Sunday, 17 June 2012

Day 71 to 72 – to Bototá, Colombia

31 May to 1 June    Kms travelled – 16,623

The short run out of Calí saw us soon heading north on the PanAm (25) through miles and miles of sugar cane fields.  You could smell the sweetness in the air.  And it wasn´t just in the air either.  Colombia may well have abandoned its railroads, but the trains have taken to the tarmac in a big way.  The three and four trailered articulated trucks – or road trains - which shuttle the raw cane to its processing plant would make an Auzzie proud.  While a three lane road out of Calí, it soon dropped down to two, then one, then back to two again... then one.  Make up your mind!

Not that it really mattered, as we were on the road to Bogotá having turned off on the 40.  Quickly rising through some of the greenest green rolling hills carpeted with sugar, then bananas and coffee.  They call Ireland the emerald isle, but Colombia is also famous for its emeralds.  I wonder if the colour of the landscape sinks into the ground and also tints the stones?  If Wiki have a description of green, it probably just says, see here!    Amazing!

But just as you are settling in to the very enjoyable rhythm of rolling from one side to the other while steadily climbing, the Cordillera Central arrives... and that just goes up!  For the lovers of hairpins and switchbacks, this is where you live!  Idris flew past struggling buses and trucks and, I believe that day, was the quickest thing on the mountain!  But not the only thing.  It is a fair old trek over this mountain range which rises over 3,200m, and lots of less well-to-do people seem to need to make the journey between the coast and the city (or at least the central valley in which it sits).  They do this by jumping a ride on the many slow moving trucks which wind their way over the high passes; without the drivers knowledge of course.  But this is Colombia, and it is hard to travel more than a few kilometres without encountering the friendly smiling faces of the local military or police.  I watched with interest at one rest stop as they pulled truck after truck over and made the road travellers get off, and searched their belongings.  Interesting.

More interesting was the wind at the top of the mountain.  I had thought we had left that behind in the south of South America, but no.  Here on the top of this beautiful mountain pass, filled on the sides by the most lush green vegetation, through a first gear hairpin bend I hit a wall of wind that almost stopped the bike dead in its tracks.  Taking the turn (you can´t really call it a bend) on the inside I was met by a huge chunk of slow moving metal coming down towards me, cutting the corner (and my riding line) so it could make it round.  We were forced to take the steepest line (must have been a 45 degree slope) to avoid the truck, and as we did so the wind hit.  I honestly thought we were going down, and if we had I am not sure the truck driver would have seen or would have been able to stop even if he had.  This was the closest we had come to serious injury – or death.  Though, as had happened in many other instances, just as I felt the loss of control, the loss of balance, the loss of hope, Idris was having none of it.  The last minute blip of the throttle and the red dragon roared, the back wheel spun, and we lurched round the turn into relative calm.  My heated grips were on due to the altitude making it a bit chilly, but I was sweating profusely. 

I stopped a little further on at a lay-by where a fellow (local) biker was also taking a break (a 250 Yamaha Fazer I think).  No words were exchanged initially, but the look on his face and the raised eyebrows as he nodded back down the road said it all.  But this guy (never got his name) really was a local, he lived in the mountains, and he was on his way home.  Follow me was the signal, and we set off at a good pace.  He knew when to break hard, when the turn was easy, when the surface was broken up, and when oncoming traffic cut around into our side.  Less than an hour later he was waving goodbye, as I continued into the central plains area, but what a great ride.  Perhaps we should pre-book local ride guides for the tricky bits... naa!  But I was glad of his help after that scare though.

The run into Bogotá from there was a bit hot, then a bit cool, as we crossed the (still green – I did mention this country was green didn´t I?) plains and into hill country again.  An hour of battling with Bototá traffic saw us arrive at the lovely Hotel Casa Sarita.  Well the hotel is very nice and everything, but I think it is family that run the place that make it lovely.  I did raise an eyebrow at the electrified fence, which was pointed out when I enquired about bike security.  Not problems then – we´ll sleep soundly here.

The next day was pretty much all about getting my bike on the plane to Panama.  For those readers not already in the know, there is no land route between Colombia and Panama.  There is land of course, it’s called the Darien Gap, but there is no road through it and the border is officially closed.  So that means the options are sea or air.  The thought of sticking Idris on a sailboat for 5 days (and me) didn´t appeal, and as the much discussed new ferry service between Cartagena and Colon has had its start date put back continually (they are now talking about July), that meant I had to fly.  And so did the bike.

Andrea at Girag
Girag Cargo company have long been used by adventure bike riders to bridge this gap, and came well recommended, so I looked no further.  At 8:00 I was pulling into the Cargo Terminal at Bogotá airport, at 13:20 I was strolling to the taxi rank having sorted all the admin, payments and official requirements.  Idris would be on the 4:00 am flight the next day to Panama City.  I would be on the 12:20.  I´ll write up the full process on the Borders page of this website in due course, but even though it was quite a long morning, the process is relatively painless and the lovely ladies at Girag walk you through the various stages.  I did have a little chuckle when the drug squad were called in to inspect the bike, and wanted me to ride it up a couple of steps into a very large x-ray machine.  Well, OK, but they soon saw the problem when I explained that after bumping up the steps I would have to stop the bike hard to prevent flying through the machine – but I would have to make that stop on a set of rollers!  They agreed that it was probably best that Idris didn´t take this opportunity to start X-ray surfing!  We stripped the bike down for a manual search instead.  All very nice people just doing a tricky job in a tricky situation, and who were appreciative of the wet-wipes I supplied for their hands after they had finished rummaging through Idris´ bits (I´ve cleaned it since!).

A quiet night in Botogá and the plane the next day. 

Thought for the day
Goodbye South Americia – you´ve been great.  The people, the places, the experiences, the food – everything really.  I´m not sure when I´ll be back, but I would really like to make the effort to return.  The continent has so much.  And, comparatively, so do we.  If you liked the blog, why not think about making a donation to help out those kids in the countries around the world who really need it.  I´ve made a concious decision not to photograph the kids I see on this journey, but their images are still carried with me.  Even when economies start to grow, it is often the most vunerable who are left behind.  With operational feild programmes in more than 150 countries, Unicef´s global reach is far beyond that of any other children´s charity.  They are active in children´s health, nutrition, education and child protection.  They really can make a difference - but only with your help.  Click here:  Donate to UNICEF now  and give what you can.  Thanks.


  1. Hi Pat. Congratulations on finishing this huge stage of your journey - and what an adventure in this last post!

    You're making my little jaunt across the Iberian Peninsula appear timid:

    Meanwhile, if you are going through Nicaragua my 'Colla' in Tarragona supports a school development project there: so maybe you could drop in?

    Cheers Pat, and thanks for all your work keeping us informed - and entertained!


  2. Cheers mate. As always the blog is behind me - now in Mexico trying to avoid a hurricane!