Colombia offroad – part 1

Hello Colombia

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As we slowly move into the harbor area in Cartagena in the early afternoon I am amazed at the changes, I first came to this city in 1987, and when it could only be described as a shit show, the army presence back then was intense, the town was dirty and very dangerous, cartel activities were in full swing and if any drugs were leaving by sea most likely they were leaving from here and taking a direct route to the Bahamas, where coincidentally I was living in the early 90’s. The Bahamas were a stop off point and distribution hub, from there multiple speedboats would disappear into the darkness at night and do drops to southern Florida beaches for the booming cocaine trade Miami had.

Now Cartagena is all high rises clean streets, restored buildings and clean money from legitimate investments.

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We get off and find an Airbnb 3 minutes walk from the dock where we’ll get the bikes the following morning.

We get there at 8 am and the bikes are already unloaded, mine refuses to start but with a push down a side street it bursts into life and we ride the 1km or so to the customs. We meet the agent who shows as much interest in doing his job as the two boys that were crew.

He tells us to take a seat and about 20 minutes @Normlas walks in with 6 or 7 other riders who were supposed to have been on board but ended up taking a container because Colombia refused entry to all but our two bikes via the Stahlratte as we’d been on board since Mexico.

IIRC he said they had been there for 3 or 4 days and they all looked tired and stressed, after about an hour a guy came out handed them paperwork and told them to go and get insurance. They took off…

We sat for about another hour, our agent had been in the back room area the whole time, but now there were only a few people around and Egle was getting restless, all we needed was a signature allegedly.

She’d had enough, got up and walked to the back off the office area where he’d headed, TWO MINUTES later she is walking back with papers in hand. She found the agent just sitting there checking his Facebook, when she asked him what was happening, he had zero clue! He pointed at a guy behind a desk, who also was checking his Facebook page and also knew nothing.

She asked can we get our paperwork, he disappeared thru a door and came back with the papers in less than a minute. We were done, the Stahratte agent obviously has little interest in getting the process completed as quickly as possible….his facebook has more importance!

So we were out in just over 2 hours vs 3 or 4 days for the container, we had located an insurance office one block from our Airbnb and had insurance in hand in less than 15 minutes…total time for us for all clearance and insurance and ready to ride about 2 hours 45 minutes.

That insurance office is here 10.415393, -75.542247

Cartagena has a law against local bikes carrying passengers, rules don’t apply if you are not a citizen on an imported bike

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We grabbed a few liters of oil to do another oil change on Egles bike to flush the last remants of clutch fibers out if there are hiding somewhere, then we were off to the old town

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I was kind of amazed at how much Cartagena has cleaned up since the last time I was in the city in 2012

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The token big butt shot outside the church of the Fernando Botero statue, the ladies in the background sell fruit but in trade for buying they will let you take photos of them in traditional dress, kind of a win-win, sadly her fruit didn’t look great so we moved on

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The historical center is nice to walk around for a day or two and there are interesting things to see, this time of year the heat is just oppressive and the city was empty, which was good for us.

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We grabbed some fresh fruit from a lady on the way out of the center and she stood in front of us smiling, I forgot the fruit comes with a photo so I snapped an image

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We planned on leaving the following day to ride, a quick check of the weather and it showed 3 solid days of rain in a 300km radius, we hunkered down and waited for a break in the weather before we headed off, the joys of slow travel…

The rain finally stopped, we headed out of Cartagena, hitting the road in Colombia for the fifth time in my life, this time it was going to be different. Since last time I rode here in 2013 a lot of areas had opened up as Farq presence had reduced.

…but first to get away from the oppressive heat of the city.

Within an hour we hit little dirt roads in small villages that a week’s worth of rain had made life difficult for the locals

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We went back to the pavement to get some miles done but there was clean up in progress to remove and clean away debris from flooding a few days before, but not the normal equipment you’d expect

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Late in the afternoon, we arrived in Magangue at the ‘ferry terminal’ a term that should be very loosely used, it wasn’t more than a dirt path leading to a very old ferry that looked like it had maybe a few trips left in it

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we asked around where the tickets were sold? “On there!”
when does it leave, “when they feel like it!”
we thought we’d heard wrong so we asked another person who was walking off the ferry, “the captain decides, maybe an hour or two, maybe tomorrow!”

Two minutes later we are being told to get on, the captain will be leaving.

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We then find out the rush to get us on board…this needs to be shoehorned on and we’re told the ‘entry ramp’ might not be useable after!

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the ferry costs us 10k COP per bike about $7 for both of us for a ride down the Magdalena River and then a short ride after into town.

This ferry arrives in a very poor area and life is hard and you can see it on the faces of the locals.

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Mompox has history, the town is cleaned up a lot and now new bridges and roads are being built and this ferry will disappear. All over South America you will see various things relating to Simon Bolivar, but if there is just one place that is more important than the rest it is Mompox –Simón Bolívar, liberator of much of Spanish South America, said “If to Caracas I owe my life, then to Mompox I owe my glory.” Simón Bolívar arrived in Mompox in 1812 and recruited nearly all of the able-bodied men, some four hundred, who formed the basis of the army for his victory in Caracas.
We found a little hotel that would let us put our bikes in the lobby for security, a room was 40k/ $13.50 with a fan. We changed and headed to the front door to have a walk around, we didn’t make it outside before torrential rain started and continued for most of the night, the power went out for a few hours more than a few times.

Mompox is obviously a very old town, in the latter part of this century sadly it has been off-limits in certain surrounding areas by the ‘wrong people’. The new bridge is nearly finished making it a lot easier to get tp and the locals are systematically cleaning and restoring everything they can for the rush they are hoping will happen.

The cemetary like any in any country shows the division of wealth but also no matter how much we have, we all end up in the same place. In this case, the rich are given front row seats it appears with displays of their final show of wealth and status.

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looking the other way

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all the way in the back of the cemetery behind a few walls and thru a few arches its a different view, similarities to New Orleans graveyards come to mind,
mausoleums 3 and 4 high, some of the names are just scratched into sandstone and no headstone was there, just a name and a year. At first, the ones we saw we recent just weeks or months old, but then as we walked thru months became decades.

The one thing that stood out was these had more fresh flowers than their counterparts up front, a stronger family bond may be

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the small squares at the top are mostly children, some were very young…it was very sobering, this would become more apparent the next day.

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From the Cementerio De Mompox its a 3 block walk to the tributary of the Magdalena River, Brazo de Mompos, walking past fruit sellers and large graphics.

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Above your head howler monkeys ran along phone lines from and tree to tree, every time too fast for me get t a shot to I had to borrow a file photo

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Here is where you’ll find Mompox is a town frozen in time. While the rest of the country has evolved and modernized in some of the bigger towns and cities, Mompox looks pretty much as it used to be during colonial times, for this reason, it was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1995.

…but sadly empty, maybe at the weekends the river front comes alive, others would have to comment on that for us, we had the place to ourselves, literally.

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The following morning we rode south out of town, over numerous bridges over the Magdalena where you could see it had burst its banks due to a rainy season now three months longer than normal

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Pickings are thin as the river is moving so fast and the silt levels are way above normal, you can see this division in the color line of the main river from the side stream

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Riding on dirt roads was rarely an option, thick red soup was covering the main street of a few little towns and the military was helping and directing where they were needed

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Colombian yellow, blue and red flags were flying everywhere, the World Cup was about to start and Colombians were optimistic. Passing a rural area goal posts stand upright but no one is playing, as we ride closer we see why

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The football pitch was a lake and maybe a foot or more underwater now because of the floods, the ‘lake’ reached the buildings and went out of sight

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The dirt road that entered the town was too deep for the little bikes to cross so now it was a makeshift parking lot, and the locals waded thru to their houses

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It made us so sad, such amazingly friendly people, we asked if there was a way we could help, but what could we do! The answer was blatant honesty, the government cared little about this area, it’s about 50km from the Venezuelan border, we are nothing, almost like ‘them’ struggling to survive.

If you have ever lived in an area that has a low water table you’ll understand, the ground is fertile but floods easily and can take a long time for water levels to subside.

People have to stay in their houses, no money to go anywhere else, no way to farm and fears of meager possessions not being there when they returned or water damaged beyond repair. You can see the high water mark on the house below and how health risks are extreme when this area is like this

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Once we were out of the predominantly flooded swamp-like areas near Mompox we started the search for Colombian dirt, at first, a few tracks seemed promising but lead nowhere so we continued down the paved roads avoiding the familiar obstacles

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Most tracks we found ended up at someones house/ farm/ finca/ river or a gate

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We continued looking for ways thru but the floods made finding a continuous track south impossible, as we were thinking of giving up the search for the day my bike made the decision for us. On a rare piece of smooth pavement I accelerated but didn’t move forward as I should, now my clutch had started to slip.

I had a feeling after the world’s longest DR to DR tow across southern Cuba it was imminent for it to happen. This time though not an issue, the DR is built in Colombia and they are everywhere, usually bright green in livery as its the bike the Police use. Most bike shops can get parts in 2-3 days.

I did a Formula 1 clutch change and was done start to finish in 15 minutes, including taking this photo

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Clutch installed and working fine we headed to ‘the beach’ but not that kind of beach, Playa de Belen in the mountains and the point we would start exploring the northern Andes

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the area has a similar feel to parts of Utah with red rock escarpments pushing their way out of the green hills and farmland

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it was a town @michnus from PikiPiki had suggested and the following day as we rode out of town we see this, which in Spanish has no meaning…coincidence!

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Increasing in elevation the roads turned from paved to dirt and the population decreased, the few tourists we had a seen days earlier were not here

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we had the riding to ourselves and the few small fincas that dotted the hillside

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you read a lot about Colombia and Farc, and the papers will tell you that they are done, disbanded and life has returned to normal everywhere in Colombia because of this…this is the case in most areas but their presence is still felt and in these outlying areas Farc are still very well respected and represented and we would run into more issues as we rode along. Reminders were everywhere, we would continue but keep our sixth sense sharp.

As we are talking about this as we ride, thru Sena the intercoms, wondering how would we even know if we were riding in a Farc area if they are not in uniforms, it could be any person standing at the side of the road, we saw an easier way to know we were in Farc Territory, that was very fresh and newly painted

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We headed deeper into ex-Farc territory…quite honestly how could you know what was going on out there in those hills, who could police that!

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In 2010 the town of Gramalote by a landslide and 6000 people lost around 1000 homes during the deluge, the most prominent reminder of the village is the remains of Iglesia de San Rafael and a few odd walls of building as you come down the hillside

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Riding down what was one of the main streets you pull up outside of the church, well whats left of it

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in most cases when this happens the town is slowly rebuilt or in some cases abandoned…not here, it was both abandoned and rebuilt but on the other side of the valley, the ‘new’ village is nearly complete

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Obviously, not a good area to stay yet…we moved closer to the Venezuelan border for a while and made our way to Pamplona, a busy market town that I didn’t remember the name of, but stayed in after I left VZ in 2013…even stayed in the same hotel on the main square

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Not a town to be in for a long stay, mainly because its not that interesting for what we wanted, we moved on still seeking safer areas to ride dirt, the ride out of town all paved, as we were about to get onto dirt around a corner a family was stranded four people two bikes and one going nowhere.

They had sheared off the bolts for the rear sprocket and jammed the chain int the drive sprocket in the process, they honestly had no idea what to do, we stopped to ask if they were ok…no!

They had minimal tools so I grabbed my kit and started pulling the bike apart

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Ten minutes later the bike was complete and they were ready to ride to town, they wanted to pay us but had no money which of course we would never take, we laughed when they offered and explained we just like to help fellow riders, to pay it forward. Then out of nowhere they produced bags of strawberries and offered them.

We questioned why they had so many, “to sell at the market!”

Again we refused, the strawberries were their livelihood, it was just good to see them smile and pull away…it was a very long push in either direction.

A few miles later we found our dirt track and the valley we planned to ride thru

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Skirting a river for miles until it joined another we felt the day was going well, plenty of time to get where we wanted, all we were looking to do was 191km for the day. We had 40km left and 2 hours until sundown

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The track was fast dry mud…right up until it rained, torrentially. The remaining distance took us nearly three hours and we arrived in the dark, what we saw looked very impressive, sheer drops to a fast flowing river, steep inclines up the muddy track had us rolling very slowly. We figured it would be a great place to ride the next day and get some cool photos.

There were two options to get to the town, one partially paved and the other up a very steep muddy track with a brown river flowing down it, that was the shortest way but looked near impossible under the current conditions, we had no choice but to opt for partially paved in the pitch darkness.

Arriving in the tiny little town of Guacamayas we were met by the military and the police who were surprised to see us especially arriving in the dark, “we really never see tourists here”, claimed the police chief.

There was one tiny little hotel for $8 for a room, we uncomfortably had to leave the bikes on the street as we carried our stuff upstairs. We planned like I said to ride locally the next day, right up to the point when the hotel owner refused to give us a key for the room. We were told everything is really safe here. We wandered into the town square to find the only place open that had hot food, it was full of military and police, there was a little tension in the air…we changed our minds and left the following morning, but vowed to return at a later date (we did) and get there in the daylight and get those shots.

The following morning as we rode out of town and looked back, we knew it would be epic in the daylight

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Here is our “Illogical Colombian Route!”

Leaving Guacamayas in the distance

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we look to the mountain ranges ahead in anticipation of what’s to come

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our only companions when we stop see to be stray dogs which are like a magnet to me, the nice thing here in Colombia people respect them and feed them, so they mostly look to be very healthy

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occasionally a horse or two and of course lots of insects

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our trail is thru tiny villages where we seem to be one of the few motorized pieces of transport

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we cross river

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after river

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occasionally we get to do it and have dry feet

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but all on remote dirt tracks, so good some not so much

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Before we got back to Colombia, my fifth time and Egle’s second time we had a look to see where people had been riding and if there were places we felt would be a good fit for us.

Sadly we found on here and other forums/ pages/ groups there seemed to a be a common similarity of routes for the majority. That was mostly Cartagena to Ipiales hitting a major city or two of either Medellin/ Bogota/ Cali and a few minor places along the way, Salento, San Gil, Guatape, Ibague and Popayan seemed big favorites for some reason and seemed to pop up the most and all routes also seemed reasonably direct north to south or vice versa

We decided to go further afield, where on closer inspection there are more areas that suit our riding style, @michnus and Elsbie travel like we do, very slowly and make loops going thru countries, stopping in smaller towns and immersing with the locals.

We’d be on a track and see another in the distance and try and figure out how to get there if it looked interesting

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and sometimes just play in puddles…

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How do we get there? When we see a track in the distance, some of these are on maps, paper or digital unless you have the right maps so finding the start of the trail can be a challenge. Locals can help to a certain extent if you know where the road is headed, but sometimes they have never been further than a few villages or towns away, so this is where the adventure begins

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Occasionally dropping on to a paved road fruit and vegetable stands are abundant, we’d stock up one whole we food and go back to the dirt

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in 2013 when I was coming out of Venezuela I stopped in Pamplona and bumped into an English guy who’d been living in the area married to a Colombian lady for around 15 years, he enquired where I was headed?

My plan then was to ride to Medellin via Guatape over the next few days and have a look at the Chicamocha Canyon, he got very excited and almost demanded that I go to a town called Ceptia, at the time not many people went there, it was a steep dirt road to the bottom of a canyon to a village of fewer than 300 people…so I went.

Back in this same area again I took Egle down to the bottom of the canyon.

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The ride down is nothing short of spectacular, sheers drop thousands of feet down to the canyon bottom, sadly for us, but good for the locals they have now paved some of it

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When we got into the Puebla I knew of one little Hostal…it was full, they directed us to another, full, she directed us to another and the last one, they had a room available, I guess this place has now been found!

We rode around a few back streets to see if we could find an alternative way out for the following morning, when I was there years ago landslides had shut every route but one, hoping they had been cleared, we found a footbridge and crossed it. On my GPS it showed that it was a footpath that leads out to
Pescadero

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it looked promising until a little after this photo it got so narrow the bags were hitting the trees on each side, it really was just a footpath.

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we turned around and disturbed a few locals…

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The following day our target was Barichara, there are more than a few ways to get there, we took one of the longer ones over the Sogamoso River and the possibility of having to drop the bikes in a canoe to cross the river…Fail, it had been paved but what a ride

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The bridge across the river takes you to the other side where the switchbacks continue

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We were slowly making our way to Medellin, I had a bunch of photos to process for a European car magazine while Egle wrote the article, what they wanted was a story about the Colombian lobe of the Renault 4 which then developed to the love of the Twingo. Why am I telling you this here, well look about Eglem there’s a Renault 4…they are everywhere, even Pablo had a few for racing.

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When you get to the top you get to look back at where you just rode, don’t come here, you’d hate it, roads are boring!

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after peaking out we found a minor back road to take thru to Barichara, that we had to ourselves and a great waterfall thrown in the mix too

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after this shot, the camera battery died so we didn’t get the river crossing that was a few hundred meters ahead, shame as it was a good fast moving one

Barichara is a very well preserved town with an authentic feel, a little rough around the edges but well worth a visit

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we grabbed a room dropped our gear and went to find food, a restaurant came highly recommended but the appetizer potions didn’t make my 250lb frame too happy after a full days riding

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It seems normal when we are walking we get adopted by a dog, and there was no different, he stayed with us the whole time we walked around town as the sun was setting…even all the way to our hotel on the outskirts of town to make sure we got home ok, almost a spitting image of my buddy Pats Dogo Argentino

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hey look a Renault 4, told you they were everywhere, this ones a little worse for wear

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next up, blowing up dynamite with the locals for fun!

:kboom

5 Comments

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  1. Your wordsalong with all the photos have made it as though I was taken along with you and Egle. Thank you Paul.

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  2. Wow, your photos are amazing! I loved Cartagena so much and I MISS Colombia – you’ve got me itching to book a flight now!

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  3. Nicely written Paul, and superb photos; really gives us a feel for the terrain you’re moving through. Have been enjoying your bike builds as well, the effort you go to describe the process and the detailed photos you post of the bikes being taken apart and then reconfigured – fantastic mate.

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