colombia

Catching Up On Our Stories – Southern Colombia

Started June 24, 2016

Hola! Jalene (aka Web Mistress!) here. Keith wrote a long “catch up” blog post and, as travel luck would have it, we’ve had super-slow wifi in the places we’ve been staying lately in northern Peru. What does that mean for you? It means there are no photos below but don’t fret, you can see photos through Ecuador in the Gallery on our website.


We rode out of Salento, in Colombia, and headed south to search out a tiny patch of desert high in the Andes.  It seemed a strange place to find desert, up in the mountains of Colombia, renowned for the green hills and fertile valleys we’d seen everywhere, with rivers and waterfalls all around us.  We would take a couple of days to get there.

We rode south for a short distance before turning east to cross a high Andean pass, which would then take us down into the town of Ibague.  As we climbed, twisting and turning in ever-tightening switchbacks, we began to pass more and more big trucks grinding upward.  Eventually we climbed into the thickly forested elevations, where the road really started to writhe, and then we were over the top and descending in a never-ending procession of trucks and tight switchbacks.  Passing would get us past this truck, only to be on the tail of the next.

When Jalene and I tried to describe Andean roads after returning from our Ecuador trip two years prior, I remember explaining that there were no straight roads, and never would be because a straight road would have to go from tunnel to bridge to tunnel to bridge, endlessly.  Crazy expensive!  Well, it seems the Colombian economists got together with their engineers, and they decided that this particular route Jalene and I were riding was so commercially important, connecting Bogota to Cali and other major cities, that it penciled out to spend the money.  And so, as we crossed the pass, we saw a series of tunnels connecting bridges (or vice-versa) for about 25 miles, I’m guessing.  One place had no conventional roadway at all for at least 10 miles, just alternating tunnels and bridges coming down the valley.  Other places had incredibly positioned bridges looping out from the steep slope and back again to dive once more inside the mountain.  I couldn’t believe my eyes at times the engineering was so spectacular, with spidery bridges sailing high overhead only to disappear and then jump out again from the next fold in the mountainside.  Sadly, I was unable to take any photos, because we were in such heavy traffic on a mountain road.  My Dad, the civil engineer, would have loved seeing it all.

Once we reached lower elevations and the valley opened out, we stopped for the night at a cool eco-touristy hostel outside of Ibague.  A retired professor of agronomy owned it, and he had labeled all the unusual trees he had collected and planted around the well-manicured grounds.  I enjoyed the platform where I and some other kids could climb and look straight down into a pond, watching huge koi and several tortugas (turtles) swim around.  The platform was of thick bamboo, and put us level with the big lower branches of the trees, where the birds and big dragonflies were buzzing and circling around.  Rain threatened, and thunder boomed at times, but we didn’t get any drops on us.  We were pleased when an overlander couple that we had met in Salento roll in and join us.  They were driving a Toyota LandCruiser truck with a camper conversion, and parked under a kind of barn-shelter common here.  After dinner, we all gathered around the map with glasses of wine and, of course, traded stories of our travels.  Talking with other overlanders is always wonderful, and these two had traveled Africa, Australia, and were now in South America heading north.  It was late that night for us when we all finally yawned and headed for bed – about 9 or maybe even 9:30.

The next morning, we rose and pointed the bikes south down the Rio Magdalena, a big river that flows northward to the Caribbean through a very broad valley between ranges of the Andes.  In central Colombia, the Andes are about 400 miles wide east-to-west, as broad as Oregon.  The Magdalena Valley is maybe 50 miles across, and we turned and headed south once we reached the river.  We were heading for the small area of Desierto de Tatacoa, a microclimate about 30 miles in diameter on the eastern side of the valley, where rains rarely fall.  All around can be seen tree-covered mountains, and within an hour one can be on jungle slopes, but in this little basin is nothing but sand and rocks and a little sage and cactus.  The wind blew hard where we stopped at a little lunch place, and we saw tourist busses belching out gringos, who were loaded onto burros and taken out to see the sandy arid hummocks.  A TV commercial was being filmed while we were there, a bit surreal in a strange little place.  After some soup with corn and a meaty bone in it (yum!), we headed back toward the river to a hostel.

After a night nearby in Villavieja, we turned south along the Magdalena once more.  From desert dryness we transitioned to darker clouds near the town of Nieva, and then the rain began.  For the rest of the day, we rode into heavier and heavier rain, passing out of the valley and into jungle gorges where the Magdelana gathered its waters.  The road ascended up toward our destination of San Agustin, a tiny town in the mountains.  We wanted to see the much-heralded Parque Archeologico San Agustin, with its many pre-Columbian stone statues unearthed in the surrounding region.  As well, the area is known for its beautiful mountains and for being the birthplace of five of the biggest rivers in Colombia, many of which we had already followed on one road or another.  The rain by now was falling so hard that it was hard to see ahead.  When we got into town and the GPS map did not show the road to the hostel, we flagged down a taxi and followed him up the muddy track to our destination.  Soaked, we pulled our gear off and enjoyed steaming ourselves by a big, hot fireplace.  The next day was warm and sunny, a fine reward for persevering through the heavy rains.  We walked up to the Parque and, after getting schooled in the museum, wandered the trail along which were displayed many varied statues carved from stone so many years ago.  Some were people, some were birds, and all were interesting to see.  We also saw the places where tombs were excavated, with some of the sarcophagi still in place.  I don’t really remember the who or when of the people that carved the statues, but I loved the artistry and variation in them, and as we live in a Google world now, I can instantly read again about the who and when.

After enjoying the warmth and sun on our day off in San Agustin, we again packed up the bikes and headed out to cross the western arm of the Andes to the city of Popoyan.  Our road took us up a rocky, muddy road, with few other vehicles except the occasional truck or motorcycle.  We rose up and followed a high ridgeline, as roads here often do, and we could look out across huge valleys of unbroken jungle.  We encountered military units spaced out along the road every 10 kilometers or so, but here it was easy to understand how for decades the rebel factions had been able to exist in these endless jungle tracts.  We were suddenly nervous about stopping for long when nature called, or to grab a quick photo.    We’ve been good about paying attention to our “radar”, and for me, it was tingling here.   Eventually, of course, it began to rain again.  We followed the rocky track for about 30 or 40 miles until we came down into a high valley containing the Popoyan.  We found a nice hotel near the center of town after learning that the hostel we had reserved had no secure parking nearby, and spent another evening drying everything out from the rain.  It was here in Popoyan that our decision to buy new, more waterproof gear was vindicated for us, as we were thoroughly tired of being wet and miserable in the Colombian rain.  Our new gear would meet us in Cali, only a day’s ride away to the north of us.

The next morning we rolled out into sunshine and decided to take a secondary road that paralleled the busy main highway, and were we ever glad we did!  It turned out to be a small road, following the ridgeline northward among farms and scattered houses.  Variably we were on asphalt, hard dirt, gravel, and a little mud, but it was the views that made this road so memorable!  We looked out across fields and jungle, and down into river canyons with an immense dammed reservoir of water.  Later on, the road dropped down along a river below the big dam, and we followed that for a time, enjoying the warm sunshine again.  We stopped at a little store and took a break, sharing the bench with the locals, and laughing at the dog tied to the horse, as it kept wrapping the rope around the poor horse’s legs and generally being a nuisance.  But they seemed to be buddies, and so the horse would step out of its canine bonds and the dog would be free again to circle anew.

Shortly after our session with horse and dog, we took another break when Jalene complained that her bike was handling awfully strange, and that she could put her feet down flat on the ground.  Sure enough, she had a flat tire in back, but we were super lucky as we had come to a stop right by a moto shop, and within a half hour we had a new tube installed, and were back on the road.  We couldn’t find anything in the tire after searching inside and out, so concluded it was a sharp rock, as sometimes happens.  Less than $5US for the whole repair, but I should have checked that tire one more time while the guy was patching her tube.  As we rolled into Cali, she again felt the bike was handling oddly, and sure enough the rear tire was looking pretty low again.  We were in the city by this time, and so we parked the bikes up on an island in an intersection, and I inflated her tire again with the electric pump I carry.  The next morning I found a tiny piece of stiff steel wire in her tire, and it only poked through into the inner tube when the pressure of the ground pushed it in.  I did the job again, and it’s been holding fine since.  Luckily they were able to put a hot-patch on the old tube, so I had that to use. 

I so admire the creative nature of mechanics down here.  Their hot-patch machine was made from a big C-clamp and the base of a clothes iron.  The C-clamp was welded upright to a post, and the clothes iron hot-plate was fixed to the screw side of the clamp.  A small steel plate was welded to the other side of the clamp.  The patch was applied to the tube, and then two pieces of thin aluminum from a can were sandwiched on either side of the tube.  The whole affair was clamped in the “hot press”, and the iron plugged in.  A wooden match was placed atop the iron, and when it ignited from the heat, the iron was judged hot enough and unplugged.  A few minutes were allowed for the patch to melt into the tube, and to cool for a few minutes.  The tube was removed and the job was so perfect that I could not see any edges to the patch, just a slightly thicker spot on the tube where the hole had been.

Cali is a big city in southern Colombia, and we stayed there 8 nights waiting for our new riding gear to arrive.  In the meantime, we explored a bit, found some excellent places to eat, and met Zoe, an Englishwoman who works at Motolombia, whom we had ordered our gear through.  As soon as we met in person, we became instant friends with her.  Zoe gave us a bit of a walking tour of the area of town we were in, and that was terrific fun for us.  She also introduced us to the local passion for salsa dancing, which she has studied intensely, and showed us videos of her in action.  Pretty impressive stuff, Zoe!  We also took a side trip out to the Cali Zoo, which I thought was very well done, especially the huge variety of monkeys they had there as well as the big mariposa house, a kind of aviary for butterflies.  It was a bit disappointing to see both grizzly and polar bears, obviously never coming out of their pools in the heat, but in all I thought it was well-done as zoos go, and worth the trip to see and stroll through.  The tropical fish building was fantastic, and that alone made it worth the ticket.

After picking up our gear, we shipped our old jackets and pants home.  We inquired at Servientrega first, and were shocked at the quote of about $260US, but they also steered us toward a private mail agency called 4-72 (can anyone guess what that name means??) that shipped it back to Oregon for only about one-third the price, about $80US total.  Off it went.  A few days later, after I had a haircut and a few other necessary things taken care of, we headed south out of Cali along the PanAmerican, making tracks for Ecuador, which would take a couple of days.

Heading south, we targeted a town called Silvia, known for it’s indigenous market, and we weren’t disappointed.  In the town center, people in distinctive blue shawls, black hats, and a kind of dark gray skirting had come in for the Saturday market day, and we had timed it just right.  It was difficult to get photos of the indigenous folks unless I was far away and zoomed in.  I asked several people, and was universally but politely turned down, even after talking with some of them for some time.  That’s okay, I don’t need to be the pushy gringo.  Here in Silvia, we found a bakery/restaurant that had hotel rooms upstairs and parking for the bikes in the back.  The interesting part was that they had me bring the bikes through the restaurant and the kitchen/bakery and park them in the little walled area out back where the laundry was hung.  Nobody seemed to take much notice as I rode by inches from the table where they were eating.  Trying to be polite and add a little levity, I made sure to wish each table “Buen provecho” from the saddle as I worked my way by.  Next morning at breakfast it was the same scene, with no surprises as the guy on the motorcycle came out through the restaurant.  Happens all the time.

After Silvia it was south again, and this day took us to Ipiales and the Ecuadorian border.  Ipiales is the home of what must be the most photographed cathedral in Colombia, Las Lajas, being built on a stone bridge deep inside the canyon of the Rio Guaitara.  Photos look amazing, and being there is even more spectacular.  It is built directly over a spot on the riverbanks where a woman prayed for her dead daughter, where the Virgin Mary appeared and restored her to life.  The cathedral itself is stunning, and is not very old compared to many others we’ve seen down here.  It’s the construction that’s the amazing part, and I love how the back wall behind the alter is the actual cliff face, and on it is a faint image of the Virgin Mary and Jesus that appeared after the miracle occurred.  Las Lajas is a must-see for anyone travelling in this area of Colombia, and a spectacular way for us to bring our trip through Colombia to a close.

Postscript – While parking the bikes for the walk down to Las Lajas cathedral, Jalene complained that she didn’t have a lightweight raincoat, and it was starting to drizzle a bit.  I pointed out what looked like a nice coat on a nearby woman, and Jalene yelled “Yoon! TB!” and sure enough it was our friends on bicycles from Korea, whom we had camped with in Costa Rica.  We had a wonderful time catching up while we enjoyed the cathedral, and hearing about the time they spent in Venezuela.  It was such a wonderful surprise, and we hope that wherever they are now, that they are safe and happy, and gathering more fantastic stories from their journey.  Maybe with just a little bit of luck we will see them again along the road.

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Head to our Gallery for photos and check out Jalene's post about being stuck in Ecuador.

Colombian Rain

Written May 20, 2016

View from the cable care up to Arvi Park.

We’re still in Quito for now - but let’s go back.  We were in Medellin (the locals say Med-e-zheen) a couple of posts ago, and much has happened between there and here.  Medellin is a place that people my age remember well from the newspapers 20-odd years ago for the murders and other horrifying things that the drug cartels were responsible for.  Unfortunately the news media doesn’t keep up on the good news, and the good news is that Medellin is now a city that wins awards for urban design.  After Pablo Escobar was killed, the general population had had enough of the drug cartels in Colombia, and real reform started.  As well, the Havana negotiations with FARC rebels are resulting in an end to the constant military struggles in rural areas.  Of course, it’s more complex than that, but today Medellin, along with most all of Colombia, is a very safe place, and we felt secure. 

Hiking tour in Arvi Park.

The day we spent on the transit system was a marvel.  We hopped on a bus, and bought a ticket that took us to the Metro terminal, where, on the same ticket, we boarded the elevated rail line that runs north-south through the city.  The Metro has many stops along the way, most with wide elevated pedestrian bridges fanning out on both sides that allow passengers to walk well out into the city unobstructed by traffic and other obstacles.  Near the north end of the line, on that same ticket, we just walked from the train onto a teleferico, a cable gondola that took us up, up, up to tops of the mountains above town.  But instead of going up over rocks and trees, we flew over more streets and buildings, and houses as the city climbed up the mountainside, steeper and steeper, until we were far above the narrow valley floor where the Medellin river runs and the city spreads alongside, sloshing way up the sides of the bowl.  Only the photos can convey how they build right up the mountainside, and the streets zig-zag their way as they crazily climb.

The top of El Peñon.

We rolled out of Medellin to the east, climbing steeply up the main highway, slaloming around trucks.  Eager young men on bicycles hung onto the backs of the slow-moving trucks with their hands, sometimes three and four to a truck.  We had a short day of it and arrived in Guatape, a town on a man-made lake filled with islands and undulating shoreline.  The big attraction today is El Peñon, a huge chunk of granite over 700 feet high.  El Peñon has a deep groove running vertically up one side, in which a set of concrete stairs criss-crosses in a dizzying climb.  Seven hundred forty steps to the top, and the view is just incredible out over the rolling hills of the area, and the lake and islands.  The steps are numbered, which may be a hindrance or a help, depending on your frame of mind; we took a break to look around every 50 steps and found ourselves at the top in a surprisingly short time.  You are climbing at about 2000 meters of elevation, so pacing is the key.  The big surprise was when I learned that the original steps, years ago, were built of wood…

Guatape, Colombia.

We stayed the night there in Guatape and walked around enjoying how the houses and shops all had a painted strip of wall above the sidewalk with bright colored figures, some symbolic of the house, some seemingly just fanciful artwork.  Whatever, this was one of the most brightly painted towns I’ve ever seen.

The next day was an interesting mix of terrain and weather.  We needed to cut southwest back to the main highway running south, so followed a path over ever-narrowing roads until we hit dirt, and continued about 25 miles over ridges and along deep valleys rich with coffee farms and fruit orchards, gorgeous country with beautiful views along the road and across deep valleys.  The road was good, and there were even streetlights on every power pole, with a farm house every mile or so.  It was the weather that deteriorated, and our sun turned to clouds, and clouds then lowered to fog.  Soon drops were appearing on our shields, and we pulled on raingear.  This day was our first baptism in Colombian rain for us, and it did not disappoint.  Within a few miles it was coming down steadily and firmly, but it was a warm rain, so we didn’t worry about it too much.  Ten miles along in it, and the road started to collect water coming off the hillsides.  Soon we were riding up a small creek of a road, but it was a good solid rock road, and so traction was fine.  (Jalene here: Dodging the water and rocks was scary. I had to repeatedly remind myself, “Look where you want to go!”)  By the time we neared the main highway and pavement again, it was dusk-like, and getting hard to see very far ahead.  Rain was bucketing down at a terrific rate, and we were rolling in 4-6 inches of water, with islands of rock where the road poked through.  When we stopped, water did not drip off the bikes, but ran like faucet streams.  We headed south down the highway sifting through torrents of rain, again slaloming around trucks backed up and stopped, riding up the yellow line until we came to a broken-down wreck blocking the highway.  After that it was clear road, thank goodness we were on bikes.  Anything with four wheels was stopped in the backup for a long, long time of it.

We eventually rode out of the rain, and found ourselves in La Pintada along the Cauca River.  We found a hotel with heated floors (!), and peeled off our wet things and hung them on chairs and doors to kind of dry.  While the Olympia mesh riding gear had been a godsend in the heat of Central America, it was here that we realized that the “waterproof” liners just weren’t going to cut it in South America.  Friends ahead of us to the south foretold of rain everyday for weeks, and we knew it was time to upgrade.  While warm, we were plenty wet through seams and zippers designed for occasional “commuter rains”, not all-day tropical monsoons.  Further on, we had another all-day drenching on our approach to San Agustin that cemented our decision to spend some serious travel money.  We chose Klim riding gear, because many travelers we have met tell us it is truly waterproof.  It’s another compromise, since it’s not mesh, and so is significantly warmer in hot weather.  But as we head south, keeping dry at high elevations in south latitudes will prove to be a safety concern.  Klim, out of Idaho, is regarded as about the very highest quality riding gear for moto-travelers.

On the leg of our trip that took us south toward Ecuador, we had some seriously beautiful days on the road and stayed at some wonderful hostels.  After our drenching day to La Pintada, we rewarded ourselves by riding to Salento, and La Serrana Hostel.  So far, this is my favorite place of the trip.  Located up the mountains, this is horse country and deep in the coffee lands.  With a brilliant view all around from a ridgetop, at a moderate altitude of about 1900 meters (6,200’), the climate is cooler than the valley floors, slightly chilly at night.  Weather moves through, as on the coast, but most days enjoyed fine dry weather with broken clouds taming the fierce sun.  A few days had brief thunderstorms with bursts of heavy rain in the afternoon, but these always were preceded by plenty of rumbling and flashing to warn you under cover.  We spent 6 nights at La Serrana, the first two nights in a big wall tent and the remaining in a private room.  I’d have spent all of it in the tent if that were possible, as it was snug and quiet, and the cool air over warm blankets made for perfect sleep.  The tent was on a platform off the ground, and we had our own little balcony with a lovely view out over the broad valley to the high Andes peaks beyond.  Horses and cattle grazed in fields of deep green grass all around, with rich gardens and heavy fruit trees along the roads.  One day I took a horseback ride down a very old trail, crossing creeks, traversing ridges, and even riding through old tunnels to a fabulous waterfall where we swam in cold water right off the peaks.  Our stout, strong little horses made their way back up the steep, muddy trail without a pause; they are such good athletes.  Though the heat was pouring off the neck of my horse, her deep breathing slowed almost immediately when we made the top.  This is just everyday rambling for them, I suppose.

Keith picking coffee cherries.

While in Salento, Jalene and I walked to a coffee plantation where we were schooled fairly intensively in selecting land, growing, picking, and roasting coffee.  It was quite a surprise to learn how many varieties there are, and some of the issues facing a coffee grower.    Coffee prefers a specific band of elevation to produce the best beans, 1300-1900 meters (4,300-6,200’).  Only the dried beans are shipped off the farm to be roasted elsewhere, the rest is all composted into a rich soil, and spread back around the plants.  Nothing is wasted, and it would be much too expensive to have waste hauled away here, anyway.  After we picked some coffee “cherries”, we learned how to extract the beans, then how roasting, drying, and grading is done.  Grading is by hand, and watching the women work at the grading screens reminded me of long days in place on “the line” in the seafood plants I worked at years ago.  My back hurt just watching them.  We learned that it’s the lighter roasts that are higher quality and have more caffeine in them, and that the darker roasts tend of be of a lower grade, as more defects in the beans can be hidden that way.  Finally we all learned how to brew – hand grinding the beans, then filling small cloth filter bags with the ground coffee, and finally how to pour the hot water in – just a little at first, a single circle to wet the coffee down.  Count to ten and then slowly pour the rest of the water through.  I’m a dedicated tea drinker, and haven’t drunk any coffee in probably 25 years.  I had a cup that day.

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Our photo gallery pages are more up-to-date than our stories so, you can either view all the South American photos (the most recent are on top) or here are the links for the areas talked about in this blog post: Medellin, Guatape and El Peñon, and Salento.

The Blue Circle of Home

Written April 2, 2016

When you pull up the map on your iPhone, a blue circle on the map shows your location.  Depending on how good a signal you’ve got, the blue bubble might be large or small, and this suggests how accurate the location shown is.  Lately I’ve been feeling the same way about home.  You see, a change has been going on inside of me that I hadn’t fully realized was happening.  What do I think of as home now? It’s a question that I can’t answer anymore.  Where am I now?  That blue bubble that shows where I am - well, for now at least, that’s home.

I know we own a house in Oregon, and I’d still like to go back there when we’re finished with this trip, but is it home anymore?  Having been on the road for eight months, I’ve become very detached from all the things that I used to think of and relate to as “home” – the house, the job, my friends and co-workers, the town we lived in, the ocean and forests. All of those were a part of me, and helped shape me into who I was, and helped form my identity.  Those are gone now; they no longer define me.  All I have now is myself, and whatever few people and places are inside the blue bubble right now.  That’s where I am.  That’s who I am.  That’s home now.

I do miss things.  I miss being on the beach and out in the woods mushrooming or hunting.  I miss riding the bike on all the logging roads and way out in eastern Oregon.  I miss seeing friends, but in a new way, a way that has me wishing beyond all words that I could pull them across the thousands of miles separating us.  I wish I could show them how wonderful the people are out here, and how amazingly different the world becomes with every hundred miles we put behind us.  I wish I could give them what I see, what I smell, what I taste, and hear, and feel.

Riding northward from Barichara, Colombia, we came down out of the Andes and into the coastal flatlands, and as we did so, the land dried out and it became very hot and humid.  In the port city of Santa Marta we stayed at an Airbnb apartment for 3 days, and learned that El Nino has had a drastic effect on the area, with water shortages causing the water to be intentionally cut off from the building we were staying in for the majority of the day.  It hasn’t rained in northern Colombia for months.  It’s otherwise a bustling seaport town, where coal is loaded onto ships bound for ports worldwide.  A dirty fuel, yes, but it’s helping to build this country.  The docks have great, huge conveyers in tubes running out onto them, and there are loads of rail lines converging there.

We took a ride east from Santa Marta one day, and found the Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona to be too crowded for our tastes, so continued east until we saw a sign pointing toward the beach down a dirt road.  We followed the road and found a place where people were camped near the mouth of a river.  They were packing up and leaving, but told us we could stay and swim, it was safe and the crocodiles were all small, none of the big ones like up north along the Yucatan.  “Only as long as your arm.”  Oh, well that’s fine I guess, so we swam 50 yards across the river that paralleled the beach, and enjoyed a dip in the Caribbean.  Sometimes it’s better not to think too hard about things.

We left Santa Marta yesterday and rode to Cartagena, a very big city, with a rich history and a lot of money.  There are mega-yachts in the basin 200-300 feet long.  And yet on the road from Santa Marta, we saw poverty as bad as anywhere yet on this trip, with what couldn’t even be called shacks of sticks, mud, and tarps set up in an area where the main existence was had by scraping out shallow pools of water, and letting it dry to harvest the salt.  This was in an area where the road crossed the mouth of a large bay on a salt spit.  The wind blew, and it was hot and humid.  Only low scrub grew in the salty ground, which was mostly bare or covered in garbage.  Houses, if they could be called that, were often just sticks in the ground, holding up scraps of tarp, arranged in rows.  This is the only area I can remember where there were not even any roadside vendors selling fruit or anything.  The low point was the small black dog we saw, running away with a big cactus leaf stuck in it’s side by the thorns.  The humidity and overcast causes everything to take on a shade of grey, and gives the world a haze.  It makes you want to stop and clean your helmet shield, but that doesn’t do it in this case.  We pushed through the other big port city of Barranquilla, and after that it was nothing but trucks and busses all the way to Cartagena.  There are two roads out of Barranquilla, and I think we chose the wrong one.  We took the inland road.  Next time, it’s the coast.

We arrived in Cartagena and worked our way through a traffic maze to get to our hotel down in the Bocagrande area, near the tip of land that wraps around the port area.  The beach was about 30 yards from our hotel, and the main Avenida with everything on it runs right out front.  No sooner did I get my helmet off than I hear “Buenos!” in a British accent behind me.  I met Brian this way, and he introduced himself as the owner of the hotel.  He mentioned that he’d had some other folks from Oregon on motorbikes, and they’d had a dog with them!  Of course, it was Scott and Susan, our friends who did this trip a couple of years ago with their dog Bentley, and they had stayed here when they came through.  (Thanks for the hotel tip, Susan!)

We enjoyed walking around in the old walled city, fortified after Drake came through and robbed the city of its riches in 1585.  Closing the gate after the horse has gone, as Brian opined.  There are terrific shops and restaurants here, and we enjoyed the day with helado de mora y café (blackberry and coffee ice cream) before a lunch of crepes with stroganoff.  How we suffer at times.  Castillo San Felipe lies on the hill above the harbor, and it also was built mostly after Drake came.  It’s a massive fortification with eight batteries of guns, able to shell the harbor and the ocean offshore to protect the city.  We walked to the top via ramps and tunnels through the fortress, all built of stone with incredibly thick walls.  The guns face out through slots, and each battery has the slots arranged like a fan, covering a focused area with fire.  Though it fell to a French force in the Raid of Cartagena in 1697, the British were repulsed in the 1741 Battle of Cartagena.

Three days in a city of that size was plenty, and so we turned our bikes southward, planning three days to get to Medellin. As our second day of riding unfolded, we transitioned into a more fertile farming area.  Hills began to rise around us, and after two days of hot, dry riding, we came alongside the big Rio Cauca as it flowed out of the Andes and into a broad, lush green valley.   Before long, the hills around us steepened, and we rode up a narrow valley.  Soon we crossed the river on a high bridge and began to climb up a side canyon out of the lowlands.  Within 15 minutes we were 1,000 meters higher, and climbing rapidly out of the heat.  We made it to Yarumal for the night at 2,265 meters (7,430’) just as the rain was setting in.  We stayed at a little trucker’s hotel right on the main road, so it was kind of loud for a while, but it had a little restaurant with simple yet really great food.  The people were wonderful; we got to know a few truckers as they came through and heard many “hello” honks from others as they zoomed by.  The room cost us 30,000 Colombian pesos, or about $9 US, one of our cheapest rooms yet.  Okay, so we had to inflate our camp pads if the bed was a little hard, but then we were super comfy!  You know you’re back up in the mountains when there is hot water in the shower and blankets on the bed again.  We’d not had a hot shower in three weeks, and hadn’t cared, either.

The mountains revived us today while riding into the Medellin area.  We only topped out at about 2,850 meters (9,350’) today, but it was twisty roads all the way, and we had lots of fun with great pavement.  There were tons of trucks to deal with, but they are easily passed and will often wave us by, as they can see up the road better.  Busses are a little crazier, as they have a schedule to keep, and it’s amazing how fast they can push those things.  Why so many trucks, you might wonder?  Well, it’s because there is no multi-lane interstate system here, so the trucks share the same two-lane roads connecting cities as everyone else does.  Just think about how it would be if I-84 were not there.  All the trucks running up and down the Columbia Gorge would be on whatever two-lane road ran to where they were going.  The same thing for I-90 over the Cascades from Seattle to eastern Washington.  You’d be behind trucks on all the roads, because there would no longer be one best route for them to take.

Thinking again about “home,” I guess home is inside of me now.  The only external thing I have now to help me identify myself is that I am a traveler.  And the one constant in traveling is that everything is changing around me.  Everything is in flux, and the names all change whenever I move (except Jay’s of course).  Because of this constant erasing and redrawing of the present, I’ve never had so few worries about what others think of me.  As the traveler, only I can know my circumstances and the things influencing my actions.  Other’s opinions don’t necessarily matter, but I’ll bet there are folks who think I’ve done some mighty strange things at times.

What will it be like when I settle into one place again?  I hope I won’t start caring about the opinions of others again.  I was much too concerned about that before.  Life is better when you worry about the important things.  And there aren’t very many of those now, are there?

***

More photos here and a video from Jalene digging into the question of why the hell she has the urge to hurry all the time.

The Missing Concrete

Written March 27, 2016

I’ve had my two bananas for the morning.  That’s become a bit of a ritual here in Barichara, as there is always a huge bunch on the table each morning, along with other interesting fruit we’ve never seen before.  Bananas here are not like bananas at home.  They are smaller, and the flavor is much more intense and fresh.  Fruit is everywhere, and covers all the trees.  Yesterday I had to move my chair because the wind was causing some fat mangos to sway and swing, and they were hitting me.

We’re now in Barichara, Colombia, a lovely little town of about 8,000 up in the Andes mountains north of Bogota.  Barichara rests on the upper edge of the Rio Suarez canyon, which joins with gigantic Chicamocha Canyon to the north of us.  I’m sitting on the deck of Tinto Hostel, where we have holed up over the Easter weekend.  This is a HUGE holiday down here, and we have seen some amazing processions from the cathedral.  It’s Easter Sunday this morning, but the town seems quiet.

Getting from Panama to Colombia was quite the chore.  There are no roads connecting the two countries.  The Darien Gap is an area of jungle, mountains, and swampland about 60-100 miles across, through which you cannot cross unless you are crazy enough to try.  If you look it up on Wikipedia, you’ll see just how few outsiders have actually crossed it.  Only a handful on bikes.  You can go, therefore, by boat or by plane, and we elected to fly.  It’s somewhat more expensive, but much faster, and so you spend less time in hotels and taxis waiting on the bikes.  We wrote up a detailed account of how we shipped the bikes and ourselves across in “Flying across the Darien Gap”, located in the Gallery section of the webpage.

We flew out of Panama City to Bogota - a huge city of 8.5 million people.  It takes a long time to get anywhere, as the traffic can be murder during rush hour times.  The morning after we got our bikes, we took an Uber car downtown to buy our insurance.  The route took us from the airport section, filled with construction and modern apartments, through the industrial part of town with every kind of blue-collar activity you can imagine, and into the seedier part of downtown, where we were treated to a variety of hustlers, hucksters, working girls, beggars, and thieves.  One man rolled his window down next to us and told us to keep our camera out of sight, too dangerous.  Okay, so caution in Bogota is the word of the day.  We finally got to the insurance office in the heart of downtown, insured the bikes, and were then footloose in the city.  We walked up through the University District and caught the Teleferico (cable gondola) up the mountain to Monserrate, a cathedral perched at 3,200 meters (10,500’) on the ridge over the city.  Inside is the sculpture of El Senor Caido, or Christ after removal from the cross, which attracts huge numbers of pilgrims, most preferring to climb on foot to the summit.  The view out over the city is amazing, and it’s a very popular spot for sunsets.  After we came back down, it was time for another Uber ride through the city to the apartment we were renting, and a lesson on how to jam a car into a traffic circle across 4 lanes and come out ahead of everyone else.

From Bogata to...

Barichara. 

We eventually left Bogota on a Saturday morning, headed for Barichara and Tinto Hostel.  We don’t like to travel on Saturdays because it can be a pain to find a place to stay, but we had reserved space at Tinto, so weren’t worried.  It took us about an hour to finally break free of Bogota, but traffic heading north out of town was still intense for quite a long while.  Everyone was getting out for the weekend, and taking time off over the next week, which was Easter.  Monday, Thursday, and Friday are all holidays that week, so lots of people were just blowing off work and heading out.  As we gradually left the city, and found ourselves surrounded by green fields, orchards, coffee farms, and cattle, we realized that once again we were in South America.  The dry brown fields and coastal mountain jungles of Central America were gone, and there was a completely different feel to the land.

We are still in the Andes now, but lower now at 1,300 meters (4,250’).  I look out over a staircase of red tile rooftops blackened by lichens that stagger down to the creek, beyond which the steep, rocky hillside rises covered with green trees.  All exterior walls are painted white, and there is somehow a serenity in the uniformity, a quieting of the usual riot of color found elsewhere.  The cathedral bell-ringers are very artful here, ringing loud then soft, and alternating low and high tones in long serenades.  There are craftsmen and artisans, with shops full of paintings, sculptures and various textile and jewelry crafts, much of it quite beautiful and of high quality.  Once again, our lack of carrying capacity saves us.  Our hostel is only two blocks from the main plaza in front of the cathedral, and we can walk up and sit under the tall palms and leafy trees while watching the people who have come to town enjoy themselves amid the green shady garden areas while feeling the cooling breeze in the open space.  It’s hot here, and fairly humid in the mid-afternoon.  Ice cream becomes a necessity.  Some kind of refuge, whether it’s the plaza or the pool is a welcome place between lunchtime and the evening.  Once the sun is down, the air cools a little, and a hammock outside is a wonderful place to pass the time, letting the air flow over and around you on all sides.  Finally everything is quiet as we all get sleepy and head inside.

Like in Central America, the roosters here have a problem with their internal clocks.  They like to go off in the night, somewhere around 3 or 3:30.  After a bit they quiet down again and are not heard until just before light.  I used to wear earplugs all night, mainly because of the incessant dog barking, but that’s not so much of an issue here.  And so I leave them on the table and, if the roosters get it wrong and wake me up at 3, I put them in and go back to sleep.  It’s strange, but I somehow look forward to the rooster calls in the middle of the night.  I wonder what has started them, and why do they calm down again after a while?  Sometimes I go out and look at the sky.  I will miss the roosters when I get back home, but maybe not for long.

As I said, Barichara sits perched on the edge of a huge canyon.  I have taken a couple of rides by myself to explore.  The first day I went down the paved road which runs a short ways to the village of Guane, which is situated about 9 km from here and below the upper edge of the canyon.  I turned off onto a dirt road and headed down, down, down until I finally reached the river after maybe 10 miles, and then headed up the other side.  I crossed the river on an old steel arch bridge.  The concrete deck had several holes in it, some large enough that I could have fallen down through them.  The concrete was flaking apart, leaving big holes with networks of rebar exposed.  Most of the missing concrete was on the underside of the deck, making the ride across a bit of a crapshoot as to just where the thin spots lay.   I observed this by kind of crawling up to one of the holes and looking through.  I didn’t like the condition of what I saw under me, so I backed away.  Still, it was cool to look down and see the brown river rushing along madly about 50-75’ below me.  If you fell in you would have been swept away instantly, it was all boulders and rapids in this section.  Someone had thoughtfully spray-painted bright rings around the holes and cracks in the bridge deck, so it was not hard to ride across, just a bit breathtaking.  Later, I noticed pickup trucks weaving across, so what the hell.  At night, you’d want good headlights.

Way up the other side of the canyon was another small town, Galan.  Like all towns, there was a main plaza and church.  Approaching Galan, I was reminded that the state of the road you are on suggests nothing about what you are going to come upon.  The road was rocky and dirt, traveling up through sparse trees and a few cattle.  In the middle of nowhere what do I see through the trees above me but a big, bright yellow and orange Terpel gas station sign, with prices listed, all concrete and a nice big roof shading the pumps.  You’d think you were on a major highway.  Beyond the gas station was just more dirt road, and I finally reached Galan a few miles later.  Judging by the vehicles I encountered, probably no more than 5-10 per hour passed that station.

Tomorrow we are heading north toward the Cartegena area on the Caribbean coast.  It will take us two days to get up there, so we’ve chosen to take a break halfway in the town of Aquachica, on the advice of a lovely Bogota couple who are also staying here at Tinto Hostel.  We also met a woman from Argentina who is giving us some great information about the area she lives in.  Once again we’re reminded that while we are traveling through beautiful country, it’s really the people that we are traveling through, isn’t it?

***

See LOTS of photos, and a short video of the Good Friday cross raising, HERE.

You may notice that we've given a wee bit more organization to the photo gallery. Now you can select the continent you want to view and then, scroll down like usual.