains would transform the track into an un-passable mud pit, but instead they were delighted to find perfect hard packed red dirt roads and trails, ideal for riding.  They spent the day zooming across the trails leaving huge plums of dust, riding across fairly large water crossing and standing on the pegs all afternoon.  The road was excellent and they jumped the big overland bikes repeatedly, not sure that if that is the best activity for the heavy Dakar and Africa Twin, but they had a lot of fun and they both said it was one of the best days of riding ever.  Jordan actually got a little over enthusiastic and dropped his bike for the 1st time of the entire trip, but neither he no the bike were hurt.

After hearing their report on the road conditions, we were pretty excited for the next day’s adventure, however that night it poured all night long and we awoke to find less than ideal riding conditions, mud and more mud.    We decided to give it a go anyways, it was pretty rough, and my tires were not ideal for the muddy conditions, I managed to keep on dry track, but we finally called it a day when Jordan crashed his bike (again).  He was actually talking to me on the intercom and watching me in his review mirror when he crashed.  Ironically, his final words were “remember to take it easy and look far ahead”.  Guess who wasn’t looking ahead when he crashed….

We decide the conditions were only going to get worse, so we decided to head back the way we came, the far more experienced Daan and Mirjam decided to go on, you can watch their amazing adventure here:

We were feeling a bit sad about turning back, however after seeing their photos a few days later we realized that turning back was the right decision.  We ended up having a great day of riding ourselves, it out out to be a nice sunny day.  While we waited for the river boat ferry to take us back to the main roads, we even had the bike washed, the 1st time since leaving our friends TJ and Mary Jane’s place in Pensilvania back in July.  They looked so good we almost didn’t recognize them.

The Dakar getting a much-need wash

We stopped for the night in the town of Sincelejo, it’s nothing special but they sure made us feel special.  We stopped in the main square, I left Jordan to watch the bikes while I went to find a cheap hotel, when I got back he was surrounded by 30 – 40 people who wanted to where we were from, what we we doing, how fast the bikes would go, and how much they cost.  People gave us special blessings, patted us on the back and thanked us for visiting Colombia.  It was actually a bit overwhelming, as it turned out to be difficult to leave, we had to stop several times and ask people to move away so we could leave without running anyone over.

The bikes attracting a small crowd

We typically don’t plan our routes too far in advance, when we wake up n the morning we often don’t know where we’ll sleep that night.  After walking around the main plaza in cool evening air search of some yummy street food, we decided that we had not had nearly enough beach time in Mexico, so when we got back to the hotel we plotted a course for the Caribbean coast to soak up some more sunshine.