Colombian Convoy

After all of our high adventure in Salento we decided to hit the road, only this time we had back up. John and Paula have been overlanding from California for the past year in a Toyota pick up with a customized camper. Melanie and Lukas, from Switzerland, shipped their Landcruzer to Canada and are having an overland adventure of their own.

Our newfound quirky companions were a blast to hang out with and a big help along the way. Knowing you have others looking out for you on the road is a relief after having the adventures such as we had all been through solo.

Over the next 11 days and nearly 1200 kms we all traveled through the twists and turns, the highs and lows and the rain and shine as the unlikely family we became. Jessica and I took the lead having shed our bags thanks to Team America. We ripped up the dusty mountain road leading to Ibegue like the bratty teenagers in the family, and shedding that extra weight made all the difference.

 

Day 1: Salento to Ibagué
Lukas and Melanie suggested we take a route through the Valle de Cocoras that none of us would have attempted solo, but felt confident doing it together. It was a twisty route through valleys and mountain passes on a dirt road – definitely the road less traveled!

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Here we go!

 

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Our view of the wax palms, most well over 100 feet tall.
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Our motorcycle, The Swede’s Landcruzer & the American’s rig.
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Pit stop shortly after leaving Salento.
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Meeting obstacles like this along the way was not unusual.
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The road was only wide enough for one vehicle, with a steep drop on one side. When oncoming traffic came, the one vehicle would have to reverse until the road was wide enough for the two vehicles to inch by eachother.
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Made it out alive. Enjoying a much-deserved beer,

Day 2: Ibagué to the Tatacoa Desert
We were exhausted and slept well in our tent despite the heavy rain. The next morning the smell of french-pressed coffee woke us up (one of the perks of riding with the convoy). The first half of the day was nice paved roads and highway driving – a nice contrast to yesterday’s physical ride. By midday, the landscape changed dramatically into a desert. It was a few hours getting off the main road and into the heart of the Tatacoa desert where we found another campsite amongst the sparse and vast area to spend the night.

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Picnic lunch just before entering the Tatacoa Desert. Melanie, Lucas, Paula, Jesse and John.
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The Tatacoa Desert.
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The observatory in the middle of the desert. We went to look at the stars when it got dark but unfortunately there was some cloud coverage.
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The longest shadow at sunrise.

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Day 3-4: Tatacoa Desert to Tierradentro
It was a humid night in the desert and the thought of spending another day in the heat was too much for us. We headed back to the mountains – this time to Tierradentro. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the archeological park is the main attraction. Pre-Colombian cultures created an underground funeral complex in the 6th and 9th centuries where they buried bodies, carved sculptures and painted on the walls with red, white and black paint. Each one has a ‘staircase’ (made from stone) down 5-8 metres where there is a main chamber surrounded by several lesser chambers, each containing a body.

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The staircase down to the chambers (which Paula quickly coined ‘bone holes’).
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Inside the ‘bone holes’.
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Our sleeping arrangements.
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Jesse bbq’ing some chicken for the convoy.
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A family style dinner.

Day 5-9: Tierradentro to Popoyan to Chachagui to Ipiales
We made our way to Ipiales with two pit stops: 1. Popoyan, a quiet colonial town where we stayed in a mediocre (at best) hotel and managed to get some laundry done for the next leg of the trip, and 2. Chachagui, a small town with lots of character where we camped on the lawn of a nice hostel with a pool and a kitchen. It was raining by the time we got to Ipiales and we were cold and wet. We checked into the nearest hotel that advertised hot water and warmed up before going to explore the church over the river.

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Taking a break from the road to take in the views.
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Our first glimpse of the church straddling the valley.
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Can you spot the weirdo?
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Saying goodbye to our favourite chips of all time in Colombia and hello to an interesting delicacy as we crossed the border to Ecuador.

We crossed into Ecuador together the following day. Crossing with a vehicle is always a little nerve racking. There is a lot of paperwork involved with importing a vehicle and with us on an Ecuadorian bike with only the ownership and no licence we had to hold our breath and just play it cool. We didn’t mention the bike and made it through with out much hassle. It took quite a while for the others to process their paperwork so we just hung around nervously drinking café and exchanging the rest of our Colombian pesos. Everyone got through just fine and we were off for more adventures getting ever closer to the equator.

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A border guard dog eyeballing us up and down.

Salento, Colombia

After three days of arduously amazing motorcycling through the relentless twists and turns of the Colombian countryside we finally arrived at our next destination La Serrana Finca & Hostel, Salento.

La Serrana set just outside of town was an absolutely stunning base to camp out, unwind and explore the area. Between campfires and beers in the evenings or waking up to the temperate sunrise and delicious breakfast with bottomless coffee in the mornings you are bound to relax and forget any previous hardships.

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Our campsite overlooking the valley to the mountains.

One of the main draws to the area is the Cocora wax palm forrest, a bizarre and otherworldly landscape. The king of this jungle is the awkwardly long legged wax palm, towering nervously overhead at nearly 200 feet tall they truly stick out.

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A short drive out of town brings you to the Valle De Cocora. We hiked one of the trails up and around the valley.

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At one point we scrambled down the mountain with our new friends John and Paula. After our hike we returned to town and were treated to a not-so-tipico Superbowl Sunday party thanks to John.

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Instead of riding our bike out to the valley we decided to catch one of the iconic and overloaded jeeps from the centre of town.

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Stand up jeep drankin’ like it’s spring break yo.

The Hostel was able to organize a horseback riding tour run by a local caballero for the next day. This was honestly so much fun. They take you through town and down some very steep valleys, through serene farmers fields and spooky old train tunnels to a freezing cold waterfall for a swim. If you are comfortable on a horse you can gallop as fast as you like. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard in my life. Highly recommended.

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Our guide and ourselves.
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Waterfallin in love.

Next was the quintessential coffee Finca tour.

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Fresh coffee beans.
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Don Ellias and his grandson at Finca Ellias.
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Beans being roasted to perfection.

It was in Salento that we finally found a place to play Tejo. Tejo is like a Colombian version of horseshoes … only a-fucking-mazing.

So you have an angled clay pit with an iron ring. On the ring is placed four folded paper packets of gunpowder. The player then takes twenty or so steps back and lobs a large iron half circle type thing at the packets. The object of the game you ask? Blow shit up.

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The tejo bar and the groundskeeper.

A Wrong Turn out of Bogota

We missed an exit leaving Bogota and were presented with two choices. 1: Backtrack towards the city and risk getting stuck in traffic, or 2: Take the mountainous route to Salento. We picked option 2. On the map it doesn’t look like a longer route than it’s southern counterpart, but we’ve learned that distance doesn’t mean much when you’re riding in mountainous terrain and you could drive 500km or 100km a day depending on the roads and mountains you encounter.

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We intended to get to Salento in one day, and may have if we’d taken the right highway, instead we went the long way ended up being a three day motorcycle ride stopping in Guaduas and Manizales before arriving at Salento. It ended up being a very beautiful ride, although difficult due to hairpin turns and terrifying large truck.

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Left: Jesse hanging out in Guaduas. Right: Our hotel room above the Zona Clik.
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Our view from where we ate lunch; a little restaurant perched on the peak of a mountain.

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Mirador Piedra Capira

Chasing Thiefs in Bogota

One of the most memorable nights in Bogota was going to see a local futbol match at El Campín stadium. We headed out with a young German couple we met at our hostel to buy tickets for the match, The Bogota Millonarios vs. Tunja, a neighbouring city. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The best way to describe it would be chaotic. There were crowds of people outside the stadium chanting and jumping up and down, while scalpers raced to sell their tickets. Surrounding the stadium were tonnes of police, fully outfitted riot police, dogs, security guards and stadium police and officials ready to keep the fans in line if needed.

Half an hour before the game was set to start we joined the lineup that snaked around the streets until we were at least a kilometre away from the entrance. We were four lily-white tourists (three blondes, one brunette), and we stood out in a sea of blue Millonario jerseys. As we waited impatiently I decided to buy a snack from one of the many vendors. I fished in my pocket for some change with my right hand and suddenly felt the ticket ripped from my left. Without thinking I turned and saw a man with a white stripe on his otherwise black jacket running through the crowd.

I briefly thought about how stupid I was for holding the ticket in my hand, but then I started chasing him, sprinting faster than I’ve ever run before. As I ran past Jesse and our new friends in line I yelped at them for help. Anger fuelled my legs as I weaved in and out of the crowd periodically losing sight of the thief and then seeing that flash of a white stripe again. Slowly I gained ground on him and as he crossed the line once more I lost him for a second before seeing that he’d slowed to a walk trying to blend in with the crowd. I started running at him until it occurred to me that I wasn’t sure what I was going to do if I caught up to him.

Meanwhile, in line, Jesse had his back to me when I ran past. But our new German friend saw me and stared for several seconds (maybe trying to recall my name?) before saying to Jesse, ‘I think that was your girl.’ By that point I was already out of sight and there was nothing he could do but pace up and down the line.

Back to chasing the dude. I really wanted to see this football match, but not enough to wrestle my ticket from a grown man. So I started yelling and pointing at him ‘My ticket! Thief! Mi boleta!‘ I looked like a crazy gringo but it was effective enough as everyone in line caught on to what was going on. Soon enough the crowd started rallying for me, yelling and pointing up ahead at the man. He took off again and I continued to chase him. Just as I could feel my legs starting to tire he ran into a group of cops with his hands up shaking his head and speaking rapidly in Spanish.

Luckily several people had witnessed the ordeal and spoke on my behalf as I leaned over trying to catch my breath. As the police searched him and tore all of his possessions out of his pocket and on to the ground there was no ticket to be found.

‘Had I made a mistake? Did I chase the wrong guy this whole time?’

I was starting to doubt myself when two boys came up with the ticket in their hand explaining he had dropped it when he realized he was going to be caught. Sure enough it was my ticket and they put him in the back of a police van. As I walked back to my spot in line several people were giving me the thumbs up. I felt like holding my ticket up in victory but thought better of it and quickly tucked it deep in my pocket thanking everyone along the way for their help.

My heart was still beating rapidly as I explained to the others what happened. Before I could finish my story the crowd started rushing a second entrance that had just opened. We got swept up in the mob and eventually made it to the stadium after being thoroughly searched. Finally we were inside but that wasn’t the end of our gringo problems.

I was feeling very thirsty after that whole ordeal, but they don’t sell beer at football matches! I quickly saw why. The stadium was vibrating with energy, passion and tension; 5000 people jumping up an down, beating on drums and yelling at the top of their lungs. Not a single Tunja fan was in sight, so, for our own personal safety, we joined the crowd cheering for the Millonarios. We placed our non-alcoholic beers at our feet and before Jesse took more than a few sips his was stolen from the ground beneath him. We all had a good laugh while nervously white-knuckling our phones.

It was clear the Millonarios were going to win. Not confident we could survive a mass exodus we left 15 minute before the game ended, but not before a guy tried to discard a small bag of drugs into our friends hood. *Sigh*

Finally we made it to the safety of a cab until we came within two inches of being t-boned at an intersection. By the time we got to our hostel we were all doubling over with laughter and relief recounting all the events of the night. The sweet family that owned our hostel fed us leftovers from their family fiesta while we shared our experiences in broken Spanish.

Read about the rest of time in The Beauty of Bogota.

 

The Beauty of Bogota

Everyone told us Bogota wasn’t worth more than a day or two. Congested traffic, crime and pollution were just some of the forewarnings we heard. But Bogota has a certain gritty spirit to it that you can’t find in cities white-washed for tourists. And that’s exactly why we loved it.

Initially thinking we would just pass through we ended up staying over a week, and contemplated staying much longer. There’s so much to see and do this city deserves weeks, if not months.

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Left: Stoopin’ it, novelty style. Right: Drinking Chicha, a fermented alcoholic corn drink.

 

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Just a kid walking his llama.

Bogota is less than 200km from Villa de Leyva, so we figured it would be an easy ride. We left our make-shift campground behind and started our journey to the capital city. It wasn’t long before we were at a dead stop, less than 40km away but still hours from our intended destination. Surrounded by large trucks and millions of vehicles, Jesse did his best to weave us through slow moving traffic. But the luggage balanced on the back of the bike made us too wide to fit between some cracks in traffic and we were at the mercy of those ahead of us. When we got off the main thoroughfare we discovered Bogota is made up of a tangle of skinny cobblestone streets that locals could navigate with their eyes closed. Us, not so easily. But the best part of having no timeline is being able to get lost for days without worry.

Bogota has lots of fun street spots to skate, so most days Jesse spent part of the day skating while I checked out different art museums and exhibits. My favourite was Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango which was a library that had a phenomenal exhibit on the Black Panthers movement called ¡Todo el poder para el pueblo! (All Power to the People!). It was a display of original propaganda posters, cards and the weekly newspapers from the early days of the movement. It was phenomenal to see revolutionary graphics that were so impactful. I had the multi-room exhibit to myself (with the exception of some hovering guards) so I took my time. Since photography was forbidden I willed myself to commit every detail to memory! Below is the artwork for the exhibit.

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Some kids getting hassled for skateboarding at Parque Santander.
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Lots of skate spots around Bogota.
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Botero is everywhere!

We spent the better part of one morning climbing up Monserrate mountain. And by “climbing” I mean waiting in line for an hour to board a funicular that clings to some very precarious and steep tracks. This memorable ride combined with clear sights of the city make this a popular tourist attraction, while some consider it an important pilgrimage due to a 17th century church at the top and a shrine to El Señor Caído (The Fallen Lord).

 

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A steep ride on the funicular, and a sense for the size of Bogota!
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Left: On the way to the top. Right: Photo-op with the mountains in the back.

There is a strip of small restaurants, vendors and souvenir shops at the top so we took the opportunity to try a few new things.

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Jesse tried Cocoa Tea, while I tried some fried small intestines of a cow …..
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…. and the verdict was Cocoa Tea = Good, Cow Intestines = See Above.

The most memorable part of Bogota was seeing a futbol match the night before we left. It was so good it deserved it’s own post: Chasing Thiefs in Bogota.

After a week of being in Bogota there was a massive fire that left the air heavy with smoke and all surfaces covered in a thick layer of soot. We took it as a sign that our time in Bogota was up and left early the next morning.

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Our guesthouse sat at the base of that mountain.

Colonial Towns, Columbia

With the bike-mares behind us our next stop was San Gil, a small town set in the mountains full of adventure. We got half-way there and our bike problems began again. Gas was pouring out of the carburetor. Although it was another beautiful ride, the stress of mechanical issues tainted the beauty of the landscape. Another mechanic and another repair, this time it was the float in the carburetor. Luckily it was a quick fix and we headed to La Pacha Campground set way up in the mountains outside of town.

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Our peaceful camping spot in San Gil.
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Coffee at La Pacha Campground.

We set up our tent and drove to Barichara for dinner. Barichara was another pretty colonial town with white-washed buildings, grand churches and skinny cobblestone streets surrounded by mountains.

 

The next day we went paragliding for the first time! We both had butterflies as the wind picked us up off the cliff and brought us over the mountains to see the small towns below. It was an incredible sensation and something we would love to do again.

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A shot from the sky while paragliding. That’s my shadow in the middle!

After two nights in La Pacha it was time to move on. The next stop was Villa de Leyva, a valley sitting at a high altitude with a desert feel to it. Since the town has no mineral deposits nearby to exploit it has undergone little development in the last 400 years, meaning that it retains most of the original cobblestone streets and colonial architecture from the 16th century (thanks Wikipedia!).

After looking at a few guesthouses we opted for the cheaper option of camping. It was a strange ‘campsite’ – really just a huge fenced in patch of grass. There was one other character camping there named Antoine. Our first introduction to him was him offering us bologna from one hand while his other gripped a giant empty bottle of whiskey. He looked like a street kid but once he awoke from passing out mid-afternoon we spoke to him around a fire and learned he was from Costa Rica and had a masters in music in which he later demonstrated by singing some Latin opera.

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One of the more rugged ‘campgrounds’ we’ve stayed in.
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Hobo’s Paradise Hotel

We spent the evening walking around and taking in the town – including Plaza Mayor, the largest square in Colombia at 1400 square metres. Eventually we sat down at an Italian restaurant and enjoyed food and wine on a balcony over Plaza Mayor while a live band played some great music.

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White-washed walls at dusk in Villa de Leyva.
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Plaza Mayor, Villa de Leyva.

 

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Enjoying some vino tinto!

Although there were things to do we’d been to so many colonial towns (in fact, at one point I had to ask Jesse to remind me what town we were in). We were too excited to get to the capital city of Colombia and left after only one night.

Magangue, Mompos & Bucaramanga

We didn’t get started as early as we wanted to – as usual. By 11am we were fighting the traffic once again out of Cartegeña and 216km later we arrived in Magangue. Before we arrived we pulled over for gas just as the sun was setting, filled the tank, and the bike wouldn’t start. Jesse tried to kickstart it to no avail. We hadn’t lost our North American weight yet so eventually the kickstand broke from under him. Locals gathered, a mechanic showed up, the town tried to help bump start it with the mechanic driving and finally ….. they realized the kill switch was on. Duh! As the locals laughed we sped off just a little embarrassed. Lesson learned the hard way, but it was a mistake we wouldn’t make again! Little did we know this was foreshadowing even more mechanical problems.

We were wiped by the time we arrived in Magangue and it was dark so we pulled over and chatted with a local family sitting outside getting some much needed water and hotel recommendations. Eventually we found something and explored the town a bit before crashing hard for the night.

The next morning our priority was getting the kickstand fixed – it doesn’t look very cool leaning your bike up against a wall every time you stop. As I went to find coffee I also found a welder two doors down from the hotel – convenient!!

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The welder fixing our kickstand – no safety equipment required.

With the bike back in order we searched the waterfront for the ferry that would take us across Rio Magdalena. We had a couple hours to kill so we grabbed some fresh orange juice, watched giant iguanas fight and, once again, attracted locals that seemed satisfied to just park their bikes near us and hang out.

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The curious crew that came to hang out with us while we waited for the ferry.

A rickety old barge docked and we squeezed our motorbike between large trucks and cars. The boat was Werner Herzog-esque which inspired us to name the bike Fitcaraldo, or Fitz for short. This nickname was fitting as the bike threw us into ‘fitz’ of rage every other day.

 

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Jesse driving the motorbike off the barge and  up a steep hill of loose rocks I was standing on.

It was a nice easy 50km drive to Mompos – a sleepy little colonial town. We arrived mid-afternoon so had time to drive around and explore. A local soccer match seemed pretty heated so we stayed to watch a while And drank some of the tiniest costeña beers we’ve ever seen.

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Pristine streets and pretty architecture in Mompos.
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The tiny beers we bought to watch the soccer game (pictured in the background).

We happened into an Italian restaurant which was way out of our budget but the pizza was the best meal we’ve had here – thin crust, real cheese, and cooked in a wood-fire oven for just over a minute.

 

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This pizza… mmmmmmmm. Plus, ginger beers to go with it.

The next day we managed to get up at sunrise and hit the road. It was one of our longest rides at 350km but not without interruption. Sadly a cyclist had been hit and killed on the highway – a sheet covering the body was a solemn reminder of how careful we had to be driving here.

 

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Sidewalk pit stop for breakfast.

As we pulled up to yet another ‘paje’ (toll booth) Jesse noticed the bike was rumbling and loosing power. The paje attendants directed us to the nearest town, Morrinson – a mere blip on the highway. First a nice local walked us over to the mechanic shop in town. The five or so men working there stopped what they were doing to try and help us. No english was spoken as they looked over the bike, changed the oil, tried to explain a few things by pointing to bike diagrams and eventually, with the help of google translate and our Spanglish dictionary, let us know that there was a bigger problem with the bike and we needed to go to the next big town, Bucaramanga, to get the right parts. Meanwhile, a significant crowd had gathered and, while Jesse dealt with the mechanics, I was entertained by the kids asking questions about Canada like ‘Is it fancy there?’ Similar to past experiences, mechanics in small towns proved themselves to be the most honest and giving people refusing to accept any money for their time.

 

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The nice mechanics changing our oil in the small town of Morrinson.

What should have been a beautiful 150km drive through the Sierras was extremely stressful knowing the bike might break down any second. As night rolled in we creeped our way through the sketchy barrios on the outskirts of Bucaramanga and checked into the first hotel we found. Being ‘Domingo’ (Sunday) we struggled to find food and eventually called it a night vowing to get the bike fixed the next day.

 

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The unfortunate outskirts of Buca. It was getting dark so we pushed on as the bike got weaker and slower. We weren’t sure ‘Fitz’ was going to make it.

Jesse visited a few mechanics. After a quick look they all gave the ‘finger pistol to their throat’ sign which we’ve interpreted to mean ‘it’s fucked’. As always the solution is right in front of you and the mechanic right next door to our hotel agreed to take the bike apart and take look. The bike is a ShineRay which is a Chinese model. This meant the parts weren’t readily available in Colombia. We were starting to think our bike adventure was coming to an end, but after many hours of charades, dramatic hand gestures and google translate they communicated that the piston was ‘finger gun to the throat’ which ended up being a costly but necessary repair. After strict instructions to pull over every 50km to let the engine cool and change the oil every 1400km we were finally on our way.

 

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The geniuses that fixed our bike by replacing the piston. They really went to bat for us calling and traveling around the city looking for the right parts for our bike.

We didn’t get much time to explore Bucaramanga but we did visit the statue of Luis Carlos Galán, the once presidential candidate who was pro-extradition and eventually assassinated by Pablo Escobar’s sicarios.

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The giant bust of Luis Carlos Galán in Bucaramanga, the city where he was born.
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These giant ant sculptures in town made for good photo ops and a couple strange looks from pedestrians. Locals eat a bag of the giant ants found in the area as a snack..