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.