Cartagena, Colombia to Pasto, Colombia
In this episode, I spent six weeks exploring beautiful Colombia. Colombia is a gorgeous, safe, proud, first-world country full of incredible people and scenery. Much like my account of Mexico, I am sure I’ll not be able to do it proper justice. But, I’ll try.
Let me begin by saying this post is a bit long. I spent nearly six weeks in Colombia and loved every minute of it. I consider it a first-world country, full of amazing scenery, culture, and people. I always felt safe in Colombia. In the end, I did not want to leave Colombia.
So, here goes. Yep. You guessed it. It wouldn’t be an episode without a video to accompany my drivel.
Now that I’d broken free from the Stahlratte with my moto, it was finally time to relax and take in Cartagena. Several folks from the Stahlratte, who I’d bonded quite closely with on the Stahlratte, and I shacked up in the Holiday Inn in the Boca Grande section of town. We took a couple of days to just go out and explore the city. The days included checking out the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a fort built in 1537 by Spain to protect their gold interests in South America.
We also visited the La Popa Monastery, which provides an amazing view of Cartagena from 150 meters atop a nearby hill.
And these huge boots… Los Zapatos Viejos. The bronze sculpture is dedicated to Colombian poet Luis Carlos Lopez. Apparently, he had written a poem called “A Mi Ciudad Nativa” (To My Native City) where he talked about missing Colombia so much after being away, he left his boots there. Here’s my friend Karen doing what all the tourists lined up to do.
Afterward, we walked around the Old City where I found a Willy Jeep converted into a coffee stand!
And a worn-out tourist…
And some art?
The Old Town really is beautiful, yet geared for tourists. And you can’t ride your motorcycle there!!
Finally, after several days in Cartagena, it was time to get back on the road and head to Santa Marta, north and east along Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Leaving Cartagena is a nice ride as you are moving along the ocean.
I was also very happy to learn that in Colombia, motorcycles do not have to stop at toll booths! You actually have your own bypass lane!! I never understood why exactly, but if I were to guess, I think it is because there are 4.8 gajillion small motorcycles here, and if they all had to stop at toll booths, the country’s traffic would probably grind to a halt.
Santa Marta is a nice touristy town, but I think not so much for Gringos. Instead, to me anyway, it seemed like the town was full of Colombian tourists.
Santa Marta is also beautiful because everywhere you look, you see the Sierra Nevadas rising all around you. Colombia is mountainous I am learning!
Next, I made my way up to Minca. Minca is a small village up in the Sierra Nevadas. It is surrounded by dense jungle and home to an artsy scene and to several backpacker hostels.
Here’s the view of Santa Marta from the hills near Minca.
Over the next three days, I headed inland, mostly in a southerly direction, and stopped in the town of Aguachica, the huge metropolis of Bucamaranga, and finally Barrancabermeja. These were more or less transit towns to get me to Medellín.
So far, the roads in Colombia had been great. But, once while leaving Bucamaranga and once while leaving Barrancabermeja, I had my first tastes of how bad the roads could be.
After Bucaramanga, I experienced my first road closure due to a landslide. Apparently, in November, the rainy season is winding down, but by this point everything Is saturated, so even the slightest rain can bring down the side of a hill right into the road.
Next, leaving Barrancabermeja, I decided on a shortcut back to the highway and the road, while certainly passable, was exciting as 1) the road wasn’t good, 2) there was heavy traffic, and 3) it was raining. Plus, I was only going about 30mph and my GPS was telling me this road went on for another 78 miles!
I’d been looking forward to Medellín ever since I read friends Neda and Gene’s account a year or more ago. I was also planning to spend some time here, at least two weeks, so I could take more Spanish lessons and get some repairs and service done on the bike. I rented an apartment on AirBnB all to myself in El Poblado, the part of town where most things are happening, or so I heard. Well, when I arrived, I was blown away. Medellín is a laid-back, huge, sprawling city nestled in the mountains. It’s at 5000 feet in altitude and, owing to its proximity to the equator, and being in a valley, has an excellent climate all year around.
With my Spanish school, I arranged some tours. First, the group went out into town to play Tejo, which is considered Colombia’s national sport. No not fútbol, or soccer, it’s Tejo. Tejo is a very old game, over 500 years old, somewhat like horseshoes in principle, where you try to get closest to the target. But, instead of a sand or dirt pit, heavy clay is used in Tejo’s pit.
Also, instead of horseshoes, you throw a heavy stone, called a Tejo (hence the name), trying to hit a metal ring in the center of the pit.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. The metal ring is surrounded by small bits of paper inculcated with gunpowder. So, when a well thrown Tejo strikes the metal ring right where one of the bits of paper are, it goes off like a shotgun! (watch the video for this!)
And to add a twist, the game is played while drinking alcohol, which is encouraged, haha. I had a lot of fun that night!
The next morning, I had arranged another tour out of the city to a town called Guatapé, about two hours east of Medellín. On the way, I stopped briefly to see La Iglesia Roca de Peñol, a church built almost entirely from a huge, free-standing stone.
The town of Guatapé is a cool artsy town with street performers and lots of color. Also, interestingly, is the town has preserved its history with art that has been incorporated into every building.
I also visited the La Piedra de Peñol (the rock of…). It’s a huge, monolithic piece of granite soaring into the sky with incredible views from the top.
No one is quite sure how this rock got here, because there is nothing like it anywhere close by. There are 675 steps to the top, I heaved through everyone considering the 7000ft altitude. It was worth it!
The next couple of weeks I spent taking Spanish lessons – they said I was advanced!! – relaxing, and seeing different parts of the town and surrounding areas. Yes, I loved it so much, I extended my stay here a week – I did not want to leave Medellín.
I also waited patiently as the local BMW dealer serviced my bike. I asked them to replace the panniers that were crushed during the accident in Guatemala, as well as the steering dampener, which gave out somewhere along the way. The hardest part about having to get new panniers was losing all of my stickers!!! Ughh… yeah, I am a sticker ho’.
I went out exploring another section of Medellín called Comuna 13. Comuna 13 was a battleground in the early 2000s between government forces, guerillas, paramilitary, and drug lords. It has a very bloody history. But today, the area has been revitalized with a new spirit as shown by its cool art scene that attracts a lot of tourists.
Well, it was finally time to get moving again. I honestly did not want to leave Medellín, but there were other places to see in Colombia. So, with sadness, I next headed to Jardín, an amazing small town hidden in another valley up in the mountains.
I also met up with Frank again who I first met on the Ferry from La Paz in Mexico. We then met again in Flores and Antigua in Guatemala, and then again in Panama City where we journeyed on the Stahlratte together. Central America is much like a funnel for those heading south.
While in Jardín, I decided to completely risk my life and go paragliding for a different perspective on Jardín. Wow, was I rewarded! Riding the wind was probably the most thrilling thing I have ever done in my life.
The following days were a just for transit and I first chose a nice quiet hotel outside of Cartago and then a place in downtown Cali.
I finally made it to Popayán for a couple of days. Popayán is mostly known for its old town which is called the “White City.” It was a cloudy day, but I enjoyed taking in the scenes.
My last stay in Colombia was Pasto, near the border with Ecuador. It happened to be over Christmas, and seeing I was by myself, I booked into a nice hotel for the weekend. I did not spend much time exploring, but Pasto is another of beautiful places along the Andes in Colombia.
I knew the day would come and when it did I was not ready. I did not want to leave Colombia. You know when you can feel positive vibes from people that you meet, it’s a good place. And I felt those positive everywhere I went in Colombia. It’s a place I know I’ll want to return to someday.
So long, Colombia!
1) In Colombia, motorcyclists do not pay at toll gates, which there are a lot of. As directed by signage, you stay to the right and have your own lane to pass right through.
2) For the most part, I found the roads in Colombia to be excellent, and very, very scenic. Especially the main roads. Then again, I visited Colombia in November and December, which is the height of rainy season. Now, rain itself is not the problem, it what the rain causes – derrumbes, or landslides. Because Colombia is so mountainous, and almost all the roads go through the mountains, these landslides can quickly choke off traffic in both directions and there is rarely a detour. So, you have to wait. The good news is that Colombians are prepared and I always had a front loader showing up and clearing the road within a half-hour or so.
3) I’ve developed a scale in my head about the places I have visited. First, there’s the friendly and curious, which describes all of the places I have visited so far. Then, above that, are the inviting and welcoming countries, which I’ve only really felt in Mexico, Costa Rica, and now Colombia. But, now I have a new category for Colombia, above all the other categories – ambassadorship. Seems people in Colombia, at least most of the ones I met, are genuinely interested in you having a positive view of their country and go out of their way to show you and tell you about it. I mean that literally, they overtly want you to know about Colombia. I could only surmise this was due to the country’s turbulent, and recent past, but I bought it, all of it. And everything I heard turned out to be true in my mind, the country is awesome and the people of Colombia are friendly, curious, welcoming, inviting, and… great ambassadors!