THE COLOMBIA EXPERIENCE: PART 2
BY: MICHNUS OLIVIER
Just outside the small village of Filandia, situated on the west side of Cordillera Central of the Andes mountain range, we ended up at a new motorcycle overlanders hostel, Steelhorse Farm. The hostel was started by a British couple who rode around South America and fell in love with Colombia. This became our home away from home, and the time spent there allowed us to research new tracks and must-see places on our way through the rest of Colombia. It was the perfect place to rest for a few days and to do outrides to small villages in the area. One of them, Salento, is a pretty little town with the most beautiful wooden houses and buildings all painted in bright colors. Bars and restaurants line the streets around the bustling, noisy center plaza.
The area is also home to gigantic wax palms in the valley called Valley de Cocora at an altitude of 2000 meters. These types of palm trees can grow up to a height of 60 meters (200 ft), live for about 100 years, and are recognized as the national tree of Colombia. It is best to stay over for a few days and hike around the forest. Hidden in the dense foliage of the cloud forest are many treasures. Birds and yellow-eared parrots hold operettas from high above, a sweet reminder of the wildlife that surrounds you. We also have to mention the abundance of little sugar birds or Colibri’s, buzzing away to collect nectar.
The entire coffee region, in central Colombia, is a lush green area with quaint, colorful towns dotted across the countryside. It is an area with small finca’s (farms) where locals gather at the town squares in the afternoons for chit-chats, enjoying coffee, locally made ice cream, or beer discussing the day’s happenings. Local farmers ride to town on horseback, stop at the bar and stay on their horses while the barman serves them a beer or two. It is a very easy-going, laid-back lifestyle.
Every town has small cooperation that buys the local coffee and then grades it to sell on to more significant buyers and for exporting. Make no mistake, the locals take their quality extremely seriously. The competition to produce the best coffee beans are fierce and comes with its share of honor.
Small, short wheelbase old Willy’s jeeps are used to ferry locals into the mountainous terrain to their homes or farms. The terrain is quite difficult and dangerous to navigate with bigger vehicles, and only these workhorses can traverse the single-track mud roads in summer.
These old Jeeps were brought in by the thousands by the Colombians after the Second World War and are as iconic today and very loved by Colombians. Sometimes during the year, the jeeps are decorated and overloaded with bags of coffee to compete in events driving on their back wheels and to show who boasts the most colorful best-decorated Jeep.
Further south is “Trampolin de la Muerte” ( Trampoline of Death) and one of the famous death roads in Colombia. There are a bucket load of death roads in Colombia. That said, in our 6 months riding around Colombia, we encountered many that eventually turned out to be much scarier than Trampolin de la Muerte. Not that this one was anything to shrug off. It is not that the road is that technically difficult to ride. It is basically a single-track road and extremely narrow where cars and small trucks have to scrape sides to get past each other. Landslides and flash storms turn streams into rivers, which are a big part of what makes this road so incredibly dangerous. The road can become nearly undrivable when properly wet after few days of rain.
It’s about a 65 km long rocky road that will lead you over two summits up to 2800m altitude. The road is peppered with many crosses, in remembrance of those that perished. Steep 270-degree switchbacks are typical for most of the first part. There are river crossings with boulders to get through and waterfalls to contend with. They can easily change to rivers after the rains, and we were told this is how most victims die. Underestimating the power of the river, dying trying to go through. Torrents of water can wash down the mountain.
The road was constructed in 1930 to transport soldiers during the war between Colombia and Peru, and so far, has been directly responsible for ending hundreds of lives. Unconfirmed sources recorded more than 500 people dead in 2011, and in 1989, about 300 people died in a terrible collapse.
It started to rain halfway, and we had to pull off to wait it out. The road turned nasty and slippery, and a few times we had to push our bikes into the side of the cliffs to allow traffic to pass us. The continuous climb up the mountain allows for spectacular views across the valley to where the road continues and where we still have to go. Although definitely not the most dangerous road we have ridden in Colombia, the combination of views, landscapes, crazy steep switchbacks, river crossings and overhanging cliffs made this an unforgettable experience and still rightly can be classified as a death road.
A good portion of our route through Colombia was dictated by festivals happening around the country. The Colombians know how to party, and when they gather for a festival, they do it properly. Two of the most memorable festivals were the Burro (Donkey) festival in the small farming town of Alcaldia de San Antero Cordoba. It is nearly a week-long celebration for the donkeys’ importance for farm work and general work around the area. Every day several bands and dance groups entertain the crowds while marching through the town. The clothing are elaborate designs costing several hundred dollars, and all are hand made, and even the donkeys get all dressed up. From across the entire region, people gather to attend the parades that make their way through the small streets of the town.
At night it is full-blown party mode in this hot, humid area close to the Caribbean coast. Food trucks with multicolor lights line the streets to keep the people partying.
In the sleepy town of Mompox, also known as Santa Cruz de Mompox, or even Mompós, the 300-year-old Mompox is a city lost in time, a World Heritage Site, virtually unknown outside of Colombia. Which is a crying shame because it’s one of the most beautiful colonial towns. Perhaps the town’s most noticeable buildings are its seven churches. Painted with bright colors, they’re within easy walking distance of each other. Most striking of all is the Church of Santa Barbara with its yellow facade and baroque bell tower. The red-ochre-painted Church of San Francisco and the Church of the Immaculate Conception make one feel like you are back in Spanish times.
Once a year, one of the most colorful Holy Week in Colombia is celebrated here, Semana Santa, full of pious acts that have been preserved since the Spanish colonization. Groups of men carry incredibly heavy shrines for up to 10 hours moving, rocking in a trance state back and forth on the rhythm of the music, three steps forward, two steps back. They start this late at night as it is brutally hot and humid. It is a ceremonial procession to repent their sins.
The entire week is not just repenting sins. It is also partying, barbecues, food, and celebrating loved ones.
Some of the churches in Colombia are such incredible architectural works of art it will leave you speechless, whether you are religious or not, but for the sheer architecture and engineering that created it. Close to the border of Ecuador, there is such a church that saw life in late 1700. It is an ornate 18th-century Gothic-style Catholic church popular as a pilgrimage site. It was built inside the canyon of the Guáitara River. It rises 100 meters high from the bottom of the canyon and is connected to the opposite side of the canyon by a 50 meters tall bridge. Named, Our Lady of Las Lajas, it took over four projects over time to finish the church to what it is today.
During the 6 months we rode around Colombia, I can, without a doubt, confirm that Colombia is not what you read in the media. It is everything other than Escobar, drugs, and a Netflix movie. It is a vibrant, beautiful country with wonderful, warmhearted people, colorful culture, and history. The biggest bonus is the landscapes and diverse fauna and flora. As for motorcycle riding, Colombia will never be boring. It will leave you breathless, wanting more, and in love with the country.