From Costa Rica and beyond

Monday, December 5, 2011

Colombia Part I

Below deck the ride was perfectly smooth. Much smoother than any road. We were entering the harbor at Cartagena. A breakfast of German bread, tomatoes and bologna, peanut butter and jelly was served up one last time before we shuttled on the dingy to shore. It was good to be back on terra firma.

The hostel of choice for motorcyclists is Hostel Amber, located in the Getsamani (Gethsemene) part of Cartagena. This hostel has room for motorcycles, if you can just get them through the entryway. Our four bikes would join at least four others from Washington state, Denmark, and elsewhere, but only after they were unloaded and processed at customs the next day.

Getsamani is a teeming mix of locals and tourists. The former run small businesses as mechanics, tailors, and food vendors. The latter are there for the many hostels and inexpensive eateries and bars. These groups intersect in the hostels and restaurants, but also in the sale and consumption of drugs, especially cocaine.

A short walk away is the old, walled city of Cartagena. Parts of the wall date to the early 1600s, having been built in response to attacks by English privateers like Sir Francis Drake. These walls nestle a very cozy network of streets and homes.  Second floor balconies overlook the streets and provide shelter from sun and rain. Stylish banisters and windows adorn the homes and give each building its own character. Today these buildings are occupied by hip restaurants and bars, by stores selling crafts, and by museums and cultural institutions. By night the atmosphere becomes even more charming as light and shadow give even more romance to this town suspended in time.

The Colombian people are ethnically diverse - white, black, hispanic, mestizo. For us guys, it was hard not to notice the Colombian women. Many are truly gorgeous...and they know how to show it. Tight jeans and short skirts are the daily norm, whether out shopping or working at the customs office or the insurance company.  Our time spent at those two places on our second day also showed an orderly side to Colombia, as well as good customer service - we were served delicious coffee while waiting for our insurance paperwork.

Coffee is a major industry in Colombia. The US and Europe have forgotten Juan Valdez, but he (or his memory) is alive and well in Cartagena with a Juan Valdez Cafe. Pastries are also advertised by way of sweet smells that waft through the avenues. I had been missing good pastries through much of Central America. No one matches the French, but these pastries, whether sweet or hearty, are still mighty tempting. If your coffee buzz is already going, you can wash a pastry or a meal down with juice made on the spot with fresh fruit - mangoes, bananas, raspberries, strawberries and a number of fruits I´ve never heard of.

Andre, Kerman, Kevin and I were reunited with Mark in Cartagena. It was great to see him and to hear about his crossing on the Stahlratte. Nick and Ivanka were also in town. I spent the better part of my third full day in Cartagena exploring the city with them and then joining them for a homemade supper in the apartment they rented with some friends.

After three days in the city and five days sailing, I was itching to start the bike and pound the pavement. Leaving Cartagena was not easy. The streets were congested with buses and trucks and some cars as well. There are lots of motorcyclists here and it is easy to see why. In addition to being more affordable (and having no winter!), they can squeeze through traffic jams while others must wait and wait. My bike with its panniers is not so trim, but is still nimble enough to thread most needles. Squeeze left between that bus and truck, go back to the right, avoid pedestrians and anticipate people hopping off buses; don´t go through that trash, look out for broken glass... But on the outskirt of town, the traffic lets up quickly and soon I am on the open highway where I am joined mostly by trucks.

My path led me south, then east through Plato.  Plato is on the Magdelena River which was flooded from recent rain. This great waterway, along with swollen lakes and fields that had become lakes, was breathtaking. I pondered moving there and opening a restaurant or store called the Republic (sorry, a philosophy joke). It seemed a shame to be passing through such lovely places without stopping, but the urge to get south has been growing in me. I stopped for lunch (at 3pm) and had some local fish from the river.  Conveniently, it poured while I was there. Soon I arrived at highway 45 which leads all the way to Bogota. I turned south and encountered even more truck traffic. Containers being shuttled between northern ports and southern industrial centers made me wonder why this highway only has two lanes (further south construction on another two lanes is well underway). Then I hit a traffic jam.  Trucks and buses backed up for miles. The cause? A one lane bridge! Again, I was able to zip to the front of the line. A life of privilege indeed!

The sun was nearing the horizon and my shadow, which usually resides right under me in these latitudes, was stretched to my left. Where to spend the night? There were a lot of hotels right at truck stops, but they definitely did not look appealing. Some had signs with renderings of sexy chicas

The next day´s ride took me out of the grassy plains into the mountains, where the roads got smaller and curvier and of course slower. Rain and mountains haven´t been a good mix on my trip so far and that remained the case here.  Derrumbas, or landslides, had closed this highway just days before. There were still a couple places where only one lane existed and crews were present to regulate the flow of traffic. By 3pm I arrived at Bucaramanga. I reviewed my guidebook to get the address of the one recommended hostel in this town. That sole suggestion paired with the brown brick slums on the hillside of this foothill town gave a drab first impression. Lacking a town map, I asked a young man on a scooter for directions. He led me straight to the hotel of that name. Nice! Unfortunately, that was a hotel, not a hostel, but by then I had figured out the street numbers and rode on my own to the hostel.

A walk downtown revealed a bustling center. Colorful markets and stores and tasty eateries were everywhere. The only thing lacking was crossing lights for pedestrians. For the first time on my trip, I felt that if I walked in front of a car, the driver really might NOT stop for me. It appears that way in many cities, but here appearance might just be reality. This fear actually started back south of Cartagena where I dropped my bike on its side. I was only going a couple miles an hour when I turned left and nearly hit a guy who was coming from behind on his scooter. At first I wondered how I could be so careless, but then I realized he was on my left in the other lane. No wonder I didn´t anticipate him. Indeed, the multitude of motorcyclists here means I have to be watching at all times on the left and right and especially in my blind spots. Anyhow, no damage done at all and a whole posse of men rushed out to help me pick up my bike.

Bucaramanga felt like a gritty city, despite the lively center. In the evening though, I went for a walk near the hostel and found another side. This is the affluent side of Bucaramanga. Modern shopping centers; tall, attractive apartment buildings; and lots of hip young people (there are 10 universities in town). I was especially surprised to find a store for Chevingnon, a hip French fashion store I have rarely seen outside its mother country. Salons were especially busy this evening and not just for the women. Men were also getting coiffed, pampered, and prepped for a fun night out.

I rose early the next morning, anticipating a long ride. I quickly checked Facebook and found Kerman online. He suggested stopping at San Gil and visiting nearby Barichara. That would make a long ride short. Why not? The ride was indeed short, but also spectacular. Highway 45 left Bucaramanga and sloped into a canyon named Chicamocha. Colombia´s landscape was impressing me more and more. San Gil is a smallish town that is thriving on adventure tourism.  Rafting is excellent there, but you can also go paragliding, bungee jumping, etc. Having arrived early, I rode up to Barichara right away. That stately, tranquil 18th century town is said to be Colombia´s most beautiful. It is certainly one of the most beautiful I have seen on my entire trip. It is set above a cliff overlooking a vast, verdant canyon. There is no modern building in the entire town. Almost all the buildings are one story tall, have whitewashed walls and reddish tile roofs. The churches are made of brown stone. These colors contrast with and complement the green surroundings. I liked it enough that I rode up there again the next (Sunday) morning with a Montreallaise I met at my hostel. We were struck by the contrast of a full church on one side of the square and bars full of very animated drinkers on the other. We joined neither.

I am writing now from Villa de Leyva. It is like a bigger and busier Barichara. The ride here took me through more spectacular countryside and up higher into the mountains. Indeed, I was a bit chilled (and a bit wet) upon my arrival here. The climate is very pleasant; comfortable days and cool nights pretty much year round. The climb up here followed the Suarez River whose churning brown waters seemed in a panicked hurry to lower elevations. The climb ended in a flat highland that, in its green and wet state brought Bretagne, France to mind. That comparison was strengthened by the simple stone homes, fenced in pasture and cattle, and the multitude of old and new Renault cars on the road. The only thing missing was some good pastis, but actually a taste of the cheap liquor called Aguadientes in San Gil satisfied that characteristic as well.

Colombia has really impressed me so far. Please check out my Colombia album and stay tuned for part II.

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