New heights

Copacabana, Coroico, Valle de la Luna, Oruro, Potosi, Bolivia

Titicaca hotel room view “You guys rest too much!” so ended an email from our befriended German motorcyclist Ingwer. Back in September we arrived in Cartagena Colombia together with 5 other bikers. A couple of months later we are hugely lagging behind most of the other parties. Some of them are getting close to, or have already reached, the southern tip of the continent, others are already back in Europe for more than a month. Clearly we are turtle-like slow travelers… but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Anyway, I will utilize one of our many breaks to report home on our journey through Bolivia, a rough gem amid its more polished neigbours in the southern cone.

Colourfull  The first town after crossing into Bolivia was Copacabana (yes, just like the song) on the shores of the highest navigationable lake in the world: Titicaca. Similar to Peru the buildings were still crumbling, ugly, concrete and wrought iron boxes. The women still dressed in the same thick multilayered dresses, but now they also wore a high velvet bowler hat, beautiful! Unfortunately, the interaction with the people deteriorated somewhat; store-, hotel- and restaurant-personnel seemed to be united in trying to extract every last gringo-dollar from us. Prices were inflated, set-menu meals were too small and the rude waiters tried to verbally batter us into giving a tip for an appalling service. Little did they know that we have been to India and are thus by now impervious to these tactics. The hotel room, however, was excellent value, so we took a couple of days to relax, write and unwind.

Start of the death road  A must-do item for every motorcycle adventurist is the Yungas road, previously known as „The most dangerous road in the world” or, even more inviting, „death road”. This single lane, gravel road connects the Amazon bassin with the La Paz altiplano, precariously clinging to the cliff-sides with steep drops and many tight, blind corners. Due to the crumbling roadside drivers have to keep left on this road, in that way it is easier to check whether your wheels are still on the gravel, which meant that, since we were riding up, we were on the safe hillside, luckily! In the nineties an estimated 200-300 people died on this road every year. After the construction of the modern parallel road the traffic on the Yungas road has dropped significantly and nowadays it is mainly ridden by crazy gringos, either by mountainbike or motorcycle. We left early and started on the road with quite some anticipation. As hoped traffic was low, the road was dry and the tropical mist had not yet arrived. Most sections were not that tricky at all and the bits that were properly dangerous were adequately marked by guardrails or, rather grim, by countless roadside crosses. It took us two hours to complete the road, after which we had a short celebrationary biscuit break, and we ascended back to the altiplano over the new, safe road.

Allkamari It took us a couple of hours to navigate La Paz, with its sprawling suburbs and small, steep roads, especially since the GPS did not allow us to take the main bypass. This did lead us to an excellent-value lunch of peanut soup and pollo a naranja for only 20 bolivianos. We were headed for the Valle de la Luna, a moon-like landscape amidst which an eco-resort has been built, where we would participate in an amazonian meditation ceremony. It was a spectacular setting: Pink, tower-like rock structures, in the distance the snowcapped peak of the Illimani (6458m), little adobe, hobbit-like huts, cacti and flower-filled gardens and of course some stray dogs and an arrogant llama completing the picture. An excellent location for some soul-searching. The ceremony was helt in an Indigenous kiva, like we had already seen in National Park Mesa Verde (USA); a very inspirational environment. While the ceremony did not bring us the meaning of our life, it did help to see what is most important to us: Our families back in the Netherlands. After another relaxing day, enjoying the strong sun at this altitude and the tranquility of this place, we aimed our wheels South again in the direction of the largest salt lake in the world: Salar de Uyuni.

 

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Peruvian highlights

Nasca, Camana, Chivay, Arequipa, Puno, Peru

PanAm and the Nasca lines Time for another bucket list activity! After crossing right through the plains of the famous Nasca lines on the Panamerican highway, we headed for the airport of Nasca. I had always wanted to fly in a small airplane, like the Flying Doctors, and why not here where Toribio Mejia Xesspe, a Peruvian archeologist, discovered these fascinating geoglyphs. We talked to the different companies offering flights and before we knew it, we were strapped into our seats with three other tourists and two pilots in a Cessna 207A. The pilot flew us over the whale, the astronaut, the monkey, the dog, the hummingbird, the spider, the condor, the alcatraz, the parrot, the hands, the tree and the pelican, circling every figure, so we could see them from both sides. After staring intensively at the first few figures, my stomach started to act up, luckily I managed to inhibit any refluxes until we landed. Paul and the other tourists were a bit woozy as well, so after landing we relaxed for a while on one of the benches overlooking the air strip, before we hit the road again.

Peru's Highway 1 After 1,300 km of coastal, desert road we thought we had seen it all, but the cliff road from San Juan to Camana was spectacular. High drop-offs without guard rails, waves crashing into the black cliffs, and huge boulders beatifying the surrounding peaks. A road that did ask for the driver’s full attention as became painfully clear when we passed a crash scene, where the front of a double-deck-bus had been completely crushed by an oncoming truck. The road felt a bit like Highway 1 on the Californian coast, very desolate, no villages and no side-roads to head inland again. We knew we weren’t going to make it to Arequipa, so we were looking around for a village with a reasonable hotel, not an easy task in this part of the country. Most tiny Wild West towns along the way did not seem to have any reasonable, safe place to stay. Finally we reached the bigger town of Camana, quite scruffy, but the tiny rooms of Hotel Monte Carlo were clean and the parking safe. The most hygienically looking place to eat was a Chifa (omnipresent Chinese restaurants) this time run by Peruvians, so instead of bami we received spaghetti with soy sauce, vegetables and of course chicken. The next morning we were happy to leave this unpleasant town.

Colca Canyon On the map we found an off-road trail of 220 km through the Colca Canyon, which should be an interesting ride, but what would the road quality be like? We took our chances and opted to ride from Camana, at sea level, to Chivay at 3650m via the canyon, famous for its abundance of Condors. The first kilometers of washboard were not promising, but after that it became a smooth gravel ride, along rocky mountains, tufts of  bright yellow grass, and cacti. Around one corner two startled vicunas just jumped off the road 5 meters in front of us. In Huambo, a quiet village with one “restaurant” we ordered the almuerzo del dia (lunch of the day) from a friendly, old lady dressed in a flower-apron. Based on the looks we got, they had not seen many foreigners here. We passed the Mirador del Condor, where we had been 6 years ago as well, this time no Condor to be seen though. We did enjoy the views into the canyon; pre-inca terraces still being used to grow rice or corn, donkeys with cacti stuck to their fur and farmers with cowboy heads. Around 5 o’ clock we reached Chivay, just before the sun would set and temperature would drop quickly. The town itself was nothing special, but the local ladies were beautifully dressed in multiple layered skirts, brightly coloured shawls, embroided hats from underneath which two long braids hang down. At this altitude evenings become really cold, so we had an early night, tucked away under nicely warm, woolen blankets. A good excuse to watch another episode of Breaking Bad on the laptop (quite addictive).

Just passing.. Now that we got the hang of it, we wanted to explore the old, gravel road from Arequipa to Puno as well, but a local told us that this road had not been maintained for the last thirty years and was in really bad shape. Instead we opted for the main road up to Santa Lucia and from there we would take the offroad shortcut to Puno and the worlds highest navigable lake Titicaca. Again a beautiful ride, with lots of crossing lamas and alpacas and waving shepherds. The middle part of the route was, however, in very bad shape, big rocks, ditches, mud, luckily the GPS assured us we were on the right track. Then we saw a beautiful lake filled with…. Flamingos! I never knew these animals would live at such a high altitude, an amazing sight. After an hour of rattling and vibrating and nervous sweat we got to a smooth gravel road again, winding through stunning scenery for another hour or so. In Puno we quickly found a reasonably priced hotel where we could park the bikes in the lobby, next to those of a group of Brazilian bikers. Later we filled our stomachs in an atmospheric, warm pizzeria in the touristy centre; Machu pizza and some mate (coca leave tea). This type of tea is very helpful against altitude sickness, so we had to drink it, right?!

Peru has been great! Peru is divided into three different regions: the coast, the mountains and the amazone. According to a restaurant keeper in Arequipa, the inhabitants of each region are very different and especially the people from the mountain area are very warm and friendly. Actually we felt welcome in all parts of Peru, no hassle, no special tourist prices, no touts trying to sell you stuff, reasonably priced hotels, perfect for us! While we were warned for corrupt police, we only got stopped twice and both times they were friendly and professional. Compared to six years ago, we did not see much change in Peru, neither good nor bad. The coastal road was a bit boring, we enjoyed the mountains much more, but rainy season was catching up, so we unfortunately had no time to linger at high altitude in this part of South-America.

 

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Lost in Lima

Chiclayo, Huanchaco, Lima, Huacachina, Peru

Tuktuks were everywhere, cutting in front of us, passing us on the right and left side, trying to push us into the open sewage next to the road and of course horning frantically. It almost felt like we were back in India, but it was Chiclayo the first big city after the border crossing from Ecuador to Peru. Luckily, traffic in most Peruvian cities was a lot more relaxed than this first encounter, but the waste disposal is unfortunately a big problem all over the country. Plastic bags, dirty nappies and other nastiness can be found everywhere, despite the omni-present, patronizing road-signs saying “No tirar basura”.

Huaca del Arco Iris Since we had visited Peru before, we decided to keep to the coastal area, as we had not seen this part of the country yet. Near Trujillo the remains can be found of the ancient Chimu capital, Chan Chan. A vast area of crumbling walls, cut in two by the Panamerican highway.  We visited the two Chimu temples: Huaca del Arco Iris and Huaca Esmeralda and a part of Chan Chan that has been restored. The adobe walls reminded us of Meybod and Rayen in Iran, but here the walls were covered in patterns of rainbows, monsters, fish, pelicans, and fishing nets. Another strange appearance were the hairless dogs. An ancient breed that was apparently used as some sort of living bodywarmer by the Chimu due to the dog’s high body temperature. Although their general appearance is pretty ugly, some have this tuft of hair on top of their heads that makes them actually look kinda cute.

Caballitos We spent the night in Huanchaco, a cute fishing village, where the local men still use an ancient type of boat made out of reed, a caballito, to negotiate the breaking waves. After a spaghetti dinner, we walked up to the  pier, where local ladies sold the perfect dessert: Hot chocolate and homemade cakies. Then problems started, Paul had some toothache, but nothing too serious he said.. The same day, we also noticed that our front forks seemed to be leaking again! This meant another visit to a Yamaha dealer, in other words, we would have to face the franticness of another South-American capital city. So we headed south on the coastal road, through vast stretches of empty desert, beautiful sand dunes, bare peaks and airborne plastic trash.

Our apartment Along the way the toothache worsened and by the time we reached Lima, Paul was in urgent need of a dentist. The lady of the hostel helped us out, by calling all nearby reputable dentists for an appointment. Dr. Krebs was so kind to receive us after office hours, so we hopped into a taxi hoping for a quick solution. Unfortunately, the dentist had some bad news, apparently Paul had an enormous infection in his right jaw. So first things first, he prescribed a 6-day antibiotic treatment , after which further steps could be taken. In the end one of Paul’s molders had to be extracted. All in all, we spent 12 days in rather dull, melancholic, foggy, dirty Lima, before Paul was fit enough to leave again. Luckily, we did find a nice apartment, so we had our own kitchen, bathroom, cable TV and comfy bed (no woolen blankets!). At the same time, we were able to fix the bike problem. The Yamaha dealer did not have the right seals in stock, but they referred us to Endurance Motors, where Cristian took perfect care of the bikes.

Sandboarding Happy to leave Lima again, we rode to the desert oasis of Huacachina, apparently the best place for sandboarding. On our way we were passed by another overlander on a BMW HP2, who was heading for the same town, so we made an appointment for dinner. Jeremy, from Canada, turned out to be great company, and we had some inspiring conversations over several glasses of excellent, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. The next day a sand-buggy took us to the highest sand dunes in the world (over 160m), quite an exhilarating, bumpy ride, after which it was time for us to test our snowboarding skills. It took some practice and head-first sand encounters, but eventually we run a couple of smooth lines down the slopes. After a Lawrence of Arabia sunset, we headed back to town, another item checked on bucket list. We still prefer snow over sand though!

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Ecuador revisited

Otavalo, Quito, Puerto Lopez, Rio Bamba, Banos, Cuenca, Macara, Ecuador

In 2006 we have been backpacking all over Peru and Ecuador. Back then we visited the town of Otavalo in northern Ecuador. During our current trip Otavalo was the first of the towns we would revisit. The Otovalo indians did not seem to have changed much over the past years. The women are still beautifully dressed in fine garments and the men still proudly swing around their signature ponytails. In contrast, we found that the town had improved markedly. The streets seemed to be far less grubby, the marketplace looked a great bit more hygienic and our hotel room was quite decent. Over dinner we discussed how things had improved in this part of Ecuador. Yet, as Marlieke rightly argued “It is also likely that our extended journey has lowered our expectations compared to the time when we were two unfledged backpackers”. Ah well, I guess beauty indeed is in the eye of the beholder.

Fixing the luggage rack The biggest personal growth we experienced during our journey is the firm believe that any problem, how inconvenient at first glance, can generally be fixed easily. This new found believe would be seriously tested the next few day. Shortly after leaving Otavalo we stopped to check if the spare tires were securely fixed to my bike. Upon inspection I learned that my top luggage rack had snapped of at two points. No biggie, we would surely be able to find a welding workshop enroute to Quito. Marlieke, however, also noticed oil leaking down the front forks of both bikes. We knew that this issue needed to be addressed urgently, but that it would be difficult to source replacement fork seals here. We carefully drove the bikes to Quito and indeed found a welder to fix the luggage rack. The welcome at Yamaha Quito, however, was far from heart-warming. They kept us waiting for hours only to inform us at 4 o’clock that they could not source OEM replacement seals and that all businesses would be closed for the next 4 days because of a national holiday. We had no intention to spend that many days in this big city, so we went on a mad chase through the urban maze in search of aftermarket seals. Luckily, we were able to persuade the mechanic to work overtime and install the aftermarket seals. At 8 o’clock in the evening the bikes were ready. After I put on my riding gear, I walked to the area where the bikes were parked, where I saw Marlieke and the mechanic kneeled beside my motorbike. “Paul” Marlieke said in the most gentle of voices “You are not gone like this” while she pointed to my side standard that was sticking out in a rather odd direction. Great, a broken off side stand… another day, another chore.

Blue feeted boobie After a disappointing comfort-food dinner at KFC, a night in an overpriced hotel and another visit to a welding shop we were happy to leave in the direction of Puerto Lopez. The route included the Quilotoa loop, raved about in the Lonely Planet. To be honest the scenery did not impress much, however the 4,500m mountain pass did allow us to check our carburation setup for high altitude. Puerto Lopez is nothing to write home about with the exception of the splendid ceviche served at one of the sea-side restaurants. We booked a trip to Isla de la Plata, also known as Galapagos for the poor. The 300HP speedboat covered the 40km to the island in a mere 60 minutes. Quite unexpectedly we also spotted some whales, amazing! Another tick-mark on our bucket list. On the island, our energetic guide took us to the breeding grounds of the famous blue boobies, a marine bird first studied by Charles Darwin. These birds do not perceive humans as a threat so you can get very close without disturbing them.

Tungurahua By this time we were a bit in a quandary; the onset of the Bolivian rainy season urged us to continue south, still we felt we had not yet experienced enough of beautiful Ecuador. After some deliberation we decided to return inland to the mountain spa town of Banos. We were not able to cover the 400km in a single push and at the end of a long day we found ourselves on a muddy backroad, at 4,300m in the freezing cold, not good.. Early the next day we did reach Banos and headed straight for the thermal baths for some much needed relaxation and warmth. The other day we rented some mountainbikes and rode through the Rio Verde valley. Halfway we stopped at a 1-km long zipline, only 10 dollars each! Later we walked up to the Pailon del Diablo waterfall. This was the 19th waterfall we have seen during this trip, but it surely was the most spectacular. During our last night in town we heard the Tungurahua volcano rumbling, but in our half-conscious state we did not think much of it. The next morning, however, we found our bikes covered in fine volcanic ash, time to leave.

Cuenca Our last touristic stop in Ecuador was in the student city of Cuenca. After all, quite ugly, concrete Ecuadorian towns this city felt as a relieve. The central plaza was well maintained and the facade of the Cathedral was beautifully carved out of sandstone. There were lots of small pubs packed with students and other bohemians. In our opinion, Cuenca is by far the most enjoyable city we have seen in Central and South-America. What will Peru bring us?

 

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Colombia, highly recommended!

Aranzazu, Salento, Popayan, San Agustin, Pasto, Colombia

Since we didn’t want to be caught up by the rainy season, and at the same time we didn’t want to skip too many visit-worthy places, we have been on the move for the last few weeks. As such we didn’t take the time to update our blog. At the moment, we are stuck in Lima for some time, so we can finally update all of you again. We are very happy to see that many people still like reading our posts and we love reading all your comments!

Colombian coffee hills Back to Colombia. As advised by the cyclists Marije and Menno, we didn’t take the main road South from Medellin to Manizales, but took a detour via Aguadas, Pacora, Salamina and Aranzazu, right through the heart of coffee land. Steep mountainsides filled with dark green coffee bushes interplanted with eye-catching light green banana trees. Here and there we found small white houses with nice red-tiled roofs, and balconies filled with flowers. Like before, the road changed from gravel to perfect tarmac, to gravel, but this time we were also faced with landslides. At these places, the road was reduced to half or les than half of it’s original width and the tarmac was filled with pot-holes, fortunately the road was very quiet, so there was very little oncoming traffic. We loved the superb views and the adventurous riding, but it did slow us down, so instead of ending in Manizales, we had to spend the night in a small town called Aranzazu. At first we were a bit intimidated by all the men, women and children staring at us when we halted at the central plaza, but then a friendly couple asked us in perfect English if we needed a hotel. They helped us out and soon we were installed in “Casa de las abuelos”, where we got acquainted with Andres. He was working in this town as a family counselor and spend some days in this hotel every month. He was happy to practice his English and insisted on showing us the town. When we stepped out of the hotel we were almost run over by a group of caballeros parading through the streets on their horses. Instead of galloping, the horses almost danced, walking from right to left to right, moving their legs faster and faster. Soon we realized half of the village was showing off on their horse, while the other half had tied their horses down to have a drink at the bar. Fascinating!

Cocora valley walk After an interesting night, we continued to Salento, where we had planned to do some nice hiking. We stayed at hostel “The Plantation house”, where we indulged in the free Colombian coffee and mandarins and the beautiful lush garden with colorful birds. The next day we hiked through the Cocora valley, famous for its 60 meter tall Wax palm trees and a wide variety of hummingbirds. The day started a bit cold and rainy, but soon the sky cleared and we had beautiful views of sloping green fields dotted with wax palms and cows. At the Acaime natural reserve we enjoyed hot chocolate while watching the numerous kinds of tiny hummingbirds buzzing around attracted by the sugar-water-filled bowls. We rounded the hike by visiting Finca la Montana at 2800m with a beautiful flower-filled garden. In the evening we were back in Salento, where we ran into biker Gail again (from Villa de Leyva). We joined for a trout-dinner and played some Tejo. Tejo was advertised as “Exercise, beer and explosives”, which off course asked for some up-close investigation. It turned out to be some sort of Jeu de boules, although in this case the “boule” was a heavy metal disc and the target was an iron ring covered with gunpowder-packets. As you can imagine, a lot of fun, especially combined with some beers.

Camping again! The next few days were more about riding, we took the gravel road from Popayan to San Agustin, crossing the Central Cordillera. After some road works and very dusty roads, we entered the National Park Purace: Dense forest as far as the eye could see. We were at 2,400 m altitude when rain set in (cold!), so we quickly dug out our rain gear and continued more cautiously. Then a big truck came around the corner, driving in the middle of the gravel road, leaving very little space for us. Quickly steering to the outside of the curve while carefully breaking, but still slipping on the wet stones, we managed to avoid hitting the truck. With our hearts pounding in our chest we continued our way to San Agustin. Here we put up our tent at a beautiful, grassy spot of a local campsite and visited the famous archaeological park. This UNESCO heritage site is filled with ceremonial burial sites (1-900 AD) of which especially the carved, monster-like statues guarding the entrances stirred our imagination.

River crossed :-) Our final stretch of road in Colombia was from San Agustin via Mocoa to Pasto through the Cordillera Occidental. On the map we had already seen that about 70km seemed to be unpaved, later we heard they call this the Colombian ‘road of death’: Thick gravel, large parts the width of a single vehicle, no guard rails and on several occasions flooded by waterfalls. Fortunately, it was a sunny day, and while at times challenging, we managed to cross without any major problems, which really made me proud of ourselves! Pasto was a busy, dirty town, where we did manage to buy some necessary spare parts and spare rear tires for a good price. After three weeks in Colombia it was time to leave. Just before we exited the country, we visited Las Lajas, a pilgrimage site for Colombians, where -apparently- the Virgin Mary once appeared on the canyon wall. We didn’t need any good luck, but we took the chance to lit a candle for our expecting sister (in-law). For us Colombia has been splendid, far more easygoing than the central-American countries, we can highly recommend it!

 

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Chiclets?

San Gil, Villa de Leyva, Puerto Berrio, Medellin, Colombia

Villa de Leyva Secure parking for two medium sized bikes is always an issue when traveling to colonial towns. Sure, the cobble-stoned roads and brightly colored house are beautiful, but the narrow entrances and high doorsteps have forced us to engage in some true motorcycle acrobatics. Upon arriving in San Gil, Marlieke went on foot to explore the steep, narrow streets in search of a cheap place to stay with parking opportunities. Upon her return she informed me that she found a cheapie and it might be possible to park both bikes in the tiny courtyard. By now, that is good enough for me and  with 5 mm spare on both sides of the boxes I squeezed the two bikes in the designated spots. In Villa de Leyva, another cobble-stoned gem, we found out that we are still quite lucky as we talked to Yankee Gail, traveling on his huge BMW 1200GS. Given the dimensions of his touring beast he told us that he almost always has to resort to a parqueadero.

Curious Reminiscing our great hiking experience in Nepal we like to swap our wheels for hiking boots now and then. Villa de Leyva was beautiful to stroll around, but the hike on the hills surrounding the town did not impress: A dry and dusty trail leading to an almost non-existent waterfall. The hike from the white washed town of Barichara (near San Gil) to Guane led us through green hills, pastures with curious, long-eared cows over an ancient stone paved path with many fossils embedded stones. The village of Guane did not disappoint either. Our arrival in the town was noticed by the many cowboys hanging around the local bar on the main square. We returned their smiles and rewarded ourselves with some homemade helados de leche (milk ice creams), meanwhile enjoying the awkwardly large town square and huge, colonial church. The day after we undertook another tiny hiking expedition to the nearby Cascadas de Juan Curi, through beautiful jungle. We were almost the only visitors so we took the opportunity to take a chilly but very refreshing shower under the 180m high waterfall.

He said... Colombia is divided by two mountain ranges that run parallel from north to south. The first two weeks we had been wandering around the eastern part of the country but due to technical motorcycle issues and maintenance the time had come to traverse to Medellin in the western mountain range. This meant driving down from 2500m  to almost sea level over minor, badly maintained roads. It took us two days to cover the 250 km leg with an overnight stay in Puerto Berrio. This is an important inland harbor on the river Magdalena connecting Bogota to the Caribbean ports. As it is a port town, it is also notorious for providing “relaxation and comforting” to the weary river boat sailors. Upon arrival we asked some locals for a decent hotel, they responded with raised eyebrows…. “decent in Puerto Berrio… not likely”. In the end we settled for an almost decent lodging near the harbor. The owners went out of their way to make their unusual guests feel at home: We got the “deluxe” room and in the morning they even made fresh coffee. At the same time we were allowed to park our bikes overnight in the nearby hardware shop. As it turns out kindness is prevalent in the most unlikely locations.

Excelent advice In Medellin we headed straight for Yamaha Mundo. At first, the excellent Yamaha crew was a little bit set back by the arrival of these uncommon, non-Spanish speaking customers, but then they enthusiastically set about working on both bikes. With a few days to spare we explored Medellin. We visited a museum with some interesting works by Botero, the famous painter/sculpture from Medellin and strolled around the central plaza. At Saturday night we headed to Parque Llenas to celebrate the end of the week with the local hipsters. While  looking around for the bar of our liking we were continuously approached by young guys offering Chiclets chewing gum while quickly mumbling “Coca” to explain to us the true nature of their business. We kindly rejected their offers and settled for the legal substitute; a bottle of Ron 3 anos on the terrace of a nice salsa bar. Clearly this city has moved up a lot since the times of Pablo Escobar, yet the apparent availability of coke, and the many glue sniffing homeless guys lingering around the city centre, indicate that much is left to be improved.

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Roaming in Colombia

Cartagena, Mompos, El Banco, Ocana, Pamplona, Colombia

Leaving the Stahlratte “Don’t worry Manfred will smooth things over”. The first time our group of motorcyclists met Manfred, we already got the impression that our German-Colombian customs helper had seen more energetic days. He sighed, huffed and puffed while reluctantly explaining the apparent hassle he had to go through with the Colombian customs… A very long story short; clearing and insuring the bikes took 5 days, the longest border crossing up till now! Meanwhile we hung around in hot and sticky Cartagena with the other bikers and the Stahlratte crew. Cartagena used to be the most important harbor by which the Spanish SHIPPED out the New World golden treasures. The colonial centre, the surrounding city walls and the fortress stand testimony to the grandeur of these past times. Despite the immense heat we ventured out to visit one of the forts and the old city centre. The remainder of the days, we mainly hid from the sun taking refuge under the ever-blowing hostel fans, however, at night we and the city came to live. The street barbecues served excellent skewers and arepas (corn-cheese pancakes) which we washed down with plenty of ron and cervezas just like the local crowd. The next morning after a particularly enjoyable night on the town, we found ourselves back in the Stahlratte bunks instead of our hostel beds, much to the surprise of ourselves and captain Ludwig.

Road to El Banco After five days, we were happy to be able to start up the bikes again and leave the city behind us. We formed a small expedition together with “Ginger” the German to explore the swamp roads to the Unesco heritage town of Mompos. The other motorcycle tavelers were a bit more in a hurry and headed directly to Medellin. Our adventure already started a mere 100 km out of Cartagena when some locals informed us about a roadblock en route to the ferry at Magangue. In Colombia locals set up these roadblocks for various political motives, and while foreigners are not specifically targeted, thing can heat up easily. Since we had no desire to be accidentally gringo-lynched, we gladly accepted the offer of two local guys on mopeds to show us the safer backroad. What followed was an hour-long motocross race through knee deep mud trenches, gravel and loose sand only to end up at another, though less politically-oriented, roadblock. To appease the eager villagers we quickly drew some pesos from our wallets, after which we dashed to the ferry dock. Of course every available “helper” jumped to the opportunity to push our bikes onto the ferry, despite our very clear request not to interfere. Luckily the ferry soon took off and while the helpers were all still shouting for their propina (tip), we waved them goodbye as the gap between the ferry and shore widened. Mompos proved to be a delightful, small town. In the evening we ate some greasy “pizza” and cheese rolls at the local Panadaria (bakery) while some (Germans) were enjoying their beers and others sticked to non-alcoholic malt drinks. The onward road to El Banco can be legendary muddy, so at night we anxiously listened to the sound of raindrops hitting the roof above our comfortable hostel beds. Fearing the worst, we must say that the mud track the next day was technical, but certainly not too challenging, luckily the full-blown rainy season had not yet reached these regions. We carefully forced our way through the surreal landscape; red mud, cows knee-deep in green, but swamped fields, an abundance of water-birds accompanying them, and the muddy, but fast-flowing Rio Magdalena running just next to the road.

Roadworks Back on the main road we said goodbye to Ginger and headed toward the mountain region bordering with Venezuela. Here we were thoroughly introduced to the realities of geologically instability; roadwork every 10km with up to two hours waiting times and no alternative routes available. Apart from that the Colombian roads were in general quite enjoyable, although one should curve his enthusiasm when riding a fast motorcycle on these roads as around any given bend the road surface can change from smooth tarmac to a gravel pit without any notice whatsoever. In addition, the only map we were able to source back in Cartagena provided just a very rough indication about the road conditions. So we never really knew what to expect or how long our intended route would take. The bikes didn’t seem to mind though, the suspension and the new Pirelli mt60 tires performed flawlessly, on-road and off-road, and we had a blast riding through this Marklin-like landscape. The only technical issue was with my (Paul’s) bike as it was a bit reluctant to venture higher than 2500 meters. Clearly “den Uitvreter” craved for some much needed mechanical love and attention. Time to head for Medellin, the motorbike capital of Colombia.

Tinto and bananas So far, a good two weeks in the country, we have really enjoyed the atmosphere. The people are very helpful and relaxed; mass tourism has yet to reach this country which means that the Colombians get genuinely excited when encountering a tourist, especially tourists on such a strange-looking, big bikes. Whenever we stop at a central town square we have been approached by helpful locals within a few minutes, giving us the opportunity to explain them in our best Spanish that we are looking for a hotel room. However, upon hearing our Spanish stuttering some of them actually quit talking and respond to us with to some kind of sign language accompanied by some mute mumbling, as if we were deaf… how awkward. Despite these weird difficulties, we have always ended up in a reasonable place to stay. The more remote the village, the more enjoyable and genuine the interaction, at least if you don’t mind 50 locals observing you in silent amazement at the same time. Long live motorbike travel and towns not listed in the guidebooks!

Posted in Central America, Colombia, Countries | 5 Comments

Continental crossing

David, Panama city, Kuna Yala, Panama

We crossed The Canal! Right in front of us we saw the silhouette of a large metalwork bridge: El puente de Americas. On the right side we could see massive freighters laying side by side, all waiting for their turn to cross from the Pacific into the Atlantic ocean. On the left side mammut cranes were guarding the harbor as huge modern era Colossuses of Rhodes: We were crossing the Panama canal! Both in the confined tranquility of our own helmet we had bit of an emotional moment; all the way from Chicago we were now finally crossing from the Northern to the Southern American land mass. Only the road gap of the Durian jungle was now separating us from South America.

Panama canal Since we had a boat to catch we didn’t visit many tourist attractions in Panama. In the northern mountains we tried to stay at a hostel in the middle of the cloud forests, but the muddy, slippery, uphill trail turned into a bouldering trail, only suitable for hiking. As it turned out there was no safe parking for the bikes, and with all the rain coming in we took our chance and left the jungle as soon as the sky cleared for half an hour. Instead we turned for Super 99 in the city David, maybe not the usual tourist attraction, but after the scarcity of Western goods throughout Central-America, we were amazed by this supermarket chain that had everything a weary traveler could wish for: Anti-rust paint for our exhaust pipes, all types of cereals, beer brands from over the world and even pancake ingredients for a true Dutch evening meal. Birthday boy Pim (our little nephew) had inspired us! Of course we also visited the Panama canal: The Miraflores locks, including a small museum with the history of the canal. It is really an impressive sight, seeing Panamax container vessels navigating through the lock with just half a meter of space on both sides, small trains guiding the ship to prevent damage of the lock’s walls, and the water level dropping at an incredible speed to release the ship into the Pacific, after which the next ocean steamer is already approaching. It is clear why Panama is one of the richest countries in Central-America, even though the Panamanian government only became the official owner of the canal as recent as 1999.

Convoy out of Panama Panama city is a modern city with skyscrapers and shopping malls with fancy stores, but it is also a little rough around the edges; some neigborhoods are no-go areas, sidewalks are non-existent and potholes omnipresent. We settled in the commercial centre, in Panama House hostel, the get-together spot for all motorbike travelers that would cross the Durian on board of the German sailing boat the Stahlratte. Pretty soon we found ourselves in the company of David (UK), Eric and his fiancé Tanya (Canada), Ingwer (Ginger for close friends, Germany), Jonas and Hector (Mexico), and Kevin (UK). We had a great night chatting over some rum, toasting on a good crossing. In the city, we also met up with Marije (ex-RIVM colleague) and Menno, who just crossed from Colombia to Panama with the Stahlratte and were heading further North on their bicycles. They had some great tips of places to visit and made us really look forward to traveling through Colombia. First, however, we would enjoy our 4-day cruise from Carti to Cartagena.

What can possibly go wrong? We had quite an adventurous ride to the pier in Carti. Riding in convoy through the city was the first challenge, then passing toll booths without buying the expensive multiple use card, and finally facing the windy and steep jungle road from the Panamerican highway to Carti. Along this road, Kevin hit a gravel bit so hard that his top case and spare tyres were catapulted into the air to disappear into the jungle. A little bit late we, and all our luggage, made it to the pier. What a beautiful sight, the Stahlratte laying there, surrounded by deep-blue sea and in the far distance some palm fringed islands. While all riders were watching their bikes anxiously, the small on-deck crane lifted them up from the pier high into the air, after which the crew professionally manoeuvred them on board. Luckily captain Ludwig was present to comfort us by shouting with a thick German accent “Eazy peazy lemon squeezy”. Let the cruise begin!

Un poco loco The first night was spent on one of the islands inhabited by the indigenous Kuna Indians. The huts were very basic, no windows, no doors, some even didn’t have a completed roof, but we enjoyed the peaceful village life, the people in beautiful regional dresses and the fresh fish meal. Then we finally sailed off to some of the uninhabited islands of the San Blas archipelago: Paradise! We had never thought bounty islands like this really existed. We even saw some dolphins, swimming next to the boat. Although captain Ludwig wasn’t that exited about these sea creatures: “O, dolphins how amazing, where is my camera?!” he said in his funny, exaggerating way. The next two days were filled with swimming, snorkeling and jumping of the boat rope swing. Ludwig and his crew organized a fabulous BBQ on one of the islands, including the captain’s famous rum-punch. Let’s say not everybody can remember what happened that night, but don’t worry; we all ended up in the right bunks. The last day was spent on open sea, so no more swimming, just sitting on board, suffering from a little bit of a hangover sea sickness.

Posted in Central America, Panama | 4 Comments