I waited until sundown to escape the heat of the day before heading to Cartagena. No issue riding at night around here, the roads are flat, pretty safe and with little traffic. The only disconcerting moment came when passing through Baranquilla after sunset. Nop, not because of the traffic itself but rather the numerous police checkpoints; as I was riding the “circumvalacion”, the city’s outer ring hwy, every few kilometers a police checkpoint was stopping nearly all motorcyclist – and there are tons of motorcycle in Colombia’s city’s – and frisk searching the riders. I probably passed a half-dozen of these checkpoints. As a traveler and a “big bike” I never got stopped but this never ending display of (in)security sure makes you nervous and it felt good to see the city in my rearview mirrors.
Adriana and I planed to meet up again in Cartagena (Kilometer 40,906; Cartagena, 17-Mar-11 @ 20:25) and we were invited to stay at Patricia & Miguel’s place, Adriana’s sister and her husband. And what an apartment it is! A penthouse on the 30th floor of a luxury condominium with tremendous 360° views: the Caribbean sea, the old city, the port, Bocagrande,… Now that’s a step up from my U$D 7 dorms ;). We got pampered at Miguel’s place, even had a chef coming a couple of afternoons to cook amazing dishes for us. And if that wasn’t enough, Adriana and I were invited to stay at Evelyn and Tonio’s place in the old city, inside “Las Murallas”! (“Las murallas” are the thick 17th century walls build to protect Cartagena from pirates or enemies attacks). Now get this: Evelyn’s place is an ex-convent beautifully restored into luxury suits, w/ high ceiling, thick stone walls, rooftop terrace with view on the wall and the Caribbean sea. The main building entrance open up to the ex-church now converted into an exquisitely decorated open concept common area. We then take the stone stairs leading up to the 2nd floor balcony surrounding the central courtyard and the above mentioned church; the apartments are located around it and Evelyn’s place is a cavernous 3 stories suit. There’s a common pool and what a marvel it is; it extends to the edge of the building revealing un-obstructed view to the wall and the sea. And it only gets better: the fashion here in this tight inner-circle of wealthy people is to go visit other centuries old luxury homes. It might sound “weird”, even “boring” at first but trust me it’s fascinating. Top interior designers and architects vie to restore these homes into pieces of art… which they are! We tagged along for a few visits. The best was Valantino’s house; Valentino is a famous Colombian painter very successful and renowned in NY and Miami. Well his residence is an absolute heaven… a place where you would want to spend a week or even 2 and never go out! Go check the pics, you’ll see :).
It was a long holiday weekend in Colombia and everyone seemed to have chosen Cartagena as their destination. Adriana and I spent the next few days hanging out with family & friends, sharing a few laughs and eating like kings. And of course, being on the beautiful Caribbean shores many here have their private boats and we took advantage of that. One day we all went to a private island for a picnic: bathing in the Caribbean warm waters, sharing a few drinks with friends, sitting on the shore and watching the sunset to the sound of folkloric and romantic guitar music before heading back to the main land and seeing Cartagena illuminated at night. Another day Miguel took us scuba diving around Isla Rosario, famous for its white sandy beach and rich coral and marine life. I am telling you, it’s the good life.
Of course we visited old Cartagena, the famous historic city surrounded by its defensive walls and one of the most picturesque colonial town in South America. It is still as impressive as the first time I was here back in 2001 and we couldn’t have chosen a better spot to spend the next few days together. We went wandering through old Cartagena small streets, strolling under their flowery balconies. We savored Cartagena’s famous sweets from the many street vendors, chilled in its leafy plazas sipping an ice cold michelada while watching folklore dancers perform in the streets. At sundown, we went strolling on top of the old city walls, found a tranquil spot and sat on the rampart to witness the sunset. Dinner was served in trendy patio-restaurants before heading out to practice my salsa moves in a hot & sweaty salsateca.
By Tuesday I was hit with a nasty flue courtesy of all the AC’s blasting ice-cold winds while outside a hot and humid 34°C degree temperature awaits you. While I was resting and nursing my flue, Adriana had to head back to Bogota (yeah, some people have to work ;)) but we planed to meet again soon. The following day, I only managed to squeeze a few drops of energy to do some maintenance on Llama. But by Thursday I just couldn’t stand still anymore and I decided to go check Volcan El Totumo, 50+Km away (Kilometer 40,984; Volcan El Totumo, 24-Mar-11 @ 11:10). This is not your typical lava spewing volcano, rather a 15m high mound belching out a lukewarm creamy mud. It is said that the mud contains minerals acclaimed for their therapeutic properties; hey, perfect to cure my aching muscles. So as the Lonely Planet said, I climbed up the stairs, hopped in the crater and frolicked around in a refreshing mud bath while laughing with other tourists and trying the darndest to sink further than buoyancy permits. Whatever it was, the mud therapy or just being outside in the sun, I felt so much better and once back in Cartagena I decided to just keep touring and further visit the city sites.
I finally left Cartagena on Friday heading south; destination Mompos, a small town in the middle of marsh lands surrounded by the many branches of the Rio Magdalena. Getting there is no piece of cake though; you need to hope on ferry to cross the river and then tackle gravel roads leading to this secluded location. But things now are even more complicated due to the diluvian rains hitting Colombia since October which back in December/January flooded the whole area up to 2 meter high! Roads where washed away, bridges destroyed, landslides buried everything in their path and repairs/reconstruction are ever so slow. The only reason I could even go there now is the fact rain has somewhat subsided in March, water level dropped back down enough for the roads to open once again to the general public (5 days after I left, 1 of the repaired makeshift bridge got swept away yet again by rising river levels). Still I had my share of trouble: First, a cistern truck carrying highly flammable material flipped over due to the broken asphalt and a fear of explosion lead the police & army to close the road. After a couple of hours wait and learning the road will not open until tomorrow, I ventured with a fellow Argentinian rider into a 3Km “detour” to clear the road block (Kilometer 41,163; 30Km north of Ovejas, 25-Mar-11 @ 13:00). But there was no road! We were riding through corn cropland, banana plantation and sugar cane fields. So what? Well try riding a 225Kg bike+luggage on a footpath, on wet grass, in mud, between trees, up slippery slopes and down gravel and rock trail. It took us 45min to cross these 3Km; we slid a good dozen times not able to hold the bike up or sometime not even able to set foot on the ground (I took some pics but somehow “lost” them! :(). By the time we arrived to the other side, I was completely exhausted, barley able to lift my arms. I lay down on the asphalt and rested for 20min trying to recoup some energy; I still had a long road ahead and I needed to reach a city before sundown as the region is “caliente” (i.e. unsecure) at night.
Soon thereafter we were back on the road and 45min later, I said goodbye to my Argentinean friend who was heading directly to Medellin (though impossible for him to get there tonight) and I veered eastward toward the river port city of Magange. All the delays made me miss the ferry which crosses Rio Magdalena to La Bodega where a further 65Km of gravel packed road separated me from Mompos. Magangue turned out to be a way below average city and I really did not want to stay here so I headed toward the shores to see if I can find a way to cross the river. Sure enough, a couple of small “lanchas” shuttle passenger back and forth between these 2 towns and one offered to take me. I was very hesitant to load Llama into this small wooden boat but at the same time it sounded “fun” to try, so I just went for it.
I arrived in Mompos right before darkness and settled for a good night sleep (Kilometer 41,326; Mompos, 25-Mar-11 @ 18:35). Next morning, fresh and re-energized, I went to explore the town. Mompos was as important of a port as Cartagena during the Spanish colonization, with all supplies and merchandise coming to the interior of nowadays Colombia passing through here. But by the end of the 19th century, this shipping trade rout stopped, Mompos prosperity vanished and the city seemed to have been frozen in time. Whitewashed century old houses, most weathered by the effect of the elements and time, line deserted streets. People here “hide” during the day to escape the heat and the town only seems to come alive at night. As for me, I took a canoe tour in the afternoon to visit the surroundings villages, the marshlands and it’s incredibly diverse flora and fauna, especially the birds. Taking this tour opens your eyes to how rich and verdant this ecosystem is. Pre-Colombian native developed amazing techniques to extract the most out of it (see pic for details).
We were back in Mompos by sunset right on time to see the town wake up. Most Momposinos were sitting on their front door, swinging in their traditional (and famous) Mompos rocking chair while chatting with the many passerbies. At night, they seem to all converge around Plaza Santo Domingo where an outdoor “food court” is set up: BBQ meat & chicken, pizza, sausages, arepas, deserts (obleas and other arequipe based sweets), fresh juices and of course beer and aguardiente, you can find it all here. And I happily joined in the fiesta with Carlos and friends.
I headed back to La Bodega early Sunday morning eager to catch the first ferry and aiming to reach Medellin by nightfall. Once in La Bodega, I had breakfast with a few other people also waiting to cross (in cars). But the ferry was nowhere to be seen; No one had any idea what was going on, except for the joke: “Lots of Aguardiente for the captain yesterday”. The hours passed and still no ferry on the horizon. The captain of the lancha kept harassing me to go with him again, telling me that it’s Sunday, the ferry will not be coming today. I didn’t want to go with him anymore after he kept to himself the money share of the people who helped lower and take out Llama from the boat, leaving them angry and wanting their due payment. I just smiled back: “Well, no problem, I just head back to Mompos for the night, tomorrow is another day”. By 14:00, we finally managed to reach the captain by phone (he just woke up?) who delivered the bad news: no service today. As I was saddling up to head back to Mompos, a couple of guys who I was chatting with told me that the local oil drilling company, EcoPetrol (nothing “eco” about these guys though… you should see how they drill), had a barge coming with a tanker truck and they can take all of us on the way back. Great! Although it meant I will reach Magange late afternoon, all I wanted was to cross the river to make sure that tomorrow I can head to Medellin. We landed in Magange at 16:00 and I felt lazy & tired after all the wait. For today, I will ride as far as I can and stop somewhere for the night. That somewhere was Sincelejo (Kilometer 41,473; Sincelejo, 27-Mar-11 @ 17:30) and I found a hotel next to the main plaza with the food stalls right around the corner and I gladly went nibbling a little from each.
It was great riding up mountain roads again on route to Medellin and I took great pleasure zipping through the curves. Once in Medellin the first thing I did was to go see a few of my mechanic/body-shop acquaintances as I wanted to give my baby a makeover, making her attractive for potential buyers. As for me, I took 1 day of rest to take care of my cough (which was a persistent MoFo) and just hanged out with a couple of friends I met last time I was around here. But as usual, I only feel alive if I go explore & visit and since we were treated to some sunny weather, I happily went riding Medellin’s surroundings to discover a few traditional Paisa villages. I first went eastward to Guatape, a small village set near a damn which upon completion flooded this hilly area. I visited El-Peñol (Kilometer 42,057; El Peñol, 30-Mar-11 @ 12:10), a huge 200m high granite rock near Guatape with tremendous views from the summit to the flooded valley below. The result is a stunning landscape with a contrast of green forest hills set along a snaking lake dotted with green islands, all on a baby blue horizon background. As for Guatape, it’s a delightful little village with cobbled street where colorful frescoes in high relief adorn the base walls of its house. It’s also famous for its hearty Paisa food and I suggest you to try the local trout specialty, especially the garlic one. Next day I went north-west to Santa Fe de Antioquia, a typical Paisa town set in a hot and humid valley (Kilometer 42,224; Santa Fe de Antioquia, 31-Mar-11 @ 10:50). I have to admit that I felt a little let down, Santa Fe didn’t live up to its reputation. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a beautiful town but after 3 month riding throughout Colombia and visiting many charming & picturesque villages, my standards were pushed higher. I lingered enough in Santa Fe to try bitter tamarindo sweets as well as other delicacies before heading to visit the Puente del Occidente, a late 19th century suspended bridge, the first in the Americas.
Llama “spa” treatment gave it a beautifully rejuvenated look and all is ready for me to head back on the road. The next couple of weeks I will be making my way back home to Quito, taking some large detours allowing me to further stop in cities & towns and bid farewell to a few good friends I met on the way up.
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Of course we visited old Cartagena, the famous historic city surrounded by its defensive walls and one of the most picturesque colonial cities in South America. It is still as impressive as the first time I was here back in 2001 and couldn’t have chosen a better spot to spend the next few days with Adriana. We went wandering through old Cartagena small streets, strolling under their flowery balconies. We savored Cartagena’s famous sweets from the many street vendors, chilled in its leafy plazas sipping an ice cold michelada while watching folklore dancers perform in the streets. At sundown, we went strolling on top of the old city walls, found a tranquil spot and sat on the rampart to witness the sunset. Dinner was served in trendy patio-restaurants before heading out to practice my salsa moves in a hot & sweaty salsateca.