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December 16th 2012
Published: January 8th 2013
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Monday 3/12/12 – We were keen to get our first glimpse of Cartagena (and our first sight of South America) from the boat this morning, unfortunately all I can say is it looked almost exactly like Surfers Paradise in Australia with a thin strip of beach and huge towering high-rise hotels. But still being excited to be in South America, we scoffed down our breakfast with the rest of the crew and passengers, got a quick group photo, and then got ferried off the Independence and across to the dock with our bags. We then organised a taxi to take us to the immigration office in the city. We relaxed there hoping that someone would turn up with our passports. Eventually Majo must have pried herself away from el capitan and turned up with our stamped passports which she then gave to a strange German man who apparently would be our broker for the temporary bike importation. He mumbled some information which we barely understood and told us to meet him at a particular supermarket at 11am, and then disappeared!

We weren’t quite sure what had just happened, but we grabbed a taxi to the old city centre and found a hostel that would accommodate the bikes as well as us. We twiddled our thumbs till 11 and then arrived at the supermarket and had a strange chat with the strange German who took every opportunity to turn the conversation towards communists and how they loved to waste space with their buildings?!? I was glad when he passed our passports back to us and said we should meet him at the customs office with the bikes tomorrow.

We left the supermarket and German and headed back to the old city which was founded in the 1530s. The Spanish built an extensive wall and fort after the city was ransacked and held to ransom by the English captain Sir Francis Drake in the 1580s. The fort (called Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas) and walls still surround the old city centre which we decided to explore. The fort was an immense structure which we climbed and got a good view of the city. We explored the fort’s extensive system of underground tunnels which were originally used to safely transport supplies whilst under attack. We got lime icy poles and homemade lemonade whilst walking around some other parts of the fortress city, they were so tart that my lips literally tried to crawl inside my mouth and die. Unimpressed by the Colombian fare available in the town, we stumbled across an Indian restaurant on the way home where we ate dinner – it was fantastic and the first Indian food we have eaten in over 7 months!

Tuesday 4/12/12 – We spent the morning trying to get the bikes off the yacht and then get them cleared through the Colombian customs in Cartagena. First we met the captain on the dock, went out to the yacht, winched my bike down onto a small dinghy, and drove it into the harbour. The asshole captain then tried to convince me to start the bike and ride it off the front of the dinghy which dropped about 2 feet into about 1 foot of sea water, then ride it a few metres to shore. I then carefully pointed out that I didn’t want to kill myself or the bike, and he spat the dummy when I suggested we pull up to the harbour and lift the bikes out by hand. At first he challenged me by saying that everyone else did it this way and no one ever has any problems. He then patronised me by telling me that if I didn’t want to do it the easy way then it was my choice but I was just being stupid about it. After a few more minutes of him being an asshole I stood my ground and we lifted it out by hand. I then left Kenz on shore and returned with the sulking captain for her bike. Whilst I was out there, the captain made me help him do a few things on the boat (as his main crew-man had quit the night before – I wonder why?!) so about an hour later we returned to shore with Kenz’s bike and hauled it onto land. Kenz was in a slight state of panic, because we took so long she thought we were having serious trouble or we had dropped her bike over the side of the boat into the ocean. Fortunately this wasn’t the case, however one of her mirrors did crack and one of my plastics also cracked sometime during the voyage. We said a gruff goodbye to the captain who was blissfully unaware of our opinions of him – he is one of those guys who truly believe the sun shines out his ass and has no perception that anyone else would have a different opinion of him than his own. He shook my hand and tried to kiss Kenz on the cheek which she almost had to kick him in the rattlers to avoid.

We set the bikes up and reattached the panniers on the jetty where with a small audience of water taxi captains kept trying to chat to us in Spanish. One thing they were all certain on was that we shouldn’t go to Venezuela (El Presidente es Ogre!). We followed our German customs broker’s directions from the previous day and found the customs office where he was waiting for us. He then organised all the paper work and insurance we required. As I mentioned yesterday, the German was insane and always talking about the failings of communism and communist architecture. A few times he spoke to us in German and he is one of those people that won’t listen to anything you say whilst he is talking; so after saying ‘English, we don’t speak German’ a few times we would just wait a minute or two until he finished speaking and then ask him to repeat it all in English.

We cleared customs and went to the hostel in the old town centre where we had to ride through their restaurant and into the courtyard to park the bikes. After twice totally rearranging their restaurant, we walked around the old walled city and visited some old cathedrals and the Museo del Oro (museum of gold) where there were many gold artefacts that were saved from the conquistadors’ melting pots. We also visited the Inquisition museum which had many displays of the torture artefacts that were used by the catholic institutions to incite confessions of witchcraft from the unsightly or unwanted people in the 1600s. Some of the artefacts were so horrific; I don’t understand how anyone could actually use them on another person… there were saws used to cut people in half, clamps used to tear woman’s breasts off, and necklaces made of spear points so the wearer could never sleep or rest their heads – and that’s just naming a few of the less horrifying items. The more that religious history is studied, the more evident it is that the religious texts can be used to absolutely justify almost any action, no matter how atrocious or ‘evil’, by the pious and holy on the ‘ungodly’. It is interesting that during this time the scripture ‘do not allow a witch to live among you’ was held as one of the most important and used to justify torture and killings by the holy in God’s name.

Wednesday 5/12/12 –We had our free pancakes for breakfast and then we got picked up for a tour out to the local mud volcano (El Totumo), however first we spent about 2 hours doing laps around the city picking up other people until the bus was full. We drove out to the tall cone-shaped ‘mud volcano’ outside of the city which was next to a beautiful freshwater lake and forest. It was a very tranquil setting, however as we arrived another bus also pulled up, we then got herded up to the crater and had to squish into the warm mud with about 30 other people. I hated it, it was just a tourist trap where you couldn’t even move because they kept putting more people in, also you weren’t allowed to take photos but had to pay for the locals to take the photos with your own camera. They wanted money for helping you get in and out of the crater, there were screaming babies and people throwing mud everywhere. It was not my idea of fun, especially since you were basically lying on top of other people like sardines, and the mud smelled of methane. I cracked it pretty quickly so instead we went down to the river and swam around cleaning the mud from our bodies where there weren’t too many people. The actual mud was quite interesting, it was very warm and thick and apparently the mud pit went to a depth of over 2200m. It was impossible to move in it without help from other people.

After a while we got rounded up and put back on the bus where more locals wanted money off us as we boarded, I’m not really sure how they justified the payment so we just smiled and walked past them. We then went out to a provided lunch which was neither great nor terrible, however the bus then broke down so we had to wait for a replacement to come. Overall it was a terrible tour and we wish we hadn’t bothered with it. We made them pull over in the city so we could exit and walk home rather than wait for another 2 hours of hotel drop-offs.

Thursday 6/12/12 – Today was our first proper experience of Colombian drivers. It’s a strange culture here: when they are on the street or in the supermarket they all slowly stroll around as if they have no real destination, constantly changing directions or stopping to talk to people or stopping at the end of every aisle to admire the display of cat food or olive oil with no intention of buying anything; but when they get on the road they transform into the most insane unreasonable people who had to be at their destination 3 hours ago. Traffic is weaving everywhere, taxis, motorbikes and buses flow together somehow seamlessly but under no common agreement or laws that I know of. A few streets actually have road lines painted on them which are little more than a bad joke. After about 10 minutes we had to pull over to calm ourselves as we were both struggling to maintain our composure. We have ridden though many big cities with scary traffic (L.A., Guatemala City, Managua…), but so far Cartagena is the most chaotic and dangerous! Even the local bike riders would try to chat to us in traffic whilst cruising down the road 3 deep across a single lane, somehow moving as one to pass broken down buses or taxis. After an hour of one white knuckled hand gripping the throttle and the other almost constantly trying to push the horn out through the bottom of the bike, we cleared the city and were greeted by the tranquil countryside. One pleasing thing about riding in Colombia is that motorbikes don’t have to pay tolls to ride on the toll roads (almost every major road is a toll road), instead there is a small lane on the right (motos a la derecha!) which we can sneak down and overtake all the annoying trucks and buses that usually hog the road.

We rode for most of the day and pulled into a family-style roadside hotel outside the town of Caucasia. We immediately threw our gear into the room, got changed and headed to the outdoor pool. It was at this point that Kenz was devastated to realise she had left her bathers at the hostel in Cartagena, so she had to just go in her underwear. She needn’t have worried about modesty though as most of the woman were wearing bikinis around 3 sizes too small for them which was not only scandalous but also distracting. We got out of the warm and cloudy pool and had dinner at the hotel café. At the café we met our first friendly Colombian, unfortunately until this time all the Colombians we had met were assholes, which is a shame as we were really looking forward to Colombia. He was friendly, laughing and joking and telling me about the bears that live in the nearby mountains, I’m hoping it’s just the people of Cartagena that are just assholes and not all of Colombia!

Friday 7/12/12 – To prevent an olfactory nightmare each evening, we leave our boots outside the room overnight. This morning Kenz felt something bite her foot about 10 minutes after putting her boot on. As she frantically jumped around trying to get her boot off, a skinny centipede crawled out the hole near her ankle and scurried off. After my exaggerated and unconvincing lecture on the deadly venom of centipedes, we headed off and rode a horrible road through the mountains towards the city of Medellin. The road was terrible with sections of single lane roadworks and a corner where an 18-wheeler had just tipped over. Whenever we had to stop and queue for roadworks or yet another accident, we would sneak down the inside (sometimes past over a hundred trucks, buses and cars) to the front of the queue. Once when we did this on a really steep hill and when it was time to go, Kenz’s clutch started slipping, the bike stalled and wouldn’t start. We had to push her bike an incredibly painful 10 metres up the steep hill, around a corner and off the road. After cursing and feeling my ribs realigning for a few minutes, her bike started no problems and we took off again. The next few hundred kms were spent passing military checkpoints where they just smiled and gave us the thumbs up as we passed, passing many roadside houses where they tried to pull us over to wash our bikes, crossing many bridges over steep canyons and rivers, and Kenz struggling with her slipping clutch all the way to Medellin. We stopped at a small roadside restaurant in the mountains where I got two filet-mignons for 8 bucks and Kenz had her first meal with mushrooms in it for months (mushrooms do not appear to be part of the Central American diet). I ordered my meat cooked to medium which over here must mean they cook it for half a minute so it’s a purple jelly. I apologetically had to send it back to be cooked longer, and the waiter gave us free dessert for the inconvenience.

The drivers in Medellin were still insane but not as bad as we expected, so we parked in the hostel district whilst I walked around trying to find somewhere suitable. We parked in a spot outside a furniture store and the owner came out and told us to move. I ignored her and did a block looking for hostels. When I returned, a parking cop was explicitly telling us to move on, and on the way out I accidently knocked over the furniture store’s sign and reversed over it. As I pulled out, the parking cop was whistling and yelling at me very angrily, so I ran the orange light and kept going. Over the next few days we walked past the store a few times, always with a quickening step and downcast eyes.

Saturday 8/12/12 – We slept in a local hostel that was owned by a young sleazy Greek man who kept trying to talk to Kenz whenever I wasn’t around. He kept calling her ‘La chica primera’, and unfortunately he ended up sharing our dorm room with us. We travelled on the Colombian Metro (a surprisingly pleasant experience) out to one of the poorer, more densely populated suburbs of Medellin. This poor suburb is built up a steep hillside where the roads are so steep, narrow and twisty that buses and often cars can’t enter the area. Instead the government has built a cable car as part of the public transport system that leaves from the metro system and scales the steep mountain side. We jumped on and rode it to the top of the suburb where there was a great view of the city. We walked around the suburb and visited a strange library in the area which seemed strangely out of place amongst the deteriorated residential buildings.

On our return through the city we stopped at the Palacio de la Cultura which was a plaza surrounding a strange church. There were many polished bronze statues in the plaza by the artist Fernando Botero including one called Adan (Adam) where I posed for a photo right next to his giant shiny bronze penis. We spent the late afternoon adjusting the clutch cable on Kenz’s bike, relaxing, and ignoring the sleazy Greek guy.

Sunday 9/12/12 – Today we left the city and rode through some incredibly high mountain passes. Some parts were over 3500m and we were riding through clouds and amongst beautiful spires and steep cliffs. Of course the roads were terrible but at least we had good views to admire whilst waiting in queues at the many sections of roadworks. Kenz clutch started slipping again, however we didn’t want to stop to fix it on these dangerous roads and at such high altitudes, so we continued on for 7 hours riding to the city of Fresno. After the hard day we found a hotel and totally replaced her clutch cable with one we had wisely bought with us from Australia. By this time it was dark so we strolled through the town plaza after dark where all the amazingly elaborate Christmas decorations could be properly appreciated.

We had dinner at the only open restaurant at the plaza (lunch is the main meal over here, so if it’s not a tourist town it can be difficult to find somewhere to eat dinner after dark) and watched a group of cowboys sitting on their houses drinking beer outside a pub. One of them was pretty drunk and kept showing off doing figure eights on his long suffering horse. I was hoping the horse would kick him off but it never did.

Monday 10/12/12 – Before we left Fresno this morning the hotel owner gave us some mandarins for breakfast. Since we left Cartagena, most Colombians have been friendlier which is a relief as we have found riding in this country to be a little difficult so far, if all the people were assholes it would make it so much harder. I don’t need to tell you about the condition of the road, the height of the mountains, the number of trucks rolled over on the road, or the number of trucks queued at the sections of roadworks – it’s just another day riding in Colombia! One notable occurrence happened whilst I was crossing a huge bridge over an incredibly steep canyon with a raging river at the bottom. I was following impatiently close behind a truck and didn’t see the hole in the bridge until it was too late. The uncovered hole must have been part of the roadworks happening on the bridge and it was about 1.5 metres in diameter. The only thing stopping my bike from falling through was a rusty grate somehow attached at a point about a foot deep in the hole – I could see the ~300m drop to the river below through the grate. Thankfully the grate held and despite being almost thrown off the bike, there was no damage. A little later, Kenz overtook a truck on double solid lines right in front of a policeman who then pulled her over. Fearing the worst (after hearing notorious stories about Colombian police) we handed over photocopies of our passport and import papers where he visually scanned them, smiled at us, said ‘thank-you’ in English and let us continue on towards Bogota.

With trepidation we headed into the capital city of Bogota. Despite having a population of over 10 million, the traffic wasn’t too chaotic, but it did take a long time to navigate around town because the one main road we wanted to travel on appeared to be impossible to actually enter. We visited the Kawasaki dealer to resupply some spares that we had recently used, and then navigated the narrow streets of the historic city centre to find a hotel. We then walked around the city at night admiring the incredible Christmas decorations on display.

Tuesday 11/12/12 – We haven’t had a relaxing day since Panama. Kenz and I have been feeling a little jaded by the hard riding and circumstances over the past couple of weeks so we decided to enjoy a long sleep-in this morning. We headed out to the Bogota Museum of Gold which had a detail history of metallurgy of the region since pre-Colombian times with plenty of displays of indigenous metalwork. We then walked around the city where the police presence was stifling. There were armed cops and military everywhere, FBI –type vans with military guys accusingly staring out at everyone, sniffer dogs walking amongst pedestrians, bomb squads checking vehicles and the sewer, guys with gasmasks climbing down manholes – it was like being on the set of a Batman movie, I was waiting for an explosion and ‘The Penguin’ to come out of the sewer. I even got told off by a twitchy machinegun wielding cop for walking too close to a police barricade! I have no idea why there was so much security around – I don’t really want to know.

At nightfall we travelled via cable car up to a church/monastery that overlooks the city from atop an impossibly high cliff. We were taken from an altitude of 2,600m to 3,200m up to the church just as night fell and the city lights all got turned on. From the vantage point above the city we could see the huge nativity and Christmas tree in the central plaza and the large illuminated statue of Saint Guadeloupe on the nearby mountain top. There were also lights everywhere outside the church and even the preachers lectern was light up with Christmas lights. Earlier in the day we visited a church which had a twinkling Christmas tree next to the larger-than-life crucified Jesus!

Wednesday 12/12/12 – We headed to the Fernando Botero museum which had many of his pieces, and other famous artist’s works. There were some amazing paintings and sculptures at the museum; I got to see a few Picassos which were underwhelming. The highlight was seeing some pieces by Francis Bacon, an artist whose originals I have always been keen to see! Unfortunately we tried to visit the currently closed Historical Colombian Police Museum which is home to a gold-plated Harley Davidson (confiscated by the cops after they killed the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar on a Medellin rooftop in 1993) and many other interesting artefacts from the cocaine trafficker responsible for the deaths of over 600 cops during his reign. The term ‘drug lord’ is most fitting for Pablo Escobar, at the height of his operations he was smuggling over half a billion US dollars’ worth of cocaine into the USA every day using planes, helicopters and submarines! Interestingly, he is actually still well-liked amongst the poor in his home town of Medellin, as he donated a lot of money to the poor and was responsible for building sports stadiums, schools and churches in the poorer suburbs. On our way home it began raining so we swung by the market and bought a watermelon for lunch. Once we carved it up we realised that unfortunately the melon was being held together by about 1000 pips. In the evening we went to the central square where the Christmas decorations were on display. There were plenty of people walking around, street vendors and street-artists performing including a strange homeless man dressed as an angel who kept staring at me with soul-piercing eyes.

Thursday 13/12/12 – We left Bogota via the northern road and headed to the Cathedral of Salt (Catedral de Sal) which is an extensive underground system of caves and caverns set out as a cathedral. Some of the walls were covered in salt, however the whole places was very strange – even more so than a typical cathedral. In halls and caverns next to the solemn halls and chambers, and sickeningly pious statues, there were popcorn vendors and people selling ice-creams, t-shirts and fake miner’s hats. At least they don’t try to hide the fact they just want your money in this particular cathedral.

We left a little perplexed and headed south again. We had to ride through Bogota again as we headed south, thankfully for the last time. We went up into the mountains and rode through many small towns and villages clinging to cliff-like mountain slopes. We snuck into a street vendor for lunch and consumed an empanada each (like a meat-pie) whilst we watched the rain fall. We continued on until just before nightfall when we came across the city Ibague. For such a large city, they have almost no hotels – we did circles as the sun was setting trying to find somewhere to stay. After a long and grumpy search we found somewhere to stay, as we rode in a street-meat vendor was hassling Kenz and grabbed her by the arm whilst she was still on the bike. She was so angry and frustrated she almost took his head off. After settling in we went around the corner and ate at another vendors place, they served up a gigantic piece of anonymous meat on top of 2 potatoes: it was certainly a man’s meal. For entertainment we watched the street-meat vendors wait at the traffic light and reach into cars or climb up onto trucks to give samples of their wares to the people. Sometimes they would be fighting each other with more than one person trying to reach in through the car windows.

Friday 14/12/12 – Today was a fairly uneventful ride through seemingly endless mountains between Ibague and Cali. The few highlights were a man selling an armadillo on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. It was alive but I think it was being sold as food… Also we stopped for about 30 mins whilst they were painting the road lines over a mountain pass. As we were on bikes we skipped past everyone and road to the front of the queue, of course this meant everyone saw us passing and as they had nothing better to do, lines of men trotted up to talk to us. We passed the time chatting to people including a policeman who had a Suzuki V-strom and kept fiddling with my bike (it was parked on a steep slope and he kept putting the clutch in – I was sweating that it was going to start rolling away or tip over). I had to walk a fair way back down the queue as a man wanted me to meet his boss, a president of a Colombian university who spoke no English. It was a strange 3 way conversation in 2 very poorly spoken languages that took place.

Once we got to Cali, we/I decided to spoil ourselves by going to see ‘The Hobbit’ on opening night in Colombia, which we thoroughly enjoyed.

Saturday 15/12/12 – The next two days were hard going as we needed to pass through the sparsely populated southern Colombian mountains where armed bandits are often located. I wasn’t too worried about it until we chatted to a friendly lady in Popayan who told us not to ride at night and to be careful where we spent the night; she also said that sometimes the bandits come out of the mountains and rob buses at gun point during the day! We left town and not long after Kenz witnessed a Jeep try to overtake a bus and almost have a head-on collision with a truck coming the other way. The Jeep had to swerve off the other side of the road into the bush to avoid the truck! Yep Colombians are crazy drivers, and about 5 minutes later the Jeep was back and overtook us on a blind corner!

We stopped riding about 2 hours before sunset and stayed at a service station which had rooms filled with mosquitoes and flies for only $9. We felt safe as there was a ‘legitimate’ military checkpoint just up the road.

Sunday 16/12/12 – We felt confident of riding the last 200kms of dodgy mountain passes and arriving at the border city of Ipiales by lunch time. Unfortunately about 100kms short of our target Kenz got a rear puncture which sent her swerving all over the road at about 70km/h until she managed to pull over to the road side. We had seen a house with an auto workshop only 5 mins back down the road so we took her wheel off in record time. I then tied it to my bike, left her on the side of the road and headed off to find help. Luckily the man had the facilities and skill to install our spare tube and pump it up in under 10 minutes. I thanked, paid and tipped him and headed back to find Kenz relaxing in the shade on the side of the road. We were back on the road within half an hour of her puncture, which we were both thankful for. The culprit was a giant nail that shredded her inner tube causing her tyre to lose pressure instantly. Despite this unexpected adventure we made it to Ipiales and spent the late afternoon relaxing and getting ready to leave Colombia. Our Colombian experience really left us wanting less, we were disappointed by our time here. It fell vastly short of our expectations; but we were looking forward to moving on to Ecuador.

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