We have travelled two hundred kilometres by boat from Carti Panama to arrive in Sapzurro Colombia and the first official immigration entry point of South America. We still must sail another two hundred and sixty kilometres until we reach Cartagena where we will unload from Stahlratte but first we have to announce ourselves to Colombian customs.
We jumped into hired launches and made our way over to Colombian immigration.
After our passports were stamped in we were set free to run a muck in South America. There were two options given to us to return to Stahlratte either via boat or the 1.5 hour hike up and over the mountain back to where Stahlratte was anchored in the harbour. Wanting to shake off the past six days sea legs we chose to hoof it back. The hike took us up over the mountain and past a small waterfall before spitting us back onto the beach in front of the Ratte.
We spent one more night in Sapzurro before lifting anchor and sailing onto Isle San Bernardo.
The ride to San Bernardo was a straight twenty two hour sail that had us sail from 4 p.m. August 13 until 2 p.m. August 14th during which time Jenn alternated between barfing and sleeping the entire twenty two hours… it was a long push for most of us.
Finally arriving in San Bernardo we were all ready for a swim to wash off the sweat and stench of the long voyage. After a cool down in the ocean we headed over to Isle San Bernardo where the islands locals invited us to dinner island style.
Following dinner we returned to the ship and prepared for the last final overnight sail to Cartagena. We lifted anchor around 10 p.m. and sailed the entire night arriving into the Cartegena harbour at day break.
We have arrived on Sunday and so the immigration offices needed to import our motorcycles were closed.
Luck would have it that Monday is a civic holiday so the offices remain closed until Tuesday. We were unable to unload the bikes until then so we were set free for two days to wander around the city on foot.
Cartagena a city of just under 1 million people is very picturesque with many different and distinct districts.
We only planned to stay two days in Cartagena so we found an inexpensive hotel downtown ($26.00) and headed out to explore the old city surrounded by the city walls.
The walls were constructed in the 17th century to protect the city from future invasions and took slightly over two hundred years to complete.
The eleven kilometre long wall included canons and fortresses to protect the spanish controlled city from numerous attacks during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Cartagena is filled with architecture from the “then” and the “now” and boasts everything from colonial heritage structures to modern day skyscrapers.
When Tuesday arrived we returned back to Stahlratte for the last time to retrieve our motos.
Together with our moto amigos we loaded up onto a barge and headed for dry land.
We rode over to the aduana office so we could process our motorcycles into Colombia. After all paperwork was complete we joined our Italian friends on a leisurely ride south out of Cartagena heading towards Bosconia and into the mountains of the East Andes.
Our riding partners decided to travel straight south towards Medellin as they have a tight schedule and need to be in Lima Peru in two weeks to store their motorcycles and fly back home to Italy. We have time to burn and decided to head east before going south and so quick goodbyes were said street side before we headed off.
We rode only a little while longer until we reached Bosconia and searched for a hotel. First hotel too expensive, second stop full and third room just right @ $25.00cdn including a/c and parking.
Bosconia was a one night pony and we continued south the following day still in search of mountains.
Headed for Aguachica that morning we found ourselves riding through what we called “gasoline ally” with what I suspect is cheap Venezuela gasoline for sale.
Being so close to the border of Venezuela I imagine the much cheaper Venezuelan purchased gasoline was smuggled/brought into Colombia. There was a large lineup of vendors offering 40% cheaper then pump prices. I personally wasn’t about to give Blanco a drink of this bucket served who knows what and instead filled up legit.
Further down the road toll booths started to appear mostly marked by lineups of long haulers heading south.
As witnessed throughout Colombia Colombians love there motorcycles and to return love the Colombian government built a moto only lane “a la derecha” se we needed to stay right and think slim to avoid trading paint with the tight but free motorcycle lane guardrails.
We rode into Aguachica and found a comfy hotel with a/c and pool both needed after the 40’c heat we found ourselves riding in today.
We keep attempting to find the cool mountains but instead find ourselves trucking down paved highways in desert like 40`c temps.
We spent two days in Aguachica mostly relaxing in the comforts of our air conditioned room hiding from the heat and sneaking out only for our daily dose of plato tipico offerings…… white rice, french fries, arepas, chicken… repeat! but cheap!
We rolled out of Aguachica after a few relaxing days on a planned route that would supposedly skirt us around the cities of Bucaramanga and Floridablanca.
It was a bit of a runabout navigating through the outskirts of Bucaramanga south towards Giron and Zapatoca. GPS was spitting out turn after turn instructions as we navigated through the city outskirts. We went from pavement to dirt to goat trail and all the while I was stupid enough to follow its instructions.
The detour took us passed a bone yard pilled full of what we assumed was once roaming four legged animals. It smelt ripe and the hungry locals gave us stares as if we were fresh meat.
With the wrong turn recognized I shared a few words with the gps before we tracked back past the bone pile and this woman creatively crossing the river.
Back to the highway and on the right track again we finally found the Andes mountains. As the snaky road wound itself higher and higher we quenched our mountain riding thirst.
We road climbed for almost an hour until we arrived in the mountain town of Zapatoca. A quick fuel stop was all we had time for as the afternoon wore long and we still had distance left to cover if we wanted to arrive in San Gil before dark. At the gas station I asked the two young gas attendants about a twisty 22 kilometer long secondary road that was showing on my gps. Both boys looked carefully at the gps map then assessed our bike as they kicked Blancos on/off road tires before agreeing the road was surely passable and should get us to San Gil before dark. Off we rode with a full tank of fuel and three and a half hours of afternoon sunlight left.
The twenty two kilometers of twisty offroad riding had us crawling down tight switchbacks heading towards the valleys floor in the general direction of San Gil.
We passed a small goat farm and continued down further into the valley as the road begun to look more and more unmaintained.
After an hour and a half we were eleven kilometers in and over half way when we turned a corner to find a nasty gash cut through the road in front of us by a previous landslide! We had come half way and now we were fckd!
I took a few minutes scouting the rock pile for possible lines around only to conclude that a crossing attempt was ludicrous. With no other choice we were forced to spin tale and with a tempered throttle we rode back up to the canyons top in an hour.
With just one hour of sunlight left after our two and a half hour sightseeing detour we were back in Zapoteca with decisions to make.
Not exactly sure why we decided to ride onto San Gil that night but after hydrating we were leaving Zapoteca certainly now in the right direction towards San Gil or at least we hoped. The first hour of daylight riding was fun down twisty country dirt roads through a few small pueblos and fincas. We now knew for certain that we would be riding into the night and as the country road riding continued darkness set in.
Further along the road under the cover of darkness I felt an ohh to familiar feeling and knew right away that we had a soft front tire. We pulled over in the dark pulled out the pump and gave the punctured tube a quick shot of air. Confident now that the tire would hold up until San Gil we rolled on until we found Sams Hostal in downtown San Gil after an eleven hour riding day.
The following morning we had ourselves a “work day”
I found five wood thorns buried in the tire and one long enough to have pierced the tube. I suspect we picked up the thorns from our wrong turn yesterday. I threw in the spare tube that we carry and bolted her back together.
That afternoon we walked around the busy mid sized city of San Gil and booked a white water rafting trip through our hostal after we heard the river was chalked full of class four and five rapids this time of year.
In the morning we were ready to hit rapids but our hostal had received a phone call to say rafting was on hold due to some heavy rains up river the day before. We had breakfast at the hostal and hung out for an hour or so until the phone rang again and rafting was back on. We took the hour long drive over to the raft put in area on the Suarez river a river claiming to possibly be the best rafting location in all of South America.
The rafting got going hard quickly and soon we found ourselves in big class three and four rapids.
Our group did well handling the boat and I think we were all surprised at the size of the whitewater. We banged through the nine or ten sections of whitewater successfully.
The last and final rapid section was the big old class five and it was pumping hard. About half way through the section we met our match and our raft came face to face with a class five boulder crashing rapid. Bodies flied and we were flung overboard as the raft capsized sending us into the fast moving water every man, woman and child for themselves.
I can speak for everyone when I say we were all a wee bit shocked to find ourselves overboard and we frantically tried to regroup on top of the now upside down raft barreling down the river. I was in full search mode scanning the bobbing helmets for Jenn. FYI Jenn is not a huge fan of water and definitely not a great swimmer so I was imagining her totally panicking.
Luckily we all managed to stay heads up until we were released into calmer waters. The entire boat was pretty shaken up when we finally regrouped down river. I was very happy to see Jenn was safe with only a cut knee from hitting a rock and slight embarrassment from touching the electric fence that just happened to be marking land where we regrouped. Tough finish. What a Ride!!
The following morning it was time to press on south and studying the map we had two options. We could take the main highway or the unpaved mountain road the “long way around” we chose option #2 and rode off into the mountains.
Not far out of San Gil we entered a construction area where work was being done to the dirt road. The workers had wet the road to keep the dust down and the combination of clay and water caused the road to basically become a skating rink. As we rounded a corner doing only 50ish km/hr the front wheel of the bike washed out quickly from beneath us and in the blink of an eye we were sliding down the slick road on our sides both trapped underneath Blanco. When we finally came to a stop the construction workers rushed over to assist picking the bike up off of us and in shock we regrouped and assessed the damages. Fortunately the bike handled the crash well and we had only bent the pannier rack and crushed the pannier slightly. Our first crash together had taken 17,000km to accomplish and could have been much worse! We jumped back on the bike covered in mud and continued on.
It wasn’t long down the road before Jenn came over the communicator and told me that her right wrist was aching pretty bad so we pulled over to check her out. By this point her wrist was already beginning to swell up and she struggled in pain to move it. We had a long day ahead of us and there wasn’t much we could do now but continue on with Jenns sore wrist and my bruised ego. The road continued to climb until we were high up in the backcountry of the Ande mountains surrounded only by beautiful Colombian landscapes.
Back here there were farms and farmers living a modest life far off the main highway hours away from the cities.
Jenns wrist continued to ache and throb but she would not complain and as the hours wore on the backcountry riding continued.
We finally found pavement and rolled into the busy city of Zipaquira after dusk on the hunt for a hotel. During the night I could hear Jenn moaning in pain as her wrist throbbed and ached while I spent the night running to the toilet every half hour struggling with montezumas revenge (diarrhea). In the morning Jenns wrist looked really bad and I was still struggling with diarrhea but we needed to find a hospital and get the wrist looked at. We jumped in a taxi and arrived at the hospital where we were greeted by armed security. The security guard began firing rapid fire questions in spanish all to which I could only answer “emergency, emergency” until they finally let us in. After a few difficult moments we were introduced to a nurse and threw google translate she informed us that I needed my Colombian motorcycle insurance papers which I had not brought with me before she could begin treatments. We decided Jenn would stay at the hospital while I returned to the hotel to grab the papers. I jumped into a taxi and when the taxi driver asked me “where to?” my mind went blank. It was at that moment I realized I did not know the name of the hotel we were staying at or how to describe in spanish the general location of which I believed our hotel to be. I finally conveyed to the driver that our hotel was near the city centro and thankfully the taxi driver was very patient, kind and understanding. As we drove around the city I soon found out that Zipaquira had more then one centro as we bounced around until finally finding the hotel. I returned back to the hospital and found Jenn sitting with doctor number four after as expected the first three doctors spoke zero english. Fortunately for us doctor number four spoke limited but sufficient english that matched my limited and insufficient spanish vocabulary required for this current situation. The doctor was very professional as he x-rayed Jenns wrist and had the bone specialist confirm there was no fractures only a severe sprain and tendon damage.
Jenn was placed in a splint/cast and provided medication for the pain and swelling.
As we left the hospital three hours later I inquired at reception about the bill and was told the service would cost roughly $70usd but would be billed to our Colombian motorcycle insurance company as the injury had occurred while riding the moto, sweet!. Finally finished with the hospital we blasted back to the hotel so I could continue suffering from montezumas revenge while Jenn chomped on pain meds.
We were held up in Zipaquira for four more days while Jenns hand healed and my punishment for something I had previously ate or drank continued.
On our fifth day in Zipaquira we removed Jenns cast and finally made our way over to the salt cathedral which was the main reason we had flocked to Zipaquira.
The salt cathedral is a roman Catholic church built 200 meters underground within the tunnels of what was once a salt mine.
The cathedral started around 1930 when the miners carved a small sanctuary within the mine where they would stop and pray for their safety before the entered the salt mine to work each day.
The mining eventually ended and in 1991 the cathedral was expanded to become a functioning cathedral and tourist attraction.
The cathedral de sal was a very impressive sight and the main cathedral was massive with a large crucifix that must have been close to forty feet tall.
We wrapped up our time in Zipaquira and prepared to battle our way through Bogota a city with 9 million residents!
Today we go to war and by war I mean traffic battle! We need to navigate our way through the largest city in Colombia, Bogota! We will be just racing our way through Bogota today heading south as our plan is to return back to Bogota to ship our bike home with Air Canada later this month so today wasn’t about sightseeing just survival.
The 1.5 hour gauntlet run had us crammed door to door and bar to bar with what can only be described as life threatening adrenaline pumping chaotic traffic! The highway without counting must have been close to a dozen lanes wide and with very little traffic rules it was utter chaos and every man for themselves. We somehow managed to survive and found our way through the city and back onto the more quiet highways heading south towards Ecuador.
The ride took us back into the flat lands where cotton fields lined the road way and temperatures climbed to 42’c.
The sights were ever changing as we reached our destination of Neiva for the night.
From Neiva we made tracks towards the pretty mountain town of San Agustin.
We found a quiet relaxing finca just outside of town where we hired up a cabana for the night.
The following morning we took a short trip over to a local archaeology site where we explored artifacts once used by the indigenous peoples of the area.
After the museum tour we were offered coca tea which supposedly helps with digestive track issues and after our recent bout of tummy troubles we were both more then eager to accept.
We spent just one night in San Agustin and left for Macoa the following morning.
Riding towards Mocoa we were on high alert and as we climbed into the mountains pieces of the highway disappeared all around us.
Full attention was required as with each corner, turn or hill we crested the guarantee of consistent asphalt beneath our tires was not certain.
Runoff, landslides and or poor highway maintenance meant that sections of the road had been washed out or crumbled away.
Military presence also grew as we approached the Colombian/Ecuador borders. We arrived into Mocoa and found lodging for the night.
The following morning we woke in excitement ready to navigate what is called the “death road”. After another typical breakfast of eggs, rice and french fries from which we are slowly tiring of it was time to roll!
This mountain path will take us from the east Ande mountains up into elevations above 9,000ft and land us in the southwest corner of Colombia in Ipiales near the Ecuador border.
The high elevation mountain pass climbed up over 9,000ft and the curvy dirt road narrowed until it was one lane only.
We passed many waterfalls and washouts along the route.
We crested the summit and entered heavy rains making the dirt road slippery and deserving of my full attention. Cold and wet we began our decent down towards Pasto headed for the Ecuador border.
As we rolled on Pasto towards the Ande mountains continued to grow and the scenery between Pasto and Ipiales was impressive!
Passing threw a small town just outside of Ipiales we passed a car that appeared to be on fire with smoke bellowing out everywhere. It wasn’t until we drove past that we noticed the driver was still in the car and with the drivers door open and smoke bellowing out this lunatic was still trying to drive it! Only seconds after passing the car I noticed military men and the towns locals all staring at the vehicle and that’s when my eyes began to burn and I started to loose my sight.
My eyes burnt so bad that I could not see and immediately had to try and stop the bike before we crashed into something. I stopped the motorcycle now basically blind squinting only just enough to see the roads shoulder and removed my helmet as my eyes began to water. It was now apparent with the military presence and the scene being caused by the towns locals that this was tear gas and I had driven straight threw it. After about ten minutes of eye irritation, watering and burning I was able to finally see straight again and we quickly got the hell out of there.
We spent a couple of days in Ipiales and went to the nearby village of Las Lajas where we explored the stunning Santuario de las Lajas.
330 feet above the canyons floor stands this beautiful cathedral built between 1916 and 1946.
We have now reached the furthest southern point of our Latin America ride and from here on out we will for the very first time in 11 months head north back towards Bogota where we will use Air Canada to fly Blanco and us back home to Canada. We have a two month “holiday” planned back in Canada before we pack up again and fly to S.E. Asia to explore around over there next winter. Onwards and upwards we headed making miles towards Bogota but not before we visited a few more stops in Colombia along the way.
Driving through the mountains heading towards Santander one must be fully alert.
The Colombians drive hard and fast. Transport trucks and large buses rule the highways and have no problem forcing you onto the narrow shoulders as they overtake vehicles on blind corners bullying their way along tight mountain twisties.
I personally don’t have a problem with this aggressive driving style and actually enjoyed the aggressive passing practices maybe even adopting a few bad habits myself.
As we blasted our way north a sense of accomplishment began to settle upon us. We had completed our goal of riding to South America, we didn’t get robbed and we didn’t die better yet we enjoyed almost every minute of it. However after 11 months and 21,000 km’s we were ready for a break and looked forward to the downtime back in Canada.
We blasted along stopping in a few small towns to overnight until arriving at our highly anticipated last resting spot in Colombia a town called Salento.
I can say that we certainly saved the best for last as Salento was exactly what we had been looking for in Colombia. Salento a small, cute, quiet little mountain town was a perfect place to end our Colombia loop and so we booked into stay for five days.
We spent our time in Salento doing the typical tourist outings and I spent my remaining downtime organizing our bike shipment with Air Canada a task that took over a week of solid phone calls, emails, etc… to organize. At one point during the long process I actually questioned if it was even possible to get Blanco back home to Canada. Without getting into much more detail regarding the organizing of moto shipping for fear of raising my blood pressure while recalling the extremely long drawn out task I will only describe the ordeal as unnecessarily painful. Air Canada clearly had not yet flown a moto from South America to North America and the uneducated A/C representatives left me to hang as I attempted to hire a capable freight forwarding company locally in Bogota. Nevertheless I finally made contact with some capable gentleman operating a freight forwarding company called Cargo Logistics Systems in Bogota http://cargologisticsystem.com these guys took on my project in a professional manner while I took to the task of sight seeing in Salento. If you ever require moto shipment out of South America check these guys out they can help.
We hired some horses for a morning ride to a local waterfall and although the ride was scenic and fairly uneventful it further strengthened my feelings about being merciless atop a four legged creature, I’ll take my moto over this any day!
Back home safely I took the next day off until I could walk straight again from the pounding of yesterdays horse back ride.
After recovering from our horse ride we jumped a taxi and headed towards the Cocora valley to trek through the valley admiring the tallest palm wax trees on earth.
The four hour hike took us back into the beautiful Cocora valley.
Palm wax trees towered above the valley floor.
It was a relaxing way to wrap up our time in Colombia and we loved the quiet mountain town of Salento.. go there!!
With our scheduled flight out of Bogota quickly approaching it was time to leave this peace of paradise and head back towards the hectic city of Bogota.
We only had two nights to burn in Bogota and after a shitty first night at one of the local auto hotels (sex hotel) where they rented rooms by the 2 hours or 12 hours meaning the phone rang at 6am after our 12 hours was up leaving us to shuffle along to a more upscale hotel a few blocks from the airport where we splurged out and treated ourselves to probably the nicest room/sleep of the entire trip.
We awoke on our last morning in Colombia and proceeded to the airport to meet up with Luis & Camilo my hired freight forwarding amigos and started the three hour process of exporting the moto back to Canada.
Air Canada advertised that your motorcycle would ship out on the same flight that we were to fly on but the night before we were informed that our flights cargo area was already full of fragile flowers heading for Canada.
Our beloved Blanco would be extending his holiday in Colombia until two days after we left meaning I was about to leave without our moto and we both had mixed feelings about that. With no other option aside from rescheduling our flight and paying a few hundred dollars to do so we decided to fly out with fingers crossed that Blanco would arrive safe into Toronto Monday morning. We said our goodbyes to Bogota, Colombia and South America and as we boarded our flight home waves of emotions flushed over us.
The trip was life changing and both Jenn and I have new outlooks on life. 21,000km and 11 months exploring has changed us in ways only a trip like this could and I assume we will never forget the experience! Fortunately for us we are only half way through our “life break” and after recharging back on Canadian soil we will head to Thailand to explore S.E. Asia. We will travel by foot and by hired motorcycle looking to compare the world we are leaving to the new undiscovered world that awaits in Asia. Please stick around and follow us as we hope to share what I presume will be sharp contrasts between the continents. Adios from Central & South America and thank you Latin America for your generous hospitality and your kind hearted peoples! One day we will return!!