Category Colombia

escape from Pasto

Everyday we check the news and everyday it’s the same, the roads are still closed. But things have been better – the motos and buses are back, people are more relaxed.

The three of us quite like Pasto. It’s a bit dull, but seems prosperous compared to other towns of a similar size. And it’s populated by Colombians, who we agree ar mostly the friendliest (when not at war) of the Latins except (imo) perhaps the Mexicans, who were also gringo-friendly for the most part.

We’ve been walking and exploring everyday. Here’s a better-than-average street in Pasto

It looks nice here, but there’s not much historic interest, window shopping or good food, everything is pretty dull, in contrast to the recent violence. Except the clumps of Agapanthus here in the median. Another escapee from South Africa. It seems the only perennials blooming in the last 5000 miles have been from there. Very strange.

So this morning there’s been a ceasefire and it’s announced that 5 roads have been opened, including ours to the border. The day’s track
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Off we go. The pictures today, excluding the above are screen grabs from Contour video. The Lumix is gone and a serious blow as it’s been a trusted part of the team. More on this later.

We set off up the main drag, past rows of semi’s that are raring to go. They’re all honking their horns either in celebration or frustration as they manuever to get the hell going.
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Into the countryside. It’s mountainous
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The remnants of blockades and fires are continuous. Generally the roads have been blocked with stone
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There are plenty of police and army with riot gear making sure things stay on track
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The road is blocked by huge boulders at one stage. We wait while heavy equipment clears it
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Motos are sometimes above the law in parts of CA and SA so we roll to the front of the line. Looking back are a mixture of observing protestors, farmers and police
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Close to the border we take a detour to see the beautiful Sanctuario de Las Lajas that bridges a gorge (photo borrowed from Ben)
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This is where I’ve lost my camera. I rolled away from a viewpoint above this church with the camera most likely on my duffel. We check thoroughly for it when I discover it’s missing and of course it’s long gone. Very sad but it doesn’t spoil the great mood we’re in to be on our way south again.  Th three of us have been through a lot and it’s good to be riding out of the epic together.

At about 2 or so we get to the Colombia/Ecuador border at Tulcan. The stories are that the borders in SA are much faster and more efficient that those in CA. The procedure is the same however with the usual requirements, procedures and complexities. But without being the torturous 4 or 6 hour battles we’ve been through a dozen times. I have a friend I rode with for a few days who said it upset him so much he’s never coming back. Be warned.

The border is modern-ish. So first, the usual – clear through Colombian immigration and get the temporary bike permit cancelled at customs. They’re both in this building and it’s a breeze
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Then off to Ecuador immigration, insurance and customs for a permit, in that order. Ben and Maddie up front
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The thing that’s good about the Equador border is that they have computers. Hooray. But they’re really slow across the street where we buy insurance and slow again at aduana (customs). All up I think it took about 90 minutes. So a big improvement over CA borders. We’re done, we’re into Equador ahead of any of the other riders backed up north of us (maybe 4 couples and a solo stuck mostly in Medellin). We’re happy.

But with the road block, the church and slow border we’re behind and not going to make it to Quito. But first, lunch in Tulan. A border town so not pretty. We stop for lunch
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We rip down the highway, new destination Otavalo, as it becomes dark
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Ben and Maddie
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We have some trouble finding a hotel in Otavalo but eventually do.

But we’re here, out of Colombia and south into the increasing exotica of South America, very happy.

But we’ve broken the number 1 rule of distance riding: we rode at night. There are many reasons not to, personal security being the top one. But secondly, the riding risks go up and surviving long distances is about reducing all risks where possible. A mutual friend of ours rode through into Ecuador two weeks ago and roughly at Tulcan, after dark, crashed into the back of a stalled car, broke his pelvis in 4 places and is now back in Australia. His damaged bike has been stolen, his dream over for the time being.

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We’ve been meeting on the second floor of a restaurant/pub that overlooks the main square. Sunset is at about 6:15. A lousy pic of marchers (from our usual table) on the first night, earlier in the week, when things first hit the fan in Pasto:
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Last night three of us were walking near the square when we heard loud chanting a couple of blocks away. We went to investigate. Our timing was perfect as we got a near- front row seat.  A group of protestors was chanting/dancing loudly.

The atmosphere was supercharged. Immediately around them were riot police in body armour tip-to-toe, some with tear gas guns. We were behind them. Behind us, in the intersections were both army troops and police 2-up on motorcycles.

Our local friend, Andres was nervous about our being there and was unhappy with the whole situation. We stood out. In the days we’ve been here we’ve only seen two other gringos in the whole town and on this night none. Andres says we’re a target. He told me not to take any photographs. But I wasn’t going to let the situation we were in pass without record so this is where we were after we had shuffled ourselves to a corner facing the protestors
P1100732 - Version 2 I suppose we half knew things were going to explode but weren’t sure. After we watched with increasing nervousness for about fifteen minutes the riot police went into some kind of strategic action and started repositioning themselves. Somehow the numbers of people were going up quickly. The police and army around us were doing the same, moving in out of the intersections with urgency as they started blockading the area off. Something was about to happen and we started to slowly move away.

We were only a short block away when explosions started going off. People were yelling and screaming and the police/army went into high speed action all around us. Then the tear gas went off. People went into a panic and started running everywhere. We were determined not to draw more attention to ourselves and at no point in the evening did we panic or run. But we were determined to get the hell away.

Then came the worst moments. Three things happened at once that shook us. Firstly Ben and Maddie,  looking left, were shocked as a policeman on the back of a bike rode by fast with a pump action shotgun aiming at the locals immediately around them. Secondly, I was looking right when an explosion went off about 50 feet away in front of us, clearing the block we were on of panicked locals. Lastly, the police/army were blocking the intersections all around us and we were trapped. We had to do a lot of fast moving and hiding to get the hell out, as were the locals around us, as the army and protestors did battle all around us. These few blocks we were in were the epicenter of the battle. Then the army let loose with the tear gas again where we were just 2 minutes earlier. The distance was enough – we were only mildly gassed and now that boxed is ticked in life experiences. More explosions and the sound of total crazyness all around us. The sound was amazing.

Unfortunately someone pointed at us and yelled ‘three gringos!‘. Oh boy, it was time to get out regardless of army blockades, somehow.

We marched by the underground parking lot where the explosion went off and by luck were out of the chaos within another 10 minutes. We headed back to the central park for a much needed drink but all doors were chained closed. We all had lasting impressions, many of them. One that struck me was the sheer speed the army/police moved with. The armed police motorcycle-packs, 2-up with shotguns ready, seemed to move in perfect sync with each other incredibly fast through the small streets. I admired their skill and precision.

This is largely an agricultural issue, the protestors are coming in from the country on motorcycles and buses (they can’t afford cars), so they’re now banned from the town. The other issues, although they are significant and still on the table, have taken a second place to the agricultural issues. It appears that due to government policy for years (free trade etc) the farmers have been squeezed hard to the point that they can’t make money on many crops. There seems to be consensus that they have a strong point. No-one seems to disagree that they can’t compete with American imports. The problem is that everyone else with an axe to grind, including natural agitators and FARC militia, have infiltrated the protests and are using them to create war-like conditions.

The big issue of course is how long this is going to last. None of us have an urgent need to get moving although I’m sure if it’s too much longer we’re going to get a bit crazy. Frustratingly we’re close to the border, Equador is just a 90 minute ride due south. With the airport and roads closed we’ll just sit it out.



A break from the action for a moment.

Ben and Maddie are staying with a fellow who’s teacher, Jenny, took us for lunch in her beater Renault Master. There were five in the car. Here’s Jenny. She was a live wire.

As we drove the short distance from my B&B to the restaurant we passed a single story government building that had been demolished by a crowd

Gas station guarded by riot police

We had cuy, guinea pig, for lunch. They’re native to the Andes, specifically southern Colombia, Equador, Peru and Bolivia. I didn’t particuarly like it or dislike it. There wasn’t a lot of meat. It was disgusting to look at, obviously. I can’t remember if i got two heads or if someone gave me an extra.

Head close up

Limb close up. You rip this off and eat it just like a chicken wing. Yum.

Ben picking out an eyeball, trying to make a bad situation worse for everybody

Not easy to eat. Various degrees of completion – Ben about 95%, me about 70%, Maddie somewhat less.
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The group, excluding Andres.


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The B&B owner was surprised to see me the night before. The roads had literally closed behind us. When I parked Lucinda for the night there were two bikes chained up. The owner told me they belonged to Equadorians who had just flown home, expecting a long conflict and no way home. They got lucky because the airport road was closed by the end of the day

I was curious to see how far south I could get before hitting some sort of road block. I set off through the pretty streets of Pasto

Up through through a barrio

I noticed there were no cars as I started up the hill south and I rode straight into a pack of motos. We crawled up the hill towards another pack and then everyone froze. There was a burning building beside us and fire stripes across the road. And a crowd of angry guys, half a dozen leaders out front, with heavy sticks and rocks headed our way. These were the protestors and we were 1k from town. I couldn’t believe it. The war had come to Pasto. I fished out my Contour and took video of us in full retreat.

There was good brotherhood even with me, the gringo, as we stopped and started, not wanting to leave the scene but knowing the danger of getting with rock throwing distance. A tremendous experience, but nothing compared to what was to come. See the video to the left.

Ben, Maddie and I had agreed to email each other and get together. We met a cafe on the main square in the evening in time for a huge and later violent demonstration – the first in the south of Colombia. Ben has the photographs and I’ll update this post when I get them from him.

When we met our first shared reaction was ‘holy shit!

The next day we were going to be on the frontline.

Cali to Pasto

The track
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In the days leading up to my leaving Cali the unrest in Colombia had been gradually worsening. The trouble in Caucasia a few weeks ago turned out to be advance warning for what loomed ahead. There was enough talk of roads becoming unsafe that the day before I left Cali I went to talk to Mike at Motolombia about it. He gave me the number of the Policia del Turismo. The morning I left they said the road to Pasto was open and safe but beyond that, the road to the equador border was unsafe and maybe due for closure by the protestors.

If you have any interesting in following what has become the biggest crisis in Colombia in 20 years, here’s an english language daily jourrnal:

colombia report

Anyway I set off in beautiful weather.

The fast road to the border is the PanAm and for the first hour or more it’s a major highway. Being a beautiful Sunday morning, the cyclists were out. They were fast and cool looking, as peletons (if that’s the correct usage) usually are. Video to the left.

At check point things or toll roads in Colombia moto’s get a special lane and shoot through to the right with no stops. They’re quite fun in a juvenile way. A friend of mine, a good rider, actually managed to crash in one of these (you know who you are). Video to the left

An hour or so down the highway I come up behind a young couple on an 800GS. They’re Ben and Maddie from Pittsburg, headed for Ushuaia. We chat for a while and agree to meet in Pasto, all of us ignorant of what we were headed into the following day. A helmet shot, stupidly. A better picture in a following post

The road turned rural at about the point we went through this town. It would turn epic later

Since this is a video kind of day, to the left is a ride through a typical Colombian town in this neighbourhood. This one was particularly nice.

Another river/village shot

Lunch stop

Then we came to a pretty river with a horse and her foal

I rode down to the water because it looked fresh and clean. Most of the rivers on the Pacific side of some Central American countries are completely dead since they double as garbage dumps so Colombia has been a nice change

Down at the river’s edge there were beautiful butterflies on the mud bank. Orange




Then a man came down with his grandsons (guessing) for a swim and the butterflies lifted off the mud and flew around us. Video to the left

The river looked perfect for a swim and if they had left I would have followed their example and jumped in. A great day for it.

Soon the landscape turned into that Colombian brand of magic

Passed through small towns

The mountains started to get larger

The roads sometimes lousier

I’m not sure how to guage the military presense on the road. It was more intense during the Caucasia blockade. Soldiers along the roads frequently, small camps of 10 or less here and there, and two small towns looked loosely occupied.  Video to the left.

The soldiers themselves varied from relaxed and chatty to focused (in the two villages). The ones I spoke to seemed to think the road would stay open, no more problems in the days ahead. That would turn out to be very wrong.

The countryside got rapidly drier. This wide river seemed to be a turning point

Looking downstream at villagers swimming

Then an extraordinary sight. A wave of cloud hugged the the mountain range to the west

And one with the cloud wave and Lucinda

Before the canyon started in earnest a gas stop. Army guys do the pose

A half dozen of them had a small base hidden in the woods

There had been a firewall here earlier. We would get aquainted with these a day later

Then we were into a huge wide canyon, miles across and very high. For once my little camera struggles to convey the size of it

A huge river valley

The road turned into a cut

That was spectacular riding in places

More views

A view of the road ahead

Rock in the road

Through a tunnel

A great bridge

A dirt road to a farm on the other side

Then it gradually became lush and the temperature dropped as we descended slightly

Into Pasto

We had no idea the roads were closing aroud us. The next morning we were trapped.


On the outskirts of town there’s an orchid garden

The tile sign has the flavour of technical growers and is promising

In fact the past-Presidents tile is really nice too. I guess you have to hang around plant nurseries a lot to be into this stuff and I guess that’s not very moto blog, but whatever

I know that blooming season is a few months away but we’re interested to see how the place looks.  It’s laid out like an orchard with most of the orchids being displayed in trees

We’re really not into orchids but there are a few things are in bloom, like this Cattleya

Another up close

The garden is nice to walk through

In some corners successfully overgrown

A very interesting yellow spray I couldn’t identify

These fruit were a little smaller than a cantaloupe

The potting shed

Where there was this intriguing little fellow

And against the main building there were pots of Paphiopedilum, to many orchid lovers the king of them all (or at least Paphiopedilum rothchildianum) which was a good finish to this beautiful garden.


map makers


Richard Burton lived a complete life. He was an impossibly good looking Victorian era linguist, swordsman, writer, gambler, womanizer, map maker and the greatest explorer of his time. His talks at the Royal Society in London were major events. He discovered the source of the Nile. He was the first man to see Mecca (at the risk of his life, in disguise).

Asked at the time what fueled him, he answered “the devil drives”. In other words, he didn’t know. Not money, not power, an indication of genius.

So this morning, stuck in Cali (more later) I glance over at the sidebar of my ITMB map of South America and start reading the story of Kevin Healey, Master Cartographer. He appears to have that same passionate, even self-destructive drive and love of far-away places that made them both uniquely talented map makers.

Here’s the sidebar on ITMB’s Reference Map of South America (click to read) or if you’re cranky about reading stuff just the second piece

2nd part


Lucinda and I are supposed to be nearing Equador’s border this morning, but we’re not. I was picking her up yesterday afternoon here, Motoservicio Asturias when the plans changed
P1100453Where the owner, Jorge, patiently walked me through what he had done to fix the mysterious starting problem that has plagued me since Salvador, 5 countries ago. Three BMW dealers have failed to sort it out. The shop with maybe the strongest reputation in SA, Ruta 40 in Medellin, sent me away twice claiming it was resolved, all a fault of the clutch switch (which I disputed with them) only to have it fail again each time. I’m trusting it’s resolved now, but we’ll see.

Jorge explaining the possible cause

It will be interesting to see if he’s done what a half dozen BMW factory trained mechanics have been unable to do.

But the reason we’re not south is because at Jorge’s shop I’m told that the road is blockaded by protestors at Popayan, about half way to Equador, and at points further south. I hit the internet for the story and here’s a piece from the US that describes the big picture in Colombia right now

colombia issues

The roadblocks went up 48 hours ago, letting through the one rider (the day before they went up) who I know is ahead of me. No-one else is around looking to go south right now so Lucinda and me are on our own to figure it out.

After verifying everything we head over to talk to Mike at Motolombia about options. He says there’s no way around that wouldn’t be plain stupid.

Backing up a bit, on Thursday my visiting friend and I were downtown and there was an organized protest in front of the government buildings in an outdoor pavilion

The speakers were women representing mining workers

The reason I took the above detail picture was to get a shot of the white women in the center of the shot. She was a British trade unionist who spoke angrily for less than 5 minutes, being filmed the whole time by her crew. The crew didn’t appear to film anything other than her. Annoyingly she spoke entirely in english, despite it being no great work to read such a short speach in spanish. Not even a buenos dias to start or a gracias to finish. I thought about this for a minute – all it took to realize that her interests possibly lay in the value of her returning with a record of her taped activism, rather than in the interests of the people she was here to support, and speaking in spanish would have been a counterproductive record of her attendance. My apologies for editorializing

On the brighter side, a video of a local activist, to the left

Although the meeting was entirely peaceful (which possibly annoyed the Brit woman. oops, done it again, sorry) there were pockets of riot police around

On the subject of security and communications, Cali’s skyline bristles with cool do-dads

Lots of concrete everywhere

Some dated but imposing none-the-less


A typical street in Cali

And a typical park

Somewhere in here, time for lunch. Papas and awesome dried cow lungs. Addicted.

Massive murals. Promise or threat?

The city surrounds Rio Cali

Where young love goes to find itself. Hey, don’t listen to him, he’s 16 and therefore lying