In Colombia with a new travel partner

On December 6th we headed for the Tocumen Airport in Panama City to fly to Bogota in Colombia. This was a new chapter in our journey from Alaska to Argentina. Hard to believe that we had already done the entire North and Central America. Before we started the journey I had so many fears about all sorts of things. The traffic in Mexico, the heat, humidity and bugs in Central America, corrupt police, border crossings and much more. But as so often before, I’ve had to realize that most fears never materialized into something real. They are basically mental filters that keep you home in your sofa rather than exploring the world. Besides, whenever something bad did happen to us, I found myself being pretty rational about it and fear never really came into play.

Now we were heading for Colombia. A place we actually considered skipping during the planning of our trip. We had read all these horror stories about Colombia and didn’t want to put ourselves through any unnecessary risks. Glen Heggstad’s “2 wheels through terror” was one of those scary books that made us consider not going to Colombia. But when we talked to people who visited Colombia more recently, they told of amazingly warm and welcoming people and beautiful landscapes. Annette Birkmann who rode solo from Argentina to new York told us that Colombia was a must, she had some of her best experiences there.

So eventually we decided to include Colombia in our itinerary, but we really had no idea what to expect when we got there. Would it be chaotic and poor with bad infrastructure and corrupt police or would it be a modern society? We had no idea, but didn’t expect too much.

Flying was a pretty boring affair compared to the eventful border crossings we had gotten so used to. I did the classic novice traveler mistake and brought a big camping knife and a Swiss knife in my hand luggage – doh! We had a sandwich at 7/11 and missed the fuss, the vendors, the fruit stalls and the chilled coconuts at the border crossings.

Arriving in El Dorado Airport in Bogota was like arriving in any other modern airport in the world. We quickly got our luggage and proceeded to immigrations where we got the max days in Colombia without any questions at all. From there we proceeded to the customs office in the arrival terminal to start the paper handling process. We didn’t know if it was necessary to start the process here, but didn’t want to have to come back from the Cargo terminal if it turned out we in fact had to get a piece of paper already here. It turned out we actually had to start the paperwork here. The customs office was a big modern office and there was no fuss what so ever.

Well, Lars lost it a bit when the lady making our papers asked for an address in Bogota. He told her we didn’t have any as we would leave immediately or just find any hotel. But she insisted since she had to enter a specific address in her system and it made Lars really upset. It’s funny what makes you tick. After so many stressful border crossings in Central America this seemed like a detail – and it was of course. Lars dug out a guide book and found a hotel address which he threw at her. Then I asked him to step away 🙂

We had confirmation from Girag air that our bikes would be in Bogota when we arrived. This meant we could head directly to the Cargo Terminal to pick them up. It was 11 am and if everything went relatively smooth we would be out of there in a few hours.

We got the shuttle bus to the Cargo terminal, a newly built structure and headed for the Girag office. There we realized that the bikes had not arrived in Bogota after all! Bummer! They said the plane had mechanical problems and the bikes would be on the next plane the same afternoon – however to late for us to get them through customs. Now there was something to loose it over!I We really didn’t like the fact that the bikes were still in Panama City and we were here in Colombia. If anything went wrong it would be very hard to handle it from here. Besides this was the second time Girag changed the flight schedule. Were they messing with us!?

We had only packed for 2 days and now we were on our 4th day. Bogota was freezing cold and we only had our T-shirts.

We got a taxi and found a fantastic little hotel with impeccable service, in Bogota. Of course they served us a hot cup of strong Colombian coffee the second we arrived at the Hotel! Nice! The staff was very smiling and showed genuine interest in us and our trip.

First Colombian beer! But not the last!

The next morning we called Girag before we left for the airport. No reason to check out if the bikes still hadn’t arrived. Since we “hablo Espanol muy mal”, the receptionist was a sweetheart and called Girag for us. We waited with little patience for the news. And she had bad news for us: The bikes were still in Panama. Damn!

We decided that Lars should go to the Girag office at the Cargo terminal and put some pressure on them. I would stay at the hotel and try and get hold of the Bogota Roller Derby team. If we were to wait further for the bikes, we could just as well have some good company.

An hour later a taxi driver came to the hotel to pick me up? I didn’t understand what the guy was talking about. Were the bikes there anyways? Should I check out and bring our stuff? After some communication difficulties I found out that the bikes were in Bogota after all. The receptionist had misunderstood the clerk from Girag when she called for us. Lars had sent the taxi for me. I quickly checked out and got in the taxi and headed for the airport.

At the airport Lars was waiting at the gate to the Cargo terminal making friends with the security guard Victor. He was one big smile and appreciated that he could practice his English. Victor was one of many warm and smiling people we would meet in Colombia.

We headed for the customs office to do the paper work. Everything was very professional and we had our papers handled right away.

Then of to the Girag warehouse where there was more paper work, before we could get the bikes.

We could actually see the bikes far away under the big pallet racks. YAY!

Now it was just waiting!

We waited for a few hours before they found a ramp to get the bikes down. When it finally came we had the attention of the entire warehouse staff. Once again they were really interested and smiling and very eager to practice their English.

Yay! Bikes are down and we were free to go!

By then it was getting late in the afternoon and it started raining. We got soaked while we connected the batteries and rearranged our gear. We decided not to ride back to Bogota but just head out of the city and get as far as possible that day, so we could start off well the next day and make some miles.

We didn’t make it very far though. Still in the city Lars’ clutch cable snapped again. Lucky for us we were not far from a McDonalds where Lars could fix the cable out of the rain, and I could get some WiFi and find a place to stay for the night.

Just as we were leaving McDonalds we ran into a Dutch guy, Robert. He recommended a small and cheap hotel just round the corner which we really appreciated. The hotels that were listed on the web were all far away.

We found the little hotel in tiny street that was like a little town in the city. The hotel owner immediately had us pull  the bikes into the reception. We were pretty soaked by then and appreciated that he let us hang our stuff to dry all over the place.

The hotel owner Manuel was a very sweet guy from Spain. He traveled just like us on a motorcycle when he was younger and got all excited that we were here in his hotel. Think within an hour the entire neighborhood knew that we where there and that we were traveling from Alaska to Argentina.

Robert the Dutch guy we met at McD came by to check if we were alright.

The 7th of December is the day where Colombians honor the Virgin Mary. It’s kind of a Christmas kick-start where people lights candles in the streets and serves Christmas delicacies. It had been raining all day, but in the evening it dried up and people came out into the street and started lighting candles.

The next door lady came out with delicious Christmas treats and insisted we try them all.

Her daughter spoke very good English and she dedicated her evening to make us feel at home in Bogota. She and her boyfriend took us to the local grocery store and showed us local fruits we had never seen before.

The hotel owner proudly introduced us to the people in all the small stores in the neighborhood.

Kids lighting candles.

Amazing how this day had it’s ups and downs. First the news of the bikes that hadn’t arrived. Then they were here anyways, then the delays and heavy rain, then the broken clutch cable and then finally we ended up in this little sweet place with people that all treated us like we were their friends. What a day! If Lars’ clutch cable hadn’t snapped we wouldn’t have had this lovely experience. Every time something unexpected happens you can get annoyed and focus on “the problem” or you can think “OK, what’s gonna happen this time? Who are we gonna meet?” If you have a tight time schedule I think it’s hard to do the later. it’s a luxury for people like us who has enough time to actually enjoy breakdowns!

The next morning we had a slow start. The hotel owner took us to the local bakery and help us find a map of Colombia. It was almost hard to leave this little beautiful and welcoming neighborhood.

Riding out of Bogota was quite the challenge. The recent heavy rainfalls had shut down several streets, so the open roads were heavily congested and there were several detours. We got lost in the small wet streets and and it took forever to find our way out.

Bogota is an enormous city of 7 million people and a big part of the it consists of squatter settlements like Ciudad Bolivar. The population of Bogota exploded with campesinos fleeing the violence in the rural areas of Colombia. And the displacement of people from the country side still continues.

Colombia has an extremely violent history with civilians caught in the battle between the military, the high amount of paramilitary groups and revolutionary groups like FARC. All 3 fractions guilty of horrific crimes against human rights.

And unfortunately this still continues. Just recently FARC killed 4 people they had kidnapped and held in the jungle for more than a decade.

There’s a well written blog about Bogota and the political situation. Also it’s very interesting to read the Wikipedia section about Paramilitarism in Colombia.

Considered the violent history of this people we are amazed how open and welcoming they are to us. Everywhere people point and smile and wave and give thumbs up. The traffic is hectic, but it seems they all take extra care of us and give us a bit more space than they would otherwise. We smile and wave back at them all.

Ciudad Bolivar in Bogota.

Once outside Bogota it started raining again and we hit heavy traffic on the hwy.

Whenever the clouds cleared we found ourselves in beautiful scenery.

Outside Ibaque we checked in at a motel – one of those with a separate closed garage for each room. The receptionist tried to sell us a room with spa and a weird chair next to the bed, but we insisted we just needed a bed to sleep in. We got a simpler room and we needed it all night not only for 4 hours! When we turned on the TV we realized that once again we were in a love motel. There was 2 channels: football and “Animal Planet”. Apparently “motel” in Latin America is a place you pay by the hour and where you bring your  girlfriend. We still wonder what the weird chair was for! (:

We had an early start next morning and hit some great roads and could finally make some miles. We passed beautiful small towns in the lush mountains.

People work hard and they all look strong and healthy.

Going over another mountain pass we found ourselves in extremely heavy truck traffic. For miles and miles the truck were lined bumper to bumper and we had to do some crazy takeovers to get anywhere.

Then there was thick fog, as if windy mountains roads and the traffic wasn’t enough. At one point the traffic stopped completely because of roadwork. A large chunk of the road had been washed away. Being on motorbikes we could pass the entire line of truck and ride to the front of the line, where the road workers let us drive on. Great! But, since the oncoming traffic did not expect any traffic in our lane, they used both lanes as a one-way road – against us!

At one time we had two trucks in our lane. One smaller truck stuck between the large truck and the road barrier!

Once out of the mountains we hit a beautiful sunny hwy and blasted all the way to Cali. We wanted to stay at Mike’s (Mikkel) hostel Casa Blanca. Mike is from Denmark and as many other guys he fell in love with one of the many beautiful Colombian girls. He’s now running a hostel catering for adventure riders and a motorcycle tour company: Motolombia.

Picture for Mike’s Wall of Shame

Mike (Mikkel) from Casa Blanca Hostel in Cali.

Mike’s pretty daughter Laura and her friend posing for the camera.

Lars finally agreed to get his Robinson Crusoe groomed. Mike knew a genuine Ecuadorian old fashioned barber who managed to cut of 20 years of Lars’ age.

Tadaaaaaa!!!!!!! Who knew there’s was a handsome guys hid behind the wilderness. Say welcome to my new travel partner! 😀

Oups, did we forget the pipe ritual in Bogota? Well better late than never!

Roller Derby is exploding in Colombia, in fact in the entire Latin America and of course we hooked up with the Cali ladies.

Lars and the ladies! Hanging out with Valerie from Roller Derby Cali.

Valerie invited me to hold a training with her team.

The Colombian ladies sure are hot. Jazz studies political science, works as a photographer and is super funny. Guys you better watch out if you visit Colombia. You might never leave again.

Valeries mother is a dance instructor and they took me to watch the graduation dance show which further confirmed our image of the Colombian girls.

From Cali we headed directly south towards the Ecuadorian border at Ipiales.

Lunch in Popayan, a beautiful colonial city in southern Colombia.

The road between Popayan and the border changed dramatically from a perfect hwy to a windy and extremely damaged road. It seemed that every day there was something preventing us from making decent miles, either weather, road work, traffic, damaged road, breakdown, flat or something else. We longed for a good long day in the sun.

Stopped once again (:

And another stop.

We can’t complain about police stops though. Despite the hundreds of Police and military controls on the Colombian roads we weren’t stopped once. Instead they all give us thumbs up and wave us by. Almost seems as if they have all been on the same public relation course! We were very relieved about this, since we learned that riding through Colombia without local insurance is a complete no go. If the police stop you without insurance they will confiscate your bike immediately. And the Colombian insurance is according to Mike from Motolombia both cheap and good. It will in fact cover you if you have an accident. So a tip for other riders: get insurance in Colombia. In Costa Rica and Panama they will not allow you to enter without the local insurance. In Colombia you have to figure it out yourself.

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And we for sure can’t complain about the fact that motorcycles can ride for free on the hwys and have a separate lane at the toll stations. Often the lanes are really narrow and if you have a wide load on your bike it can be hard to get through. this one was easy though.

On the road met Ray Behm from Luxemburg on his BMW 800GS. He’s a very experienced adventure traveler and his website is well worth a visit. We later heard that his BMW broke down in Peru and he needs a new motor! The Peruvian customs won’t accept the used motor that Touratech is trying to send him from Europe so right now he’s stuck in Peru.

Ray and I.

We traveled to slow for Ray, so after a while he took of full throttle. Cool, but too much action on these roads for us. Later we met another adventure rider Frank from Germany on his BMW 1200 GSA. He started in Argentina and was heading north.

We made it to a small town north of Pasto and meet another adventurer Will from the US. He was traveling from beach to beach in his old van “Kombi” and surfed along the way. So many different ways to see the world.

From Pasto we drove through the most amazing mountains with white clouds making a beautiful contrast to the green colors of the hills.

This is when we looooove traveling: finding an awesome breakfast restaurant in a tiny town in the mountains with sweet and smiling ladies serving delicious food for no money.

Mmmmmm! You can ride a whole day on a breakfast like this. Freshly baked sweet bread, coffee con leche, fresh pina juice, fries, rice, eggs, and fried platano.

Just outside Ipiales we visited Santuario de Las Lajas build in the canyon of the Guaitara River. A spectacular structure.

Lars’ new looks attracts the young Colombian girls and he volunteered for several photos.

We made friends with this group of young Colombians. The bombarded us with questions we gladly answered and they paid us back with this lovely photo and 2 bracelets to remember them.

Heading for the border to Ecuador at Ipiales we had to get into the rain gear again. Not that it really keeps us dry anymore. The stitchings are leaking more and more but they do keep us from getting soaked. Besides if we don’t put it on, it always rains more heavily – or at least so we think!

Once arrived at the border we went through the usual border trivialities, wont bore you with every detail this time. As usual it’s easy to get people over the border, no questions asked. Vehicles are a different matter. We made the mistake of letting Lars handle the temporary import permit process for the bikes. For sure we wouldn’t have waited just as long in the rain if the customer had been a blond Scandinavian woman. This guy seemed more interested in the ladies walking in and out of the office than doing his thing.

The picture is not fair, the customs officer actually looks efficient!

But as always we manage to cross the border with no major problems or delays and we could finalize the process with another liquorice pipe!

Conclusion about Colombia: We were extremely happy that we included Colombia in our journey. And we are sorry that we had so little time to spend in this diverse and beautiful country. We would have loved to experience the Caribbean coast in the North, ride though the coffee plantations, visit Utria National Park in the remote West and much more. But most of all we would have loved to spend more time meeting the Colombian people. This is by far the most welcoming and warm people we encountered – and that says a lot, since we have been constantly amazed by the hospitality of the people in every country we have traveled through.

 

 

 

 

 

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7 Responses

  1. Jesper says:

    Hej i to

    Glædelig jul og godt nytår!

    Glæder mig til at følge med på jeres fortsatte færd, gennem sydamerika her i 2012. Det er simpelthen en fantastisk beretning, som i er ved at fortælle os….tak for det.

    Ser ud som om Patriots og Green bay har vind i sejlene!

    Fortsat god tur

    Jesper

  2. Kurt Towler says:

    Columbia looks great. I thought that the Columbian actress Sophia Vergara was an anomaly. I guess I was wrong. 🙂

    I just want to say that I enjoy how the blog is written where each post has different topics or themes. You spend some time bringing photos and experiences together in a nice collection. It makes for great reading.

  3. Esben Bøll says:

    Hvor fedt.. Og godt at høre i kom godt igennem et land som man har hørt så meget skidt om. Og lækkert at høre at I bare havde en fantastisk oplevelse.
    Og så kan jeg ikke lade være med at grine af at det virker meget bedre at lade Henriette ordne papir arbejdet. Det er den samme oplevelse vi har.. Af en eller anden grund så klarer I tøser bare tingene lidt nemmere.

  4. rod johnson says:

    Thank you so much for the wonderful stories and photos of Columbia. Excellent blog!!
    Came upon your blog via Mikkel’s Facebook link. I wish you well on the rest of your journey and will definitively follow you travels the rest of the way and read up on your start in Alaska. Thank you again