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The Hardest Part Is Saying Goodbye

The Hardest Part Is Saying Goodbye

Quito, 4-May-2011

The last leg of my journey… damn these words are heavy. But I am not there yet so let’s put this though on hold and move to more important things.  Colombia is a marvelous country mainly because of its people. During my entire South America trip I felt welcomed wherever I set foot, people eager to chat with me, to invite me into their homes, help me discover the beauty of their village, city & country, to learn about their culture and to share a few moments of their daily life. But nowhere was it as heartening as here in Colombia.  And the fact that there’s only 1 official/safe border between Colombia and Ecuador, I promised all my new friends whom I met along my way up to visit them again when riding back south. It started here in Medellin and the show will carry on through other cities and villages.

First and foremost I will do a huge detour to pass by Bogota and visit Adriana. It was April fool and Adriana had no idea I was coming, I played the trick that my girlfriend (i.e. Llama) was jealous and didn’t want to start ;).  But sure enough, I left early morning under blue skies and knowing that my sun is in Bogota both Llama and I were just eager to get there and we roared up and down the cordilleras to reach Bogota in an amazing 5 ½ hours! (Kilometer 42,773; Bogota, 1-Apr-11 @ 14:30). As Adriana was still at work I just caught up with a couple of other friends, Diana and Tim, before heading to the Suzuki dealer to get a few bolts (yep, more fell) and chat with the boys until sundown. Tonight I will stay at Pilar’s place, one of Adriana’s best friends, before heading out with Adri to a lounge to catch up re-counting my stories.

Adriana had organized a weekend getaway for us: Pilar, Enrique, Adriana and I were to go visit “Los Llanos” in the Meta department.  Los Llanos or grassy plains are a huge swath of land to the east of Bogota, stretching from the foot of the cordierra all the way beyond the Venezuelan border.  Its total area across both countries are up to 1/5th of Colombia superficies and it’s teaming with wildlife; to give you an idea, Los Llanos have more than 700 bird species roughly the same amount of bird found in all USA & Canada.  As for the sight, imagine the Canadian prairies but now filled with trees, rivers and marshes where hundreds of animals roam and birds soar. With yours truly at the car’s helm, we first headed through extraordinary roads (and tunnels) in a tremendous ride down the Andes to Villavicienco, the gateway to the Llanos.  We briefly visited the city and its famous zoo before heading to eat typical “asado llanero”, the region’s specialty BBQ. The Llanos flat grassy plains are ideal for cattle grazing and the meat here rivals an Argentinean parillada or Brazilian churasco. After lunch we didn’t have a destination in mind, just go with the flow and see where our curiosity and passion will take us. I was so impressed by this ecosystem that I wanted to head deeper into the Llanos: “Up to the border with Venezuela? It’s only 500Km from here…” ;).  Well, we had a less extreme choice; Enrique who grew up in Villavicienco was our guide and he suggested heading toward Puerto Lopez, a small village 100 Km from here where we could find a nice finca for the nigh and spend some chill time while enjoying the flora and fauna. We bought a couple of Llanero music CDs from a street vendor and just headed deep into the Llanos.  It was just perfect! With Adriana by my side and good friends with us, we just savored every moment, cruising leisurely and enjoying the scenery, stopping every once in a while for a drink, for some pictures or to treat ourselves to some delicious fruit cocktails. And as if it was all choreographed, we arrived just before sunset to the Alto de Menegua, the so called “Ombelico de Colombia” (i.e. the geographic center of Colombia). This small hill also boasts a tremendous viewpoint on the infinite expanse of the Llanos and the nearby Rio Meta with a gorgeous sunset to top it off.  Even with the heat and humidity, we huddled together and enjoyed the moment.

As darkness set on the region, we decided that it’s about time to find a place to lay our head for the night and we were in luck; a few kilometer after the Alto, there was a beautiful finca-hotel with a pool set within a large swath of land including a couple of lakes where we could kayak. And what is the first thing we did? Hope in the pool! A perfect end to our day: A bottle of rum, some appetizers, good music and we stayed until 23:00 cooling off and having fun in our small paradise.

The next morning, we headed to explore the finca’s surrounding area especially the lake.  It was a serene environment, a swath of water surrounded by marshes teaming with birds. Adriana and I hoped on the kayak and ventured through the marshes and we were rewarded by seeing up-close and personal a proud and gorgeous chestnut eagle (and hearing its astounding scream), some martin-pescadores, cormorants and many other multicolor birds including ones which are bright orange, almost fluorescent!  We also saw a few babillos, i.e. little crocodiles, which were enough for Adriana to mandate that we head back :). Well, the hotel pool was safer, no babillos here, however we were joined by a couple of huge iguana sunbathing on the ledge.   We bummed around the pool until 15:00, relishing every moment we had together until our stomachs started screaming for some asado and we reluctantly headed back to Villavicienco for lunch before driving back up the mountain to cold and rainy Bogota.

I knew that on my trip’s last leg it will be hard to say goodbye but it was especially arduous and emotional to do so now and leave Adriana. We met for breakfast in the Zona Rosa and spent most of the morning chatting away, not wanting to leave. But you can’t escape reality: some have to go to work and some had to keep living their adventure. However, we were sure that somehow, someday, somewhere we will meet again; hey it happened before, it will happen again.

My next stop was Pereira to see Alvaro, Cesar and J.E. as well as Joana, Carlos, Raul,… and what a great feeling it was to just pop up and say “Hola”! (Kilometer 43,147; Pereira, 4-Apr-11 @ 17:20). Everyone was so surprised to see me show up; no one really expected me to actually do the detour and visit them again.  But here I was and I spent the evening chatting & laughing with my “parceros” and only checked in into my hotel late at night.  I wanted to stay another day here but time was running out on my visa and needed to move on.  The morning I dropped by again to see Alvaro & the boys and only hit the road just shy of noon time. It had rained all morning and the sky was still grey and menacing but the rain was holding off.  As I was riding south I could see to my left (East) the big black cloud that dumped its payload on us in the morning and to my right (West) another depression, a huge & tall black cloud carrying with it round number 2. As for me, I was riding in between these 2 fronts with white clouds above me, revealing from time to time the blue sky above from where the sun would pierce through to warm me up. Sometime the road curved far enough for me to touch the rain falling from either one of these fronts but only for a few minutes before I returned to my middle path. It was an astonishing ride, almost miraculous, as if someone out there was watching over me. My sun was by my side and I felt happy and at peace riding under my natural cover. And it lasted for the whole ride! Well, almost. I probably “abused” my luck, stopping for a drink here, a few pictures there,… until I guess whoever was clearing my way felt exasperated and 15min before I reached EL Bordo, these 2 fronts of black clouds started swirling and in minutes they touched and the heavens opened up on me. I barely could see anything in front of me: I switched my high beam, turned on my 4-ways and kept riding up to reaching Jana’s hostel where I drove my bike right inside the covered patio-dining area (Kilometer 43,587; El Bordo, 5-Apr-11 @ 18:15).  You should have seen the look on everyone’s face as if saying: “What the heck?!” but as soon as I removed my helmet, the smiles shone while hugs and handshakes welcomed me. Word spread fast and in a few minutes, Elvio and others showed up to meet me. Jana and Karen offered me a warm soup and a delicious Bandeja Paisa was served for dinner. Same as everywhere, we spent the evening catching up; everyone wanted to know where my adventures took me and if I had any update from Dan (he was in Quito for the past 3 weeks).  I even tried to Skype Dan, hopping he could answer the deluge of questions being thrown on me about him.

It’s so hard leaving El Bordo and now I understand what Dan meant. The people here are so friendly, so inviting and very persistent, you just can’t leave. So I just gave in and settled down comfortably for a day of rest, sharing my time mainly between Karen and Elvio+family. Even by Thursday morning when I was adamant I had to leave, I couldn’t do so until late morning as I had to allocate enough time to chat yet again with everyone before saying my goodbyes. At least I didn’t have a long road today: I was heading to Sibundoy, a small native village south-east from here.  I still wanted to allow myself enough time to get there for several reason: 1) I am leaving Cauca and entering Putumayo and both these area are dodgy to say the least, definitely need to be in a village by late afternoon; 2) I will be passing by Laguna de La Cocha which is rated as spectacular by both the locals and my guide book and 3) I will be hitting gravel/dirt road and with the rain we’ve been getting, I expected it to be a tough, muddy and slippery ride. Well the Laguna is definitely impressive, set in the middle of a cloud forest giving it a fairy tale look, but not enough to justify lingering more than ½ hour around here.  The dirt road however was a great challenge and it felt rewarding tackling them on steep hills, snaking path and sharp U-turns going up and down the Andes… it’s been a while. (Kilometer 43,830; Sibundoy, 7-Apr-11 @ 14:30).

So why am I here in Sibundoy? And why did I allocate 5 days to this village? It’s not like there’s any touristic sights around here.  Well it’s a long story and I prefer putting it in a separate section. Follow the link Ceremonia del Yage to head there and learn about the Kamentsa natives and the Yage ceremony or keep on reading below about the rest of my trip.

***

As it has been for the past couple of weeks, leaving was accompanied by sadness and I rode away slowly and heavy hearted.  Today I will still stay in Colombia, at the border town of Ipiales; I was still weak from yesterday’s ceremony and I also wanted to do my last tourist visit tomorrow. I arrived before sunset, had a hot shower, a light dinner and crashed (Kilometer 43,979; Ipiales, 11-Apr-11 @ 16:50).

I woke up the following morning rejuvenated and rode to the “Santuario de Las Lajas” (Kilometer 43,987; Las Lajas, 12-Apr-11 @ 8:15) a spectacular neo-gothic church inside a gorge with a bridge spanning across the thundering river.  Las Lajas is a very important pilgrim site in Colombia since back during the 18th century the image of the Virgin Mary appeared to a child and her mother right on the rock wall of the ravine where the church now stands.

That’s it for my time in Colombia; I used up all the days allowed on my Visa, only 8 hours left before it actually expires. Out of all the countries I visited, none attracted me and called me as much as Colombia did.  Even with all the political and security problems this country faces, it is still on a fast track of development. Excellent universities and hard working people with lots of determination, passion and the will to succeed make Colombia a prime place to settle down. Not to mention my sun shines in Bogota.

Back home in Quito (Kilometer 44,268; Quito, 12-Apr-11 @ 16:00) I just took a week off, doing absolutely nothing other than catching up on my e-mails, sorting my photos and writing my stories. And the weather was even more horrendous than in Colombia: cold and rainy, very depressing and definitely not encouraging to head out. A few days later I met up again with Diego (my good friend and best mechanic), Dan (whom had the accident in El Bordo), Perrine & Jocelyn (from Guatemala + Belize), as well as all the good friends of Alisson and Barry.

However I can’t deny that deep down inside me, I was sad: the Llama Show is coming to an end.

Do I want to go on? Don’t tempt me, I would turn on the bike and head to Brazil… but I know it’s time to stop and move on to other challenges. I have been preparing myself to this eventuality for a while, got everything lined up to do the final tune-up and rejuvenate Llama for her to be attractive in front of potential buyers. Still, when the moment came to publish the for-sale add, I felt heavy. I was facing another goodbye, my hardest one yet.  The toughest part of it all is: it’s up to me to pull the trigger…

During Semana Santa Barry and I escaped rainy and cold Quito to head to the beach.  This was more a riding trip vs. a beach trip: I wanted to take the Ruta del Sol all the way north before heading back inland then south to Quito (I did the south part of Ruta del Sol back in December ‘09 when the Llama show started). It might also be my last outing with Llama and I was looking for a challenging ride through gravel roads.  However, to my great disappointment the government construction projects were in full swing and cement or asphalt roads were all what we faced. (Where the money came from to build these infrastructures and how much it cost and to whom it went is still the heated debate of corruption in this country). Regardless, although it was a beautiful and picturesque coastal route, it was boring from a riding point of view (Kilometer 45,565; Quito, 24-Apr-11 @ 18:10).

Back in Quito I rushed to clean up Llama and replace all the broken parts as 4 potential buyers were waiting to see it.  Luckily, Dan, Diego and his father all helped me and by Tuesday Llama was parading on the catwalk.  Got to tell you, even with 57,000+Km, she still looked ravishing, turning heads in the street and impressing all the guys who came to see her.  Yet none was willing to shed the money I was asking for. Diego warned me the market was very bad, he has been waiting for 6 month to sell his bike with no luck. Yet more e-mails and calls came: some were offering to exchange their car for the bike, other a piece of land with river view, another offering to give me ½ my asking price, an “oferta super seria” he added. Well super-seriously, I am not in a rush to sell and I had 1 month to see what I could fish. I didn’t have to wait long though, one of Diego’s good friends, Daniel, was interested and on Thursday, without him even looking at the bike, we found a compromise and shook hands on a deal. This is probably the best sale experience anyone can hope for, between good friends, the whole process done in honesty and trust which is even more important here in Ecuador as thieves and opportunists lurk around. I will also be giving everything away to Daniel: my riding jacket, helmet, gloves, rain suit, panniers, tank bag, all the bike’s protection gear, my tools, spare parts, the bike cover,… everything! Except the bikes’ tail-bag adorned with all my stickers; it will be the only physical souvenir that I’ll keep.

On Saturday night, I stayed home silent and pensive. The money transfer was executed and all I have to do on Monday is go to the notary to certify the purchase agreement and hand Daniel the keys. The final curtain is about to fall on The Llama Show. As I was washing my riding cloth and cleaning all the equipments I felt empty and senseless, like a robot executing his task. I sat down with a glass of wine, feeling disheartened and dejected as if I was betraying a friendship. Reality finally hit home: I was about to part away with my 17 months travel companion. Llama was my dream become reality, she accompanied me throughout my endeavors, faithfully by my side, always ready to go, plowing ahead wherever I set sail. You know that within my 17 months adventure, riding 45,804Km through snow, sand, mud, deserts, jungle, crazy hwy speeds, under diluvian rain, from -10°C to +38°C, from the beach up to 5,300m.a.s.l., she never ever complained?  A couple of times in the high & cold Bolivian altiplano she was cranky to wake up in the morning but otherwise not a single mechanical problem. Absolutely none. That says it all. As I was remembering our adventures I couldn’t hold back and tears rolled down my cheeks…

45,804 Kilometers, 493 days (17 months), 7 countries, 1 continent…

The Llama Show

Ride up!

Sami

What next now? Well you will find out soon. In the mean time, I would like to leave you with a quote from Fernando González, an early 20th century Colombian existentialist philosopher. I tried my best to translate it into English.

«Leer es un viaje, pero el mayor viaje posible es el estado onírico. Allí, bajo la corteza del sueño, podemos hacer largos recorridos, dejar que poseamos alas y llegamos a países entre lo maravilloso y lo trágico. La cama, el solo hecho de yacer, es el barco primario, nuestra primera nave posible. También sabemos que el alto riesgo fue dar nuestros primeros pasos, asumir la condición erguida, atrevernos a dejar de gatear y darle jalones al mantel para evitar caernos, toda una Odisea. Ese primer intento de dejarnos llevar por nuestros pasos podría ser el símil de nuestros primeros viajes. Después de eso, los pies andan, han caminado barriales y autopistas, han hecho posible que todo nuestro cuerpo pueda sentir el cambio profundo entre un jardín doméstico y un bosque de encinas y de árboles silvestres,….»

Fernando Gonzàlez

« Reading is a journey but the greatest possible voyage is the dream state. There, under the veil of our dream, we could embark on long trips as if we have wings, to reach faraway lands between the marvelous and the tragic. The bed, the mere fact of lying, is the primary boat, our first possible ship. One of our greatest fears was taking our first steps, to stand up, dare to stop crawling and to let go of the table cloth to prevent us from falling… what an odyssey.  This first attempt to get carried away by our footsteps could be compared to our first trip.  After that, our feet keep walking, they travelled through neighborhood and highways, they made it possible for our whole body to feel the profound change between a garden and a wild forest,…»

Photo album

La Ceremonia Del Yage

The valley of Sibundoy is home to the Inga (yes, with a “g”) and Kamentsa native people and Sibundoy itself is the outermost center to meet with a traditional Taita. Taita??? A Taita in the native language mean “father” but it is also used to refer to a Shaman, a traditional native medicine man. In Putumayo, native families still faithfully follow their culture and traditions and the Taita medicinal knowledge is passed down from generation to generation, dating back long before the Spaniards conquered these lands. I wanted to live a few days with a native family, with a Taita, experience their daily lives, learn about their culture and if I gather enough confidence in their knowledge, maybe participate in the Yage ceremony. Wait, what is “Yage”? Yage is a brew made from the sacred Ayahuasca vine and other plants, like Chaliponga and Mapacho. The Yage “remedio” (i.e. medicine) preparation is very complex and its potency and effects highly dependent on the knowledge and experience of the Taita. It is a sacred potion intended to purify body & soul and its psychedelic effect allow each person to embark on a voyage of “self discovery”.  More on that later.

Arriving to Sibundoy my original plan was to settle in a hotel before going on a quest to find my Taita.  Some “hippies”, i.e. Colombian youth & wondering backpackers as they are amicably known here, whom I met along my road, told me to look for Taita Kirwin, which means “Angel” in Inga language.  Unfortunately Taita Kirwin was in Bajo Putumayo, the deep end of the department and definitely a no go zone for me as it is an un-controlled & lawless area, bastion of the guerilla. Talking to a few older native men in the plaza they pointed me to Taita Angel-Gabriel, as did a group of young Colombians (Andres & Sebastian) and a Pais-Vasco guy (Iñaqui) which have been living with the Taita’s family for the past couple of month, learning from them, sharing their lives and offering all-around help. So I just rode my bike there and was welcomed with open arms by Taita Angel-Gabriel. He invited me to stay with them as long as I wished, helped me settle-in in a small wooden room in the back before inviting me for lunch; Mama cooked us homemade traditional food followed by chicha (not the drink, rather the corn mix) and a warm cup of panela (a sweet herbal drink). That afternoon I chatted away with my Taita trying to learn more about him and the Kamentsa culture which Taita Angel-Gabriel was so eager and proud to do. He then took me around the street and introduced me to his kids and grandkids.

Most of Taita Angel-Gabriel family lives on this same dead-end street. They all are down to earth people, living in the simplest of means but in harmony with Pachamama; Miguel-Angel is aTaita too, Jose a.k.a. Chepe like his father is a sculpture, Anna and Rosario work in artesanias making mostly bracelets, necklaces and earrings out of Chakiras,…; they all cultivate the earth, growing corn, potato and other vegetables to satisfy the essential part of their daily dietary needs and they also raise chicken & pigs. They even search for gold in the nearby stream whenever they have time. 20 or so exceptionally well raised grand-kids help their parents in and around the house while the parents and grand-parents teach them the Kamentsa way: Most of the kids speak the native language, learn to play the traditional musical instruments from a young age and participate in the ritual songs and dances (I witnessed a couple of rehearsal, absolutely amazing talent). But kids are always kids, they are very curious about me, asking a thousand questions, always wanting to show me around or taking me to the surrounding farms and of course, dragging me to play games with them in the street.

The next few days I became part of the family helping around in any way I can: cutting firewood, collecting potato and corn from the garden, preparing food for the kids, becoming intimate with their culture and traditions,… I was also growing more comfortable with Taita Angel-Gabriel, earning each other’s trust which for me was necessary if I wanted to take part in the sacred ceremony. Chepe and Taita Gabriel also gave me an introduction lesson to wood carving. A side note to all: It’s definitely impressive to witness the skills Chepe and Taita Angel-Gabriel use when sculpting; they use machete and knives to do most of the carving and the few sculpting utensils they have are more ancient rusted and dull relics then real wood sculpting tools. So here’s what we are going to do: I would like all of your help to get wood carving tools donated to us so I can bring them back to Colombia. Please ask around, ask your friends and acquaintances to see if we can get good second hand tools.  Otherwise, I guess we can also try to raise money and buy them.  I am counting on you guys! Remember, this is their daily living and these people lack money. To give you an example, when going to the market, they count each penny they spend; buying 20 bananas for a mere U$D1 is an expenditure they think twice about… yet they welcomed me as one of them, shared their home and food without asking for a penny. Of course, I bought lots of their artesania, brought home chicken, vegetable and fruits, treated the kids to the local bakery, went to the neighboring farms for milk, yogurt and cheese,… as a form of saying thank-you to all what they have done.  But buying them tools will go a long way in improving their livelihood, making them skillful and more productive. Thanks!!

I delayed my ceremony until the last possible day. I would have loved to live longer with Taita and his family but my Colombian visa was due to expire in less than 2 days and I was still a day ride away from the border. I was still cutting it very close; anything could happen on the road or worst to me. And participating the night before to the ceremony was not helping; I might have to sustain the next day effects of the Yage: it can be difficult riding if I am sick and exhausted. But things fell into place quite nicely: some called causality, I called it just a lucky consequence, but Camila, Iñaqui, Andres, Sebastian and Urdina all decided to join me for the ceremony.  That night, we decided to brave the cold and be out in the open air, closer to Pachamama and we setup our stage around a campfire behind Taita’s house.  We all met there at 20:00 and Taita Angel-Gabriel made his grand entrance dressed in his multicolored ceremonial poncho, adorned with century old necklaces made out of Puma claws, precious stones, sacred seashells and animal bones, holding a Shacapa (a bouquet of medicinal herbs) in his left hand. He was a little annoyed though: he was missing his feather crown as his son Miguel-Angel borrowed it on a visit to Bogota to participate in another ritual and he still wasn’t back.  Taita sat on his desk and started talking to us about his ancestors, their knowledge about Yage, how the “remedio” would be taken, how we should relax and let the potion take us away. He would always be by our side, watching over us, monitoring our reactions and trying to analyze our feelings; he would be there to help us and guide us during our transcending voyage.

The celebration starts with Taita playing a traditional flute followed by singing ritual songs in Kamentsa while we are relaxing and preparing ourselves body and mind. Taita then lights up a cigarette of Mapacho tobacco which smoke will protect us from any negative energy and bad spiritual influence. He then passes me a cup with the “remedio” which I take in both hands, offer my respect and prayers to this offering before saying “salud” to all and drink the potion. The others follow suit and for the next hour, while awaiting the Yage to take effect, we were invited to let loose on our journey to a higher state. We each pick up a musical instrument and a free for all jam session starts; it reaches it apogee when Camila with her beautiful voice starts singing spiritual and traditional song-tales about natives, spirits and Pachamama.

It is time now for each to reflect upon oneself and silence is requested; we all take a 2nd dose of Yage and start our purge.  Purging is an essential part of the ceremony from both body and mind perspectives: On the physical side, vomiting and diarrhea allow you to cleanse your body from parasites and bacteria.  Preparation is essential for this step; for the past 4 days I followed a strict diet based on vegetable, soup and aromaticas (no meat or fried food, go easy on the sweets). The mental purge starts with a self induced state of relaxation, of spiritual purification to clear your mind from any disturbing thoughts,… I just thought of Yasmina :). Then the Yage starts taking effect and a psychedelic feeling takes hold of me. This is not hallucination and euphoric sentiments as when taking hallucinogenic mushrooms. Quite the opposite I would say; I felt relaxed, conscious of where I am and of my thoughts, yet on a serine voyage. I was flying, riding animals or just walking during my trip of self discovery.  It felt like hidden thoughts and feelings were brought to light through my visions and while conversing with the people I met along my trip. You’ll excuse me if I leave the rest of the details to myself.  To just resume my experience and put everything into context, I think the Yage ceremony is a travel within oneself, an awakening, a glance into our own sub-consciousness. An introspective look providing hints of a path to follow or even sometime the actual answer I have been looking for or even maybe trying to hide it and/or dismiss it. They might not be the expected outcomes and perhaps sometime not the most “beautiful” conclusions, although they are definitely compelling, making me see and hopefully face my future from a different point of view. In short, we all have the answers within us, the Yage just call them out.

By 2:00AM Taita takes each one of us separately into his lab and performs a purification session, a cure to eliminate the remnant negative energy, cleansing body and soul to only be left with the positive energy gathered during the ceremony.

Next morning I felt at peace although very tired. I went to the market to buy a chicken for Mama to prepare us a “caldo de galina” and invited everyone for this goodbye lunch.  After this improvised sharing session I started loading my bike when Taita Angel-Gabriel, Mama, Chepe, Ana, Rosario,.. and most of the kids, all came out to wish me farewell.  Even if I stayed here just for a few days, it was enough to bond with the family.  The grand-kids were begging me not to leave while the parents were reminding me that they will be awaiting my return.  As for Taita, the emotions got the best of him and a few tears dropped down his cheeks to the surprise of all… even his kids were astonished at their father’s reaction.

Continue with rest of the story or go to the Photo album.

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28-Apr-2011: Long time since my last update… it felt good to be home just relaxing, catching up on writing my stories, sorting the pics,…

Most of the time I have been hanging out with Barry, Alisson and friends, but I reunited with a few fellow travelers here again in Quito and it was great to share some stories since the last time we saw.

As for activities, I have been riding a lot even went with Barry on a 1,200Km loop through the Pacific coast Ruta del Sol”. I also joined a gym to prepare for some more Andinismo… more on that in May.

But my main occupation is taking care of Llama as I put it out for sale.  She looks great, rejuvenated but the market is weak, no-one is offering good cash. For now, I am still not in a rush as I have a month to see how things develop. Hope things turn around.

12-Apr-2011: I stayed in Colombia up to the last day (actually hours) allowed on my Visa.  Today I visited the Sanctuary of Las Lajas before crossing the border into Ecuador.  Now I am back home in Quito… my Llama Show is coming to an end. I still have a few things to do around here, you’ll find out soon enough.  But at the same time, I need to start thinking about my next step.

11-Apr-2011: What an amazing experience I had in Sibundoy.  Arriving to the small village, with some help from the locals, I was directed to Taita Angel Gabriel who welcomed me into his home with great pleasure, and offered me to stay with them, follow their daily life, sharing their meals and learning about their culture.  I came here to experience  the ceremony of the Yage and take part in this spiritual and mind opening trip, and Taita Angel Gabriel performed it  to us and guided me through the process.  I will tell you more about in my story.

7-Apr-2011: I stopped in Pereira to see my “Parces”, Alvaro and cesar before continuing south to El-Bordo, where I promised the town folks I would stop again to see them. Karen, Edwin, Joana, Elvio and family were all ecstatic to see me and insisted I stay a couple of day with them.

Today I ride to Sibundoy. Another detour from my road back to Quito and I wanted to stop here to spend some time with the local native and a hopefully see a Taita (i.e. Shaman)

3-Apr-2011: Adriana organized a weekend getaway with her friends to the Meta to see the Llano, the Colombian tropical grassland plains.  It’s truly a sight to be seen, an amazingly rich ecosystem and home to Colombia cattle region, so we were treated to some savoring BBQ.  Tomorrow, I’ll cross back to the cordillera central and the Panamericana on the way back to Ecuador, but stopping to see some friends.

1-Apr-2011: From Mompos I headed bak to Medellin to see some friends and to give my baby a rejuvenating therapy (some paint job so it sells better).  I didn’t party much, rather chilled around and went visiting a few places I skipped last time around: El-Penol, Guatape, Santa Fe de Antioquia,… It was really good time.  Today I will leave Medellin heading for a large detour via Bogota to see Adriana again.

26-Mar-2011: Had an amazing time in Cartagena with Adriana and her family and friends.  Bathed in luxury and spending our time chilling on a private island, island hopping on private speedboat, visiting local artists in their surreal colonial style paradise house, scubadiving, eating delicious sea food prepared by famous chef,… wow, it doesn’t seem that bad after all.

I also spent a few days alone to rest, recoup from a nasty old I got (all these ACs). I also did some more maintenance on my bike (dirty fuel pump!) and had a fun day at a mud volcano.

Today I started my way south and it was a very rough day, even rougher on Llama, it took some serious beating. All part of the show although at this rate, I won’t last long.

I am in Monpos, a small colonial village forgotten by time and sitting in the middle of wetlands on the shores of Rio Magdalena.  Will rest for a few days before going to Medellin

16-Mar-2011: Spent the last 12 days in and around Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Great hotel, amazing hiking, beautiful parks, incredible beaches, and excellent company. I wouldn’t have left so quickly if I wasn’t to meet Adriana and her family in Cartagena.  And here I am 9 year later back her and Cartagena has not lost it;s charm.   I am heading to the old city now but a quick note. Patricia’s penthouse is on the 30th floor of the main beach front street with tremendous views on the old city and the Malecon. Now that’s life! Although I miss being in a dorm chilling with fellow backpacker… well, maybe on Tuesday 🙂

5-Mar-2011: San Gil is the outdoor capital of Colombia and I stopped there for 4 days to get some adrenaline pumping into my blood (as if riding with Llama wasn’t enough).  I went abseiling (rappelling) and paragliding but I also took it easy and visited the beautiful little village of Barrichara and the little hamlet of Guane.  Next, I want to head to the Caribbean coast but it’s a long trip so I need a place, somewhere in the middle were to rest.  Asking around, I was pointed to Ocana, a town 1 hour from the main highway in the direction of Venezuela.  There is a beautiful park to visit so I just rode there.  Well not only the park was beautiful but this city initial founders were Lebanese and a few cars, homes and shopping center were adorned with our flag or our cedar tree.

Tomorrow I will continue my road and once in Santa Marta, need to find a way to get to Barranquilla to go see and live the Carnaval.

28-Feb-2011: Suzuki turned out to be like just another Latin American business. Everyday is “mañana” and after 1 week I decided just to continue with my trip.  I met Alvaro and his brother Cesar, 2 young, funny and great mechanics that helped me do my regular bike maintenance.  Now I can ride another 15,000Km worry free.  I stopped in Bogota to see Adriana and then we headed to Villa de Leyva to spend the weekend.  It was a great 4 days getaway and today I rode under sunny skies (finally!!!) to San Gil, the outdoor capital of Colombia.  Still don’t know what to choose to do as choices abound: Para-gliding, Rafting, Rappelling, Climbing, Hiking, Downhill bicycling,…

20-Feb-2011: I stopped in Pereira to see if Suzuki of Colombia will sponsor me and help me continue my trip.  I managed to meet with Juan Carlo (he’s actually Lebanese descendant) and Ricardo.  They were kind of interested in my proposal but things are dragging and I really don’t know where it will lead.  For the weekend I went to Manizales to relax and enjoy the outdoors.  I also hooked up with the local Suzuki V-Strom riding club and we all went on a huge loop through P.N. Los Nevados.  Unfortunately, we got a little to take by the road and a couple of us, including me, kissed the ground.  I really need to change my tires and my brakes… would have done so long time ago and would have spared me the fall except Suzuki is still on hold to actually take care of my bike.  Tomorrow Monday I will head back to Pereira but by Thursday whatever happens, I am continuing North.

14-Feb-2011: Ouf.  That was a close call.  Crossed the border without stoping at the customs.  Once Llama was safe in Ecuador, I walked back across the bridge to leisurely ask the custom official if I can come back to Colombia.  The Llama show will go on.  Sure enough, next morning I crossed back to continue my act.  But as the sun was shining on me, it wasn’t to be for another rider.  Dan, an American rider  just had an accident tackling the twisties.  He was riding with Nick, Rob, 2 Canadian lads and I stopped to offer help.  Dan escaped the worst but his foot toe was fractured.  I stayed 3 days in the samll town of El-Bordo just to help Dan but tomorrow I will continue north.

9-Feb-2011: Back in Bogota to get ready to head north but things where no that easy.  First, I nearly was disallowed to head back to Colombia because I have no return plane ticket.  It took lots of talking to explain I had a bike in Colombia and that I will be riding back with it.  They let me on the plane only to find out the bikes visa has been annulled the moment I left the country.  3 days in Bogota to try and explain my story to no vain. Actually, the custom (DIAN) and the police wanted to confiscate my bike.  My only choice: sneak the bike out of the country and hope along the way the police would not stop me. At least I will not be alone, Tim will ride his bike to the border with me.

3-Feb-2011: Good scuba diving in Belize.  It’s the 2nd biggest coral reef  in the world, stretching from Yucatan Peninsula down to Honduras.  Highlight?  Saw dolphin and swam with manta rays.  But the beauty is in the details and the coral carpet bed and the 100’s of small colorful fish are just amazing.  Only downside is it’s rather expensive so I didn’t even go to the Blue Hole.  Instead headed back to Playa dl Carmen in Mexico to dive with Bull shark but the season was over.  Double disapointment.  I just hit the cenotes for some cavern diving and flying to Bogota today.

Gonna sea my baby soon 🙂

28-Jan-2011: Left Tikal this morning after 3 days hiking and visiting the ruins.  Really awesome.  Now in Caye Calker, Belize for some scuba diving.

24-Jan-2011: Was great seeing Jason & Becky and we spent a couple of days just chilling in Cancun and Isla Mujeres.  Now back to my backpacker trail and in Guatemala to do a hike around Tikal.

21-Jan-2011: From sun destination to the other…. from 1 wedding to the other:  Left Dominican Rep after Carole & Ravi’s wedding  and heading to Cancun for Becky & Jay’s wedding.

17-Jan-2011: Leaving Panama behind and heading to Dominican Republic for Carole &Ravi’s wedding.  San Blas island exceeded all my expectation: I found a piece of paradise on earth.  Definitely will be back.  It’s weird for me to visit a country only for a week; with the llama show, I have no limit but on this short getaway I have to pick and choose.  And Panama has so much to offer. I still hold to my “rule”: pick a destination to enjoy it with no rush.  I’ll be back to visit the rest.

11-Jan-2011: I left Llama behind :(… won’t be seeing my baby for the next 3.5 weeks.  I am flying around central America to attend a couple of my good friends wedding and taking the opportunity to visit a few spots a I always wanted to know.

In Panama until next Monday.  Tomorrow, heading to the San Blas archipelago until the weekend.  That looks l;ike a paradise.

8-Jan-2011: In Bogota, arrived yesterday under torrential rain, was riding in the river-streets of Bogota.  2 funny things: I could still remember the downtown form 9 years ago when I was here!  And in my hostel, I met-up with a Lebanese backpacker.  Now that’s casi unheard-off.

Off to stroll the city.  Ciao

4-Jan-2011: Happy New Year! I probably spent the best new year of my life.  I hooked up with Alvaro, Carlos brother (Carlos and I traveled in and around Cusco for 2 weeks) and we went to his home village, Jardin.  The name reflect the place and the people ther party in the plaza until the morning, drinking and dancing.  And being with Alvaro, I was part of the Jardin family. You have to see the pictures!

Tomorrow to Bogota: I’ll be there in 3 days as I will be stopping in Rio Claro for some hiking.

22-Dec-2010: Solento lived up to it’s fame except I wasn’t expecting to meet so many tourists and being a very small village, they just seemed to be everywhere.  I hooked up with a few fellow travelers and we had a very nice group: we went hiking in the Valle de Cocora and a couple of Coffee Fincas.  We all went our separate ways today and I rode to Medellin (under sunny skies for a change.  I will be here for a while so you will get my stories soon.

19-Dec-2010: Cali might not be the most beautiful city in Colombia but the girls here are the highlight and hitting the salsatecas for the weekend rumba will make your day.  Tomorrow Monday, heading north to the coffee region  (Manizales, Salento) for some hikes and relaxing time before reaching Medellin.

15-Dec-2010: Back from my loop… all good.  Road conditions lived up to their horrors, especially today heading back to Popayan.  The archaeological sites I visited where unique, the scenery ever wonderful and can’t get enough of it and as for the guerilla threat, well, it’s wasn’t even on the radar.

Now, I need to go to sleep. It was extremely hard riding today.

11-Dec-2010: I am going on a 5-6 days loop east of Popayan to check some archaeological sites and beautiful scenery.  My road will also take me via some hard off-roading made worst by the torrential rain of La Niña… and some iffy southern Colombia zones.

9-Dec-2010: Left late today: I met up with Raul in the morning which meant I only left Quito at 10:45.   Then on the road I bumped in with a Canadian couple riding South and we stopped to chat.  I arrived at the border by 15:00, but my delays only got worst:  At the border, they couldn’t find my name in the Ecuadorian immigration system and only 3 hours later would the immigration officer allow me to cross.

Riding southern Colombia at night is a no-no and since I left the Colombian border by 18:20, I just headed toward  the first city, Ipiales and I’ll crash here for the night.

Tomorrow, Popayan.  I’ll visit Pasto on the way back to Ecuador.

Ride up!

Sami

ñ

Sunshine

Sunshine

Medellin, 31-Mar-2011

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.

Ride up!

Sami

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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.

When The Forest Meets The Ocean and The Ocean Meets The Sky

When The Forest Meets The Ocean And The Ocean Meets The Sky

 Santa Marta, 17-Mar-2011

Even if I left Pereira late, I decided to take the “mountain” road to Bogota.  This route is actually 2-3 hours longer then the Armenia-Ibague road, however it’s also the most rewarding: it snakes up the Cordillera Occidental through lush and green cloud forest, continues riding high in the paramo offering spectacular views before zigzagging down to the valley bellow where the rio Magdalena rushes.  I then crossed the river and tackled the undulating road cutting a path in the Cordillera Central heading up to Bogota.  Did I also mention I hate riding the same road twice? And having just put brand you rubbers on Llama, taking the turns couldn’t have been more rewarding. Let me put it that way: leaning deep & I was running out of footpeg, if you catch my drift ;).  The price to pay for my passion to ride new & beautiful road is that I will arrive in Bogota late… way too late.  And yet again torrential rain greeted me upon entering Bogota (Kilometer 39,080; Bogota, 24-Feb-11 @ 21:00) accompanied with deadlocked traffic.  Luckily, a local motorcyclist (on a scooter 🙂 offered to show me the way toward my hostel (that’s how nice Colombian are).  Unfortunately, the hostel was full and so too were the other nearby recommendations. Problem? Not at all; as I said this is Colombia, the friendliest people you can ever encounter live here. Diego, my new scooter buddy, invited me to crash at his parents place and I gladly accepted. I was about to settle in when I called Adriana who not only mentioned I was “loco” but also insisted that I head to Beatrice, one of her friends, to crash there for the night to which I reluctantly accepted.

I only stayed a couple of days in Bogota, enough time for my cloth to partially dry and a couple of nights of party with Adriana and friends.  The city feels so different when you hang out with locals and I really enjoyed my stay.  On Saturday morning Adriana and I headed in a convoy (car + bike) to Villa de Leyva to spend a few days away from the city’s hustle and bustle (Kilometer 39,254; Villa de Leyva, 26-Feb-11 @ 14:00).  Yet again diluvian rain hit Colombia early afternoon drenching me (I am starting to think I should build a roof on Llama) and all I wanted was to check in to my hostel, bath in a hot shower and a re-energize with a hot chocolate… which I did.  As for Villa de Leyva, it is a picturesque little village, crisscrossed by cobblestone streets lined with whitewashed houses and flowery balconies.  Here, you can just rest and relax, stroll the village streets and alleys, eat local delicacies (especially Feijoa ice-cream :), hang in the plaza or in a coffee-terrace and wind the night away in the couple of cozy & charming little bars.

Monday came and I was ready to ride again. I took the side road northbound, first dropping by to visit a fossil museum before riding through the country side to reach San Gil by early afternoon (just before the rain! Finally!) (Kilometer 39,427; San Gil, 28-Feb-11 @ 14:15).  San Gil is a regular little town and Colombia’s outdoors and extreme sports capital: Level 4 & 5 rafting, paragliding, rappelling, caving, single trail biking,… you can find it all here.  To top it off, I found a great place to stay with very cool people so things were looking bright.  Unfortunately, rafting was impossible due to the heavy rain which swelled Rio Suarez levels rendering them treacherous but rappelling, paragliding and hiking were all to the rendez-vous and I happily engaged in these activities.  I also went for a day visit to neighboring Barichara (Kilometer 39,453; Barichara, 2-Mar-11 @ 13:00), an amazingly beautiful and charming little colonial village with way less tourists then its cousin Villa de Leyva.  Barichara is also famous for a local delicacy: “Hormigas Culonas” or sautéed “big ass ants”.  How do they taste like? Something like salty burned popcorn. An acquired taste to say the least but for the locals “estan deli!”. With a pack of big booty ants I headed on a 2 hour hike through “El Camino Real”, an ancient Guane people road down to the little hamlet of Guane before heading back to San Gil.  Guane is probably the smallest village I visited so far and it was fun walking the 3 streets that make up this place, talking to the locales while drinking “Sabajon”, a sweet drink similar to Baileys although you can have it in fruit flavor (pineapple is delicious).

Santa Marta was my next destination but it’s a long ride from San Gil and I wanted to cut my trip in 2 portions.  However, I was heading to Colombia’s plains and there’s not much to do or see in this neck of the woods. Only Sean, the Oz hotel owner where I was staying, had a good suggestion:  “Why don’t you visit Los Estoraques national park?”. I wasn’t the only one flabbergasted; no one else, even the locales, had heard of this National Park.  But Sean made a strong case promoting the National Park, negating the fact it’s a “little” way out off my route: 1.5 hour east of the main highway and only 30min from Venezuela’s border.  Well, I am not the one to shy away on visiting remote areas and not to mention I will be heading back up mountain roads, a pleasure to tackle.  To top it off, the gas prices in all departments (i.e. states or provinces) sharing a border with Venezuela are a third of the price elsewhere in Colombia (A liter of regular gas is ~USD1.35 while close to the Venezuelan border, it’s U$D0.55.  In Venezuela itself, they practically give the gas away: it’s only a mere U$D0.02!!).  Deal! Next morning, I headed to Ocaña, a little town close to the park and a good base to settle in and explore the surroundings (Kilometer 39,802; Ocaña, 4-Mar-11 @ 15:30).  As I entered the town, a funny and un-expected surprise greeted me: a few cars had Lebanese flags stickers adorning their bumpers and the shopping center in the main square is called “Cedros del Libano” (no translation required). It turned out that Ocaña was established in the early 1900’s by Lebanese immigrant and the town’s people feel proud of their heritage although sadly I didn’t meet anyone who speaks Arabic or who went back “home” for a visit.

I rode out the next morning to P.N. Los Estoraques eager for a full day hike.  As I approached the park, the sight of the weather sculpted hills promised a beautiful trek.  However the heavy rains that poured on Colombia the last few months eroded a lot of the path and most of the park was closed for preservation.  Only an hour long circuit visiting the main rock formations was open to the public.  It was quite the hike none the less with some beautiful formations: my eyes were satisfied but my legs wanted more. Ah well, maybe next time. I stuck around with the guardaparques and their family, chitchatting and sharing a few laughs, nibbling on local sweets (pineapple cake are the specialty of the region) before heading back late afternoon to visit Ocaña.

The next morning I saddled up for a long ride.  First, I tackled a thrilling road downhill to the main highway but then I engaged boring straight-line roads all the way to Santa Marta (imagine riding the road from TO to Mtl) (Kilometer 40,309; Santa Marta, 6-Mar-11 @ 15:20).  I checked in at the Dreamer, a sweet hostel in Santa Marta set around a courtyard with a pool in the middle and hammocks all around.

Santa Marta is a great base to discover the beauty of Colombia’s Caribbean region, from the beach to the Sierra Nevada and then up to the northernmost point of La Guajira peninsula.  But first, it is Carnaval time! And Colombia’s famous Barranquilla carnaval is just 2 hour bus ride away and I couldn’t wait to get there.  Although it’s nothing compared to Carnaval de Rio it was my first carnaval ever and I had a bast.  All the local schools and associations participated in a 4 hours long defile: beautiful sexy dancers, sweet little kids, elderly folks still going strong,… all wearing colorful costumes and shaking it all out to the sound of drums, salsa and Caribbean music.  Beer in one hand, camera in the other, chatting with the locals,… I spent the full day there only making it back late night to my hostel.

The following day was dedicated to finding insurance for my motorcycle as mine was expiring.  That was not an easy task; a foreign vehicle cannot be insured for less than 1 year (i.e. frikin expensive!) unless you are at a border crossing.  But only because of Colombia’s friendly and eager to help people I was able to get one here in Santa Marta.  After a full day looking around, I found a place where it took 3 hours, mostly with the agent on the phone with both Medellin and Bogota software data centers, literally changing the SW application and releasing it for us so it accepts my profile:  accepting foreign ID number, foreign license plate, Canadian passport number format, 1 month insurance term,… the engineers patiently worked over these hurdles and by 17:00 I was again legal to ride Colombia’s road.  Thanks guys!!

Back to Santa Marta and my explorations: My first aim was to hike to Ciudad Perdida or the “Lost City”. Great name, eh? As the guidebook said: “Nothing is more intriguing than finding remains of an ancient civilization deep inside the tropical forests”.  I couldn’t pass this opportunity to see what’s out there, regardless of the exorbitant price.  Talking to fellow travelers they mentioned the hike was as exciting as the destination: walking through thick tropical forest, climbing the Sierra Nevada providing views to the snowy capped summit to the south and the Caribbean ocean to the North, crossing many rivers, admiring the rich flora and fauna covering these land and especially observing the multitude of birds who lives here (it is said there are more bird species in the Sierra Nevada range then in Canada and USA combined!).  I hooked up with Loky (Oz) and Tom (Netherland) and “Genius” (Italy) and convinced the company to let us do the trek in 4 days vs. 5.  And what a trek: it sure lived up to its reputation, the good and the bad.  The beautiful Sierra Nevada offered us an amazing display of plants and wild life, but its infamous torrential tropical showers each afternoon rendered the path very muddy.  Imagine how bad it can get in the rainy season.  Along the way, we also passed by several Kogi (local native) villages and even interacted with a couple of them although they tend to be very serious (only kids smile!), reclusive and definitely camera averse (we once get yelled at with machete drawn).  The day of the climb to Ciudad Perdida fog covered the mountain rendering it less than ideal to admire, although it sure made it feel like a fairy tale.  And I was enchanted with the site, the stone stairs to reach the city, the stone walls, how they build their houses and platforms ascending through the hills,… This is not Machu-Picchu and anyone (many tourist) expecting to see a citadel will be disappointed.  Rather approach this civilization for what it is and what they have accomplished and you will be marveled by the experience.  I let you enjoy the pics.

Back in town, our next destination was Cabo de la Vela en La Guajira department, almost the northern most point of Colombia.  And great news: Tom will be joining me and so to Belén, Charly and Mariana (Argentina).  I only rode my bike to the city of Riohacha were I will hope on the jeep tour as everyone warned me we will be crossing deserts and sand beaches rendering it very tough to ride… in hindsight, it wasn’t “that” bad and I wish I took the challenge and just rode there.  Although I got to admit, there are numerous advantages to go on a tour: you tend to visit more places as some of spots you might not be aware off and listening to the guide informative explications.  Add to that you are with good company along the way so in the end all worked out fine.  Cabo de la Vela is situated in a semi-arid region, with long unspoiled beaches, multicolored bays surrounded by rock face and small yet steep hills.  We spent the day swimming in the warm Caribbean water, gazing at these myriad of colors awaiting the famous sunset spectacle which left us in awe. The best way to describe is as a graffiti said: this is “Cine Colombia”.

Once back in Riohacha, I found my bike’s rear tire flat.  That’s the last thing I wanted: not only it was late, I was in a town with just the basic car tire repair garage. Worst, the one and only time I did not bring my tools and tire repair kit with me on an outing, I have this tire problem.  Goes to show you never know and you should always be prepared.  I spent the next 2 hours trying to secure help and finding the issue (it was the valve) then try to fix/kludge it allowing me to ride the 160 Km separating me from Santa Marta.  I actually did a good job fixing the leak but had to ride at night on deserted roads, stopping often to check the state of my rear tire thus only making it to Santa Marta by 20:30 –  Kilometer 40,662; Santa Marta, 15-Mar-11 @ 20:30.

That night, I reunited with Belén and forgot about the tire; something more important was on the agenda: Belén and I were to go visit another nature marvel: P.N. Tayrona.  This park is famous for being a jungle extending its reach up to the sandy shores of the Caribbean ocean.  Unfortunately the current is so strong here, only a couple of spots are safe to swim and even then, you definitely do not want to adventure far from the shore (every year a handful of tourists perish).  As we hiked the park, the real spectacle came upon reaching the beach: Here is where the forest meets the ocean and the ocean meets the sky. Absolutely drop dead gorgeous bays and beaches.  We setup camp next to Antonio (Spain) and Diana’s (Colombia) tent and spent the next few days chilling on the beach with our new friends and relentlessly gazing and marveling at the nature all around us. Check the pics!

I left Belén after 3 days as I needed to quickly head back to Santa Marta and ride to Cartagena to meet Adriana.  I still decided to take the steep road to El-Pueblito, a small pre-Colombian Tairona city similar to ciudad Perdida before reaching the Hwy where I can catch a ride to Santa Marta.  I made the 4 hours hike in 2.5 and even managed to hitch-hike my way back to the hostel, allowing me enough time to go visit the city, specifically la Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino where Simon Bolivar spent the last days of his life.  The rest of the day I just got ready for my trip and only saddled up late afternoon once the heat of the day subsided (a little) and rode toward the beautiful colonial city of Cartagena.

Ride up!

Sami

Photo album

Caught In The “Strom”

Caught In The “Strom”

Pereira, 24-Feb-2011

Llama technical name is “V-Strom”.  The name V-Strom combines V referring to the bike’s V engine configuration with the German word Strom, meaning stream or current. In the following weeks, my trip will revolve around my bike: I was caught in its “Strom”.

Hints about the trouble awaiting me started in Cancun airport when Colombian immigration required me to have a return plane ticket, i.e. a ticket or way out of the country as a proof I will leave.  Duh, I will be riding my bikes out! OK, sure Colombian women are drop dead gorgeous and I could see why a guy would want to stay, but come-on boys, share the wealth. AnywayZ, it took me a good hour of back and forth messages with Bogota before I was allowed to board the plane.  Later I realized I was lucky to even have made it in.  You’ll see why later, but first thing first; once I got to Bogota all I wanted to do is to go see my baby: nothing beats the sweet prrr of Llama.  The following day I went to renew my bike’s temporary import permit issued by the DIAN, the Colombian Aduana.  After visiting 4 different DIAN locations, each pointing me to the other, I finally found the right office which would help me with my papers: it was the head office!  There are no receptionist here, no customer service desk; this is the actual customs agency offices.  So I interrupted the very busy government workers (most where sipping their coffee while chit-chatting and laughing with their colleagues) and I was sent from one cubicle to the next, from one floor to the other, until I was finally pointed to a person who could help… even if he actually didn’t know it! Have you seen “Les 12 traveaux d’Asterix”? Remember his task in a government office where he needed to get a permit? Bingo, he was here!  AnywayZ, I filed my bike’s extension claim and headed back to relax and chill in Bogota.  I visited Botero museum (still don’t get him…at least other artists were on display) and went to Zipaquirá, the famous salt mine cathedral.  The cathedral itself didn’t change much since 2001 the last time I was around; they installed better lighting which really highlights the beauty of the place but on the other hand, it’s now a fully fledged tourist center: snacks, coffee shop, a cinema (in 3D please), artesania, “salt” souvenirs,… even an emerald stand are within the mine’s hallway, 160m deep.

Weekend parties were great and when Monday came, I called the DIAN office to know if I can pick up my papers as I was itching to hit the road. “Your extension request was denied”. Wow, easy now… Why? Well, t turned out the moment I left the country to go on my Caribbean Escapade the bike’s permit was canceled; and that was nearly a month ago, back on January 11th. Technically the law requires the imported vehicle to also leave the country once the owner’s do so.  But how could I have known? I decided to just head to the office and talk to them f2f.  For the next 2 days I tried to make my case.  “Sorry, my mistake, but look at it from my point of you. No one told me anything about these “misterious” laws; it’s not written on any paper I got, I was even allowed to leave the country without anyone asking me about the bike”“all I want is a simple extension to visit YOUR country”“I think Colombian customs have more serious problem then a tourist on a motorcycle enjoying his time here”.  Unfortunately, that didn’t help.  Actually, the situation got worst. “Where’s your bike, it’s illegal in the country and we are required to confiscate it”.   Great, kick me when I am down guys.  Actually the customs officers weren’t at all mean, they were caught in the same bureaucracy I was tangled in and they were just doing their job… although all I wanted was a simple extension.  “Amigo, you can’t confiscate my bike, it’s all I’ve got”.  One of the managers took me on the side: “So just exit the country, hope the police won’t stop you along the way and pray that the border’s customs agent turns a blind eye and let you exit”.  That doesn’t seem to re-assuring now, does it? Especially knowing my luck with the cops. “Can you give me a temporary permit so I can just make it to the border?”. No. Case closed. Defeated, head low, I headed back to my hostel with one thing on my mind: Get out of here, NOW!.   Well actually I was also thinking of faking the customs papers (Photoshop baby!). It’s easy enough, just change the expiry date. But the risk was too big: Not from the DIAN paper point of view, the police won’t even realize what hit them.  The issue was rather my bike’s SOAT (Colombia’s mandatory insurance): This can’t be faked, it’s traceable by the cops and if anything happens on the road I will be caught red-handed.  Basically, I would dig my own grave.  So the only valid option was to rush to Ecuador in 2 days, leaving tomorrow, Wednesday morning.  But the sun shone a little on me: Tim, an Oz fellow rider I met in Bogota will accompany me to the border.  That’s great news: cops rarely, if ever, stop multiple riders.  We decided to leave a day later as Tim had a few things to take care off.  As for Llama it was well hidden in the hostel so the DIAN won’t find it if they decided to show up; everyone knew to say it left already.

We rode up early Thursday morning (Kilometer 36,539; Bogota, 10-Feb-11 @ 7:15) aiming to reach Cali by sunset.  It’s a long ride mainly because it’s a mountainous terrain: we first head down the Cordillera Central, cross the Rio Magdalena then up the Cordillera Occidental (up to 3,300m.a.s.l) before heading down again to reach Cali.  It was an amazing route and I took huge pleasure riding it.  And Tim was great company; not only to share a few laugh each time we took a break (Red Bull time!) but also he rides as fast as me and we ripped through the mountain roads and leaned deep on the twisties.  We made it to Cali (Kilometer 37,029; Cali, 10-Feb-11 @ 16:05) with sore “behinds” and once there, as Tim put it: “I need a beer and a shower but you know which comes first!” :).  Next morning rain was to the rendezvous, accompanying us up to Popayan (Kilometer 37,181; Popayan, 11-Feb-11 @ 10:50) but from there on it cleared up and we could enjoy the roads again, although the first part was very slippery, I had a couple frightening fish tails! Close call guys, saved by kicking my foot on the ground to lift the bike back up. By early afternoon, the sun shone strong to dry the roads just in time for the most beautiful stretch:  up from Pasto to Ipiales zigzagging on narrow mountain road.

I had a simple plan to pass the border: Don’t stop :).  That sounds ridiculous anywhere else but the Ecuador/Colombian border is just a bridge and the custom + immigration offices lies on the side of the road at each end of the bridge; whose to stop me from just going straight?  And that’s exactly what I did.  Once Llama was safe in Ecuador, I freely walked back to Colombia immigration to get my passport stamped before heading back in Ecuador to do the same (Whom actually still haven’t got my files properly in the system and luckily I found the border agent who helped me last time I was here; he recognized me, told me to leave the passport with him until tomorrow and he’ll take care of me while I rest in Tulcan).  And while Tim was getting his Ecuadorian temporary bike custom’s papers ready (took 3 hours), I crossed back to Colombia to ask if it was OK for me to head back tomorrow into the country with my bike.  Hey, no one will stop the Llama show!… well maybe lack of money but that’s another story. For tonight celebrations are in order and we got a couple of liters of beer to help with that (Kilometer 37,532; Tulcan, 11-Feb-11 @ 21:15).

I said my goodbye to Tim as he was heading to meet a friend in Quito while I rode back to Colombia.  I only was able to cross the border by noon time because of my aforementioned Ecuadorian immigration file issues (Kilometer 37,536; Ipiales, 12-Feb-11 @ 12:55).   At least the sun was shining and I just decided to ride until sunset at which point I’ll find a village to lay my head down for the night.  By late afternoon, as I am zipping through some tricky mountain road I passed 2 bikers stopped on the side of the road.   That doesn’t look right! I immediately u-turned to see wassup & offer help to my bros.  My fears were true: a 3rd rider had crashed.  Dan (US) and Nick & Rob (Canada) were riding south when Dan was caught by a closing radius sharp right turn, oversteered and clipped his panier on an incoming car.  The bike jolted to its right then flipped forward throwing Dan head first on the pavement before the bike tumbled on top of him, pinning him down.  This happened just a few minutes ago; Dan was bruised and shocked but he was OK, able to move all his body members except for his left foot.  While Rob was dealing with the car owner regarding the damage, Nick and I were just trying to be with Dan.  He didn’t want to go to the hospital as of yet and after a while we told him to remove his boots so we could check the damage; we needed to know what we are facing and make a decision.  Well, his big toe was enflamed and its nail ripped out and bleeding heavily.  As nightfall was closing I knew we needed to get out of here: this is an unsecure area at night, a guerilla hot bed (Kilometer 37,797; accident scene just south of El Bordo, 12-Feb-11 @ 16:20). El Bordo was 5Km ahead and the car owner proposed to take Dan to the hospital. I proposed to Nick and Rob to ride back to accompany him, find a hotel and come back 2up to drive Dan’s bike back to the town. In the mean time I’ll stay on guard here: “Just be back before 18:30 guys”!

Kilometer 37,805; El Bordo, 12-Feb-11 @ 18:35. The “hospital” (actually more of a clinic) cleaned Dan’s wound, gave him pain killers and told him to go rest and wait until Monday (it was Saturday) for the private clinic to open where he could get his foot X-rayed.  So we all headed back to the hotel, sat in the outdoor restaurant to relax, eat and have a drink: it’s been a long day.  The next morning, while Dan went back to the clinic (his toe was still bleeding) I took the bike to a local mechanic, Elvio, to start with the repair while Nick and Rob were packing up and watching over Dan.  By 13:00, the boys continued their journey south (they were really short on time) and I decided to stay in El Bordo to keep Dan company and to help around: Dan needed a lot of rest (not to mention the pain killers took care of putting him to sleep) and there were lots to deal with: Hospital, Insurance, Bike repair, Panier soldering,…

By Monday early afternoon most of the stuff to do were in motion: Elvio will watch over Dan and the bike, the doctor was awaiting for the X-ray, the welder shop dealing with the panier, I agreed with the hotel owner not to let Dan ride until he’s better :), and the local restaurant señora will cook for Dan special meals to his liking,…  it still amazes me how much Colombian are nice, helpful and caring people and especially here in El Bordo the locals are genuinely kind; Dan is still with them up to now.  As for me, well my show was still running and I needed to head north.

Since I left El Bordo late that afternoon, the farthest I could reach was Manizales; but I didn’t even make it there. By sunset I was in Pereira and decided to stop for the night (Kilometer 38,243; Pereira, 14-Feb-11 @ 19:00). Pereira is a manufacturing town, richer than other Colombian cities and Suzuki’s assembly line is here.  I was still trying to get an appointment with them (yeah, what’s new) and me staying here will hopefully force the issue. It did and on Wednesday I went to meet with Juan-Carlo Manzur (yep, Lebanese descendant) head of Suzuki motorcycle marketing and Ricardo one of his managers.  They liked my proposal, were impressed by my trip and with my Suzuki but needed me to make an official request and presentation so it can be forwarded to their director for evaluation.  I spent the next 2 days working on the proposal aiming to impress: The idea we agreed upon was to develop an interactive DVD based on my website which contains all information needed by any motorcyclist to travel in South America: Where to go, what to visit, which road to take, distance, time required, status of the road, paperwork needed, mechanic, local contacts,…and much more.  This software would be distributed with each bike and to existing customers and motorcycle clubs.  By Friday, I sent in my proposal and feeling proud with what I have done, I decided to go to Manizales, a nearby mountain town, to rest and hike its surroundings (Kilometer 38,359; Manizales, 18-Feb-11 @ 16:15).  Manizales nests high up on a ridge surrounded by tremendous green scenery.  On Saturday I went to a local orchid and butterfly park before spending my afternoon in the city itself.  On Sunday, I joined John-Edward, a Suzuki technician I met at the assembly who called in his riding buddies for a motorcycle trip to Los Nevados national park: we were 8 V-Stroms riding through the cloud forest and altiplano, a gorgeous setting in the high Andean mountain.  We had lunch in a small village on the other side of the park, before passing (to my great excitement) thorough a village called Libano. I was snapping my pictures like crazy and telling everyone in the street that I am from the real Lebanon, to the local complete indifference; they were just looking at me amused by the sight.  Ah well, whatever makes you happy.  We continued our road down the valley to visit Armero, a village destroyed by a horrific mud-slide back in 199 6 which left 20,000 dead, before heading back up the Cordillera Occidental to Manizales.  We only made it back home long after dark, exhausted yet extremely happy and satisfied with our day (Kilometer 38,647; Manizales, 21-Feb-11 @ 19:20).

I headed back to Pereira on Monday, awaiting Suzuki’s response… but nothing came.  I sent them an e-mail mentioning that I could afford to wait for their answer (I still want to visit Colombia vs. working) however I need to do some maintenance on the bike, especially new tires and brakes and re-asked if they could help on that front with a discount on parts… to which they told me yet again “mañana” (BTW this mañana answer started last Thursday).  Another mañana came and things were still the same.  Luckily I became friends with some of the people working in shops around my hotel and they pointed me to a trustworthy mechanic, Alvaro. And since I already went to check shops for the necessary bike parts, I just headed to Alvaro’s and during the following 2 days, I forgot about Suzuki and just hanged out with Alvaro, Cesar and the guys, working on the bike. The boys took amazing good care of my baby and by Thursday afternoon I was finally ready to hit the road. Suzuki was passé, I didn’t even re-contact them; I just wanted to get out of this town.  Although it was late and I would reach Bogota way after sunset I just saddled up and hit the road (Kilometer 38,718; Pereira, 24-Feb-11 @ 14:35); beside I promised Adriana to meet her in Bogota not to mention I need to continue on with my trip.

Ride up!

Sami

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Garden Of Eden

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Garden Of Eden

Bogota, 10-Jan-2011

I left Llama secure in the hostel parking and I headed with Alvaro to Jardin, a lovely little village situated in a lush coffee and plantain valley a couple of hours south-west of Medellin.  Alvaro is Carlos brother, my Colombian friend whom I met in Cusco and we hiked Choquequirao, Machu-Picchu and visited Cusco’s surrounding together.  We arrived to Jardin by 13:00 and immediately I felt as if I was a local. Alvaro is very well known in the village, vying to become its next mayor and he was sort of on a pre-campaign mode: he was out to meet everyone and everyone wanted to chat with him.  In a matter of a few hours, I was part of the campaign committee, discussing the current town’s problems, analyzing the different issues, proposing solutions and action plans.  For fun, I let the word out that I am a Canadian government representative supporting development of rural Colombia and lending support to Alvaro’s campaign :), to the great laugh of the guys… until the word’s spread out through the village like wildfire and everyone believed it!!  Which made it even more hilarious.  Wherever I went I was accompanied by someone to share a few laughs and a couple shots of “guaro” (Aguardiente, the national drink… wacala!).

It was New Years Eve and the plan was to hang out in main plaza.  But this is not your typical gathering; Plaza Bolivar was absolutely full of revelers and even I was astonished at that sight. Not only the whole town was to the rendezvous, they also invited their family and friends.  As for me, I was invited to every table, dancing a little here, chatting over there, devouring street food in the plaza’s center and drinking everywhere.   In all honesty, this was probably my best New Year celebration ever.  The church rang the New Year and more drinks where served while the party never took a break; it continued up to dawn when we all made our way to “Chiquito”, one of the plaza’s bar to keep drinking and dancing.  We headed back home long after sunrise when most of the folks were sound asleep… passed out in the bars, restaurants or the plaza’s gardens :).

During the following days I was given Alvaro’s dad Jeep to drive, a restored 1954 Willy, and with Alvaro, his friends and his family (in other 4×4) we went to the nearby fincas and remote outposts for me to visit and Alvaro to gather some votes.  It was great as I was able to meet and chat first hand with land owners, coffee plantation workers, vegetable and fruit pickers, pig or trout farmers, horse & mule ranchers,… about their business, life, Colombia, girls and whatever else they wanted to tell me.  And I tasted some delicious homemade food and  been invited to even more drinks (yep, call AA).  On our final day in Jardin, Alvaro decided to take a brake and took us all (his father, daughter and friends) for a horse/mule back ride to the Cueva del Esplandor, a cave with a magnificent waterfall pouring down through a hole in it’s ceiling.

Back in Medellin, I needed a day to rest and take care of a few “business” (read “vacation”) issues.  On my last night in this city, I invited Alvaro and Sarah (his girlfriend) to a Lebanese restaurant (delicious food… but no arak :() for a farewell dinner since the next morning I was heading toward Bogota.

I decided to stop halfway between Medellin & Bogota at Rio Claro for a day away from the big cities. Rio Claro reserve is located in a lush tropical valley surrounded by marble mountains and dissected by the rio Claro and offering great hikes; Not only did I hike the mountains and swam in the river, I also joined a guided group to hike/climb/jump/… inside the tunnels the river has dug out in the granite mountains.  If you get a chance, in Colombia or in any other country, I strongly suggest you to try something similar.

After my 2 night’s rest in nature my plan was to ride early to Bogota.  I wanted to make sure I arrive there before the rain starts pouring in the afternoon, give myself a buffer for potential landslides that might block the road and arrive to the city before rush hour allowing me enough time to zigzag through Bogota’s infamous traffic and road constructions so many other riders warned me about.  Not to mention Bogota has many iffy neighborhoods and I definitely do not want to stumble upon one after sunset.  Only problem, the rain decided to have an early morning start; I waited until 10:00 for it to subside but with no reprieve in sight, I just went for it.  The ride wasn’t that bad except for the slow traffic of cars and trucks on these undulating mountain roads.  With Llama, we could wiz through the traffic and I just took the immense pleasure in passing them.  At one point, I actually passed a police checkpoint. Oups!   The guy jumped waving me to stop but I just ignored him… only to be stopped 10min later by another police patrol.  Uh-oh! How to get away from this situation? Reverse play! Just told him bluntly that when in Colombia I do like Colombian:  They are crazy drivers, do not respect any sign, pass anywhere and everywhere and for my own safety I had to do the same or otherwise I will be crushed.  The police officer was laughing and just let me go with a small advise: “just do not pass when there’s a police car or police checkpoints”.

A few surprises greeted me upon arriving to Bogota:  first, Bogota’s roads where flooded with rivers few inches deeps gushing through them, the sewer system not able to handle the rain waters. It wasn’t fun finding my way in Bogota while tackling these rivers.  My second surprise was that I actually recognized some of the downtown streets from the time I visited 9 years ago with Adriana… Damn I am good ;).  Third, there was another Lebanese traveler in my hostel and it felt good hanging out with a “paysano”.  Otherwise, Bogota is an average city to visit: it has an amazing Museo de Oro, a great lookout on the city from Monserat mountain and an OK party scene.  Bottero has a museum here but I just don’t dig him and most Bogota’s streets are unsafe at night so take a taxi everywhere guys.

I will be flying on real planes vs. on Llama for the next few weeks.  I am heading on a Caribbean escapade: I’ll be attending Carol & Ravi’s wedding in Dominican Republic followed by Becky & Jason’s wedding in Cancun.  I will also take advantage of being in these countries to do a few excursions.  Check my next update for more.

Ride up!

Sami

Photo Album

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Alumbrado

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Alumbrado

Medellin, 30-Dec-2010

Nothing beats a hot shower after my tedious ride from Tierradentro… except having a good dinner with beautiful company ;).  I dedicated the next day to rest and I went strolling the city with Arianda.  Popayan is a very picturesque town with its white colonial buildings boasting typical XV century Andalusian architecture (Mudéjar) with heavy Arab/Moorish influence: Colonial houses have an enclosed courtyard surrounded by arches and in the middle a patio and sometime a water fountain.  We even managed to have a peak inside a couple of them while visiting the town.  We spent most of the day hopping from church to museum and dropping by Popayan Art College to witness their Christmas Novena celebration before heading up a small hill for tremendous views of the city.  At night, we went to admire the Alumbrado Navideño, i.e. Christmas light, in Plaza Mayor: it is a custom all over Colombia to illuminate the central Plaza with beautiful X-mas lights in a multitude of shape and forms.  It’s nothing like you ever seen before and it really puts you in a joyful X-mas spirit.  And since it was the Novena, we were treated to a concert by the local school children with each class vying to win the X-mas prize.

Next morning, my riding cloth + booth still wet, I rode up to Cali, a short 2 hour drive from Popayan: Kilometer 35,563; Cali, 17-Dec-10 @ 13:10.  This is another famous Colombian city: no, not because of its cartel history, rather its women and salsa dancing.  And being the weekend, I was going to be treated to a few wild nights.   While the nightlife surely lives up to its reputation and the party doesn’t end until the wee hour of the morning (although it continues longer if you want to ;), the city itself is a letdown.  Poor, dodgy, somewhat dirty and a badly maintained center will only solidify your plans: Party hard, dance all night and sleep during the day.

By Monday, I was ready to leave Cali and head to Salento, a small village close to the enchanting Valle De Cocora and a perfect getaway to relax and rest after my long weekend.  Yet again while riding I was caught up by the rain and I was drenched in less than a minute.  That’s it: next time I see a hint of a black cloud, I am putting on my rain suit. (The reason I don’t wear it defacto is because it’s some sort of non-breathable nylon, once you put it on, you sweat as if in a sauna).  Kilometer 35,777; Salento, 20-Dec-10 @ 13:10: Salento is a typical Colombian village except for the hoards of gringos that visit it, a matter exacerbated by the fact Salento is so small:  you bump into a tourist at every corner.  But I was in luck; at my hostel I hooked up with a cool bunch of backpackers and we formed a fun group for the next couple of days: we ate from the many street vendors in the plaza, walked the city and surrounding viewpoints, savored cakes from the local pasteleria and shared a few drinks with the local in the town’s tavern/bar where the “paisanos” congregate to play pool and cards.

The following morning the rain stopped and we were treated to a beautiful sunny day.  We all headed to the Valley de Cocora to hike through the wax palm tree.  These palm trees are endemic to this valley and they grow thin and tall up to 60m with the palm branches only in its top extremity, a mesmerizing sight (check pics!). It was definitely worth the strenuous hike through the muddy trail caused by the heavy rains pouring on Colombia since October.  Back to Salento late afternoon, we visited a local coffee finca (we are in the midst of Colombia’s coffee region) to learn about the coffee plantation process and to savor the different coffee they grow here.
I wanted to stay longer in Salento but since everyone was leaving today I just followed suit and saddled up to head to Medellin; finally I will discover and live the city so many travelers crave: Kilometer 36,038; Medellin, 22-Dec-10 @ 17:50.  I checked in at Casa Kiwi, a nice hostel right in the Zona Rosa (where all the nightlife is) and with a beautiful patio looking into a small wooded park.  Again, there was a cool bunch of travelers also crashing here, each on her/his long travel journey, and we all hooked up to visit the city during the day and hit the bar and club scene during the night.  Medellin center is OK, nice to visit for 1 day, but the city’s true beauty lies in its people.  Yes, the girls are gorgeous but what I mean is everyone around here is out to have a good time and people mingle, chat and dance with any inviting soul.  No wonder tourists love it so much (specially guys ;).  And being in the holiday season only adds to Medellin social scene.  For example, when we went out to check the tremendous alumbrado Medellin is crowned champion for, it took us 4 hours to walk along the river lights: Many locals wanted to chat or take a picture with us: it’s as we are celebrities surrounded by our fan; got to admit, it felt sweet.

For X-mas day, we prepared a huge BBQ dinner (I made my avocado specialty 😉 but what I am really waiting for is New Year’s Eve celebration.  Tomorrow, I will be heading with Alvaro to his home town Jardin – which Carlos didn’t stop raving about during the 15 days we spent it touring Cusco and its surrounding.   Can’t wait.

Ride up!

Sami

Photo Album

or click on “page 2” below to see the photo album.