Saturday 9th September
It took a couple of days to sink in. We are in Colombia! South America, south of the Darien Gap! And on our bikes, and all is well!
The exclamation marks may seem a bit shouty, bit they are a measure of the excitement of being here. We have met up at last with Mark, fourth of the Loose Nuts who brings his own enthusiasm and his incredibly clean and tidy BMW 800 GS. Following a few days in Bogota (coinciding with a visit from the Pope) we are now back on the road, amongst some of the most compelling biking roads on the planet. Colombia is wonderful; we are lucky indeed.
Having left Cartagena a week ago, the original threesome of Tom, Ian and I headed East before turning south towards Bogota where Mark was due to arrive. This is a big country and what look like short distances on the map take days to traverse. Despite the size of the country, there are precious few sizeable roads on the large-scale road map, and as I found out, roads that are shown may not exist quite as advertised. On Saturday, I planned a route to take a small detour of around 80 km away from the main road that we had been following. According to the map, this was mainly on a paved secondary road for the entire route, which headed a short distance into the hills that we had so tantalisingly been riding alongside. Tom would have joined me I am sure, were it not for his tyres being almost completely bald (new ones waiting in Bogota); Ian was quite certain that he was fine on the main road thank you very much. Wise man. I had programmed the route into my Tom Tom sat-nav; although the map promised it to be a sealed road it almost immediately became a rock and gravel track, rising steeply into densely forested hills. On leaving the last vestige of civilisation for a while I passed an army checkpoint of which we have seen several – I did think they were giving me a slightly incredulous look but didn’t stop me. After a couple of miles I began to wonder whether Ian had been more sensible than he knew, and whether I should turn back. The track was hard, steep and tricky. The next waypoint on the sat-nav was 36 km further on. Another couple of miles and I would make a decision. I pressed on. Half an hour later it was a shorter distance to the next waypoint than back to the nice smooth tarmac I had left. Surely the road would improve? I eventually reached the town of Guamalito, which although small was much larger than I had expected given the access route. The bike and I were a minor novelty, quickly attracting a small crowd. Smiles and handshakes substituted for words due to my non-existent Spanish, but yet again I was struck by how friendly everyone we meet is. After a coke and a snack I continued; the plan was to go through El Carmen to Convencion, then Rio del Oro before re-joining the main highway to Bucaramanga where we had booked a hotel. The road did indeed improve a bit beyond Guamalito but was still dirt. After a kilometre or two however, I came across a rope suspended across the road as a makeshift roadblock, with a rather fierce gentleman and his large shovel manning it so preventing further progress. It transpired that he was exacting toll payments from any vehicle wishing to pass, supposedly in return for his labour in maintaining the road. I was in a bit of a quandry as although I would not have minded paying a few pesos to pass (and so contribute to the local economy) I did not want to get out my wallet which I had just re-stuffed with large denomination notes from a cash machine. So we chatted, or rather he did and I listened; I told him where I had come from and where I was headed, and he became more friendly. Before he let me pass with smiles and handshakes but no payment required, he became quite serious. He seemed to need to make me aware of the route I must take a little way up the road – he referred to a gas station (gasolinaria) several times at which I must take either a right or a left. I was not sure which. But in any case, I knew where I was going and had the route in the sat-nav. Up the road, the gas station came into view (quite a surprise – this was still little more than a track in the middle of nowhere), and with it a fork in the road. This fork was unannounced either by the map or the sat-nav. I tried the right, but that took me off the sat-nav path. I turned and started up the left, and heard someone hailing me from a drinks stand by the gas station. Definitely I must take the right fork. Left would take me to Convencion (which I had planned to pass through) but I could not go there. Why not? I asked. The man made a gesture of firing a rifle, and again shook his head saying no no no. Banditos? I asked. No, he said, and got an iPhone out and using Google Translate found that the word he sought was the same in English as in Spanish. Guerrillas, he wrote. And pointed to the bike. And me. And the right hand fork. I thanked him and took the right hand fork, not shown on map or sat-nav. This took me for miles through lush countryside without me knowing exactly where I was, the road clinging to a steep hill side but affording wonderful views. Eventually found myself an hour or two later rediscovering my route as I came across Rio del Oro, having avoided meeting any guerrilla groups.
During that part of the ride I had the opportunity to reflect on my experience of the afternoon. I had not been in the slightest bit afraid – other than that I might have a puncture or other mechanical mishap. Was that stupid? Should I have been more afraid? What would that have achieved? Should I have stuck to the main road and not discovered the enchanting landscape and its people, and the challenging roads? I still do not know the answer to those questions. But I do have greater understanding for what we mean by security or safety, and how that is changed in a country such as Colombia where the rule of law is still in early stages of application.
A few days later in Bogota we enjoyed an evening with a friend (of a friend of a friend) of Mark’s called Erika. I told her this story; she was not entirely surprised and said that although FARC has signed a peace agreement with the government, there are other groups who have not. She mentioned the ELN (National Liberation Army) as one of the biggest. A quick look at Wikipedia reveals a list of ten left wing guerrilla groups (many of which are now inactive) who ostensibly have fought to improve the lives of the Colombian poor by promoting communist ideals, as well as 12 right wing paramilitary groups opposing the guerrillas. The ELN is not alone in funding its existence by robbery, kidnapping and extortion as well as from the drugs trade. This is a band I’d rather not meet. But reminder to self: I’m not on holiday – none of us are.
Postscript: Just hours after posting this blog I am reading an online news review; Isee that in the last week the Colombian Government has signed a peace deal with the ELN. Apparently this was rushed through before the Pope’s visit here. This visit has received huge media coverage and popular attention, the peace deal seems to have been eclipsed.
On the following day we all experienced another example of Colombian life. The ride south from Bucaramanga on the main road was glorious: at last this highway started climbing from the heat and humidity of the low altitude tropics that we had been enjoying for several weeks, winding its way up to the plateau on which Bogota lies at over 2500 metres. As any biker knows, this is likely to entail a road that twists and turns like an eel on a line and this road was no exception. Simply glorious, with good quality tarmac. The only fly in the ointment being the other traffic, including a large number of trucks crawling up the inclines at little more than walking pace. A motorbike can of course pass such obstacles with relative ease and safety; the prodigious acceleration, small size and nimble steering making short work of most obstacles. All vehicles overtake on Colombian roads. Not all of them wait for a clear view; this group can include faster trucks and all manner of cars, vans and small bikes. And the solid line in the middle of the road is mostly ignored, this out of necessity as the solid line existed for roughly 290 of the 300 – odd kilometres we rode that day.
Then a police check-point. They exist at varying intervals, and the normal form is to slow down, wave and offer a thumbs up. Erica told me that the police are largely encouraged to give friendly acknowledgement to reinforce the notion that they are there for the benefit of the people, not to harass them. This one waved first me, then a few minutes later Tom and Ian to stop. Friendly, as always, they asked for papers, duly presented. There seemed to be a delay as a problem was discussed. I had apparently committed an infraction. I had crossed the centre line. And so I expected a fine, but determined to stay friendly. The reality was that I did not understand a word of what they were saying, and I made that clear with bemused and apologetic shrugs, although I did get the message that this might not be as simple as I had hoped. I understood (but did not let on) that they intended to impound all our bikes (Tom and Ian had apparently committed the same infraction – of course they had!). This was not looking good. The translating app came out again – we would need to proceed by bus. The eventual fine would be equal to the Colombian minimum wage (approximately 750000 pesos, which I later worked out was about $250 USD). Hmm. Keep stalling. Its not over until its over, but by now I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable. I tell the police captain that we cannot possibly do that, it is out of the question. So can I pay a fine here, now? How much would it be? But no, to my surprise, it all has to be through official lines. And so it goes on – with no end game in sight. Until… the hitherto rather gruff policeman taps something into his phone which translates as “would you like to cancel the infraction?”. Astonished, I gasp “Si”, and he hands back my documents and we can go. But not before I shake his hand and mime taking a photo, at which he gives a huge beaming grin, collapses into giggles then doubles over with laughter. One of his juniors takes my camera, and so the happy portraits are taken.
Again, on chatting with Erika and also with some Colombian bikers Mark and I encountered yesterday, we heard that this is a common experience for foreign bikers who are of course terrified at the prospect of their travels being cut short by having their bikes confiscated. And we heard that it is all about securing off the record payments. But I have to say that this absolutely did not seem to be the case here; I gave ample opportunity several times for the policeman to accede that a fine could indeed be paid there and then while cutting out the paperwork but this was not picked up although he clearly understood the question. It thus begs the question: what was the motivation for stopping us in the first place, only to let us go half an hour later? I can only think it was that my continued apparent lack of comprehension (stupidity?) was pushing things further and further towards the box marked “too difficult to bother with”. Who knows? But it appears we were lucky on that occasion.
A footnote to this story – chatting to a local Colombian in a bar last night we learned that it is in fact NOT illegal to cross the centre line while overtaking. So maybe we need to ask for evidence of the infraction next time.
The riding has been excellent, the scenery fabulous, and the people engaging. We have had a few adventures, and benefited from the experiences. And now we are four; Mark has already shown that he provides excellent company and has a huge enthusiasm for getting out and riding some wild roads. So much so that after several days in Bogota attending to business (getting haircuts, Tom’s bike serviced etc), it seemed cruel to delay any further; Mark and I headed off across country yesterday while Ian waited with Tom for the latter’s bike to be ready. We will meet up again tomorrow to plan our further onward progress; this is going to be fun.
Images from the Catedral del Sal, Zipiqueria. This is strictly speaking a church, carved inside a salt mine just to the north of Bogota.