We finally left Bogota on the 8th of April and headed to the small village of Salento in the coffee growing region of Colombia. Before leaving we made sure to get the latest information on guerilla activity and everyone assured us that there would be no problems. The only warning” we did receive was from Max (Bananaman) who was turned away near the town of La Florida (near Cali) by concerned citizens who warned him of the presence of the FARC in the area. Since La Florida was not on our route that day we drove without worry on some of the most spectacular roads we have seen so far on this trip. There were lots of twisties and beautiful scenery along the entire route.
In the three weeks we had spent in Colombia up to that point we had already seen how friendly Colombians are. The drive to get to Salento only served to confirm that Colombians are among the friendliest people you could meet. Each time we stopped for either a break or because of road construction we were greeted with a hearty hello and the inevitable questions about the bike. As usual the question of cost of the motorcycle comes up to which we usually respond with “por qué?, Quieres comprar mi moto?” which roughly translates to “why do you ask? Are you interested in buying it?”. This never fails to get the surrounding crowd laughing.
The village of Salento was a welcome break from Bogota. In addition to great scenery there are several nice hikes to be had in the area one of which is to a coffee plantation which we visited on our second day. There we met Don Elias who shows tourists around the small plantation for a nominal fee. Considering that I have been drinking coffee for the better part of 20 years I was surprised at how little I knew of this little bean and what is required to transform it into my daily caffeine fix.
After a few days in Salento we decided that it was time to pick up the pace and see a little more of the country so we packed up the bike and hit the road for Popayan via Cali. We were a little apprehensive about this route because it would take us near the village of La Florida which we had been warned about. No problem we thought, the bike has been repaired and runs great.
And as long as the engine is running there is just about nothing that can happen to it that will cause it to just quit (other than a bad Hall Sensor which we had just replaced or a flat tire). So our plan, as always when we are in “iffy” areas, was to just drive past the region of La Florida without stopping. Besides, according to our map we would miss it by a good 50 kilometers.
I need to mention here that we travel with a very basic handheld GPS. It doesn’t really tell us were to go but it has been useful in telling us when we are going in the wrong direction. The little screen will show me towns and villages as little dots and might show me the highways and a few lesser roads but that’s it. At one point along the road to Popayan there came a fork with a sign showing that either direction (either straight or to the right) would lead us to Cali and Popayan which lay beyond the notorious city. The signs here tend to be a little on the small side so I took a split decision and kept going straight. According to the GPS there was no road but we decided to keep going since it was obviously a new construction and in very good shape.
After about 15 minutes of this I saw a dot on the GPS labeled “La Florida” quickly approaching. “Humm…” I thought, “This is a little unnerving”.
So I did a quick mental calculation and figured that we were about 30 kilometers away from the town.
“No problem, these roads tend to bend quite a bit so I’m sure it will eventually lead away from La Florida”….
20 kilometers away and approaching fast.
“the hell with it, lets keep going”….
15 kilometers away.
“Alright, as long as we keep the engine running and keep moving we’ll be fine”
10 kilometers away.
“Time to put her in fifth and blast through this area”
Clutch in and….SNAP!
“Oh, of all the places for the *&!$%!” clutch cable to snap!”
Fortunately, prior to leaving on the trip I had installed a spare clutch cable running alongside the original in case we needed to do a “side of the road” repair without too many delays. I think we may have actually broken some speed records for a clutch cable replacement that day! After a couple of minutes we were on our way, leaving La Florida behind. We arrived in Popayan tired but happy that we were able to handle a basic repair on our own.
Popayan was a nice little town but we both wanted to move on so the following day we headed to Pasto a few hours away. Once again we were treated to amazing roads and scenery the entire route. Hour after hour of sweeping views with villages nestled in the mountains and jaw dropping cliffs. We were about 10 kilometers away from Pasto when we came upon on long line of vehicles all stopped. Anytime we encounter a line of vehicles we take advantage of our small size and make our way to the front of the line to see what’s up. In this case the side of the mountain gave way onto the road which was impassable for all vehicles except the smallest. We inquired if the road ahead was safe and were told that this was one of two landslides. They suggested that we could easily get through the first one but opinions differed as to whether or not we would get through the other one a few kilometers ahead. We decided to check it out for ourselves and gingerly made our way through the small gap in the road at the first slide. A few kilometers later we came upon the second slide which completely covered the road. The only option to get by was a slippery 5 foot climb at a severe angle and then a 100 foot ride on the top of a grassy embankment with a nice drop on either side.
Opinions among the crowd were mixed as to whether the beast could negotiate the small detour. 50% percent of those present thought the bike would make it while 49% thought it was not possible (the other 1% just wanted to know how much the thing cost). Seeing as 100% of those present had never driven a 243 kilogram BMW motorcycle with worn road tires I opted to stick with my gut feeling and wait for the road crew to clear the way. Within 2 hours the road was cleared and we were on our way to Pasto.
Once again we found ourselves eager to keep moving so the next day we left for Ecuador. But before leaving Colombia there was one last thing on our list. Near the town of Ipiales (right on the border with Ecuador) there is a church built inside a small canyon.
We were now ready to leave Colombia. So what did we think of this country? Like most of the people reading this, we too were subject to an Americanized version of what Colombia is. True, the country has faced it challenges with violence and kidnappings but whatever it was in the past it seems to be changing rapidly. The Colombia we saw had the best scenery, friendliest people and most amazing roads we have seen on this trip so far. It also offered the best opportunities for meeting people of all walks of life, from the wealthiest citizens of the country to those barely making enough to eat. What they all had in common was a deep sense of pride and an eagerness to share all of what the country had to offer with whomever they met. This one tops the list so far.