Riding away from the border with Ecuador, it’s not long before I encounter my first military roadblock.
It will be the first of many in this area of Colombia, but as soon as they realise I’m just a gringo on a bike, I’m waved through with a smile and sometimes a handshake. Their main interest seems to be in searching car boots and the contents of the many trucks passing through this corridor, I’m assuming for drug trafficking.
When crossing borders I like to have lots of time up my sleeve, and I booked a hotel in the nearby city of Pasto. Here I need to withdraw some Colombian Pesos (COP) and have to wait 45 minutes in line at the ATM to do so. I wondered if there was a run on the bank maybe, but no, this is just ordinary everyday life for Colombians. The maximum amount able to be withdrawn is $300,000 COP ($120 NZD) so I guess the locals spend a lot of time in these queues at the ATM.
Like in a lot of places in the world, the last few years have taken their toll on the countries of South America. Inflation is rampant, and neighbouring Venezuela is a communist hell hole, with nearly a third of its population fleeing for better opportunities. I’d heard about them making it as far south as Peru (out of the frying pan and into the fire, in my opinion) but this is the first time I see them. Here in Colombia they are walking the roads looking for a better life.
In Colombia there are a lot of motorcycles. Mostly they are used for commuting, as in the rest of South America. But here there is also a motorcycle culture. For the first time I see sports bikes and adventure bikes similar to the bike I’m riding. I also see more helmet wearing than I’ve seen before, though the young men have their own style here, often wearing the helmet just on the top part of the head or wearing the helmet on the left arm! I’m sure it’s important to protect that left elbow in an accident…
The area north of the border is spectacular and the route I choose is a roller coaster through the mountains on the way to my next stop, the city of Cali.
On the outskirts of Cali I stay at a beautiful old hacienda and enjoy a wonderful seafood paella.
The exchange rate is very favourable for me, and a nice place to stay with good food and drinks is usually less than $NZ100, so I shift things up a gear and avoid the flea bag hostels. Besides, I’m going to be joined shortly by my beautiful wife Kathy, who will stay for a couple of weeks. I know the standard of accommodation that will be expected, so I let the moths fly from my wallet and enjoy some fine Colombian hospitality.
From Cali, I head yet further north into a highly productive agricultural area. Lots of cotton and sugar cane. Here, the sugar cane trucks give the Australian road trains a run for their money.
The provincial city of Pereira was recommended to us by our travel agent as a place to spend a few weeks. I met Kathy at the airport after her flights from Auckland via Houston and Bogotá. It had been two months apart and it felt like an eternity. I was feeling jaded. It’s a long time on a bike. There’s lots to do, logistics, maintenance, and just taking in and adapting to the changes with every border crossing, let alone surviving the manic traffic. It had all taken its toll, and I was done. Ready to get off the bike, and I honestly didn’t care if I ever got back on it again. Other long-distance riders will know the feeling. It’s just fatigue and a break is required.
It was wonderful to be together again, we found ourselves a great boutique hotel in Pereira to use as a base, parked the bike and relaxed.
Pereira is a small city (population 700,000) in the heart of Colombia’s coffee growing area. It has some great cafes and restaurants and we indulged ourselves for a few days before venturing out to stay on a coffee farm near the town of Jardín (pronounced Hardine, meaning garden).
At 1800 meters Jardín is often in the clouds and usually experiences two downpours per day.
It’s a highly productive area for both coffee and bananas. The coffee farm we stayed on was owned by absentee Canadians but run by a young local couple. The road from Jardín to the farm was a goat track and meant leaving our rental car in town and riding with our host Daniel in the farm's 1954 Willys Jeep to the farm, where he installed us in the hacienda.
The jeep had been rebuilt many times over the years, now sporting a Nissan diesel engine and Isuzu transmission. Jardín is a Jeep town, there are many of them used privately and commercially as ‘chicken buses’. Other towns were Toyota Landcruiser towns, where everyone drove Landcruisers and not a Jeep to be seen. We also loved the way locals rode their horse to the pub!
What a place the hacienda was, and we had it all to ourselves.
The other alternative to the farm’s Jeep was to take the ‘chicken bus’, so named as they often carry chickens, bananas, and coffee as well as paying customers. A seat on the roof is cheaper than a padded seat inside.
The next day the young manager, Daniel, gave us a tour of the coffee farm and we learned what goes into making a great cup of Colombian coffee.
Jardín produces high altitude coffee beans and while that means lower production it also means very high quality and flavour. Interestingly the locals seldom drink coffee, preferring hot chocolate.
Our time in rural Colombia was soon over and we returned to Pereira for a couple more days of good restaurants and the opulence of our hotel which was beginning to feel like home now.
The staff were so helpful and friendly (like all the Colombians I’ve encountered). With a cafe on one side and a restaurant on the other, and more across the street, the Don Alfonso Hotel felt like one of those places you could just shift into and never leave… we could be the alcoholic old gringo couple living in room 9!
Sadly it was soon time for Kathy to leave. The last days flew by in a blur, and I poured her into an airport taxi, weeping and wailing (not really, but we both shed a tear or two). It was difficult saying goodbye not really knowing when we’d see each other again.
Such is life, and Kathy flew out to Bogotá, then on to Houston and Auckland, while I prepped the bike in the hotel car park for the next stage of my journey.
When I began this trip, I was unsure what route I’d take. I thought a clockwise journey around South America, from Chile and taking in all the 13 countries would be a good plan. Along the way I’d learnt more about the situation in Venezuela. The country is a basket case. Locals waiting 4 days at gas stations for rationed fuel. (Before communism Venezuela was an oil exporting nation. I'm sure there are lessons there for anyone who thinks socialism is a good idea...)
Many citizens are fleeing the poverty to neighbouring countries. Venezuela also requires me to have a special motorcycle safety check, a lot like our Warrant of Fitness, before I’m allowed to enter. The small nations of Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana are also not easy, and then there’s a hard ride down through the northern part of Brazil across the Amazon River and back to some form of civilization. I’ve also learnt more about what I like and what I don’t, and while some difficulty is tolerable, I don’t want to spend months wishing I was somewhere else.
I was waiting to talk with Kathy before settling on a route, and after further research we both agreed it just wasn’t worth the hassle, discomfort and risk. I decided to turn the bike around and head back across familiar borders and enter Brazil via Peru. The best plan is a flexible plan.
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