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Race against time: Whistlestop Colombia

We’d been racing against a deadline for most of South America. The Darien Gap separating Colombia from Panama (a 160km road free stretch of national park and dense jungle) had introduced a difficulty- how to get to Central America by motorbike when this is the challenge you face? Through word of mouth, we’d heard about a boat which happily takes motorbikes and their owners across the Caribbean sea in a 3 day adventure voyage which sounded much nicer than battling through jungle, potential death and kidnap. The downside was that it only leaves once a month so if you miss your departure date you face a pretty significant delay!

We left Quito for a three day journey to Bogota. Entirely possible if you use the PanAmerican highway which is the only thin line of safe zone in a sea of advised dangerous territory on the government travel advice map. However, for various reasons also partly due to the optimistic system, we took the road north of Pasto, towards the somewhat greener area on the travel advice map. The border between Ecuador and Colombia was unusually simple with a distinct lack of small bits of essential paper we had to fill in as everything was electronically recorded. Both filled with a little trepidation (the Colombian government had only recently reached a peace agreement with the infamous FARC) we entered Colombia and made our way towards Pasto.


Landscape near Pasto – Succulents and cacti abound!


Breakfast near Pasto – eggs, chips and a spongy croissant

We unwittingly ended up on the non-PanAmerican road towards Bogota- Ruta 10 which started off as sinuous at “San Francisco” and ended up as a terrifying 70km coiled gravel dirt track through dizzying heights and complete with stressed minibuses stopping for nerve settling cigarettes every 20km won all the way to “El Pepino”. Roadside barriers were apparently optional and eroded sections of the road entirely common.


While it was clear about 10km in that this was not the PanAmerican highway, there was no way of knowing if the road would improve shortly or not. After about 30km and two hours of struggling, Alex asked a stopped smoking minibus conductor how much further the road conditions stay horrible for. Frowning, he took a deep inhale of his cigarette, and said simply “at least two more hours of rocks”.  The fact that the state of the road was finite was enough to keep going. Some of the turns we’d experienced had been terrifying on the way to this point and going back felt impossible. The unknown terror to come was more appealing than the skidding, inclined gravel switchbacks we’d just eked through at 10-15km/h. Bouyed slightly at the knowledge that at least some of Colombia is paved, we carried on. We passed sandbag shored watchtowers with heavily armed soldiers who saluted as we limped along. All of this reminding us that this is a historically favoured area for FARC and clearly the peace deal was still in its infancy.


Alex’s unimpressed “let’s just get through this” face


The only part of the road we could park safely on to take a photo. The rest was too narrow/too gravelly/too inclined/too broken

Alex was getting quite tired at this point. Controlling the bike in 1st gear and minding the response through gravel as precipices are crawled by was taking its toll. One turn revealed deep gravel on the right side of the road (coincidentally the side the 40m drop was on) and an oncoming minibus ruled out using the flatter mid-section of the road. The bike boxed on the gravel and suddenly the bike fell, the front half of the bike teetering over the precipice, Alex and the brake pedal were caught in the barrier (one of the only sections with a barrier thankfully!) stopping the bike (and Alex) from careering straight over the fall. The minibus which had pushed her off merrily passed on by, faces glued to the window to watch the drama unfold. Simon raced up to help and a kinder second minibus stopped to help him drag the bike from the edge. The driver and his passengers chuckled as they confirmed the brush with death before popping back into the vehicle and carrying on with their journey. The bike suffered from the crash but otherwise worked so we carried on for the remainder of the road. At this stage there were less than two hours of daylight left and still some distance to go. Some of the more interesting turns required going through 15cm of water cascading over algae covered rocks. Alex managed to fall three more times, and a almost-topple was saved by a machine gun carrying young soldier who rushed over to push Alex back upright as a deep gravel hairpin bend took her by surprise.

Both thoroughly exhausted after 5 hours of death defying riding, the sight of tarmac was so welcome just as the sun disappeared below the mountains. The joys of the gears above 1st were fully realised and both reveled in the sudden ease of riding. Mocoa was the next town and finding a hotel with parking was a whole new obstacle. All the hotels in town proposed parking the bikes in the lobby, which was great but their front doors were all about 20cm too narrow to fit either bike through, even without panniers!!  Eventually, one of the hotel workers suggested a secure carpark where the price at 9pm on the 3rd of September was 5000 Pesos (which magically rose to 7000 pesos at 7am the next morning) too tired to bother continuing the search for hotels with parking, we conceded and eventually crawled to bed and had a sound sleep. Apart from Alex who kept dreaming that the 700km left to Bogota  would be similarly challenging and combined with it being her birthday, decided it would make for a satisfactorily perfect round number for a grave but that it would be too much trouble for Simon to have to ship corpses and bikes home and eventually gave in to fitful sleep.

We set off at 7am, hoping for a 6pm arrival in Bogota, a well earned birthday dinner and a bottle of red. Alex quizzed the local petrol station about the rest of the road, explaining that the day before had been quite frustrating and one look at the now duct-tape covered Freja, the petrol man sucked his teeth. “Las colinas de la muerte” he uttered, “they take a lot of people.” He assured us that the rest of the road would be “muy excellente!” so Alex’s birthday improved massively from her fevered dreams.


A much nicer road! Ruta 45 from Mocoa to Bogota. The clouds sit thickly in the mountains round here.

After a day of happily good roads, breath taking vistas through clouded mountains and gorgeous tree lined green tunnels where we narrowly avoided a speeding ticket, twice, we made it to the Bogota entrance highway at 6pm! With only 60km to go to our address, we starting planning the feast we would have for dinner. As with all the best laid plans, this one ended up being the worst joke on us. The traffic going into Bogota from the South on Ruta 40 (a 3 and sometimes 4 lane highway) was so bad that it was at a literal standstill for most part. We passed a bad collision surrounded by ambulances and police but still the traffic continued. We passed a Toll (motorbikes don’t pay) but still the traffic didn’t ease. Eventually, we hit the outskirts of Bogota main and the traffic merely intensified, horns blared, the designated 4 lanes were occupied by 5 lines of traffic. At this point it was 9:30pm and clear that the remaining 25km would take us beyond the dinner we’d imagined and probably even beyond the glass of red. Our predictions were right, at 11pm we finally made it to our destination and dined on the tin cans and vermicelli rice noodles from our emergency rations as Simon somehow magicked a fitting birthday feast from these paltry reserves.*


Scenes from Bogota


Scenes from Bogota


An optimistic dog, Bogota


Stopping for coffee…

The rush was on to get to Cartagena in good time to catch our boat. From Bogota we had only 1000km left and most of it appeared to go past very wealthy homes and strangely well serviced petrol stations. We later learnt that this road was frequented by many ministers so it was in their absolute interest to keep it well maintained and well serviced! We allocated 2 days for the journey and ended up spending the night in strange town called Yarumal where transport on two wheels rules – the traffic was made up solely of trucks, the occasional massive bus but mostly scooters and motorbikes. Secondly, finding a restaurant was almost impossible with only arepa stalls selling food. The arepa in this region consist of very dry, chewy and tasteless corn fried patties (they appear to be more palatable in Cartagena where they are less dry and often filled with cheese). We eventually found one canteen-looking place serving meals and had, to our immense surprise, an actually delicious plate of chorizo and plantain, although sadly served with more dry arepas!


Rainbows like this make up for poor weather!


Alex’s new friend- an absolutely HUGE butterfly. The closest to Disney princess Alex will ever get

After being stopped by the Police a further two times (once for speeding and once just to check papers) and noting that the fruit stalls had been suddenly replaced by coconut and/or lime stalls, we could smell the sea again. A series of bridges cross two lakes and a river, eventually winding you into Cartagena, a charming Caribbean coastal town. After the last week of deadline driven riding, we were looking forward to the few days of relaxation imposed by the trip across to Panama and settled in to the next chapter of the adventure: Central America and the Caribbean.


Beautiful Colombia! Also, the road less traveled.


A flooded tree en route to Cartagena


Alex being overtaken by a Donkey. Truth.


*We designated the 5th as Alex’s real birthday and Simon colluded with Alex’s Godmother, Helen, to take her out for a proper birthday meal at the excellent Andres in Bogota. As a result of the delicious food, Ruta 10 and the 5 hours into Bogota were a distant memory.


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