THE COLOMBIA EXPERIENCE: PART 1
BY: MICHNUS OLIVIER
Cabo de la Vela, a dusty one-street gritty kite surfing village at the most northerly point of Colombia, South America. It is a desert with white sand beaches, blood-red sunsets, and suntanned kite surfers with white bleached hair, surfing till sun-under. A must-see solely because it was so close to Cartagena, and it is a cheesy thing to say that we staked a pin in South America’s most northerly point.
Just a few weeks before, we were running around the shipping port of Cartagena to clear our motorcycles which we shipped by container from Panama together with two other vehicles. We had quite a few places to stop for our papers to be stamped and approved and insurances arranged before we could get our motorcycles out of the container. Cartagena with its cobblestoned colonial historic inner city, vivid and beautiful buildings has a distinct, colorful Cuban atmosphere with a warm ocean and Caribbean beaches.
As we rode inland away from the coast, the landscapes turned into the lush green verdant country. I could not help to think about the conversation we had with a local Colombian rider earlier that week that there is an entire universe more to Colombia than Pablo Escobar and drugs. He said, “Please do not travel the country and identify the country with Escobar.” The scars and hurt are still very visible to most Colombians.
He mentioned with the Netflix series of Escobar, it felt to Colombians that visitors visit the country for Escobar’s history. Most Colombians do not want to be identified with him. As we said our good-byes, he waved us off with a warning that although there are currently no no-go-zones, we should still ask locals about the areas we are planning to ride.
Colombia was voted one of the happiest nations in the world a few years ago. We have not met one traveler who did not mention to us that Colombia was one of the best all-around countries they have ever traveled to. The people, culture, and landscapes can keep you busy for a lifetime.
Add to this the incredible mixture of landscapes and terrain, and you have an adventure biking heaven. From the Andean summits and glaciers, yes, Colombia has glaciers, to the colorful cobbled stone colonial villages, to the white sand beaches of the Caribbean coast, the Indiana Jones-style Amazon jungle, red rivers, and the world-renowned archaeological ruins, Colombia offers all of South America’s appeal.
We were for sure not just going to stick to the tourist areas. The game plan was to see as much as possible that Colombia has to flaunt. We stuck mostly to dirt roads. This added more fun to the riding, especially due to the narrow single lanes or dirt track roads through many unexplored areas. Into the coffee region with their green coffee plant-covered hills, many small dirt roads pass by small fincas (farms) with neatly manicured shrub fences.
Our roughly planned route was to get to the Andes. We searched for smaller tracks on dangerousroads.com and made good use of Google Earth. We were awarded adrenaline-induced roads and scenery that we had not seen or experienced in a very long time. Colombia’s equatorial position affords it a diversity of landscapes matched by few countries.
Full-on adventure riding started the day we left Playa de Belen, an off-the-radar treasure of a wonderfully photogenic white-washed village that felt like it hailed from a different century. Colombia’s dioramas of coffee-table book-perfect pueblos (small towns) are among the best preserved on the continent. Most of the small villages in Colombia feel like a movie set stuck in the 16th-century.
The track was a crazy spaghetti-style route through the mountains. Little did we know it was going to be a single track that bounced from better to worse all through the day. The track meanders through small villages boosting a few shops and churches whose spires are visible from a distance. The famously mentioned death roads in Colombia are not fairy tales. The roads in the mountains zig-zag up and down the sides of cliffs creating heart-stopping moments when you view the drop-offs. These roads turn into proper death roads in the rain, and you will start to pray and call up any God even if you are not religious.
In the dry, it is slow going, and in the rain, the going turns to a crawl. We were awarded some rain and had to ride mostly with our visors open, wet faces, as closing the visors created too much fog. Luckily it was a warm and not freezing cold area. At least we could see where we were going, could appreciate the other-worldly green rolling hills and mountains in the distance where we still had to traverse.
Crossing rivers over dilapidated bridges is part of the ride in most of the mountainous parts of Colombia. Landscapes are scarred by landslides from years of heavy rain, the water sculpting the sides of mountains.
Eight days before Christmas in 2010, a massive landslide took out most of the 153-year-old town of Gramalote. We rode into part of this town unbeknownst to us what had happened. We were initially stunned and bewildered as to what invisible power possibly could have destroyed a town in such a powerful swipe. Only some parts of the broken church stand as a monument to the devastation. We learned later that a few kilometers away, a new town was built in a more stable area. It did not look like an earthquake. The earth was crushed like Thor smashed his hammer into a miniature town set up, but locals informed us that it was a massive landslide that caused the horror. This was reminiscent of many small villages throughout Colombia. Landslides are a massive problem and a big killer in Columbia.
Eventually, after 12 hours of riding through parts of the most mind-bending beautiful tropical areas and rainstorms, we fell tiredly into the small town of Pamplona near the Venezuelan border. Cold and wet, we just ate and went to bed. This became the routine for us the next few weeks. Get up, have a quick bite, hit the dirt, and late afternoon ride into a village—full 8-hour riding days and sometimes covering merely 250 kilometers for the day. The small villages are a welcome reprieve. The plazas (squares) in these towns our aim as this is where you will find life, the church, maybe a hotel and a restaurant or two.
People are incredibly friendly, and most come to ask us the normal, where are you from, where are you going, why are you here and then the “Welcome to Colombia!”. They would even escort us to the local hotel or inn to find a room. Around 6pm, these small-town plazas come to life. Food vendors arrive, restaurants open, and people meander in. During this time of the day, people gather to mingle and share their stories, to eat, drink and be happy. Most of the small villages have some kind of challenge or competition with another to be the most colorful. The walls are covered with striking colorful mural art. Color is a big part of the culture, and it is also very visual on cars, paintings, and anything else that can be painted.
A local rider, Andres, messaged us one day and said he wanted to take us on a route that few riders take in the area around the coffee region. It would also lead us to Los Nevados National Natural Park, which is home to dramatic volcano-shaped landscapes and the three volcanos: Nevado del Ruiz “Sleeping Lion,” Nevado de Santa Isabel, and Nevado del Tolima.
These dirt roads around the volcanos are rugged single-track roads with threatening drop-offs. No going fast, a good thing as the surrounding landscapes are from another world. The roads were wet and muddy, which made our riding much more focused. At that altitude, there are no trees, just shrubs, and small bushes. As we rode, dark rain clouds moved over with thick mist rolling in over the slope of the volcanos, making it even more dramatic. The temperature dropped to a chill in double-quick time. At some point, we had to make camp and stopped at a small hut constructed from rocks. We asked if we could camp behind the house, and the owner eagerly waived us to a flat area to pitch the tents.
He brought us excellent news that there was a natural hot-spring down the valley just a few kilometers away. After a full day’s ride, a hot spring was just what the doctor ordered. We soaked away while sipping some whiskey and got back to the tents just before the rain started again. All in all, a good day, we agreed as we sat around the fire under our self-made tarpaulin roof between the tents to wait for the rain to clear.
Not far from the hot springs, another very tragic catastrophe happened on 13 Nov 1985. It was the Awful Story of Omayra Sánchez. I was in school and saw the photo of this little girl that suffered for 3 days stuck in a landslide mud pool. The rescue people could not get her out. The image haunted me ever since. Unbeknownst to me, we rode past the place the landslide happened. That tragic day, after 140 years, Nevado del Ruiz “Sleeping Lion” erupted.
The Lahars, the violent and terrifying mudflow of pyroclastic material, rocky debris, and vast quantities of water released by the near-instantaneous melting of the Nevado del Ruiz glacier caused this landslide. The first of three lahars and the most powerful of that night wiped fourteen towns and villages from the face of the earth, killing as many as 20,000 in Armero alone. The worst in Colombia’s history. The scars from the landslide will be there for ages. The tragedy left a planet-size gaping canyon on the lower slopes of the volcano.
Riding down from that altitude, there is quite a visible change in the plant growth. Above 3000m, there is little to nothing growing higher than a short shrub. Getting down to about 2500m, the forest growth suddenly reappears, closing up around and above us.
Colombia is a pure unadulterated motorcycle riding bliss. A riding nirvana, whether you are a tar road or an off-road rider. There are enough roads to satisfy both. Forget about those nicey-nicey European passes. Colombia is king of passes. They are engaging to ride. They are coming at you one after the other with one more scary than the next. Most of the passes are the kind of exciting riding that demands your full attention and focus. No bend is the same as the next, with landscapes that are pulling your eyes away from the road. There are mesmerizing fairytale green lush forests or mountainous terrains with volcanos and glaciers to take in while leaning into the next corner.
Colombia is a country which had their fair share of pain in the past. But, it is a country with incredibly resilient, resourceful, happy, and friendly people that are inviting to foreigners and are super proud of their country. There are few countries we have ever traveled with such natural beauty and inviting people.