The big road, a highway really, followed the ocean but there were only brief glimpes of it.
We passed over a river with long canoes
I stopped for water here
And there were two riders from northern Mexico. They were returning from Ushuaia and catching a ship from Cartagena to Panama City, but not the famous party boat, Stahlratte
The boy in the photo had a simple but persistent question: money? money? Nice kid though. I sat down with them and heard their story. Their particular epic adventure centered around the road from Manuas (coming in from Venezuela) to Porto Velho, Brazil, through the Amazon forest. A very impressive 600 miles of only no gas and only two water opportunities, challenging mud and general mayhem the whole way. We looked at it on the map. They said it was very hard
This gave me more food for an ongoing chat I have with myself: when am I going to risk such a route? Am I ever going to? Am I ok with it if I never do? There’s all the difference in the world between doing a multi-day no-mistakes epic solo and not. Two of you, no problem. If it happens it’ll be spontaneous and one day I’ll just ride off down a road that appears in front of me and keep my fingers crossed.
Then, in hilarious contrast I rode into Barranquilla and couldn’t find a hotel. There are a million people and it’s a zoo. How pathetic I thought. But actually the cities can be way harder than the country and from a riding point of view often scarier
Then I saw high up a Howard Johnson sign! Oh no, do I take it or keep looking? I took it, despite the cost and foreigness. Forgive me.
If you allow yourself to get sucked in to long stories and generally look in no rush, have a big smile, talk your best Spanish regardless of screw-ups and recognize that the Colombians think they’re better than you are, you can make a lot of friends easily, depending on where. Some places are tougher than others. I walked around for an hour and if you’re proactive and smile and talk first, Barranquilla is very friendly
There’s an annoying backstory as to why I’m passing through here, but I’ll let it play itself out before I bother with the details. A strange day.
Briefly, Cartegena was occupied by various indigenous people dating back 4000 years. The Spanish founded it as Cartagena in 1533. It became the Caribbean destination for royalty and viceroys so was the most heavily defended of the port cities. The Spanish were committed at all costs to keeping it and invested the equivalent of $2 trillion over the years to its defense (wiki)
The major pirates/privateers all took a shot at it except our hero, Henry Morgan. Henry had suffered a freak explosion on his flagship, the Oxford, and decided to loot Maracaibo instead, which of course was a breeze. Why he didn’t return to Cartagena my brief reserach doesn’t say. However this stall in his adventures is considered the only blip in his otherwise perfect record as a buccaneer.
In 1672, a prior era, the privateer Francis Drake successfully took Cartagena, but instead of doing the traditional loot-and-burn-the-damn-thing-down that Henry came to like, because he wasn’t fond of the Spanish, Drake ransomed it back to them for the equivalent of $300 million (A privateer was a pirate empowered by the British government, or a representative of the government such as the Governor of Jamaica, to raid and attack the Spanish for fun and profit on England’s behalf on a go-for-it basis)
I’ve visited a few Spanish colonial port cities and Old Cartagena has been the one most tourist-driven so far. It is almost entirely expensive tourist shops and restaurants and the streets are full of hawkers. I’d been warned that you can’t walk a block in the town, or 50 feet on the beach, without being hustled hard and persistently. This is true. Not only that but imo, despite being labelled the jewel of the Caribbean, I thought it didn’t hold a candle to Campeche for overall glory.
Old Cartagena is surrounded by low fortifications
The streets are quite narrow. The buildings are constructed of both stone and wood, unlike Campeche, for example. There’s less of an unspoken color management code
The central square is heavily treed and has an impressive Bolivar statue (more on this, briefly, another time)
Some of the streets are beautifully modest
The main church, alongside the classic yellow which looks so perfect alongside stone
Within the old town there’s an occasional nod to military history, but not so much
I gave the town most of a day but there were surprising few good museums that I could find and I asked around. But the most obvious was the right on the parque, the Inquisition Palace.
The inner courtyard
It’s a good exhibition. The various stages the Spanish walked their victims through are well laid out in a linear fashion. A holding pen
First, the 25 questions all potential witches etc were asked. If you weren’t a witch or warlock, this must have been a pretty tough question to answer: what words do you pronounce when you fly?
The real test of whether you were a witch or warlock was your weight. They calculated what you should weigh theoretically and put you on a scale. If you didn’t match the number they calculated, you were guilty. Out of focus but the only one I have
Then I guess you were guilty depending in whether it was a busy or slow day and things got really nasty
Track to Caucasia. The magenta line at the bottom was the ride in to Medellin from Giron
Day two, track to Cartagena, which includes a rider navigation error as you have spotted. I don’t like having GPS TV in my field of view. For me, it takes away from the ride quality. So once in a while I head off miles in the wrong direction. I remember two big ones in Salvador e.g.
Anyway, I’ve been staying at the Shamrock in Medellin. This means wheeling Lucinda in at 2 a.m. to the pub floor and out at 8 a.m. Staying here is another of those institutions. Al, the owner, rides a KTM 950. Bad photo in the morning light. The food is good and they have hot water!
It gets really steep shortly. I remember Nate two days ago, who came in this way, saying ‘ it must have been a 2000 foot drop off the side of the road! ‘. Nowhere to stop, but this curve was near the top, by a tienda
All the roads around Medellin are wide-ish and new. Things don’t fall apart until you’re 50 miles out of town. I don’t know enough about Colombia routes to be taking dirt alternatives yet
A town across the valley. About 80% of these mid-sized towns, based on CA experience are generally not very user friendly, but we’ll see how SA is. I generally eat on the outskirts of them. Less eyes, and you get a lot of eyes: everyones
An affluent farmhouse up high. Few and far between so far
At the very top, a flying club with two concrete viewing platforms and a clubhouse. It came as a bit of a shock as I now think of Medellin as sex, drugs and corruption all done and bragged about with flair. They will be the first to tell you that. But I guess a few of the rich kids do other stuff as well
Shrine and waterfall
A quick roadside check of licence, title, insurance
Another hillside town
Up into the clouds
A newly paved stretch in the fog
Small towns continuously
Possibly a hostel
Pescado is fish. They never tell you what type. The brown bit of this was pretty wild tasting but good
Then, a hint of what was to come, soldiers at a bridge, complete with sandbag pillboxes
The bridge, over to a riverside town
Looking upstream. Pic worth a click
I was surprised by the amount of soldiers around. There were groups in the shade under trees, groups in small towns. When I came out the mountains we’d passed hundreds and it was obvious something was happening. Then this
Hundreds of trees dropped across the road, then cleared
Cut fast and efficiently to collapse, like this
Then I started riding past miles of trucks and cars, all parked, drivers talking and resting in the shade. The good thing about bikes in CA and SA is that you’re not required to wait in lines, you just ride to the front. At the front, after maybe 10 miles, just chat between police and army
I rode through more miles of dropped trees and the occasional bike. Very strange. At one point there were only two young soldiers, rather than a big group, so I stopped to ask WTF was going on.
The story is that in three places in Colombia there are violent uprisings against local independent gold miners who with heavy equipment are trashing the environment. I was very careful to ask about whether the anger was against big companies from Canada or the US. Because in Guatemala this is where the anger is directed. But no. This is a Colombian phenomena. But it’s super violent, people are being murdered and towns are being trashed.
The reason the traffic is being stopped is because the protestors are firebombing trucks, with Molotov cocktails. I ask why not bikes – they say because the Government wouldn’t notice. I thought about this subtlety for a minute and asked if I was safe. They said so-so, but actually yes. If you’ve been in CA or SA you know that any question you ask is answered with what you want to hear. So confusing. The biggest problem was that I was due to find a place in the epicenter of the problems, Caucasia.
So, not having any choice I tore off at speed. When I reached Caucasia the town was an anarchy of crowds and bikes, ignoring lights, drinking, big crowds at the sides of the roads. I thought I would ride through, gas up when I could and try for Monteria, but that would mean some night riding, strictly a no no. But Nate, who I met a couple of days ago has done a night ride after saying no to a town.
I stopped to get a solo pic of a riot truck, complete with water cannon
I pulled out a trick of last resort after passing through the chaos (at speed) and stopped beside a taxi, the only one I saw and asked in my crap spanish sabe hotel seguro? (do you know a safe hotel) He smiled, said yes and tore off further way of town. Not a cheap cab fare specially since I wasn’t even in the car, about 40,000 pesos, US$20 more or less. We just made it at dark. The hotel was stuffed with army. Phew I thought.
A pic stolen of Caucasia yesterday from web news this morning, since I was too much of a chicken shit to stop. Next time I will, promise
The next morning truckers and four colonels watched the events on TV (I was told by the son of the hotel owner, who’d been to Toronto, poor guy)
Trucks still parked
Today was going to be a long day, 258 miles. As I’ve said before, this is a decent distance in CA or SA. No straights, extreme heat (over 100 today again) random road destruction, and plenty of tiny towns for example. And it was across flats so not many photo opps, but from up on a hill here’s the landscape between Caucasia and Cartagena
Lots of butterflies with yellow guts
Fancy lunch stop
A donkey almost exactly Lucinda’s size on one of the welcome dirt sections
Then 200 miles of this
Then for the last few miles before the Cartegena peninsula, it changed to this
Ruta 40 Medellin. A shop with a mighty reputation. Deal with it here because the south is a long way to go… In our case it was the crummy potentiometer which they replaced.
I have new tires, Lucinda’s running perfectly, we’re ready to head north, sweep around the coast and then through central Colombia heading south to Ecuador along the mountains
So a very rare thing happened. Another solo rtw rider. I had seen him approach last week on ADV at the bottle neck that Panama/Colombia presents, and so people meet here. He’s Nate from Washington DC. 30, he’s been planning this for three years. I haven’t seen an rtw route that included a lap of both South America and Africa, as his does. Very bold.
He has some unique ideas, like this charging station in his Pelican top box
He’s headed to Bogota for a week. Our routes intersect later on but there’s no way to figure out the timing so we’ll just stay in touch.
Some very weird old BMW’s around, I guess thanks to Ruta 40’s presence. Ohlin’s the best bling as usual, even if it’s silly
I think I would have looked at the pipe first, but they’re doing something, so whatever, they win
After 3 days I think I have an initial impression: Sin city, as advertised! No wonder Pablo Escobar, the most famous drug lord of all time made it his home. His policy dealing with the government or police was ‘plata o plomo‘, which means silver or lead, or specifically, take a bribe or a bullet. This is his wife, Maria Victoria, who was 15 when he married her. At his peak, out of Medellin, he controlled 80% of the world cocaine market.
It’s beautiful, in a valley, built almost entirely of red bricks or blocks, has 2 1/2 million people, and they say the women are the most beautiful in the world and yup, they appear to be.
Most of the city is like this, but the epic hillside construction award still goes to Taxco MX so far
The streets in this barrio look like this
Higher up on the hillside, greener
And the rich (the extremely few) live here, in secure compounds
I took the metrocable (gondola) from here to Santa Domingo to see the view of the city
The metrocable was built to help people move safely in and out of what was previously the most dangerous barrio in Medellin
Up we go. Looking north
Then over the top of the mountain and across a forest
Back down the hill
Then I made my way to Sabaneta, which apparently is a ‘typical’ town in this area. The square
A proud father. They’re all proud here by the looks of things
It’s 250 miles from Giron to Medellin, a full day. That doesn’t sound like much but since Mexico that’s the way it’s been. By the time you’ve taken some photo’s, stopped for lunch somewhere, talked to a couple of people, it’s 7 or 8 hours. The earliest you can get a coffee anywhere is 7:00 and if you need breakfast you’re not on the road until 7:45 and looking for a hotel at 3 or 4 in the afternoon. This seems to be everybody’s rough schedule. But if you’re riding down the Pan American highway you can easily add another 75 to 100 miles, but few people do that.
So off in threatening weather
Not many photo’s. I thought it could be a video day but the internet connection here is bad and uploading them all would take hours, so I’ll do a video post at some point.
The sky cleared and we rode through a fairytale for hours
White water lilles, if you click on this
The road was mostly fast. And sometimes bad, but they’re always sometimes bad. Dirt is way easier that torn-up pavement. One of the reasons I’m going to Medellin is to speak to a local expert on good Colombian dirt routes.
A couple of rivers were in full flood
This is probably the worst post ever for lack of pics. The final hour over the mountains into Medellin were a continuous series of slow, tight switchbacks. So many that at one point I thought, bloody hell I could use a rest from flipping Lucinda over left and right like this, I’m getting sloppy. But there’s lots of time to post great Colombia shots, so no worries.
A short day through a huge dryish canyon with radical switchbacks and ridge hugging. I was glad to be out of San Gil.
We climbed for an hour then had a view of the canyon. You can see the road on the hillside in various places. Completely free, wandering, fast riding in a strange land.
Photoswop at a rest stop. Deeper than the Grand Canyon and nominated for one of the ‘wonders of the world’. And of course not many pics because I was in riding heaven
Twisties for hours
Then, tired, into Giron, another small colonial town, where Lucinda found a home for the night in a hotel right on the town square
Giron is busy and happy. A very nice place to run into after San Gil.
People everywhere. Nice
A crowd gathered on the church side of the square
They were intent on various acts as each did their thing for a short while. Like this mime
It amazes me how they don’t care if the scalping act is good or bad, they cozy up with each other, applaud like it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen, and mean it. The same as everyone on the chicken buses in Guatemala, all buying the candy after the bullshit sales pitch, the community is also my family perhaps.
Video: after dark, a chaotic and happy motorcycle/scooter procession (rights to leave first, like a BC ferry) out via the square. I haven’t decided if it would have been ok to join in this sort of thing with Lucinda, we saw it before in Antigua, but the cost of being wrong is too high to risk it
The first 50 miles out of Villa de Layva were chewed-up concrete and dirt that required concentration as there were trucks on the road
It’s all about horses, like Salvador
Then we broke out, and in the distance, the beautiful Colombian mountains
Two hours later, into a canyon
Yay! More on Colombian riding another time soon, in the opinion of many the best twisties in the world
And miles through a shallow gorge
Then steam was lined with a Crocosmia species! Strange because the last blast of colour we’d seen was on the Guatemalan high plains weeks ago and was another South African escapee, Knifofia. No idea why these African plants have invaded so successfully, but they have. A plant that does well in wild Central America is Ribes, I guess with a 10,000 mile range south. We have the crown jewel of the family in BC, Ribes sanguinium, which is nice to know
A town for lunch
No much luck and then a great little spot
You’d better love everything here all day because varieties of this are the backbone of sit-down food. Cooking skills stopped at the Mexico/Guate border and won’t resume until Argentina I’ve heard
which we followed to the town of San Gil
The town center had a slightly cramped feel
Built on a hillside
But San Gil didn’t do anything for me and the place I found with secure parking was a $10 dump
Black, white and red, for any application, if you’re brave and good enough. Behold