The Colombian Moto Roadtrip, Part 1: Acclimation To A Different World
Photography by Erik Jutras
Story by Sarah Wohl
When thinking of where your next international vacation is going to be, chances are Colombia doesn’t spring immediately to mind. But when you’re a motorcyclist and have been invited on a road trip by a native Colombian and his family, and 15 members of your motorcycle crew say they’re down to roll, how can you say no? And so we decided to trade in this year’s idea of an Icelandic vacation for a South American adventure: a 500-mile circuit of twisty mountain pavement, rocky off-roading, and fast-paced riding to see Colombia’s coffee region, lush rolling hills, cliffside villages, and a volcanic park. Though the popular show Narcos brought the country’s notoriously troubled past of cocaine trafficking and drug cartels, FARC rebels and Pablo Escobar back into the spotlight — this definitely was not the Colombia we encountered. Our guide wanted us to see the astounding beauty of a much less traveled countryside, that due to the shadow cast by Colombia’s turbulent past, has yet to be seen by many. As we rolled through, we experienced scenes of daily life such as caballeros leading their horses through town, children playing fútbol in the streets, locals socializing at paneterias, or small bakeries, while sipping coffee and snacking on various freshly baked treats — this was experiencing true Colombian culture. But with any adventure, one should always expect the unexpected, and we would be reminded of that lesson , multiple times.
DAY 1, GETTING THERE
We flew an international redeye to Bogotá with a quick transfer in Panama City, arriving at 10am into a city 8,500 feet up in the clouds. Coming from San Francisco, where we live at sea level, we had no idea what to expect at this higher altitude, not to mention the fact that we’d be climbing even higher to a mountain peak at 13,500 feet later in our trip. We started popping ibuprofen tablets like candy and guzzling bottled water, as had been recommended by various online travel sources. But we had arrived a day ahead of schedule for this very reason, in order to acclimate before putting our bodies through changing altitudes, temperatures, and operating a motorcycle for 12–14 hours a day for 3 days in a row.
Our cab ride from the airport to the hotel provided a sobering preview of what we could expect ahead of us on our ride out of Bogota. The sheer chaos of merging taxis, semi trucks, and countless motorcycles and scooters, made our heads spin a bit, which possibly could have been compounded by the dense blanket of exhaust we were traveling through. We took note of the ample amounts of police, which were easy to spot, as their garb, helmets, and bikes were all a bright neon green, with “POLICIA” in large lettering on the front and back. Some of them even rode two to a bike, which was somewhat comical to see as unaccustomed foreigners, but they still looked the business all the same. Whether they were police made no matter, as most motorists neglected using turn signals as the vehicles all encroached on one another, nearly grazing mirrors, bumpers, and other body parts. It fascinated us that it appeared to be an understood and routine chaos amongst drivers. All this intensity and no road rage that we could see—this was just their normal.
We made it to Hotel Bacata exhausted, but in a new city and itching to explore it. Only a few of our friends had also arrived early, so we used our time wisely and hit the streets of the city, by foot. We headed to the opposite, south side of town to La Candelaria district. This district is essentially Bogotá’s “old city” with small, stone streets, independent hostels and eateries and few of the city’s best known museums and historical landmarks, like the Museo del Oro (the Gold Museum) and Bolívar Square. We checked out the street art and ate Pasteles de Gloria (pastries filled with guava paste). We walked and wandered until our redeye flight and the thin air caught up with us. We crashed hard, heading back to our hotel on the north side for a power nap before a late night dinner and live music show at the famous Gaira Cafe Cumbia House, owned by renowned Colombian singer Carlos Vives.
DAY 2, WORKING OUT THE KINKS
On the morning of our second day in South America, the rest of our friends rolled in from their flights, all looking as rough as we had the day before. They could have used more sleep but we had motorcycles to pick up, and we were already experiencing the hectic, the unplanned, and the unexpected of Colombia. Our leader, Mateo, a local of Bogotá now living in San Francisco, had arranged for over 15 motorcycles to be rented from various suppliers. At the last minute a few of the rentals fell through, the lenders backing out of original agreements, and one agency pulling out all together. Mateo bore the stress of having just flown a group of people to another continent for a motorcycle adventure…with no motorcycles. Luckily he made it happen with a few changes and a few prayers with only a day remaining before kickstands up. He even had to scrounge up a few bikes from friends and family members graciously willing to lend to unknown Americans. We were set up with rides but with slim insurance coverage so we prayed we wouldn’t drop the bikes or worse, crash, otherwise this vacation was going to be a lot more pricey than we had budgeted for.
Because of the scramble, everyone’s bike was coming from a different place — two of our friends, Adrienne and Erica, were put on Royal Enfield Himalayans that were actually demo bikes. Awesome, rugged little 400’s that would prove to be excellent steeds for the off-roading to come. Our friend, David, got the one bright green KLR 650 dragon. Most of the crew was in the saddle of either a BMW F800 or 1200GS. We were certainly a sight to see as we lined up outside of our hotel on the busy city street. While it appeared everyone in Colombia rode a motorcycle or rode on the back of one, most of what we saw on the roads were little 125s and 150s. We certainly didn’t blend in riding these huge, expensive touring bikes in a caravan over 20 people deep. At one point, a Ducati Multistrada that was part of our fleet drew a crowd in a parking lot, with many of the gawking onlookers adoringly touching the bike’s surfaces, awestruck as if they were having a near religious experience.
DAY 3, KICKSTANDS UP
Our Saturday morning began with a 5:30am wake-up call with a plan for kickstands up at 6:30am—we didn’t exactly hit those deadlines. With the crew as large as it was, folks were scrambling to buckle their bags down with rock straps and get their GoPros attached and ready to record. Even the slightest delay in timing put us right into the heart of morning rush hour in a city of 8 million people, congested even on a weekend. For most, it was their first time on their particular motorcycle and we dropped right into that mess of heavy traffic and merging lanes for those maiden rides; this time we weren’t in the backseat of a taxi bus but two up on an unfamiliar and heavy motorbike. It was stressful and required dicey maneuvering, and it quickly became clear that we would need to ride more aggressively than we ever had in order to keep up and more importantly, stay safe. This would be the first (but not the last) time we thought to ourselves, “Holy shit, this is nuts” and “What have we gotten ourselves into?” After all, we were only trying to get out of the city center to our first fuel stop! When we arrived at the gas station we learned that our buddy Neil’s clutch had gone out on his 1200 GS, and that he had somehow ridden the past stretch of highly trafficked highway stuck in gear, with his wife as passenger. Mateo swapped bikes with them and waited at the station for a replacement. He’d catch up to us later on, we couldn’t fall behind schedule. We still had 274 kilometers to cover. We forged on.
With the city and chaos of Bogotá in our rearview mirrors, after 3 hours of riding through less congested roadways and increasingly beautiful green and foggy hillsides, we had our first pit stop in the village of Vianí in the region of Cundinamarca. In the center of town stood a beautiful white church across from a peaceful park with tropical flowers and the streets were flecked with the colorful building facades of various panaderias, pastelerias and a carniceria. Our stop was short, just long enough to rehydrate and grab a local snack before we were back on the road.
We still had 4 hours to go before lunch. We’d cross the Magdalena River (Colombia’s Mississippi) and transition from Bogota’s cool 60 degrees to a sweltering 95. Before stopping for lunch in Libano, Mateo took us to see the hallowing site of the Armero tragedy.
This dark tragedy occurred on November 13, 1985, with the eruption of the stratovolcano Nevado del Ruiz, after being dormant for 69 years. The eruption caused mudslides and landslides that decimated the town of Armero, killing more than 20,000 of its total population of 29,000 people. At the site of the tragedy stands a shrine several floors above where the town once stood with photographs and offerings to a young victim, Omayra Sánchez. Along with many others who had succumbed, she was pinned under the debris of her overtaken home and was unable to be rescued. Many of the dead were also never recovered. It was incredibly heavy to see such a raw memorial for such a tragic piece of Colombia’s history. With an ominous and eerie silence having overtaken the group, we rode away from the memorial site and looked out only to realize the presence of many more now overgrown shrines and erected monuments that dotted the landscape around us, marking the final resting places of countless families and their homes. This was just another stop on our fast moving journey — we would be tackling the ascent of mountain roads to Los Nevados National Park next, the home of the same Nevado del Ruiz volcano that has been active for over 2 million years. With Armero fresh in our minds, we did our best to not think of that little piece of information as we rode upwards into the rest of our journey.