Travel Through Colombia on a Harley-Davidson

By Peter & Kay Forwood

Colombia on a Harley (25/12/02 - 13/1/03)
Distance 2708 km (319472 km to 322180 km)

This is part of the ninth section of our around the world trip.
Complete Trip Overview & Map

Coming from  Ecuador or read our previous visit to Colombia

25/12/02 An easy 20 minutes into Colombia, using the carnet. The rules for safe riding through this country seem to be. Ride during the morning or early afternoon, stick to the major roads, ask regularly about problems on the road ahead and be lucky. 3500 people are killed in the country each year as a result of the civil war, mostly civilians. Probably about the same number of people who are killed on their roads. There is a risk riding the motorcycle, there is also a risk from the rebels. We try to keep both risks in perspective. Instantly we feel the friendliness and openness of people who have or are living in difficult circumstances. They are incredibly pleased that you have bothered to visit them, to see first hand their problems, at this difficult time. They are not tourist weary like other places where life is easy. They live life for today and Christmas is a double reason to be festive. We rode to Pasto and joined their social gathering in the main square.

26/12/02 Pasto to Popayan, just 250 km but winding road through great scenery. We stopped twice and both times were offered a small gift, lollies and a home made bracelet. The roadsides here are clean, the houses finished and maintained and gardens planted with trees and flowers, quite a contrast from the previous three countries we visited. The army is out guarding its major bridges and we passed through six military road blocks, searching cars, presumably for weapons or explosives. This is supposed to be one of the more dangerous areas of the country with FARC holding territory near by. Popayan centre is almost as the colonialists left it, a magnificent square surrounded by streets of white washed colonial buildings, themselves surrounding inner courtyards.Street scape of Popayan

27/12/02 Summer has arrived here, just north of the equator. The heads are on the sorghum, the ears on the corn and the sugar cane is being harvested. We have passed through the wet season with only one wet day and a few afternoon showers and it should be dry from now on. The road north of Popayan passes up a valley of agriculture tended primarily by descendants of black Africa. We stayed in Ibaque, about 430 km, with the last 80 km travelling slowly over a high mountain pass with holiday traffic dodging slow moving trucks. We saw three accidents on the pass near the top where mist had wet the road and visibility was low. Head on collisions at slow speed overtaking on blind corners. Dozens of cars or trucks were broken down, overheated in the slow traffic. One entrepreneurial group of locals had felled a tree across the road and were pretending to hurriedly machete it to pieces as they directed traffic around it, getting small payments for their road clearing efforts from motorists. If they hurriedly work slowly they might take all weekend to clear the tree. Our hotel was near the road and trucks roared through all night, obviously not too concerned about security along this section. About another six military check points today. We were stopped at one and politely asked for documents.

28/12/02 It seems the heavy truck traffic of yesterday was due to a holiday ban on trucks as today they disappeared by 9 am. Not soon enough for two motorcyclists who failed to take a corner and hit a truck head on. Both dead, their bodies still lay on the road covered with a blood soaked sheet. A vivid reminder of how temporary life is and how quickly it can be removed. This was the second motorcycle accident death we had seen in two days, the other one a small bike trapped under the wheels of a truck, again failing to take a corner. Soberly we rode into Bogota reflecting our comments of three days earlier on the chances of a vehicle accident versus being attacked by rebels.

29/12/02 Hostals always bring a vast range of people. Ones like those in Quito are generally full of fly in tourists only, out in a safe destination, travelling for a month and not too concerned with the price of things. Bogota on the other hand has only travellers, its not a tourist destination nor a hopping off spot for a traveller. People here are adventurists, purely by the fact that they are here. An interesting, often egocentric, self opinionated worldly bunch. They often hang out for weeks or months, resting or finding kindred spirits, not that Bogota itself would normally keep them here for that long. An American man might be looking for a job teaching english, an Indian with his pregnant Argentinean wife waiting a month for money after being robbed in Venezuela. A British SCUBA diving instructor hanging out after 18 months work in Honduras. A middle aged Brit, english teacher married to a Cuban who left and is believed to have stolen three books from other travellers, and two Australians travelling the world by motorcycle. Certainly an interesting bunch.

30/12/02 These travellers have stories to tell of safe or unsafe places and good and bad places to see in the surrounding countries. A Venezuelan man from Caracas arrived today leaving his country for better current opportunities, leaving the one month old strike. He has first hand information on the availability of food and fuel, what is and is not working, and the safety with the demonstrations.

31/12/02 The cohesive nature of Platypus Hostal had the owner providing dinner, the Indian cooking roti and curry and the remainder consuming new years eve's dinner. An expat American and his Colombian wife making their way in many small local opportunities opened their new artist studio for the change of year party and we finished up mid morning at a locals party in our own street, dancing to their music and being welcomed.New Years eve partying at the Platypus hostal in Bogota

1/1/03 Half the day was gone when we awoke and the rest of the day was slow.

2/1/03 Occupying our minds now is the worsening crisis in Venezuela and our need to cross that country to get to Trinidad and Tobago to island hop up through the Caribbean islands. The one month old general strike has crippled oil production in the 5th largest exporter in the world and pushed up international oil prices. Petrol is virtually unavailable in the country and by all accounts violent civil unrest is imminent. We left Bogota crossing the mountains to Honda then headed north hoping to reach Santa Marta tomorrow. The 45 highway (not on our map) varies from potholey to excellent. We stayed in a roadside hotel, watching cable TV at $US 4.50 a double after travelling about 350 km.

3/1/03 This is the first time in three years that Colombians have felt this section of road safe enough to travel on. From north of Bucaramanga to Santa Marta. Consequently everyone seems to be heading to the Caribbean coast for the holidays. After 600 km of heavy traffic and ten hours we arrived at Taganga, just north of Santa Marta, to find every hotel booked full. We had intended to stay at La Casa De Felipe where the owner, after phoning many hotels, found us a one bedroom apartment for $US 7.50 a night, such is the friendly economical Colombia.

4/1/03 Its time to seriously start looking at boats that might be capable of taking us up through the Caribbean Islands with the motorcycle, safely and in our price range. An old fishing boat seems to be the preferred alternative. A heavy solid boat designed to carry a load. The hull could be filled with cheap fuel and the boat could be more readily sold near Cuba or Jamaica than a yacht or pleasure boat (which are out of our price range anyway). Taganga has a few such fishing boats but after talking to expat westerners (running SCUBA diving businesses) the locals are reluctant to sell to foreigners at locals prices so they think vessels are cheaper in Venezuela. We spent most of the day resting, getting used to the coastal heat after the mountain cool. Watching the crowds arrive from Santa Marta to be ferried by small boats to beaches along the coast.Starting to seriously look for a boat, to buy, to take us through the Caribbean

5/1/03 Sunday, the middle day of the long weekend and the crowds doubled from yesterday. They poured into Taganga by the bus load to be shuttled by boats to Playa Grande. Here there was virtually only standing room on the beach, and in the water. That didn't stop more boats bringing more passengers. The banana inflatables towed behind small dinghies kept the children happy along with boat rides to the fringing reefs. Restaurants boomed although most people brought their own lunch. We talk boats to everyone we meet and ended up in a captain's house making arrangements for tomorrow to look at one of two boats for sale.

6/1/03 It's a great way to meet half the town, buying a boat. The people we met we could divide into two categories. Ones that warned us about difficulties, corruption, no papers, dishonest dealers and ones that were looking to get a commission by introducing us to someone else who might sell his boat. A couple of locals spoke English, some having lived or travelled through the Caribbean islands. With our brains absorbing and sorting information and misinformation we arranged to test sail a boat tomorrow.

7/1/03 The supposedly only honest boat owner in town, a retired gentleman from Aruba showed us his 33 ft, timber boat. The 50 yr. old sailing boat was converted to a powered fishing boat in 1978, fibreglass over in 1996, had its gunwales raised at the same time and had a new engine installed in 1998. Now a very heavy slow chugger of a boat but stable, six berths, GPS and depth sounder, marine radio with all equipment included. A little slow, heavy and old for our desires but in the price range of up to $US 15,000. We were also concerned to learn that anyone buying a boat in Columbia required a drug clearance from Bogota, which can take some time, and that foreign registered boats can't buy the cheap diesel from Venezuela. By afternoon we had decided that despite the current difficulties in Venezuela it would still be better to move on there in a few days to look for a boat.The tourist precinct of Cartagena

8/1/03 First a bit of sightseeing. Four hours to Cartagena, a big city, full of history starting in 1533, Spain's port for shipping its plunder from South America. Its wealth led it to sieges from notables like Sir Francis Drake, and resulted in forts and fortified walls as protection. The old city inside the walls has changed its buildings little in the last 400 years and like many colonial cities here seems more Spanish than Spain. This is probably the safest city in Colombia from rebel attacks yet the area we are staying in, the older part of town, seems more dangerous from the locals. Bred from pirates, conquistadors, and the worlds lost souls looking for adventure to drug smugglers. The back streets seem full of opportunists looking for quick money or easy living. Backpackers, often here mainly for the cheap drugs feed the market and down and out street sleepers or drunks add to the unease.

9/1/03 The old walled city has immense charm, its vehicle free streets lined with colourful old houses with wooden balconies. Parks and coral stone churches at each square. Here also the Colombian tourists are travelling. Staying in the upper end hotels along the peninsula and taking open air tour buses to the sights. The fort thronged with people in and out all day. We wandered collecting the ambience of the place.

10/1/03 Headed east again to Santa Marta. Still not seeing any western tourists, one or two occasionally. Riding in the heat still zapping our energy. Tonight's hostal full of Colombian "hippies", young, friendly, body pierced, guitars, beaded jewellery, dreadlocks, out to enjoy themselves at the beach. Quietly noisy they partied in the street till 2 am, a cooler breeze blowing there than in the hostal. Juggling batons or blowing a flute, drinking a few beers.Bike and backpackers sleep together in this cramped hostal

11/1/03 We were up for an early swim, then a local bus to Tayrona National Park. We don't often use local transport but it is always an experience. These are the buses that stop in the middle of the road, anywhere, without warning and usually without tail or indicator lights, collecting or dropping off passengers. The ones driven by people who think they are formula 1 race car drivers. The ones we talk about saying that driving our own vehicle at least eliminates one idiot from the accident equation. Our driver was surprisingly sane and took an hour to cover the 32 km journey. The park itself, rain forest to beach, the campgrounds still packed with the young people, like our hotel, many paying for their holiday selling hand made jewellery, sleeping in hammocks, on the ground or in small tents. Granite rocky headlands and sandy beaches break up the shoreline with reasonable surf waves but few people swimming. Saturday night and a party atmosphere on our return to Santa Marta, drinking, streets foods. The odd busker and a strong cool breeze.

12/1/03 We left Colombia's premier holiday town thinking it's more the people that make the place than the destination. Without their diverse vibrancy it would be another seaside tourist destination. Venezuela's borders aren't open for customs on the weekend so we rode to Maicao, near the border, filled up a 20 litre drum of petrol. If petrol is again flowing in Venezuela it will feel like we are taking tea to China, if not we will be grateful to have the extra 20 litres.

13/1/03 An easy out of Colombia this morning except for a pedantic middle aged woman at customs delayed us for 30 minutes. A great country to travel now that the Prime Minister has introduced safe "caravan routes" across the country patrolled by the military.

Move with us to Venezuela .


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